Whenever you eliminate a large number of foods from your diet, it’s natural to wonder if you’re getting enough nutrition — or if you’ll end up with a deficiency that might seriously mess with your health.
That’s why transitioning to a low carb ketogenic diet can initially be so stressful. After all, you’re drastically limiting your intake of carbohydrates, which encompasses a huge variety of foods, many of which contain nutrients essential for optimal mind and body functioning.
The good news: There are plenty of nutrient dense, low carb alternatives you can sub in. By taking note of which micronutrients are commonly lacking in the ketogenic diet, you can adjust your keto diet plan accordingly to fill in the gaps.
In this article, we’ll cover:
All foods contain both micronutrients and macronutrients, which provide the body with the tools it needs to function optimally.
Macronutrients — Nutrients needed in large amounts by the human body, which include carbohydrates, proteins and fats.These nutrients provide energy for your body in the form of calories. Protein contains 4 calories per gram, carbohydrate contains 4 calories per gram and fat contains 9 calories per gram.
Micronutrients — Nutrients needed in trace amounts by the human body for normal growth and development, including vitamins, trace elements, phytochemicals, minerals, antioxidants and fatty acids. Micronutrients help slow down the aging process, protect your body from disease and ensure that nearly every system in your body functions properly and optimally.
Micronutrients don’t provide energy like macronutrients, so they can’t be measured in calories and most of them are not listed on a food’s nutrition label, which can make them a little more difficult to track.
While all foods contain macronutrients — proteins, fats and carbs — not all foods contain large amounts of micronutrients.
Processed foods such as candy or Oreos contain virtually zero micronutrients and are mainly composed of carbohydrates. They’ll also drastically spike blood sugar and sabotage your efforts if you’re trying to lose weight.
On the other end of the spectrum, foods such as grass-fed beef, organ meats, pastured eggs and leafy greens are exceptionally nutrient dense and each contain a wide variety of micronutrients such as omega-3s, vitamin A and potassium.
Studies have shown that consuming a complete micronutrient profile, which is a diet including all of the essential vitamins, will improve your body’s cognitive function, improve bone density, decrease the risk of infection and disease and more[*].
Why You Should Monitor Micronutrient Intake on a Ketogenic Diet
Everyone — regardless of their specific diet — should consume a variety of nutrient dense whole foods and limit their intake of low-nutrient processed foods to avoid sickness, disease and weight gain. But people following a ketogenic diet should be particularly mindful.
That’s not to say that a low carb, keto diet is low in micronutrients. But it can be if you’re simply focusing on hitting your keto macros by loading up on butter and bacon or other foods with little to no micronutrient value.
Beyond eating the wrong foods, your metabolism goes through a transition (or induction) phase — explained in the section below — when initially adapting a ketogenic diet. This may increase your risk for certain micronutrient deficiencies.
If you aren’t carefully monitoring your micronutrients at the beginning of your ketogenic journey, you are susceptible to experiencing the keto flu. While this is common for beginner ketogenic dieters, it can be avoided if you don’t fall victim to micronutrient deficiencies.
Knowing which micronutrients you’re most likely to need more of on a ketogenic diet will be key to your success. Here are the most important vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients to make sure you’re eating — plus the keto-friendly foods that contain them.
Sodium is the most common essential mineral and electrolyte that people become deficient in after starting a ketogenic diet.
One of the biggest nutrition fallacies is that you should avoid sodium (salt) at all costs. Sodium was previously thought to exacerbate cardiovascular disease but several studies are now disproving this myth[*][*].
Sodium is important for controlling blood pressure, retaining normal levels of water in your body and absorbing micronutrients[*].
The ketogenic diet has a diuretic effect due to the elimination of carbohydrates. This means that once you begin to enter ketosis, your body sheds water along with essential electrolytes — sodium in particular.
If you are an athlete who performs regular strenuous activities, you lose even more sodium through your sweat.
But if you’re overweight or obese, your body is most likely storing too much sodium from having chronically high insulin levels. This means you don’t have to consume as much sodium if you live a sedentary lifestyle.
Symptoms of low sodium include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Inability to perform strenuous activity
The first couple weeks on the ketogenic diet are the most important to monitor your sodium levels because this is when your body gets rid of the most, especially if you are exercising frequently.
You should aim for about 3,000 to 5,000 mg of sodium every day on a keto diet.
Consuming bouillon, bone broth and adding more salt to your meals will help you hit your daily quota.
