How important are Micronutrients?
Updated: Aug 23
We are constantly blasted with often contradicting nutrition information in the modern-day world. Some people swear by the importance of protein and animal products, while others tell us it's all about the caloric balance. Because fat, protein and carbohydrates are taking most of the attention, one thing remains relatively ignored. That is the importance of micronutrients, which is the topic of discussion for today! Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are essential components of a healthy diet. While they may be needed in smaller quantities than macronutrients, micronutrients play a crucial role in maintaining optimal health and preventing a wide range of diseases. In this article, we will take you in-depth on micronutrients and discuss what they are, what they do in the body, the consequences of micronutrient deficiencies and the best sources to avoid that happening to you!
Macronutrients v Micronutrients
Macronutrients and micronutrients differ in the quantity and function they serve in the body. Macronutrients are nutrients needed in large amounts to sustain healthy body weight and physiological functioning. On the other hand, micronutrients are required in smaller quantities but are just as essential due to their role in various vital processes all around the body. Micronutrients include phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and, last but not least, antioxidants! They play a crucial role in sustaining the production of various enzymes and hormones that contribute to the overall healthy functioning of the organism. Unlike macronutrients, micronutrients do not provide caloric value to the body, but they are equally crucial for maintaining optimal health and preventing diseases.
Though the body needs micronutrients in small amounts, their absence quickly surfaces with a flurry of unwanted side effects. For instance, a deficiency in magnesium, a vital mineral, can cause various symptoms such as:
A Lack of Focus
Vitamins and minerals are essential for human nutrition because they help kids grow healthy and strong, while adults can reap sustained health benefits. Unfortunately, micronutrient deficiencies are common, and if left untreated, they can lead to severe health problems. Fortunately, these deficiencies are generally easy to diagnose and can be effectively treated with supplements and nutrient-rich foods. So, let's quickly go into what each does for our body.
Essential organic compounds that the body needs in small quantities to function correctly. They play various important bodily roles, such as helping maintain healthy skin, bones, and muscles, supporting immune function, and producing enzymes and hormones.
Thirteen essential vitamins are divided into two categories: water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and the eight B vitamins) and fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K). Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body, and excess amounts are excreted in the urine. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body's fat tissue and liver, and excess amounts can accumulate to toxic levels.
Phytochemicals are natural bioactive compounds found in plants. They are not essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals, but they have been shown to provide various health benefits when consumed in sufficient quantities.
Phytochemicals have been linked to various health benefits, including reducing inflammation, the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease, improving immune function, and promoting overall health and longevity.
There are thousands of different phytochemicals in plant-based foods, each with unique health benefits. For example, carotenoids are phytochemicals responsible for the bright colours in fruits and vegetables and have been linked to a reduced risk of cancer and eye disease. Flavonoids are another group of phytochemicals that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and are found in tea, red wine, and many fruits and vegetables.
Consuming various plant-based foods is crucial to get different phytochemicals in your diet. This can include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. While many phytochemicals have been identified, the specific mechanisms they exert their health benefits are still being studied.
Minerals are inorganic substances the body needs in small amounts to perform various functions. They play essential roles in many processes in the body, including building strong bones and teeth, regulating fluids and electrolyte balance, and maintaining healthy blood and tissues.
There are two main categories of minerals: macrominerals and microminerals (also known as trace minerals). Macrominerals are required in more significant amounts and include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and chloride. Microminerals, including iron, zinc, copper, selenium, iodine, fluoride, and others, are needed in smaller quantities.
Antioxidants are compounds that can help protect the body against damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules generated by normal metabolic processes in the body and by exposure to environmental factors such as pollution, cigarette smoke, and radiation.
When free radicals accumulate in the body, they can cause damage to cells and tissues, leading to oxidative stress, inflammation, and an increased risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease. Antioxidants help to neutralise free radicals and prevent them from causing damage to the body.
