3 Reasons Most People Don’t Get Enough Vitamins and Minerals

Micronutrient inadequacy isn’t something only people in developing countries with limited access to varied whole foods struggle with. That much is clear from these eyebrow-raising statistics: 94.3% (woah) of the United States population do not meet the daily requirement for vitamin D, 88.5% for vitamin E, 52.2% for magnesium, 44.1% for calcium, 43.0% for vitamin A, and 38.9% for vitamin C (1).

But … why? There are three likely reasons for this peculiar phenomenon. Continue reading to learn what they are and, perhaps more importantly, what you can do about your shortfall in micronutrients (if any).

#1: Untampered enthusiasm for ultra-processed foods

Translated into layperson language, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are what you’d commonly think of as “junk food”. E.g., greasy potato chips and sugar-packed cereals. UPFs are often made from already refined (read: fiber- and nutrient-stripped) ingredients, such as white flour, then crammed with bad-cholesterol-raising hydrogenated fats, sodium, and a dizzying array of additives — artificial flavors, emulsifiers, and preservatives — for maximum addictiveness and palatability (2, 3, 4). Unfortunately, it works. We go gaga over them. Today, UPFs make up 60% of our calorie intake (5).

Naturally, this pattern of consumption leaves little space for unprocessed and minimally processed foods (e.g., carrots, ribeye steak, and lima beans), whole foods in which the nutrients are still intact. And as if that weren't bad enough, our penchant for UPFs also appears to hurt our bodies' ability to extract vitamins and minerals from those healthful foods. UPFs are typically low in fiber and brimming with chemical additives. That's a double whammy for gut microbiome health. FYI: fiber feeds good gut bacteria, while research links chemical additives in UPFs with poor gut microbiota diversity (6, 7, 8, 9). So, given the crucial role the gut microbiome plays in nutrient absorption, you should be able to see now why so many of us fall short on our micronutrient needs (10, 11).

The key is to limit, not eliminate 

But, of course, kicking UPFs off your diet is a tall order. They're delicious, convenient, and good for the soul. So, good news: you don't have to (completely eliminate UPFs, that is) — instead, a more realistic method of increasing your micronutrient intake is simply adding more fresh and minimally processed foods to your plates. Think of UPFs as a “treat”, something that should only make up a tiny percentage of your overall calories. It also wouldn't hurt to coax your gut microbiome into a more balanced, healthy state with Dr. Danielle’s Gut Assist Probiotic and/or Gut Assist, so it fares well on the nutrient absorption side of things.

#2: Choice of animal protein

Hmm. Convincing, but I eat healthy most of the times, and I’m not a fan of UPFs. If that’s you, there’s another reason you’re not getting enough vitamins and minerals. Your preference for chicken breasts over other animal proteins. Yes, really. See, while chicken breasts provide one of the most bang for your buck in terms of protein to fat or calorie content — 80% of its calories come from protein, while 20% comes from fat — among protein sources, it contains relatively little iron compared to other meats (12). For reference, beef contains more than twice the amount of iron than chicken (13). This may, in turn, explain why researchers in this 2021 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found the following (14):

  • The average American adult's iron intake dropped by 6.6% (males) to 9.5% (females) between 1999 to 2018.
  • As a result, the estimated prevalence of iron-deficiency anemia is between 2.2% and 10.5%, depending on age and sex.

Time to eat more beef?

OK, is that your sign to stuff your face with iron-rich red meats (e.g., beef, lamb, pork, veal, mutton, and goat)? Not so fast. While more research is needed, there is some evidence linking consumption of red meat with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer (15, 16, 17). In fact, the National Heart Foundation recommends eating less than 350 grams of cooked, unprocessed red meat weekly, which would translate to less than 50 grams daily (18). For reference, 50 grams of cooked beef would give you 1.3 mg of iron (19).

