What are minerals?
Like vitamins, minerals don’t provide our bodies with energy. They have no caloric value. Unlike vitamins, minerals aren’t molecules of multiple elements linked together into compounds. Rather, minerals are elements! They can’t be changed into anything else. Minerals also cannot be destroyed by heat, acid, or oxidation like vitamins can. The only way to lose minerals during cooking is for them to leach into cooking water, which you might then pour down the drain!
Minerals are required in small amounts, but these small amounts make a huge difference in the way your body functions. There are two different classifications of minerals based on how much we actually need – major minerals and trace minerals. As you’d expect, we need more of the major minerals than the trace minerals, but that doesn’t mean they’re more important!
The major minerals include sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sulfur. The trace minerals include iron, zinc, iodine, copper, manganese, and selenium.
I’ll be breaking up these posts on minerals by function, mostly. I’ll start with those that largely influence fluid balance in the body – sodium, chloride, and potassium.
What does sodium do for my body?
Sodium is the main positive electrolyte (cation) in the fluid surrounding our cells. It regulates the fluid volume, maintains our acid-base balance, and – because it has a charge and carries electricity – is essential to nerve transmission and muscle function.
When you eat salty foods, it makes you thirsty, right? That’s because the fluids in your body get so bogged down with sodium, your body asks for more water to dilute it! The kidneys do a great job filtering excess sodium out, but you’ve got to give them some water to help them out!
The recommended intake according to nutrition labels is 2,400 mg of sodium per day – but the acceptable intake according to the US and Canada is actually 1,500 mg for adults! In fact, these countries say that the maximum amount of sodium you should consume in a day is 2,300 mg – 100 mg less than the amount of nutrition labels! Not only that – the average amount of sodium consumed in the US is 3,400 mg per person. To put this into relatable terms, 2,300 mg is about 1 tsp of table salt. It’s recommended to limit salt intake to 3/4 tsp per day in order to meet your sodium and chloride needs.
Because of the high consumption of sodium in the American diet, most of us are developing hypertension. But sodium isn’t the only culprit! It’s actually shown that table salt (sodium chloride) has more of an effect on blood pressure than sodium or chloride alone. While there are other factors that cause hypertension, it’s recommended to keep salt intake low.
We consume this mineral in excess of what our bodies need, so deficiency does not come from consuming too little. However, we can lose sodium from excessive vomiting, diarrhea, or sweating. The good news is, consuming a regular diet replenishes our sodium needs easily! It’s important to replenish liquids and sodium when ill or after a good workout. (And you don’t need sports drinks to do that!)
Where can I get sodium in my diet? How can I keep my intake low?
Sodium is most prevalent in processed foods, and – as you’d expect – unprocessed, whole foods contain the least amount of sodium. Sodium acts as a preservative, so processed foods use a lot to prevent spoilage. And it’s not just as salt! Sodium can also be in your food as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) or other additives.
Processed foods not only have higher sodium content, but a drastically lower potassium content! Either potassium is lot in the processing, or the high sodium alters the ratio.
The best way to get sodium is through whole foods and seasoning. Table salt, soy sauce (the low sodium variety is still a good idea!), meats, milk, cheese, bread, and fruits and vegetables are your best bets. Opt for sweet potato, spinach, collard greens, carrots, and apples for the biggest sodium content in fruits and veggies.
While the element chlorine is a poisonous gas, it changes properties when it reacts with sodium or hydrogen, and forms the negative ion chloride.
What does chloride do for my body?
Chloride works closely with sodium, especially since they’re often packaged together in table salt. Chloride is the main negative electrolyte (anion) in the fluids surrounding our cells. Like sodium, it helps with fluid balance.
Chloride is also a part of hydrochloric acid, or stomach acid! It works to break up our food and keeps our stomach acidic.
The recommendation for adults is 2,300 mg daily, with an upper limit of 3,600 mg. 3/4 tsp of table salt will provide the correct amounts for sodium and chloride, even though they’re different amounts! That’s because chloride is a bigger component, chemically, than sodium. Even still, it’s best to get your chloride from foods before adding table salt to your meals.
Where can I get chloride in my diet?
Chloride is almost exclusively found in our diet as sodium chloride, so you’ll find it in the same foods as sodium! However, you can also consume it from potassium chloride – a bitter-tasting additive found in processed foods or supplements.
What does potassium do for my body?
Potassium is the main positively charged ion within our cells. It functions much like sodium, maintaining fluid balance and allowing nerve impulse transmission and muscle contractions to go smoothly. Potassium is especially important for the contraction of the heart.
Low potassium intake is often associated with high sodium intake, because sodium replaced potassium in processed foods. High sodium and low potassium raise our blood pressure and can lead to hypertension, as we’ve heard. However, a high potassium intake can lower blood pressure and even reverse hypertension, especially if combined with a low sodium intake. High potassium in the diet also lowers your risk of stroke.
Potassium deficiency increases blood pressure, can cause kidney stones, irregular heartbeats, weak muscles, and glucose intolerance.
Where can I get potassium in my diet?
Potassium exists in living cells, so fresh food is going to be your best source. It’s almost nonexistent in processed foods. The recommendation is to consume 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables combined each day. Greta sources of potassium include broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, bananas, strawberries, watermelon, milk, pinto beans, nuts, acorn squash, and artichoke, to name a few. Take your pick!