Micro vs Macronutrients - Why They Both Matter
Dakota Howe - B.S. in Food & Nutrition
I am sure you have heard talk on social media and health blogs about making sure to get in your “micros” or to start tracking your “macros”. But, what exactly is the difference between micronutrients and macronutrients? We have already covered what macronutrients are in our part three series about carbohydrates, proteins and fats; so now, let’s talk about micronutrients! Every day our bodies carry out tasks on their own from digesting food and converting it to energy, to transporting oxygen and producing new skin cells. However, none of these tasks would be made possible without consuming the proper amount of micronutrients that our bodies need to stay healthy. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that our bodies need each day in order to properly function. Unlike macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) which are needed in large amounts, micronutrients are only required in small amounts, hence the appropriate name. While macronutrients are typically measured in grams, micronutrients are measured in milligrams and micrograms. Macronutrients are required in larger amounts because they contain calories that provide the body with energy. However, if we fail to fulfill our bodies’ micronutrients needs then it can lead to a multitude of adverse health effects. Each vitamin and mineral has a specific purpose and function and since our bodies cannot synthesize a substantial amount of vitamins and minerals on its own, we must get them from the foods that we eat1.
Micronutrients are crucial for the day to day functions of your body
The thirteen different known vitamins are: vitamins A, B-complex (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin b-6, vitamin b 12, and folate), C, D, E and K. Vitamins are classified as organic compounds, meaning that they contain a carbon atom. Because of this, vitamins can easily be damaged by heat, air and acid1. Therefore, it is important to be mindful when storing and preparing foods high in vitamins. For example, if you overcook carrots in boiling water, then all the vitamin C will be extracted and left in the water. Certain nutrients are more bioavailable when foods are consumed in their raw form, while other nutrients are more bioavailable when they are cooked. For instance, raw spinach contains more vitamin C than cooked spinach. However, cooking spinach helps to release beta-carotene (vitamin A)7. This is why it is so important to eat a balanced diet with a combination of both raw and cooked fruits and vegetables.
Some of the most important micronutrients are vitamins - found in many veggies & fruits
Vitamins can be broken down into two categories, fat soluble and water soluble vitamins. The fat soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat soluble vitamins play an important role in overall health by promoting healthy bones, skin, eyesight, lungs and digestive health2. When not being used by the body, fat soluble vitamins are stored in the liver and fat tissues as reserves - this means it can take a long time for fat soluble vitamins to be eliminated by the body. Because of this, very large doses of fat soluble vitamins can be toxic and cause adverse health effects2. However, consuming fat soluble vitamins through diet alone usually does not pose any risk and it is easy to find fat soluble vitamins in common everyday foods. Avocados and almonds are high in vitamin E, carrots and sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A, dark leafy green vegetables are high in vitamin K and fatty fish such as tuna and salmon are high in vitamin D2.
Avocados contain both macros and micronutrients!
Water soluble vitamins consist of the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. The human body is made up of mostly water, making it easy for vitamins B and C to be circulated throughout the body. Unlike fat soluble vitamins, there is no storage form of water soluble vitamins, so if there is an excess amount vitamins B and C then they are eliminated through urine1,3. Thus, it is important to consume the proper amounts of vitamins B-complex and C every day in order to meet the required daily amounts. Water soluble vitamins, specifically the B vitamins, play an essential role in converting the food that we eat into energy to be used by the body. Vitamin C also plays a major role in the functioning of the human body by boosting metabolism, acting as a powerful antioxidant and assisting in the formation of collagen helping to heal wounds. Water soluble vitamins are found mostly in plant based foods. B vitamins are found in whole grains, legumes, leafy green vegetables, mushrooms and some meat and poultry products. Vitamin C is found in fruits (especially citrus fruits) and vegetables3.
Minerals are also micronutrients and they are classified as inorganic chemical structures, meaning that they do not contain a carbon atom versus vitamins that do contain a carbon atom. Because of this, minerals are able to hold onto their chemical structure better than vitamins, which make it easier for the body to access minerals through the foods that we eat4. Vitamins, on the other hand, are considered to be “vital” because their nutritional properties are more vulnerable to damage and can be lost through a number of cooking, storage and preparation methods8. Nevertheless, consuming the proper amount of minerals is just as important as consuming the proper amount of vitamins. The fact that vitamins are organic and minerals are inorganic only has to do with their basic chemical structure and does not mean that one is healthier or better for you than the other.
There are two different types of essential minerals; major minerals and trace minerals. The six major minerals are: sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, phosphorous and magnesium and they are required in larger amounts by the body compared to the trace minerals. Major minerals are important for maintaining proper fluid balance and electrolytes (sodium and potassium) as well as helping to support bone, hair, skin and nail health4,5.
Minerals help with hair & skin health
Even though trace minerals are required in smaller quantities, they are still just as important as major minerals. The nine trace minerals include: copper, zinc, iron, iodine, manganese, molybdenum, cobalt, selenium and fluoride. The functions of some trace minerals such as manganese and molybdenum are still not entirely understood, nevertheless, they are still needed to maintain optimal health6. However, other trace minerals such as iron help with oxygen transportation which is a key role in the functioning of the body. Other common functions of trace minerals include facilitating blood clotting, bone strengthening, repairing cells and improving immunity. Both major minerals and trace minerals can be found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, vegetables, seafood and meat, making it simple to consume the required amount of minerals as long as you eat a healthy and balanced diet6.
Micronutrients come in all shapes & sizes!
So that’s why we classify vitamins as vitamins and minerals as minerals, each are as important as the other! The main difference is that vitamins can be lost easier through food storage methods since they are organic, which is why it is especially important that we are mindful of our everyday vitamin intake. Since minerals are inorganic, we do not have to worry as much about losing them to cooking and food storage. Vitamins and minerals work synergistically with one another in order to carry out certain bodily functions. For example, vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron from plant based foods such as broccoli, just like vitamin D is needed in order for the body to absorb calcium4. Therefore, it is important that we eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and grass fed animal products to ensure that we are providing our bodies with the proper micronutrients. Consuming a balanced diet is a good way to make sure that you are meeting your daily requirements for vitamins and minerals. However, nutrient deficiencies can occur and there are some medical conditions that may call for supplementation. In these instances it is best to check with your doctor as to whether or not a supplement is right for you. While it is no secret that not all nutrients are created equal and that we need some nutrients in larger quantities than others, it is important to remember that all vitamins and minerals are necessary and play an essential role in overall health and the functioning of the human body.
- 2. http://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/fat-soluble-vitamins-a-d-e-and-k-9-315/