Micronutrients 101

We need good nutrition to feel good, maintain optimal health, have a robust immune system, and ward off disease. That much is clear.

 

But have you ever wondered why that is? In other words, why aren’t all foods beneficial for us?

 

There are many reasons for this, but a huge one has to do with micronutrients. These small nutrients profoundly affect how the body functions and how we feel in the short and long run.

 

Read on to find out why that is and what it means for you.

 

What Are Micronutrients (And Why They Are Essential)

 

As their name suggests, micronutrients are those which the body needs in tiny amounts – mere micrograms in some cases. The term describes vitamins and minerals.

 

There are 13 essential vitamins that we need to get to feel good and ward off disease. More specifically, vitamins are essential for metabolic function, immunity, energy production, blood clotting, and more (1, 2, 3).

 

We also have 15 essential minerals to keep in mind. These are split into two groups:

 

  • Major – those which the body stores in large quantities. Examples include calcium and magnesium.
  • Trace – those which we also need for optimal health, but in smaller amounts. Examples include copper and iron.

 

Minerals have many similar roles to vitamins and are essential for (4, 5, 6):

 

  • Bone and teeth health
  • Muscle function and contractions
  • Fluid balance
  • Maintaining normal blood pressure

 

And much, much more.

 

Vitamins and Minerals Are Not Created Equal

 

All micronutrients play a vital role in our health. In many cases, vitamins and minerals work together toward the same outcome. For example, vitamin C and iron work together to maintain robust immune system function (7, 8).

 

Having said that, vitamins and minerals are not the same. Vitamins are organic compounds that come from animals and plants. Acid, heat, and water can break them down. In contrast, minerals are inorganic compounds that come from the earth and cannot be broken down.

 

This is why, as you cook a food, it tends to lose some of its vitamin contents while the minerals remain mostly intact.

 

Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Bad (Risks of Saturation and Toxicity)

 

Micronutrient toxicities are generally rare for people who follow a healthy diet. But things can change when introducing supplements (9). Dietary supplements sometimes offer high doses of certain nutrients, which can lead to saturation and toxicity. 

 

For example, zinc is a mineral that plays a huge role in our immunity. According to guidelines, adults should aim for an average of 10 mg per day (10). The upper limit is around 40 mg. 

 

The problem is, some supplements contain as much as 30 to 40 mg of zinc per dose. So, if you take a dose of the supplement and consume some zinc-rich foods (such as meat, shellfish, and legumes), you can go over the daily safe dose.

 

Fat-soluble vitamins such as A and D are similar. As we consume them, the body stores them for later use. At some point, levels can get high and lead to toxicities (11).

 

In other words, we need to be careful with our micronutrient intake. There is such a thing as too much. It generally applies to supplementation, so read labels carefully and compare them to the most current guidelines for each nutrient. When supplementing with fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), consult your doctor and have blood work done regularly to prevent saturation.

 

Daily Micronutrient Recommendations

 

Before wrapping this post up, here are some guidelines for the micronutrients with the highest deficiency rates:

 

  • Vitamin D – a significant percentage of people are deficient in it, primarily due to a lack of sun exposure (12). Research suggests a daily intake of 400 to 800 IUs.

  • Vitamin A – mostly folks in developing countries are deficient in it (13). Daily recommendations are around 900 mcg for men and 700 mcg for women.

  • Vitamin B12 – folks who don’t consume animal products are at an increased risk of vitamin B12 deficiency (14). Daily recommendations stand at 2.4 mcg daily for adults.

  • Iron – deficiencies are most common among vegans and women around their menstrual cycle (15). Daily recommendations for iron are around 9 mg per day for men and up to 15 mg for women.

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