Organization: Erin Falco RDN, Inc.
Authors: Veronica Rechten, MS
Publish Date: 8/1/23
“You are what you eat” is a very famous saying…but it’s also inaccurate. If we’re going to use the saying at all, it should be: “you are what you absorb.” Absorption is important because it’s possible to eat a variety of highly nutrient-dense foods, but not get the full benefit from these nutrients simply because they are not absorbed from those foods.
Not absorbing enough of all the essential nutrients can lead to health concerns and deficiencies. According to a recent study published in the journal Nutrients, researchers found that “nearly one-third of the U.S. population is at risk of deficiency in at least one vitamin.”
Your digestive system is how your body takes the essential nutrients from your food and absorbs them so they can be used for growth, maintenance, energy, healing, and overall health. For example, vitamin A has to reach your eyes to prevent night blindness and vitamin C has to make it to the skin to heal wounds. The same goes for iron for your blood and energy levels, and calcium for your bones, muscles, and teeth. Before nutrients can get where they need to go, they first need to be removed from the food and absorbed into your body so that they can then be circulated to get where they need to go.
While there can be many physiological/genetic reasons why we may have trouble absorbing nutrients, there are some simple ways to enhance absorption every day!
Why Some Nutrients are Harder to Absorb:
Fun fact: How much of a nutrient is absorbed and can be used or stored in the body is called nutrient bioavailability. This describes how available the nutrient is for our biological use.
Despite the diverse and complex processes that your body uses to absorb and digest as many nutrients from foods as possible, sometimes it can use some help. Some people have food intolerances or digestive difficulties that result in malabsorption of certain nutrients. Plus, there are some nutrient-nutrient interactions and anti-nutrients found in foods that can reduce your ability to absorb them.
The good news is, research shows that there are things we can do ourselves to increase nutrient bioavailability. By eating certain nutrients together—or apart, or certain foods cooked—or raw, you can enjoy the same foods, but in a more nutritionally efficient, bioavailable, way.
Here are some simple strategies to get more nutrition from the foods you enjoy!
Absorb More Vitamin C:
Vitamin C is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in the U.S. Some of the highest sources of vitamin C are bell peppers, citrus fruits (and their juices), kiwis, broccoli, and strawberries.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that is water-soluble and destroyed by heat. This means that the Vitamin C levels are highest when the food is fresh and raw (or cooked as little as possible). To maximize the Vitamin C levels in your fruits and vegetables, try to eat them as fresh and raw as possible. If you enjoy them cooked, do so minimally by lightly steaming or microwaving them.
Absorb More Iron:
Iron is the most common mineral deficiency in the U.S. Some of the most iron-rich foods are seafood, beans and lentils, liver, spinach, and tofu. Some breads and cereals are fortified with iron. But, not all iron-rich foods are equal. Iron is found in two different forms: heme (in animal-based foods) and non-heme (in plant-based foods). Heme iron is more bioavailable and more easily absorbed than non-heme iron. This means that the iron in plants is more difficult to absorb, but there are some simple tips that you can use to make the most of it!
Iron absorption can be enhanced when consumed with vitamin C-rich foods and away from tannin-containing drinks like tea and coffee. This means, enjoy your beans, lentils, spinach, or tofu with a vitamin C-rich food in the same meal. For example, add some bell peppers, orange wedges, or berries to your spinach salad. And enjoy your tea or coffee between your iron-rich meals.
Absorb More Vitamin A
Vitamin A is found in liver, seafood, eggs, and fortified dairy. It can also be found in fruits and vegetables. Dark orange veggies like sweet potatoes and carrots, and dark green leafy ones like spinach and kale, contain the most vitamin A. Because of the way vitamin A is stored in the plant cells, it becomes more bioavailable when these plant-based sources are cooked. Try sautéing some spinach, and steaming some carrots for a great side dish!
Absorb More Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for bone health because it promotes absorption of calcium and is needed by bone cells for growth and repair. Vitamin D also helps reduce inflammation and helps to regulate the immune system. Known as the “sunshine vitamin” because your skin makes vitamin D when exposed to UV light, vitamin D is also naturally found in a few foods. These foods include seafood, mushrooms exposed to UV light, egg yolks, and some fortified dairy. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. This means it needs fat in order to break down and absorb properly. Try having a drizzle of olive oil, some fish, or avocado with your vitamin D-rich foods!
Absorb More Calcium:
The largest sources of calcium in the North American and European diets is from milk and dairy products, but you can also get calcium from fruits and vegetables (e.g., kale, spinach, broccoli), as well as mineral water. Some of the plant sources of calcium have lower bioavailability, but the amount absorbed from these foods is increased with vitamin D intake. While you don’t need to get vitamin D in the same meal as a calcium-rich one, getting enough vitamin D every day is key—whether that means eating vitamin D-rich foods with a bit of fat or going outside in the sun. Try a kale salad with eggs and olive oil!
Getting nutrients into your body is a little bit more than consuming nutritious foods, it’s also about absorbing the nutrients from those foods so they can be used in your body. Please note that, while these are great tips to try, everyone’s body is different and requires personalized nutrition recommendations. If you have concerns about how your body is/is not absorbing nutrients, we can help with specialized testing instead of guessing! Learn more about testing options here!
If you need more nutritional support, visit us at www.erinfalcordn.com for more posts, recipes and webinars, or contact us for a discovery call to become a patient.