It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘big blocks’ of nutrition; Calories and macronutrients - Protein, carbs and fats.
Clearly, these are vital. Calorie balance is the determining factor in whether you lose or gain weight, and knowing your macros is pretty important when it comes to ensuring you’re building or maintaining muscle, having enough energy, and staying healthy.
But what about the smaller guys? The micronutrients?
We often hear people talk of the term vitamins and minerals, and we know we need to eat them to stay healthy, but what exactly are they, and why do they matter?
What Are Micronutrients?
According to the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour, micronutrients are -
“... about forty biochemicals that include vitamins, several fatty acids and a number of inorganic elements. They are not made by humans or most other mammals, are essential for growth and maintenance of the body and must be obtained through the food chain or in the form of supplements. Individual micronutrients usually participate in enzymes that drive biochemical processes or in a few cases are substrates for biochemical reactions.” (1.)
Essentially, micronutrients are responsible for ensuring we stay healthy.
As you’ll have guessed by the name, we typically need much lower doses of micronutrients as we do macronutrients. (Micro = small, Macro = big.)
You can break micronutrients down into two groups -
Vitamins, which are organic, and can be broken down by heat, air, or acid, and minerals, which are inorganic, much more stable and hold their structure.
Breaking Them Down Further
We can go a little further than just grouping micronutrients as vitamins and minerals.
Vitamins tend to be classed as either fat soluble, or water soluble. Fat soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K. These are absorbed in the small intestine, and move around a lot slower than water soluble vitamins. Because of this, you don’t need to consume them as regularly. They’re also best eaten with other foods that contain fats.
As you’ll have probably guessed, water soluble vitamins dissolve in water, and aren’t easily stored. Their main role is to help release energy from food, and while some do get released more slowly, they typically get digested and used faster than fat soluble vitamins.
You also have major minerals and trace minerals.
Major minerals are things like calcium, potassium, and sodium. Their main roles include balancing fluid levels within the body, and maintaining healthy bones, skin and nails.
Trace minerals include iodine, zinc, selenium and copper. These have a variety of roles, but can include creating haemoglobin, taking oxygen around the body, enzyme formation, and blocking cell damage.
And Why Are They Important?
Though we may not focus nearly as much on micronutrients as we do macronutrients, that’s not to say they aren’t as important. Far from it.
First and foremost, they help the body protect itself from disease. While there’s a clearly a genetic component in this, being deficient in certain micronutrients has been shown to correlate with a higher risk of certain cancers, as well as Alzheimer’s, and even heart disease. (2,3,4.)
They also play a vital role in immune function and brain development. (5, 6.)
While a balanced diet should enable you to get adequate vitamins and minerals, there are some which have higher rates of deficiency.
Vitamin D, for instance, is the vitamin that’s synthesised when we’re exposed to sunlight, and so, unless you live in a tropical climate or have year-round sunshine, there’s a much higher chance of you being deficient in it.
Likewise, B12 is almost solely contained in animal products, and so plant-based dieters, especially vegans, could well find themselves deficient in B12.
Calcium, iron and vitamin A are the other more common micronutrient deficiencies.
A lack of vitamins and minerals will likely lead to you feeling fatigued and sluggish. You’d also be more likely to fall sick, as your immune system would be slightly compromised.
While these wouldn’t necessarily have a direct impact on your physique, it’s likely you’d find it more difficult to recover, may lack energy for training, and wouldn’t be giving your body everything it needs to lose fat or build muscle respectively.
This is why many people not they feel different when they start ‘eating clean’ or going on a juice fast, or vegan diet. It’s the cumulative effect of eating fewer refined foods, and massively increasing their intake of micronutrients.
You needn’t go that far, (and I’d actively suggest you shouldn’t do something so extreme,) but many trainees who focus solely on hitting their macros, with little regard given to micronutrients, notice a considerable increase in how they feel and perform when they start to think more about vitamins and minerals.
It’s unlikely you need to do much more to tackle your micronutrient intake than eat a balanced diet, containing plenty of fruits and vegetables, and a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods - lean meats, oily fish, nuts, whole grains, and so on.
If you know you’re prone to certain deficiencies, they run in the family, or you have special circumstances, such living in a dark climate, following a vegan diet, or you’re a menstruating woman, it might not be a bad idea to get your levels checked with your doctor, however.
The vast majority of people will do just fine with a good diet, and perhaps a multivitamin as a back-up though.
One final point: Don’t try to track your micros. It’s far too complicated and time-consuming, and you just don’t need to.