You may have heard the term before, but what exactly are micronutrients? Technically speaking, micronutrients are various types of chemicals that are found in trace amounts in the foods we eat. Most people recognize “micronutrients” by common names like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. (1)
Micronutrients are essential because they protect our bodies from disease, slow the aging process and help every system in our bodies properly function.
The body uses dozens of different beneficial micronutrient chemicals every single hour of every single day to keep us energized, produce enzymes and hormones, and prevent deficiencies. Specific micronutrient deficiencies (such as a vitamin D, iodine or iron) can result in various problems like mental impairment, poor digestion, thyroid problems and bone loss.
Among other roles, the job of micronutrients includes (2):
- 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
Every living organism needs micronutrients for normal growth, development and energy production — and humans are no exception. Because we’re very complex creatures and have brain capacity beyond other animals, we need even higher levels of many micronutrients and antioxidants compared to many other species in order to fuel digestion, mental performance, physical activity and so on.
In fact, humans need more than 50 different micronutrients for optimum health! (3) Every system within the body depends on combinations of various micronutrients — the digestive system, reproductive system, nervous system, immune system and so on.
What are micronutrients found in? Whole foods of all kinds — meaning those that are found in nature and not processed — are the best sources of micronutrients, including antioxidants (also called phytonutrients), vitamins and trace minerals. These nutrient-dense foods include vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, ancient grains, legumes and quality animal products.
How Macronutrients and Micronutrients Differ
All of the foods we eat fall under one of two general categories: macronutrients or micronutrients. One of these is not more important than the other, as both macronutrients and micronutrients are essential parts of eating a healthy, healing diet that supports different body functions.
Why are both macronutrients and micronutrients important, and how do they differ? “Macronutrients” are essentially the way we classify the calories found in foods into either one of three groups: carbohydrates, proteins or fats. “Macro” means big, so you can think of the “big picture” of our foods when you hear this term and remember that we need these in larger quantities. On the other hand, “micro” means small, which represents the fact that we need micronutrients like certain vitamins or minerals in smaller quantities.
Macronutrients are more familiar to us than micronutrients since we hear about them all the time. Each food that we eat has a proportion of macronutrients, and the one with the highest percentage is 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.
Most foods have more than one macronutrient in them (for example, dairy products are made up of fats, proteins and carbohydrates) and various different micronutrients. Nuts, vegetables and meat are other foods that have multiple macronutrients and micronutrients, since the calories from these foods comprise different proportions of carbs, fats and proteins along with minerals, antioxidants and vitamins.
Eating all three types of macronutrients 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 we need for cellular functions, hormonal balance and so on.
When comparing macronutrients vs. micronutrients, micronutrients are the “smaller picture” of our diet. When we talk about micronutients, we’re dissecting the small details of what we are eating — for example, the amount of vitamin E or phosphorus in a particular food.
The micronutrients called pectin (a type of phytonutrient and fiber) and the antioxidant called vitamin C are two types that could be found in a pear or apple. Compared to carbs, fats and proteins, we are usually less familiar with specific micronutrients and cannot always pinpoint easily which foods provide which kinds. But this doesn’t make them any less important.
Why We Need Different Micronutrients
Many micronutrients are considered “essential nutrients,” which means they are not made in the body. We must get these micronutrients from foods, otherwise we risk micronutrient deficiencies, such as iron deficiency (causing anemia or weakness), low potassium (contributing to high blood pressure), low vitamin B12 (tried to problems with cognitive functioning, especially in children) or magnesium deficiency (which can cause muscle spasms and trouble sleeping). (4)
Today, researchers have classified 13 different types of vitamins, all of which have their own important roles in body, especially protecting us from oxidative stress, slowing the aging process and preventing cancer. Some of these vitamins include vitamin A, provitamin A (Beta‐carotene), vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin E, etc.
Vitamin micronutrients can either be water-soluble or fat-soluble, which affects how we absorb them and how quickly we can hold on to them. Water-soluble vitamins include the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C, which are lost more easily through urine and bodily fluids and therefore are very important to replace each day.
Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamin A, D, E and K, which are best eaten with a source of fat (such as the fat naturally found in animal products, coconut or olive oil), which helps the body absorb them better. These micronutrients can accumulate within bodily tissue more easily so we need to replenish them less often.
Besides vitamins, minerals are other nutrients that we must aquire from the diet. Minerals play a big role in bone development, brain health, cellular functions and supporting the metabolism. Humans need at least 18 different minerals to function properly. They 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.
Macro-minerals are especially crucial for heart health, blood pressure regulation, nerve functioning, muscle movement and digestion. We need higher levels of macro-mineral nutrients (such as calicum or magnesium) compared to the trace amounts of some micronutrients like zinc or selenium. (5)
Micronutrients of all kinds are important cofactors in DNA synthesizing and metabolism, as they are frequently involved in modulating enzymes that help us absorb other nutrients and turn them into useable fuel. An example could be zinc, which is a cofactor for over 100 enzymes! Selenium is another mineral important for metabolism since it’s involved in the production of the enzyme glutathione peroxidase, known as a master antioxidant.
Other microcomplex biochemical reactions of micronutrients include B vitamins helping to transport electrons throughout the body, which supply energy; folic acid transfering methyls, which is needed for metabolic functions; and other minerals helping to form nucleic acids from proteins. (6)
A diet high in micronutrients also protects us from early signs of aging or disease and is paramount to strong immunity. Select micronutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A, zinc and copper play an important role in alteration of oxidant-mediated tissue injury.
