How Much Nutrition Do You Absorb from Food?

You could be absorbing anywhere from 10 to 90 percent of the nutrients in a given food. Find out which factors affect nutrient absorption.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #296

Nutrition Diva listener Andrew writes:

“We can measure the amount of vitamins and minerals in a food, but how do we know how much of that our bodies actually absorb? If a banana contains 422 mg of potassium, for example, do our bodies take in 100% of that? What factors determine how much (or how little) nutrition we get from our food?”

There are, in fact, lots of things that influence what percentage of vitamins and minerals are absorbed, such as the other foods you eat at the same meal, how they are prepared, drugs or supplements you may be taking, even your age and the time of day. Taking all of these into account, you might absorb anywhere from 10 to 90% of a given nutrient from a given food!

Before I get into some specific examples, however, I want to clear up a common misunderstanding about the nutrient content of foods.;

The Nutrient Content of Foods Varies…a Lot

The USDA maintains a huge database of the nutritional composition of thousands of foods. If you look up "banana" in the National Nutrient database, you will see that a medium banana contains 422 mg of potassium. But that is just an average—in this case, based on 14 different samples. In fact, the amount of potassium in these 14 samples ranged from 364 mg to 502 mg per medium banana.

See also: Nutrition Diva's Potassium Cheat Sheet

The amount of vitamins and minerals in a raw food depends on the variety, growing conditions, weather, timing of harvest, and storage conditions, not to mention natural variation. Although the variables are fewer, even dietary supplements may contain slightly more or less than the amount shown on the label.

So, even if there were a way to predict exactly what percentage of a nutrient your body will absorb (which there isn’t), we’d still be starting with an approximate figure.

With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the many things that influence nutrient absorption.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.