Common Micronutrient Deficiencies
With the abundance of nutrient-poor foods many people survive on, micronutrient deficiencies are common! In no particular order, here are the most common micronutrient deficiencies found in people:
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 deficiency is common, especially among vegetarians and vegans. It can cause anemia, fatigue, and nerve damage.
Iron: Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency, affecting around 25% of the global population. It can lead to anemia, fatigue, weakness, and impaired immune function.
Iodine: Iodine deficiency is prevalent in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries. It can lead to goitre, mental retardation, and cretinism. Iodine has been shown to lead to impaired cognitive function and decreased IQ.
Magnesium: Magnesium deficiency can lead to muscle cramps, nausea, weakness, and an increased risk of osteoporosis. It is prevalent in individuals with gastrointestinal disorders, alcoholism, and kidney disease.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency is widespread, affecting one billion people worldwide. It can cause bone loss, muscle weakness, and an increased risk of fractures.
Calcium: Calcium deficiency can cause bone loss, muscle cramps, and an increased risk of osteoporosis. It is most common in older adults, postmenopausal women, and individuals with lactose intolerance.
Vitamin A: Vitamin A deficiency can cause vision problems, dry skin, impaired immune function, and an increased risk of infections. It is common in developing countries, where diets are often low in vitamin A-rich foods.
Zinc: Zinc deficiency can lead to hair loss, impaired immune function, delayed wound healing, and growth retardation. It is common in developing countries and individuals with malabsorption disorders, vegetarians, and vegans who do not consume enough zinc-rich foods.
It's worth noting that nutrient deficiencies can have severe health consequences, and it's essential to seek medical advice if you suspect that you may have a deficiency. A healthcare professional can diagnose and treat nutrient deficiencies appropriately. Maintaining a balanced and varied diet with nutrient-rich foods is the best way to prevent nutrient deficiencies. To cover all bases, we list each micronutrient and offer a variety of foods you can ingest in the next section to help identify and avoid deficiencies.
Micronutrient supplements are not mandatory unless you have severe deficiencies, as most deficiencies can be treated with a slight change in nutritional habits. Let's look at each vitamin & mineral function in the body and abundant foods!
Vitamin A (retinol)
Function: necessary for healthy eyesight, healthy immune function and proper development of the reproductive system in both genders. It is also vital in skin cell growth and development, along with bones and tissues in the body. Vitamin A has antioxidant properties that help protect cells from damage caused by harmful molecules known as free radicals.
Sources: Liver (beef, pork, chicken), Eggs, Cheese, Sweet Potatoes, Carrots, Spinach, Kale, Broccoli, Capsicums, Mangoes, Apricots.
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
Function: helps your body use the energy you get from the macronutrients. Riboflavin also plays a role in defending your cells from free radicals.
Sources: Meats (especially organ meats), eggs, milk, mushrooms.
Vitamin B3 (niacin)
Function: Niacin helps your body break down macronutrients and is also used when making fatty acids. Our body can produce niacin from the amino acid tryptophan.
Sources: Meats (beef, pork, chicken, tuna), Yeast, Mushrooms.
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
Function: It is required to make new fats and break them down. B5 is used to make some hormones, like melatonin, a hormone involved in your sleep-wake cycle.
Sources: Liver, Mushrooms, Eggs, Avocados, Broccoli, Milk.
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
Function: pyridoxamine, or pyridoxal, is used for making amino acids and breaking them down. B6 helps release glucose from storage for energy. B6 also plays a role in brain health.
Sources: Chicken, Turkey, Tuna, Salmon, Potatoes, Chickpeas, Lentils, Pistachios, Sunflower Seeds, Cashews, Bananas, and Fortified Cereals.
Vitamin B7 (biotin)
Function: necessary for metabolising macronutrients into energy that the body can use. Biotin is involved in the production of keratin, a protein that makes up the structure of hair, skin, and nails. Biotin also plays a role in blood sugar control, which helps improve insulin sensitivity. In females, biotin is essential for fetal development during pregnancy.
Sources: Organ Meats (liver, kidneys), Eggs, Almonds, Peanuts, Sunflower Seeds, Walnuts, Soybeans, Whole Grains, Dairy Products, Sweet Potatoes, Spinach, Broccoli, Cauliflower.
