Improve Your Health with Micronutrients
Examples of micronutrients include calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, sodium, zinc, vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K, as well as biotin, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin and thiamin. Phytochemicals, substances found in colorful fruits and vegetables that help boost performance and prevent disease, are also classified as micronutrients.
If there is a common characteristic of micronutrients, it's that the body can't produce most of them. (Exceptions are vitamin D, which can be synthesized by exposure to sunlight, vitamin K, and some B vitamins.) So they have to be obtained through food or from supplements.
While eating fresh, whole foods are the best way to get micronutrients in your diet, supplements can help fill gaps in a healthy nutrition plan in special cases.
Micronutrients by the Numbers
You may need a dietary supplement if you consume less than 1,600 calories a day. Some nutritionists suggest that less than 1,900 calories a day might indicate the need for certain supplements.
Percentage of the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin A provided by half a cup of carrots.
Percentage of the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin C provided by one red bell pepper.
How Micronutrients Work
Micronutrients are essential for most functions within the body, including resisting infection, increasing immunity, and repairing muscle tissue. Below are other ways micronutrients function in the body:
- Vitamins activate enzymes, which are proteins that trigger biological reactions in the body.
- Minerals, such as sodium and potassium, help control the balance of water in the body.
- Folic acid and vitamin B12 aid in blood cell production.
- Vitamins C and D help build and strengthen bones, cartilage, and connective tissue.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant, which may protect the body against damage due to free radicals.
- Vitamin C and other micronutrients help boost metabolism.
- Micronutrients help fight disease.
“Phytochemicals (a type of micronutrient that has at least a thousand varieties) may act like antioxidants to help protect and regenerate essential nutrients and/or work to deactivate cancer-causing substances," says Amanda Carlson-Phillips, vice president of nutrition and research at Athletes' Performance. "Eating a variety of colorful, phytochemical-rich fruits and vegetables has been associated with a lower risk of some chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.”
Sources of Micronutrients
The best sources of micronutrients, according to the Mayo Clinic, are whole foods, that contain more than one micronutrient. Oranges, for example, contain vitamin C, carotene, and calcium, just to name a few. The most nutritious and available whole foods are fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Many people choose to use a supplement. However, there is a risk of oversupplementation. For example, too much vitamin C can cause urinary stones, an overdose of vitamin B6 can affect the nervous system, and too much preformed vitamin A can cause birth defects. Before taking a supplement, always consult your doctor.
Micronutrients and Athletes
Micronutrient supplements aren't always necessary and very few studies show improved performance. However, there are groups of exercisers and athletes who should consider micronutrient supplements because they are missing something due to the poor quality or consumption of food, prescribed medications, or per the requirements of their sport.
Athletes who participate in weight category sports, such as boxers, wrestlers, and weight lifters, as well as gymnasts and dancers, may be at risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies, due to their limited food intake. Other, more evident athletes who might need supplements are vegetarians (possibly short on nonheme iron), women with no menstrual cycle (commonly low in calcium), and those who train and compete in extremely hot environments (possibly deficient in iron, zinc, magnesium).
If you're an athlete worried about low vitamin intake, consult with a registered dietitian with experience in sports nutrition and/or your doctor before making a decision regarding either vitamin or mineral supplementation.
- Amanda Carlson-Phillips, vice president of nutrition and research, Athletes’ Performance, Core Performance
- Asker Jeukendrup and Michael Gleeson, authors, Sport Nutrition, Human Kinetics Publishers, 2009
- Bill Misner, author, “Food Alone May Not Provide Sufficient Micronutrients for Preventing Deficiency,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition
- Biology Online
- Linus Pauling Center, Oregon State University
- MayoClinic.com, Dietary Supplements: Nutrition in a Pill?
- Meghann Whetstone, author, Micronutrients and in Sports Nutrition, PureHealthMD
- Pamela M. Nisevich, author, Training Tips for Vegetarian Athletes