The 2% Vitamin and Mineral Guide
Even healthy diets can lack some vitamins and minerals. But knowing your status is complicated, and getting more isn’t so straightforward.
Why it matters: Micronutrient deficiencies can lead to many physical and mental health issues. This guide will help you get the right amount the right way.
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Even though Americans and people in other developed countries have access to thousands upon thousands of foods, we’re all probably lacking in at least one of the 29 micronutrients. For example, researchers estimate half of Americans don’t get enough magnesium. Iron deficiency happens in 20 percent of us.
In Monday’s 2% post, we learned all the downsides of low-level deficiencies. They’re associated with everything from obesity and heart disease to fatigue, depression, and impaired intelligence and performance.
That piece emerged from a conversation with Ty Beal, a Ph.D. who studies and works to prevent micronutrient deficiencies at Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.
Many people in developed countries like the U.S. experience micronutrient deficiencies because:
We eat a lot of ultra-processed foods. Those foods have micronutrients stripped from them.
We have a high obesity rate. Being obese leads us to require more micronutrients and may lead our body to store the nutrients in our fat rather than using them.
But Beal also told me that many people who eat healthily lack some micronutrients.
For example, he has a colleague who is also a nutrition researcher. She thought her diet was great. Then she got tested and learned she was deficient in iron.
Here are three reasons health-conscious people can become deficient in some micronutrients. Afterwards, we’ll cover the best way to learn if you’re deficient and smart ways to get more micronutrients.
Three reasons healthy eaters often lack micronutrients
1. We’re eating less iron
Grilled chicken is a go-to food for healthy eaters—as it should be. The food is packed with protein and low in fat.
There’s a good reason that bodybuilders who want to get lean eat chicken, rice, and broccoli. And why every menu highlights a grilled chicken salad as a healthy option.
But chicken is also relatively low in iron compared to other meats. For example, beef contains about five times more iron than chicken.
A 2021 study in The Journal of Nutrition analyzed eating data from 1999 to 2018. The researchers found, “There was a 15.3% reduction in beef (relatively higher in heme iron) and a 21.5% increase in chicken meat consumption.”
In that study, the scientist also looked at the iron content of 1366 foods to see how our foods are changing. They found about 62 percent of our foods decreased in iron during the ~20-year study period.
Because we’re eating fewer foods that are higher in iron and two-thirds of our foods are now lower in iron, the researchers found that “Dietary iron intake decreased by roughly 6.6% and 9.5% for male and female adults, respectively.”
Hence, the prevalence of anemia increased anywhere from 10.5 to 106 percent depending on age and sex.
Anemia occurs when you don’t have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to your organs. Fatigue and weakness are the most common symptom. But you can also have shortness of breath, headaches, or an irregular heartbeat.
Anemia is most common in women. As Beal explained, “Iron deficiency really stood out among women from ages 15 to 45. When women menstruate, they lose a ton of iron.” But it can also happen in men who avoid red meat and exercise hard.
The answer, however, isn’t to just eat more red meat. More on that below.
2. Our crops are changing
The agricultural revolution after World War II was fantastic. We used technology to grow far more food with less land and resources.
Our crops became larger and started tasting better—sweeter, less fibrous, etc. “But as we did this, we lost some of the nutrient density of the foods,” explained Beal.
Our crops today are still nutritious. Just less nutritious per calorie than they were in the past.
In 2004, researchers at UC Davis analyzed changes to the nutrition of 43 crops from 1950 to 1999. The finding: “As a group, the 43 foods show apparent, statistically reliable declines for 6 nutrients.” The crops had less protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins B2 and C.
The researchers believe there have been more declines than that. They think magnesium, zinc, potassium, and vitamins B6 and E also dropped. But we didn’t measure those in the 1950s, so they couldn’t make a comparison.
The lead researcher wrote that since 1940 our fruits and vegetables “show apparent median declines of 5% to 40% or more in minerals, vitamins, and protein.”
Why this matters: only 1 in 10 Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. And now we’re getting fewer vitamins and minerals when we do eat that stuff.
Hence, even people who try to eat more fruits and vegetables may not get enough.
Why this is happening: “Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant (fruit and vegetable) is truly less good for you than the one before,” explained Scientific American magazine.
3. Health-conscious people may need more
This one’s pretty simple: People who eat healthy are also more likely to exercise. The harder you exercise, the more micronutrients you’ll need.
Other “health-minded” groups may also not get enough. For example, vegetarians and vegans are often low in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and potentially iodine, iron, and zinc.
Here’s a deep dive into different groups of people who tend to lack micronutrients and the micronutrients they lack.
How to know what you lack
I texted Mike Roussell, PhD, about how he approaches micronutrients with his clients.
Mike is one of the brightest and most practical thinkers in nutrition I know (and a good follow on IG). He works with professional athletes and executives.