We hear plenty about carbs, fat and protein. Every popular diet has its own philosophy on the right breakdown. Micronutrients, on the other hand, often get overlooked. Sure, they’re needed in much smaller quantities, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. In fact, many physiological processes depend on micronutrients, and they have a dramatic impact on health and well-being.
For example, vitamin C is involved in collagen synthesis, and when we don’t consume enough of it, our gums, joints and skin become weaker (aka scurvy). Similarly, sodium and potassium regulate blood pressure and keep our heart beating at a consistent clip. Even small adjustments to blood levels of these minerals can be harmful.
WHAT ARE MICRONUTRIENTS?
‘Micronutrients’ is a broad term used to describe vitamins and minerals. They are needed in much smaller quantities than macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrate), but support a variety of physiological functions. Some micronutrients, like vitamin D, can be synthesized by our bodies under the right conditions. The rest need to be obtained through food.
WHAT DO MICRONUTRIENTS DO?
Vitamins and minerals are involved in an incredible array of reactions including those that:
- Turn on/off genes
- Transform nutrients into energy
- Form new tissues
- Clean up free radical damage
- Maintain organs and systems
There are two types of vitamins: water soluble and fat soluble.
As the name suggests, water-soluble vitamins dissolve in water and are excreted through urine rather than stored in the body.
Water-soluble vitamins include:
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Pantothenic acid
- Vitamin C
Fat-soluble vitamins dissolve in fat and are stored in the liver. They can be toxic in excessive quantities.
Fat-soluble vitamins include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
Minerals are grouped into two categories: macrominerals and trace elements.
Macrominerals are needed in larger quantities than trace elements. Some minerals like sodium and potassium, are also electrolytes, which are vital for muscle and nerve function, as well as fluid balance.
WHICH MICRONUTRIENTS SHOULD YOU FOCUS ON?
This is a tricky question that varies by age, sex, exercise level, dietary preferences, medications and other factors. Many micronutrient needs can be met by eating a varied diet rich in whole foods.
However, there are a few specific micronutrients people tend to fall short on:
Choline is important for brain function, fat metabolism and cell integrity. Research suggests most people consume less than the adequate amounts of choline, which appears to impact the liver, heart and neurological system.
Food sources: Beef, eggs, soybeans, chicken, fish, mushroom, potatoes and wheat germ.
Vitamin D increases calcium absorption from the gut and is an important nutrient for bone health and immunity. Vitamin D is hard to find in food but can be synthesized internally from sunlight exposure and cholesterol. The problem is many of us don’t get enough sunlight to meet our vitamin D requirements, particularly during the winter. As a result, many people (unknowingly) have low vitamin-D levels.
Food sources: Cod liver oil, salmon, sardines, egg yolk, vitamin-D fortified milk and yogurt.
Calcium is well-known for its bone-building benefits, but that’s not all it does. It’s also important for heart and muscle function. Many people have ditched dairy in favor of plant-based options, however, not all plant-milks are fortified with calcium. Consequently, many people fall short of the daily calcium recommendations.
Food sources: Milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified plant-based dairy alternatives, tofu made with calcium, sardines, kale and Chinese cabbage.
MICRONUTRIENTS AND PLANT-BASED DIETS
Thinking of going plant-based? Perhaps you’ve already made the switch. Going vegetarian or vegan can be a nourishing, wholesome way to eat, however, there are a few additional micronutrient considerations when animal products are removed from your diet:
Vitamin B12 only occurs naturally in animal products. Vegans and vegetarians need to consume fortified foods like cereals or nutritional yeast or consider a supplement to achieve adequate intake. B12 is involved in a variety of bodily processes and deficiency can lead to neurological damage, changes in behavior and mood, and fatigue, among other things.
Iron is found in some plant-based products like legumes, spinach and tofu. This type of iron tends to be less bioavailable than that found in meat. Vegetarians and vegans should incorporate iron-rich plant foods daily, and consume sources of iron with vitamin C to increase absorption. Iron deficiency anemia can dramatically impact energy levels and immunity.
Zinc is found in some plant-based foods like beans and nuts, however, like iron, zinc in plant-based food tends to be less bioavailable than zinc in animal products. Zinc is a catalyst for many enzymes and is involved in immunity, wound healing and cell division. Vegetarians and vegans should incorporate zinc-rich plant foods most days of the week.
Dairy products are a rich source of highly bioavailable calcium and cutting them out can result in inadequate calcium intake. Vegetarians who avoid dairy and vegans need to incorporate a wide variety of calcium-rich plant foods like kale, fortified cereals, fortified plant milk, tofu made with calcium, broccoli and Chinese cabbage to meet their calcium needs. Inadequate calcium intake can impact bone health, particularly as we get older.
Read more about nutrition considerations for vegans here.
Sodium is a little different but worth a mention. It’s physiologically necessary, but most of us get much more than we need. Eating too much salt is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, poor bone health and kidney stones — and many of us can stand to benefit from reducing our sodium intake. Learn more about salt in the Essential Guide to Low Sodium Eating.
WAYS TO MAXIMIZE YOUR MICRONUTRIENT INTAKE
EAT THE RAINBOW
Aim for three vegetables at every meal, and vary your choices from day-to-day and week-to-week. Consider eating what’s in season as a way to change things up.
RULE OF 4
Aim for a combination of fruit and vegetables, whole-grain carbohydrates, lean protein and plant-based fat at every meal. Different food groups provide different nutrients!
KEEP YOUR MENU FRESH
Add some new meals to your weekly rotation. Eat a combo of raw and cooked produce. Some nutrients are lost during cooking, while others become more concentrated. Eating a combo of both is your best bet for maximizing your micros.
OPT FOR WHOLE FOODS OVER SUPPLEMENTS
Some supplements contain massive micronutrient doses which could put you at greater risk for toxicity. Go for food first, and only supplement when you absolutely need to.
PAIR FOODS TOGETHER WISELY TO MAXIMIZE NUTRIENT ABSORPTION
- Iron-rich foods + vitamin C rich foods
- Calcium-rich foods + vitamin C rich foods
- Fat-soluble vitamins + plant-based oils