Do you ever look at your nutrition like Ikea furniture? Well maybe you should try it.
Both utilise weird names that seem to be taken from a Scrabble game played in the dark (what is a Kardemamma? How does one Beta-Carotene?), need a combination of big and little parts working together to create a super shoe rack or a rad lunch, and it’s mad fun exploring all these weird bits and intricacies.
Okay maybe not that last one, but you get the idea.
Without the big parts, we just have a tiny stack of pegs and screws that have nothing to work with. Without the little parts to keep everything together, we can’t craft our mighty shelf stack, and everything just kinda sits there, not doing very much.
This is the same with nutrition.
Without the big parts (macronutrients, aka: macros, aka: carbs proteins, fats and alcohol) our body would have nothing to work with, leaving us scrawny and without energy. Like a little pile of peg bones with nothing to work with. Without the little parts (micronutrients, aka vitamins and minerals), we can’t keep build anything beyond a big pile of parts. All our macros just go through the motions and can’t work together to craft a slamming physique or build a fitness powerhouse. Everything will just sit there, as a lump. Not doing very much.
Some will argue that this is a tenuous metaphor at best, and a gross oversimplification for nutrition as a whole. For these people I would simply argue that I don’t care*, and we shall move swiftly on to the main course of this article, where we get to grips with micronutrients and what they’re all about.
*[Disclaimer: This is a joke. Of course this is an oversimplification, it’s the intro. Duhhh.]
What Are Micronutrients?
As you know, macronutrients are divided into different groups as they each have slightly different uses in the body (carbs, proteins, fats, and alcohol). The same is true for micronutrients, and they have just two groups: vitamins and minerals. From here, things can get a little confusing.
As you can see, vitamins are a pain in the ass. Not only are they gangs of different micronutrients (for example vitamin A - used for eye sight, immune function, etc - includes beta-carotene in plants or retinol in animal products), but they come in 2 different varieties: water soluble and fat soluble.
*sigh* down the rabbit hole we go.
Fat Soluble vs Water Soluble Vitamins
How a vitamin acts within the body determines its class. In a nutshell: fat soluble can be stored in our fat stores for a long time and water soluble cannot be stored (they just end up urinated out) so we need to consume water soluble vitamins more often.
Fat Soluble Vitamins
Includes Vitamins A, D, E, and K
Usually absorbed in fat globules (chylomicrons) that travel through the lymphatic system of the small intestines before getting chucked out into the rest of the body, where they are stored in body tissues so that we don’t need to consume them each and every day. If you constantly take in too much of one of these vitamins, over time this can lead to hypervitaminosis as stores pile up.
As these vitamins are stored in the fat, if you have a low fat intake or your fat intake is compromised for some reason you won’t be able to store them, so will be at greater risk for being deficient in this group of vitamins.
Water Soluble Vitamins
Includes B vitamins, vitamin C and folic acid.
Unlike fat soluble vitamins, we can’t store water solubles. On the bright side, this means we need to eat more - for nutrition *yay*. Any extra we get in our diet is just urinated out, which makes it harder to consume a damaging amount of them but not impossible. However, if you’re consuming 10 tonnes of fruit and veg a day, hypervitaminosis is the least of your problems you weirdo.
Fun fact - there used to be more B vitamins (B4, 8, 10 and 11), but after further study it was found they weren’t essential for life and some could be manufactured by the body, so they got booted out the B vitamin gang as they didn’t meet these vitamin classification requirements.
We need minerals for 3 main reasons:
Building healthy bones and teeth
Controlling body fluids inside and outside cells
Converting food into energy
Like vitamins, minerals also have 2 subgroups: macrominerals and trace minerals.
Why wouldn’t they, it’s not like I’ve got enough words in this article already….
Macrominerals (like macronutrients) are minerals your body needs in greater amounts, while trace minerals aren’t as in demand. Still important, we just need less of them.
I know you’re dying to find out which minerals fall into each category. So cast your eyes yonder, intrepid reader. And bear with me as I exhaust my stores of foofy writing in a bid to stay awake.
How Much is Enough
Now we’ve gotten to grips with the plethora of vitamins and minerals out there, how do we make sure we’re getting enough in our diets? As you can see by how far the scroll bar is from the bottom, this answer is not as straightforward as you might think.
Well it kinda is, but there’s a couple obstacles in our way.
