What Are Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. We all know that we need vitamins and minerals to be healthy, but do you know what they actually are?
In this article we are going to dive into what vitamins and minerals do, why we need them, and where to get them. This is an “Essential Guide” meaning that we are only going to go over information that is “Essential” for the sake of keeping the article short. If you want a more in-depth article on all the micronutrients you can read the comprehensive guide I wrote for Muscle For Life in 2016.
The thought of vitamins brings up images of dry tablets and aqueous capsules, but these are vitamin supplements, not vitamins themselves. Vitamins are small, essential molecules we get from our food that ensure proper metabolic function. Our bodies are able to create some of their own vitamins – Vitamin D from sunlight exposure – however, we cannot create our own vitamin A, so we have to get it from food. Vitamins we can only obtain from food are called Essential Vitamins.
Essential Vitamins include Vitamins A, the B-vitamins, C, D, E, and K. Each of these vitamins has a specific function within the body and an associated minimal recommended daily intake (RDI). Consuming less than the RDI of any one of these vitamins is associated with diseases of vitamin deficiency and malnutrition. For people consuming a healthy and varied diet, extreme deficiency in any one of these vitamins is extremely rare – except for vitamin D, and B12 in vegetarians – and you shouldn’t worry about a deficiency unless your physician says otherwise.
Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin that helps prevent night blindness, enhances immune function, and is an antioxidant. You can find Vitamin A in greens, and brightly colored vegetables, such as carrots, peppers, and pumpkins. As a general rule, if a fruit or vegetable produces a bright yellow, orange, or red hue then it is likely a good source of Vitamin A.
B-Vitamins are a series of water soluble vitamins that are important for the proper metabolism of macronutrients, creation of red blood cells, maintenance of neural function, healthy appearance of skin, and a lot more smaller functions all across the body. B-Vitamins are naturally present in sweet fruits, vegetables, dairy, nuts, and beans. Additionally, many breads and cereals are ”fortified” with supplementary B-Vitamins.
Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin and very powerful antioxidant. The anti-oxidizing properties of vitamin C are what’s responsible for it’s immune boosting reputation. Vitamin C is naturally present in literally any plant; just pick a fruit or vegetable and you will be getting some Vitamin C. Citrus is an exceptionally potent source of Vitamin C, especially fresh citrus fruit.
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that we need to properly absorb calcium, support bone growth and development, support cellular growth, maintain healthy neuromuscular function, and support the endocrine (hormone) system. Vitamin D is unique among essential vitamins because our bodies can actually produce Vitamin D from sun exposure. Dietarily, Vitamin D is naturally present in seafood, many animal fats, and some grains. Vitamin D is the sole vitamin that most people should supplement, even those with a healthy varied diet.
Vitamin E is a class of fat soluble antioxidants that support healthy tissue repair, immune function, nervous system maintenance, and muscle tissue health. Vitamin E is naturally present in large amounts in fatty plant sources – such as nuts, and avocados – as well as being present in smaller amounts in leafy greens – such as spinach or kale.
Vitamin K is responsible for supporting our bodies ability to create blood clots, and for ruining the neatly ordered Vitamin alphabet we had. Vitamin K is naturally found in large amounts in leafy greens like Kale, and Spinach.
In addition to vitamins our bodies require minerals to function optimally. The minerals our bodies need can be broken into two categories; macro-minerals, which we use more readily and need in larger amounts, and trace minerals, which we use in very small amounts.
Macro-Minerals are needed in somewhat large amounts on a regular basis. This is especially true for athletes because we are more likely to lose these minerals through sweat, greater metabolic stress, and greater use of these minerals in general.
Calcium is the most prevalent mineral in our bodies, and we only use about 1% of that calcium for metabolic purposes; the other 99% is for structural purposes – like composing our bones and teeth. That 1% of calcium does a lot though; it’s responsible for cell-to-cell messaging, nerve signal transmission, muscular contraction, and the regulation of hormones. Calcium is abundant in dairy products, leafy greens, fortified cereals, and nuts – so if you have enough of these in your diet there is no need to supplement calcium. Calcium supplementation can actually act antagonistically with other minerals and interfere with their absorption.
Magnesium is basically the superman of the mineral crowd – it does everything. Particularly, Magnesium is involved in protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation, DNA synthesis, energy production, and it contributes to bone formation. Magnesium can be found in dairy products, leafy greens, and fish.
Phosphorus is the second most common mineral in our bodies and is found in the structure of bone, the structure of cell membranes, and as a key component of the primary energy form of the body, ATP. Phosphorous is somewhat available in most foods, however it is especially prevalent in unprocessed meats and vegetables.
Potassium is an electrolytic mineral that plays a role in muscular contraction, neural signaling, and nutrient absorption. Potassium can be readily found in sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, avocados, bananas, and pretty much any vegetable.
Sodium is an electrolytic mineral that performs many complimentary functions to potassium. Sodium is one half of sodium-chloride (aka Table Salt). Most people do not need to worry about getting more sodium in their diet, and, if anything, need to limit their sodium intake.
Sulfur supports healthy wound healing and preventing bacterial infection. Sulfur can be found in aromatics (such as garlic and onions), broccoli, leafy vegetables, and some nuts.
The Trace Minerals are Boron, Cobalt, Chromium, Copper, Fluoride, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum (Say that 5 times fast), Selenium, and Zinc. These minerals are needed in very minute amounts and if you’re eating adequately to meet your vitamin needs then you will also have an adequate intake of trace minerals. In general, the only trace minerals that merit a closer look are Iodine, Iron, and Zinc.
Iodine works complimentary with the thyroid hormones to regulate metabolism and stimulate protein synthesis. Small amounts of iodine can be found in any foods and vary based on soil-iodine content of that area. To combat the risk of iodine deficiency many table salt manufacturers add iodine in the form of Iodine-Chloride, resulting in iodized table salt.
Iron is the oxygen carrying mineral in blood and muscle tissue. A deficiency in iron means a decreased concentration of oxygen in the body. Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme iron which is found in animal sources, and non-heme iron which is found in plant sources. There’s considerable debate as to which form is superior, but the main takeaway is that if you’re a vegetarian and get mainly non-heme iron, then you may need more than someone that eats meat.
Zinc is a key mineral for the proper function of enzymes in the body, DNA synthesis, and immune system. Zinc is naturally available in beef, poultry, fish, fortified cereals, and nuts. Zinc is also available in a variety of vegetables, however plants contain compounds called phytates that can bind to zinc and interfere with our bodies ability to absorb it.
Basic Strategy for Getting All Your Micronutrients In
Are you ready for this comprehensive dietary guide to getting all your micronutrients in everyday? Here it is: Eat a variety of whole, unprocessed foods – unprocessed fruits, veggies, lean meats – every day. That’s it.
You might be thinking “I just read through all of this, learned that there’s all these vitamins and minerals, and I have to get a certain amount each day or I’ll get sick, and you’re telling me it’s NO WORRY?”
Yeah, I get why that might raise an eyebrow but let me explain. About 18 months prior to writing this I spent months researching and writing a very comprehensive article for a fitness website about vitamins and minerals. I dug deep into the RDI for every single vitamin, macro-mineral, and trace mineral. I explored what foods contain the most of each and what you’d need to eat to hit your daily goals and my conclusion was that the best strategy is to eat some fruits, leafy greens, lean meats, and other nutrient rich foods EVERY SINGLE DAY. Maybe add a quality multivitamin to your regimen as an insurance. But don’t stress yourself out about hitting all of these nutrients perfectly, or even tracking your intake of these. Eat mindfully, and you’ll be fine.