The Hierarchy for Dietary Success: Part 3 - Micronutrients

Welcome back to the third installment of the Hierarchy for Dietary Success series! During the past two weeks, we have discussed the importance of energy balance through the manipulation of calories and how to optimize the composition of calories through the use of macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs) for your respective goals.  

                                                              Photo Credit: Eric Helms

                                                              Photo Credit: Eric Helms

 

If you are just joining us, then I recommend taking a look at Part 1 and Part 2 of this series before moving forward.  

This week we are going to discuss micronutrients.  Unfortunately, micronutrients are the bastard child of the nutritional world.  They get very little attention, yet they play a very important role both for optimal health and physical performance.  

In a way, they kind of remind me of New York City's Sanitation Department.  When it comes to NYC, you have the FDNY (New York's Bravest), the NYPD (New York's Finest), and then the Department of Sanitation (New York's Strongest).  The first two are sexy and well publicized kind of like calories and macronutrients.  Then you have Sanitation Department, which is super important to the running city, but largely forgotten, just like micronutrients.  That is until a snowstorm comes and all hell breaks loose.  In a similar fashion, people don't care about vitamins and minerals until they are deficient in one and suffering the effects of it.  

 

When it comes to micronutrients, as mentioned briefly before, it can be broken down into two broad categories.  They are vitamins and minerals.  Both are considered micronutrients because you need them in smaller quantities than your macronutrients.

Now, this post is not going to go into the detail of every single vitamin and mineral.  If I did, then this would be one boring post. You probably wouldn't read it and I wouldn't blame you.

Instead, I am going to explain the importance of vitamins and minerals, give you a brief overview of the most important vitamins and minerals, and provide food sources that you can consume to make sure that you obtain the necessary amount of each.  

 

WHY ARE VITAMINS AND MINERALS IMPORTANT?

Everyday, your body produces new skin, hair, muscle and bone.  It creates red blood cells that carry nutrients and oxygen throughout your body.  It issues instructions through chemical messengers that shuttle vital hormones throughout your body, which help you sustain life. 

But to do all this, the body requires raw materials that it cannot produce on its own.  These raw materials include over 30 vitamins, minerals, and other dietary compounds that your body needs in sufficient amounts to survive.  

Vitamins and minerals perform hundreds of functions within your body, such as strengthening bones, bolstering your immune system, converting food into energy, and repairing cellular damage. Remove or become severely deficient in these vital components and you can virtually guarantee adverse effects ranging from cavities to blindness.  

This is especially alarming when several studies indicate that approximately 68% of the North American population is deficient in calcium, 90% in chromium, 75% in magnesium, and 80% in vitamin B6.  

Why are nutrition deficiencies so common despite the majority of Americans being well-fed?  It mainly stems from a typical American diet, which is severely deficient nutrient dense foods like fruits and vegetables. After all, we learned last week that the average American barely consumes 15 grams of fiber per day!  

 

VITAMINS

Although both minerals and vitamins are considered micronutrients, both differ in basic ways. Vitamins are organic compounds that can be broken down by heat, air, or acid.  For this reason vitamins tend to be as fickle as a New Yorker's weekend plans.  The compounds within vitamins constantly change when they are exposed to air or heat during the cooking process. 

When it comes to vitamins, they are categorized as either water-soluble or fat-soluble depending on whether they dissolve better in either fat or water.  

Water-Soluble Vitamins

Water-soluble vitamins are found in many foods that you eat.  They are absorbed directly into your bloodstream during the digestive process.  Since most of the human body is comprised of water, these vitamins tend to circulate quite easily within the body.  Your kidneys help regulate the levels of water-soluble vitamins and remove any excess through urination.  

Overall, there are 9 important water-soluble vitamins.  

1. Thiamine (Vitamin B1)

Function: Coenzyme for carbohydrate metabolism.  Needed for the normal functioning of the nervous system.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 1.2mg and Women - 1.1mg

Sources: Sunflower seeds, green peas, pork, oranges, lima beans, and pecans

2. Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)

Function: Needed for red blood cell formation, nervous system functioning, and the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 1.3mg and Women - 1.1mg

Sources: Beef liver, wheat germ, almonds, cheese, whey protein, milk, eggs, lamb, pork, veal, beef, and yogurt

3. Niacin (Vitamin B3)

Function: Needed for the creation of sex and stress-related hormones in the adrenal glands and for the metabolism of carbohydrates into glucose.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 16mg and Women - 14mg

Sources: Mushrooms, asparagus, brown rice, sweet potato, potato, lentil, barley, carrots, celery, turnips, peaches, and salmon

4. Panthothenic Acid (Vitamin B5)

Function: Needed for the maintenance of a healthy digestive tract and for the absorption of Vitamin B2.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 5mg and Women - 5mg

Sources: Corn, cauliflower, kale, broccoli, tomatoes, avocado, egg yolks, beef kidney, duck, split peas, peanuts, soybeans, sweet potato, lobster, and salmon

5. Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6)

Function: Needed for the creation of neurotransmitters, normal brain function, and the creation of hormones, such as serotonin, melatonin, and norepinephrine.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 1.3mg and Women - 1.3mg

Sources: Bananas, soybeans, tuna, raw carrots, spinach, alfalfa sprouts, navy beans, peanut butter, garbanzo beans, walnuts, cabbage, and salmon

6. Folic Acid (Vitamin B9)

Function: Crucial for brain function and emotional health.  Aids in the production of RNA and DNA and especially important for women, who are pregnant.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 400mcg and Women - 600mcg

Sources: Black-eyed peas, pinto beans, lima beans, white beans, peanuts, turnip greens, asparagus, seaweed, and oranges

7. Cobalamin (Vitamin B12)

Function: Vital for the creation of red blood cells and maintaining healthy nerve cells.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 2.4mcg and Women - 2.4mcg

