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This Is the Definitive Guide to Micronutrients

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This Is the Definitive Guide to Micronutrients

If you want to know what micronutrients are, what you need and why, and how to hit your “micros,” then you want to read this article.

You probably have a good handle on the three macronutrients—proteins, carbs and fats—but many athletes and bodybuilders fall short when it comes to getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals every day for optimal health and performance.

For example, if we don’t get enough iron, our ability to absorb oxygen will decrease and so will our athletic performance.

Essential vitamins, macro-minerals and trace minerals are called micronutrients because we only need tiny amounts of them. A little goes a long way, but active people who exercise regularly need more than the average guy or gal.

And when we don’t get the amount of micronutrients we need, we not only hinder muscle growth and development, but we also put ourselves at risk for serious diseases.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Essential Vitamins
  • Macro-minerals
  • Trace Minerals

For each of the three categories of micronutrients, you’ll find out why you need it, where to get it and how much you need.

  • In the final section, I provide you with a strong strategy for eating to get all your micronutrients, discuss multivitamins and explain how to monitor your micronutrient intake.

Essential Vitamins

micronutrient vitamins

The word vitamin usually brings to mind a pill or liquid supplement. But vitamins are actually the elements in fresh, raw foods that we need to regulate metabolism and get the most energy and vitality from our food.

We can’t survive without vitamins, and our bodies can’t make all of them or enough of them to keep us healthy, so we have to get most of our essential vitamins from food.

For example, sunlight can help our bodies to produce vitamin D, but there’s nothing we can do to trigger our bodies to make vitamin C, so we have to eat citrus fruits, berries and green vegetables to get it.

Once you know what each vitamin does, why it’s important for achieving your health and fitness goals and what foods it’s in, you can make a point of including a wider variety of food sources in your diet. (At the end of this article, I’ll tell you how to do that.)

Vitamin A

Why We Need It

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that you need to maintain your eyesight and prevent night blindness. The role vitamin A plays in eyesight lends some credibility to the old adage that carrots help your eyesight.

Vitamin A also (enhances) your immune system, helps with fat storage and protects against colds, flu and some infections. Vitamin A is an antioxidant, meaning it protects cells against oxidants, which remove electrons from cells and open the door to cancer and other diseases.

You also need it to grow new cells, lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. On top of all that, vitamin A slows the aging process.

Where to Get It

We can get vitamin A from animal livers and from green and yellow vegetables.

The type of vitamin A from animal sources is called “preforms” and is found in very high levels in beef liver, in the form of (retinol) and (retynyl ester). Our bodies can use preformed vitamin A without having to convert it into another substance.

While preformed vitamin A can be found in abundance in fatty liver dishes, those aren’t optimal for most fitness-oriented diets.

Fitness-oriented diets tend to recommend getting vitamin A primarily from plant sources. This form of vitamin A is called “proforms.” Green, yellow and orange vegetables contain vitamin A in the form called carotenoids.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a single serving of sweet potatoes, carrots and even pumpkin pie has more than 100 percent of the recommended daily value.

Bell peppers, broccoli and leafy greens like spinach, kale, Swiss chard and dandelion greens also contain a significant amount of proformed vitamin A.

Clinically Effective Dose and Median Intake

Recommended Daily Intake (RDI)

Men: 900 mcg per day

Women: 700 mcg/day

Pregnant women: 770 mcg/day (due to increased demand during pregnancy, probably because of the increased levels of gene expression)

Lactating women: 1,300 mcg/day

The tolerable upper limit for vitamin A intake seems to be about 3,000 mcg.

The median intake for vitamin A appears to be about 607 mcg/day, so there’s a good chance you’ll need to supplement to get enough.

Signs of Deficiency

Night blindness and scaly skin are signs of vitamin A deficiency.

B Vitamins

b vitamin micronutrient

There are eight essential B vitamins: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 12. The other B vitamins, such as B4, can be formulated by our bodies, so they’re not classified as essential.

B vitamins help to maintain healthy nerves, eyes, liver, mouth and hair. They promote healthy muscle tone for digestion and proper brain function.

B1: Thiamin

Why We Need It

Thiamin helps to metabolize carbs and amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) that beneficially influence muscles.

These branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)—leucine, isoleucine and valine—account for as much as 33 percent of muscle tissue. Thiamin also improves circulation and brain function and muscle tone in your heart,

Thiamin also improves circulation and brain function and muscle tone in your heart, stomach and intestines.

Where to Get It

Brown rice, fish, egg yolks, liver and nuts contain significant amounts of thiamin. Dairy products, fruits and vegetable also contain some.

Oddly enough, in the general population, people are getting a lot of their thiamin (17 to 18 percent) from enriched bread and bread products.

Since athletes’ views of eating bread and carbs vary widely (that’s a whole conversation in itself), thiamin supplementation can ensure optimal levels.

Clinically Effective Dose and Median Intake

RDI

Men: 1.2 mg/day

Women:  1.1 mg/day

The median intake of thiamin from food in the United States is about 2 mg/day. This suggests that most people don’t need to supplement, but the median may be different among athletes, particularly for those who don’t eat bread or bread products

Signs of Deficiency

Low thiamin levels have been associated with anorexia, apathy, decreased short-term memory, confusion, weakness and irritability, and chronic alcoholism in the form of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Lack of thiamin can also lead to a disease called beriberi that creates inflammation in the nerves and heart failure.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

B2: Riboflavin

Why We Need It

You need riboflavin to make red blood cells and antibodies, which are proteins the body produces to defend the immune system against attacks.

