We spoke with three of EatingWell’s staff dietitians to find out what nutrients many of us may not be getting enough of.

Lauren Wicks
Updated August 09, 2020
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We get it, eating healthy can be tough when there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to cook for and nourish yourself on top of your already-busy schedule. It can be much easier to choose the most convenient option for dinner after a late night at work (likely fast food) or skip breakfast on a rushed morning. However, consistently missing out on meeting your nutritional needs can put you at risk for chronic diseases, make you feel sluggish and even lead to weight gain over time. 

We spoke to three registered dietitians—Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D., Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D. and Victoria Seaver, M.S., R.D.—about the nutrients most Americans are likely missing out on in our daily diets, and why we need to make sure we get enough. We also have a few delicious ways to ramp up your intake of each. 

Vitamin D

Ball says about half of our global population doesn’t get enough of this important hormone (yes, vitamin D is not actually a vitamin!), and those who live in colder climates are especially prone to be deficient. This is because while we can obtain vitamin D from some foods, we produce much of it from sun exposure.

“Having enough of this vitamin is necessary to absorb other nutrients, like calcium and phosphorous, which are crucial for bone health,” Ball says. “Depending on the time of day and cloud coverage, it usually takes around 60 minutes a week of time outdoors in full sun to sufficiently meet your daily needs.”

Since Ball lives in Vermont where there are only a few months out of the year she can obtain the proper amount of vitamin D, she takes a supplement of 1000 IUs three times a week. Ball also uses an app called DMinder to help her determine how much vitamin D she is absorbing from time spent outdoors. Just be sure to apply sunscreen before stepping out in the sunshine—you can still produce vitamin D with it on!

It’s recommended that we consume 600 IU of vitamin D from food each day. The highest food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish—think salmon, swordfish and tuna—liver and eggs. Orange juice and dairy products are often fortified with vitamin D, so make sure your milk, yogurt and OJ are giving you the extra boost you may need. If you do not consume dairy, look out for brands that fortify your favorite milk alternative with vitamin D. 

View Recipe: Quick Tuna Burgers

Magnesium

“Magnesium is a mineral that most people don’t get enough of, but it’s an important one,” says Seaver. “Magnesium works in unison with calcium to relax and contract (respectively) all the muscles in your body—including your heart. So, if you’re chronically deficient in magnesium you’re at risk for heart-related issues—not good.”

Magnesium is involved in more than 300 reactions throughout the body, so missing out on this essential nutrient can lead to other serious problems as well. We need magnesium to give us energy throughout the day, help us sleep at night and power our brains to keep us healthy. 

Seaver says you can find magnesium in nuts, seeds, beans, soy products and spinach, to name a few, and that’s likely why many of us are only meeting half the daily recommendation of 310-320 milligrams for women (depending on age) and 400-420 for men (depending on age), as these foods aren’t staples of the Standard American Diet

Stepping up your intake of plant-based fats and protein is a surefire way to get more magnesium into your diet. Research shows magnesium plays a role in managing our stress hormones, keeps us regular and improves overall mental health. Seaver says there is some promising research in magnesium’s effects to potentially reduce anxiety and related symptoms, like insomnia. Watch out for these signs you might not be getting enough magnesium to ensure your body is getting what it needs. 

View Recipe: Citrus Lime Tofu Salad

Fiber

“Whenever anyone asks me what they should be doing to lose weight, fix gut issues, lower their cholesterol or whatever, my answer is usually to start eating more fiber,” Seaver says. “Fiber is a nutrition rockstar and something most Americans aren’t getting enough of. It has only gotten worse with trendy low-carb diets, like Whole30 and Keto, demonizing perfectly healthy foods that deliver the majority of fiber in the diet—namely whole grains.”

More than 95% of Americans are missing out on the fiber we need each day, which can easily be remedied by boosting our intake of whole, plant-based foods like fruits, veggies, nuts and whole grains. For example, just one cup of raspberries has a whopping eight grams of fiber, which gets you about one-third of the way to your daily recommended intake

However, the all-star of the fiber world is legumes. Whether you’re a chickpea, lentil or black bean fan (we love all three!), some health experts believe legumes to be the ultimate longevity food due to their high fiber content. Just adding a ½ cup of white beans to your favorite soup, salad or pasta recipe gives you nine extra grams of fiber to keep you regular, boost your gut health and so much more. Now you know there’s no need to ever fear carbs when you’re eating the fiber-rich, non-processed kind!

Seaver says including a whole grain or legumes at every meal is a simple way to reach your fiber goals every day. Seaver is our meal plan editor, and finds batch cooking to be a stress-free way to ensure you get the nutrition you need. 

“I love quick-cooking grains like barley and quinoa and whenever I make something that takes longer, like brown rice, I cook extra and freeze to freeze. And canned beans are always handy for fast dinners and filling lunches.”

Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fats are a buzzword in the health sphere because they are one of the most important nutrients for health and longevity, but many of us are missing the mark. Valente says omega-3’s are a specific type of healthy fat that’s good for your heart and brain, and they can only be found in whole foods. 

“If you’re not eating a lot of fatty fish it can be easy to miss out on this key nutrient,” says Valente. “Omega-3 fatty acids are found in other foods too, like flax, chia and fortified eggs, but they’re not found in a lot of foods that we eat regularly. Even though the recommended intake is only 1.1 grams for women (and 1.6 grams for men), it can be hard to get that much in your diet if you’re not thinking about it.”

Valente advises eating two servings of fish each week—per our current dietary guidelines—and filling in with walnuts and other plant-based sources of omega-3 fats to make sure you’re getting what you need. You may notice an improvement in your mood and complexion when you start incorporating more of this healthy fat into your diet. 

Potassium 

“Potassium is a mineral that helps keep your blood pressure in a healthy range because it works to counteract the effects of sodium,” Valente says. “So it’s especially important for the 75 million Americans with high blood pressure—that’s 1 in 3 adults—to get their fill.”

Potassium is found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, but Valente says the problem is that most Americans also fall short on their recommended fruit and vegetable intake—at least 1 ½  servings of fruit and 2-3 servings of vegetables. Missing out on potassium can leave you feeling lethargic, cause muscle cramps and even lead to an irregular heartbeat or palpitations. 

Thankfully, bananas aren’t the only food to help you get the 2,600 milligrams of potassium a day for women and 3,400 for men—there are plenty of other delicious foods that actually have more potassium than a banana. We think you’ll have no problem adding more baked potatoes to your weekly meal plan!