We all know the big three – carbohydrates, protein, and fat- but don’t often hear about micronutrients which are just as essential (if not more) than the macros. To maintain your brain, muscle, bone, nerves, skin, blood circulation, and immune system, your body requires a steady supply of both- macronutrients and micronutrients. Though you need the macronutrients in larger quantities, failing to get even the small number of micronutrients can virtually guarantee diseases arising from deficiencies.
Given the large scale of micronutrient deficiencies, especially in developing countries, foods are usually fortified with these vitamins and minerals For example- Iodization and double iodization of salt was implemented to curb the iodine and iron deficiencies in low-income countries. Similarly to tackle zinc deficiencies, zinc was added through fertilizers in large-scale crop cultivations of wheat.
Through fortification of foods and adequate supplementation food organizations such as the WHO is trying to tackle the problem, the best way to get these micronutrients is from a well-rounded diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, lean sources of protein and healthy fats. Let’s take a look at the five essential micronutrients and where to find them:
Vitamin A is a nutrient that is of great value to our health. It is a fat soluble vitamin and is essential for healthy skin, stronger bones and better vision. Vitamin A is broadly divided into two main nutrient groups: retinoids, which is found in animal food sources and carotenoids, which can be sourced from plants. Retinol rich foods include red meat, liver, fish oil, eggs, and dairy foods. Beta-carotene is found in mostly yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, as well as in green leafy vegetables. Load up on this nutrient as Vitamin A deficiency can lead to problems in the vision and increase the occurrence of infections.
Folate, vitamin B 9 or folic acid, promotes red blood cell health and a healthy nervous system function. It is also essential for normal cell division and DNA synthesis during pregnancy and infancy. Leafy greens like spinach, mustard and turnip greens and other fresh fruits and vegetables are all excellent sources of folate. Grains and cereals like pasta, rice, and bread also contain adequate amounts. Taking 400 mcg of folate is recommended daily before conception as it helps in the development of the fetus.
At least 1 billion people in developing countries are at a risk for iodine deficiency. Though now it is found in salt, iodine can also be found in fish, kelp, garlic, sesame seeds, spinach, and squash. Iodine is essential in the production and regulation of the thyroid hormone, which is required for healthy growth. A deficiency of this mineral causes a delay in growth, fatigue, weight gain, sensitivity to temperatures and skin problems.
Iron is important to men and women for the formation of hemoglobin, a protein responsible for the transportation of oxygen-rich red blood cells in the body. Iron is present in red meat, dried beans, nuts and green leafy vegetables. In women, an iron deficiency usually turns up in the form of anemia, characterized by fatigue, weight loss, dizziness and headaches. Pregnant and menstruating women are also at a greater risk of iron deficiency given the occurrence of blood loss.
Zinc deficiency is common in children and increases the risk of infections of the lungs such as pneumonia. Zinc is essential for normal growth, healthy skin, healing and prevention of infections. Foods rich in zinc include poultry, meat, shellfish such as oysters, beans, and nuts. A deficiency of zinc can delay the healing of wounds, result in loss of appetite, and weight loss.