It’s also necessary for growth and helps you to metabolize carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Vitamin B2 is complementary to other B vitamins, most notably niacin.

 Where to Get It

Milk, cheese, yogurt, egg yolks, liver, meat, poultry, fish, legumes, whole grains and spinach have high levels of B2. But fortified breakfast cereals and breads typically contain the highest levels.

Other sources include asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, watercress and other green leafy vegetables, as well as mushrooms, molasses and nuts.

 Clinically Effective Dose and Median Intake

RDI

Men: 1.3 mg/day

Women: 1.1 mg/day

Pregnant and lactating women: 1.3 to 1.4 mg/day

The median intake in the U.S. is 1.5 to 2 mg/day. In the upper percentile, some groups average about 10 mg/day through food and supplementation.

While this may sound extremely high, no upper tolerable limit is set for riboflavin. Because it’s a water-soluble vitamin, any excess is simply excreted in the urine.

The median intake, when compared with the RDI, suggests that there’s a moderate probability that you need to supplement riboflavin.

 Signs of Deficiency

Riboflavin deficiency is very rare, but symptoms of a chronic deficiency include sores and cracks around the mouth, skin and eye disorders, sore throat and swollen mucus membranes.

B3: Niacin

Why We Need It

Niacin converts carbs into energy like all the other B vitamins, but it also helps to maintain healthy skin and digestive tract and helps our nervous system to function.

A form of B3 called nicotinic acid is used to treat low-HDL cholesterol, high-LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Where to Get It

Some of the best food sources for naturally occurring niacin are beets, beef liver and fish. It’s also in broccoli, carrots, dates, pork, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, wheat germ and whole wheat bread.  Many breakfast cereals and bread products are fortified with added niacin.

The amino acid tryptophan is converted to niacin in the body, so foods high in tryptophan may also be considered: poultry, red meat, eggs and dairy.

 Clinically Effective Dose and Median Intake

RDI

Men: 16 mg/day

Women: 14 mg/day

In the U.S., the median intake is between 18 and 28 mg/day for men and women. The established upper limit is considered to be 35 mg/day, but this is due to the onset of the “flushing effect.”

The upper limit is not viewed as critical for those taking niacin in large doses to affect cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

The median intake, when compared with the RDI, suggests a low probability of needing to supplement niacin.

NOTE: Because Niacin interacts with your liver, it may interact with prescription medicine, so be sure to consult your doctor.

 Signs of Deficiency

Deficiency is very rare in the developed countries, but when we see it, alcoholism is the leading cause. General symptoms of B3 deficiency are indigestion, fatigue, canker sores, vomiting, poor circulation and depression.

B5: Pantothenic Acid

foods high in micronutrients

Why We Need It

Vitamin B5, also known as pantothenic acid, helps us to metabolize fatty acids, enhances stamina and can prevent some forms of anemia.

Sometimes called the “anti-stress” vitamin, it assists with producing adrenal hormones and participates in producing neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that give instructions to the body by sending signals between nerve cells.

Some research studies show that B5 might be effective in lowering cholesterol, healing wounds and easing the symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis, but not all studies agree, so more research is needed.

Where to Get It

Pantothenic acid gets its name from the Greek word pantos, which literally means “everywhere.” This should give you a general idea of where you can find it. It’s in virtually all plants and animals.

For higher concentrations, eat chicken, beef, potatoes, oat cereals, tomatoes, liver, kidneys, yeast, egg yolks, broccoli and whole grains.

If you really want to go full hipster and get very high levels of pantothenic acid, consider royal bee jelly and tuna ovaries. But seriously, where would you even find tuna ovaries? (If you know, please tweet me: @brawnforbrains)

 Clinically Effective Dose and Median Intake

RDI

Men and women: 5 mg/day

The RDI is based on the median intake, which is 4 to 5 mg/day. So you probably don’t need to supplement to get enough, but there may be some good reasons to get more.

Researchers are looking into a plethora of benefits that may be possible with higher levels of pantothenic acid.

There’s not an established upper limit for pantothenic acid, and in a study that tested the effects of vitamins on wound healing, a combination of 200 to 900 mg of pantothenic acid and 1,000 to 3,000 mg of vitamin C were given to participants, and no toxicity was noted.

 Signs of Deficiency

There have only been two studies that showed pantothenic acid deficiencies. In one of the studies, participants ate a diet that had no B5, and in the other study they were given a substance that is known to keep the vitamin from metabolizing. This shows just how rare a true B5 deficiency is.

But just in case you’re an anomaly in the world of nutrition, the signs of deficiency you should watch out for are a tingling sensation in your hands or feet, headache, fatigue and nausea.

B6: Pyridoxine

Why We Need It

This vitamin is necessary for more than two hundred bodily functions and is a champion for both our physical and mental health. Among its many functions, it helps to maintain a balance between sodium and potassium and promotes the formation of red blood cells.

Our brains need it in order to function normally, and our immune systems need it in order to make antibodies. It also helps our bodies to avoid making a toxic chemical called homocysteine that attacks the heart and allow cholesterol to build up around it.

