You’ve likely heard of macronutrients — fats, proteins, and carbs — but might find yourself a bit unclear on micronutrients. Don’t get me wrong; the subject of macronutrients can be just as complex, but in my experience, we hear a lot more about macronutrients than micronutrients. And, in my view, it’s the micronutrients that really do most of the hard work in keeping our bodies running optimally.
I’m going to do my best to demystify micronutrients to help you better understand what they are, why we need them, and where to find them. This isn’t an exhaustive guide, and I don’t claim to be an expert in nutrition. However, I’m a keen enthusiast and have been delving into aspects of a healthy lifestyle since my teens. You might find things in this post that warrant further investigation, but I hope it serves as a solid starting point to help you grasp the role micronutrients play in our lives.
What are micronutrients and what do they do?
Micronutrients are a crucial group of vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to support their many complex functions. These functions include converting macronutrients to fuel for energy, keeping our immune system ready to fight infections, maintaining bone health, building and maintaining muscle, tissue repair… the list is endless!
Essentially, everything your body does requires micronutrients — vitamins and minerals — in varying amounts.
Vitamins and minerals can be further categorised. Here we go! Vitamins are divided into two categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble.
Water-soluble vitamins easily dissolve in the body’s water and aren’t stored. Any excess is expelled through our urine. Since we can’t store these, we need a regular supply. Vitamins B (all of them) and C fall into this category.
Fat-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, can be stored in the body’s fat reserves for later use. Consuming these vitamins with a fat source can aid absorption. Luckily, these vitamins are usually found in foods with fat. As we can store them, we don’t need to consume them as regularly as water-soluble vitamins. Vitamins A, K, E, and D are fat-soluble.
For minerals, we have macro minerals and trace minerals. Macro minerals are generally needed in relatively larger quantities to function properly. This category includes electrolytes (calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, and chloride) and sulphur. Trace minerals, which we need in smaller amounts, include iron, manganese, cobalt, iodine, zinc, copper, fluoride, and selenium.
Each micronutrient plays a vital role, often multiple roles, in maintaining a healthy body and mind.
Where do micronutrients come from?
There are two main ways to get the micronutrients we need. One is through supplementation, but ideally, it’s through eating good quality food. Think of the food we eat as ‘containers’ for micronutrients. Supplements are handy, but prioritise whole food options first and use supplements as a top-up if necessary. I take Magnesium supplements because I seem to need a lot of it, and it’s an important mineral.
Not all food is created equal, just to make things a bit more complicated. For food to be nutritious — whether it’s fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy, or meat — the plant or animal must have had a good ‘diet’ with access to sufficient micronutrients to support its own growth and metabolic functions. Otherwise, they become ’empty’ containers of micronutrients.
For plants, this means the soil they’re grown in must be rich in nutrients and have the right pH for the plants to access the nutrients. For animals, it means they’ve been fed quality feed. Choosing food from farms that use organic practices, certified or not, is a great start to ensure that what you’re eating, whether plant or animal, has had a good life.
To wrap up…
Micronutrients are essential for the smooth functioning of our brilliant bodies. Long-term deficiencies in particular micronutrients could lead to disease, illness, or a range of symptoms that may start off mild but increase in severity over time. To keep our bodies in top condition, we need to ensure we’re eating high-quality whole foods likely to contain a range of vitamins and minerals.