7 Key Nutrients for Special Diets

key nutrients for special dietsEssential Nutrients Are Not Optional

If you follow a special diet of some sort you may be lacking in some key nutrients. If you follow the Standard American Diet, or the SAD diet, you are most certainly lacking some essential nutrients.

Essential nutrients are those nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. If you don’t eat them or otherwise create them in your body (as with vitamin D) your body will be deficient and side effects will occur. Sometimes the side effects are subtle at first, but ultimately some vitamin deficiencies can cause death.

In school you probably heard about scurvy, an affliction mostly noticed in sailors who would be out on the ocean for months at a time without access to fresh foods. They would lose not only their health but also their hair, skin, and even their lives. The cure? A regular dose of vitamin C, sometimes provided by carrying limes on the ship and earning sailors the nickname “limeys.”

Could scurvy be coming to an inner city near you?

A simple essential nutrient deficiency can be diagnosed as an entire disease, with complex treatments and medications prescribed, when the solution might be a simple change in diet. Psoriasis is an example of this, as described in 7 Proven Reasons to Sleep 8 Hours A Night. Dietary changes, such as adding Essential Fatty Acid Omega 3, and getting more sleep have “cured” people of this devastating skin disorder.


  • Essential: means necessary, but only available to the body through diet. Anything called a vitamin is essential, as are essential fatty acids and essential amino acids.
  • Vitamin: an organic compound not created in the body in sufficient amounts, and so required in the diet.
  • Minerals: Minerals are inorganic compounds found in the Earth’s crust, also used by the body in limited amounts for the creation of hormones, enzymes and other important functions.

Who Is At Risk?

Special diets can be defined as any diet which excludes a food group, and therefore the key nutrients in that group, whether that be by choice, habit, culture, or allergy.

Examples of Special Diet by Choice:

  • Vegetarian–no meat or fish
  • Vegan–no animal proteins or products such as eggs or dairy (see our guest blogs)
  • Gluten Free (by choice)– no wheat products

Examples of Special Diet for Allergy:

Examples of Special Diets by Habit/Culture– see our Guest Blog by Dr. Terry Wahls

  • Standard American Diet, deficient in fruits, vegetables, fiber, and sometimes protein
  • Excluding a food or food group because you “don’t like” it, such as salad, fish, or fruit

Key Nutrients Often Lacking in Special Diets

  • B vitamins, especially vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D
  • Omega 3
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Calcium
  • Protein

What is the Essential Nutrient Checklist? It’s a quick way to look at YOUR diet, and see what special needs you should consider. Do you eat mushrooms? Fish? Blueberries? Find out with this free download how these foods affect your key nutrient intake, and learn how you may correct it with food or supplement options. Get It Now.

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key nutrient vitamin BKey Nutrient #1: B Vitamins

The B vitamins are actually a group of vitamins, found in a wide variety of foods and playing different roles in the body. They work together to help promote the use of iron in blood cell formation to carry oxygen, protein and other nutrients. Deficiency may lead to negative neurological effects.

For a complete list of the all the B vitamins, what they do, and what foods contain them, see our About B Vitamins blog.

Who is most at risk of a vitamin B deficiency?

B12 is one of the B vitamins most easily added to the body by eating fish, eggs, dairy, beef and pork. People who practice a vegan or even vegetarian #SpecialDiet exclude these foods, and therefore are most at risk for a deficiency. While red yeast is also known as a good source of B12, it’s not a common food for most people. The body does store a small amount of B12, but over time it will deplete and needs to be replaced. For this reason many people following a vegan special diet will take a vitamin B12 supplement.

Vitamin B12 can be deficient if you don't eat fish, eggs, dairy, beef or pork. Read More: Click To Tweet

key nutrient vitamin d Key Nutrient #2: Vitamin D

Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine vitamin” because it can be made in the body through exposure to direct sunlight.  It is also available in some foods such as cold water fish like herring, mackerel, and sardines and is added to dairy products, juices and some cereals.  Despite the availability of the vitamin in foods and with sun exposure most Americans are deficient.

For a better understanding of the effects of a vitamin D deficiency checkout our blog About Vitamin D.

Who is most at risk of a vitamin D deficiency?

In order to obtain enough vitamin D a person needs to get at least 60 minutes of direct sunlight everyday. During the winter, between cold weather clothing and shorter days, this can be just about impossible. People with fair skin prone to sunburn may have a higher risk of deficiency year round due to their reliance on sun block. Also, those with dark skin are at higher risk as they require additional time in direct sunlight for their bodies to produce enough vitamin D. For these people a year round supplement regime is recommended but all of us should be taking a vitamin D supplement throughout the winter months.

