Are you getting the right amount of these key nutrients?

Micronutrients are vital for health, but many Aussies don’t get the right balance of three key nutrients – calcium, salt and vitamin D. Here’s why it matters.

Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals needed by our bodies in small amounts, and help facilitate metabolism and the maintenance of tissue function.

Not getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals can contribute to major illnesses including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease and obesity.

According to University of New South Wales lecturer and nutritionist Dr Rebecca Reynolds, there are three micronutrients in particular which many Australians are not getting the recommended amount of – calcium, salt and vitamin D.

In her analysis on micronutrient imbalance in our diets, Dr Reynolds explains we’re consuming too much salt (or sodium), which can increase blood pressure and therefore heighten the risk of heart disease.

Dr Reynolds says we’re also not getting enough calcium – which can impair bone development in children and cause low bone mineral density in adults – and vitamin D, which can result in osteoporosis, and bone and joint pain.

The good news is, with a little awareness, there are ways to achieve the recommended nutrition targets for these three key nutrients.

How to keep your salt intake in check

Your body needs sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain balance of water and minerals.

The problem is most Australians consume too much salt, largely through processed and packaged foods, as well as what we add to cooking and at the table.

Dietitian Victoria Lekkas says Aussies may not even register products that can be high in salt, such as packaged breads, sauces and soups.

“It’s usually less about Australians being heavy-handed with their salt shaker, and more about these packaged foods,” Victoria says.

Tips to reduce your salt intake

  • Cut back on salty packaged and processed foods.
  • Check the sodium content of any packaged foods you do buy, and try to avoid products exceeding 400mg per 100g.
  • Reduce the salt you add (or omit it altogether) during cooking or at the table.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
    “People don’t eat enough fruits and veggies, which provide potassium, which can help reduce blood pressure,” Dr Reynolds says.

Why you need to get enough calcium

“Calcium is vital for healthy teeth and bones, and for the health and functioning of our nerves and muscles,” Victoria says.

Recommended calcium intake can vary according to age, gender or pregnancy status, but almost half of Australians are not meeting the suggested amount.

“Not getting enough calcium can weaken your bones, and drastically increases your risk of developing osteoporosis later in life,” Victoria says.

Tips to increase your calcium intake

  • Include calcium-rich food in your diet, such as dairy products, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds.
  • Look out for calcium-fortified products when shopping.
  • Maintain good vitamin D levels as this enhances the body’s ability to absorb calcium.
  • Reduce your alcohol intake – drinking can decrease your body’s absorption of calcium.

Why you may need more vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body regulate calcium, and with hormone function and nervous system regulation; and it’s vital for bone development and cell growth.

The best source of vitamin D is from UVB radiation from the sun, which is why it may come as a surprise that in a sun-loving nation like Australia, more than a third of adults are vitamin D deficient.

The amount of sun exposure needed to meet your needs can depend on skin type, season and location.

While a small amount of vitamin D can be found in foods such as fatty fish, beef liver and egg yolks, it is almost impossible to get adequate vitamin D from your diet.

“Unfortunately, vitamin D from food cannot provide enough of the vitamin D our body needs,” Victoria says.

Best ways to boost your vitamin D

  • Look for ways to increase your incidental sun exposure – try going for a walk, or reading a book or drinking your morning coffee outside.
  • Include foods fortified with vitamin D in your diet, such as margarines, breads or cereals.
  • Consider vitamin D supplements if you’re not getting enough through the sun or your diet.

Read more on eating a balanced diet:

Written by Erin Constable and Claire Burke.