Many of my clients ask me questions about macronutrients. How much protein to eat, what sources of fat are best, or the most popular: “How should I calculate my macro ratio?” All good questions! My answer? It depends—but the first thing to remember is this: micronutrients are an equally (or arguably more) important part of your health equation. And they’re often forgotten.
Small but mighty, let’s have a quick science crash course and talk about the tiny superheroes your body likely wants more of— micronutrients.
What exactly are micronutrients, anyway?
Micronutrients are various molecules our bodies need to carry out vital processes like energy metabolism, hormone regulation, fluid balance, nerve conduction, and so, SO much more. (Many of the problems my clients come to me with stem from a deficiency in one or more micronutrients!)
The two main categories of micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. These can be further divided into two of their own categories as well. Vitamins include the fat-soluble, like A, D, E, and K, and, on the other hand, the water-soluble— C and the Bs. Minerals include macrominerals, like magnesium and calcium, and trace minerals—those you need only a tiny amount of, relatively speaking— zinc, copper, and selenium, to name a few. Together, they make up a list of 30 compounds, each playing a vital role in various metabolic processes within the body. To illustrate any of these processes, however, it’s important to understand the molecule responsible for driving nearly every one of them: ATP.
You may remember from biology class that Adenosine Triphosphate— or ATP— is the “energy currency of life.” Your metabolism uses ATP to power each of your approximately 30 trillion cells, and each one of these cells uses about 10 million molecules of ATP each second! I haven’t done the exact math on that, but those numbers make it easy to see why ATP is essential. 😉
How does the body generate and use ATP? Through cellular respiration—a set of those complex processes carried out by none other than micronutrients.
What happens to the metabolism when a micronutrient deficiency occurs?
If you’ve studied the human body, you know that most metabolic processes, including cellular respiration for ATP, work as meticulously regulated chain reactions. Each requires its own unique set of “ingredients”—from amino acids to micronutrients, enzymes, and beyond— and will only work efficiently when enough of each ingredient is available. What does this mean? A deficiency in any micronutrient will stop your body from carrying out all the incredible metabolic processes it can—resulting in low energy, inflammation, lowered immunity, chronic disease, and more.
So, of which micronutrients do I need to eat more?
All micronutrients are needed to keep your metabolic processes working. However, there are some that many are more likely to be deficient in due to poor bioavailability in food, specialized diets, or simply a lower presence in the typical western diet. Here are just a few of the micronutrients I tell my patients to be mindful of:
Not only is magnesium needed to produce ATP, but it’s needed for over 300 other biological processes too. Unfortunately, due to poor soil quality and today’s standard diet, up to 50% (or more) of the population is magnesium deficient— meaning they are consuming less than 400 milligrams for men or 310 milligrams for women daily. Food sources of magnesium include pumpkin and chia seeds, almonds, spinach, and cashews! When my clients are having difficulty getting enough through diet, the form of magnesium I recommend is dependent on their regularity, as magnesium has a stool softening effect. For those who struggle with constipation, magnesium citrate is best. For the lucky ones who are regular, magnesium glycinate is a highly absorbable form that won’t have as much of an impact on your gut. Start with 100mg and work your way up to 300-400mg as needed.
Three Bs: Folate, B6, and B12
Each B vitamin is essential, but it is critical to ensure adequate intake of B6, folate, and B12 as deficiency is common. These play a vital role in gene expression, cell production, glucose regulation, and so much more. I recommend taking a good B-complex like this one to ensure adequate intake.
Vitamin D + K2
This is a big one! Vitamin D is involved in cellular processes important for immunity, cognitive function, mental health, metabolism, and beyond. Today, many general practitioners will tell you a vitamin D level of 50 ng/mL is high enough, but I can’t entirely agree. I want my client’s vitamin D levels to be between 60 and 80 ng/mL, as this range is most impactful for disease prevention and overall health. Vitamin K2, on the other hand, is also involved in many metabolic processes and is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the US. The good news is both vitamins D and K2 are super easy to supplement, as they are best taken together! My favorite is Thorne’s Vitamin D/K2 Liquid. Throw a couple of tasteless drops in your morning water or juice, and you’re set. Note: Vitamin K makes proteins involved with blood clotting and can counteract blood-thinning medication. If you are on blood-thinning medications or have health problems relating to blood clotting, speak with your doctor before supplementing with K2.
Zinc plays a vital role in immune function, metabolism, protein synthesis, and more. It is also essential for insulin and glucose regulation! Although animal foods contain the highest amounts of zinc, there are wonderful plant sources of zinc that vegetarians and vegans can turn to, like chickpeas, lentils, pumpkin seeds, and tofu. Men should aim for 11mg, while women should aim for 8mg daily. Keep in mind plant-based eaters: due to zinc’s lower bioavailability in plants, we need to aim for around 50% more of the RDA of zinc, either through food or a supplement. Note: If you have iron-deficiency anemia, a zinc supplement will compete with iron absorption, so take these supplements at least a few hours apart.
The human body can synthesize most types of fats that it needs. But Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are different—these long chain fatty acids are essential—meaning the body cannot produce them on its own. We must consume them either through food or supplementation. EPA and DHA are crucial for the health of our brain, eyes, and nervous systems and also have a hand in regulating blood clotting, flexibility of artery walls, and inflammation. Plant-based sources of DHA and EPA can be considered a superior source to fish because studies show that algal oil (made from marine algae) delivers the same omega-3 levels that eating fish does – without the heavy metals risk. There is no official RDA for omega-3s, however, most reputable organizations recommend a minimum of 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA each day for healthy adults. I love the supplement Nordic Naturals Algae Omega.
Iron is a micronutrient that is essential for growth and development. The human body uses iron to form hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body to various organs and tissues. This is crucial because adequate oxygen is required by tissues to perform their various functions effectively. Iron is also essential for boosting energy levels and enhancing immunity. Common signs of iron deficiency, often referred to as anemia, include exhaustion, lightheadedness, and confusion. More severe symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, pale skin, and hair loss. Iron deficiency is a significant issue around the world and in the United States. According to a study from 2016, about 4-5 million Americans are anemic. Try upping your intake of iron-rich foods like spinach, legumes, and pumpkin seeds.
It’s important to keep the other micronutrients like vitamin D, calcium, and iodine at top-of-mind as well. In most cases, the best way to maintain adequate micronutrient levels is through wonderful whole foods and vegetable juices, but taking high-quality supplements is an excellent way to support a clean diet when given proper guidance. For information on more micronutrient deficiencies to watch out for, food sources of each, and my go-to supplements, book a 1-on-1 with me. I can’t wait to partner with you on your health journey!