Vitamin B9 (folate)
Function: needed to make DNA in new cells. This is most apparent in your body, where new cells are constantly being made, like white blood cells in your immune system used to fight infections. More folate is needed during growth and pregnancy for this reason. Folate is used to make red blood cells that deliver oxygen to the cells. The supplement form of folate, called folic acid, is easier to absorb than folate found naturally in foods. Folic acid will only be present in supplements and fortified foods.
Sources: Edamame, Asparagus, Brussel Sprouts, Spinach, Beans, Lentils, Liver.
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
Function: helps to protect nerve fibres. It is needed to activate folate into a usable form. B12 is found naturally only in animal products, so vegans must supplement their diets with it.
Sources: Lamb, Beef, Seafood, Milk.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
Function: also called ascorbic acid, it is an antioxidant that helps protect tissues from oxidative stress. Vitamin C plays a role in building collagen, giving structure to your bone, skin and cartilage. Most animals can make vitamin C from glucose, but humans cannot.
Sources: Capsicums, Pineapple, Melons, Peaches, Zucchini, Broccoli, Spinach, Strawberries.
Vitamin D (calciferol)
Function: also called ergocalciferol or cholecalciferol, it helps make bones and absorption of other bone-building nutrients: calcium and phosphorus. The active form of vitamin D travels in the blood to cells to signal changes in how cells and tissues work. You can make vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. It is still needed in the diet when access to the sun is limited.
Sources: Salmon, Mackerel, Sardines, Eggs, Fortified Milk.
Vitamin E (tocopherol)
Function: this is the most important fat-soluble antioxidant that helps protect the cells and tissues from damage from free radicals.
Sources: Sunflower Seeds, Soybeans, Almonds, Capsicums, Spinach.
Vitamin K (phylloquinone)
Function: needed for blood clotting and building bones. The bacteria in your intestines can make vitamin K and contribute to your daily needs. It has been found to help prevent calcium buildup in the arteries and improve skin health.
Sources: Kale, Spinach, Sweet Potatoes, Avocados.
Function: the most abundant mineral in the body. Calcium helps grow healthy bones early in life and minimises bone loss later in life. Calcium is used to send signals from your brain to tissues. Excessive magnesium intake can limit calcium absorption.
Sources: Milk, Cheese, Yoghurt, Salmon, Tofu, Spinach, Okra.
Function: an essential electrolyte for fluid balance inside and outside cells. Hydrochloride helps break down food in the stomach and can kill harmful bacteria. It does this through the production of hydrochloric acid. Chloride also helps maintain the body's acid-base balance, maintains electrical balance in cells, and produces white blood cells.
Sources: Salt, Seaweed, Rye, Olives.
Function: helps to regulate blood sugar levels by enhancing the action of insulin. Chromium may help lower cholesterol levels by breaking fats down in the body. This is how chromium can reduce body fat and improve muscle mass through the enhancing effects of exercise and improving protein synthesis.
Sources: Broccoli, Grape Juice, Whole Grains, Nuts, and Yeast.
Function: used to make cells in your immune system that fight off infections and help protect your body from free radicals. It is also used to make collagen. Copper is needed to make hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in red blood cells.
Sources: Liver, Oysters, Kale, Mushrooms, Potatoes.
Function: important for developing healthy bones and teeth; fluoride can inhibit the growth of bacteria that can cause dental cavities and gum disease along with remineralisation, which is when minerals such as calcium and phosphorus are added back to teeth that lose them due to decay or erosion.
Sources: Drinking Water, Toothpaste, Mouthwash, Fish, Tea.
Function: a vital component of the thyroid hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), these hormones regulate the body's metabolism. They are essential for growth and development, particularly of the brain and nervous system. Pregnant and breastfeeding women require increased iodine intake to support the healthy development of their baby's brain and nervous system. Iodine is essential for cognitive function, as mentioned earlier.
