23 Mar Nutrients you need to be healthy. A guide to Vitamins and Minerals.
You probably don’t look at a carrot and see Vitamin A.
You probably don’t look at a steak and see Vitamin B12.
Not yet anyway.
After reading this, I hope you begin to see food as more than just meat, carbs or vegetables.
Welcome to my second driest article after my comprehensive guide to supplements.
In it you’ll learn everything that you need to know about the nutrients you need to be healthy.
To be healthy is to be free of disease. There are two classes of nutrients that can impact your health.
The first is macronutrients: protein, fats and carbohydrates. These play a role in influencing how healthy you are by determining the amount of body fat and muscle you have.
The second class of nutrients that will impact your health are micronutrients.
You often hear about protein, carbohydrates and fat. I’ve discussed how much of these you need to get to a healthy body fat percentage here.
This article is going to look at the nutrients you need to be healthy from the perspective of micronutrients.
What are micronutrients?
Micronutrients are nutrients that are needed in tiny quantities by your body.
They’re easy to dismiss as not important. This is a mistake!
Micronutrients run the show when it comes to what’s going on inside your body.
For example, whilst you need macronutrients for the supply of energy, micronutrients enable you to use this energy.
If you are deficient in any of the micronutrients, it will affect at least one important biochemical process in your body. This can have downstream effects on your mood, your performance and your ability to lose fat or gain muscle. Not to mention, it will affect your ability to maintain health.
Micronutrients can be broken down into two groups: vitamins and minerals. I’ll break down both in more detail later. First it’s important to understand why you might be deficient in certain vitamins and minerals based on your current diet.
Why you might be deficient in micronutrients
You could be deficient in micronutrients for a number of reasons related to your diet including:
- Lack of variety
- Cutting out food groups
- Dieting on super low calories
- Poor food selection
LACK OF VARIETY
If you eat the same thing at every meal, you increase your risk of having a deficiency in the nutrients you need to be healthy.
To avoid this, you should aim to include variety in your daily food intake, especially lots of different coloured fruits and vegetables. It can also help to mix up your food choices from day to day.
CUTTING OUT FOOD GROUPS
If you cut out foods for the perceived health benefits, you could be doing the opposite to your health.
I’m not against vegan, vegetarian or any other type of diet if that’s what makes you feel good.
You need to be aware that if you cut out food groups like meat or dairy, there’s a higher chance that you’re missing out on certain nutrients you need to be healthy.
Even if you replace an animal food with a plant based alternative, you still need to be cautious.
Your body absorbs many micronutrients best from animal sources. You may need higher quantities to reach your daily requirements if you’re getting that nutrient from a plant based food where it’s not well absorbed.
DIETING ON SUPER LOW CALORIES
One of the consequences of being in a calorie deficit for fat loss is that you have fewer calories to spend on food.
If you’re not careful, your reduced food intake could result in deficiencies in the nutrients you need to be healthy.
It’s important to hit your calorie target most of all if your goal is fat loss. If you want to maintain your health at the same time, then you should aim to get 80% of your food from a variety of whole food sources.
I’ve broken down the most important things for fat loss here.
If you combine your low calorie diet with increased amounts of cardio, you could create a larger deficiency.
Exercise can increase your requirements for certain nutrients you need to be healthy. For example, zinc, magnesium, calcium and iron can all be lost in sweat during exercise. This means that if you do heaps of exercise that makes you sweat a lot, your requirements might be higher.
POOR FOOD SELECTION
Even if your calorie budget is higher, poor food selection can result in deficiencies in the nutrients you need to be healthy.
If you choose to eat junk food for each meal, you’re not doing your health any favours.
To get as many nutrients in as possible, you should choose whole foods for the majority of your meals and keep the junk food for an occasional treat.
How to know which micronutrients you might be deficient in
The best way to check to see if you’re lacking a nutrient you need to be healthy is to get a blood test.
You can also get a general idea by tracking your food in an app called Cronometer.
This shows you your protein, carbohydrate and fat intake as well as your intake of some of the key micronutrients.
For example, if you tracked your food for a week and you found you were only getting 50% of your recommended iron intake, then you can aim to start eating more iron rich foods. If you’re not sure what these are then keep reading.
Note: Cronometer doesn’t show your intake of all the nutrients you need to be healthy. I want to emphasise that a blood test is the only way to know for sure what you may be lacking.
