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Micronutrients: Vitamins and Minerals

Does your plate look like a rainbow? If it doesn’t, you’re not eating right

Photo by Dose Juice on Unsplash
Photo by Dose Juice on Unsplash

Yes, eating is one of the greatest pleasures in life.

But besides that, why do we actually need food? Because without it, we won’t get the nutrients that we need to stay alive and function properly. And unlike plants, we aren’t able to produce those nutrients ourselves.

So, our bodies use a variety of substances from food to generate energy and thrive. Those substances are what we call nutrients and they come in two main types: MACROnutrients and MICROnutrients.

They may sound similar, but they’re in fact very different. 

This article will focus on micronutrients, but keep in mind that a balanced diet including both macros and micros is crucial for good health.

There’s NOT one single nutrient that will make you healthy on its own! 

Macronutrients and micronutrients. What’s the difference?

Macro means big, so macronutrients are those that we obtain in larger amounts from food:

Macros supply our calories and serve as the building blocks for muscles and tissues. Most people get plenty of them – sometimes too many! – from a regular diet. 

Micro means small. So micronutrients are those that we only need in tiny amounts, but are absolutely essential for our bodies to function properly. You’ve surely heard of them:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

Ironically, although we only need micros in small amounts, many people struggle to get enough and suffer the complications linked to vitamin or mineral deficiencies. 

 

Vitamins: types and functions

Altogether, there are 13 vitamins that our bodies absolutely need to support vital functions like growth, digestion, reproduction, and nerve function.

They are divided into two groups: water- and fat-soluble vitamins [1, 2, 3].

  • Water-soluble vitamins. These are vitamin C and the eight B-vitamins.

Their main job is to convert food into energy, but they are also powerful antioxidants. Water-soluble vitamins promote healthy skin, hair, brain, and blood, and are key to a strong nervous system.

These vitamins dissolve in water, so we flush out excess amounts in our urine. We need to consume them regularly to keep adequate blood levels.

  • Fat-soluble vitamins. These are vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Fat-soluble vitamins help protect vision, strengthen teeth and bones, boost the immune system, support blood clotting, and provide antioxidants to fight inflammation.

These vitamins dissolve in fat, so we don’t discard them in our urine. Instead, we store them in our liver and fatty tissue for later use. That’s why we don’t need them every day and in fact, excessive intake can lead to toxicity and other adverse effects [4, 5].

 

Minerals: types and functions

Unlike vitamins, which are produced by plants or animals, minerals originate from rocks, soil, and water. Luckily, we don’t need to eat rocks to get them! Plants do the job for us.

Minerals help maintain the structural framework of our muscles, bones, and teeth.

They’re also involved in a range of bodily functions like the control of our blood pressure and the health of our heart, brain, and nerves. 

Minerals are also divided into 2 groups [1, 6, 7]:

  • Microminerals. These are “common” minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, and potassium
  • Trace minerals. These are “rare” but vital minerals that we need in smaller amounts: iron, manganese, molybdenum, iodine, chromium, copper, zinc, and selenium. 

 

Best foods for vitamins and minerals

There are endless lists out there with the best food sources for micronutrients. But we can all agree that they’re long, repetitive, and downright boring.

That’s why, before giving you yet another list (and we still will), we’d like to emphasize this:

Don’t memorize food lists for individual nutrients.

Instead, aim for varied, balanced meals that provide diverse vitamins and minerals.

Sounds difficult? It’s actually super easy with this little trick: EAT A RAINBOW 🌈

Enhance your meals with fruits and veggies of different colors to increase your intake of diverse micronutrients. Try to cover the range of red, green, orange, purple, yellow, and white in most of your meals. Who ever said that eating healthy had to be boring?

You can also achieve a balanced, healthy diet with this little cheat sheet:

  • Eat more of these foods: fruits and vegetables (think rainbow), nuts, seeds, whole grains like brown rice and whole oats, legumes like beans and lentils, lean protein like fish and seafood, and healthy fats like peanut, olive or sesame oil.
  • Eat less of these foods: whole milk and full-fat dairy foods, highly refined grains, processed meats, red meat, and sugars (incl. sugary drinks).

Sources of vitamins & minerals

Please note that we aren’t including daily value (% DV) requirements, because following so many numbers can be confusing and it’s actually not necessary for most people.

Foods for water-soluble vitamins

Water-soluble vitaminsGood food sources [1, 2, 7]
B1 (Thiamine)Soy milk, watermelon, whole grains like brown rice or whole oats, pork
B2 (Riboflavin)Whole grains like brown rice or whole oats, milk, yogurt, cheese, leafy greens like bok choy and spinach
B3 (Niacin)Fish, beef, chicken, whole grains, mushrooms, potato
B5 (Panthothenic acid)Chicken, eggs, whole grains, broccoli, avocado, mushrooms
B6 (Pyridoxin)Soy products, banana, legumes like peas and lentils, fish, beef, chicken
B7 (Biotin)Whole grains, egg, fish, soybeans
B9 (Folic acid)Spinach, broccoli, legumes like peas and lentils, citrus fruits like oranges, fortified cereals
B12 (Cobalamin)Fish, beef, chicken, milk, cheese
CGuava, bell peppers, broccoli, tomato, spinach, citrus fruits like oranges and pomelos, potato, strawberry

Foods for fat-soluble vitamins

Fat-soluble vitaminsGood food sources [1, 2, 7]
ACarrots, pumpkins, mangoes, eggs, fish, shrimp, fish liver oils, beef liver, spinach, sweet potatoes, fortified milk
DFortified milk and cereals, fatty fish, sunlight*, supplements**
ENuts, seeds, vegetable oils, whole grains, peanut butter, fatty fish, fish liver oil, leafy greens like kale, spinach, or bok choy
KLeafy greens like kale, spinach, or sawi, cabbage, broccoli, eggs, milk

*: Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin. Our skin can produce enough vitamin D if it gets enough sunlight. 