B6 comes in six forms: pyridoxal, pyridoxine, pyridoxamine, pyridoxal phosphate, pyridoxine phosphate and pyridoxamine phosphate.

 Where to Get It

B6 is in all real food, but it’s most abundant in meats, eggs, fish, carrots, spinach, sunflower seeds, peas, wheat germ and walnuts.

Other foods that contain higher amounts include whole grains, avocados, broccoli, beans, bananas, cabbage and cantaloupe. Many bread products and cereals are fortified with B6.

 Clinically Effective Dose and Median Intake

RDI

Men and women: 1.3 mg

The median intake is 1.4 to 2.0 mg/day. The upper tolerable limit for B6 is set at 100 mg/day. This upper limit is the result of observing sensory neuropathy—nervous-system disorders that affect the sensory nerves—develop as a result of pyridoxine abuse.

There’s some evidence that our need for B6 may go down as our dietary protein levels rise. Whether or not this is true, considering the median intake, the probability of needing to supplement B6 is low.

 Signs of Deficiency

Deficiency of B6 can cause confusion, depression, irritability, mouth and tongue sores, peripheral neuropathy and many other problems. However, the U.S. and Canadian median intake of B6 exceeds the RDI, making deficiency uncommon in both countries.

B7: Biotin

Why We Need It

We need biotin in order to metabolize food, produce fatty acids and support cell growth. B7 also promotes healthy nerve tissue and sweat glands. Biotin is a common ingredient in many beauty products because there’s

Biotin is a common ingredient in many beauty products because there’s some evidence that it may contribute to healthy hair, skin and nails.

 Where to Get It

Biotin is found in a vast array of foods but in higher levels in cooked egg yolks, milk, poultry, meat and saltwater fish. Whole grains and soybeans also have a good amount, and it’s also in chocolate, legumes, nuts, yeast and cereals. Biotin levels vary widely between food sources. For instance, beef liver contains 100 mcg per 100 grams, while fruit contains

Biotin levels vary widely between food sources. For instance, beef liver contains 100 mcg per 100 grams, while fruit contains 1 percent as much.

 Clinically Effective Dose

RDI

Men and women: 30 mcg/day

There’s no recorded median intake, and we also don’t have an established upper tolerable limit for biotin. One study found no adverse effects when people were given daily doses of up to 200 mg.

The risk of chronic deficiency is rare, and we can assume a moderate need for supplementation to keep optimal levels.

 Signs of Deficiency

Biotin-deficiency symptoms include muscle pain, inflamed skin (dermatitis), hair loss, appetite loss and anemia. It’s very rare to be biotin-deficient unless you’ve been receiving nutrition intravenously or taking antibiotics or anti-seizure medications for a long time.

People who suffer from conditions that hinder the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, like Crohn’s disease, are also at higher risk for biotin deficiency.

B9: Folate (Folic Acid)

micronutrients list

Why We Need It

We need folate to produce energy, form red blood cells and keep our immune system strong by helping with the formation and functioning of white blood cells. B9 also plays

B9 also plays a critical role in rapid cell division during pregnancy and infancy. Folate and folic acid are the naturally occurring forms of vitamin B9.

 Where to Get It

Foods rich in folic acid include asparagus, beef, chicken, cheese, barley, brown rice, leafy green vegetables, root vegetables, oranges, fruits, dried beans, split peas, nuts and fortified bread products. Most foods contain some folic acid or folate, so supplementation is typically only needed for a small percentage of people.

Most foods contain some folic acid or folate, so supplementation is typically only needed for a small percentage of people.

The exception is pregnant women, who nearly always benefit from supplementation. Folate helps to regulate nerve cell formation in the embryo and fetus, which is critical for normal development.

To help prevent premature birth and birth defects such as spina bifida, studies indicate pregnant women need to take 400 micrograms of folate daily.

Some nutritionists recommend that all women of childbearing age take a daily folate supplement, since waiting until they find out they’re pregnant may result in lower-than-recommended levels early in the pregnancy.

 Clinically Effective Dose

RDI

Men and women: 400 mcg/day

Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant: 400 mcg or more daily

The mean intake ranges from 454 to 654 mcg/day. This is largely due to the fortification of B vitamins in bread products and cereals, which started in 1998. Before that, the

Before that, the median intake was 250 mcg/day. This suggests that the probability that you need to supplement folic acid is low unless you don’t eat bread products (i.e., you’re gluten-free).

The upper intake level is set at 1,000 mcg/day of folate from supplemental sources. But this level was set before researchers found what may be a correlation between folic-acid supplementation and an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

While the jury is still out on this, it’s something to keep in mind, particularly if this type of cancer runs in your family. Folic acid might promote the growth or spread of cancer cells because of the function it plays in rapid cell division. The good news is that there’s no upper limit for B9 from food sources.

 Signs of Deficiency

If your tongue is red and sore, you may have a deficiency of folate. Deficiency can also cause a type of anemia called “megaloblastic,” with symptoms that include weakness, fatigue, confusion, irritability, headaches, heart palpitations and shortness of breath.

Most commonly, folic acid deficiency is associated with other nutritional deficiencies resulting from alcoholism, poor diet and malabsorption disorders.

Pregnant women deficient in B9 have an increased risk of giving birth prematurely, and their babies have an increased risk of birth defects.

