Updated: Apr 13, 2021
So what are micro nutrients? In a nutshell, micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that our body needs to orchestrate a whole raft of critical bodily functions. They're called micronutrients as we only need to take them in minute quantities. However we're at risk of serious negative health conditions if our diets lack them.
We have to ingest the micro nutrients as our bodies cannot manufacture most of them, although some can be stored, which means we don't have to eat them daily. Others we require every day since we cannot build reserves. It is not difficult to gain our requirements though a varied diet that contains nuts, whole grains and fruit and vegetables. You might have heard the saying “Eat a rainbow every day.” It simply means that, broadly speaking, the more colourful the foods you eat, the wider the range of nutrients you will gain.
Minerals are derived from non-organic sources such as rocks, salt and water. Our diet requires both macro minerals and micro minerals, or trace minerals. The seven macro minerals we need are calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, sodium and sulphur. They support our health in areas ranging from a regular heartbeat to fluid balance in our bodies and healthy bones and muscle. We need at least 100mg each of the macro minerals in our daily diet.
In addition to the macro minerals, we also require trace amounts of other key minerals, also called trace elements. Their major functions include supporting the immune system and metabolic processes, providing energy and protecting against free radicals. We need to have less than 100mg per day. There are no recommended dietary allowance (RDA) guidelines for some of these trace elements.
Vitamins unlike minerals are derived from living organisms. They fall into two categories: water soluble and fat soluble vitamins. Water soluble vitamins need to be eaten on a daily basis as they cannot be stored in the body. For this reason it is important that each of the water soluble vitamins be consumed to sufficient levels on a daily basis. The vitamins that are water soluble include the B-complex and vitamin C. Because excess levels of water soluble vitamins are flushed through the body, it is difficult to achieve toxic levels of any of the vitamins.
Fat soluble vitamins can be stored for a while in the organs of the body so whilst they need to be consumed on a regular basis, it is not so important for them to be consumed daily. One of the issues with fat soluble vitamins is that they can reach toxic levels in the body when over consumption occurs and it is for this reason that they should avoid being consumed as a supplement unless under medical supervision. Fat soluble vitamins play a key role in maintaining human health and individuals who maintain an extremely low or no fat diet are at risk of health issues as the body cannot process the vitamins without the presence of fats and oils in the diet.
It's not only the micronutrients we eat that affect the biochemical reactions in our body, but also the combinations of these nutrients that we eat. They react with each other either synergistically (complement each other) or antagonistically (fight each other) and it is for this reason that the best way of absorbing these nutrients is through diet rather than supplements, except when directed under medical supervision.
Inter-relationships between vitamins and minerals are complex, and ongoing research suggests that each vitamin and mineral affects, either synergistically or antagonistically, at least two others, which in turn affect two more. The research findings indicate that when there is an imbalance of one nutrient, it can negatively affect the levels of other nutrients. Negative inter-relationships can affect either the absorption capacity of a mineral or the metabolic processes it governs.
Evaluating food types in a more holistic manner has led to a greater understanding of the complexities related to nutrients in the diet and has resulted in many leading scientists questioning a linear approach to the consumption of nutrients in the diet and for most people there is growing evidence to support nutrient consumption through the diet rather than supplements.
There is however an argument for supplementing some of the key water soluble vitamins in the diets particularly of endurance athletes to ensure that the vitamins that support energy production and immune systems are present. Where soils are depleted in nutrients, the population may need to supplement their diet. In countries where food is cold stored for up to a year, particularly fruit and vegetables, the quality of the vitamins in particular degrade, e.g. Vitamin C in oranges, resulting in foods that have little or no nutritional value.
Cooking can denature vitamins in particular, so again, supplementation may be required for some people. The site http://www.whfoods.org/ provides a mine of information on the nutrient density of hundreds of food types, along with preparation tips and a wealth of information on healthy eating.
A relatively new area of research has opened up into the study of phytonutrients, chemicals found in plant foods that play a key role in supporting optimal health. Unlike vitamins and minerals they are not critical to sustaining life. They are however recognised for the key role they play in fighting disease and promoting health.
There are over 25,000 recognised phytonutrients (and the number is growing) that play a key role in protecting against free radical damage, lowering cholesterol and reducing cancer cell replication to name a few. The pigments found in plant foods suggest the key phytonutrients they contain so eating across the colour range of fruits and vegetables will support you in your quest for optimal health.
For a concise introduction to all the micronutrients, please feel free to download the Micronutrients for Vegans table. This table has been developed over a number of years and I hope you find it useful.