You are what you eat: micronutrients

Published 7:46 pm Friday, April 26, 2019

We have all heard it before — you are what you eat. But what exactly does that mean? Instead of thinking about this in terms of the foods we eat as a whole, think about it as what those foods are composed of — the macronutrients and the micronutrients. Macronutrients and micronutrients are the building blocks of our diet. Most of us are familiar with macronutrients, which consist of carbohydrates, proteins and fats and are needed by our bodies in larger quantities. However, many of us fail to recognize what micronutrients are and the importance they hold for our overall health.
Think of your body as an engine — macronutrients are the gas that makes the engine run while micronutrients are the oil that ensures everything is running smoothly. “Micronutrient” is a broad term that encompasses some more familiar terms such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. While our bodies may need much smaller quantities of micronutrients than they do macronutrients, even a small insufficiency in our intake may wreak havoc on our bodies over time. Micronutrients are vital in ensuring that all of our cells have the fuel they need to perform their respected duties. Specifically, micronutrients play a role in functions such as supporting immunity, growth and brain function, among others.
Now that we have a general idea about what micronutrients are and what they do for our bodies, let’s talk about where they come from. Many micronutrients are abundantly available in fresh fruits and vegetables, while some micronutrients (i.e. iron) are available from both plant and animal sources. In our fast-food culture, it has become increasingly difficult to meet many of our nutritional needs. Therefore, many of our processed and refined foods are fortified with micronutrients to help us meet those needs. Micronutrients are also available through supplementation, however it is best to meet your daily recommended intake of micronutrients through a well-rounded diet as supplements and refined/processed foods may not contain as much of these important nutrients as whole foods do and may not be as readily absorbed by our bodies.
A well-rounded diet including fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean proteins, and healthy fats will help us to meet both our macronutrient and micronutrient needs. The first step to consuming adequate amounts of micronutrients is understanding what we are looking for and where we can find it. Let’s look at a few important micronutrients, their primary roles, and what sources we can get them from.
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that plays a large role in calcium absorption and bone growth. Research supports that it may also affect neuromuscular function, mental health and cardiovascular disease risk. Many of us know that one great source of Vitamin D is sunlight. It is recommended that we allow ourselves 10-30 minutes of exposure to sunlight (without SPF) several days per week. Aside from sunlight, we can also obtain vitamin D from foods such as fish and fish oil, milk and mushrooms.
Selenium is a trace mineral that has many health benefits and is commonly overlooked. One great source of selenium is Brazil nuts. Eating two Brazil nuts each day is a very effective and affordable way to consume the recommended amount of selenium daily. Selenium plays a major role in our DNA function and repair, and therefore may help in the prevention of certain cancers as well as decrease risk of cardiovascular disease partly due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Iron is a vital mineral that plays a role in many processes in our bodies. Iron plays a major role in energy levels, muscular strength and performance and immune function. Iron deficiency is most common in women who are of reproductive age, however it can affect anyone of every age and gender. Iron is present in both plant and animal food sources such as red meat, shellfish, spinach, broccoli and whole grains.
Now you’re wondering, how much of these micronutrients should I be consuming every day? That is a great question, and luckily we live in a world where we have resources at the tips of our fingers. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020) is a great resource when exploring healthy eating patterns. Specific to macro- and micronutrients, Appendix 7 in the USDGA is a key tool in determining the appropriate amounts of macronutrients, vitamins and minerals that you should be consuming specific to your age and sex.
If you have underlying health issues or concerns about your health, please contact your primary care provider before making drastic changes to your diet. If you simply want to start making changes to lead a healthy lifestyle, you may contact Vidant Wellness Center at 252-975-2386 or our Nutrition Clinic at 252-847-9908 to make appointments with an exercise professional or a registered dietician.
Audrey Taylor, MS, is an exercise physiologist at Vidant Wellness Center and can be reached at 252-975-4236.