As you lose sodium from your body, you begin to get rid of potassium, another electrolyte, simultaneously.
Being deficient in potassium can lead to constipation, irritability, physical weakness, loss in muscle mass and skin problems. An extreme potassium deficiency can lead to an irregular heartbeat and in some cases heart failure.
You should aim for about 4,500 mg of potassium every day on a keto diet.
Magnesium is responsible for over 300 different biochemical functions in the body.
This mineral and electrolyte plays a critical role in protein synthesis, the production of energy (ATP), fatty acid formation and cell reproduction.
If you have a magnesium deficiency, you may experience dizziness, fatigue and most commonly, muscle cramps.
You should aim for about 500 mg of magnesium a day on a keto diet.
Calcium helps form and strengthen our teeth and bones. This essential mineral and electrolyte also helps with blood clotting, transmitting signals between nerve cells and regulating blood pressure.
Even though our body holds a large amount of calcium in the bones and teeth, it’s still a micronutrient that needs to be consumed in larger amounts on the ketogenic diet. This is especially the case in the early stages when calcium is flushed from the body along with other electrolytes.
You should aim for 1,000 – 2,000 mg of calcium per day on a keto diet.
B vitamins are split into seven main types. Some people prefer to use a B complex supplement to get all of these in one pill.
Since the ketogenic diet relies heavily on consuming large volumes of leafy green vegetables and meat, there is not much concern in terms of becoming deficient in B vitamins.
Here are the most common and essential B vitamins[*]:
- Vitamin B1 – Thiamin. B1 is crucial in the breakdown of carbs, fats and proteins. It’s essential in the creation of energy (ATP) and necessary for nerve cell functioning.
- Vitamin B2 – Riboflavin. B2 helps in processing fats and amino acids. It also helps in converting macronutrients into energy and sometimes acts as an antioxidant.
- Vitamin B3 – Niacin. B3 is imperative for cell respiration. It also helps release the energy from macronutrients and supports central nervous system functioning, healthy skin, and improves sex hormones. It also helps with memory functioning.
- Vitamin B5 – Pantothenic Acid. B5 is a component that helps extract energy from fats. Pantothenic acid also helps produce red blood cells and steroid hormones.
- Vitamin B6 – Pyridoxine. B6 is needed for the formation of red blood cells, protein and carbohydrate metabolism, and influences brain processes as well as improves your immune function.
- Vitamin B7 – Biotin. B7 is critical for fat synthesis, amino acid and energy metabolism, and contributes to regulating blood cholesterol levels.
- Vitamin B9 – Folate. B9 is required for the formation of red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. Women who are pregnant should consume larger amounts of folate because it helps the development of the foetal nervous system and cell growth.
- Vitamin B12 – Cyanocobalamin. B12 is one of the most well known B vitamins because it has several health functions that can make a night and day difference. It’s responsible for mental clarity, formation of red blood cells, and the breaking down of fatty acids to produce energy.
Deficiencies in B vitamins may result in psychological disorders such as depressions, anxiety, anger, confusion and paranoia. It’s also linked to symptoms of heart palpitations, insomnia, tingling in the hands and feet and difficulty with walking.
Foods high in a variety of B vitamins include:
- Grass-fed beef
- Green leafy vegetables
- Dairy products
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are many processes in the body that omega-3 fatty acids help with including:
- Reducing inflammation
- Brain development
- Cardiovascular health
- Transporting oxygen in the bloodstream
- Reducing blood pressure
Consuming several servings of fattier fish per week such as salmon is the most effective natural way to get omega-3’s into your diet. But many people supplement with fish oil pills due to a lack of fish in their diet.
You should aim for about 4,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids on any diet.
Iodine is one of the most vital minerals because it helps regulate your thyroid hormone levels, preventing hypothyroidism, which can cause weakness, skin problems and weight gain.
It’s added to processed table salt, but if you’ve transitioned to sea salt or pink salt, chances are you’re not getting as much as you used to.
But you can find iodine in natural food sources if you know where to look. Sea vegetables such as kelp are a potent source that have even been used to treat hypothyroidism[*].
You should aim for at least 150 mcg of iodine per day on a keto diet.
Iron is essential for proper growth of the human body. It boosts hemoglobin formation, which is essential for transferring oxygen in your blood from the lungs to the tissues, improves muscle function, increases brain function and promotes better energy metabolism.
You should aim for about 8 to 30 mg of iron per day on a keto diet.
