7 Nutrients You Need More Of

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When the US Department of Agriculture released its latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recently, they identified a handful of vitamins and minerals Americans weren't getting enough of. All age and gender groups are now encouraged to increase intake of four of these "Nutrients of Concern" — potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and dietary fiber. Three other nutrients were found to be deficient in the diets of specific groups: nursing mothers, pregnant women, and women planning for pregnancy should increase their intake of iron and folate; people over age 50 should increase their intake of vitamin B12.

The best way to get sufficient nutrients is through a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Supplementation with multivitamins is also encouraged.

That's all well and good. But what are these seven nutrients, exactly? Why should we be taking care that we're taking enough?


Potassium, sodium, and calcium are the key ingredients of the electrolyte soup that bathes our cells, inside and out. The soup inside our cells has more potassium ions and the soup outside has more sodium ions. Between 20 and 40 percent of resting energy is expended moving potassium and sodium ions to maintain this balance. When people talk about "slow metabolism" or "fast metabolism" this is what they mean.

Although the mechanism is not well understood, potassium counteracts sodium's effect of increasing blood pressure. Increased intake may also reduce the risk of kidney stones and bone loss. The new dietary guidelines suggest that an adult consume 4700 milligrams of potassium per day, from a varied diet.

Some Good Sources of Potassium:

  • 1 cup Raisins (1089mg)
  • 1 cup Lima beans (956mg)
  • 1 cup Spinach (838mg)
  • 1 Baked potato (702mg)
  • 8 oz Nonfat yogurt (579mg)


Everybody knows calcium is vital for strong bones and teeth. But calcium is also important for the constriction and relaxation of blood vessels, nerve signal transmission, and muscle contractions. Calcium is important for blood coagulation, too, which allows the blood to clot to stop bleeding. Because of its many uses, calcium level in the blood is carefully monitored and regulated. If calcium falls too low, reserves will be drawn from deposits in the bones, where 99 percent of the body's calcium is found. If calcium deficiency in the blood persists, whether as a result of low intake or poor absorption (such as that caused by vitamin D deficiency), loss of bone mass can occur.

Most Americans do not consume enough calcium. Deficiency is harmful whether young or old, but, during a critical stage of bone mass formation, just 25% of boys and 10% of girls ages 9-17 reach their daily recommendation of 1300 mg. The recommendation for adults is 1000 mg.

Some Good Sources of Calcium:

  • 8 oz Fortified orange juice (500mg)
  • 8 oz Nonfat yogurt (452mg)
  • 8 oz Fortified soy milk (299mg)
  • 8 oz Nonfat chocolate milk (290mg)
  • 1 cup Spinach (244mg)

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important to bone health because it helps us absorb calcium. Poor calcium absorption triggers our bodies to begin drawing on the stores of calcium in the bones. In children, severe vitamin D deficiency prevents mineralization of calcium in growing bones — rickets — and in adults and the elderly it leads to gradual loss of bone minerals or softening of the bones. Vitamin D also boosts the immune system.

The new guidelines advise 15 micrograms of vitamin D daily. Our skin synthesizes vitamin D from sunlight, and sunlight remains the best source as few, non-fortified, foods are reliable sources.

Some Good Sources of Vitamin D:

  • 3 oz Halibut (4.9mcg)
  • 8 oz Fortified orange juice (3.5mcg)
  • 8 oz Nonfat chocolate milk (2.8mcg)
  • 8 oz Fortified soy milk (2.7mcg)
  • 1 hard-boiled egg (1.1mcg)

Dietary Fiber

The last of the four nutrients of concern for all Americans is dietary fiber, the non-digestible parts of the fruits, vegetables, and grains we consume. Fiber is important for laxation, of course, and it helps prolong the feeling of "fullness" after eating while damping blood sugar spikes. Fiber has been shown to reduce "bad" cholesterol and it may also reduce the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

The guidelines advise 25 grams of fiber each day for women and 38 grams for men. Many food products assumed by some consumers to have high fiber content —pizza crust, breads and other baked goods — aren't actually good sources of fiber because they are made with refined grains.