Here are the daily recommended iron intakes for non-vegetarians:

  • Men: 8 mg
  • Women aged 19 to 50: 18 mg
  • Women aged 51 and older: 8 mg
  • Pregnant women: 27 mg
  • Breastfeeding women: 9 mg

So, as you can tell, 50 grams of cooked red meat won’t cut it for your daily iron needs. What now? The answer is to include other iron food sources. Thankfully, there are many. Examples include mussels, sardines, hard-boiled eggs, lentils, chickpeas, and leafy greens (20, 21).

#3: Declining nutrient density in crops

Our crops today taste better than ever before. They’re sweeter, less fibrous, contain fewer (if any) seeds, etc. But they’re also less nutritious. Researchers in this study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition analyzed changes to the nutrition of 43 crops from 1950 to 1999 (22). Here’s what they found:

  • Apparent, statistically reliable declines in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins B2 and C, along with
  • Median declines of 5% to 40% or more in minerals, vitamins, and protein

So, what’s up with that? There are multiple factors behind the nutrient decline in our fruits and vegetables (23, 24, 25, 26, 27):

  • Modern farming practices: We want our crops to grow big (i.e., ready for harvest) fast. This means the plants don’t have enough time to pull micronutrients from the soil and/or synthesize nutrients internally. Modern farmers also practice monocropping, continuously planting the same crop for multiple seasons without rotation. While this enables planting and harvesting efficiency via machinery, prolonged monocropping depletes the soil of certain groups of nutrients — upsetting soil health and fertility. 
  • Soil damage: A greater volume of crops are planted at any one time. So, in effect, the nutrients from the soil are distributed or, in other words, diluted across our fruits and veggies.
  • Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere: When carbon dioxide concentrations are higher, the crops draw in less water, which means they bring in fewer micronutrients from the soil.

What can you do about it?

Unless you’re a farmer or grow your own produce, there’s likely nothing you can do to improve the nutrient density of the fruits and veggies on your plate. What you can do, however, is to try to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. You should also try to eat a variety of different-colored produce (this increases the chances of meeting your nutritional needs) (28).

That said, there's obviously a limit to how much more fruits and veggies you can stomach. So, consider dietary supplements  and even juicing if you'd like to jack up your micronutrient intake without eating salads thrice daily. But before you run out and swipe your card for random vitamins and minerals, you should first …

Find out what you’re actually short on

Sure, most Americans don’t get enough vitamin D and vitamin E. Does that mean you’re 100% short on those vitamins, too? Of course not. It is possible to overdose on vitamins and minerals. For example, taking too much vitamin E could cause blood thinning and lead to fatal bleeding (29). And, on the flipside, you may also be short on micronutrients most Americans get enough of. Case in point: if you have a MTHFR gene mutation, you’ll likely be deficient in vitamin B12 and folate (30). Psst: you can get your B12 from Dr. Danielle’s Organic Methyl Vitamin B12.

That’s why your wisest first course of action would be visiting your primary healthcare provider and enquiring about testing, such as a comprehensive vitamin and nutrition deficiency panel — which, as its name implies, is a blood test that would help measure your levels of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and other nutrients essential to health and well-being (31). And if you go ahead with testing, make sure you ask your physician to go over your results with you (instead of simply having them tell you “Everything’s within healthy range”). Questions you could ask include:

  • Are there any vitamins or minerals I’m eating too little/too much of?
  • Would you have any recommendations for registered dietitians who could work with me to improve my diet and, in turn, nutritional status?
  • Is it OK for me to take dietary supplements? (It's best to name the exact supplements you plan to take.)

There’s a lot you can do to meet your micronutrient needs

The prevalence and easy access of ultra-processed foods in the grocery stores (32). Your desire to eat healthier animal proteins which sadly comes with the trade-off of less dietary iron. And declining nutrient density in fruits and vegetables. When faced with these circumstances, you may feel as though trying to get enough vitamins and minerals is a futile endeavor only the foolish and overly optimistic would attempt.

But, fortunately, it's not — as highlighted in this article. So, start with meeting your primary healthcare provider. Understand your unique micronutrient needs and go from there.

To Your Health and Happiness, Doctor Danielle

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