Phosphorus is involved in hundreds of cellular functions that work to help balance your body’s hormones, boost energy levels, utilize nutrients more effectively and improve digestion.
A deficiency in phosphorus can lead to anxiety, trouble concentrating, tooth decay and weak bones.
You should aim for about 700 mg of phosphorus per day[*]. But phosphorus deficiencies are uncommon, especially on the ketogenic diet. So you don’t have to closely track your intake.
Phosphorus-rich, keto-friendly foods include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Grass-fed beef
Vitamin A is vital for several functions in the body, including cell reproduction, organ growth and proper vision.
Keeping track of your vitamin A levels doesn’t need to be prioritized on a ketogenic diet. You can get ample amounts of vitamin A from foods such as:
- Beef liver
- Dairy Products
There are studies showing that the need for vitamin A is decreased when carbohydrates are restricted[*]. So supplementing probably isn’t wise.
Vitamin C works as an antioxidant and prevents LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol from causing damage to your body.
It’s also needed to create more collagen in the body and to use collagen more effectively, which strengthens muscles and blood vessels.
You might be worried about not getting enough vitamin C because you assume you can only get it from citrus fruits, which are high in carbs. But this simply isn’t the case.
You can get large amounts of vitamin C from low carb natural sources such as:
- Brussel sprouts
Vitamin K is crucial for transporting calcium from your bloodstream into your bones. It’s also an essential nutrient for blood coagulation.
The ketogenic diet does not lack vitamin K if you are eating large amounts of leafy greens and other vegetables like these:
- Leafy greens (kale, spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, parsley)
- Brussels sprouts
Zinc has over 250 enzymes needed to heal wounds, synthesize proteins, and aid in cell reproduction.
You should have no issues with a zinc deficiency on the ketogenic diet if you’re eating the following:
In general, it’s always best to get your micronutrients through natural, whole foods rather than using supplements. This is because nutrients are most potent when they come from food. Additionally, natural food is accompanied with several nonessential but beneficial nutrients like flavonoids, carotenoids, and antioxidants that aren’t found in most supplements.
Supplements weren’t designed to substitute food. Getting your micronutrients from whole foods will help you consume a larger variety of nutrients, fiber and protective substances like antioxidants. Your body also absorbs the nutrients more effectively from whole foods whereas excess micronutrients through supplements are excreted through urine.
Food quality matters, too. The healthier, more organic food usually contain more nutrient density (micronutrients). Organic products are typically more expensive because they are grown or raised with fewer pesticides, no hormones, and go through a more rigorous process to make sure the organic food is of high quality.
For example, grass-fed beef contains up to six times more omega-3 fatty acids than normal grain-fed beef.
A large study published in 2014 found that organic crops such as apples, blueberries, broccoli, and carrots have a significantly larger amount of antioxidants compared to conventionally grown produce[*].
When Supplements May Be Necessary
While consuming natural, whole foods is the best way to ensure you have optimal amounts of micronutrients in your body, supplements can still play a role in your diet.
You should consider using supplements if you fall into one of the following situations:
- You are pregnant and can’t eat enough food to sustain a complete micronutrient profile
- You are an adult age 50 or older (any older adults need to supplement with B vitamins)
- You don’t get enough sun. Supplementing with vitamin D will help greatly.
- You aren’t eating enough calories
- You aren’t eating a wide variety of foods including vegetables, meats, and fish
- You are a vegetarian
- You have a medical condition that affects how your body absorbs nutrients
Micronutrients are Essential for Keto Diet Success
Aside from the initial two week induction phase when your body is flushing out essential electrolyte minerals — sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium — the ketogenic diet can provide you with you all of the micronutrients your body needs if you follow it correctly.
The first two to three weeks on the ketogenic diet matters most when tracking your micronutrient intake to help prevent prolonged symptoms of the keto flu.
Just because you are restricting carbohydrates does not mean you will be lacking in certain vitamins and minerals.
Using micronutrient supplement can help optimize your body in every way but it is encouraged that you try to fill any gaps in your diet with natural, whole foods.
Avoid consuming your calories from foods that contain little to no micronutrient value. Foods like butter and vegetable oils can fill you up while leaving you with a potential micronutrient deficiency. Instead, consider buying organic food as it has more nutrients, antioxidants, and minerals that are more easily absorbed by your body.
Be sure to check with your doctor for any micronutrient deficiencies but as long as you incorporate green leafy vegetables along with natural, grass-fed meats and avoid processed foods, you should have all of the essential nutrients your body will need to thrive.