In the previous articles on “nutrition basics you must understand” we looked at calories and macronutrients – two components of food that supply our body with energy and nutrition. In this article we look at micronutrients to show you why it is so essential to choose nutrient dense food to acheive health.
Need to Know #8: micronutrients
Micronutrients are the trace minerals and vitamins that we get from food such as magnesium, iodine and vitamin A. They are called micro-nutrients because we only require them in very small quantaties. Micronutrients support all of our body’s processes such as the production of hormones and enzymes, healthy immunity, a good sex drive and more. They are crucial to processes such as digestion, thinking and, of course reproduction.
Although we only require tiny amounts of micronutrients, just a small deficiency in a single vitamin or mineral can result in lethargy and an inability to concentrate. Chronically low levels of any particular micronutrients can lead to disease and other health complications. For women of childbearing age, micronutrient deficiencies can have serious implications for the unborn child.
Micronutrients are not produced in the body and must be derived from our diet, this is why they are referred to as “essential” minerals and vitamins – we need to get them from food. Therefore it is important that we try to eat a diet rich in a range of minerals and vitamins. If we do not eat a diet that is rich in micronutrients, or there is a reason we cannot absorb them properly then we will not feel our best and could get sick. That is why eating a whole foods diet and limiting our consumption of things like grains is a good idea.
Need to know #9: Two common micronutrient deficiencies and symptoms
Vitamin D: weight gain, depression, achy joints and poor immunity. This is really common in people do not get enough sunlight. Severe vitamin D deficiencies can inhibit muscle development; reduce bone density (because you need it for calcium absorption) and impaired cognitive function in older people. Vitamin D occurs naturally in sunlight as well as some foods including liver, some fish and egg yolks. While I don’t encourage you to start sun baking for hours, exposure to some sunlight each day is very important to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D.
Magnesium: signs of mild deficiencies include muscle spasms (restless legs), constipation, irritability, difficultly sleeping low blood pressure, edema (swollen extremities), dizziness and irregular heartbeats. Magnesium is found in leafy greens like spinach and chard, almonds and dark chocolate – but it is very hard to get enough. In fact the Weston A Price foundations suggests that the majority of people in developed Western nations are probably deficient in magnesium. (1) Personally, I supplement with a bit of magnesium each day because it is hard to get enough. Recommended daily intakes are between 400mg and 1000mg. Start with a lower dose and see how you feel over time. Transdermal application (ie: through the skin) of magnesium can be done using a magnesium spray directly on the skin, or as epsom salts in a bath. These are great supplemental solutions because the magnesium is absorbed at a faster rate and you don’t get any of the digestive upset that can sometimes occur with oral magnesium supplementation.
As these two examples show, a small deficiency in a particular mineral can inhibit certain processes with a knock on affect to how we feel. Making changes to increase our consumption and proper absorption of micronutrients can therefore have life changing implications.
In this excellent Ted Talk, Dr Terry Wahls explains how she made dramatic improvements to her multiple sclerosis (MS) that had left her wheelchair bound, by eating a nutrient dense diet. She increased her consumption of mineral rich meat and vegetables and eliminated foods like grains and dairy that prevented proper absorption of these nutrients.
The calorie + micronutrient equation: avoid post-meal fatigue
Digestion is a process that requires a significant amount of micronutrients to perform all the processes necessary to break down our food and absorb energy from it. Remember our enzyme and hormone production draws on our micronutrient reserves, and creating these is critical to good digestion (eg: digestive enzymes and bile salts) and an efficient metabolism (eg: insulin production).
Imagine there are two buckets that we can top up in our bodies, one with calories and one with micronutrients. When we eat a whole food like a carrot with some liver pate we top up both our calorie reserves and our vitamin and mineral reserves. We will feel good after these foods because despite the fact we are using some of our micronutrients to digest the food, we have also given our reserves a huge boost.
However, when we eat something like pasta that contains a negligible amount of micronutrients, but a relatively high number of calories then we are only filling up one bucket. We still take away micronutrients to break down the food, but we aren’t topping them up again.
