Foods High in Magnesium: We Desperately Need It

Magnesium probably isn’t something that you think a whole lot about. Sure, you’ve heard of it. But what does it do? How much do you need? Read on to find out.

Magnesium is a mineral that the average eater has little reason to ponder very extensively, and that the average elementary student struggles to spell. Most of us can’t name its function in the body off the top of our heads, and it lacks the popularity of other stars of the nutritional world such as calcium or vitamin C.

Despite its glaring absence from the A-list of celebrity vitamins and minerals, magnesium is in fact incredibly important. By taking the time to read this article you’re already one step ahead of the game, skipping down the sunlit path towards greater knowledge and improved nutrition.

The bad news is that for many of us, this is going to be an uphill climb. Er, skip. That’s because, when it comes to magnesium, many of us simply are not getting enough. With that in mind, you should keep on reading to find out about foods high in magnesium, which can help your health.

Magnesium on the decline

Mg symbol 12 material for Magnesium chemical element of the periodic table

Magnesium is a key component of various processes in the body. This is a big deal. Not only does magnesium contribute to a healthy metabolism, it is also a key component of various other bodily processes. It is important for bone, brain and nervous system health as well as energy production.

It can help to relieve stress, high blood pressure or even an irregular heartbeat. Magnesium also helps to keep inflammation in check, a common problem today as rates of disease related to chronic inflammation continue to rise. It even helps to control blood sugar.

Now that you’ve got a basic handle on this function-related information (magnesium is important!), you’re probably still trying to recover from the initial shock of discovering for the first time that most of us aren’t getting enough of the stuff. Here’s why: Magnesium, which used to be an abundant resource that was readily available in our food, has recently become scarce. Other nutrients have, too.

This is due not only to changes in farming practices, but rather it is the result of widespread detrimental changes that have taken place in our modern diet.

Whereas whole and especially plant-based foods used to be naturally rich in magnesium, levels of this essential mineral in today’s foods seem to be on the decline. Many experts believe the use (or over-use, depending on who you ask) of chemical pesticides and fertilizers has depleted the soil of nutrients. It has also destroyed many of the healthy bacteria that were once responsible for helping nutrient-dense food to grow and thrive.

Because of the way many modern farmers tend to the soil, relying on heavy doses of chemical fertilizers and other methods that can be devastating to the environment, there’s less magnesium in those vegetables to start with. Once they’ve been harvested, shipping, storing, peeling, cutting and cooking those vegetables cuts down on the nutrient contents even more. But that’s only half of the problem.

Modern-day diet woes

The other half of the problem is this: most Americans today, as well as others throughout the world, simply aren’t eating a nutrient-dense and varied diet. Processing that whole grain wheat to make bleached all-purpose flour, hydrogenating and processing oils, and refining sugars does in fact make them white and smooth and consistent in quality. But this also removes most of the vitamins and nutrients.

Once manufacturers have completed the various processes that are so widely accepted today (and assumed by some consumers to be necessary, or at least highly desired) according to industry-wide standards of color, texture and uniformity, most (if not all) of the naturally-present magnesium is gone.

Though potato chips and sugary sodas dominate the marketplace, these foods, as well as the many others that are comprised in large part of salt, sugar, fat and refined grains, are often referred to by nutritionists as “non-nutritive.”

Though they are rich in calories, non-nutritive foods hold no additional nutritional value in terms of their ability to provide the various vitamins and minerals that are essential for life. You’re probably not going to find much magnesium in there, or much of any of the other nutrients that the body truly needs either.

Since refined grains and processed foods dominate the modern American diet, followed closely by meat and dairy (neither of which is rich in magnesium), and with fresh produce generally coming in dead last in the race to eager consumers’ mouths, calorie intake is high while nutrient intake is low.

To give you an example of this, a huge variety of plant and grain sources remain packed with magnesium, even despite modern changes in industrial farming. Even so, the food sources cited for contributing the most magnesium to the average American diet are french fries, beer and coffee.

Yup, you heard me right. It doesn’t take a degree in nutritional science to conclude that these are not exactly healthy choices, especially when they’re also full of salt, sugar, alcohol and fat.

How much magnesium do I need?

The FDA recommends a daily dose of 400 milligrams of magnesium per day for a healthy adult. This is an average, and more specific recommendations are available (and can easily be found online) for children, younger or older adults, men, women and pregnant women. But don’t go running to the supplement aisle just yet—natural food sources are your best bet when it comes to healthy magnesium intake.

If you are concerned about your magnesium levels (or your health in general) pay a visit to your local nutritionist or general practitioner. Never make drastic changes to your diet or exercise routine before consulting with a doctor, and be sure to get regular physical exams, even if you are well.

If you do have reason to take the supplement route, you’ll probably find that magnesium comes in a variety of forms, from oxide and citrate to chloride and lactate. According to scientific studies, some forms of magnesium have been found to be more bioavailable, or more readily absorbed by the body, than others.

Again, you’re going to want to rely on the experts. Consult with your doctor or pharmacist when making supplement purchasing decisions.

