With so much focus on health and fitness in recent years, you’ve most likely mastered the basics of a well-balanced diet. You already know how important it is to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. And of course, you know that healthy fats and complex carbohydrates are good for you, while it’s best to limit your intake of simple carbohydrates and sugar.
But even the most passionate wellness enthusiasts among us are often not very knowledgeable about a group of nutrients called trace minerals.
Although not many people are interested in the amount of zinc they get from their morning cereal, trace minerals play important roles in thyroid health, hormone production, metabolism, and muscle development, among many other things. As the word “trace” in trace minerals suggests, we only need small amounts, but those small amounts make a huge difference in how our bodies feel and perform.
The most well-known trace minerals are zinc which we mentioned earlier, iron, iodine, copper, fluoride, selenium, chromium, manganese, and cobalt. They’re present in many of the foods we eat. Or, to be more precise, they’re present in many of the foods we should eat.
This article will give you a quick guide to the most important trace minerals for your health, what they do, where you can find them, and how to add them to your diet.
Your body uses iron to make the hemoglobin inside red blood cells. Hemoglobin is a protein molecule that binds to oxygen, carrying it to various organs in your body. Iron is also necessary for certain enzyme reactions that are of critical importance to your immune system.
If your body doesn’t get enough iron from the foods you consume, it uses its reserves. If these reserves get depleted, you can develop a condition called iron-deficiency anemia. Women of childbearing age and adolescent girls are particularly susceptible to developing iron-deficiency anemia. They lose iron through menstruation, so they require higher amounts than men in the same age group.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency on the global level, with more than 2 billion people developing iron-deficiency anemia. Furthermore, research shows that 40% of women get insufficient amounts of iron from their diets.
Dietary iron is divided into two categories. The first category is comprised of the iron you get from animal sources, which is called haem iron. It’s found in organ meats, red meats, poultry, and fish. Haem iron is the most bioavailable – easiest to absorb – type of iron.
The second category is comprised of non-haem iron found in cereals, vegetables, pulses, beans, nuts, and fruit. While these are the predominant sources of iron in people’s diets, absorption is not as consistent because of compounds like phytic acid and fiber, which bind to the iron in the intestine. This is also the reason why strict vegetarian diets make people more vulnerable to iron deficiency.
Iron-fortified cereals and bread are also available, but once more, bioavailability can be an issue.
Zinc is found in many enzymes in our bodies and serves as a catalyst in a variety of reactions required for the production of proteins and genetic material. It plays a key role in cell division, which means we need it for tissue repair, and it’s essential for normal development in children. To work properly, the immune system also needs adequate zinc levels.
Zinc deficiency in children can lead to impaired growth. Researchers have studied zinc deficiency as a possible cause for delayed puberty and small stature, but it remains uncertain if these problems can be assigned directly to inadequate zinc intake or a combination of multiple nutrient deficiencies.
Zinc can also cause anemia, compromised immune system, neurological abnormalities, and skin rashes.
Zinc can be found in various foods, although, like iron, it is most readily absorbed from meats like beef, pork, dark-meat chicken, turkey, and crab. It’s also in eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, pulses, and wholegrain cereals. Bear in mind that the presence of phytic acid in pulses and cereals reduces its bioavailability.
The thyroid gland uses iodine to produce triiodothyronine (T3) thyroxine (T4), two hormones that regulate physical and mental development and metabolism.
Altered lipid profiles, slowed metabolism, weight gain, and mental sluggishness are all symptoms of iodine deficiency. Thyroid gland swelling can also be caused by a lack of iodine. Moreover, if women are severely deficient in iodine while pregnant, it can cause mental impairments in their infants.
About 120 countries around the world mitigate these risks by fortifying their salt with iodine. The amount of dietary iodine you will get from eating plants is determined by the amount of iodine present in the soil and water where the plant grows. Seafood is the best source of iodine, but milk is also a good choice.
You may be more familiar with fluoride because you’ve seen it mentioned on your toothpaste. Fluoride’s primary role in the body is to aid in the mineralization of bones and teeth. It’s often added to toothpaste because it can help protect your teeth from cavities.
You can also find fluoride in water – both fluoridated and not – most teas and fish. A regular diet provides only about a quarter of the fluoride we need, so having access to toothpaste with fluoride is especially important in areas where the water has a low concentration of the trace mineral.
At the same time, exposure to too much fluoride during the first eight years of life, when children grow permanent teeth, can cause a condition called fluorosis.
Fluorosis is a cosmetic condition with mild to severe symptoms. In mild cases, after the teeth grow, they will appear mildly discolored or have white markings that aren’t very noticeable. In more severe cases, they can have stains that range from yellow to dark brown and rough, pitted enamel.
This condition first attracted the attention of researchers in the early twentieth century. Many of the Colorado Springs native-born residents had brown stains on their teeth which were at that time dubbed the “Colorado Brown Stain.” It turned out that the water supply in the region had a high concentration of naturally occurring fluoride, and people with these stains were also much less likely to develop cavities.
This is also what prompted the initiative to add enough fluoride to the public water supplies to decrease the frequency of cavities while also avoiding fluorosis in children.