In order to optimize our health, we chow down on kale-filled salads, stir collagen into our beverages, and blend trendy superfoods like beet juice into our smoothies. But as healthy as we may eat—or at least think we eat—we still may not get enough of all the important nutrients we need. According to the CDC, these nutritional holes can be especially common (and problematic!) for women.
Ladies, you can thank your wonderful hormones for your increased risk of certain nutrient insufficiencies, since factors like menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, and menopause increase your needs for certain nutrients. That’s why dietitian Rachel Begun, R.D. recommends women have basic blood-work done at every annual physical. That way, your doc—or a dietitian—can suggest upping your intake of certain food groups or adding a supplement to your routine to ensure you meet your nutritional needs.
Not quite sure what to look for? Here are the top seven nutrients women may fall short on.
The mineral and electrolyte potassium helps regulate fluid levels in our body, supports communication between nerves and muscles, and improves blood vessel function—but “fewer than two percent of Americans, women included, hit the recommended 4,700 milligrams of potassium per day,” says dietitian Kim Larson, R.D.N., N.B.C., H.W.C., nutrition and health coach at Total Health in Seattle, WA. In fact, our potassium shortcomings are so severe that The 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines actually called out potassium as a nutrient of public health concern, and the FDA will soon require food manufacturers to call out potassium on food labels. Low intakes are associated with weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps, and constipation.
Luckily, potassium can be found in a number of fruits and veggies, such as dark green leafy vegetables, mango, avocado, bananas, parsnips, beans (especially soy beans), tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, pumpkin, and carrots, says Larson. Since potassium supplementation can potentially lead to heart arrhythmias and kidney damage in those with kidney issues, talk to your doc before adding a supplement (like The Vitamin Shoppe brand Potassium Citrate) to your routine.
Magnesium, another electrolyte mineral, is an essential nutrient, meaning we cannot make it ourselves and must get it from food or supplements. Magnesium is involved in hundreds of body processes, including muscle and nerve function, blood sugar management, blood pressure regulation, and protein, bone, and DNA production. It also has a calming effect on the nervous system and promotes relaxation. All important stuff!
Unfortunately, “it’s estimated that 68 percent of Americans are magnesium deficient because they aren’t eating foods like pumpkin, spinach, artichokes, soy and other beans, tofu, brown rice, or nuts (especially Brazil nuts), which are high in the mineral,” says Larson. Low magnesium levels can leave us fatigued and cause muscle spasms, cramps, and weakness—and one study published in Behavior Genetics suggests it may even be linked to sleep issues.
Magnesium supplements can interfere with certain medications, but if you’ve got the green light from your doctor, Larson recommends looking for a supplement that contains 300 to 320 milligrams, which provides all of women’s daily needs. Look for magnesium aspartate, citrate, lactate, or chloride, which are digested and absorbed more easily. (Garden of Life’s Doctor Formulated Relax & Restore Whole-Food Magnesium mixes easily into water and tastes great.)
When it comes to getting ample calcium, women have a lot at stake. The mineral is the best nutritional defense against declining bone density, which can start to occur in women as early as in their twenties, says Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But calcium doesn’t just help with strong bones and teeth,” he says. “It’s also important for muscular function, nerve transmission, intercellular communication, and hormone secretion.”
About half of Americans don’t get enough calcium (women need 1,000 milligrams per day) from their diets, and insufficiency often goes undetected—though it can cause muscle spasms in extreme cases. You’ll find the mineral in seeds, cheese, yogurt, salty fishes, beans, lentils, and nuts and nut butters, as well as in fortified foods. If adding a calcium supplement to your routine, Valdez recommends calcium citrate, which optimizes bioavailability. (The Vitamin Shoppe brand Calcium Citrate provides about a third of your daily calcium needs.)
4. Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps our body absorb calcium, making it especially important for women’s bone health. (It also supports immune function.) And while we could technically meet our daily vitamin D needs through adequate exposure to strong sunlight, living far from the equator, working inside all day, and using sunscreen all make that pretty much impossible.
To make matters worse, this nutrient is quite hard to come by in food (though it can be found in fatty fish, egg yolks, and fortified dairy and non-dairy milks), and 40 percent of Americans are deficient, which can increase your likelihood of developing bone and back pain, and lead to bone and hair loss, explains Valdez. If you don’t consume fortified dairy or non-dairy milks or orange juice every day, Valdez recommends supplementing with at least 400 IU to help meet your 600-IU-a-day needs. (Garden of Life’s My Kind Organics Vegan D3 provides 2,000 IU of vitamin D in a tasty raspberry lemon chew.)
Many of us don’t know much about iodine other than the fact that it’s in table salt, but this mineral is important for making thyroid hormones, which control our metabolism. It’s also particularly important for pregnant women, as it plays a role in fetal bone and brain development. However, women between the ages of 20 to 39 actually tend to have lower levels of urinary iodine than women of other ages.
When you’re low in iodine, you may feel tired or cold all the time, and experience thinning hair, says dietitian Jessica Crandall R.D., spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s common for food manufacturers to add iodine to salt but as many women cut back on salt in their diets, they lose that source of iodine,” Crandall explains. We need 150 micrograms (mcg) of iodine in our diets every day, which we can find in seafood and sea vegetables (like seaweed), and dairy products. If you’re considering a supplement, Valdez recommends one that contains 0.075 to 0.15 milligrams of iodine. (You’ll get 0.225 micrograms per serving of Trace Minerals Research Liquid Iodine.)
The mineral iron keeps our red blood cells healthy so they’re better able to transport oxygen throughout our bodies, which helps us feel energized and supports our brain function. Women have higher iron needs during puberty and pregnancy, which involve rapid growth and development, and are at higher risk of iron deficiency during their child-bearing years because of the blood lost during menstruation, explains Begun. Women of menstruating age need 18 milligrams of iron per day, and may develop iron deficiency anemia—which is often marked by fatigue, shortness of breath, pale skin, lightheadedness, and cold hands and feet—if they fall short.
We typically associate iron with meat, but you can also find the mineral in foods like dark chocolate, beans, lentils, and spinach. Still, vegetarians and vegans should take extra care to eat plant-based iron-rich foods. If you’re concerned about your iron levels, Valdez recommends looking for a supplement that contains around 18 milligrams of iron in the form of ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferric citrate, or ferric sulfate. Just be warned: Too much iron may cause nausea or constipation. (The Vitamin Shoppe brand Comfort Iron uses a clinically-tested, non-constipating form of iron called iron bisglycinate.)
Folate (or folic acid) is a B vitamin best known for facilitating conception, aiding in fetal development, and preventing neural tube defects, like spinal bifida. It also plays a role in helping your nails grow, balancing your mood, and combating inflammation, says Valdez.
Women need 400 micrograms of folate per day, and you can find it in foods like dark leafy greens, avocado, beans, and citrus fruits. If you’re taking a folic acid supplement, keep in mind that it’s 85 percent absorbed when taken with food, and closer to 100 percent absorbed when taken on an empty stomach, Valdez says. (Solgar’s Folate provides 1,000 micrograms of the important B vitamin.)
Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label To Table.