Sources: Seafood, Dairy Products, Eggs, Fortified Grains.
Function: used to make energy, amino acids, collagen, hormones and neurotransmitters. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin and myoglobin, which hold oxygen in red blood cells and muscles. Iron from animal sources is more accessible to absorb than iron from plant sources. About 10% of iron is absorbed on a vegan diet, compared with 20% on a mixed diet.
Coach Tip: The amount of iron absorbed from a meal can be increased by simultaneously eating a source of vitamin C or other acids. For example, eating strawberries will increase iron absorption from spinach in the same meal.
Sources: Liver, Mushrooms, Mollusks, Lime Beans, Spinach.
Function: Magnesium has many roles, including releasing energy from fats and carbohydrates, muscle contraction, sending information to and from the brain via nerve impulses, bone health and blood clotting. Over half of the magnesium in your body is found in your bones. Excessive intakes of calcium or phosphorus can limit the absorption of magnesium.
Sources: Coffee, Tea, Lima Beans, Soy Beans, Spinach, Beetroot, Kale.
Function: helps to form your bones and connective tissue, like cartilage. Manganese is involved in metabolising macronutrients and helps your body detoxify free radicals.
Sources: Liver, Coffee, Cereals, Brown Rice, Chia Seeds, Quinoa, Zucchini, Capsicums.
Function: Molybdenum plays essential roles in enzyme activation to metabolise sulphur-containing amino acids, converting toxic sulphites into harmless sulphites, and helping to convert nitrogen into a form that can be used to synthesise amino acids; this ensure cells have the necessary building blocks to make new DNA.
Sources: Liver & Kidney, Lentils, Beans, Peas, Soybeans, Almonds, Peanuts, Barley, Oats, Buckwheat, Spinach, Kale, Eggs.
Function: working with calcium provides structure to your bones and teeth. It helps maintain fluid balance and the acid-base balance in your body. Phosphorus is found in DNA and cell membranes, so it is needed to grow and replace cells and tissues.
Sources: Milk, Meat, Fish.
Function: an electrolyte that helps maintain fluid balance, muscle contractions and transmitting signals through nerves. Potassium is used to maintain a steady heartbeat. Sodium and potassium are closely linked in your body. When you have high sodium, the kidney works to remove it; this removes potassium simultaneously. If potassium levels are low, your body tries to hold onto it, which means also hanging onto sodium. Therefore, keep an eye on your potassium:sodium nutrient balance.
Sources: Milk, Meat, Grains, Lima Beans, Soybeans, Bok Choy, Swiss Chard, Potatoes, Mushrooms.
Function: involved in your antioxidant defence system to prevent cell damage. It helps thyroid hormones which help regulate growth, development, body temperature, and metabolic rate. Selenium is incorporated into proteins and associated with proteins in your food.
Sources: Pork, Beef, Lamb, Turkey, Fish, Nuts, Eggs, Mushrooms.
Function: working with potassium to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance, sodium also helps transport other nutrients into the cell, muscle contraction, and send signals through nerves. The average diet shows that about 10% of sodium in your diet naturally occurs in your foods; about 15% is added at the table, and the rest (75%) comes from processed foods.
Sources: Salt, cured Fish & Meats, Soups, Salad Dressings & Sauces, Pickles.
Function: used in over 200 proteins with many different functions, such as immunity, wound healing, taste perception, producing the active form of vitamin A and defending against free radicals. Zinc is vital for a healthy functioning body; however, intake above the UL can interfere with the absorption of copper (since these nutrients compete for the same absorption site), potentially leading to copper deficiency.
Sources: Oysters, Beef, Turkey.
To summarise, micronutrients are vital in maintaining good health and preventing chronic diseases. Eating a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods is the best way to ensure an adequate intake of micronutrients. Incorporating food sources like leafy greens, nuts and seeds, dairy products, and lean meats into your diet can help you meet your daily micronutrient needs. Remember that every micronutrient has unique functions and benefits. You must include diverse foods in your meals to ensure you get all the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs for optimal health.
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