When it comes to nutrition and our diets, we tend to be focused on the macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrates. While these are absolutely essential for good health, they represent only part of the big nutrition picture. What we often fail to realize is that by solely focusing on the macronutrients, we deprive ourselves of essential micronutrients. Micronutrients including, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, are all critical for good health. Along with the basic calories and building blocks that our macronutrients supply, micronutrients provide molecules that are required to rebuild tissues and repair cells, maintain immune function, and generally keep our bodies running efficiently and smoothly; our hearts beating, our muscle contracting, and our bones supportive, etc.
Extreme micronutrient deficiencies can lead to many severe diseases and even death if left untreated. While these diseases are still, unfortunately and sadly, common globally, our Western diets are typically adequate enough to help us avoid these extremes. However, today’s Western diet tends to be high in animal-based and processed foods and dangerously low in plant-based foods. This imbalance presents a major problem when it comes to getting adequate levels of the essential micronutrients. While animal-based foods do supply us with essential macro- and micronutrients, our over-consumption and substitution of animal-based foods for plant-based choices is a problem. Processed foods represent and even bigger issue when it comes to micronutrients. Processed foods have, for the most part, had their micronutrients processed out of them. That’s why you’ll see that many processed foods, like breakfast cereals, are “fortified,” meaning that some of the vitamins and minerals have been added back to replace what was removed.
About now you may be asking yourself this…if we get enough micronutrients from our diets to avoid extreme deficiencies, what’s the problem? Well, more and more data is piling up that suggests having chronically low levels of many micronutrients is undermining our health. But how? Micronutrients play a critical role in repairing the bodies. This repair occurs all day, everyday as a function of the natural process of maintaining the human body. We add greater demands onto this normal process when we have an injury or illness or engage in lifestyle behaviors that put more demands on our bodies. When there isn’t an adequate amount of micronutrients around to aid in the normal repair mechanisms, the process either isn’t completed or is done inadequately. Clearly this is a problem. While many repairs do get completed, some will not, and this can result in chronic inflammation as the body continues to try and complete the repair job. Chronic inflammation has been associated with a whole host of diseases like diabetes, stroke, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, to name only a few. And while low levels of micronutrients isn’t the only factor in chronic inflammation, it is certainly a contributing factor.
What can you do? Eat a varied diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and beans. This will help ensure that you get the wide range of micronutrients your body needs. The micronutrient category of “phytochemicals” alone represents an estimated 4,000+ different molecules! Now the jury is still out on how many of those are truly essential to our health but we do know that many are needed, primarily due to their anti-oxidant function. Now, I’m not advocating for or against one diet or another. Everyone has to choose for themselves what works best. We all have food likes and dislikes, and many experience food allergies or struggle with chronic conditions that make certain foods off-limits. In addition, taking certain medications can rule out the consumption of whole food groups, so consult your physician before making any dramatic changes. And don’t think just because you’re a vegan you’re exempt from micronutrient deficiencies! Vegans, if not careful, may experience deficiencies in micronutrients commonly found in animal-based foods. Whatever your diet choice is, track your micronutrients. Find a free online nutrition-tacking app where you can input your daily food consumption and review not only your calories and macronutrient levels but also your micronutrient levels. See how you’re doing with meeting your micronutrient needs. Keep in mind that these apps will provide the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowances) set by the government to provide the minimum essential requirements and likely won’t include the phytochemicals. And remember these are only the minimum levels, your individual requirements may be higher depending upon the demands on your body and your current state of health.
And finally, a word on supplementation, I know you’ll ask because you’re thinking…can’t I simply take a multi-vitamin? For many people supplementation is essential. This is true of anyone whose nutritional needs exceed their ability to eat adequate quantities of foods or have trouble processing food for the micronutrients. This includes individuals with chronic GI issues like Crohn’s disease and other forms of IBD, pregnant women who have increased nutritional needs, older folks, and many others with chronic health issues or special circumstances like those individuals who eat a vegan or vegetarien diet. If you believe you’re in one of these categories, then speak with your physician. She or he can help you determine what micronutrients you may need and how best to get them. What supplementation lacks is the wide variety of phytochemicals naturally present in plant-based foods; not to mention the other known health benefits like soluble and insoluble fiber, and prebiotics to help feed the many friendly gut bacteria that provide you with health benefits of their own.
It comes down to this…we must meet our daily caloric needs to have energy and it’s important that we pay attention to the balance of macronutrients that make-up those calories. But it is equally as important to ensure that we are meeting at least our basic micronutrient requirements. Micronutrient deficiencies, even if not extreme, can undermine our health and increase our risk of disease. So take a closer look at your diet and see if you’re getting the basic micronutrient requirements!
Until next time, stay well!
Dr. Tobi Schmidt