Some Good Sources of Fiber:

  • 1 cup Lima beans (13.2g)
  • 1 Apple (4.4g)
  • 2 slices Whole grain bread (4g)
  • 1 cup Oatmeal (4g)
  • 1/2 cup Dried peaches (3.5g)


Iron is everywhere in our bodies, responsible for oxygen storage in the muscles and oxygen transport in the blood. Deep in our cells, iron contributes to the process that generates ATP, a fundamental energy storage and transfer enzyme. Iron is also an anti-oxidant, it helps our bodies adjust to low oxygen, and it's needed for DNA synthesis. In short, we need iron for respiration, metabolism, immune response, and growth.

The guidelines advise 8 milligrams of iron daily for men. Women who can become pregnant should consume 18 mg. Iron from animal sources, "heme iron" is more readily absorbed (bioavailability) than "nonheme iron" from plant sources. Pregnant women are encouraged to speak to their health care provider about iron supplements.

Some Good Sources of Iron:

  • 1 cup Spinach (6.4mg)
  • 1 cup Lima beans (4.5mg)
  • 1 cup Oatmeal (2.1mg)
  • 1/2 cup Dried peaches (1.69mg)
  • 1 Baked potato (1.5mg)


Folate (or folic acid when taken as a supplement) is important to amino acid metabolism, but it is folate's role in DNA metabolism that earns it its notice here; folate is needed for cell division or reproduction. When we're folate deficient, rapidly dividing cells such as red blood cells produced in the bone marrow are unable to meet demand. In adults, severe deficiency leads to anemia-like symptoms. Sluggish cell division in fetuses, however, retards development and can lead to serious birth defects, notably neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Because of this, folic acid has been added to enriched grain products since 1998.

Adult men and women both are advised to consume 400 mcg of dietary folate daily. In addition, women who can become pregnant should supplement their intake with an additional 400 mcg of folic acid. Pregnant women should consume 600 mcg of folate daily, from all sources. Oranges and orange juice, beans and peas and leafy vegetables are all good sources. 

Some Good Sources of Folate:

  • 1 cup Spinach (262mcg)
  • 1 cup Lima beans (156mcg)
  • 8 oz Fortified orange juice (47mcg)
  • 1 Baked potato (39mcg)
  • 8 oz Nonfat yogurt (27mcg)


Vitamin B12, like the other B vitamins, is critical to fundamental metabolic processes. Without it, our bodies would not be able to metabolize proteins and fats for energy. Lack of B12 prevents the synthesis of another biochemical needed for folate absorption, which leads to folate deficiency. B12 deficiency produces several neurologic symptoms, including numbness and tingling of the limbs, memory loss, disorientation, and dementia.

The daily recommendation for adults is 2.4 micrograms. Adults 51 or older, however, should supplement by that same amount daily as older adults do not absorb food-bound B12 as readily. B12 is only naturally available from animal sources such as meat, fish, poultry and dairy.

Some Good Sources of B12:

  • 8 oz Fortified soy milk (2.1mcg)
  • 8 oz Nonfat yogurt (1.4mcg)
  • 3 oz Halibut (1.1mcg)
  • 8 oz Nonfat chocolate milk (0.8mcg)
  • 1 Hard-boiled egg (0.6mcg)

Here's a sample daily diet that will meet these recommended goals:

Food Potassium (mg) Calcium (mg) Vitamin D (mcg) Dietary Fiber (mg) Folate (mcg) Iron (mg) Vitamin B12 (mcg) Calories
1 med banana 422 6 0 3.1 24 0.31 0 105
8 oz Fortified orange juice 443 500 3.5 0.5 47 0.32 0 117
1/2 cup Dried peaches 413 12 0 3.5 0 1.69 0 99
8 oz Nonfat yogurt 579 452 0 0 27 0.2 1.38 127
8 oz Nonfat chocolate milk 422 290 2.8 1.2 12 0.68 0.8 158
1 med Baked potato 702 21 0 3 39 1.49 0 128
3 oz Halibut 490 8 4.9 0 12 0.17 1.08 94
1 cup Lima beans 956 32 0 13.2 156 4.5 0 216
1 cup Spinach 838 244 0 4.4 262 6.42 0 50
3 oz Pork loin 386 4 0.6 0 7 0.66 0.52 190
1/2 cup Plantains 358 2 0 1.8 20 0.45 0 89
1 Hard-boiled egg 63 25 1.1 0 22 0.59 0.56 78
8 oz Fortified soy milk 296 299 2.7 0.5 22 1.02 2.07 104
1 med Apple 195 11 0 4.4 5 0.22 0 95
1 cup Oatmeal 164 21 0 4 14 2.11 0 166
2 slices Whole grain bread 69 30 0 4 14 0.68 0 138
12 Almonds 202 76 0 3.1 15 1.09 0 169
Total 6998 2033 15.6 46.7 698 26.14 6.41 2123
Goal  A:4700 A:1000 A:15 M:38 W:25 A:400 PW:600 M:8 W:18 A:2.4 51+:2.6  
This is a post by Lars Peterson from our sister blog, Healthy Theory. Visit Healthy Theory for tips and news to take control of your own health!
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Guest's picture

