Vitamins and minerals play a central role in health. Although we need small amounts of those micronutrients to sustain health, deficiency levels can affect cellular energy production, impairing the body's ability to function well.
Fatigue or low energy levels can be a sign of vitamin and mineral deficiency in the absence of diseases. There are much more, though, ranging from brittle hair and nails to memory problems.
Eating a variety of fresh food helps to provide the nutrients needed for optimal body functions. However, many factors are interfering with the process of getting and absorbing vitamins and minerals at adequate levels to support health and well-being.
This article will guide you through to the most common factors that can lead to nutrient deficiency. Unfortunately, inadequate levels of micronutrients can happen even under circumstances where a healthy diet is at play. Soil depletion and food traveling around countries until getting to your table are some of the reasons.
How soil depletion affects the nutrients in food
A study comparing mineral content of the US soil throughout 100 years found that it had lost 85% of its mineral reserve (1).
Plants need those nutrients to thrive. If they grow in nutrient deficient soil, they will lack nutrients essential to support our health. Plants are the source of nutrients we get from food either directly (when we eat them) or indirectly (when we eat animals fed with plants).
Fertilizers, climate change, gas emission, pollution, changes in the rotation of crops, the rush to grow food, burns in the soil, and soil age are some causes affecting soil mineral quality and content.
Organic farming is a much more soil-focused practice, leading to higher levels of nutrients in the plants. Yet awareness of soil condition still needs improvements (2).
A journey of nutrient losses
Globalization changed the food industry. We no longer have to wait until a specific time of the year to eat our favorite fruit or vegetable. We have almost any crop available year-round. It certainly does not taste or look like a fresh one bought locally and in season.
Fruits and vegetables that travel through different countries or states to get to our table have lost many nutrients. Most produce loses about 50% of their nutrients before hitting our refrigerator, and more until our first bite (3).
Buying local and in season helps to increase the nutrient content of the food we consume. Yet, it is important to eat fruits and vegetables while they are still fresh. If we keep them for a couple of days (even a week!), they will keep losing nutrients.
Cooking methods also lead to nutrient loss, especially vitamin C that is very sensitive to temperature changes, and the B vitamins - water-soluble vitamins are easily lost when boiling.
Minerals are not affected by heat, but cooking processes such as boiling in water strips a lot of their nutrients.
Common nutrient absorption blocks
You probably heard the saying: “We are what we eat.” As someone living with an autoimmune disease, I learned that we are what our bodies can absorb.
Many factors are interfering with nutrient absorption from the food we eat. It goes from what we discussed above (soil quality, shipping, and cooking process) to gut health, low stomach acid, lack of digestive enzymes, anti-nutrients in food, effects of medications, imbalances among the intake of vitamins and minerals, lifestyle, and so on.
Considering fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, D, E, and K), proper ingestion and digestion of fat are essential for their absorption.
The B-vitamin family is composed of eight B vitamins highly dependent on each other, and one can impair the absorption of the other. For instance, vitamin B12 works closely with vitamin B9 (folate) to help make red blood cells and to help iron work better in the body. A deficiency in vitamin B12 results in a functional folate deficiency (4).
Minerals can also support or antagonize their absorption. Calcium and magnesium work well together. However, calcium and iron compromise one another if often consumed at the same time. Lifestyle factors can be a block, too. Hight intake of caffeine or low stomach acid can affect iron absorption.
Those are just some highlights to raise awareness of many factors that interfere with optimal intake of vitamins and minerals even when we do our best to eat healthily.
Important things to consider when supplementing
As you probably already noticed, it is getting harder to keep up with the daily recommended amount of vitamins and minerals, more difficult yet to achieve optimal levels to support health. Supplements can be helpful, but they can cause harm, too.
Ideally, you would get tested to know what vitamins and minerals you need and the amount recommended to supplement. Discuss your symptoms and clarify any questions with your physician.
Getting tested for a variety of micronutrients, though, are expensive. Even your doctor might not support this investigation without signs of disease. If you cannot get tested and believe you might not be getting all the micronutrients needed from your balanced diet (yes, a healthy diet first!), a reliable brand of multivitamins and minerals supplement can be an option.
Consider getting recommendations from a health professional (a Registered Dietitian or nutritionist), and pay attention to the ingredient list (fillers and excipients listed as other ingredients), certifications, and history of the brand of your choice.