Nutrients you need to be healthy: VITAMINS
The following list is a summary of the vitamin nutrients you need to be healthy. You might want to eat more of some of the foods mentioned to ensure your intake of each Vitamin is adequate.
There are fat soluble and water soluble vitamins.
FAT SOLUBLE VITAMINS
These are absorbed in the same pathway as dietary fats. Fat soluble vitamins are found alongside fat in animal products but can also be found in plant based foods. If you combine plant based sources with some fat they will be absorbed better. Unlike water soluble vitamins, they can be stored in your body in body fat.
What you need it for: eye health and vision, immune function, gene transcription and skin health.
Good food sources: Vitamin A is found mostly in animal products especially liver, fish (sardines/herring/tuna), and full fat dairy. Carotenoids are a precursor of Vitamin A and are commonly found in fruits and vegetables such as carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato, collard greens, watercress, spinach, kale, tomato paste, papaya, kiwi fruit, coriander, basil, thyme and parsley.
What you need it for: joint and bone health, immune function, cognitive function and maintaining optimal hormone levels. There’s lots of emerging research on potential benefits of Vitamin D for lowering your risk of chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Good food sources: The best source of Vitamin D is not from food but from sun exposure on the skin (without sunscreen). Foods that are a decent source include canned sardines, herring, shrimp, rainbow trout, egg yolk, liver, veal, milk, cheese, and butter.
What you need it for: protection of cell membranes, immune function, brain and cardiovascular health.
Good food sources: There are small amounts of Vitamin E in animal products (mainly fatty meats) but plant based sources are superior. These include almonds, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, and oils from plant foods including red palm oil, olive oil, and hazelnut oil.
What you need it for: blood clotting and bone health.
Good food sources: basil, kale, mustard and collard greens, spinach, coriander, watercress, parsley, beetroot greens, cashews, Swiss chard.
WATER SOLUBLE VITAMINS
Your body treats water soluble vitamins differently to fat soluble vitamins. One of the main differences is the fact that your body cannot store water soluble vitamins (except for Vitamin B12) so you’ll excrete anything not required.
What you need it for: immune function and protecting against free radical damage in your body.
Good food sources: pineapple, parsley, grapefruit, papaya, capsicum (peppers), oranges/orange juice, lemons, raspberries, strawberries, mustard and collard greens, thyme, coriander, Swiss chard.
VITAMIN B1 (Thiamine)
What you need it for: cellular metabolism.
Good food sources: sesame seeds, meat (especially pork), macadamia, walnut, pistachio, flaxseeds, cumin seeds, legumes, fortified grains and cereals.
VITAMIN B2 (Riboflavin)
Needed for: cellular metabolism.
Good food sources: milk, cheese, mushrooms, almonds, eggs, legumes, meat (especially organ meats)
VITAMIN B3 (Niacin)
What you need it for: maintaining blood lipid levels. There is emerging research to show its benefits for improved cognition and increased lifespan.
Good food sources: meats (beef, chicken, turkey and pork), turmeric, tuna, halibut, canned mackerel/salmon, mushrooms, fortified grains and cereals.
VITAMIN B5 (Pantothenic Acid)
What you need it for: energy production, cholesterol synthesis and melatonin production.
Good food sources: meats (especially organ meats), potatoes, mushrooms, avocado, broccoli, egg yolks, and legumes.
What you need it for: cellular metabolism, neurotransmitter production, gene expression and detoxification cycles in the body.
Good food sources: sesame seeds, cashews, beef/duck/chicken liver, walnuts, turmeric, pistachio, garlic and celery seed.
VITAMIN B9 (Folate)
What you need it for: production of DNA, red blood cells and to prevent neural tube defects.
Good food sources: strawberries, oranges, mushrooms, asparagus, Brussels sprout, rosemary, mustard/collard greens, spinach, parsley, beetroot, legumes, chicken hearts, beef and chicken liver, fortified grains and cereals.
VITAMIN B12 (Cobalamin)
What you need it for: cellular metabolism and nerve conduction.
Good food sources: meat, poultry, canned sardines and canned mackerel, mussels, beef/duck/chicken liver, chicken hearts, oysters, dairy (milk, cheese, yoghurt), and eggs (especially the yolk).
