Nutrients, Big and Small
Protein, fat, carbohydrate. Everyone knows the macronutrients. How could you not? It’s how many of our diets are defined.
Mostly protein, next is fat, then next to no carbs? Carnivore.
Mostly carbs, then protein, then fat? Standard American Diet.
Mostly fat followed by protein with next to no carbs? Ketogenic.
And then it gets more detailed. You start to hear descriptions of different variations of the macronutrients.
You want “good fats” like olive oil, EPA, and DHA but not “bad fats” like saturated fat and trans-fat.
You want “good carbs” like whole grains and fiber but not “bad carbs” like white sugar and white bread.
You want “good protein” like fish and eggs but not “bad protein” like pork and beef.
With all of this attention on macronutrients, it might appear that they are the most important thing about food (next to the calories, of course, since those are mentioned even more). But what if that’s not the case? I believe that micronutrients are just as important as macronutrients, if not more so.
So what are they?
If macronutrients are big then micronutrients must be small, right? Right. Micronutrients are things you have certainly heard of: vitamins and minerals, mostly. Micronutrients can be tricky because they aren’t as easy to keep track of as macronutrients and a lot of food labels won’t even have them. If you’re buying whole foods then they won’t even have a label! Kidding aside, it’s not any better because unless you know exactly how the food was grown and raised you won’t have a better chance of guessing its exact micronutrient content.
Additionally, different versions of the same micronutrient can have different effects within the body. As an example, iron is an important mineral that is used for a lot of blood-related functions. But even though there are a lot of plants that contain iron, the iron they contain is harder for the body to utilize. Iron not from blood, known as non-heme iron, also has the strange effect of inhibiting zinc uptake, which is not so great since zinc is important for immune function. This might seem a bit confusing and this is only one facet of one micronutrient! There are many of them each with their own use in the body and complex interactions with other nutrients both micro and macro.
So what does this all mean for someone trying to figure out what to make for dinner?
It might mean nothing. Your body is pretty good at storing the micronutrients it has more than enough of and using the ones it does sparingly. However, if you have an ailment (even something as “normal” as midday fatigue), having esoteric knowledge about the difference between ascorbic acid and Vitamin C; the optimal sodium:potassium:magnesium ratio; the way iodine is used for thyroid hormone production… suffice to say, as complicated as it is, it could prove beneficial.
Macronutrients are the fuel and building blocks for structures in the body; micronutrients are the building blocks for mechanisms in the body, and they are used for manufacturing the hormones that our body uses to communicate with itself.
In the future I will write more about the details of these chemicals which our body needs.