Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals your body needs in order to grow and develop normally. They help support our bones, heal wounds, and boost our immune systems. They convert food into energy and repair cell damage. You only need small amounts of micronutrients, but they are essential for good health, and deficiencies can cause serious health problems. They perform hundreds of roles in our bodies. It is important to get enough vitamins and minerals, but if you get too many, they can be harmful.
Vitamins are organic substances (made by plants or animals). You can usually get all the vitamins you need from foods you eat – if you eat a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods.
Vitamin deficiencies can cause:
Fruits and vegetables are the main sources of vitamin C. A vitamin C deficiency can cause bleeding gums, weakness, anemia, gum disease, and skin hemorrhages.
Sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, and kale are good sources of vitamin A. A deficiency in vitamin A is still a cause of blindness in some developing countries.
A deficiency in vitamin D can cause rickets, a softening and weakening of the bones. It can lead to deformities like bowed legs. Good sources of vitamin D include milk, salmon, and tuna. Sunlight is a great non-food source of vitamin D.
Vitamins are either fat soluble or water soluble.
Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble. They dissolve in fat and can be stored in your body.
Vitamins C and the B-complex vitamins (B6, B12, niacin, riboflavin, and folate) are water-soluble. They dissolve in water before your body can absorb them. Your body can’t store these vitamins so you need a new supply of these vitamins every day.
Minerals are inorganic elements that come from soil and water, and they are absorbed by plants. We absorb minerals from the plants we eat. Minerals, like zinc and iodine, are necessary for the healthy functioning of all your body’s systems, from bone growth to brain function. Minerals help:
- Prevent birth defects. Taking folic acid supplements early in pregnancy helps prevent brain and spinal birth defects.
- Give us healthy teeth. The mineral fluoride helps bone formation and prevents dental cavities.
- Make our bones strong. A combination of calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, magnesium, and phosphorus protects your bones against fractures.
- Your body needs more of some minerals, like calcium, to grow and stay healthy. Your body needs less of the trace minerals, like chromium, copper, iodine, iron, selenium, and zinc.
Macronutrients are carbohydrates (carbs), fats, and protein. They are our key sources of energy, and we need large amounts of them in our diet. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans:
- Carbohydrates should be 45 – 65% of calories (average 55%)
- Protein should be 10 – 35% of calories (average 15%)
- Fats should be 20 – 35% of calories (average 30%)
Your body uses carbs to make glucose, and glucose gives you energy. Carbs are your main source of fuel.
There are three main types of carbohydrates: starches (also called complex carbohydrates), sugars, and fiber. Examples of starches include corn, potatoes, beans, and rice. Sugars are simple carbs, and they can be naturally occurring sugars (in milk and fruit) or added sugars (in cookies, sodas, and fruit punch.) Fiber comes from plant foods only. There is no fiber in animal products (milk, eggs, meat, poultry, or fish.) Beans, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts are good sources of fiber.
There are good carbs and bad carbs. Good carbs won’t spike your blood sugar. Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans are good carbs. Bad carbs can strip away beneficial fiber and raise your blood sugar rapidly. White bread and white rice are bad carbs.
Protein can also provide you with energy, but it has more important roles to play. Protein builds, maintains, and replaces your tissues, muscles, bones, cartilage, skin, hair, and nails. It regulates your immune system and makes enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Fish, soy, poultry, beans, lean beef, milk, cheese, and yogurt are good sources of protein.
Fats are another great source of energy. They help build healthy cells and help your body absorb vitamins. If you have dry, flaky skin, you may not be eating enough fats. Fats keep your skin healthy and provide a protective cushion for your organs. There are good fats and bad fats. Unsaturated fats are good fats. They include polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and Omega-3 fats. They can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease. Nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, and fish contain good fats. Saturated fat and trans fat – also called trans-fatty acids – are bad fats. Trans fat raises your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (“good”) cholesterol giving your heart health a double punch. In addition to clogging arteries and damaging heart health, bad fats increase your risk of colon and prostate cancer. High-fat cuts of meat, poultry skin, high-fat dairy and deep-fried foods contain bad fats.
You’ve probably seen foods labeled as “fat-free,” “low-fat,” “light,” and “reduced-fat”. What’s the difference?
“Fat-free” foods have less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving. Be careful with these foods. Removing the fat also removes the flavor, so extra ingredients, like sugar, flour, or salt, may be added as a substitute.
“Low-fat” foods have 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
“Reduced-fat” foods have at least 25% less fat than regular versions of the same food.
“Light” foods have either 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat.
What are your favorite sources of carbs, protein and fats?