Healthy Eating Tips

Copper Is a Key Nutrient for Maintaining a Healthy Heart, Bones, and Brain As You Age—These Are the Best Food Sources

Photo: Stocksy/Nadine Greeff
Whether in your jewelry, cookware, or body, there’s one element that is as ubiquitous as it is crucial. We’re talking, of course, about copper, that oh-so-important mineral that up to one in four Americans isn't getting enough of. And given the vital role that copper plays in your day-to-day health, ensuring that you’re consuming enough of the mineral is a key part of maintaining a strong immune system, upping your energy levels, and keeping your cardiovascular system in shape. Luckily, copper is readily available in many food sources, which means that getting your recommended daily intake does not have to be a challenge.

To learn more about copper benefits and foods high in copper, we chatted with Anna Smith, RDN, a consultant for Lose It!.

What are the key copper benefits?

Copper is an essential nutrient for the body and plays a part in many bodily functions, one of which is making red blood cells (together with iron), maintaining nerve cells, and helping keep your immune system strong.

“Copper is also a mineral that helps your brain develop properly,” Smith says. “In addition, it helps with the production of energy and iron absorption, and helps with the development and maintenance of healthy connective tissues and blood vessels." This is why consuming enough copper through foods can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease—low copper levels have actually been linked to heightened blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Same goes for immunity: Copper helps up your white blood cell count, which helps prevent infection. Finally, copper helps stave off osteoporosis by upping your bone mineral density, helps with collagen production, and fights inflammation by acting as an antioxidant in the body, further lowering your risk of chronic illness.

A note on copper deficiency

While a quarter of Americans are not eating quite enough copper, Smith notes that a true copper deficiency is actually pretty rare in the United States. “That said, those with Celiac disease, Menkes disease, or individuals taking zinc supplements may be at higher risk for low copper levels,” says Smith. Such a deficiency is associated with anemia, lightened skin patches, elevated cholesterol or triglyceride levels, weakened bones, or even connective tissue disorders. “In addition, some may experience tiredness and loss of balance,” Smith adds.

How much copper should I be consuming every day?

Given the benefits associated with copper and the concerns surrounding insufficient intake, getting your daily dose of the mineral is top-of-mind for many. Like other minerals, the proper amount of copper needed varies from person to person, by age, and around certain life events, says Smith. “Recommended copper intake levels do increase with age with the highest amounts needed during pregnancy and breastfeeding,” Smith notes. For example, babies up to one year of age need 200 mcg a day of copper, while dietitians recommend children from one to eight years old consume between 340 and 440 mcg of copper per day. By early teenage years, copper intakes increase to 700 to 890 mcg, and most adults will require around 900 mcg per day. Women will need even more copper across the duration of their pregnancy at around 1,000 mcg per day, and breastfeeding women require 1,300 mcg on a daily basis, says Smith.

Foods high in copper

Luckily, you likely won’t have to go hunting too hard for your copper sources. In fact, many staple ingredients are excellent sources of this mineral.

  • Mollusks and shellfish, such as oysters or lobster
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Whole grains
  • Spirulina
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, cashews, and sesame seeds
  • Potatoes
  • Animal organs—including kidneys and livers
  • Dark leafy greens like kale, Swiss chard, and spinach
  • Dark chocolate

“My favorite sources of copper include cashews, sunflower seeds, shiitake mushrooms, crab, oysters, and tofu,” Smith says. “If you’re specifically focused on increasing your copper intake, then keeping a detailed food log may be beneficial,” she adds.

This umami-rich doenjang-jjigae stew is a delicious way to up your copper intake, thanks to shiitake mushrooms, kelp, and potatoes:

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