more useless information.

The last thing people in developed countries need is "more nutrients". We eat so much food that MOST people are awash in all nutrients. There is absolutely NO CREDIBLE data that a significant percentage of people in developed countries are deficient in ANY nutrient. For the minority of folks that MIGHT be a bit off the curve, a single multivitamin taken every other day will provide what MIGHT be needed.

The major focus of the USDA guidelines are NOT (as implied above) to have Americans consume more of the above-mentioned nutrients -- BUT, rather, to reduce caloric intake and exercise. Good Advice.

btw -- I'm not sure that non-digestible fiber is really a nutrient (in the strict definition of the term) -- but the USDA guidelines have long been subject to political, rather than solely scientific, influences.

Guest's picture

what the majority of Americans are "awash in" is cholesterol, trans fats, and sodium. yes, Americans eat way too much on average and the overall goal should be calorie reduction, but the REASON we are where we are is that the stuff we shovel into our mouths is low in those essential nutrients(and fiber), so our brains tell us to eat more(ie. we still feel hungry) in an effort to get those nutrient levels.
if you eat nutrient-rich foods, you feel satisfied with much smaller portions, and the calorie problem largely fixes itself. BTW, i'm not just pulling this out of my ass; i've experienced it first-hand. when i was little 90% of my diet consisted of home-cooked meals and i ate very well(meaning quality, not quantity), and i was skinny and had a ton of energy. when i was 12-ish i started eating a lot of fast food and snacks, and that's when i became more sedentary and started gaining weight(i won't discount the role of hormones in that change, but the skyrocketing of America's collective pants size is a recent phenomenon, while puberty is as old as life itself).

Guest's picture

So we all need to eat more spinach, oatmeal and chocolate milk?

Andrea Karim's picture

And potatoes.

Guest's picture
Rachel Crockett

No love for Bananas?
Regular Milk?
Lean Meat?

Guest's picture

lol... most of this post goes against what my doctor has told me to do individually... nutrition isn't an area to try making broad, general statements, as eating habits are so specific.

Guest's picture

I understand that if you consume a vegetarian source of protein, then you need to take in a vitamin C source as well in order to absorb the iron.

That makes spinach a great source of iron, as it contains both iron and vitamin C.

Guest's picture

As I read those recommendations, I see a lot more sugar recommended than nutrients! Raisins, CHOCOLATE milk, Orange Juice, Potatoes...

Guest's picture

This information should be taken with many grains of salt - no wait, that's too much sodium! :-)

Seriously, though, this sample daily eating plan might have the nutrients you need, but it is not at all good for most adults in the US. Most need to lose weight, and for women and most men 2123 calories daily will have them gaining it. I'm fairly active, as I go to the gym daily and dance classes 3 times a week, and I need about 1900 calories a day to maintain my weight, as I know from counting calories for many years. This eating plan would have me adding over 23 pounds a year!

Also , there are errors in the chart. 12 almonds (dry roasted, no salt) have approximately 92 calories, according to the UDSA calorie and nutrient website which you can find here: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/ 22 almonds (1 oz) have 169, but 12 almonds are listed as 169 in the sample plan. I happen to know the almond count because I eat 13 almonds daily (about 100 calories) as a snack. I checked on spinach - one cup raw or cooked? Raw has 7 calories per cup and cooked, drained, no salt has 41. The table lists 1 cup of spinach at 50. I wonder how many other mistakes there are that I don't have the time to check on?