Nutrients you need to be healthy: MINERALS
Minerals differ from Vitamins in terms of their chemistry. The list below is not comprehensive. You can use it to get an idea of some foods you may like to incorporate more of in your diet if you’re deficient in a certain mineral.
What you need it for: the transport of oxygen in the blood. It also plays a role in a number of enzymatic reactions in your body.
Good food sources: red meat, organ meats, fish, oysters, mussels, thyme, turmeric, 70-85% dark chocolate, dried fruit, fortified grains, celery seed, cumin seeds, coriander seed, sesame seeds and cashews. Note that plant based sources of iron are not as well absorbed as animal sources.
What you need it for: proper enzyme function and the growth of tissue/cells in your body. It also aids in the repair of the intestinal mucosa, helps to regulate programmed cell death, plays a role in cell-mediated immunity and acts as an antioxidant.
Good food sources: oysters, seafood, 70-85% dark chocolate, cacao, sesame seeds, organ meats, poultry, pork, eggs, and dairy (milk, cheese, yoghurt).
What you need it for: over 300 enzymatic reactions within your body including reactions for the production of DNA, cardiac and smooth muscle contractibility, and protein synthesis.
Good food sources: coffee, tea, legumes, parsley, brown rice, oats, thyme, rosemary, nuts, turmeric, 70-85% dark chocolate, cacao, celery seed, flaxseeds, cumin seeds, coriander seed, sesame seeds, and green leafy vegetables.
What you need it for: bone mineralisation, muscle contraction, nerve function, heart beat regulation, blood clotting and fluid balance.
Good food sources: dairy (milk, cheese, yoghurt), thyme, rosemary, celery seed, cumin seeds, coriander seed, canned mackerel/ salmon/ sardines (with bones), sesame seeds, tofu and fortified foods such as orange juice.
What you need it for: ATP (energy) metabolism, bone mineralisation, cell signalling pathways and acid-base balance. It also forms part of the structure of every cell membrane in your body and is a component of DNA.
Good food sources: meat, poultry, eggs, milk, walnuts, 70-85% dark chocolate, cacao, pistachio, celery seed, flaxseeds, cumin seeds, coriander seed, canned sardines, sesame seeds, cashews, beef/chicken liver, and sunflower seeds.
What you need it for: the regulation of fluid and electrolyte balance within your body as well as muscle contractions, heart function and neurotransmission. Eating lots of potassium rich foods has a positive impact on your blood pressure which is associated with your health.
Good food sources: nearly anything unprocessed but particularly good sources include bananas, mango, avocado, thyme, rosemary, 70-85% dark chocolate, milk, tomato paste, kale, mustard greens, spinach, pumpkin, watercress, nuts, celery seed, parsley, Swiss chard, cumin seeds, beetroot, coriander seed, mushrooms, white potato, papaya, asparagus, pomegranate and sunflower seeds.
What you need it for: thyroid function, cellular repair and detoxification pathways in your body.
Good food sources: garlic, celery seed, coriander seed, canned mackerel/ salmon/ sardines, shiitake mushroom, shrimp, mussels, chicken liver, Brazil nuts, and sunflower seeds
Supplement vs. food sources: Which is better?
You can get all the nutrients you need to be healthy by including a variety of whole foods in your diet.
Of course, the vitamins and minerals mentioned can be obtained in supplement form too. I would recommend aiming to get the nutrients you need to be healthy from whole food sources where possible.
Vitamins and minerals in whole foods are not present in isolation. They are packaged with other nutrients and cofactors which helps your body absorb them more effectively. For this reason, whole foods are the best way to get adequate amounts of the nutrients you need to be healthy.
If that’s not possible, taking a supplement is better than being deficient in a vitamin or mineral.
You need to do your research on that supplement though. Just because it’s sold in a shop doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best version of that supplement to help you overcome your deficiency. You need to look at how that supplement is best absorbed and what co-factors might need to be present to assist with this.
Obviously, if your doctor has told you to take a supplemental form of a vitamin or mineral you should listen to them first.
It’s easy to think you can get by without worrying about your vitamin and mineral intake.
You might be ok in the short term.
Long term you increase your risk of developing a number of diseases and issues with your body.
Generally, so long as you’re eating a variety of whole foods each day without restricting food groups, you should be able to get all the nutrients you need to be healthy.
If you’re curious to learn more, I recommend you do your own research by checking out the following sources: