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Think about what it would feel like if your health, fitness, and fat loss were all optimized. In order for that to happen, your body needs to be supported with the right levels of the right nutrients.

While most of us aren’t dealing with obvious symptoms or diagnostic levels of nutrient deficiency, many of us are dealing with suboptimal levels of some key nutrients that can negatively affect how we feel and function day-to-day.

It’s easy to assume that under-nourishment automatically means “underweight.” However, weight is a poor indicator of nourishment: One can be underweight, normal weight, or even overweight and still be undernourished from a micronutrient standpoint. As a result, many people accept fatigue, moodiness, trouble losing fat, and cravings as normal just because they’re common. But common does not mean normal.

Metabolism, performance, and feelings of vitality rely on a balance of key nutrients. The good news is that our nutrient status is largely controllable.

Discover the key nutrients many of us are lacking — and how we can boost our body’s supply.

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Why they’re important:

Omega-3 fatty acids aid our bodies in a number of ways, including enhancing fat loss, helping to control blood-sugar and cholesterol levels, supporting brain function and joint health, and regulating inflammation.

They can be found in both the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) form, which comes from plants, and the eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) form, which comes from fatty fish and fish oils. Your body can’t make its own omega-3s — this is why they’re considered essential fatty acids (EFAs) — so you have to get them through your diet.

EPA and DHA are the most beneficial forms of omega-3s. While ALA sources, such as flaxseeds and walnuts, are great components of a healthy diet, they only partially convert into EPA and DHA, making it important for us to directly consume EPA and DHA sources.

Why you may not be getting enough:

Unless you’re consistently taking a fish oil supplement or eating fatty fish — think salmon, herring, mackerel, or sardines — several days per week, you’re at risk of having low omega-3 levels.

This risk can be further exacerbated by the prevalence of omega-6 fatty acids in the standard American diet. Omega-6s are in some healthy whole foods, such as nuts and seeds, but they’re also in high concentrations in foods that are relatively new to human biology from food processing practices, including widely used vegetable oils (safflower, corn, and soybean oils). It’s the latter that we want to watch out for.

The goal is to have a healthy balance of omega-3s to omega-6s. However, most of us are eating way too many omega-6 fatty acids, throwing off that balance in the body. Some estimates report that the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in a processed diet may be up to 45:1, when an ideal ratio could be closer to 4:1 or even 2:1.

How you can get more:

Be mindful of the overall quality of fat intake in your diet. Prioritize whole food sources of omega-3s, such as wild-caught salmon and other fatty fish, and do your best to avoid processed foods and refined oils. Because it can be challenging to get sufficient amounts of omega-3s through diet alone, consider adding in a high-quality fish oil supplement.

2. Iodine

Why it’s important:

This is an essential trace mineral that’s found naturally in some foods and added to others. With it, we see negative effects on both ends of the scale — problems can arise if you don’t have enough, as well as if you have too much. (Although, it’s relatively rare today to see cases of excess iodine.)

Iodine is a non-negotiable for your thyroid health. Your body needs iodine to produce thyroid hormones, which — among many functions — help power your body’s metabolism and set your daily calorie burn. Without enough iodine, thyroid function can slow down. In cases of excess iodine, the thyroid gland can enlarge, and goiter can develop.

(For more on iodine’s role in thyroid health, read “Repair Your Thyroid.”)

Why you may not be getting enough:

As you work toward a healthy, well-rounded diet — which is critical for optimal health — your intake of artificially iodized salt (found in many processed foods) may decrease, and your risk for low iodine levels increases. This is compounded by the fact that most of us don’t eat many naturally iodine-rich foods, such as sea vegetables.

Don’t rely just on iodized salt to get iodine, as it can affect blood pressure; instead, focus on getting it through foods that are nutrient-dense and provide a multitude of other benefits.

How you can get more:

Iodine is naturally occurring in several whole foods. The best sources come from seafood, such as whitefish, salmon, shellfish (shrimp and scallops), and sea vegetables. While they are not a common dietary staple in Western diets, dried seaweed snacks are increasingly popular in natural health food stores and grocers. For those who can tolerate dairy, milk, yogurt, and cheese are good options.

Since most people are not taking in enough, you may also want to consider taking a daily multivitamin that contains iodine. For most, we recommend a multivitamin with at least 150 micrograms of iodine; as always, work with a nutrition professional or medical provider to find the right supplementation dose for you.

3. Zinc

Why it’s important:

Although it’s considered a trace mineral, or “micromineral,” zinc can have major, far-reaching health effects. Our immune system, testosterone production (critical for lean body mass, libido, and more), thyroid health, and ability to heal from wounds all depend on us having healthy levels of zinc.