B12: Cobalamin

Why We Need It

Without B12, we can’t digest food properly or absorb their nutrients. It also helps us to use iron, synthesize protein and metabolize carbs and fats.

We also need it to maintain our central nervous system, form red blood cells, promote growth and development, and maintain fertility.

 Where to Get It

Foods that contain the most B12 include meat, kidney, liver, herring, mackerel, seafood, chicken eggs, milk and other dairy products.

For vegetarians, soybeans and soy products are a good source, and so are sea vegetables like kombu, kelp, nori and dulse.  Many breakfast cereals are also fortified with B12.

 Clinically Effective Dose and Median Intake

RDI

Men and women: 2.4 mcg

Keep in mind that this is the lowest level, and higher levels have been correlated with a decrease in symptoms associated with depression and with feelings of general wellness.

For most people who aren’t vegans, the average B12 intake is about 5 mcg per day for men and 3.5 mcg for women. There’s no solid evidence that we benefit physically from supplementation, but studies do show that our mental abilities can improve when we take 400 to 600 mcg daily.

Supplementation of B12 is typically recommended, and multivitamins have been shown to effectively raise B12 levels.

 Signs of Deficiency

If you lose your balance easily, have numbness or tingling in your arms or feel weak overall, you may have a B12 deficiency. Other signs include dizziness, constipation, labored breathing, nervousness and ringing in the ears.

In rare cases, chronic deficiency in B12 can lead to a type of anemia. Additionally, low levels of B12 have been associated with symptoms of depression, but more research is needed to determine if deficiency actually contributes to or causes depression.

Vitamin C: Ascorbic Acid

Why We Need It

Vitamin C is a superstar antioxidant, and we need it for more than three hundred metabolic functions, including new tissue growth and repair.

Many diseases are caused by or heavily associated with oxidative stress—an imbalance between molecule-attacking free radicals and the body’s ability to fight them—and vitamin C also aids in the production of anti-stress hormones and a vital immune-system protein called interferon.

It also helps wounds and burns to heal and protects against abnormal blood clotting because it helps to make collagen.

Where to Get It

Literally, just eat a plant and you’ll get a decent amount of vitamin C.  But for high levels of vitamin C, eat berries, citrus fruits and green vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and green peppers.

Green leafy vegetables like beet greens, collards, Swiss chard, dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens and spinach are also great sources. Even some breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin C—an extra insurance policy for all the picky eaters out there.

As an added benefit, when you eat vitamin C at the same time as iron, it will help you to absorb more of the iron.

 Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men: 90 mg/day

Women: 75 mg/day

According to the 2001-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, mean intakes of vitamin C are 105.2 mg/day for men and 83.6 mg/day for women.

Chances are that you don’t need to supplement your vitamin C intake to meet the RDI, but increasing your daily level with supplementation may help to boost your immune system and can be particularly helpful when you’re sick or starting to get sick.

At the RDI levels, you absorb 70 to 90 percent of vitamin C, but when dosage reaches 1 gram a day, you only absorb about 50 percent. Any excess is excreted in your urine.

Because vitamin C is water-soluble, we can’t “stockpile” it, so those super-doses marketed to sick people are basically just packets of urine dye. If you’re sick, you’re better off getting a consistent and moderate intake of vitamin C to help boost your immune system.

The upper limit of vitamin C is 2,000 mg/day. At this level, many people begin to have diarrhea.

Vitamin C in oral supplements can double plasma concentration when compared with the increase seen from foods rich in vitamin C.

Signs of Deficiency

Fortunately, vitamin C deficiency is extremely rare and can be treated by consuming the vitamin in nearly any form. Mild deficiency can lead to bleeding gums, bronchial congestion and a tendency to bruise easily.

Extreme deficiency can cause a disease called scurvy that many sailors used to get because their diets were lacking fruits and vegetables.

Symptoms of scurvy include extreme weakness, spongy bleeding gums, edema, tiny hemorrhages beneath the skin and even paralysis.

Vitamin D

micronutrients foods

Why We Need It

We need vitamin D in order to absorb and use phosphorus and calcium and for the normal growth, development and maintenance of bones and teeth. It’s involved in regulating your heartbeat and protects against muscle weakness.

We also need it for cell growth and neuromuscular function and to enhance our immunity. Vitamin D reduces also inflammation.

Vitamin D is unique because we can produce it when our skin is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

 Where to Get It

Eggs, dairy products, fish liver oils and fatty saltwater fish like tuna, mackerel and sardines contain significant amounts of vitamin D.

It’s also in cod liver oil, halibut, salmon, egg yolks, liver, fortified milk, butter, oatmeal and sweet potatoes. But the main source of vitamin D for most people is sun exposure, and many of us simply don’t get enough of it.

Clinically Effective Dose

RDI

Men and women: 600 IU (15 mcg)/day.

However, the U.S. Endocrine Society says 600 IU a day is the bare minimum to prevent deficiency. The optimal recommendation is 1,500 to 2,000 IU.

Due to the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency, lack of sun exposure and the general lack of vitamin D in many foods, there’s a high probability that you’ll need to supplement vitamin D.