The first and foremost being that different ways of preparing and cooking foods can break down certain micronutrients, so you could have all the micronutrients in the world, until you nuke them in the microwave and they leak out and away from your once nutritious greens. This isn’t the fate of all micronutrients - it’s mostly the water soluble ones that will literally just leak out while being boiled or steamed for a long period of time - but it is still a factor to consider when preparing food. The key here is avoid boiling or exposing your micronutrient dense foods (mostly plants) to heat for too long - the fresher the better.
The second obstacle is that most micronutrients are synergistic (especially minerals). This means that they work in pairs or groups to do their various jobs around the body. This isn’t a problem if you get all your micronutrients in from your diet as they will be presented together through the variety of food you eat (as they were likely working together at natural levels in whatever plants/animals you’re eating) - but if you take any kind of supplementation this skews the equation. In essence, taking too much of one will be counter-productive to another, as your huge intake of the supplemented micronutrient drain the reserves of it’s non-supplemented partner as it goes about its work (for example calcium supplementation will reduce magnesium, zinc supplementation can reduce copper). This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t supplement or take extra vitamins and minerals - it just means you need to watch you’re not overdoing one, and having a knock on effect to the others.
This begs the question, how do we know we’re getting too little/much or enough of a micronutrient?
As there are so many micronutrients to consider, on your own it can be difficult to pin down if you’re deficient in any of them. There are a lot of people who will tell you that you feel tired because of a lack of iron, but could it also be because you’re not getting enough carbs? Or maybe you’re ill? Maybe you’re not getting enough zinc, so you’re not able to recover from your workouts well enough? The point here is that there’s often more than one reason you’re not feeling 100%, so don’t jump on the nearest vitamin bandwagon.
Like diets, there are plenty of micronutrient fads, trends and “secrets” with each new scientific and not so scientific study that comes out.
The best way to find out if you’re deficient in a certain micronutrient? Go to your doctor and get a blood test. Here, you can find out exactly which micronutrients you’re lacking in, and can get specialised advice what you need to get more of.
Doctors will understand your medical background and daily life needs, and can help understand what you need to be getting more or less of. Think of how the micronutrient requirements will be different for someone with diabetes (unable to store glucose) or anaemia (reduced iron), compared with someone without these conditions.
While they may not be radically different for people without major diseases, you won’t know for certain without getting checked out by a professional. This is why I’m not laying out specific recommendations for micronutrients, because each individual will be different. I can wax lyrical about the benefits of Vitamin D, but for someone who already gets enough (if you live in a sunny country for example, you absorb a lot of vitamin D from the sun), this recommendation is not helpful.
What if you’ve not got time/access to a doctor and blood tests?
Eat a varied diet.
Remember, micronutrients are not required in the same amount as macronutrients, you don’t need a huge amount of micronutrients to remain healthy. This is easily done by eating a variety of fruit and vegetables, incorporating lots of colour into your diet will ensure you get a good variety of micronutrients to remain healthy. If you’re still worried about meeting micronutrient requirements, a simple multi or all-in-one vitamin can give you peace of mind. As it has all the essential vitamins and minerals together, you don’t have to worry so much about cooking methods leaking them out.
The only thing with multivitamins is a lot of micronutrients will be in high doses, not high enough to be toxic but could unbalance your synergistic pairs. Not the end of the world, but still something to consider if you’re thinking about ditching this food malarky and going magic pill route.
Putting the Pieces Together
At the end of the day, as there are many more combinations of micronutrients and varied effects that they have on the body (compared with macronutrients), scientists and nutritionists are making new discoveries all the time about how all these different molecules interact and function in our bodies. This makes it a very interesting field, and of course an ever changing one, which is why we hear so much about different recommendations and fads.
Like training and the rest of nutrition, we can see there’s no one perfect way to go about it. Eat a variety of foods, and if you’re concerned or intrigued see about getting a blood test for your nutrient levels. If you hate what you’re eating, switch it up - there’s more than one nutritious food out there, and we only need small amounts of micronutrients so there’s no need to restrict yourself so.
Much like Ikea, there’s a million different collections and looks, and everyone will have different opinions about and needs from their furniture (nutrition). So test the waters, see what you like and what works for you, and crack on you Kardemumma.
Bet you thought I’d forgotten about the tenuous Ikea metaphor, eh? Still tenuous, but felt I had to finish what I started.
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Colorado State University. 2012. Water Soluble Vitamins. Available from: http://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/water-soluble-vitamins-b-complex-and-vitamin-c-9-312/ [Date Accessed 24.6.2017].
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