When you build your plate, you probably think of the three big macronutrients: protein, carbs and fat. However, you might not think about what’s missing, aka shortfall nutrients — fiber, vitamin D, calcium and potassium — that most people don’t get enough of daily.
“In our fast-paced lives, we often reach for convenient, processed foods that are higher in added sugars, salt and saturated fat, but lower in essential nutrients,” says Malina Malkani, MS, a registered dietitian nutritionist. She adds that it’s not a problem on occasion, but repeated habitually over time, it can create a situation where you’re missing these important nutrients.
What’s more, some trendy fad diets call for cutting out certain foods or food groups (i.e., avoiding dairy, carbs or certain fruits), which can leave you lacking certain nutrients. While supplements like multivitamins can help some, they aren’t a magic bullet, says Malkani. “There is insufficient evidence to support the notion that taking a multivitamin is the best way to prevent chronic lifestyle diseases in otherwise healthy people,” she says. Instead, Malkani recommends aiming for a wide variety of nutrients from whole-food sources, first, and speaking with a registered dietitian who can help address your individual needs.
Fortunately, though, the foods we don’t get enough of tend to provide more than one shortfall nutrient, so it might not take a whole lot of tweaking to hit the mark you need. Here are four common shortfall nutrients, which you can track in an app like MyFitnessPal, plus how to increase your intake:
“In addition to supporting bone health, calcium is necessary for muscle and nerve function, hormone balance and blood vessel health,” says Malkani. “It’s so important to have steady levels of calcium because otherwise our bodies take calcium from our bones if blood levels begin to drop.”
Food sources: Both cow’s milk and fortified plant-based milk are classic staples. But dark leafy greens are also a surprisingly rich source of calcium. Malkani recommends bok choy, kale and broccoli. Tofu, which is made from soybeans, is another plant-based option, and some brands add extra calcium, so make sure to check the label, says Malkani. Finally, don’t forget chia seeds. Just 100 grams contains 631mg of calcium or more than a glass of milk. Sprinkle them on oatmeal, yogurt or smoothies.
Eating more fiber is one of the best changes to make if you’re looking to lose weight since it helps keep you full and supports a healthy gut microbiome. It can also reduce the risk for heart disease, says Malkani. Currently, adults in the U.S. consume an average of about 15 grams of dietary fiber per day, which is half the recommended amount.
Food sources: Fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes like beans and lentils are all nutrient-dense healthy sources of fiber. Following a plant-based or Mediterranean diet can help you incorporate more fiber into your meals. It’s important to note that ramping up fiber consumption too quickly can cause bloating or other unpleasant GI side effects. To mitigate that, “it’s important to hydrate well and add small amounts of fiber-rich foods slowly over time,” says Malkani.
If you’re not eating many fruits and veggies, you may be falling short of potassium, an electrolyte that helps control the balance of fluid in the body, explains Malkani. It also helps offset sodium, which is important since high amounts of sodium can contribute to high blood pressure. Potassium is also a crucial nutrient for active folks since it’s involved in the storage of carbs to help fuel muscles, and too little potassium can lead to muscle cramps.
Food sources: Bananas are famous for their potassium, but other sources include avocados, sweet potatoes, spinach and beans. It’s also important to think about the way you’re preparing produce. “Eating more whole plant foods or cooked plant foods whose cooking water has been retained, such as in a soup, is a great way to retain the potassium found naturally in whole foods,” says Malkani.
Winter is coming, and people tend to dip lower in vitamin D during the darker months. (Your body can make vitamin D through exposure to the sun.) “Vitamin D enables our bodies to absorb calcium and maintain strong bones, and it is also necessary for proper muscle and nerve function, as well as immune system health,” says Malkani.
Food sources: Fatty fish — choose salmon, tuna and mackerel when you can — are rich in vitamin D. These are all also available in canned versions, which can be especially convenient if you’re limiting trips to the grocery store. Fortified dairy, like yogurt and plant-based milk, can also include vitamin D (make sure to read the nutrition label because not all are fortified). Mushrooms and eggs are also good sources of vitamin D.
Discover hundreds of healthy recipes — from high protein to low carb — via “Recipe Discovery” in the MyFitnessPal app.