The quick answer: Most Americans are deficient in the essential minerals. Mineral insufficiency is an underlying cause of chronic disease. Avoid refined and highly processed foods in favor of whole foods, especially nuts, whole grains, and legumes.
Two quotes on the importance of minerals in our dietary:
“You can trace every sickness, every disease and every ailment to a mineral deficiency.” Dr. Linus Pauling, Nobel laureate.
“It is not commonly realized, however, that vitamins control the body’s appropriation of minerals, and in the absence of minerals they have no function to perform.” Dr. Charles Northern, early 20th century researcher.
Sixteen elemental minerals are known to be essential to life. As there are 92 naturally occurring elements, it’s possible that others will be discovered to be essential. A diet of whole foods normally provides these needed minerals, though there are regional variations that can be important. Iodine, for example, is deficient in the soil of the Great Lakes area and widespread deficiency was discovered during physical exams for WWI inductees. Iodine, added to salt in 1924, was the first supplement to our food supply and though successful, established the risky idea that Man could improve upon Nature.
Before we leave iodine, the work of a young Ohio doctor named David Marine should be remembered. Iodine deficiency can cause an enlarged thyroid or goiter and the soil iodine deficiency around the Great Lakes led to a regional nickname: the goiter belt. Dr. Marine had shown that iodine could resolve goiters in animals so proposed an experiment among school children in Cleveland, where he practiced. He was denied. Undeterred, in 1916 he found a cooperative school board in Akron, which had even more schoolgirl goiters (boys get them also, but girls are more susceptible). It would be hard to imagine such an experiment today. Marine’s experiment was successful, dramatically reducing the number of goiters, and laid the foundation for the national iodization of salt.
A parting thought: A generation before Dr. Marine, pure salt had replaced sea salt in the American diet. Purifying salt removed 76 trace minerals, including iodine. Though the soil in the goiter belt was unusually low in iodine, Dr. Marine didn’t add iodine as much as he restored it.
The essential minerals are divided into groups by the amount stored in the body. The seven major minerals range from around 3 lb. (calcium) down to 5 grams, including also, magnesium, sulfur, and the electrolytes, sodium, potassium, and chloride. The minor elements (less than 5 grams) are iron, zinc, iodine, selenium, copper, manganese, fluoride, chromium, and molybdenum. Of the minerals, four merit attention:
Say the word “calcium” and bones or osteoporosis comes to mind. Calcium, though critical, comprises just 3 of the 20 or so pounds of bones in our bodies, so other minerals, like phosphorous, magnesium, and manganese are also important. In fact, the bones are the body’s mineral bank, minerals are constantly being withdrawn and deposited and like bank accounts, it’s critical to maintain a good balance.
Good bone health, especially for women, is critical to enjoying the golden years. Back in 1968 two American doctors theorized that the rise in osteoporosis was due to the modern diet, high in acidic processed foods and animal products, and low in alkaline fruits and vegetables. Bone decay was due not to insufficient dietary minerals (the deposits to our bone bank), they posited, but due to excessive withdrawals of minerals like calcium to buffer our acidic diet and maintain body pH. In next week’s post, we’ll return to the subject of bone health.
Everyone knows we eat too much sodium, but only 6% of our intake comes from the saltshaker on the table. The people we’ve turned our food preparation over to—processed food corporations, fast food chains, and restaurant chefs—are adding about ¾ of the salt in our diet. You can’t blame them, salt is the cheapest flavor, easy to add, and has a long shelf life.
In a recent post (see here) we raised a more important issue—the ratio of sodium to potassium in our diet. These two minerals work together so a healthy balance is more important than the amount consumed of either one. Bottom line, we need to eat less sodium and more potassium. Potassium is found in plant foods, especially in the source of plant life: nuts, seeds, and legumes. As noted, our sodium-potassium ratio is actually our processed food-whole food ratio. If we cook most of our meals using whole foods, we shouldn’t have to worry about potassium or sodium.
The body needs magnesium to form body tissues, including building and repairing bones. Magnesium is also part of hundreds of enzymes that regulate organs, including the heart. Because cardiac failure is a common cause of sudden death, researchers tracked 88K women of the Nurses’ Health Study for 26 years to see if magnesium deficiency played a role. The result was startling: women with the highest blood level of magnesium had a 77% less risk of sudden cardiac death than those with the lowest level. Study of the same data also showed magnesium protective of type 2 diabetes. While the exact mechanisms aren’t proven, it seems wise to include magnesium in our diet, as one report claims 95% of Americans are deficient.
Natural sources of magnesium include nuts, legumes, and leafy greens.
Selenium is an important antioxidant, which may explain its success in cancer prevention. Multiple studies have demonstrated that selenium is protective of breast, prostate, liver, and bladder cancers. In a 1996 University of Arizona study of 1300 older persons, those given daily selenium doses had 42% less cancer, compared to those given a placebo. And those in the selenium group who did get cancer had a 50% lower death rate than the control group.
Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium; other sources include seafood and plant foods grown in the western US (where soil selenium levels are higher).
Budget wisdom: You likely saw the newspaper articles this week, that it costs the average person $380 more each year to follow the government food guidelines. Because of the knee-jerk spin the media puts on news, these headlines followed:
• Report: Eating Healthy is too Costly for Many Americans
• Healthy food: A choice or a privilege of the rich?
• Nutrition Study: Healthy Eating is Too Expensive.
• Study: Healthy Food Can Only Be Afforded By The Rich.
Such reporting seeks to make victims of lower-income people and falsely presumes the well-to-do are enjoying healthy home-cooked meals. Further it ignores the American knack for creative problem solving. Sometimes it seems the media is part of the problem, rather than the solution.
A premise of this blog says the careful and organized family can eat healthy food and pay little more than those who eat processed foods and dine at fast food and similar restaurants. In the next post we’ll discuss affordable sources of nuts.
Please comment: How do you include minerals in your diet? Have you tested deficient for a mineral? Is osteoporosis a concern? When a doctor suggested you take calcium pills, what did you do?
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.