 Signs of Deficiency

Appetite loss, diarrhea, insomnia, a burning sensation in the mouth and throat and even visual problems can be signs of vitamin D deficiency. In children, severe deficiency can cause a disease called rickets, and in adults it can cause a similar disease called osteomalacia.

Both diseases cause breastbone projection, bowed legs, and thickened wrists and ankles. Rickets can also cause delayed growth, muscle weakness and pain in the legs, pelvis and spine.

Vitamin D deficiency is relatively common in adults, particularly older adults, mainly because of limited exposure of bare skin to sunlight. People who typically wear clothing that covers all or most of their skin and those who are home-bound have an increased risk of deficiency.

Vitamin E: Alpha-Tocopherol

Yes, it’s a real thing! Not just some marketing gimmick in your girlfriend’s fancy lotion (and how dare you use it without asking!).

 Why We Need It

Vitamin E is the name for a group of eight fat-soluble compounds with distinctive antioxidant abilities. The vitamin E compound that meets human needs is called alpha-tocopherol.

Just like fire needs oxygen to burn, we use oxygen to burn fat in a process called oxidation. When we burn wood in a fire, it produces smoke.

When we burn fat, it makes substances called reactive oxidative species (ROS) that roam around in our bodies. Vitamin E works to prevent the ROS from damaging our living tissue.

We also need vitamin E for repairing tissue, good circulation, a strong immune system and to maintain healthy muscles and nerves. As an antioxidant, it’s important in the prevention of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

 Where to Get It

As a fat-soluble vitamin, alpha-tocopherol is usually found in fat-rich foods, with the highest concentrations in cold-pressed plant oils, nuts, seeds and avocados. Dark leafy greens, legumes and whole grains also contain vitamin E.

Keep in mind that you need the mineral zinc in order to maintain proper vitamin E levels. (See sources of zinc below.)

 Clinically Effective Dose

RDI

Men and women: 15 mg/day

The upper tolerable limit is set at 1,000 mg/day. However, some studies suggest that taking 180 mg from supplements or 248 mg from whole foods may contribute to premature death.

The average intake of vitamin E is reportedly well below the RDI, making the probability of needing to supplement vitamin E high. However, due to the risks of elevated vitamin E levels, consider supplementing with low amounts (15 to 35 mcg).

 Signs of Deficiency and Overconsumption

Vitamin E deficiency can lead to nerve destruction and damaged red blood cells, but fortunately, deficiency is very rare. For the most part, deficiencies are only seen in people who suffer from malabsorption.

Signs of deficiency can include neuromuscular impairment, infertility in both women and men and shortened life span of red blood cells.

If you’re taking vitamin E supplements, remember that you can get too much of a good thing. High doses of alpha-tocopherol supplements have been shown to hinder normal blood clotting.

Vitamin K

Why We Need It

We need vitamin K so our bodies can make a substance called prothrombin that’s necessary for our blood to clot. It’s also essential for growing and repairing bones, and it converts glucose into glycogen so our livers can store it.

What’s not so well-known is that proteins in vascular smooth muscle, cartilage and bone are dependent on vitamin K. Research is being conducted to find out if vitamin K can prevent abnormal buildup of calcium in body tissues that don’t normally contain calcium.

Vitamin K is short for Koagulationsvitamin, which is a German word that means a vitamin that coagulates blood. It was discovered in 1929 by Danish scientist Henrik as a fat-soluble vitamin essential for blood coagulation in chickens.

Where to Get It

Vitamin K is highly concentrated in leafy greens like kale, collard greens and spinach.  It’s also in broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, liver, egg yolks and oatmeal. It’s also in meats and colorful fruits, but in smaller amounts.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men: 120 mcg/day

Women: 90 mcg/day

According to the 2011-12 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the mean intake for the U.S. is 122 to 138 mcg/day without supplementation, so the probability of needing to supplement vitamin K is low to moderate.

Studies are being done to find out if high levels of vitamin K can help to prevent osteoporosis. There doesn’t appear to be an upper tolerable limit.

If you’re taking blood thinners, consult with your doctor before supplementing vitamin K.

Signs of Deficiency

The classic signs of vitamin K deficiency are excessive hemorrhaging and bleeding. Additionally, vitamin K deficiency may be a contributor to osteoporosis.

The two groups most at risk for vitamin K deficiency are newborn babies and people with malabsorption disorders. Vitamin K doesn’t cross the placenta barrier easily, making it difficult for the fetus to receive vitamin K.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a single intramuscular dose at birth to prevent this.

Macrominerals

micronutrients vs macronutrients

We need relatively large amounts of the elements called macro-minerals. They are important for nerve signaling, muscular contraction, tissue structure and function and bone structure.

Because of the extra stress that athletes put on muscle, tissue and bone, and because we lose electrolytes when we sweat, it’s very important for us to maintain optimal levels of macro-minerals

Calcium (Ca)

 Why We Need It

We have more calcium in our bodies than any other mineral. It supports muscle function, transmits nerve impulses, helps cells to communicate and is involved in the release of certain hormones.

Surprisingly, we only use 1 percent of our bodies’ available calcium to carry out all these critical functions. The other 99 percent remains in our bones and teeth, where it’s used for structural purposes.

Where to Get It

Yogurt, whey protein supplements, milk, cottage cheese and dark leafy greens—all rich in calcium—are dietary staples for most weightlifters, so you don’t need to consider supplementing it.

