What you need to know about MICROnutrients

We spend a lot of time looking at our macronutrients, since those are the things that we measure and use to figure out how many calories we’re eating. On the other side of the nutrition coin are MICROnutrients. Webster’s Dictionary defines these as…

a chemical element or substance required in trace amounts for the normal growth and development of living organisms.

Translation: stuff you eat that you don’t need much of, but you still need. Most micro’s are measured in milligrams (1000th of a gram) and only require low “doses” around 100mg or less per day.

Micronutrients have some pretty specific properties in our diet…

  • They’re required for proper metabolism of all macronutrients
  • They are always 0-calorie
  • They’re used as coenzymes or cofactors in almost all metabolic processes in the body

They’re still partially a mystery and research finds new information every year. The more we learn about them, the more important they seem to be.

What are the Daily Micronutrients?

Vitamins

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin, Niacinamide)
  • Vitamin B5 (Pantothenate)
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine)
  • Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin)
  • Folic Acid
  • Biotin
  • Beta-carotene
  • Vitamin D3
  • Vitamin E (d-alpha-Tocopherol)

Minerals

  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus

Trace Elements

  • Zinc
  • Manganese
  • Copper
  • Selenium
  • Chromium
  • Molybdenum

Amino Acids

  • Taurine
  • L-Lysine
  • L-Proline
  • L-Arginine
  • L-Carnitine
  • L-Cysteine

Do I really need to worry about Micronutrients?

Yes, and no.

Humans managed to survive for tens of thousands of years without even knowing what Folic Acid or L-Arginine are, let alone being able to track them on a SmartPhone. Chances are unless you fall into a special dietary needs population, you don’t need to worry about them. If you’re eating a balanced, healthy diet of whole foods and minimizing the crap food like candy, etc. then you’re probably getting the right profile of micronutrients in your food.

But this means you have to be eating a healthy and balanced diet! Here’s the easiest, most effective way to maximize your micronutrient profile. Ready?

Step 1: eat a diet with a variety of natural, free-range foods (preferably from local sources) that includes fruits, vegetables, and meats.

Step 2: there is no step 2; just eat good foods!

In the end, getting the right micros is about the same thing as having a good diet in general.

Groups with Special Micronutrient Needs

While most people just need to eat a clean and healthy diet, certain groups are more predisposed to being deficient in one or more micronutrients.

Pregnant/Nursing Women

The micros of particular note for expecting and new mothers are…

Iron – helps carry, store, and use oxygen in your bloodstream, and supports a variety of enzymatic reactions. Low iron can cause symptoms of anemia in the mother and can increase the risk for a premature birth. Low iron levels in a nursing mother can impair the normal motor functions and mental development of the baby.

Dietary sources of iron include clams, oysters, organ meats, spinach, and red meat.

Folate – supports the growth and maintenance of new cells, very important for anyone undergoing rapid growth or physical changes (like infants and pregnant women). Folate assists the functions of iron in the body. A folate deficiency can cause anemia, premature birth, low birth weight, and slow development. Adequate levels of folate in the pregnant woman can greatly reduce the risk of problems with the baby’s spine, skull, and brain.

Some foods high in iron, like liver and spinach, are high in folate as well; asparagus and avocado are other good sources.

People with Malabsorptive Digestive Disorders

Many kinds of diseases can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food, including Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease, HIV/AIDS, certain types of cancer, parasite infections, and others. Even if you eat enough, your body doesn’t absorb enough, and you see symptoms of deficiency. Typically, people who suffer these issues see things like bloating, gas, diarrhea, and weight loss (sometimes alarmingly extreme). These can lead to more serious deficiency diseases like anemia, kidney stones, and osteoporosis if left untreated.

First, see a doctor who specializes is this kind of issue. That’s step one if you think this is a problem for you.

Second, certain food choices like bone broth and fermented foods can be helpful for restoring normal digestive function. A probiotic supplement might also help.

Third, seriously see a doctor!

People on Antibiotics

Sometimes you need antibiotics to treat diseases that could become serious. One of their unfortunate side effects is disruption of the helpful bacteria that live in your intestines and support your digestive function.  Some vital nutrients can become depleted while taking the antibiotic including iron, magnesium, and vitamins B and K.

Eating organic, pastured meat and dairy products will reduce your exposure to antibiotics from your food. If you do need antibiotics, eat fermented foods or supplement with a probiotic to reduce the damage to your gut flora. Make an extra effort to eat a nutrient-rich diet: if you feel too sick or nauseous to for solid food, try a green smoothie.

Ex-Alcoholics

Alcohol abuse has some pretty devastating physical impacts…

  • Damages the pancreas, stomach, intestines, and liver
  • Impairs nutrient digestion in general
  • Reduces the ability to use the nutrients you digest
  • Usually leads to less real food ingestion (replaced with alcohol)

Alcoholics are at particular risk of deficiency of…

  • Vitamin A (cell reproduction, bone growth, and vision)
  • Vitamin B (help the body use fats and protein)
  • Vitamin C (growth and repair of tissues)
  • Calcium (bone health)
  • Iron
  • Folate

Recovering alcoholics should be able to get adequate levels of all of these from a good diet, and over time their gut bacteria will usually recover. Be cautious of over-supplementing in an effort to speed the process! A daily muti-vitamin along with a good diet is sufficient. Large doses of some micronutrients – especially Vitamin A – can be toxic.

Include foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, and spinach to slowly but surely yield good results.

Ex-Vegetarians and Vegans

First, I’m not condemning anyone who chooses to go these routes but there are some specific health concerns for this group at the micronutrient level.

Maintaining a meatless diet for a long time can lead to potentially serious iron deficiencies. Iron comes in two forms…

  • Heme iron (found in meat and animal products)
  • Non-heme iron (found in beans, legumes, and spinach)

Vegetarians are restricted to non-heme iron sources but your body uses heme iron much more efficiently. Essentially, 5mg of iron from beans is not metabolically equivalent to the same amount from red meat. This places vegetarians at greater risk for iron deficiency and anemia.

Good dietary sources of heme iron include clams, oysters, organ meats, and red meat.

Compounding this, anemia can impair the uptake of Vitamin B12, which naturally occurs only in meat and animal products. B12 deficiency is alarmingly common, and related to several chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Vitamin B12 plays a crucial role in…

  • Formation of red blood cells
  • Cognitive function & mental health
  • Healthy immune system function

Good sources of B12 are Clams, liver, trout, salmon, tuna, haddock, and beef.

People with an Eating Disorder (current, recovering)

There are three eating disorders we’re discussing here…

Anorexics simply don’t eat enough to get all the nutrients they need. Calcium deficiency is particularly common, sometimes resulting in osteoporosis.

Orthorexics may follow a diet so restrictive that it doesn’t include enough sources of certain nutrients. Which specific nutrients depends on the particular diet. For instance, those who take Veganism too far may be deficient in many nutrients found in animals and very specific plants.

Bulimics develop deficiencies for two reasons. First, because they purge their food before it’s digested, which means the micronutrients never enter the body. Second, the constant purging can specifically deplete the body’s stores of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorous.

The key for any of these groups is to focus on eating a healthy and balanced diet in general. Focusing too much on specific nutrients may be a trigger for Anorexics and Orthorexics in particular, since those disorders tend to come from an obsessive thought pattern.