4 Essential Nutrients You Might Not Be Getting Enough Of

A lot of us who are fairly health-conscious and mindful about the food we eat, tend to easily cover all of our bases when it comes to macronutrient intake. We focus on the right proportions of carbs, to fat, to protein… but how often do we stop to think about micronutrient intake? It’s difficult to try to keep track of all the vitamins and minerals our bodies require on a daily basis (because there’s a lot). However, it’s easier to be more mindful about micronutrient needs when we know which one’s we’re lacking.

So… where does the average American fall short in term of micronutrient intake?

Well, an updated version of the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans was just released in 2020, and one section highlights nutrients that are under-consumed by the general US population. These guidelines have identified four that are of particular concern: potassium, calcium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D1.

Are you getting enough of these key nutrients? Keep reading to learn more about why they’re important, and how to incorporate them into your diet.

Potassium

Potassium is a mineral that’s necessary for proper kidney and heart function. It also helps our nervous system transmit signals, and plays a part in muscle contraction2. In short- potassium is an important player in a wide range of bodily functions.

According to a study that analyzed NHANES data, less than 3% of US adults meet or exceed the recommended dietary intake of 4700 mg/day3. That means that 97% of the US is not getting enough potassium! Consuming inadequate levels can lead to increased blood pressure, calcium depletion in bones, and increased risk of developing kidney stones2.

To increase the amount of potassium you’re consuming, try implementing these potassium-rich foods into your diet4:

  • Potatoes (with skin intact!) – < 900 mg per 1 medium potato

  • Legumes (per 1/2 cup)
    • white beans600 mg
    • pinto beans, lima beans> 350 mg

  • Juices (per 1 cup)
    • prune juice> 700 mg
    • carrot juice690 mg

  • Seafood (per 3 ounces)
    • tuna, salmon – > 400 mg

  • Vegetables (per 1/2 cup)
    • spinach (cooked) – 400 mg
    • swiss chard – > 450 mg
    • beet greens – > 600 mg

  • Dairy (per 1 cup)
    • low-fat/skim milk – 350-380 mg
    • plain yogurt – > 500 mg

  • Fruits
    • tomatoes (chopped) – > 400 mg per 1 cup
    • bananas – 422 mg per 1 medium banana
    • avocados – 364 mg per 1/2 cup

Calcium

Calcium is an important mineral in terms of bone health, and I think we’re all well aware of this by now! While almost all of the calcium in your body is stored in bones and teeth, it’s also utilized in muscle movement, carrying impulses through your nervous system, helps blood flow, and releases hormones and enzymes that effect many systems within your body5.

Its estimated that around 30% of men, and 60% of women over the age of 19 do not consume enough calcium (1000-1200 mg per day)1. Not consuming enough calcium, triggers your body to pull that calcium straight from your bones, depleting bone density over time and increasing the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures5.

To ensure you’re getting enough calcium you need per day, try to incorporate some of these foods into your diet6:

  • Milk250 mg per 1 cup
  • Yogurt250 mg per 3/4 cup
  • Cheese200 mg per 1 cubic inch
  • Broccoli (cooked) – 60 mg per 1 cup
  • Kale (cooked) – 95 mg per 1 cup
  • Sardines (with bones) – 92 mg per 2 fish
  • Almonds100 mg per 1/4 cup
  • Fortified cereals – around 100 mg per 3/4-1 cup
  • Fortified juices and plant-milks – varies per items and brand

Dietary Fiber

While there’s always been a debate on whether or not dietary fiber should be considered a true “nutrient”, as our bodies don’t absorb it, fiber still plays such an important role in a healthy diet. Fiber helps to regulate your digestive system and clears build-up from intestinal walls, keeping your gut functioning as it should. Adequate fiber intake is also linked to cardiovascular health, and a reduced risk of certain cancers7.

