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Harvard Medical School
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What's in Your Food
Minerals play a unique role in our bodies.
InteliHealth Medical Content

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


The minerals we need in our body are those found in rocks, metals, soil and water, though they may be in slightly different forms. While each mineral plays a unique role, collectively they support the body's enzyme systems and keep blood and other body fluids balanced and healthy. Minerals, the major components of bones, also help regulate blood pressure and heart muscle contraction, heal wounds and conduct nerve impulses. The minerals needed in relatively large amounts are: calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur. Other minerals needed in smaller amounts, called "trace elements," consist of iron, copper, fluorine, iodine, selenium, zinc, chromium, cobalt, manganese and molybdenum. Although the body can't produce any minerals of its own, minerals are found in a large variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, grains and low fat dairy products.

There's no scientific evidence that consuming more than the recommended amount of a mineral has any health benefit. In fact, overdosing on minerals can be toxic or interfere with the function of other minerals. For example, too much zinc can interfere with the absorption of calcium, and too much iron can interfere with the absorption of zinc. A third group of minerals has been identified, but their status as essential trace elements remain unclear. They include silicon, vanadium, nickel, lithium, cadmium and boron. Increased levels of other heavy metals--such as lead and mercury--are potentially toxic agents.


Needed for: Healthy bones, teeth, nails, muscle tissue; assists in blood clotting and heart and nerve functions. The recommended calcium intake is higher for children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, and women starting menopause.

Best food sources: Low-fat dairy products such as skim milk and yogurt; eggs, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, canned salmon or sardines with bones


Needed for: Normal release of energy from glucose

Best food sources: Nuts, cheeses and unrefined grains


Needed for: Enzyme reactions, iron metabolism

Best food sources: Seafood, legumes (dried beans and peas), grains, nuts, seeds and hard water


Needed for: Healthy bones and teeth that are resistant to decay.

Best food sources: Fluoridated water and toothpaste, seafood and tea. Also, cooking foods in Teflon (a fluoride containing polymer) increases fluoride content.


Needed for: Regulation of body temperature, thyroid hormone synthesis, metabolic rate, reproduction, growth and nerve and muscle function.

Best food sources: Seafood, iodized salt


Needed for: Formation of healthy red blood cells and prevention of anemia; helps carry oxygen to cells. The recommended iron intake is higher for women between the ages of 11 and 50 to compensate for iron loss during menstruation.

Best food sources: Lean red meats, shellfish, legumes, dried fruit, green leafy vegetables, (iron from non-meat sources is best absorbed when vitamin C is also present)


Needed for: Energy production, normal heart and nerve function and prevention of muscle cramps

Best food sources: Green leafy vegetables, shellfish, tofu, legumes, nuts, seeds


Needed for: Growth; maintain bone density; assists in energy production; and regulates blood chemistry

Best food sources: Lean meat, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy products


Needed for: Regulation and balance of body fluids, promotes normal heart rhythm; prevents muscle cramping

Best food sources: Bananas, other fruits, dried fruits, vegetables, legumes, lowfat milk


Needed for: Antioxidant properties protect vitamin E and polyunsaturated fats in the body

Best food sources: Seafood, meats, grains


Needed for: Regulation of body fluids and maintenance of acid-base balance; aids in nerve transmission and muscle contraction

Best food sources: Sodium is found in all foods and is especially high in processed foods.


Needed for: Normal appetite and taste, wound healing, healthy skin and normal growth

Best food sources: Lean meat, shellfish, wheat germ, yogurt, legumes


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Last updated September 09, 2013

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