Your body needs a variety of nutrients to function, heal and maintain optimal health. However, the average American diet—which is characteristically high in sodium, added sugar, refined grains and saturated fats—falls considerably short in terms of nutrient-dense options like fruits, veggies and whole grains.
According to a recent CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) report, nearly 90% U.S adults don’t get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables—which are among the best sources of vitamins and minerals.
Adequate intake of these micronutrients is essential for supporting your metabolism, cognitive function, cardiovascular health, bone health and immune function, among other processes in your body.
Two nutritionists in collaboration with outdoor cooking experts Food Fire Friends reveal the key micronutrients you’re likely missing and the best ways to get them:
Zinc plays an important role in neurotransmission, immune function, cell growth and division and tissue repair.
“Most people do not get enough zinc, due to our food being over-processed,” says Ellie Busby, a registered nutritionist specializing in genetics-based nutrition.
“If your hair is thinning or dry, you might need more zinc,” she notes. Other signs of a zinc deficiency include soft nails, dry skin and falling sick often, adds the nutritionist.
Some of the best natural sources of zinc to incorporate into your daily diet are quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice and pumpkin seeds, says Busby.
#2 Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 is essential for regulating hormones, synthesizing of proteins, supporting memory function and strengthening your immune system.
Skin rashes, sore lips and tongue, mood swings and fatigue can all be signs of vitamin B6 deficiency, says Busby.
To up your vitamin B6 intake, nutrition coach Dr. Sarah Cooke suggests loading up on whole foods like avocado, russet potatoes, garbanzo beans, yellowfin tuna and nuts.
#3 Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps regulate the absorption of calcium and phosphorus which are critical for strong bones and teeth. It also plays a major role in beefing up your immune system.
Common symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency include muscle weakness, lethargy, bone pain, brittle nails and hair loss. Research suggests that low levels of the “sunshine vitamin” might also be linked to depression.
Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel and trout, fortified plant-based milks and cod liver oil are great sources of vitamin D. In addition, you might also find special vitamin D-rich mushrooms in your local supermarket nowadays, says Busby.
#4 Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Nearly 60% of your brain is made of fat—most of it is omega-3. Besides promoting brain health, the polyunsaturated fat also helps fight inflammation, lower triglycerides, reduce the risk of macular degeneration and prevent buildup of plaque inside arteries.
Some of the tell-tale signs of omega-3 deficiency include heart problems, brain fog, skin inflammation, joint pain, mood swings, weakness and dry eyes.
To make sure you’re getting enough omega-3s, Dr. Cooke suggests regular consumption of walnuts, flaxseed and oily fish such as salmon.
It’s also important to note that omega-3, which is anti-inflammatory and omega-6, a pro-inflammatory—need to be in balance, adds Busby.
“So, one cannot just eat foods high in omega-3 and hope for the best. You need to reduce your omega-6 intake too, by cutting down processed foods in your diet,” recommends Busby.
Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin and myoglobin—two proteins that are responsible for transportation and diffusion of oxygen in the body, respectively.
A diet low in iron can cause fatigue, palpitations, chest pain, headaches, hair loss, sallow skin and shortness of breath, among other symptoms.
Iron is found in both animal-derived foods (heme iron) and plant-based foods (non-heme iron). “Foods such as red meat, eggs and oysters contain heme iron, which is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron. Plant sources of iron include lentils, spinach, tofu and cashew nuts,” says Busby.
To increase the absorption of non-heme iron, Dr. Cooke recommends combining plant-based sources of iron with vitamin C-rich foods like pairing a fresh green salad with a lemon or cranberry vinaigrette.
Also, avoid drinking tea with these foods as the tannins found in tea inhibit iron absorption, adds Dr Cooke.
Calcium plays a crucial role in building and maintaining healthy bones, regulating heart rhythm, metabolism, memory formation, etc.
Common signs of calcium deficiency include muscle cramps, tingling in fingers and toes, irregular heartbeat, sluggishness, osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Dairy products like milk, cheese and Greek yogurt are excellent natural sources of calcium. “Those who are lactose-free should eat plenty of dark green leafy vegetables and seeds—especially poppy, sesame and chia seeds,” says Busby.
Your body requires magnesium to perform a range of vital functions from building proteins, strengthening bones and regulating heartbeat to facilitating nerve transmission and supporting the immune system.
If your diet is low in magnesium, you might experience muscle spasms, tremors, nausea, irritability, weakness, hypertension and arrhythmia.
Magnesium is one of the most recommended supplements from doctors all over the world since it’s almost impossible to get enough magnesium from your diet—especially if you’re stressed, explains Busby.
That said, foods like whole grains, wheat bran, almonds, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and dark green leafy vegetables are all optimal sources of magnesium that you can include in your diet along with supplements.