Calcium supplementation can actually prevent the body from absorbing several other minerals and vitamins, and many multivitamins targeted to athletes minimize calcium content or leave it out altogether.

Besides dairy foods and leafy greens, calcium is found in high concentrations in seafood, sardines and canned salmon—to be exact, the bones in the salmon!

 Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men and women: 1 g/day

The mean intake in the United States ranges from 746 mg/day to 1,266 mg/day, and insufficient calcium consumption is a concern among many age groups and populations. In light of that, the likelihood of needing supplemental calcium is moderate—unless you’re a weightlifter (we’ll discuss why later).

 Signs of Deficiency

It’s difficult to detect calcium deficiency in the short term, since the calcium stored in bones can be broken down to maintain normal blood calcium levels.

A lack of circulating calcium is called hypocalcemia, and it’s usually the result of kidney failure. Signs of hypocalcemia include numbness in the fingers, muscle cramps, brittle nails, lethargy, poor appetite, tooth decay and abnormal heart rhythms.

Vegetarians, people with lactose intolerance, post-menopausal women and amenorrheic women are typically at the greatest risk for calcium deficiency.

Magnesium (Mg)

Why We Need It

What doesn’t magnesium do? It’s involved in three hundred biological processes, including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation, DNA synthesis and energy production, and it contributes to bone formation.

 

The average adult’s body contains about twenty-five grams of magnesium at any given time, with fifty to sixty percent being located in the bones.

Most of the rest in the soft tissues, and less than 1 percent is in the blood. This can make it extremely difficult for any one test to give an accurate account of magnesium levels in the blood.

 Where to Get It

Most foods contain magnesium, but it’s found in high concentrations in dairy products, meat, fish and seafood. A central component of the chlorophyll molecule, it can also be found in high amounts in green vegetables, especially leafy greens, as well as nuts.

 Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men:  420 mg/day

Women: 310 mg/day

Surveys have consistently shown magnesium intake to be below the RDI, with a mean intake of 234 to 268 mg/day, so the probability of needing to supplement with magnesium is high.

The dose of magnesium for athletes could vary from this. Legendary strength coach Charles Poliquin recommends multiple grams per day, along with taking varying forms of magnesium (chelates), because they may have different benefits.

Signs of Deficiency

Acute signs of deficiency are uncommon. Since more than 99 percent of the body’s magnesium stores are in tissue, there’s plenty of it to draw from if you’re not consuming enough.

If chronic deficiency occurs, though, it can lead to weak muscle contraction, fatigue, disruptions in mineral stability, abnormal heart rhythms and even personality changes.

Alcoholics, people with Type 2 diabetes and people with gastrointestinal diseases are at a higher risk for magnesium deficiency because of poor absorption, high rates of excretion or both.

Phosphorus (P)

Why We Need It

After calcium, phosphorus is the second-most abundant mineral in our anatomy. It’s present in bone (as hydroxyapatite), cell membranes (as phospholipids) and energy molecules (as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP).

ATP is the “energy currency” of cellular activity. The phosphate groups in ATP are somewhat recyclable, so we don’t need to constantly replenish phosphorus to keep up our energy. Instead, much of the dietary intake of phosphorus contributes to the body’s structural elements.

Essentially, we use phosphorus in tissue growth, and some is regularly lost through sweat and urine. Our intake goal is to replenish the amount we lose.

 Where to Get It

Phosphorus is an essential part of living cells, and given its structural function, it makes sense that phosphorus-rich foods are also rich in protein—foods such as meat, poultry and fish. But plants such as wheat, potatoes and peanuts are also excellent sources, and it’s found to some degree in most foods.

 Clinically Effective Dose and Mean intake

RDI

Adults: 700 mg/day

The mean intake for phosphorus is about 1,500 mg/day for men and 1,000 mg/day for women, so it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll need to supplement phosphorus. In fact, getting too much is a more common problem than getting too little. The upper tolerable limit for adults is 4,000 mg/day.

Signs of Deficiency and Overconsumption

Phosphorous deficiency has a drastic effect on bone structure and stability. It can lead to fragile bones, stiffness of joints and general bone pain. Deficiency can also lead to numbness, breathing difficulty and general weakness.

The amounts of calcium and phosphorus you consume typically need to be balanced. Having too much phosphate alone causes symptoms similar to the symptoms of having too little calcium alone.

Both conditions have been associated with kidney disease and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. And some animal models have shown that excessive phosphorus levels can lead to increased bone porosity.

Potassium (K)

examples of micronutrients

Why We Need It

Potassium is an electrolyte that’s necessary for muscle contraction, nerve impulses, protein synthesis, transferring nutrients through cell membranes, breaking down carbs and maintaining a regular heart rhythm.

Potassium can be lost in large amounts through excessive sweating, and this loss can lead to muscle cramping. Personally, I take 500 mg of potassium gluconate before or during workouts, and since I started doing this, muscle cramps have effectively been eliminated from my life.

Where to Get It

Some of the best sources of potassium are spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yogurt, meat, poultry, fish, nuts, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant and carrots.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men and women: 4,700 mg/day

The 2005-06 mean intake of potassium was about 3,000 mg/day, so the probability of needing to supplement with potassium is high. This is especially important in light of the average U.S. citizen’s extremely sodium-rich diet and potassium’s role in balancing sodium levels.

