7 Nutrients Your Diet May Be Missing

Are you getting enough essential nutrients -- like calcium, fiber and vitamin E -- in your diet?

By Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

Think your diet is healthy? Guess again. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans says many adults lack seven essential nutrients -- from calcium to fiber -- and certain groups of people are missing even more. Filling in so many nutrient gaps seems insurmountable without supplements, but more often than not, food can solve the shortfalls.

Calcium: Essential Nutrient for Muscles, Bones, and More

You don't outgrow your need for calcium just because you're all grown up. While calcium is necessary to bolster developing bones, it's also needed to keep your skeleton strong throughout life. And that's not all. Besides participating in maintaining a normal heart rhythm, calcium plays a role in blood clotting and muscle function.

"Studies have shown a link between adequate calcium intake and lower blood pressure, as well as weight control," says Marisa Moore, RD, an Atlanta-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM), the group of experts that sets nutrient quotas, has determined that calcium needs increase with age. Here's what you need every day:

  • 19- to 50-year-olds: 1,000 milligrams
  • 51 years and up: 1,200 milligrams

Three servings of dairy foods each day, as part of a balanced diet, provides most people with the calcium they need.

"Try to get calcium from foods, preferably dairy," advises Moore. Calcium is best absorbed in the presence of lactose, natural milk sugar.

Some examples of foods that provide around 300 milligrams of calcium per serving:

  • 8 ounces of milk or yogurt
  • 8 ounces calcium-added orange juice
  • 1 1/2 ounces hard cheese
  • 8 ounces fortified soy beverage

Bonus nutrients: Dairy foods and soy supply magnesium; orange juice packs potassium.

Fiber: Essential Nutrient for Overall Health

Fiber is best known for keeping bowel movements regular and preventing other intestinal woes, including diverticular disease, an intestinal inflammation. Years of research on fiber underscores its importance in overall health, too.

"Fiber-rich foods lower the risk of developing chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes," says Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, director of nutrition services at the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare in Boston. "Fiber is also filling, and it's found in foods that are relatively low in calories, so it's central to weight control."

Fiber needs are based on calorie requirements. That's why men and women generally differ in their daily fiber needs, and why quotas decline with age:

  • Men 19-50 years: 38 grams; 51 and older: 30 grams
  • Women 19-50 years: 25 grams; 51 and older: 21 grams

It's beneficial, so why don't many people get enough fiber? Experts blame a lack of plant foods, including whole grains.

Here are some easy ways to boost fiber intake:

  • Snack on whole-grain crackers, fruit, or vegetables or popcorn (a whole grain) instead of cookies, candy, and chips.
  • Choose whole-grain breads and cereals, whole-wheat pasta, and other whole grains, such as quinoa, millet, barley, cracked wheat, and wild rice.
  • Look for breads with more than 3 grams fiber per slice; go for cereals with five or more grams of dietary fiber per serving.
  • Start a meal with bean-based soups, such as lentil or black bean. Add canned, rinsed chickpeas to salads, soups, egg, and pasta dishes.
  • Include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains at every meal.

Bonus nutrients: Fresh and lightly processed fruits and vegetables and beans are rich in potassium; beans also supply magnesium.

Magnesium: Essential Nutrient for Bones, Immunity & More

Magnesium is an unsung hero of sorts. This mighty mineral participates in hundreds of bodily functions that foster good health, yet few people know that magnesium contributes to bone strength; promotes peak immunity; and normalizes muscle, nerve, and heart function.

You need this much magnesium every day:

  • Men, 19-30: 400 milligrams; 31 and older: 420 milligrams
  • Women, 19-30: 310 milligrams; 31 and older: 320 milligrams

Here's how to satisfy magnesium needs:

  • Opt for whole grains; quinoa and cracked wheat (bulgur) are particularly magnesium-rich
  • Snack on pumpkin seeds
  • Sprinkle an ounce of slivered almonds on top of cereal or low-fat frozen yogurt
  • Choose legumes, such as black beans, white beans, and soy as a protein source a few times a week instead of meat
  • Consume three servings of low-fat dairy foods each day