What are Micronutrients?
by Colleen McMahon
Micronutrient has become a hot buzzword in health and nutrition news the last few years. It refers to organic chemicals and minerals that are essential for our health, but are only needed in very small quantities.
One type of micronutrient is inorganic compounds, or minerals. These include substances like zinc, potassium, and iodine. The other major type of micronutrients are organic chemicals, better known to us as vitamins.
Why micronutrients are essential
Micronutrients may make up a tiny part of the human diet, but they pack a big punch.
Scientists have known for some time that the absence of vitamins or minerals from a person’s diet can lead to conditions and diseases that are debilitating and sometimes even fatal.
For example, sailors at sea for months without access to fresh fruits and vegetables developed scurvy, a condition that led to lack of energy, anemia, bleeding gums and tooth loss. The British Navy discovered that including a ration of citrus fruit or juice each day prevented this condition, later found to be caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet. Citrus fruits are a particularly good source of vitamin C.
Even more surprising are the conditions that can be caused by the lack of certain minerals, which are required by humans in miniscule quantities. A lack of potassium, for example, can cause severe muscle cramping, heart arrhythmia, and even death.
One of the most common micronutrient deficiencies worldwide is a lack of iron. Nearly 30 per cent of the world’s population suffers from anemia, caused by iron deficiency. Another critical mineral is iodine, particularly in pregnant women. A woman who lacks iodine in her diet risks miscarriage, stillbirth, or bearing a child with severe mental disabilities.
Getting Enough Micronutrients
Fortunately it is not too difficult to get enough micronutrients in your diet. A balanced diet of proteins, complex carbohydrates from a variety of fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats will give you most or all of the nutrients you need, naturally.
To ensure complete nutrition, many people also take supplements, especially a daily multivitamin, which contains a day’s allowance of the most important micronutrients. Pregnant women and people who can eat only limited diets particularly need to make sure they have complete nutrition, and often take supplements to make sure of this.
Finally, micronutrient deficiencies are a large enough public health issue in the world that efforts are made at food sources to ensure that they contain the proper nutrients. These efforts include adding iodine to salt and fortifying food and drink with extra vitamins (such as orange juice with added calcium). More recently, research has explored the effects of adding minerals like zinc to fertilizer so that crops grown in soil with the fertilizer naturally contain more of that micronutrient.
While fortifying the human diet with additional nutrients is helpful, the fact remains that the best way to get the micronutrients you need for your best health is through eating a varied and healthy diet with a variety of meat, fish, or vegetable protein sources, assorted fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats contained in items like olive oil and nuts.