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. 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.
What Are Micronutrients? Types of Micronutrients
Most of us have heard the term tossed around quite a bit, but few people can actually 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.
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:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Pantothenic Acid
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 micronutrients include: (1)
- synthesizing DNA
- facilitating growth
- producing digestive enzymes
- helping keep a strong metabolism
- breaking down carbs, fats and proteins into usable energy
- aiding in bone mineralization
- helping with hormone production
- allowing cells to rejuvenate
- slowing oxidation damage or signs of aging caused by free radicals
- allowing muscles to move and helping with tissue repair
- protecting the brain
Micronutrients vs. Macronutrients: How Macronutrients and Micronutrients Differ
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.
So what are macronutrients, and what are the differences between macronutrients vs. micronutrients? 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 being 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.
Why We Need Different Micronutrients
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 minerals to function properly. These include macro-minerals that we usually think of as “electrolytes,” such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, plus other trace minerals 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, as 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 enzymes. (2) 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’re getting the entire list of micronutrients in your diet.
Top Sources of Micronutrients
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. (3)
While supplements can be an easy and convenient way to bump up your intake of certain vitamins and minerals that you may be lacking, 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. (4)
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:
- Green leafy vegetables: All kinds of greens are excellent sources of vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin K, folate and magnesium. Considering how low in calories leafy greens like kale, collard greens, spinach, bok choy, cabbage and romaine lettuce are, they’re some of the most nutrient-dense foods that you can add to your diet.
- Colorful veggies: Red peppers, broccoli, squash, cauliflower, green peppers, artichokes, carrots, asparagus, tomatoes and mushrooms are all great for providing fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C. Almost all vegetables provide micronutrients in moderate to high levels, so during meals try filling half your plate with a mix of veggies as often as you can.
- Fruits (especially berries): Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, melon, pineapple, apples, pears and kiwis are all high in antioxidants and nutrients like flavonoids, vitamin A and C, fiber, and potassium. Berries, in particular, are especially high in antioxidants and are linked with benefits like better brain health and cancer prevention. Many berries, like blueberries, are also high in quercetin, a type of protective flavonoid phytonutrient that fights inflammation and blocks free radical formation.
- Nuts/seeds: Nuts and seeds like chia, flax, hemp, almonds and walnuts are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well as fiber. They’re also a great source of antioxidants and micronutrients like vitamin E, selenium, magnesium, boron and choline.
- Grass-fed/pasture-raised/wild animal products: Liver, wild seafood, cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef and pasture-raised poultry are excellent sources of micronutrients like iron, B vitamins, vitamin A and zinc. Each type of animal protein offers different benefits; for example, chicken or beef liver is packed with micronutrients and is now being called a “superfood” because it’s dense in B vitamins, iron and vitamin A. And cage-free eggs offer multiple nutrients, including choline, vitamin A and vitamin E.
- Beans/legumes: As some of the best sources of fiber, beans and legumes are great for promoting digestion and controlling cholesterol. They’re also high in calcium, manganese, folate, phosphorus and iron.
- Whole grains: Ancient grains like quinoa, rice, amaranth, oats and buckwheat provide B vitamins and minerals like manganese and phosphorus. While ancient grains can be a part of a balanced diet, it’s best to get the majority of your micronutrients and dietary fiber from more nutrient-dense foods like non-starchy veggies, starchy veggies and fruit.
Benefits of Micronutrients
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: (5)
- Potassium: lowers blood pressure, helps combat heart disease
- Vitamin A: antioxidant that fights free radicals, supports skin and eye health, fights cancer by blocking DNA mutations in cancerous cells
- Vitamin B12: helps produce hemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout the body, and fights fatigue
- Vitamin C: improves immune function, prevents oxidative stress, fights cancer and prevents common illnesses of the skin, eyes, etc.
- Vitamin D: promotes healthy bone metabolism, helps prevent depression, may have anti-cancer properties
- Vitamin E: acts as an antioxidant, protects cell membranes, protects heart health
- Vitamin K: critical in blood clotting, protects against heart disease, osteoporosis and other types of cancer
- Zinc: boosts the immune system, supports brain function, improves heart health
- Iodine: important for fetal development and thyroid health
- Beta-carotene: turns into antioxidant vitamin A in the body, strengthens the immune system and mucous membranes
- Calcium: maintains bone strength, acts as an antacid, regulates high blood pressure
- Choline: prevents fat accumulation in the liver, promotes brain development, helps improve liver function
- Chromium: removes sugar from the bloodstream and converts into energy, helps control blood sugar in individuals with type 2 diabetes
- Copper: anti-inflammatory, helps combat arthritis, known as a brain stimulant
- Flavonoid (antioxidants): reduces the risk of cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease; fights free radical damage, protects brain health
- Carotenoid (antioxidants): protects and preserves eye health, fights macular degeneration and cataracts
- Folate: plays a central role in fetus development and cervical cancer prevention, contains antidepressant properties
- Iron: helps transport oxygen to the entire body, prevents anemia and low energy
- Manganese: improves bone density, helps combat free radicals, regulates blood sugar, regulates metabolism and inflammation
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2): helps prevent cervical cancer, fights headaches and migraines, can help treat acne, muscle cramps, carpal tunnel and fatigue
- Selenium: has antioxidant properties, reduces the risk of prostate cancer, aids in the treatment of asthma, arthritis and infertility
Micronutrients in Traditional Medicine
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.
Micronutrient Deficiency Symptoms, Causes and Risk Factors
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 may be lacking, some of the most common symptoms that can indicate there may be a problem include: (6)
- Dry skin
- Impaired immunity
- Bleeding gums
- Vision problems
- Easy bruising
- Memory loss
- Muscle cramps
On a well-rounded and balanced diet, most people can meet their micronutrient needs through food sources alone. However, if you have any dietary restrictions, you may be at an increased risk of micronutrient deficiencies. Vegans and vegetarians, for example, may be lacking in iron and zinc, while those on a gluten-free diet should pay close attention to their intake of B vitamins like folate and thiamine.
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 being met.
How to Get More Micronutrients in Your Diet: Micronutrient Recipes
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:
- Buddha Bowl with Flank Steak and Cashew Sauce
- Chia Seed Pudding
- Thai Curry
- Fresh Black Bean Salad
- Tropical Acai Bowl
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. (7)
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. A multivitamin supplement can be a good option for many and can help round out your diet to fill in any nutritional gaps.
- The official micronutrients definition is any substance that the body requires in small amounts. A few common micronutrients examples include vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
- The biggest difference between micronutrients vs. macronutrients is the amounts that are needed by the body. Macronutrients like proteins, fats and carbs are needed in larger amounts than micronutrients.
- These important micronutrients play a central role in many aspects of health and are involved in functions like growth, metabolism, the production of digestive enzymes and the conversion of food into energy.
- Including a good variety of nutrient-dense whole foods is the best way to meet your micronutrient needs. Foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, meat, nuts, seeds and whole grains can provide an array of important vitamins and minerals.
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