If you’re concerned about eating the right foods for optimal health, you’ll need to do more than count calories. In our previous article, we touched on the topic of macronutrients and the ways you could maximize your meals to take advantage of them. Here, we will talk about micronutrients; nutritional compounds that are equally important but needed in much smaller quantities.
What are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function correctly. They are compounds your system can’t produce itself, which is why you need to take them in through food.
Though some micronutrients fulfill specific functions, others help your system more broadly. Only minuscule amounts (less than 100mg/day) are needed of most micronutrients, but they are critical for the production of enzymes, hormones, proteins, and other compounds your body requires. These compounds also regulate your metabolism, build up bone density, control your heartbeat, and affect your cellular pH. Without adequate amounts, you risk suffering from nutrient deficiencies that produce potentially detrimental health consequences. If you doubt the danger of a single vitamin deficiency for your health, the thousands of soldiers who historically suffered from scurvy because of a lack of vitamin C will tell you otherwise.
Because the general population needs just trace amounts of most micronutrients, many foods are fortified with them. Breakfast cereal, bakery items, and tap water often contain iron, folate, or fluoride, but it’s misleading to assume this is an optimal way to take them in. For one, manufactured vitamins often lack the nutrients and cofactors necessary for your body to absorb them. Whole foods, in contrast, contain the critical compounds required to ensure your body can fully utilize essential nutrients.
Why are Micronutrients Important?
While true vitamin and mineral deficiencies are rare in the United States today, low levels of certain nutrients can be a contributing factor for a variety of medical problems. For instance, deficiencies can increase your chance of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer and a variety of other conditions.
The problem of micronutrient deficiencies is more dire on a global scale. Approximately half of all children between ages six months and five years are deficient in at least one micronutrient, and over two billion people are affected across the planet. Infants and the elderly are most at risk of developing micronutrient deficiencies, but consuming a well-rounded diet and taking daily supplements can reduce their risk.
What are the micronutrients, and what benefits do they provide for your body? Let’s look closer at the details.
Necessary Micronutrients for Human Health
Micronutrients are divided into two categories: vitamins and minerals.
Vitamins are organic compounds that your body needs for health. Most must be derived from food, but the body can also produce vitamin D in small amounts. All vitamins are classified as either fat-soluble or water-soluble.
1. Fat-Soluble Vitamins
The body stores fat-soluble vitamins in fatty tissues as a reserve supply in case you don’t take in enough through your diet on any given day. They accumulate in the liver and other fat tissues, and they can potentially become toxic if they build up in concentration. Essential fat-soluble vitamins include the following:
Vitamin A: Found in orange produce like sweet potatoes, carrots, and cantaloupe, vitamin A is correlated with eye and brain health, and it helps keep the immune system functioning correctly.
Vitamin D: Considered to be both a hormone and a micronutrient, vitamin D supports bone health, aids immune system functioning, and elevates your mood. The best way to secure vitamin D is by absorbing sunlight through your skin.
Vitamin E: This powerhouse antioxidant protects your lipids from oxidation and stops free radicals from damaging your DNA. You can source vitamin E from sunflower seeds, peanut butter, almonds, and other nuts.
Vitamin K: Vitamin K activates blood proteins to trigger clotting when you get a cut. This vitamin is found in many vegetables, including broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, and collard greens.
2. Water-Soluble Vitamins
Water-soluble vitamins leave your body each day through sweat and urine, meaning that you need to replace your levels regularly. Humans need to take vitamin C and B-complex vitamins to healthy.
B-Complex Vitamins: Encompassing thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), and cobalamin (B-12), B-complex vitamins regulate cellular energy, affect your mood and immune health, and stimulate a healthy microbiome in your digestive system, along with many other benefits. Vitamin B-12 is especially beneficial for brain health and helps you preserve cognitive functioning as you age. These compounds are found in a number of foods, so eating a healthy diet based around whole foods should keep your levels high.
