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Luckily, it’s possible to meet your dietary reference intakes of this mineral through your meals alone.
Food sources of selenium are common and easily accessible, and it doesn’t take a lot of planning to create a menu that will boost your selenium status. Selenium foods also cross many of the dietary categories: there are carbohydrates, proteins, and even fats that are good sources of the trace mineral.
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Foods high in selenium
Stock up on these foods to increase your daily intake, but talk to a medical professional if you think a combination of food sources and dietary supplements may be right for you.
If they need to test your selenium status before offering advice, they’ll do that by tracking selenoproteins from your hair or nails such as glutathione peroxidase and selenoprotein P, which can offer a window into your long-term mineral intake.
1. Nuts and seeds
Brazil nuts are by far the most potent source of selenium. One ounce of these nuts packs 537 mcg, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They’re so rich in the mineral, in fact, that you should limit your intake to a couple of times a week since too much selenium can also be dangerous.
But they’re not the only option. Try one ounce of cashews for 5.64 mcg or the same amount of sunflower seeds (with hulls) for 11.9 mcg (USDA, 2019).
There’s seafood rich in this trace mineral out there for everyone. Halibut is an excellent source, packing 31 mcg into just a three-ounce serving. That’s over 56% of your daily value (DV).
If halibut isn’t your favorite, there are plenty of other options with noteworthy selenium content. Opt for three ounces of salmon for 25.3 mcg or the same amount of yellowfin tuna for 77 mcg. Go another route with oysters for 9.46 mcg per Pacific oyster, shrimp for 27.4 mcg for three ounces, or crab for 36.6 mcg for a three-ounce serving (USDA, 2019).
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3. Enriched foods
Enriched foods are those that lost nutrients during processing, and so have their nutritional profiles enhanced with vitamins and minerals that are added back in at the end.
Many whole-grain products are enriched because the hull or germ, where many of the nutrients are found, is stripped away. That’s how whole wheat is turned into white flour or white bread and brown rice into white rice, which is why many of these are enriched.
One large enriched pita, for example, provides 16.3 mcg of this crucial mineral. Opt for rice instead, and you’ll get 14 mcg in a one-cup serving (USDA, 2019).
No matter your preferred meat source of protein, you’re getting selenium with each serving.
You’ll get closer to meeting your daily needs by 30.1 mcg with three ounces of ground pork, 16.6 mcg with three ounces of ham, 17.4 mcg with three ounces of ground beef, 25.3 mcg with three ounces of turkey, or 20.1 mcg with three ounces of chicken (USDA, 2019).
5. Brown rice
While enriched white rice is a good option to boost selenium intake for those who truly don’t like brown rice, this whole-grain alternative is a good source in its own right. One cup of cooked brown rice delivers 11.3 mcg of the vital mineral, not much less than its enriched cousin (USDA, 2019).
6. Dairy products
If you want to get significant nutrition from one serving size, look no further than dairy products. In addition to high levels of calcium and vitamin D, you’ll get 7.56 mcg from one cup of skim milk.
But some of the best sources are cottage cheese, which boasts 25 mcg in one cup, and low-fat Greek yogurt, which provides 24.8 mcg in one seven-ounce serving (USDA, 2019).
The amount of selenium packed into an egg truly is incredible. One extra-large egg has 18.6 mcg of the vital mineral, meaning a breakfast that includes two of them gets you well over half of your suggested daily intake.
Mushrooms don’t get a lot of attention for their nutrition, but we’ll fix that. Add one cup of sliced white mushrooms to your next breakfast scramble or stir-fry for an additional 6.51 mcg of selenium. Vegans and vegetarians who opt out of the meat can swap a portobello mushroom cap into their burger for 15.6 mcg (USDA, 2019).
Start your day with one cup of cooked oatmeal, and you’ll be 11 mcg closer to meeting your daily selenium needs before you walk out the door. You’ll also enjoy a fair serving of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and gut-friendly fiber along with it.
Vegetarians and vegans don’t need to struggle to meet their needs just because meat is off the menu. One cup of cooked lentils, a staple in vegan cooking, offers a modest 5.35 mcg of selenium. Pair it with rice and some selenium-rich veggies for a meal that delivers on this mineral (USDA, 2019).
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Why selenium is important
We’re starting to think about how what our food eats affects its nutrition. Grass-fed beef tends to be lower in fat than its conventional counterpart in addition to boasting more nutrients (Daley, 2010).
But, in a sense, plants eat, too. And the quality of the soil from which they’re pulling nutrients affects which ones, and how much, ends up on your plate. Selenium, an essential mineral we can get through dietary sources and supplements, is one of them. Soil rich in selenium gives us plants rich in selenium.
For this reason, selenium deficiency is uncommon in the United States, but more likely in areas where the soil has a different nutrient profile, such as in parts of China. This trace element is essential for antioxidant function, the metabolism of our thyroid hormones, and the proper functioning of the immune system (Ventura, 2017; Steinbrenner, 2015).
Although it’s been reported that selenium can lower your cancer risk, a meta-analysis found that research actually isn’t indicative of that. Still, the health benefits of selenium include its ability to act as an antioxidant to prevent or reduce oxidative damage, which has been linked to many chronic diseases by combating free radicals (Vinceti, 2018).
Selenium’s effects on human health are mainly due to selenoproteins, which, as they sound, are proteins that contain selenium. Despite its critical role in many vital processes, selenium can also be harmful.
Signs of selenium deficiency
Knowing your needs helps you strike the perfect balance between low levels of selenium and selenium toxicity, a serious condition that can cause side effects such as hair loss, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults over the age of 14 need 55 micrograms (mcg) daily, though this number jumps to 60 mcg for pregnant women and 70 mcg for breastfeeding women. But you should always talk to a health professional who can assess your individual needs (NIH, 2019).
Some people, like those with gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn’s disease, HIV, or kidney problems requiring dialysis, have issues absorbing the mineral and may, therefore, need to take higher doses. Always follow medical advice with selenium supplements to avoid risking toxicity.
- Daley, C. A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P. S., Nader, G. A., & Larson, S. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal, 9, 10. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-9-10, https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-9-10
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. (2019, October 17). Selenium: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional/
- Schnabel, R., Lubos, E., Messow, C. M., Sinning, C. R., Zeller, T., Wild, P. S., … Blankenberg, S. (2008). Selenium supplementation improves antioxidant capacity in vitro and in vivo in patients with coronary artery disease: The Selenium Therapy in Coronary Artery disease Patients (SETCAP) Study. American Heart Journal, 156(6), e1–e11. doi: 10.1016/j.ahj.2008.09.004, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19033020
- Steinbrenner, H., Al-Quraishy, S., Dkhil, M. A., Wunderlich, F., & Sies, H. (2015). Dietary Selenium in Adjuvant Therapy of Viral and Bacterial Infections. Advances in Nutrition, 6(1), 73–82. doi: 10.3945/an.114.007575, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25593145
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2019, April). FoodData Central. Retrieved from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/
Ventura, M., Melo, M., & Carrilho, F. (2017). Selenium and Thyroid Disease: From Pathophysiology to Treatment. International Journal of Endocrinology, 2017, 1297658. doi: 10.1155/2017/1297658, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28255299
- Vinceti, M., Filippini, T., Del Giovane, C., Dennert, G., Zwahlen, M., Brinkman, M., … Crespi, C. M. (2018). Selenium for preventing cancer. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1, CD005195. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005195.pub4, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29376219
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.