MICRONUTRIENTS: Are micronutrients essential to consider in your diet?

We have to discuss a question that gets asked a lot: how do I know what micronutrients, from which sources, and how much should I get? 

First of all – what are micronutrients? Vitamins and minerals are traditionally considered micronutrients because they are essential to our health, meaning we have to get them from food to live. There are also non-essential micronutrients – for example, flavonoids – that are health-promoting, but not essential. 

There is only one way to know if you are actually getting enough micronutrients. You see – eating enough micronutrients and having enough micronutrients in your body are two different things. For example, we may eat all the vitamin b12 we want, but if we have pernicious anemia, our intestines don’t absorb any. So the only way to honestly know if we are getting enough micronutrients is to measure them from the blood. The problem is that these tests are costly and won’t necessarily be covered by health insurance. So the second-best way is to eat a good variety of micronutrient-rich foods and hope you’ll get enough of micronutrients from those.

The good thing is that if you eat a balanced diet, you’ll be getting at least 98% of your micronutrient needs. There are different classes of food you should be eating because all of them have different micronutrient composition. Those are:

  • Vegetables, also fruits and berries
  • Fish
  • Seeds and nuts
  • Dairy (if you aren’t allergic to milk protein)

And that’s it. Of course, you can and should eat more food groups, but the point is that those four food groups above will fill your micronutrient needs. There are a couple of exceptions. 

The first one is vitamin D. Nowadays, at least here in the north, we aren’t getting nearly enough sun and eating enough fish to get enough of vitamin D. 

Most people in Northern Europe and America have at least moderate vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is essential for many metabolic processes in our body besides strong bones that we usually know of. Vitamin D deficiency raises the risk of diabetes, some cancers, dementia, cardiovascular diseases, etc. 

Vitamin D concentration should be taken from the blood sample for every single person to identify the right amount of supplementation. Most adults need at least 50 micrograms a day to get to the>100 nmol/L target concentration.

The second one is the mineral iodine. We don’t get enough iodine from our water sources and food. Most people in the western world have a moderate iodine deficiency that can lead to many unpleasantries. Iodine is, of course, most known for its function in thyroid hormones. A fully functioning thyroid gland needs at least the urine concentration (taken from urine for practical purposes) >100 micrograms/l. Most of us need an iodine supplement to cover the need, but the right amount depends on your iodine levels.

But what about multivitamins – can I just take that one pill per day and forget the problem? Unfortunately, it is not that simple. First of all, multivitamins have many micronutrients combined into one pill, but they contain just a tiny amount that doesn’t do anything in your body. For example, a typical multivitamin has 5-20 micrograms of vitamin D that is not nearly enough to cover your needs. Of course, taking a multivitamin doesn’t hurt. In extensive studies, there hasn’t been any rise in mortality, but no lowering effect also. If you have a deficiency in any micronutrient, you probably need that micronutrient in a larger dose.

All in all – eating a variety of foods from at least four main food groups, you will cover 98% of your micronutrient needs. In cases of diseases, primarily intestinal that can cause mal-absorption, you should consider measuring micronutrient levels or consult with a competent doctor. Vitamin D measurement and supplementation is unavoidable if you want to get your metabolism going, so mark this on your calendar!