So, where can I get some?


Magnesium is important for human metabolism, and it remains a nutrient that’s abundantly available to vegetarians, even today. You’ll find it in nuts and seeds, squash, legumes and leafy greens. Eating seasonally should help you to pack your shopping cart, plate, and ultimately your body with nutrient-dense (and magnesium-rich) foods.

Believe it or not, magnesium-rich produce is the star both at home and in many fine-dining establishments throughout the winter!

Though perusing your local grocery aisles may not be as appealing as a trip to the mall (Who thinks that? I love the grocery store! Or the farmers market, or that parking lot where all the street food trucks park, or that catalog that comes in the mail with all the great pictures of shiny, perfect fruit…), a feast for the eyes at the store will easily translate into myriad gustatory delights on the plate.

Trust me, nothing beats delicious, fresh produce. Use your imagination and don’t be afraid to try new things! You were getting tired of chicken fingers and fries anyway, am I right?

A few menu suggestions:

  • Load up on squash, turnip and beet greens (yes, you can eat those! Just wash them thoroughly before a quick sauté in a touch of olive oil with some minced garlic, salt and pepper) with a side of quinoa.
  • Sprinkle a fresh spinach salad with pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and drizzle with a champagne vinaigrette.
  • Snack on cashews (the sesame-coated ones from Trader Joe’s have even more magnesium bang for your buck!) or lightly salted edamame.
  • A bowl of swiss chard and black beans is the ultimate comfort food (Okay, okay… with or without the side of mac and cheese, but magnesium-rich brown rice or millet would be the healthier choice).

Water, water everywhere (and possibly a decent source of magnesium, too!)

Need yet another reason to stay hydrated? Water contains magnesium too, to varying degrees. You’ll find magnesium in all kinds of water, whether your eau of choice is tap or bottled, sparkling or still, mineral or spring.

You’re probably already well-versed in the importance of staying hydrated, so your newfound knowledge of the magnesium content of water should be considered nothing more than a little nudge in the right direction, a friendly reminder to pack that water bottle with you wherever you’re going and to drink it throughout the day. Don’t leave it at home or in the back seat of the car again. I’m watching you. It’s 2015, y’all—stick to those resolutions!

Time to try that vegan thing

Even though magnesium is abundant in various plant-based food sources, many of us still aren’t getting enough. This is of course in large part due to the fact that so many of us aren’t reliably eating whole foods like unprocessed fruits and vegetables, or following vegetarian diets.

Diets that are heavy on the meat and the processed foods simply are not going to be high in magnesium. You don’t have to go full-on vegan in order to reap the benefits of a magnesium-rich diet, but cutting down on animal-based products and bumping up your intake of green, leafy things instead couldn’t hurt.

Just in case you do want to go vegetarian or vegan, there are plenty of resources out there. Check out the Vegetarian Resource Group or PETA’s guide to going vegan online, or consult with your doctor or nutritionist.

Finally, a note on the call of nature

Young woman enjoying her morning coffee

Perhaps the most surprising fact about magnesium (or perhaps it’s really not surprising at all, when you consider the effect that a morning cup of coffee has on many individuals as they make their early morning sojourns to the bathroom each day, thick novel or glossy magazine in hand…) is that it’s the main ingredient in certain types of laxatives.

Even though experts claim that the sudden urge to poo after your first mocha latte of the day is also thanks to the caffeine and the presence of chlorogenic acid (a compound known for stimulating peristalsis in the intestines and getting things flowing,) or maybe even the lactose for those who are lactose intolerant, the laxative effects of magnesium are well known. All it takes is a big dose of magnesium and you’re good to go. Literally!

For example, Phillips brand Milk of Magnesia, a common over-the-counter laxative that’s readily available in most drug stores, contains 500 milligrams of magnesium per tablespoon. This is already more than the recommended daily amount of magnesium that healthy adults should consume (or supplement themselves with).

The recommended dosage for Milk of Magnesia is four tablespoons of the stuff per day. That’s definitely enough to flush out your (digestive) system. The average cup of coffee contains just seven milligrams of magnesium, but for many of us that seems to be just enough. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In the end, there’s really no one vitamin or nutrient that we should be focusing on to the exclusion of other elements in our diets as everyday eaters. Nonetheless, a greater understanding of the role that vitamins and minerals like magnesium have to play in the body is a good thing.

By avoiding non-nutritive foods and aiming to consume a varied plant-based diet that’s rich in whole grains and low in added salt and sugar, we’re almost guaranteed to optimize our nutrient intake. That, and magnesium relieves constipation, just in case you forgot. Or, if you’re like me you will never forget, and magnesium will haunt your dreams for years to come in a way that vitamin C and B-12 never have. You’re welcome. Happy eating!

About the author

Allison M. Sidhu

With a master’s degree in gastronomy, this girl’s got food on the brain! Allison’s a Philly native and recent transplant to LA. When she’s not exploring the local food scene, she loves snacking on homemade goodies in front of the TV with her husband.

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