Whether you’re looking to improve your body composition or take your performance to the next level, it will all start with calories and then progress on to macro splits. There is a reason the old school diet of chicken breast, whtie rice, and broccoli was effective, because it checked off the major boxes. But what is the use of that new body or those new numbers if you’re not healthy? That’s right, being shredded, jacked, and lightening fast don’t always correlate with being healthy. Knowing how to cover your bases for health is equally, if not more, important than aesthetics or performance. Enter: Micronutrients. While the rabbit hole of this topic is deep, we’re going to keep it simple here. By the end of this article you’ll understand why you can’t simply pop a couple Flintstone chewables and call it good.
What is a micronutrient?
A micronutrient is similar to a macronutrient in that it is a compound that our body uses to ensure proper function. This main difference, as the name implies, is that we don’t need nearly as much of a single micronutrient as we do our macronutrients. Because of this, we don’t look to them as sources of energy (calories). Most micronutrients are considered “essential” which means that we can’t produce them internally so we must get them from the foods we eat. We can divide our micronutrients up in two categories: necessary and suggested. The necessary micronutrients would be byproducts of our macronutrients (omega fatty acids, essential amino acids, fiber) as well as vitamins and minerals. The suggested micronutrients are termed phytonutrients. Those that are necessary have recommended daily values attached to them while the suggested micronutrients are simply seen as beneficial depending on your lifestyle.
We’ll start with vitamins because they include a couple of exceptions. Before we get there, we need to understand that there are two classes of vitamins: fat soluble and water soluble. Water soluble vitamins dissolve with water and therefore cannot be stored in the body. These are your Vitamin C, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6, B7 (biotin), B12, and Folate. It is best practice to get plenty of these on a daily basis and what your body doesn’t use will be eliminated when you take a whiz. Fat soluble vitamins, on the other hand, dissolve in fats or oils and consist of Vitamins A, D, E, K. They are best absorbed with fatty foods and, once in your body, are stored in fatty tissues. Because of this, you do not necessarily need to get adequate sources of these daily. In fact, because your body will store what isn’t used, it is possible to develop toxic levels of these vitamins. Have you ever seen someone turn orange from eating too many carrots. That’s Vitamin A in action.
We mentioned that vitamins are essential so we need to search for external sources. That’s true for most, but two fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamin D and K2) can be produced internally. Vitamin D can be produced from getting adequate amounts of sunlight. Unfortunately, many of us live too far away from the equator to use this as a sole source year-round. Most weather apps on your phone will give you a “UV Index”. If it is 3 or higher, you are able to leverage the sun. If not, regardless of how “sunny” the day is, you’re out of luck. Vitamin K2 can be produced from a healthy intestinal biome. Making sure you get regular amounts of fermented foods such as kimchi or sauerkraut will ensure your getting the job done. Outside of those two, all other vitamins will need to be sourced from foods.
Like vitamins, minerals are small molecules that your body uses for various processes. However, depending on where you are getting these minerals from, you may actually be ingesting a “salt” form of the mineral. This isn’t necessarily salt like you’d find on your table, but rather the chemical form of a compound meaning you’re not just getting the mineral you’re looking for. Table salt (sodium chloride), for example, is often seen as a great source for sodium. But, the truth is, you get about 2x as much chloride from table salt as you do sodium. So if you’re looking to get 4-6g of sodium a day and relying solely on table salt, you’ll need to put down upwards of 15g of salt daily. Whole food sources of minerals tend to be a better option in “purity” of minerals, though the exactness of the food’s mineral content is harder to determine.
An important, or at least common, subcategory of minerals are electrolytes. You’ve probably been mindlessly slugging down flavor-by-color, sugar-laden sports drinks trying to keep your electrolytes levels elevated? Why? Probably marketing. But electrolytes aren’t all hype. Your body is an electrical machine, operating at such intricate levels that not even Elon Musk can replicate. And it is this specific subset of minerals that are key components of that electrical activity. Your electrolytes are: sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and bicarbonate. Muscle contractions rely on calcium, sodium, and potassium. Nerve impulses are regulated by a sodium-potassium pump. Bicarbonate is a key buffer from the acidic environment that high-intensity exercise brings about. Without balance to your electrolytes, your performance will unquestionably deteriorate.
The Other Guys
If vitamins and minerals are the Danson and Highsmith of micronutrients,phytonutrients are The Other Guys. These help in the background. Performance may not be heavily influenced by these, but the ability to recover day-to-day, to ward off illness, and to limit tissue damage is. You may be more familiar with terms such as antioxidants or antiinflammatories, but those are slight misnomers as they are simply functions phytonutrients support. Remember the orange-skinned example? Truth be told, that isn’t because of Vitamin A, it’s actually because of a provitamin called alpha-carotene which gets turned into Vitamin A. Antioxidants, antiinflammatories, provitamins…these are all phytonutrients.
Unlike vitamins and minerals, these compounds are less researched because they are newer to the scene. With less of an understanding we have less of a recommendation in terms of quantities to eat. But, one thing we do know is that different colors of plants have different phytonutrient compositions. So our suggestion is to “Eat the Rainbow” meaning get a varied color palette of plants throughout the week, or daily if you really want to be dialed in. Reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, indigos, and violets…old Roy G. Biv from 3rd grade.
Keep it Simple
Eating the rainbow of plants will only get you part of the way. Yes, you will consume a healthy amount of phytonutrients. You’ll even pick up some of the important vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin C and calcium. But, if you’re wanting to optimize your micronutrient profile, you need to get outside of the garden. Animal protein, aka meat, is one of the most nutrient dense foods available. To list all the nutrients contained in beef and liver alone would check almost every box on the list. So what should you do to craft the best strategy? Keep it simple. At every meal, consume an animal protein and two different colors of plants and you’ll likely be fine. If you want to peel back even more layers, turn to folks who are experts. We’ve got a staff of nutrition experts on hand to help you examine your current diet or, if you’ve taken the extra step, comb through your most recent blood work to help you develop a strategy to optimize your micronutrient (as well as macronutrient) strategy.
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Ben grew up a football player who found his way into a swimming pool. Swimming for four years, culminating in All-American status, at a Division III level, Ben grew to appreciate the effects that various training styles had on performance and decided to pursue the field of Exercise Physiology. After receiving his M.S. from Kansas State University in 2013, Ben moved on to Indiana University - Bloomington to pursue a PhD in Human Performance. While in Bloomington, he spent some time on deck coaching swimming at the club level, successfully coaching several swimmers to the National and Olympic Trials meets. He also served as the primary strength and condition coach for some of the post-graduate Olympians that swam at Indiana University.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.
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