Critical nutrients and their top food sources

You probably know that taking a high-quality multivitamin can be an essential part of your weight-loss or health promoting plan, but did you know there are certain nutrients that appear to play a more critical role than others when it comes to your health and metabolism? 

Below are 5 critical nutrients we all, in truth, should be monitoring if we’re looking optimize our metabolic function. All of these nutrients are also among the most common deficiencies in our population, giving us even more reason to assess our intakes. 

Read on to learn more about these nutrients and about the top food sources that can help ensure we’re getting our full allowance each day. 

Critical Nutrient #1: Magnesium

Magnesium is by far one of the most powerful and critical minerals. Not only is it responsible for supporting over 300 biochemical reactions in the body (e.g. blood sugar and insulin regulation, muscle and nerve function, energy production, digestive enzyme support, bone formation, etc.), but it’s also one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in this country. 

Exercise, certain medications and stress can deplete our internal magnesium levels fast, and our highly-processed diets are typically stripped of this powerful mineral. Some symptoms of low magnesium status include muscles cramping, restless leg syndrome, high blood pressure, low blood sugar and headaches/migraines.

How to get it: 

Your best bet is a varied diet of real food that includes plenty of leafy greens, nuts, seeds and certain fish. Try these magnesium-rich food sources below, and avoid any fortified, highly-processed foods as much as possible.

  • 1 ounces of seeds: pumpkin (150mg), flaxseed (110mg) or sesame (100mg)
  • 1 ounce of nuts: brazil nuts (105mg) or almonds (80mg)
  • 1 cup of leafy greens: boiled spinach (157 mg) or Swiss chard (150 mg)
  • 4 ounces of fish: halibut (120 mg) 

Recommendations for magnesium are usually dependent on sex and age, but most adults need at least 300-400mg per day for the most basic needs. I usually coach my clients who are looking to thrive or adhere to optimal health (and who isn’t really?) to shoot for at least 500-600mg. 

Critical Nutrient #2: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Many of my clients ask “Is there anything that omega-3s don’t support?” But seriously – these essential fatty acids are imperative to our health. 

Not only do they help support our overall heart health, but they also turn on most of the body’s natural anti-inflammatory molecules. They help fight off high blood pressure and stress, support our eye health and serotonin levels to help ward off depression, and keep the membrane of every cell in our bodies healthy. My dentist even praises me for my omega-3 intake because of its impact on gum health! 

Due to our high-inflammatory and high omega-6 laden diets (largely from processed foods and vegetable oils), most of us are not getting enough of the inflammation-fighting omega-3s in our diet to offset these negative factors. Individuals who suffer from joint pain, depression, skin problems, difficulty losing weight and other related conditions may want to consider that they’re not getting enough omega-3s. 

Check out the omega-3 rich food sources below to help boost your intake. Also, consider taking a high-quality supplement form – daily – to ensure you are getting enough.   

How to get it: 

Omega-3 fats in the diet can be found as alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are thought to be the most beneficial and absorbable forms. 

Most often, I coach my clients to think of wild-caught fish and salmon to help support their EPA and DHA intake, while some nuts and seeds are common non-animal sources for the hard-to-convert, ALA form of this essential nutrient. 

I recommend at least 1,200 mg total of EPA and DHA each day to maintain health. However, if inflammation, fat loss or heart health is an issue, I’ll increase and individualize that recommendation. Below are excellent food choices for DHA and EPA omega-3.

  • 3 ounces of granular caviar (5.56 grams) or roe (2.56 grams)
  • 3 ounces of salmon (1.82 grams), herring (1.75 grams) or mackerel (1.57 grams)
  • 3 ounces of sablefish (1.52 grams) or white fish (1.37 grams)

Critical Nutrient #3: Fiber

If you’re like most Americans, you’re probably not getting enough of this misunderstood nutrient. Most of us know that fiber is important, yet we’re not clear which foods are naturally high in fiber. Instead, we choose highly-processed, man-made food products that are fortified with fiber instead. 

Fiber is imperative to support a healthy gut and digestive system but can also help improve your immune system, keep you fuller longer, increase mineral absorption from foods, and improve your body’s insulin response by slowing carbohydrate digestion.    

How to get it: 

Sadly, most Americans fall short of the recommended 25-35 grams each day. For most of my clients, this recommendation becomes easy to meet once they know what foods naturally contain fiber and they follow a whole-food dietary approach. When you think fiber, think of vegetables, skins of fruits and legumes. Below are some top picks from each of those food categories.

  • 1 cup cooked vegetables, artichoke hearts (7 grams), green peas (4.5 grams) and broccoli (6 grams)
  • 1 cup of fruit: raspberries (8 grams), pear (4 grams) and apple (4 grams)
  • 1 cup legumes: split peas (16 grams), lentils (15 grams) and black beans (15 grams)

Critical Nutrient #4: Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is the most common vitamin deficiency in our country today. Known as the “sunshine vitamin” as it is primarily produced in the skin by way of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, this fat-soluble vitamin supports full-body function and healthy metabolism. 

Vitamin D receptors have been detected in almost all tissues of the body, including the bone, heart, adrenal glands, stomach, liver, skin, breasts, pancreas, immune system, brain, prostate, ovaries, and testes.  

Vitamin D is involved in both the formation and breakdown of bones and teeth, the regulation of blood pressure and vascular health. In regards to glycemic balance, Vitamin D assists in the release of insulin as well as enhances our cells’ receptivity to glucose and insulin.  

Some symptoms or health conditions associated with suboptimal vitamin D levels include osteoporosis, obesity, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, diabetes and many autoimmune disorders.  

How to get it: 

Vitamin D is not prevalent in our food system. Fortified milk holds the highest concentration, while other food sources with variable amounts of vitamin D include butter, cream, eggs, cold water fish and liver. 

Because it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, your intake of healthy fats is critical for proper absorption of this nutrient.  

The best way to get vitamin D is through 20-30 minutes of sun to fully exposed skin at least 2-3 days per week – sans sunscreen. If you find that recommendation difficult, supplementing with liquid vitamin D drops can be a safe and effective tool as well. 

The Vitamin D Council suggests 1000-5000 IU per day for healthy adults and teens, but if you’re already deficient, you may require additional sun exposure or supplementation. Make sure to test your vitamin D status at least once a year.

Critical Nutrient #5: Zinc

Do you focus on getting ample zinc each day? Zinc is involved and required for many unique functions in our bodies, including regulation of metabolic rate, blood sugar balance, immune function, sexual function (production of testosterone), and even our sense of taste and smell.  

Because our bodies have no specialized zinc storage system and because our stress-filled lives and medications can deplete our zinc levels, steady and daily intake is imperative. Some symptoms of low zinc levels include impaired sense of taste and of smell, frequent colds or infections, facial acne or low testosterone.     

Where can I find it?

To support this mineral, consume hormone and antibiotic-free meats and poultry – focusing on some of the best sources listed below. Recommendations for zinc usually range from 8-11 mg for adults to avoid deficiency. Those who are already deficient may benefit from additional supplementation.

  • 3 ounces of oysters (80mg) or crab (6mg)
  • 4 ounces of grass-fed beef (5.2 mg), lamb, loin (4 mg) or venison (5.5 mg)

– Anika Christ, Registered Dietitian and Life Time Weight Loss Director of Digital Programming & Events

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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