Nutrients are key to healthful eating. Think of them in two subsets: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fat, which we’ve discussed. They’re the big stuff, your primary energy source.
Micronutrients are mainly vitamins and minerals. You don’t need as many micronutrients as macronutrients, but don’t let their “micro” categorization fool you — you won’t survive without them. They help prevent disease and are vital to your body’s development.
This is the third installment of a new WorkLife series, Healthy Living Basics for Everyone. The sanely paced plan helps you with nutrition, exercise and lifestyle and includes a mental component that helps clarify goals and identify what might hold you back.
As a rule, you want to get your micronutrients from fresh food, not manufactured multivitamins and supplements, nutrition and health experts say.
“I’m pretty much a ‘Food First’ believer,” says Laurie Mitchell, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, who oversees Unum’s corporate wellness programs. “If you eat a variety of foods — mostly plants — in a balanced fashion, you pretty much get everything you need.”
But there are exceptions, Mitchell notes. For example, pregnant women need more folic acid, anemic folks need more iron, and folks who shun the sun need vitamin D supplements. Your ideal intake of micronutrients also is based on your age and gender, though there are some general minimum recommendations to prevent deficiencies, according to the Institute of Medicine, which developed food guidelines for the United States and Canada.
It’s also worth noting getting too much of micronutrients — from supplements, mainly — can be toxic. Iron and selenium are examples, and too much vitamin A can be bad for your bones.
A closer look at micronutrients will give you a better sense of what they are and how you can best consume them.
Vitamins come from plants and animals. A few your body can make itself under proper circumstances: vitamin D, for example (you need sunlight to create vitamin D, and at least 15 minutes a day should do it).
There are two types of vitamins: water-soluble and fat-soluble.
• Water-soluble: Vitamin C and B vitamins (B-1, B-2, B-3, B-5, B-6, B-9, B-12)
Generally, your body needs constant replenishment of water-soluble vitamins because it expels whatever it can’t use. Sources of water-soluble vitamins, according to Harvard Health Publishing and other sources:
B-1: ham, soymilk, watermelon, acorn squash
B-2: milk, yogurt, cheese, whole and enriched grains and cereals
B-3: meat, poultry, fish, fortified and whole grains, mushrooms, potatoes
B-5: chicken, whole grains, broccoli, avocados, mushrooms
B-6: meat, fish, poultry, legumes, tofu and other soy products, bananas
B-7: whole grains, eggs, soybeans, fish
B-9: fortified grains and cereals, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, legumes (black-eyed peas and chickpeas)
B-12: eggs, meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese
Vitamin C: citrus fruit, potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts
• Fat-soluble: Vitamins A, D, E, K
Your body can store fat-soluble vitamins. Sources of fat-soluble vitamins, according to Harvard Health Publishing and other sources:
Vitamin A: beef, liver, eggs, shrimp, fish, fortified milk, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, spinach, mangoes
Vitamin D: fortified milk and cereals, fatty fish
Vitamin E: avocados, vegetables oils, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts
Vitamin K: cabbage, eggs, milk, spinach, broccoli, kale
Minerals come mainly from rocks, soil and water. That means you find them in plants or animals that eat plants. You don’t need all minerals to maintain good health. There are two categories of minerals: major and trace.
Your body needs a higher quantity of major minerals than trace minerals. A few key major minerals and where you’ll find them, according to Harvard Health Publishing and other sources:
Calcium: yogurt, cheese, milk, salmon, leafy green vegetables (kale, collard greens), sesame seeds
Magnesium: spinach, broccoli, legumes, seeds, whole-wheat bread
Potassium: meat, milk, most fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes
Sodium: salt, soy sauce, vegetables (most people get plenty of sodium, often from processed foods, and could stand to consume less)
Your body needs comparatively less of these. A few key trace minerals and where you’ll find them, according to Harvard Health Publishing and other sources:
Chromium: meat, poultry, fish, nuts, cheese
Copper: shellfish, nuts, seeds, whole-grain products, beans, prunes
Fluoride: fish, teas
Iodine: iodized salt, seafood
Iron: red meat, poultry, eggs, fruits, green vegetables, fortified bread
Manganese: nuts, legumes, whole grains, tea
Selenium: seafood, seeds, nuts
Zinc: meat, shellfish, legumes, whole grains, wheat germ
Find a play-by-play breakdown of the specific roles and rundowns for each vitamin and mineral in this handy chart from Harvard Health Publications.
But spare yourself the hassle of creating a matrix of what to eat to get certain micronutrients. Just eat a balanced diet that includes grains, fruits and veggies. To help, try these foods that give you lots of bang for your buck: avocados, beans, brussels sprouts, chicken, eggs, seeds and sweet potatoes.
Journalist Mitra Malek regularly researches content related to nutrition and wellness for Yoga Journal, for which she was an editor. Connect with her at www.mitramalek.com.