Proteins, fats and carbs garner a good amount of attention among dieters and health-conscious consumers alike. While it’s true that these macronutrients are absolutely vital to the function of your body, there are many other compounds that play a role in your health as well, including micronutrients.
In fact, micronutrients work behind the scenes to help foster growth and development; synthesize DNA, hormones and enzymes; maintain metabolism; prevent oxidative damage to cells; and more.
So what exactly are micronutrients, and why should you pay close attention to your diet to make sure you’re getting enough? Here’s what you need to know.
Most of us have heard the term tossed around quite a bit, but few people can actually define nutrients or define micronutrients and explain how they work in the body. The official micronutrients definition includes various types of chemicals that are found in trace amounts in the foods we eat.
However, most people recognize “micronutrients” by common names like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Micronutrients are essential because they protect our bodies from disease, slow the aging process and help every system in our bodies work properly. The long list of micronutrients functions can range from supporting metabolism to fighting free radicals and promoting overall health.
The body uses dozens of different micronutrients every single hour of every single day to keep us energized, produce enzymes and hormones, and prevent nutritional deficiencies. Specific micronutrient deficiencies can result in various problems, like mental impairment, poor digestion, thyroid problems and bone loss.
Among other roles, the main jobs of essential micronutrients include:
So what are vitamins, and are vitamins micronutrients? Also, why are minerals important and what do minerals do for the body?
Micronutrients can be classified into two main categories: vitamins and minerals.
The official vitamin definition includes organic substances that are essential in small quantities. Meanwhile, the official minerals definition encompasses any inorganic substances that occur in nature.
The main difference between vitamins and minerals is that micronutrients like vitamins are organic micronutrients, which can be broken down by air, heat and acid. Minerals, on the other hand, are inorganic substances that maintain their chemical structure.
Minerals are key micronutrients in soil and water, which are passed into the foods that we eat.
Although there are dozens of different micronutrients that are all vital to overall health, here are a few examples of micronutrients that are found in many healthy whole food sources:
Many micronutrients are considered essential nutrients, which means they are not made within the body. We must get these micronutrients from foods, otherwise we risk micronutrient deficiencies, such as iron deficiency, low potassium, low vitamin B12 or magnesium deficiency.
Researchers have classified 13 different types of vitamins, all of which have their own important roles in body, including protecting against oxidative stress, slowing the aging process and preventing cancer.
Besides vitamins, minerals are another type of micronutrient that we need to obtain from the diet. Minerals play a big role in bone development, brain health, cellular function and metabolism, and humans need at least 18 different types of minerals to function properly.
These include macrominerals that we usually think of as “electrolytes,” such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, plus other compounds on the trace minerals list that we need in smaller quantities like copper, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc.
Micronutrients of all kinds are important co-factors in DNA synthesis and metabolism. They are frequently involved in modulating enzymes that help us absorb other nutrients and turn them into fuel for the body.
Zinc, for example, is a co-factor for over 100 enzymatic reactions. Selenium, on the other hand, is an important mineral for metabolism that is involved in the production of the enzyme glutathione peroxidase, also known as the master antioxidant.
No single type of food contains all the micronutrients we need, which is why variety is key. The focus should be on anti-inflammatory foods, meaning those that are fresh and found in nature, including all types of colorful vegetables, fruits, beans nuts, whole grains, and quality animal foods like seafood and eggs.
Eating a wide array of different whole foods can fill in any gaps in your diet and make sure you get the entire list of micronutrients in your diet.
These days, it’s well-known that micronutrients play a vital role in health. However, the concept of micronutrients is relatively recent.
Although nutritional deficiencies like scurvy and anemia were prevalent throughout history, the connection to the diet was not always clear.
In the 19th century, researchers began understanding the importance of minerals like iron, iodine and zinc. Iron was used to treat anemia symptoms, zinc was found to be essential to growth and iodine helped prevent goiter development.
During this time, other types of deficiencies were also treated with foods, although it wasn’t clear why these foods were so effective at reducing symptoms. Cod liver oil, for instance, was used to treat xerophthalmia caused by vitamin A deficiency, while meat, milk and veggies were used to alleviate symptoms of beriberi, also known as thiamine deficiency.
In 1906, English biochemist Frederick Gowland Hopkins introduced the concept of micronutrients, or “unsuspected dietetic factors,” which he hypothesized were compounds essential to human health apart from proteins, fats and carbohydrates. A few years later in 1912, the term “vitamines” was officially coined by Casimir Funk as scientists began recognizing and learning more about the importance of micronutrients in overall health.
The importance of micronutrients is recognized in many forms of traditional medicine, which is why healthy, whole foods rich in micronutrients are often used medicinally to treat a wide variety of health conditions and ailments.