In the winter, many people become vitamin D deficient--not good! Learn More: Click To Tweet

key nutrients omega 3 fatty acidKey Nutrient #3: Essential Fatty Acid Omega-3

All “fatty acids” are needed by the body but only Omega-3 and Omega-6 are called essential because you must eat them to have them in the body. For instance, Omega-9 is created in the body when Omega-3 and Omega-6 are present. Omega 6 fatty acid is plentiful in the average diet, especially the SAD (Standard American Diet). In fact, there is concern that Omega 6 is indeed too plentiful in the diet, and may be a contributor to some disease, including arthritis, inflammation, and cancer.

Essential fatty acid Omega-3 intake may help balance out the Omega-6 excess, but many adults and even children are simply not getting in amounts that maintain health. Most people do not eat plain un-breaded fish on a regular basis and many people claim to “not like” fish at all.

Deficiency of this essential fatty acid may contribute to conditions such as depression or AHD, dementia, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, hormonal disruption such as PMS, and even insulin dysregulation leading to diabetes and obesity.ϯ

Who is most at risk of an omega 3 deficiency?

Many of the best sources of Omega 3 come from the sea: salmon, halibut and tuna. Ground flax seed is another good alternative for vegans and vegetarians. Even people who do enjoy fish can add ground flax seed into their diet for both Omega 3 and fiber benefits.

Omega 3 supplements are worth considering for most people, especially if your consumption of Omega 6 is high. Liquid fish oil supplements may sound like an awful option, but flavored liquid fish oil can be highly concentrated and actually add a delightful flavor to a breakfast smoothie. There are even chewable Omega 3 supplements for children, which may be important because of the effect of fatty acids on brain growth. If you are not eating flax or chia seeds on a daily basis, or salmon, halibut, or tuna regularly, you should strongly consider an Omega-3 supplement.ϯ People who are taking certain medications such as blood thinners or cholesterol medications should consult a physician before starting a supplement regimen.

#Vegetarians, #vegans, and people who “don't like” fish may be deficient in Essential Omega 3 Click To Tweet

#SD IronKey Nutrient #4: Iron

Iron is an essential trace element. Iron is found most plentifully in meat, dairy, and fish and used by our body to supply oxygen to our blood. Iron supports metabolism, growth, development, normal cellular function, and some hormone production. Deficiency may lead to anemia, though a lack of vitamin B12 may contribute to anemia as well.

Who is most at risk of an iron deficiency?

Despite the ready availability of iron in most foods some groups of people are at higher risk of developing a deficiency. Women, particularly pregnant women, children, people with heart disease, cancer, and certain gastrointestinal diseases, as well as vegetarians and vegans may have a more difficult time obtaining proper amounts of iron from diet alone.

Symptoms of anemia, or iron deficiency, include impaired cognitive function, temperature regulation, exercise or work performance, and immune function. It’s recommended these higher risk groups take a food based multivitamin containing low levels of iron to supplement what they are already receiving from their diet. While iron pills are common supplements it’s possible to ingest toxic levels of iron, which can be fatal, so a concentrated iron supplement should only be taken when recommended by a doctor.

Anemia can seriously slow you down. Are you getting enough iron? Click To Tweet

key nutrient for special diets zincKey Nutrient #5: Zinc

Zinc is an essential trace element. It is the second most common mineral in the body and it is needed by every cell. Zinc plays an important part in reproduction, blood clotting, thyroid function, insulin use, taste, smell, vision and support of the immune system.

Zinc is also a powerful antioxidant, which protects the body’s cells from free radical damage that may contribute to aging and a number of health problems such as cancer and heart disease.  It has been used for many years for the treatment of skin conditions and wound healing and may provide support for the immune system, particularly during periods of seasonal illness. ϯ

Signs of zinc deficiency include loss of taste or smell senses, white spots under the fingernails, rough skin, and depression. Meat is the largest source of zinc, but turnips, peas, oats, peanuts, almonds, whole wheat grain, pumpkin seeds, ginger root and pecan nuts have smaller amounts that can provide a source for the trace element. When the immune system is stressed or if you have a risk of deficiency, a zinc supplement may be helpful.

Who is most at risk of a zinc deficiency?