Signs of Deficiency

Low potassium levels (hypokalemia) can be life-threatening and require immediate attention. Signs of deficiency are weakness, muscle cramps, fatigue, constipation and abnormal heart rhythms.

People who take laxatives or diuretics, experience prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, or have kidney or adrenal gland disorders are at increased risk of hypokalemia (64).

Sodium (Na)

Why We Need It

Sodium makes up half of sodium chloride—aka table salt. Besides making just about everything taste better, sodium is an electrolyte that plays a role in nerve signaling, muscle contraction, fluid balance and the transferring of nutrients through cell membranes (along with potassium).

The body does an amazing job of maintaining sodium levels in the blood. Excess blood sodium is filtered in the kidneys and excreted via urine. But when the rate of excretion can’t match intake, high blood pressure can develop.

Where to Get It

Table salt is the most direct source of sodium. Sodium chloride is one of the oldest and most effective preservatives available and, as such, can be found in large amounts in processed foods.

So if you’re trying to stay under 2,300 mg a day (the recommended maximum), your best bet is to avoid processed food.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

Our bodies need about 1,500 mg/day of sodium to function properly. But because we get so much sodium in our diets, the recommended maximum was established: 2,300 mg/day. Most people consume much more, though.

Signs of Deficiency and Overconsumption

Having a lack of available sodium in the blood is known as hyponatremia. But it isn’t caused by a deficiency most of the time—it’s usually caused by drinking too much water during an endurance event and diluting the available sodium.

Having too much sodium is called hypernatremia and, as you’d expect, is a much more common condition. Symptoms are dehydration, fatigue and confusion; if left untreated, brain injury can occur.

Hypernatremia is usually caused by a lack of water intake and is temporary, but it can also be caused by chronic overconsumption of sodium, which can lead to high blood pressure.

Sulfur (S)

Why We Need It

Sulfur plays an important role in wound healing: It disinfects the blood and fights bacteria. It’s necessary for the metabolism of some drugs and steroids, and research suggests it could ease symptoms of overtraining. It’s also used in products that fight acne and dandruff.

Where to Get It

Essentially, when we’re trying to get more sulfur into our diets, we’re trying to consume more SAAs, free sulfur and vitamins containing sulfur.

Meats, poultry, fish, eggs, broccoli, nuts, seeds, grains, soy products and other legumes, garlic, onions and foods containing thiamin and biotin are all excellent sources.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men and women: about 13 mg/kg of body weight of SAAs per day

Since most protein sources are 3 to 6 percent SAAs, the probability that a weightlifter on a high-protein diet would need to supplement sulfur is extremely low.

Signs of Deficiency

Known symptoms of sulfur deficiency include skin issues such as acne and dandruff (68). Ongoing research into the functions of sulfur in our bodies is looking at possible other symptoms, such as trouble with healing from wounds and some bladder disorders.

 

Trace Minerals

micronutrients list and functions

Trace minerals are minerals that our bodies need in relatively small amounts.

In some cases, we get them when we consume another micronutrient. For example, we get cobalt when we take B12.

As you’ll see, the effects of many trace minerals are widespread throughout the body and, despite their small concentrations, have very big impacts.

Boron (B)

Why We Need It

Boron helps the body to process other minerals, including magnesium and calcium. It also helps us to produce natural steroid compounds, so it plays an important role in muscle growth and maintaining bone integrity.

Where to Get It

Boron is essential for plant life, so it can be found in all foods that come from plants.

Apples, broccoli, raisins, prunes, almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts are especially high in boron. It can also be found in some animal sources that have heavily plant-based diets, like grass-fed beef.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

No RDI has been established, but the National Institutes of Health say the normal intake for boron is 2.3 to 4.1 mg/day. The tolerable upper intake is 20 mg/day.

 Signs of Deficiency

Boron deficiency is rare, but in animals, symptoms have included bone weakness and depressed estrogen levels. It’s not clear at this time what constitutes deficiency for humans.

Cobalt (Co)

Why We Need It

Cobalt is a central component of vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), and the vast majority of our cobalt intake accompanies our intake of B12.

In addition to the functions of B12, it’s believed that cobalt might aid in heart health and the absorption of iron and vitamin C. Cobalt may also “substitute” for zinc or manganese in some enzyme reactions.

Where to Get It

Top food sources of cobalt include clams, eggs, herring, liver, mackerel, dairy products and seafood.

Elemental cobalt can be also found in plant sources such as broccoli and leafy greens, but its concentration varies wildly depending on the cobalt content of the soil.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

There’s no established RDI for cobalt, but health experts have recommended from 1.5 mcg to 2.4 mcg per day. The average intake has been listed at between 5 mcg and 8 mcg per day.

Given this, the probability of needing to supplement with cobalt is very low. And keep in mind that B12 supplements should also be considered cobalt supplements.

Signs of Deficiency and Overconsumption

Symptoms of cobalt deficiency are the same as the symptoms of B12 deficiency. Lethargy, confusion and depression are the most common.

An excess of cobalt may lead to an enlarged thyroid and excessive production of red blood cells, which can in turn lead to congestive heart failure.

Chromium (Cr)

Why We Need It

Chromium improves insulin’s ability to function, and we need insulin to function well so that we can absorb macronutrients and metabolize them.

