Today I’d like to talk about micronutrients.
The little guys.
With the decidedly unsexy name.
We only need micronutrients in very tiny amounts. But those tiny amounts pack a super powerful punch.
Because even though they come in small quantities, micronutrients are absolutely vital for normal metabolism, cognitive function, hormone production, cell function, bone and skin health, and immune response.
Simply put, these itty-bitty vitamins and minerals have a BIG job to do!
What are micronutrients?
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals found in foods. Each one has a specific job to do in the body, whether it is to produce enzymes and hormones, support immune health, signal nerve impulses and muscle function or keep your cells and tissues healthy.
So let’s first talk about vitamins…
There are thirteen vitamins that quietly hide in the food you eat. They kick into gear to perform their all-important jobs as soon as they are absorbed in your intestinal tract.
Vitamins can be divided into two categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Of the 13 total vitamins, 4 are fat-soluble vitamins while the 9 remaining vitamins are water-soluble.
The fat-soluble vitamins are Vitamins A, D, E and K. These vitamins require fat in order to be absorbed and are stored in your body’s tissues. Water-soluble vitamins (the eight B-complex Vitamins as well as Vitamin C) dissolve in water. These vitamins are not stored in the body and therefore must be replenished every day.
And what about minerals?
Minerals are inorganic nutrients your body requires in continued supply to sustain a healthy life. While there are thousands of different minerals, only 21 have an important impact on your diet–among them are: iodine, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, and zinc.
All minerals come from the soil and thus enter humans or animals via plants. The more plants you eat, the more minerals you ingest.
What do the various micronutrients actually do?
Here’s a detailed list of some of the key micronutrients and their roles:
- B vitamins allow your body to extract energy from the foods you eat.
- Vitamin E and Vitamin C are antioxidants that work together to protect cells from environmental damage and keep cell membranes healthy.
- Vitamin A is important for immune system support, vision health and reproduction.
- Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium for strong bones.
- Vitamin K helps the blood clot so wounds can heal.
- Magnesium is a cofactor for over 300 enzymatic reactions.
- Calcium and phosphorus help support bone health.
- Sodium, potassium and chloride conduct electricity between cells and play a vital role in nerve impulses and muscle contractions.
- Iron is responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
- Zinc is critical to the immune system, cognition, motor function and healing.
What happens if you don’t get enough micronutrients?
Micronutrient deficiency is responsible for a wide variety of health problems including:
- Increased risk of many age-related chronic diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease.
- Anemia and impaired mental development (iron deficiency.)
- Eye disorders such as xerophthalmia which can lead to blindness (lack of Vitamin A.)
- Premature births and birth defects (folate deficiency.)
Can you get enough micronutrients when you eat a plant-based diet?
It is important to emphasize that all the micronutrients you will ever need can be found in plants.
Here’s a comprehensive list of micronutrients and where to find them when eating a plant-based diet:
- Vitamin C plays a huge part in overall health. Luckily, it’s available in all citrus fruits as well as strawberries and bell peppers.
- Vitamin E helps protect cells from damage by free radicals and is found in spinach, tomato sauce, red bell pepper, avocado, nuts (especially almonds), and seeds.
- Vitamin K is found in most leafy green vegetables.
- B Vitamins help metabolize nutrients your body takes in. Quinoa, seeds, beans, avocados and leafy greens are rich in all Bs but vitamin B12. (Most people following a strict whole food, plant-based diet need to take a B12 supplement.)
- Vitamin A is found in carrots and most yellow, orange and green vegetables.
- Vitamin D, also known as the “sunshine vitamin” is synthesized in the body when we’re exposed to sunlight.
- Calcium is available in a wide variety of plant-based foods including kale and collard greens, sweet potatoes, broccoli, carrots, chickpeas and almost every other kind of legume, whole grains and fruits.
- Iron can be found in leafy green vegetables like spinach and broccoli. Legumes and pumpkin seeds are great plant-based iron sources.
- Zinc keeps hair and skin healthy while playing its part in immune function. Get plenty of zinc by loading up on beans, nuts and whole grains.
- Copper helps form hemoglobin in the blood and keeps nerves functioning properly. Two good sources are nuts and soy beans.
- Chromium is important for maintaining blood glucose levels. Chromium-rich foods include peas and whole wheat and rye breads.
- Iodine is important to proper thyroid function and can be found in sea vegetables.
- Selenium is a mineral that serves as an antioxidant. It’s highly concentrated in Brazil nuts.
- Potassium, magnesium, chloride and sodium are electrolytes that can be found in almost all vegetables.
It’s important to remember that no single food has every vitamin and mineral your body needs. So a well-balanced and diverse diet is critical to maintaining the proper levels of micronutrients in the body.
The good news is you can get every single vitamin and mineral you need from a whole food, plant-based diet. Just make sure your daily intake of vegetables, legumes, grains and fruits contains lots of color and diversity!