Minerals 101

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.

Essential Minerals

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.

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    Ingestion of proper and balanced mineral is essential for health. The minerals that are required by our body occur naturally in food items that we eat. In countries like America, people suffer from chronic diseases because of insufficiency of these minerals. The most prominent of these minerals required by body are ...

Reader Comments (6)

I have a calcium deficiency. It is due to having and enlarged parathyroid which caused horrible kidney stones that had to be removed surgically. They also removed the enlarged parathyroid. I was told to take calcium supplements as I am severely deficient and have symptoms that persist. I took calcium for a while, but I no longer do. I get calcium from green leafy vegetables, dried herbs, nuts, flax seed, and cheese. Green leafy veggies are a great source of calcium! I also take powdered greens as a supplement (not to replace greens in my diet). I should start including brazil nuts as well to up my selenium. Osteoporosis is a definite concern due to the parathyroid issues which occurred in my early 20's. Mineral deficiency is something I definitely worry about.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

i am banking on my daily green smoothie as well as a handful or two of nuts each day. ccc

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercristie

Well this challenge should be easy to incorporate! I started making my own granola back when you introduced the cereal challenge. I couldn't find any cereal that wouldn't cost too much, didn't taste like cardboard and met the requirements for fiber>sugar. Anyway, the granola I make is oats, peanuts, walnuts, pecans and almonds with honey and oil. Plus I eat it with almond milk (if that counts). So I get my handful of nuts every day!

A few years ago I was told I was calcium and iron deficient. I haven't had it checked but maybe I should since I've started eating better.

August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRill

I always put a handful of nuts in my lunch box that includes cashews, walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazel nuts, and brazil nuts. I should point out that I use raw nuts as roasting them can destroy the healthy oils that they contain. I know I need to get more leafy greens into my diet though. I keep hearing about how great these "green monster" smoothies are, but I haven't had the courage to try them. If anyone has any recipes for green leafies, please let me know; I'll swap you for my spinach and rocket soup!

Regarding the point about lower incomes and healthy eating, while it is true that not every middle income person is eating healthily, it can be extremely difficult for those one low incomes or below the poverty line to eat healthily. We often see people at the supermarket with what we call brown trolleys. Their trolleys are full of oven chips, chocolate biscuits, chicken nuggets, tinned spaghetti, Coke and the like versus a colourful trolley with a mix of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, fish etc. Invariably, it seems that the brown trolley can feed a family of six cheaper than our colourful trolley can feed the two of us. For example, an apple costs around 30p, but you can get 3 packs of instant noodles for that price. If money is tight and you've got a family to feed, you're likely going to go with the cheaper noodles that can feed more people.

Kate, thanks for writing. It's true about roasted nuts: at the local whole foods store, if you sniff the bin of roasted peanuts you can smell the rancidity. Regarding your comments on price, we maintain that it costs little more to eat well if you're willing to plan and cook, but we mean a "sustainable" diet. A person can eat instant noodles 100% at a low cost but this is a deadly and boring diet and not sustainable. Best to you, Skip

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I have two daughters with severe nut allergies, so I have had to almost completely eliminate my intake of nuts (I can't have them in my home). They used to be a main snack staple for me. Any suggestions on anything else I could eat that might give me similar benefits as nuts?

Skip: Jinger, because I like nuts (especially the edible ones) I'm feeling for you. Alternate sources of selenium are whole foods, especially if grown in the western US. Seafood is another good source. Below is the reference to a website that provides information on healthy foods, in this case selenium. Best to you.

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJinjer

I'm glad you wrote about minerals. It's been on my mind lately and I do believe deficiencies could be the blame for many ailments. Interesting to me was the documentary "Food Matters" available to watch instantly on Netflix. (I highly recommend it!!) One tidbit explained that commercial farming techniques concentrate on 3 minerals in it's soil. Regular organic soil has something like 52 + minerals. It also makes me wonder about the wisdom in the Bible of letting the land lay fallow. What happens when the ground is allowed to rest and restore? And how nutrient rich is the produce that has been shipped to the grocery store to sit on shelves for days?

I take a daily multivitamin with a calcium/magnesium supplement. I know from a previous post you don't believe in supplements but I sure have been grateful for the great benefits I've noticed from adding these to a natural whole grain diet! The great thing about supplements is that your body will use what it needs and get rid of the rest and without side effects like pharmaceuticals.
My mom ended up in the emergency room years back in excruciating pain. It was found that she was dangerously low in potassium?! She now takes a potassium supplement to help her maintain normal levels.

One last thing...
Recently I revamped my smoothie recipe. I've been drinking it in the afternoons when I get hungry and it has been great! I've been calling it my Wonder Woman smoothie because that's how it makes me feel!!

1 handful ice
1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup yogurt
1 cup frozen or fresh fruit
1 ripe banana
large handful of spinach leaves
* 1 scoop of "amazing grass" or any green powder blend from the health food store (these are LOADED with vitamins/minerals)
1-2 tbsp. of ground flaxseed (opt.)

Thanks again for another thought-provoking post!

Skip: LC, I'm going to try your green smoothie. It's true that I don't recommend supplements. There are two reasons: First I'm not qualified, so must defer to someone who is. A current issue in medicine is the small amount of training doctors receive in nutrition, so a person is fortunate to find a doctor who has taken an interest in the subject. Experienced doctors also have vast experience helping patients deal with disease.

The second reason I've cautious about supplements is that as we discover a little about some nutrient and the public becomes aware, a supplement business tends to arise. Often the use of the supplement is driven by marketing, rather than good medicine. This is particularly true of products sold via multilevel firms where salespersons make verbal claims for products that the FDA would never allow on the package.

One other thought: Natural food is incredibly complex and nutrients travel in the company of hundreds of other nutrients that may interact with them. So taking a dose of a single nutrient never replicates Nature though it may bring benefit to some. It's best to eat whole foods; that's my belief. Would I take a supplement if a credible doctor recommended it? Of course. Best to you.

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

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