The Ayurvedic diet, for example, focuses on including plenty of healing herbs and spices, fermented foods, seasonal vegetables, healthy meats, nuts and seeds to help nourish the body, enhance well-being and meet your micronutrient needs.
Meanwhile, Traditional Chinese Medicine incorporates many ingredients rich in micronutrients to restore the balance in the body, optimize nutritional intake, and achieve and maintain better health.
Micronutrients are essential to many aspects of health and play a central role in nearly every bodily function. While a comprehensive micronutrients list would be too long to include here, below are some examples that illustrate the importance of micronutrients and the crucial roles that they play in the body:
All of the foods we eat contain nutrients that fall under one of two general categories: micronutrients and macronutrients. Both of these are incredibly important dietary components, and both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential parts of eating a nutritious, healing diet that supports overall health.
Macronutrients are essentially the way we classify the calories found in foods into one of three groups: carbohydrates, proteins or fats. “Macro” means big, so it makes sense that the official macronutrients definition encompasses any substance required in relatively large amounts by humans.
On the other hand, “micro” means small, which represents the fact that we need micronutrients like vitamins and minerals in much smaller quantities.
Macronutrients are more familiar to us than micronutrients since we hear about them almost constantly. Each food that we eat has a proportion of macronutrients, and the one with the highest percentage is often how we classify the food.
For example, grains have a high percentage of carbohydrate molecules, so we commonly refer to grains as “carbs” instead of fats or proteins, even though many grains contain a small amount of each.
That said, almost all foods have more than one macronutrient in them as well as various different micronutrients. Nuts, vegetables and meats are other foods that have multiple macro and micronutrients, since the calories from these foods comprise different proportions of carbs, fats and proteins, along with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Eating all three types of macros is important because they work together to give us enough sustainable energy in the form of calories. Similarly, eating enough micronutrients gives us the raw materials and building blocks that we need for cellular functions, hormonal balance and energy production.
It’s best to get your vitamins and minerals through whole food sources, as these foods supply a wealth of micronutrients and macronutrients to help optimize your health. The nutrients found in these foods can also be absorbed more easily, ensuring that your body is able to use them more efficiently to maximize the potential health benefits.
In fact, studies have shown that the complex mixture of micronutrients found naturally in a diet high in fruit and vegetables is likely more effective than large doses of a small number of micronutrients.
While supplements can be an easy and convenient way to bump up your intake of certain vitamins and minerals that you may lack, results from some intervention studies show that use of single micronutrient supplements is unlikely to produce a lowering of disease risk factors, but an overall nutrient-dense diet can. Plus, there is also a higher risk of potential interactions of micronutrients supplements when taken in high doses, which is another reason supplementation may not be as beneficial as a good diet.
Here are a few nutritious foods that are rich in a wide variety of important micronutrients, giving you the most bang for your buck in terms of nutrition:
Because each and every micronutrient is essential to health, a deficiency in any vitamin or mineral can come with some serious side effects and consequences. Although the exact micronutrients deficiency symptoms can vary based on which vitamin or mineral you lack, some of the most common symptoms that can indicate there may be a problem include:
On a well-rounded and balanced diet, most people can meet their needs for the most important vitamins and minerals through food sources alone. However, if you have any dietary restrictions, you may be at an increased risk of micronutrient deficiencies.
Those with disorders or conditions that affect nutrient absorption may also be at a higher risk of deficiency. For example, those who have recently undergone gastric surgery or those with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or celiac disease may need to pay close attention to micronutrient intake and consult with a doctor to ensure their needs are met.
One of the best ways to squeeze more micronutrients into your day is by switching up your diet. Adding more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes can help you meet your micronutrient needs and prevent nutritional deficiencies.
Incorporating a few healthy and nutritious recipes into your routine is an easy and delicious way to get started.
Need a little inspiration? Here are some tasty recipes to get you going:
While there are several ways to define malnutrition, it’s generally classified as a lack of proper nutrition, caused by either not having enough to eat, not being able to digest and absorb the nutrients you eat, or following a diet lacking in essential nutrients.
Although most people can meet their micronutrient needs by following a healthy, well-balanced diet, some may require supplementation to meet their nutritional needs. If you suspect you may have a nutritional deficiency, consult with your doctor or dietitian to determine the best course of action for you.
Additionally, if you have any underlying health conditions or are following a restrictive diet, it’s important to monitor your micronutrient intake carefully and consider supplementation if needed. Try using micronutrients trackers or a micronutrients calculator to keep an eye on your intake of specific micronutrients as needed.
A multivitamin supplement can be a good option for many and help round out your diet to fill in any nutritional gaps.