As a naturally occurring mineral that is found in large quantities in the environment, we acquire phosphorus primarily from phosphorus-rich foods, but also in small amounts from the water we drink.
In the body, about 85 percent of phosphorus is stored in our bones, but it’s also present in muscle tissue and the blood in smaller quantities.
Which foods are high in phosphorus that can help to boost our intake? You’ll find this essential mineral in mostly high-protein foods, including some seeds, beans, meat, fish, milk and eggs (although grains and some vegetables provide it too).
According to the National Kidney Foundation, you’re better able to absorb naturally occurring phosphorus from animal foods than from plant foods.
Phosphorus is an essential mineral involved in hundreds of cellular activities every single day. The skeletal structure and vital organs — including the brain, heart, kidneys and liver, for example — all rely on it to keep the body functioning properly.
Phosphorus is the second most abundant element in the human body (second to calcium). It makes up about 0.5 percent of an infant’s body and about 1 percent of an an adult’s body.
What is this mineral most important for? Besides skeletal and organ health, other key roles include helping to utilize nutrients from the foods that we eat and support detoxification.
This mineral is the body’s source of phosphate, a type of salt present within the body that’s made up phosphoric acid. It’s also an important compound for synthesizing the major macronutrients from our food: proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
We need it to keep our metabolism running smoothly and help boost energy levels due to its help in the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body’s primary source of “energy.”
Phosphorus is also needed to effectively move and contract muscles. It acts as an electrolyte within the body that helps with cellular activity, heartbeat rhythms and balancing the body’s fluid levels.
Are eggs high in phosphorus? How about fruits — are bananas high in phosphorus?
Here are 20 foods highest in phosphorus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
Aside from naturally occurring in certain foods high in phosphorus, it’s also added to food products in order to improve appearance, shelf life and the flavor of foods. For example, phosphates are included in baking powders, cocoa products and processed food products like meat-marinating ingredients, ice cream, bread and rolls, processed cheeses, carbonated beverages and many more.
As an additive in foods and drinks, you’ll find it under names including:
This kind of phosphorus is considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration as a food additive but isn’t how you want to obtain the phosphorus your body needs. Instead, try to get foods high in phosphorus – aka whole food sources that come in a “complete package,” naturally containing other minerals that are important for balancing phosphorus levels.
A higher intake of phosphorus in your diet can help support your bones, detoxification, metabolism and more. Here are some of the main health benefits associated with the consumption of this essential mineral:
Phosphorus, along with calcium, is one of the most important minerals in the body for maintaining bone structure and strength. In fact, more than half of all bone is made from phosphate.
Phosphors helps form bone mineral density that prevents bone fractures, breaks and osteoporosis – which all are more likely as someone ages.
Without enough phosphorus present, calcium cannot effectively build and maintain bone structure. For example, high levels of calcium from supplements can block absorption of phosphorus.
More calcium alone will not improve bone density, since both minerals are needed to form bone mass.
While getting enough phosphorus is important for protecting bones, recent findings show that increasing dietary phosphorus through inorganic phosphate additives can actually have detrimental effects on bone and mineral metabolism. It’s key for phosphorus and calcium levels to remain balanced in order to maintain the best bone health.
The kidneys are bean-shaped organs that serve several essential regulatory roles. They remove excess organic molecules from the blood, including extra minerals the body doesn’t need.
Phosphorus is important for kidney function and helps the body detoxify by eliminating toxins and waste through urine. On the other hand, in people with kidney disease, it’s difficult to maintain normal mineral levels since excess amounts are not excreted as easily (more on this below).
In order to balance levels of uric acid, sodium, water and fat within the body, the kidneys and other digestive organs rely on electrolytes like phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. Phosphates are closely tied to these other minerals and are usually present in the body as compounds of phosphate ions in combination with other electrolytes.
Phosphorus is needed to properly synthesize, absorb and use vitamins and minerals from food – including B vitamins like riboflavin and niacin. It’s also important for synthesizing amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, in order to help with cellular function, energy production, reproduction and growth.
Additionally, it helps balance levels of other nutrients in the body, including vitamin D, iodine, magnesium, calcium and zinc. All of these functions support a healthy metabolism.
You also need this mineral for proper digestion of carbohydrates and fats since it helps produce digestive enzymes that turn nutrients into useable energy.
Overall, it can help keep your mind alert and your muscles active by stimulating your glands to secrete hormones that are needed for concentration and energy expenditure.
Inside the body, phosphorus partially occurs as phospholipids, which are a major component of most biological membranes like our nucleotides and nucleic acids. The functional roles of phospholipids include balancing the body’s pH level by buffering excess levels of either acid or alkali compounds.
This helps with digestion by allowing healthy bacteria within the gut flora to flourish. It’s also important for the process of phosphorylation, the activation of digestive catalysts enzymes.
Because it acts as an electrolyte, phosphorus is also believed to help improve digestion by reducing bloating/water retention and diarrhea, as well as provide natural constipation relief and contribute to acid reflux remedies.
Phosphorus helps with the absorption and regulation of B vitamins that are vital to energy production within cells, in the form of ATP. B vitamins are also needed to maintain a positive mood due to their effect on neurotransmitter release in the brain.
Additionally, it aids in the transmission of nerve impulses that help control muscle movement. A deficiency in phosphorus and lack of foods high in phosphorus can lead to general weakness, muscle aches and soreness, numbness, and general or chronic fatigue syndrome.
Similarly to how phosphorus is needed for bone health, it’s also important for maintaining teeth and gum health. Calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus all play a role in the formation and maintenance of dental health by supporting tooth enamel, jaw-bone mineral density and holding the teeth in place, too — thus, these minerals and vitamins can also help heal tooth decay.
