Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, and chemicals found in plants called phytonutrients. Everyone needs to consume micronutrients because they have numerous important roles in the functioning of the body and brain, but our bodies cannot manufacture most of them.
Athletes and fitness enthusiasts tend to pay a lot of attention to the macros in their diets: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. But they often ignore these nutrients needed in smaller amounts. Therefore, we need to consume a well-balanced diet that includes a full range of all the micronutrients that keep you healthy and increase your athletic performance.
Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients
Macronutrients and micronutrients are necessary in the diet. We all need to consume these nutrients to function and be healthy. We need to eat macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats—in large quantities. These are the nutrients that provide energy and structure in the body.
The micronutrients are needed in much smaller quantities. They have a wide range of functions in the brain and body, from the the function of the nervous system to immune function and bone strength. Micronutrients include:
Vitamins. These are organic molecules that have a variety of roles in the body, but which mostly act as co-enzymes, responsible for chemical reactions. We cannot make most of these and need to consume them.
Minerals. Minerals are individual elements—like calcium and manganese—that come from soil, water, plants, and the animals that eat plants. We need to take in minerals from our food for things like regulating body fluids and transporting oxygen. Trace minerals are those needed in only very small amounts.
Phytonutrients and myconutrients. These are compounds found in plants and mushrooms that are neither minerals nor vitamins. They provide a range of health benefits, including reducing inflammation and blocking fat storage.
Micronutrients are essential nutrients. We cannot make most of these chemicals and elements, so we have to take them in through food. They play a variety of roles in metabolism, immune function, brain and nervous system operations, and more.
For our bodies to be functioning optimally, we need these micronutrients. Some of the specific ways in which our bodies use and need these nutrients include:
Growth and development in children
Catalyzing metabolic reactions
Regulating body fluid levels
Breaking down toxins
How Important Are Micronutrients for Fitness?
Athletes & fitness enthusiasts tend to focus more on macronutrients in planning a good diet, which makes sense. The macros are the nutrients that provide the body with energy that we need to live, work out, compete and be active. However, micronutrients also contribute to this process even though they don't get them directly from energy.
Vitamins, are mostly co-enzymes. They work with enzymes and enable chemical reactions in the body.
All micronutrients are essential and important for everyone. But those who are very active, including athletes and those who train regularly and work out often, need more than most people. Especially if you are trying to lose weight, you should be conscious of micronutrient intake and understand the importance of a diverse diet of whole foods to get enough of each.
The Consequences of Deficiencies
There are a variety of reasons some people end up with deficiencies in certain micronutrients. Because they don’t directly provide energy like macronutrients, it is not always immediately obvious that you have a deficiency. But eventually, if someone is not consuming enough of a certain nutrient, there will be symptoms, some serious.
A deficiency can result from a poor diet, but it can also come from other factors that are not as obvious. Some medications may block absorption of specific nutrients. People with an eating disorder may also develop deficiencies. And some people have malabsorption conditions, like Crohn’s disease or pancreatitis, that lead to poor absorption of minerals and vitamins, even with a balanced diet. Gut imbalances definitely can cause a deficiency of vitamins and minerals. Therefore, tracking your food is great for weight loss and maintenance but also for keeping track of your vitamin & mineral intake.
Examples of Micronutrients and What They Do
There are too many micronutrients for me to discuss, but some are very important to track for athletes and for fitness enthusiasts. Always have a good reference guide on hand, as remembering all the nutrients and what they do in the body is challenging.
The B complex vitamins include B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, and B12. They affect a wide range of processes and impact mood, immunity, and the gut microbiome. For active individuals, it is especially important to note the role B vitamins play in energy.
The B vitamins are necessary for energy production, regulation of energy in cells, transporting electrons for the energy process, producing and metabolizing red blood cells, breaking down glycogen, and protein formation. Because they do so much in the body, there are a wide variety of effects caused by deficiencies, including weakness, fatigue, weight loss, anemia, depression, and anxiety.
You can get adequate B vitamins from a variety of foods: beans, seeds, nuts, whole grains, meat, dairy, eggs, mushrooms, and leafy greens. B12 is easy to get for anyone who eats meat, poultry, and dairy. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you can try nutritional yeast with B12 or talk to their doctor about being tested for a deficiency and using supplements.
Vitamin D and Calcium
Calcium is needed for several processes, including bone strength and muscle contraction. Vitamin D is important for bone strength because it is necessary for the uptake and absorption of calcium. Calcium is found in dairy, leafy greens, beans, seeds, nuts, fish, and fortified foods.
You can get some vitamin D from fortified foods, like milk, but the main way we can get this vitamin is through exposure of sunlight. The energy absorbed from the sun through the skin develops the formation of vitamin D. If you tend to avoid the sun, then you may need supplementation. Deficiency in D or calcium can lead to low bone density and breaks.
Vitamin C and Iron
Iron is one of the trace minerals we only need to consume in small amounts. Yet it is crucial for energy and a deficiency will lead to fatigue, weakness, and anemia. Vitamin C is necessary for absorption of iron. Iron is so important because it makes up the part of hemoglobin and myoglobin that carries oxygen to cells for energy production.
It’s easy to get enough vitamin C simply from eating a minimum amount of vegetables and fruit. Iron is found in all types of meat. Vegetarians and vegans can get iron from plant sources, including leafy greens, beans, nuts, seeds, raisins, olives, and seaweed. But this type of iron is not as readily absorbed as iron from animal sources. Those on a plant-based diet and women need more iron than meat eaters and men. Therefore, they may have to supplement with iron.
Copper is another one of the trace minerals that is important for energy production. Although a deficiency in copper is not common it can lead to anemia and weakness. Deficiency in copper can result from supplementing zinc, which blocks absorption of copper. You’ll find copper in liver, seafood, beans, nuts, seeds, and mushrooms.
Magnesium is a trace mineral involved in several processes. It’s one of the most common types of deficiencies. Most Americans do not get enough in their diets. A deficiency of magnesium can cause muscle cramps and twitching, loss of appetite, and abnormal heart rhythms. Everyone should eat more dark leafy greens, beans, nuts and seeds, and whole grains for magnesium.
Dietary Micronutrients vs. Supplements
Micronutrient supplements do have a place. For most healthy individuals, though, using a supplement won’t have the same effect as getting it through food. The exceptions to this are people who have specific deficiencies.
For instance, a B12 deficiency causes fatigue and nerve damage and can have lasting negative health consequences. Some people just don’t absorb it as well and can get a type of anemia. Vitamin B12 shots and supplements help reverse the deficiency and prevent long-term damage.
The best way to get and absorb a wide variety of micronutrients is to have a varied diet. Eating a range of whole foods should provide you with everything you need. Some of the foods that have the most micronutrients are:
Fruits and vegetables of all colors
Beans and legumes
Nuts and seeds
Herbs and spices
Lean proteins, like fish and seafood, eggs, and poultry
I encourage everyone to eat a wide variety of whole foods for getting all of these necessary micronutrients. Deficiencies not only impact fitness and athletic performance, but they also can lead to serious health issues. If you suspect you have a deficiency, go see your doctor and get a blood test. So don't forget about micronutrients! They too lead you to a healthy body as well as long term health.