Here’s my favorite fiber fact: while we don’t digest it, the bacteria that lives in our gut (our microbiome) does! In turn, the bacteria uses the digested fiber to create beneficial compounds that are used widely throughout your body. I think the debate should be settled- fiber is definitely an essential nutrient!

Since fiber plays such key role when it comes to our digestive systems, it’s quite alarming that only about 5% of the population regularly meets the recommendation (which is up to 40 grams per day depending on age)7.

So, it sounds like we could all benefit from increasing our fiber intake. Try eating more of the following foods- they all contain varying amounts of fiber, and when eating a well rounded diet that contains these staples, you should have no problem meeting your daily intake.

  • Whole grains, oats, and quinoa
  • Fibrous fruits (apples, avocados, pears, and berries!)
  • Fibrous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts, peas, beets, and artichoke)
  • Beans and legumes
  • Any seeds! (chia, flax, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds are great to add to any smoothie, salad or bowl of oats!)

Vitamin D

Last but not least, the final nutrient of concern is good old vitamin D- the only vitamin we can synthesize through our skin from sunlight! However, environmental factors like location, reduced sun exposure, and pollution have lessened the amount of UV rays that can reach out skin8.

This isn’t just a problem for the US- vitamin D insufficiency effects around 50% of the population worldwide8. This vitamin plays a huge role in helping your body absorb calcium (which is also an under-consumed nutrient to begin with), and is a big factor when it comes to strengthening bones, and preventing osteoporosis.

Talking about this topic is something I’ve done a lot lately, as I just recently found out I’m part of the population that’s vitamin D deficient! I live in a part of the US thats just a little bit too far away from the sun for my skin to be able to synthesize the vitamin properly. To combat this, I personally take an oil-based, liquid supplement I picked up from a local herb/medicine shop. However, I do not recommend taking any supplements before speaking with your doctor, or primary care provider.

To increase the amount of vitamin D in your diet, you can prioritize eating more of these foods9:

  • Fortified cow’s milk, or plant-milk
  • Fortified breakfast cereals or juices
  • Fatty fish (like salmon, or tuna) and fish liver oil
  • Eggs! (but only the yolk contains vitamin D)

Take-Away

If you eat the typical American diet, you’re probably lacking these four key nutrients. Don’t worry, though, as being a bit more mindful about how to get these nutrients can help you consume what you need!

As a population, we need to be prioritizing foods like whole grains, colorful and fibrous fruits and vegetables, and even working a fortified juice or milk into our daily rotations (especially if we’re talking about children who often turn their noses up at anything green!). More importantly, we need to keep a spotlight on these nutritional short-falls, so our population can become more aware of nutrient insufficiencies, and make well-informed choices!

Sources

  1. Suggested citation: U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020.
  2. “Office of Dietary Supplements – Potassium.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Potassium-Consumer/#h3.
  3. Bailey, Regan L et al. “Estimating Sodium and Potassium Intakes and Their Ratio in the American Diet: Data from the 2011-2012 NHANES.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 146,4 (2015): 745-750. doi:10.3945/jn.115.221184
  4. Fenneld. “10 Foods That Are High in Potassium.” Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, 24 Feb. 2021, health.clevelandclinic.org/10-foods-that-are-high-in-potassium/.
  5. “Office of Dietary Supplements – Calcium.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/#h3.
  6. “Increasing Dietary Calcium.” Cleveland Clinic
  7. Quagliani, Diane, and Patricia Felt-Gunderson. “Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap: Communication Strategies From a Food and Fiber Summit.” American journal of lifestyle medicinevol. 11,1 80-85. 7 Jul. 2016, doi:10.1177/1559827615588079
  8. Nair, Rathish, and Arun Maseeh. “Vitamin D: The “sunshine” vitamin.” Journal of pharmacology & pharmacotherapeutics vol. 3,2 (2012): 118-26. doi:10.4103/0976-500X.95506
  9. “Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin d.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-Consumer/#h3. 

Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels

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