Children especially need foods high in phosphorus and calcium-rich foods while they are developing adult teeth in order to form teeth’s hard structure.
Vitamin D is needed along with phosphorus to regulate the body’s balance of calcium and improve its absorption during tooth formation. Vitamin D can also help to decrease inflammation of gums that is associated with periodontal gum disease.
Proper neurotransmitter and brain functions rely on minerals like phosphorus in order to carry out everyday cellular activities. A key role of phosphorus is helping maintain proper neurological, emotional and hormonal responses.
A phosphorus deficiency has been linked with cognitive decline and the development of age-related neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Because phosphorus is vital for nutrient absorption and building bones, a deficiency during toddler and adolescent years can stunt growth and contribute to other developmental problems. During pregnancy, it plays a role in the production of the genetic building blocks, DNA and RNA.
Indeed, foods high in phosphorus are key in a pregnancy diet because the mineral is needed for the growth, maintenance and repair of all tissues and cells starting from infancy. Phosphorus is also important for proper brain function, including the ability to concentrate, learn, problem-solve and remember information.
A normal phosphorus level is between 2.5 to 4.5 mg/dL, which can be determined by a test administered by your doctor.
In most cases, a phosphorus deficiency is not very common because this mineral is abundant in many commonly eaten whole foods, plus it’s also synthetically added to many packaged foods.
It’s one of various food additives that can be found in many processed foods — like bread, cheese and dressings — so it’s believed that added phosphorus contributes up to 30 percent of the average adult’s intake.
Phosphorus in the form of phosphate is very efficiently absorbed in the small intestine, especially compared to many other minerals — like calcium, iron and magnesium, for example. Between 50 percent and 90 percent of phosphorus that we eat is believed to be effectively absorbed, which helps prevent deficiency.
What causes phosphorus deficiency?
The more dietary high-protein foods someone eats, usually the better able that person is to maintain normal phosphorus levels. Consequently, people on a low-protein diet are at a greater risk for deficiency than people on a higher-protein diet, especially one that includes a lot of animal protein.
The group most likely to experience phosphorus deficiency is older women. It’s estimated that 10 percent to 15 percent of older women have phosphorus intakes of less than 70 percent of the recommended daily allowance.
One reason this may be true is because older women are most likely to take high-dose calcium supplements (to address calcium deficiency) that consist of the carbonate or citrate salts that bind to phosphorus and make it unavailable for absorption.
Some medications can also decrease phosphorus levels, such as:
What are the signs of phosphorus deficiency? The most prominent signs of a phosphorus deficiency include:
Experts tell us that most people don’t need to take phosphorus supplements considering the average person gets plenty from his or her diet.
According to the USDA, the recommended daily phosphorus intake depends on age and gender:
As you can see, teens need the most phosphorus of any group because they are rapidly growing and developing bone mass. This is the same reason why teens also require more calcium and, in many cases, additional calories, too.
Other than in people with kidney disease, there isn’t much of a risk for overdosing by eating phosphorus foods, since the kidneys normally easily control the amount of this mineral in the blood. Any extra is usually efficiently excreted through urine.
However, taking or consuming very high doses in supplement form, or from foods containing additives, can potentially alter normal phosphorus levels. This may be dangerous because it can impair synthesis of the active metabolite of vitamin D and disrupt calcium absorption.
There’s evidence that excessive dietary phosphorus has been associated with adverse effects on bone and mineral metabolism.
There’s also risk for high levels of phosphorus to cause heart and artery complications due to an imbalance in essential minerals that regulate blood pressure, circulation and kidney function.
Obtaining too much of the mineral from foods high in phosphorus alone isn’t likely, but if you take supplements that contain phosphorus and also eat a lot of packaged foods that have added nutrients, you’ll want to consider making some changes in order to monitor your intake.
As much as possible, try to get your daily intake from phosphorus foods, especially high-quality proteins, that help with absorption and mineral/electrolyte balance.
You’ll recall that beans, meats, fish and seeds are some of the best sources of this mineral (basically, many protein foods). To boost phosphorus in your diet, try these healthy recipes:
What happens when phosphorus is too high? Although it’s rare, too much phosphate can be toxic and can cause symptoms like:
Phosphorus interacts with other minerals and certain medications too, so you shouldn’t use high doses of supplements containing phosphorus without first talking with your health care provider. This is especially important among people with chronic kidney disease.
When someone has chronic kidney disease (CKD), the kidneys cannot remove phosphorus very well, which means it builds up and can pull calcium out of the bones. CKD patients are usually advised to adopt a low-phosphate diet for this reason.
This may involve reducing protein and dairy intake or eating a vegetable-based diet — however it depends on the specific patient and situation.
Aim to maintain a proper balance of calcium-rich foods and foods high in phosphorus. An imbalance runs the risk of causing bone-related problems like osteoporosis, plus gum and teeth problems.
Unfortunately, it’s believed that the standard American diet contains two to four times more phosphorus than calcium. This is caused by an overconsumption of foods like meat and poultry – which contain a lot more phosphorus than calcium – plus drinking carbonated beverages.
Research indicates that some other interactions of high levels of phosphorus, especially in relation to calcium, can include:
What foods should you avoid if your phosphorus level is high? It’s best to limit the top sources, including protein foods like milk, tuna, turkey and beef.
If you have chronic kidney disease talk to your doctor about the need to further limit food sources and other dietary steps you can take to maintain healthy mineral/nutrient levels.
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