If you think back to your high school chemistry class, you’ll probably remember learning about magnesium. It’s the 12th element on the periodic table and is a shiny, silvery metal. It’s found in plants and soil, but it’s also an important nutrient that your body needs to survive.
“Magnesium is found in the bones, muscles, soft tissues and bodily fluids,” says Amber Ingram, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “Magnesium is important to many processes in the body, including building proteins, bone and DNA, as well as regulating muscle and nerve functions, blood sugars and blood pressure.”
Marysa Cardwell, a nutrition therapist and contributing dietitian to Lose It!, a free calorie-counting app, says magnesium is involved with more than 600 metabolic processes in the body. “This means that without magnesium, everything from protein synthesis and blood sugar control to blood pressure regulation and energy production suffers.”
Ingram adds that people who consume magnesium-rich diets “are often at a decreased risk for developing Type 2 diabetes” because magnesium “can help the body break down sugar and may reduce the risk of insulin resistance that often leads to diabetes. Diets rich in magnesium can also improve bone mineral density, reducing the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis.”
How Much Should I Consume?
The Institute of Medicine’s recommended dietary allowances table states that daily magnesium needs vary based on age and gender:
- Women aged 19 to 30: 310 milligrams.
- Women aged 31 and older: 320 milligrams
- Men aged 19 to 30: 400 milligrams
- Men aged 31 and older: 420 milligrams.
Children have reduced needs, ranging from 30 milligrams in the first 6 months of life to 240 milligrams daily between years 9 and 13. Teens need more magnesium, with boys aged 14 to 18 needing 410 milligrams daily and girls 14 to 18 years old requiring 360 milligrams daily.
Cardwell notes that “magnesium needs change during pregnancy and lactation,” as well, so if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, talk with your doctor or midwife about your magnesium needs. She also notes that “your needs may be higher if you have chronic stress, consume higher levels of alcohol or are on a medication that makes you lose magnesium,” such as diuretics used to treat high blood pressure and proton-pump inhibitors used to treat GERD and heartburn.
Most People Are Lacking in This Essential Mineral
Unfortunately, a lot of people in the U.S. don’t get enough magnesium, Cardwell says. The 2013-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 48% of Americans were not meeting their magnesium needs through food. “That’s almost half of our population not meeting the minimum needs for this essential nutrient.”
Taking in too little magnesium has been “associated with insulin resistance, high blood pressure, as well as systemic inflammation, which increases the risk of heart disease and cancer,” says Dr. Caroline J. Cederquist, co-founder of bistroMD, a meal delivery company.
What’s more, your diet could actually hinder your body’s ability to extract the magnesium it needs from food, Cederquist says. “Magnesium absorption is impaired by diets high in processed foods and diets that are higher in calcium.”
Many dietitians and nutritionists agree, it’s best to get all your necessary minerals and vitamins from foods rather than via a supplement. “As a dietitian, I believe that the food source of a vitamin or mineral is always superior to the supplement sources,” Cardwell says, so “when possible, meeting your nutrition needs through food is best.”
However, “as a realist, I understand that meeting your needs through food alone is not always possible, so I frequently prescribe magnesium supplements,” she adds.
But certain foods are especially high in magnesium, and incorporating more of these into your diet each day can help you meet your needs without use of a supplement.
Ingram says that some of the best food options for increasing magnesium include:
Even if your diet is high in these items, you might still need a little more magnesium, Cederquist says, because “over the years, magnesium content of foods has declined due to farming practices that don’t return magnesium to the soil.”
A Day of Eating for Magnesium
If you’re looking to boost magnesium intake, Cardwell offers the following one-day eating plan, which provides a total of about 450 milligrams of magnesium:
- Breakfast: A piece of whole wheat bread with 2 tablespoons peanut butter and a banana.
- Lunch: 3 ounces of chicken, 2 cups of spinach, half an avocado, 1/2-cup broccoli, 1 medium carrot and 1/2-cup edamame.
- Dinner: 1/2-cup seasoned black beans, 1 tortilla, 1/2-cup shredded cheese and an apple.
- Snacks: 1 ounce of almonds and cashews.
She also recommends “adding more nuts and seeds to your salads and snacks and cooking more vegetarian meals that include beans and tofu.”
More Magnesium-Rich Meal Ideas
Sarah Asay, director of nutrition and product development for bistroMD, offers some tips for adding more magnesium to your diet:
- Toss some hemp or chia seeds into a smoothie or yogurt parfait. Hemp seeds have 140 milligrams of magnesium per 2 tablespoons and chia seeds contain 95 milligrams of magnesium per 1 ounce dried. The yogurt itself contains 47 milligrams per 1 cup.
- Enjoy oatmeal and peanut butter for breakfast. Oats contain 138 milligrams of magnesium per 1/2-cup (dry) and peanut butter contains 118 milligrams per 2 tablespoons.
- Swap salmon for mackerel. Mackerel contains 60 milligrams of magnesium per 100 grams. This is about double the amount found in the same portion size of salmon.
- Top a salad with pumpkin seeds. The seeds of this fall gourd make a great topping for salad or buddha bowls, which are vegetarian meals served in a single bowl. Pumpkin seeds contain 81 milligrams of magnesium per 2 tablespoons.
- Oven roast chickpeas for a quick and easy snack. Chickpeas contain 80 milligrams of magnesium per 1/2-cup.
- And for the ultimate magnesium booster: Fresh spinach salad (50 milligrams of magnesium per 2 cups raw) with salmon (50 milligrams of magnesium per 5 ounces). Garnish it with hemp seeds (140 milligrams of magnesium per 2 tablespoons) and roasted pumpkin seeds (81 milligrams of magnesium per 2 tablespoons).
Ingram adds several more tips and suggestions for boosting magnesium intake deliciously:
- Try ancient grains, such as amaranth or quinoa for breakfast. Top the amaranth with almonds, honey and a little milk, and try the quinoa topped with cinnamon, pure maple syrup and walnuts.
- Add beans as a topping to any salad.
- Add almond or peanut butter and spinach to a smoothie.
- Top yogurt with roasted pumpkin seeds.
- Mix up a power bowl with brown rice, steamed vegetables, including red cabbage, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, baked tofu and drizzle some peanut sauce on top.
- Opt for buckwheat pancakes instead of ordinary pancakes.
- Smear a tablespoon or two of peanut or almond butter on a banana.
- Add mashed avocado to a slice of whole grain toast.
- Add spinach greens to any soup or pasta dish.