Essential minerals are as vital as many of the vitamins we are familiar with. Most health sources suggest that there are 13-16 essential minerals that our bodies need to function. These include six that are likely familiar, such as calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, iodine, and zinc, and several that you might not know of, including phosphorous, sodium, copper, manganese, selenium, molybdenum, and chromium.
Essential minerals are needed to perform certain functions in our bodies, such as contracting our muscles, balancing our fluid, building protein, carrying oxygen, and a plethora of other tasks. Without bioactive essential minerals, we run the risk of deficiencies that can lead to brittle bones, anemia, fatigue, and weakened immune systems.
Unfortunately, obtaining essential minerals is harder than simply eating a varied, healthy diet. Minerals are found in the soil, rocks, and water where they are absorbed by plants or animals. When we consume vegetables, fruit, and meat, we ingest these minerals. However, the bioavailability of minerals varies. While iron is found in a wide variety of vegetable sources, including broccoli, spinach, and beets, vegetarian-based iron sources tend to be less available for absorption. Additionally, the bioavailability of minerals commonly found in vegetable sources can be lacking depending on soil quality.
Additionally, soil depletion—due to intensive farming practices, pesticides, and the focus on growing bigger, more attractive-looking produce—has stripped many of our foods of vitamins and minerals. While we still gain crucial essential minerals from our potatoes or blueberries, for example, most fruits, vegetables, and tubers aren’t as rich in nutrition as they were a century ago.
As such, knowing what to look for when supplementing essential minerals is critical. One option is looking for products that contain bioactive minerals. These are commonly referred to as chelates (pronounced key-lates), which are biologically available minerals that have been pre-digested during production.
Foregoing pesticides and insecticides is the best option to find food with higher doses of nutrients. Look for organic produce, ideally grown locally, and focus on eating fruits and vegetables at the height of ripeness.
While all essential minerals are needed to perform various tasks in our bodies, there are several minerals that tend to be the most critical for various reasons.
Calcium serves several roles in our body, including for healthy teeth and bones. Many people, however, are unfamiliar with additional functions. These include proper muscle contraction, blood clotting, heartbeat regulation, and nerve functioning. Despite the attention that calcium has received, it is the most abundant mineral in the human body—in fact, 99% of the calcium in our bodies is located in our teeth and bones.
While most are familiar with dairy’s role in the calcium conundrum, there are a variety of plant, legume, and nut sources rich in calcium. Sesame seeds, for example, contain 9% of the RDA of calcium per tablespoon, while white beans have 13%. Other good sources include cooked collard greens and kale.
Most nutritionists recommend 1,000 mg per day or 1,200 mg per day for older women and children.
Magnesium works similarly to calcium in many ways: building strong bones and teeth, regulating blood sugar, and helping nerves contract. Additionally, low levels of magnesium are associated with several diseases, including Alzheimer’s, hypertension, and even migraine headaches.
Our bodies require roughly 300-400 mg of magnesium per day. Magnesium can be found in foods like almonds, spinach, black beans, tofu, and dark chocolate, but topical magnesium—either through high-quality lotions or epsom salts–are especially well absorbed.
Iodine, while a critical essential mineral, is considered a micromineral, meaning that our body requires it in trace amounts. Other trace minerals include zinc and iron.
Iodine is crucial for the thyroid hormone, which supporting metabolism, the immune system, along with developing the central nervous system in infants.
Since iodine is a trace mineral, daily requirements are small. Men and women over the age of 19 require roughly 150 mcg of iodine daily. Iodine can be found in several foods, including seaweeds like nori, dulse, kelp, and kombu, along with fruit and vegetable sources like potatoes, cranberries, and corn. Some food products have iodine added to them as a way to boost one’s daily iodine intake; most famously, this includes iodized salt. However, as people move away from processed foods and toward Himalayan and other specialty salts, iodine could be lacking. Supplementing with iodine can be a good idea, especially those who require higher daily doses and have a harder time incorporating iodine-rich foods into their diet.
The essential mineral, iron, is well-known for its role in blood production. Along with aiding in cognitive function, iron forms hemoglobin which is required to transport oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency is common, and unlike other essential mineral deficiencies, often very notable. Those suffering from anemia tend to feel tired, irritable, short of breath, and may even have the urge to eat clay, dirt, or paper—a condition known as pica.
Luckily, finding iron-rich food sources isn’t very difficult. A variety of plant sources, including spinach, lentils, and quinoa contain decent amounts of iron, though these non-heme sources of iron tend to be less biologically available to many people. Instead, bioactive iron sources like grass-fed beef and organ meats, particularly liver, are especially absorbable.
However, meat sources are not always desirable, in which case high-quality iron supplements can be helpful, especially for those who are at risk for iron-deficiency, including pregnant women, menstruating women (due to monthly blood loss), and high-training athletes. Knowing what kind of iron supplement to take can be essential to absorb the mineral. Ferrous iron, which is often prescribed thanks to being relatively affordable, can be detrimental to the gastrointestinal system, causing gas, bloating, or constipation. As such, ferric iron may be recommended. Unfortunately, this form of iron tends to be less bioavailable, meaning that anemia may last longer. Lastly, iron amino acid supplements–where iron is bound to amino acids—work well thanks to their iron amino acid chelate but don’t typically contain high enough dosages to restore iron levels.