**: Most people don’t get enough vitamin D from sunlight and diet alone, making supplements necessary.

Foods for minerals

MicromineralsGood food sources [1, 2, 7]
CalciumMilk, yogurt, cheese, salmon, leafy greens like spinach, kale or bok choy
PhosphorousChicken, pork, organ meat, seafood, dairy, nuts, whole grains like brown rice and whole oats, lentils
MagnesiumBananas, seeds, nuts, dark chocolate, legumes like peas and lentils, leafy greens, whole grains
PotassiumPrunes, apricots, raisins, bananas, legumes like beans and lentils, potatoes, broccoli, spinach, watermelon

 

Trace mineralsGood food sources [1, 2, 7]
IronBeef, chicken, eggs, nuts, lentils, spinach, tofu, fortified foods
IodineIodized salt, fish, seafood
CopperNuts, seeds, whole grains like brown rice or whole oats, shellfish, beans
ZincWhole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes like peas or lentils, beef, shellfish, eggs
ManganeseNuts, beans, whole grains like brown rice and whole oats, pineapple, leafy greens
ChromiumFish, nuts, whole grains, cheese, broccoli, bananas, apples 
MolybdenumLegumes like lentils and peas, nuts, whole grains, beef liver
SeleniumNuts, seafood, organ meat

Micronutrients for special needs

The daily requirements of certain micronutrients might differ for specific populations. Here are some notable cases [7, 8]:

Vitamin D

We humans actually produce vitamin D on our own, but we need to expose our skin to plenty of sunlight to do so.

However, not everybody spends enough time in the sun to produce enough vitamin D. And to make matters worse, very few foods contain high amounts of this fat-soluble vitamin.

This is why older adults, people with low exposure to sunlight, and people with dark skin might need supplements to fight vitamin D deficiencies and prevent bone fractures. However, no supplement should be taken without consulting with a healthcare professional first.

Vitamin B9

Folic acid or vitamin B9 is vital for the production of new cells. This is particularly important during the early stages of pregnancy when the baby is developing its main organs.

If you are pregnant (especially first trimester) or are planning to get pregnant, you need to increase your intake of vitamin B9 to prevent brain and spine birth defects. 

This can be done either through food or supplements, approved by a physician of course.

Vitamin B12

This water-soluble vitamin is mostly present in animal products, which means that vegetarians usually don’t get enough of this nutrient. A supplement might be advisable in this case, to prevent memory loss and numbness of arms and legs. 

Vegetarians may also need supplements with zinc and iron, as these nutrients are more difficult to absorb from plant sources. Always consult your doctor before taking any supplements.

Iron

Iron-deficiency anemia is a common condition for women in their reproductive age (15 – 49 years). It’s mostly due to the monthly blood loss from menstruation, although pregnancy and low iron intake are also common causes.

Without iron, our red blood cells cannot carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. In the long run, this results in symptoms like general fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, brittle nails, pale skin, and cold hands and feet. 

If you experience these symptoms for a long time, it might be time to check your iron blood levels. Talk to your doctor about it. If your levels are low, you’ll be prescribed appropriate treatment.

Sodium

Sodium is a special case. Not because we need more of it, but because most of us need less.

We need sodium to contract our muscles, send nerve impulses, and regulate our blood pressure. But our modern diets are loaded with sodium, coming mostly from salt and MSG.

These flavor enhancers surely make food tastier, but overdoing their consumption has devastating effects on human health. 

Reduce your sodium intake to keep your blood pressure under control and reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease. Hint: add only half the seasonings to your instant noodles. They will still be yummy, but you’ll cut the risk by half!

 

Take-home messages

Vitamins and minerals are not an optional treat: they are absolutely essential for good health

  • Effective strategies like “eating a rainbow” will help you obtain a wide range of micronutrients from fruits and veggies. Rainbow meals look appetizing and they taste great too.
  • Unprocessed foods like nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes are also potent sources of vitamins and minerals. They are delicious, easy to find, and many already come ready to eat! 

What steps are you taking to increase your intake of micronutrients? 

If you’re looking for options, check our Grain Forest recommendations. Our mission is to bring wholesome and nutritious food to you and your family.

Nutritious recommendations for you

  1. Harvard Health Publishing. Listing of vitamins. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/listing_of_vitamins
  2. Harvard Health Publishing. The best foods for vitamins and minerals. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-best-foods-for-vitamins-and-minerals
  3. NHS. Vitamins and minerals. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/
  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Too much vitamin D may harm bones, not help. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/too-much-vitamin-d-may-harm-bones-not-help
  5. Vitamin Toxicity: Practice Essentials, Pathophysiology and Etiology, Epidemiology. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/819426-overview
  6. Harvard Health Publishing. The larger role of micronutrients – Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-larger-role-of-micronutrients
  7. Streit L, MS, RDN, LD. Micronutrients: Types, Functions, Benefits and More. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/micronutrients
  8. CDC. Micronutrient Facts. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/micronutrient-malnutrition/micronutrients/index.html

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