Sources: Oysters, lamb, egg yolks, beef, shellfish, chicken, and organ meats

8. Biotin (Vitamin H)

Function: Assists in the metabolism of fatty acids and the utilization of B vitamins.  Strengthens hair and fingernails.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 30mcg and Women - 30mcg

Sources: Most nuts (peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, macadamia), liver, milk, egg yolks, yeast, cheese, cauliflower, carrots, avocados, raspberries, and sweet potatoes

9. Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)

Function: Promotes healthy cell development, wound healing, and resistance to infections. Serves as an antioxidant.  Necessary for the conversion of folic acid.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 90mg and Women - 75mg

Sources: Brussel sprouts, strawberries, oranges, limes, lemons, grapefruit, papaya, cantaloupe, tomatoes, pineapple, raspberries, potato, and onions

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Unlike water-soluble vitamins that are easily absorbed in your bloodstream, fat soluble-vitamins gain entry into the bloodstream via lymph channels in the intestinal wall.  Once in the bloodstream they are coupled with protein in order to travel throughout the body.  Any excess amount of fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the liver and fatty tissues to be used at a later date.  

Overall, there are 4 important fat-soluble vitamins.

1. Vitamin A

Function: Promotes growth and repair of body tissues, bone formation, and healthy skin.  Essential for night vision.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 900mcg and Women - 700mcg

Sources: Whole milk, butter, liver, egg yolks, and certain cheeses

2. Vitamin D

Function: Aids in the absorption of calcium and helps prevent bone loss.  Helps maintain blood levels of calcium and phosphorus.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 600IUs and Women - 600IUs

Sources: Fish (herring, salmon, oysters, catfish, sardines, tuna, shrimp, mackerel), milk, margarine, egg yolks, butter, and sunlight

3. Vitamin E

Function: Protects cells from damage that can lead to disease and premature aging.  Prevents blood clots from forming inside of blood vessels.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 1,000mg and Women - 1,000mg

Sources: Wheat germ, mayonnaise, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pistachio), butter, and peanut butter

4. Vitamin K

Function: Needed for normal blood clotting and bone health.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 90mcg and Women - 90mcg

Sources: Kale, brussel sprouts, spinach, chard, cauliflower, broccoli, mustard greens, carrots, asparagus, avocado, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, apples, and peaches

 

MINERALS

Minerals differ from vitamins since they are inorganic rather than organic.  This means that vitamins, unlike minerals, tend to hold their chemical structure.  This is important since minerals are easily absorbed through the food and the fluids that you consume.  

Just as vitamins, minerals are are categorized in two parts, macrominerals and trace minerals. The difference between the two is that your body needs greater amounts of the macrominerals than the trace minerals.  

For the sake of brevity, I am going to focus on the most important macrominerals and trace minerals below.  

MACROMINERALS

Overall, there are 7 major minerals, but we are only going to highlight the 4 most common.

1. Calcium 

Function: Essential for developing and maintaining healthy bones and teeth.  Assists in blood clotting, muscle contraction, and nerve transmission.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 1,000mg and Women - 1,000mg

Sources: Cheese, sardines, milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, tofu, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, kale, and rutabaga

2. Magnesium

Function: Activates nearly 100 enzymes and helps with proper nerve and muscle function. Necessary for proper heart function.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 420mg and Women - 320mg

Sources: Wheat and rice bran, raw cocao powder, pumpkin seeds, most nuts (almonds, pine nuts, hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts, and peanuts), and spinach

3. Potassium

Function: Critical for proper heart function.  Plays a key role in bone health and muscular contractions.  

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 4700mg and Women - 4700mg

Sources: Bananas, kiwis, avocados, cantaloupe, tomato, potato, lima beans, flounder, cod, and chicken

4. Sodium

Function: Needed by the body to control blood pressure and blood volume.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 2300mg and Women - 2300mg

Sources: Table Salt

Trace Minerals

There are many kinds of trace minerals and ultratrace minerals that are needed in very small amounts.  In fact, some of these ultratrace minerals have no recommended intake since they are needed in such minute amounts that scientific evidence does not exist whether they are essential or non-essential.  

For our purposes, I will highlight 3 important trace minerals.

1. Chromium

Function: Aids in glucose metabolism and helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 35mcg and Women - 25mcg

Sources: White mushrooms, raw oysters, red wine, apples, prunes, and molasses 

2. Iron

Function: Necessary for red blood cell formation and function.  Most common mineral in the body and found in every single cell.

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 35mcg and Women - 25mcg

Sources: Liver, beef, lamb, pork, veal, clams, oysters, kidney beans, green beans, garbanzo beans, almonds, and cashews

3. Zinc

Function: Essential part of more than 100 enzymes involved in digestion, metabolism, reproduction, and wound healing.  

Recommended Daily Amount: Men - 11mg and Women - 8mg

Sources: Oysters, beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, lima beans, black-eyed peas, and white beans

 

How to Integrate in your lifestyle?

The past two weeks, I have advocated tracking your calories and macronutrients in order to accomplish your cosmetic and performance based goals.  This won't work for micronutrients.  There are too many of them and you would drive yourself insane.  Instead, I strongly suggest looking at some of the habits suggested last week when it comes to your diet.  

By the majority of your meals consisting of lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and nutrient dense carbohydrates, you will most likely meet the majority of your micronutrient requirements without having to calculate anything.  If you want some ideas, then simply choose some sources above that appear in multiple categories, such as salmon, most meats, cheese, beans, nuts, and green leafy vegetables.  

Most people, who even make minor tweaks to their diet, tend to feel a difference in terms of overall energy and performance at the gym.  Even if you don't, at least you know that you are setting yourself up for a reduced risk of disease and health issues later on in life!