Knowing when to take iron supplements can go a long way toward reversing iron deficiency. Avoid taking supplements near mealtimes and especially when drinking coffee or tea. Additionally, consuming vitamin C at the same time—or, for example, enjoying an orange or crunching on vitamin C-rich bell peppers—can increase absorption as non-heme iron binds to vitamin C to become more bioavailable to the body.
Most people know that bananas contain potassium, but few understand why this essential mineral matters. Potassium is a macromineral, suggesting that most people require at least 100mg of potassium, and likely more for those who exercise heavily. Potassium helps to maintain fluid balance and regulate the heart’s electrical activity.
Unlike magnesium, and even calcium, requirements, potassium requirements are relatively high; adults should aim for 4,700 mg per day. While these amounts seem high, potassium sources are relatively easy to find. Along with bananas, lentils, squash, and raisins are good sources. Apricots, in particular, are packed with potassium—more than 1,101 mg per 1/2 cup—providing nearly one-third of your daily intake.
Potassium deficiencies are relatively uncommon, but can cause an increased risk for kidneys stones and higher blood pressure, and, in rarer cases, hypokalemia. Even mid-hypokalemia can result in constipation, fatigue, and muscle weakness.
Zinc is another micromineral or trace element that is found in a variety of shellfish, red meat, and poultry. However, zinc can also be absorbed from oatmeal, tofu, legumes, and nuts. While zinc deficiencies are relatively uncommon in the developed world, some people may be at higher risk for low zinc levels; these include vegans and vegetarians, those with restrictive diets and/or eating disorders, and those with gastrointestinal disorders. Symptoms of zinc deficiency are typically obvious: a shortened stature and the inability to taste flavors are two common markers.
Zinc is important for the immune system, healing wounds, and reducing the risk of inflammatory diseases, among other functions. The currently recommended allowance for zinc is 8 g for women and 11 mg for men. These amounts increase for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
While food sources are a good option for those seeking more zinc, supplements can be helpful. Be sure not to overdose on zinc supplementation as excessive zinc can interfere with copper absorption, potentially leading to another deficiency.
While the minerals listed above are typically less available in our diets—especially those following more restrictive diets or those needing higher nutrient intakes due to heavy exercise, pregnancy, or breastfeeding—there are several other essential minerals that should be emphasized. These include phosphorous, sodium, and trace minerals including manganese, chromium, copper, selenium, and molybdenum. Most of these are readily available with RDA (recommended daily allowances) reached within one meal. Several of these essential minerals are found in a few specific plant foods.
Phosphorous filters waste, repairs tissues and cells, and supports strong bones and teeth. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds both contain good amounts.
Sodium helps to maintain fluid levels, contracts muscles and affects blood pressure. Beets and celery are two vegetable options for increasing sodium levels, while canned beans and salted nuts offer similar benefits.
Manganese is necessary for brain health, bone health, and blood sugar regulation. Fortunately, it is found in abundance in both whole grains, like rice and quinoa, and nuts. Additionally, leafy green vegetables, including kale, also contain the essential mineral.
Chromium isn’t well-known but can aid in insulin sensitivity. Since the mineral is needed in very small amounts, it’s best to get it strictly from food sources. Options for chromium-heavy foods include broccoli, green beans, and tomatoes.
Copper supports the production of red blood cells and has a role in a healthy immune system. As noted above, overdosing on iron can lead to a copper deficiency. Along with shellfish and liver, spirulina, a blue-green algae, contains high amounts.
Selenium works to reduce oxidative stress, lower the risk for certain diseases and cancers, and is essential for thyroid health. Getting the RDA requirements for selenium can be accomplished by simply consuming 2-3 Brazil nuts a day.
Molybdenum helps in the functioning of enzymes, which thereby aids in the breakdown of sulfites, alcohol, some drugs, and potentially the toxic byproducts created during metabolism. Molybdenum deficient are very rare, but to ensure you’re getting your RDA, focus on a variety of legumes, nuts, soy products like tofu and tempeh, and leafy green vegetables.
Generally, as a society, we accept that minerals are essential co-factors for everyday bodily functions and unfortunately most of us think we're getting what we need from mineral water.
It can be easy to get overwhelmed trying to memorize all the bioactive essential minerals and the best plant-derived sources to get them.
To simplify, remember these two things:
First, next time you go shopping, go to the organic produce section and select a few more organic plant-based foods.
Second, as you look for additional sources of minerals, go above mineral water and find bioactive mineral supplements because they are the most bioavailable and absorbable.
“Balance Your Minerals with Liquid Minerals.”Dr. Jay Davidson,September 2016.https://drjaydavidson.com/balance-minerals-open-drainage/
Beto, Judith. “The Role of Calcium in Human Aging.”Clinical Nutrition Research,January 2015.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4337919/
Jennings, Kerry-Ann. “15 Calcium-Rich Foods.”Healthline,July 2018.https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/15-calcium-rich-foods#section5
Jones, Kim Wagner et al. “Effect of a dairy and calcium rich diet on weight loss and appetite during energy restriction in overweight and obese adults: a randomized trial.”European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 2014.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3948984/
“Potassium.”National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements,August 2018.https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Potassium-HealthProfessional/