For our body to use the calories from the calorie bucket, it must take some of the reserves from the micronutrient bucket. If we don’t top that micronutrient bucket up and continue to use the reserves to break down our food, it will get low and we will feel tired and lethargic.
Additionally, because grains contain anti-nutrients (things that bind to minerals like zinc, copper and magnesium), which inhibit our body’s ability to absorb minerals and vitamins, we are even less likely to absorb things properly. If you are constantly eating these kinds of foods then you won’t be maximising your absorption of vitamins and minerals and are unlikely to feel your best.
You may have heard of the term “empty calories.” This describes a food that provides your body with energy, but does not give you any other micronutrient benefits in return. Your body will expend some of its micronutrients to digest the food, but they will not be topped up. For example a tablespoon of sugar has approximately 50 calories and 0 micronutrients. To digest the sugar (break it down in your stomach to glucose and fructose, then produce insulin to get it into your cells, then store the rest), you need to use many micronutrients. This digestive process leaves your mineral reserves depleted, which is why you might feel lethargic after eating something sweet.
*Another interesting thing to know is that alcohol depletes your micronutrient reserves hugely. This is part of why hangovers occur, because after a night out drinking your body uses up certain minerals (thiamine, B12, riboflavin etc) to metabolise and excrete the alcohol. Next time you are going out drinking try and find some foods that are high in these particular minerals (liver is always the golden egg) to help your body out.
Need to Know #10: micronutrients and their co-factors
Whole food is the food that comes to us straight from nature. These foods are full of naturally occurring minerals and vitamins. Furthermore they exist in forms that our bodies can absorb – they are the most bioavailable.
Various nutrients require other mineral and enzyme ‘partners’ to be absorbed properly. These are referred to as nutrient cofactors. For example you need adequate levels of vitamin C to absorb non-haem iron. You need vitamin D to be able to absorb calcium. And you need magnesium to be able to absorb and utilise both vitamin D and calcium. Food in its natural state gives you the right micronutrient partners, which work in harmony in your body and ensure maximum absorption. Great news: sardines contain both calcium and vitamin D!
When nutrients are added to food such as breakfast cereal they are often added in isolation. This is also the case for supplements. While a label might claim to give you a huge dose of a certain nutrient each day, it is often in a bio-unavailable form.
The same applies to some nutrient antagonists. Some micronutrients may also have another that will prevent it from being absorbed properly. For example because Vitamin A, D and E are all fat soluble, they may compete for available sources for digestion. Other minerals that may be antagonists to Vitamin A, or can raise our Vitamin A requirements include iron, selenium, copper and calcium.
The chemistry behind this is complicated, but the important thing to know is that naturally occurring minerals and vitamins from whole foods are the best.
Nature knows what to put together and what to keep apart!
This is one very good reason to choose foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. Potatoes and carrots come out of the ground, pretty much as we get them at the shop. The only change in our steak is that it isn’t breathing anymore. Apples come straight off a tree and nuts are just presented to us without their shells (most of the time).
Need to Know #11: Superfoods
‘Superfood’ is a bit of a buzz word that has floated around in the diet, health and wellness space for years. While we might hear of ‘superfoods’ that promise to burn through fat or keep you feeling energised these are likely to be gimmicks. Real superfoods are foods that are going to deliver you a huge load of micronutrients relative to the calories that you consume. Additionally, superfoods contain the right nutrient cofactors so that they are readily bioavailable. Examples of real superfoods are:
- organ meats (liver, kidneys etc)
- kale and spinach
- egg yolks
Micronutrients are an essential part of our diet that we should try to get from real food as much as possible. Whole foods bring us the right micronutrient combinations that will work for our body and keep us feeling satisfied and energised. As usual my message is the same. Try to choose foods that are straight from nature and in their whole form. Grains are not included in this. This is why trying out some of the A No Grainer recipes is a great idea. Find them here.