Folate: Critical for fetal development of the brain, skull and spinal cord, folate deficiencies in pregnant women can lead to neural tube defects in their babies. The mineral is found in legumes, leafy greens, beets, eggs, brassicas, and citrus fruit.
Vitamin C: This famed citrus component is an antioxidant that improves the strength of your connective tissues, promotes skin elasticity and enhances iron absorption. You can find vitamin C in citrus, most fruits, and broccoli, spinach, and other leafy greens.
Minerals differ from vitamins in that they are inorganic, but they are still naturally occurring substances that you need to take in through food so that your cells can perform essential functions. Minerals are typically split into macrominerals and microminerals.
1. Macrominerals (Trace Minerals)
Macrominerals are needed in large amounts, and they include the following compounds:
Magnesium: Required for proper bone formation and the synthesis of genetic material, magnesium is also a cofactor in hundreds of the body’s chemical reactions. Magnesium can be found in whole wheat, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Calcium: Beyond its reputation for building strong bones, calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and is responsible for muscle and blood vessel relaxation and contraction, as well as communication between cells. Dairy products, tofu, nuts, and fish eaten whole (like sardines) are good sources of calcium.
Potassium: This mineral acts as the inverse of sodium, and it is responsible for muscle and nerve function, cell detoxification, and regulating the heartbeat. Over 98% of Americans are low on potassium, so fill your diet with bananas, melon, and leafy greens to keep your levels high.
2. Microminerals (Trace Minerals)
These minerals are only needed in tiny amounts, but that doesn’t discount their importance for your health. Necessary microminerals include the following.
Iron: Critical for cognitive development and for optimizing your cardiovascular system, iron is required for good health. Iron deficiency is a significant cause of maternal and neonatal mortality across the world, and most women of reproductive age should consider taking an iron supplement. You can secure your iron supplies by eating beans and lentils, tofu, dark leafy greens, and most animal products.
Copper: Necessary for assisting the body’s intake of iron, you can consume enough copper to stay healthy from eating liver, legumes, shellfish, and nuts and seeds.
Iodine: Considered a crucial mineral for fetal development, an estimated two billion people don’t have enough iodine in their diets. Consuming seaweed, tuna, eggs, and even iodized salt will combat that problem.
Zinc: This mineral aids the immune system and promotes proper functioning of the nervous system. Women need to have adequate amounts to complete healthy pregnancies. You can keep your levels high with beef, turkey, and oysters (but skip the shellfish if you’re pregnant!).
Flouride: Found naturally in soil, water, and foods. It is also produced synthetically for use in drinking water, toothpaste, mouthwashes and various chemical products. Concerns have arisen regarding fluoride’s effect on health.
Manganese: Critical for chemical reactions involving enzymes, you can keep your manganese levels high with tea, coffee, whole grains, legumes, and many fruits and vegetables.
Molybdenum: This little-known mineral controls enzymes that affect your metabolism, and you can source the compound by eating peas and legumes.
Selenium: Required for immune functioning, selenium aids the synthesis of thyroid hormones and protects cell membranes from damage. Organ meats, whole grains, seafood, and Brazil nuts are stellar natural sources.
Are You Getting Enough Micronutrients?
Considering that you need such trace amounts of micronutrients to remain healthy, how can you tell if you’ve taken in enough? The research is often far from precise about the amount of each nutrient that you need, so the best way to ensure your levels remain high is to eat a well-rounded diet filled with whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, lean protein, healthy fats, and whole grains.
What about nutritional supplements? While you can turn to pills and vitamins in situations of a deficiency, it’s always better to source your micronutrients from food instead. That’s because it’s more than the vitamin and mineral itself that your body needs, but the surrounding components as well. Your system can’t absorb certain nutrients unless you take them with fiber or fat, so isolating the compounds in pill form is counterproductive for their benefits.
Your micronutrient levels might not be a topic that you’ve given much thought, but understanding their importance for your health is critical for optimal functioning. Take charge of your diet by tracking your micronutrient levels, and you’ll lower any risk of developing a deficiency.