Micronutrients: What They Are, and Why Your Body Needs Them
When your mother told you to eat your vegetables as a child, she was on to something!
In a previous post, we covered a basic rundown of the three macronutrients you find in all foods: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These are the building blocks your body uses to fuel its physical and mental activity, build and repair muscle tissue, and store energy for later. A healthy balance of macronutrients is a major component of dietary wellness.
But if you’ve ever read a food label, you’ll notice there’s quite a lot more to your food than just macronutrients. These additional elements are not needed by the body in large quantities compared to macros, and so they’re considered “micronutrients.”
Don’t let the name fool you, though: micronutrients are just as essential for healthy body function as macronutrients. Instead of primarily being focused on the efficient use of energy and muscle, however, micronutrients act as vitamins and minerals that keep the immune system strong and the inner workings of the body optimal.
So what are micronutrients, and what do they do?
What Kinds of Micronutrients Are There?
Compared to the straightforward trifecta of three macronutrients, there are many micronutrients out there, each with its own type of contribution to your body.
As previously mentioned, micronutrients are broadly split into two categories: vitamins and minerals. There are two kinds of vitamins, and two kinds of minerals, comprising a total of four micronutrient types: water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, macrominerals, and trace minerals.
Let’s break down each category and provide some examples.
Among all the vitamins, the majority dissolve in water, earning them a spot in the water-soluble category. These nutrients typically don’t stick around in your body for absorption and are passed on when you use the bathroom. Nevertheless, they are vital for energy production.
Nearly all of the B vitamins are water-soluble, including vitamins B12 and B7. Vitamin C is also a water-soluble vitamin.
Aside from giving your body the coenzymes it needs for healthy energy production, some of the water-soluble vitamins also support red blood cell formation, nervous system function, brain function, and metabolism.
Water-soluble vitamins are usually found in whole grains, meat, mushrooms, spinach, citrus fruits, and eggs.
Some vitamins do not dissolve in water, but fat instead. As opposed to their water-soluble brethren, fat-soluble vitamins get absorbed into the body alongside fats for storage.
These nutrients play a few more unique roles within the body and include Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, and Vitamin K. Together, these vitamins assist the immune system, retain healthy vision, and enhance bone development.
You’ll usually find these vitamins in leafy greens, almonds, dairy, fish, and carotenoids such as spinach, carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. Uniquely, Vitamin D can also be gained from sunlight exposure, and is often difficult to find in suitable quantities within food choices alone (aside from supplements).
Leading off the mineral category are the macrominerals. As their name implies, the body takes up larger portions of these micronutrients compared to the trace minerals.
Macrominerals make up most of the remaining information on your food labels after the macronutrients. Calcium, chloride, sulfur, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, and sodium all fall within the macromineral category. These each have their own unique benefits.
Calcium is largely responsible for the health of your bones and teeth, as well as blood vessel contraction and the function of your muscles. You’ll find plenty of calcium in dairy products and green vegetables such as broccoli.
Chloride helps to form the digestive juices your stomach and saliva utilize to break down food. Plenty of chloride dwells within salt and celery.
Sulfur maintains healthy blood within the body and aids in the digestion of unwanted ingredients in our foods, like additives or metals. Garlic, onions, and eggs are great sources of sulfur.
Potassium is an electrolyte that keeps cells hydrated and supports healthy muscle function. Some of the best sources of potassium are lentils, cucumbers, and bananas.
Magnesium helps regulate blood pressure and is responsible for many enzyme reactions across the board. You’ll find high amounts of magnesium in almonds, dark chocolate, avocados, and black beans.
Phosphorous keeps the pH levels in your blood balanced and supports healthy teamwork between your nervous system and muscles. Fatty fish (salmon), turkey, and yogurt are good sources of phosphorous.
Sodium maintains blood pressure and aids fluid balance within the body. Most processed foods will contain sodium, but any dish with salt will usually supply you with enough.
Trace minerals represent the final category of micronutrients. The body doesn’t need these minerals in large amounts, but they are still important for several reasons.
Iron, Zinc, Iodine, Manganese, Copper, Selenium, and Fluoride are considered trace minerals. They generally support growth and development within the body in addition to healthy metabolism, hormone regulation, and thyroid function. Just because we need smaller amounts of these minerals doesn’t mean you’ll want to skip out on them!
You’ll find these trace nutrients in various nuts, ham, sardines, spinach, crab, chickpeas, pineapple, peanuts, and even water.
Why Are Micronutrients Important for the Body?
Think of nutrients like a car: your macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) keep the car gassed, the engine sturdy, and the tires in good condition. Essentially, macros enable the car (your body) to move and function in the first place.
Micronutrients, on the other hand, keep the countless little parts beneath the hood lubricated, oiled, and in peak condition. As we know, even one of these tiny car components can cause major vehicle problems if it fails.
Your body naturally operates many different processes that keep you not just alive, but healthy, without you even realizing it. But the right tools are needed to keep everything in tip-top shape in order to prevent certain problems (like disease, organ failures, and musculoskeletal issues) down the road.
Simply put, your body cannot function properly without micronutrients. A balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals will lead to a healthier and happier lifestyle, especially when combined with a good mix of macronutrients, routine physical activity, and appropriate sleep. Don’t leave out your micros!
For some broad health goals to get started on your wellness journey, be sure to visit our article that will point you in the right direction.