Why you may not be getting enough:

There are a number of people who are at risk for low levels, including those of us who are chronically stressed; those who engage in prolonged dieting or calorie restriction; heavy sweaters; those who regularly consume alcohol; those who use acid-reflux medications; and those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Our levels may also be low if we’re not ingesting zinc daily, as zinc isn’t stored by the body.

Many standard multivitamins contain a modest 15 milligrams of cheap, poorly absorbed forms of zinc, such as zinc oxide. It’s important to look for a supplement that instead contains a chelated form of zinc, which can be more easily absorbed by the body.

A note of caution: More is not always better. Chronic high doses of zinc can lead to copper deficiency.

How you can get more:

Consider supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin that includes a chelated form of zinc. (Life Time’s suite of multivitamins contain a minimum of 30 milligrams of a bisglyinate chelate form.) The amount in a high-quality multivitamin is likely appropriate for most individuals, but be sure to work with your health-care team and monitor your lab results regularly, particularly before dosing with a standalone zinc product.

You can also make an effort to consume zinc-rich foods, such as oysters, grass-fed beef, crab, lobster, pork, and dark turkey or chicken meat.

4. Chromium

Why it’s important:

Chromium is a trace mineral involved in blood-sugar regulation and the utilization of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrate). Suboptimal levels of this nutrient pack a double whammy, as it can trigger blood-sugar imbalances and subsequent food cravings. You might even experience a vicious cycle of low chromium levels and high sugar cravings, as one can worsen the other.

Why you may not be getting enough:

Chromium levels can decrease with aging, stress, and exercise. As a result, most of us risk suboptimal levels at one point or another.

How you can get more:

Broccoli is one of the best dietary sources of chromium. You can also get chromium in smaller amounts from garlic, basil, and turkey.

For those with blood-sugar issues confirmed with blood work, chromium can also be taken as a supplement around mealtime. I’ve had clients swear by chromium’s ability to help them stave off carb cravings.

5. Selenium

Why it’s important:

Selenium can support your thyroid health, pancreatic function, immune system activity, and detoxification. In particular, selenium is critical for your body to make the more active form of thyroid hormone, called T3, which is especially important for those who struggle with thyroid conditions or have been told they have “borderline” thyroid issues.

Why you may not be getting enough:

Selenium is an important trace element that’s historically found in soil, however, it’s relatively depleted in much of our agricultural soil today. A lot of it is lost due to mining and industrial processing as well.

How you can get more:

Incorporate more whole-food sources of selenium into your regular diet. Although it’s not a part of most people’s meal plans, organ meat is a good source, as are Brazil nuts — even as few as one to three or so per day. Mushrooms and seafood, such as tuna, sardines, and shrimp, also contain relatively ample amounts of selenium.

6. Magnesium

Why it’s important:

Magnesium is critical for hundreds of functions and processes in the body, including blood-sugar regulation, muscle and nerve function, detoxification, and energy utilization.

To date, all of my clients who have struggled with restless leg syndrome or muscle cramping, particularly at night, have found partial or total alleviation after about two weeks of taking 300 to 500 milligrams of high-quality magnesium in the evening.

Other potential benefits of magnesium include alleviation of constipation, prevention of migraines, and improved bone strength. It can also promote restful sleep.

Why you may not be getting enough:

While you can get magnesium through food sources, it’s very difficult to meet your body’s needs through food alone — most people need to supplement in order to get enough.

Those of us who exercise regularly may be further at risk for deficiency, as physical stress (which happens during workouts) increases our body’s use of magnesium.

How you can get more:

Make an effort to consume ample amounts of magnesium-rich foods, such as spinach, Swiss chard, and kale (yet another reason to focus on those leafy greens, with the vitamin K you’ll get as well being an added bonus). Other healthy sources include almonds, pumpkin seeds, wild-caught mackerel, black beans, and avocado.

Since it’s a relaxing mineral, it might be best to take your chelated magnesium supplement at night.

Magnesium is so important that we recommend it as a standalone supplement in our lineup of our core Foundational Five supplements.

Wrapping Up

While it’s easy to keep your focus primarily on macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein), if you’re hoping to drive results with your health goals, it’s important to remember that optimal changes to your metabolic health will only occur when your micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are in order.

Our complex metabolic systems need both macro- and micro-nourishment function at their best.

While there are even more specific nutrients of concern we could talk about, always remember to support yourself with lots of whole, natural, unprocessed foods, and to supplement strategically to give your body the foundation it needs to be its absolute best — inside and out.

samantha-mckinney-life-time-training-registered-dietician
Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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