In other words, our cells naturally produce reactive oxidants as part of the defense against infectious agents, bacteria and pollution, but consuming enough micronutrients prevents damage of cells and helps the immune system work properly. (7)
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 — which ensures you cover your bases and obtain the micronutrients your body needs.
Real, whole foods not only give us the nutrients we need to remain healthy, but they also tend to be filling, which can help us maintain a healthy weight. Many micronutrient-rich foods tend to full us up since they’re high in water and fiber (especially plant foods). High-fiber foods do a great job of not leaving us hungry and wanting to overeat, so we get enough calories and nutrients overall without consuming too many.
While the list of all micronutrients would be too long to even include here, below are some examples of the crucial roles that various common micronutrients play in the body (8):
- Fiber: lowers cholesterol, helps control blood sugar, helps with that “full” feeling and with digestion
- Potassium: lowers blood pressure, helps combat heart disease
- Vitamin A: antioxidant that fights free radicals, help with skin and eye health, fights cancer by stopping DNA mutations in cancerous cells
- Vitamin B12: helps produce hemoglobin which carries oxygen throughout the body, fights fatigue
- Vitamin C: improves immune function, prevents oxidative stress, fights cancer and common illnesses of the skin, eyes, etc.
- Vitamin D: promotes healthy bone metabolism, helps prevent depression, might help fight cancer
- Vitamin E: has antioxidant properties, protects cell membranes, protects heart
- Vitamin K: critical in blood clotting, works with vitamin D, protects against heart disease, osteoporosis, and other types of cancer
- Zinc: boosts the immune system, supports brain functioning, improves cardiovascular health
- Iodine: important for fetal development and thyroid health
- Beta-carotene: turns into antioxidant vitamin A in the body, helps with strengthening the immune system and mucous membranes
- Calcium: maintains bone strength, helpful antacid, regulates high blood pressure
- Choline: prevents fat accumulation in the liver, promotes brain development, helps prevent liver damage
- 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): reduce the risk of cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, help fight free radical damage, protect brain health
- Carotenoid (antioxidants): help protect eye health, fight macular degeneration and cataracts
- Folate: role in fetus development, cervical cancer prevention, 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, plays role in metabolism and inflammation
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2): helps prevent cervical cancer, fights headaches and migraines, can help with acne, muscle cramps, carpal tunnel and fatigue
- Selenium: has antioxidant properties, reduces the chances of prostate cancer, helps with asthma, arthritis and infertility
Among these micronutrients, several seem to be especially important to focus on since they’re some of the leading deficiencies worldwide. These include a vitamin A, vitamin D, zinc, iron, folate and magnesium deficiency. Below you’ll find some of the top food sources of these specific micronutrients.
Top Sources of Micronutrients
Micronutrients are found in supplements of all kinds, which can help fill in gaps in the diet and prevent deficiencies. However, getting vitamins and minerals the old-fashioned way, through real food instead of supplements, is best because this ensures that your body is able to properly absorb and utilize them. 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. (9)
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. There’s also risks for potential interactions of micronutrients when taken in high doses, which is another reason supplementation isn’t as beneficial as a good diet. (10)
Keep in mind that the amount of micronutrients found within different foods can vary a lot. Fresh, whole foods tend to have much more micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) than processed, junk foods. Foods that are considered processed and “high calorie” — like fried foods, sweets, refined grains, and poor-quality meats and dairy products — might contain a high amount of macronutrients (especially carbs and fats due to high levels of refined grains, sugar and vegetable oils) but have a very low amount of available micronutrients.
One reason that’s true is because micronutrients can be delicate, meaning they are easily destroyed during high-heat manufacturing processes (this is especially true of antioxidants). Another reason processed foods lack micronutrients is because they’re made using mostly “commodity crops” like corn, wheat, soy and sugar (plus various man-made chemicals created from these foods) that are low in nutrients to begin with.
For that reason, the best thing we can do to ensure we get enough micronutrients of all kinds is to eat as many “whole foods” as we can and to avoid processed, packaged foods. Vary your diet, and include lots of colorful foods, especially vegetables and fruits that are packed with antioxidants. These types of foods are highest in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (micronutrients), but by including many different foods in your diet, you get a range of healthy fats, carbs and proteins (macronutrients) too.
Here are specific foods that supply high levels of multiple micronutrients:
- 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 available to us.
- Other 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. Basically, 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 high in antioxidants like flavanoids, vitamin A and C, fiber, and potassium. Berries, in particular, are associated with brain health and cancer prevention, which is why they have high ORAC scores (oxygen radical absorption capacity) — which shows the power of a plant to absorb and eliminate free radicals. Many berries, like blueberries, are high in quercetin, a type of protective flavonoid phytonutrient that fights inflammation.
- Nuts/seeds: Omega-3 fatty acids and high levels of fiber are some of the benefits of eating nuts and seeds like chia, flax, hemp, almonds and walnuts — but they’re also great sources of antioxidants like vitamin E and micronutrients such as 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: Some of the best sources of fiber, beans are great for 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, I recommend getting even higher levels of micronutrients and dietary fiber from more nutrient-dense foods like non-starchy veggies, starchy veggies and fruit.
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