Low zinc levels occur in some people who:

  • are elderly
  • consume large amounts of alcohol
  • are anorexic
  • follow restrictive diets which eliminate meat or other zinc containing foods

People with intestinal absorption issues from medical disorders such as Crohn’s or celiac disease may also be deficient in Zinc. 

When taking a zinc supplement, it is often recommended you take it with food as it can cause an upset stomach. A zinc lozenge that is slow dissolving can be another option less harsh on the stomach.

Zinc is often used to support the immune system, especially important for people with #Crohns or #Celiac disease Click To Tweet

key nutrient for special diets calciumKey Nutrient #6: Calcium

Calcium receives most of its media attention for its role in preventing osteoporosis. This disease weakens bones, making them brittle and often resulting in fractures of the spine, hip, or wrist. However, this essential mineral plays an important part in muscle health as well, including one of the most important muscles of all: the heart.

Here’s another surprise: Eating low-fat, calcium-rich foods helps the brain relax, slow down and ensure a deep, restful sleep.

If you have ever been told to have a glass of milk before bed, and noticed it seemed to help, here is why:

  • milk contains both calcium and tryptophan
  • tryptophan is the amino acid found in turkey and blamed for making you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner
  • calcium helps the body convert tryptophan into melatonin
  • Melatonin helps you sleep

Calcium, like most key nutrients, is best absorbed when taken in combination with other essential nutrients. If taken as a supplement look for combinations with magnesium, vitamin D, or at the very least, take the supplement with food.

Who is most at risk of a calcium deficiency?

Dairy is the most well known and common sources of calcium, though many other whole foods are excellent sources. The National Osteoporosis Foundation shows one cup of  frozen collard greens has more calcium than 8 ounces of milk. The question is: Do you eat 1 or more cups of collard greens every day?

The groups most at risk for calcium deficiency include:

  • women of postmenopausal age
  • people who are lactose intolerant (not eating dairy for allergy reasons)
  • vegans (not eating dairy by choice)

People in these groups may benefit from a quality food based calcium supplement.

Do you know how calcium helps you sleep? #FunFact Click To Tweet Do you eat more than 1 cup of collard greens every day? Calcium is a key nutrient for #SpecialDiets Click To Tweet

key nutrient for special diets proteinKey Nutrient #7: Protein

People sometimes dispute the amount of protein needed for health, but everyone agrees that at least some amount is necessary. Your muscles, skin, hair, nails, and organs are MADE of protein, and while your body can create protein if it has all the building blocks (called amino acids) it needs, nine of these building blocks are called essential because they need to come from eating protein sources.

If you eat an unrestricted diet, the easiest sources of protein are meats, eggs, and dairy. People following a vegetarian or vegan diet, or who is lactose intolerant, often exclude these foods and can become deficient if they don’t pay close attention to other ways to add vegan supportive proteins to their diet.

One cup of broccoli contains about 3g of protein. If you eat 4 cups of broccoli (about 120 calories full of other good nutrients and fiber as well, to be sure), you can in theory get the same number of grams of protein as if you ate 100 calories of steak. Sot that is great, right? But read that closely and think about it: FOUR CUPS of broccoli. That is a LOT of broccoli. Furthermore, proteins are not all equal. Check out this uber educational blog on protein in broccoli vs steak for more information.

Who is most at risk of a protein deficiency?

  • Older people who find meat difficult to chew, or are generally eating smaller amounts of food
  • People following a vegan or vegetarian diet
  • People who are lactose intolerant
  • People who exercise frequently
  • Pregnant women

In order to make sure you are eating enough protein, you may consider adding a quality vegan protein powder to your diet. You can add a scoop into your breakfast smoothie, make up a protein shake as a mid-morning or afternoon snack, or even mix a scoop of chocolate protein powder into your coffee, ice cream, or oatmeal! Get creative, and give your body what it needs.


The point is you can (and should) choose foods that are good for you, and good for your beliefs as well!

  • If eating dairy or gluten makes you sick, then don’t do it!
  • If you have an allergy to a food, don’t eat it.
  • If eating animal products bothers you, then don’t do it.

But your body still needs ALL of  the essential nutrients, so be sure to eat them with the frequency and in the amounts that are good for your health.

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Find out what essential nutrients you ARE already eating, and what ones you may be missing! Download the Essential Nutrient Checklist today!

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What do you think of this blog? We’d love to hear your comments below. Share what you learned, or what you will do next.

ϯ These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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