Where to Get It

Chromium is found in especially high concentrations in broccoli, mussels, oysters, pears and Brazil nuts. It should be noted that consuming large amounts of sugar causes chromium loss from the body.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men: 35 mcg/day

Women: 25 mcg/day

The mean intake ranges from 23 to 54 mcg/day, suggesting that it’s unlikely that the average person will need to supplement with chromium.

 Signs of Deficiency

Chromium deficiency is extremely rare, but it can cause diabetic symptoms that need to be corrected with intravenous chromium. Symptoms of deficiency include anxiety and fatigue.

Copper (Cu)

Why We Need It

Along with iron, copper is essential for the production and function of red blood cells. It also aids in maintaining blood vessels, nerves, the immune system and bones.

Where to Get It

Oysters and shellfish are some the most potent sources of copper. Potatoes, beans, nuts, liver, kidneys, dark leafy greens, pepper and yeast are all excellent sources, too.

Clinically Effective Dose

RDI

Men and women: about 900 mcg/day

Although there’s little data on intake trends for copper, we can assume that the need to supplement is relatively low, considering the low incidence of deficiency.

The upper tolerance limit is 10,000 mcg/day.

Signs of Deficiency and Overconsumption

While copper deficiency is rare, it can lead to anemia and osteoporosis. Symptoms of deficiency include diarrhea, weakness, skin sores and labored breathing.

In amounts greater than the upper tolerable limit, copper can be highly toxic, causing copper deposits to accumulate in the organs, including the brain.

Symptoms of overconsumption include depression, irritability, nausea, vomiting, nervousness, and pain in the joints and muscles.

Fluoride (F)

micro foods list

Why We Need It

Fluoride’s ability to prevent and even reverse some cavities and tooth decay is well-known. It can also stimulate new bone formation.

Where to Get It

Drinking water is a significant source of fluoride if you live in an area that has fluoridated water. Many toothpastes and other dental products also contain fluoride, though these are intended for topical use, not for ingestion.

For the full benefits to be realized, you need to ingest fluoride so it can work throughout the body, and mature tea leaves are one of the most potent sources of fluoride available among natural foods. Root vegetables, ocean fish and grape products also contain a significant amount.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men: 4 mg/day

Women: 3 mg/day

It’s hard to put a number on the mean intake. People in areas with fluoridated drinking water have much higher intakes than those who don’t. The range reported by the World Health Organization is 0.46 to 5.4 mg/day, with a safe maximum being 10 mg/day.

Given the RDI, it’s safe to say the probability of needing to supplement with fluoride is low to moderate.

Signs of Deficiency

Fluoride deficiency can be noted by an excess of cavities, weak teeth and weak bones.

Excessive intake of fluoride can lead to a decrease in serum calcium levels (hypocalcemia) by binding of the calcium ions. This triggers a cascade of symptoms linked to low calcium levels including dysfunction of enzymatic activity.

Additionally fluoride can inhibit Sodium/Potassium altering the balance between these electrolytes as well. Severe fluoride toxicity can lead to seizures, multiorgan failure, cardiac failure, and even death.

Iodine (I)

Why We Need It

Iodine, along with the thyroid hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine, is essential for regulating metabolism and synthesizing protein.

Where to Get It

Iodine content in food varies widely based on the soil’s iodine content.

To increase the availability of iodine, many countries have salt iodization programs, and the resulting iodized salt is an excellent source of dietary iodine and has helped to reduce the prevalence of iodine deficiency.

Other good sources include seafood, fish (especially cod), dairy products, bread and—best of all—seaweed products.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men and women: 150 mcg/day

The mean intake ranges from 138 mcg/day to 353 mcg/day, so the likelihood of needing to supplement dietary iodine is low, especially for populations in the United States and Canada.

The upper tolerable intake limit is 1,100 mcg/day.

Signs of Deficiency

The most obvious sign of deficiency is a decrease in the activity of the thyroid hormones, which can result in an enlarged thyroid gland, or goiter. Other symptoms include fatigue and weight gain, and iodine deficiency has also been linked to breast cancer.

Iron (Fe)

Why We Need It

Iron is an important mineral in blood proteins, including the protein called hemoglobin in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout your body. Iron is also an essential part of the protein called myoglobin that carries oxygen to your muscle tissue.

Where to Get It

Dietary iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Plant sources contain only non-heme iron, while animal sources contain a mix of the two.

The richest sources of heme iron are beef and chicken liver, clams, mussels, oysters and lean meats. The richest sources of non-heme iron are nuts, vegetables, grains and fortified cereals.

Though spinach has the reputation of being the iron-packing champ, it’s really just a middle-tier contender. A cup of cooked spinach only contains 34 percent of your necessary daily intake, while a cup of white beans contains 44 percent and fortified cereals contain 100 percent per serving.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men: 8 mg/day

Women: 18 mg/day

The mean intake for iron ranges from 17.0 to 20.5 mg/day. The probability that men will need to supplement with iron is low, but the probability is moderate for women, because of their higher RDI.

The upper tolerable limit is 45 mg/day.

Signs of Deficiency

Iron deficiency is uncommon in developed parts of the world. However,  in countries with extremely poor diets or where malabsorption disorders are common, deficiencies are common.

Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, impaired mental capacity, impaired immune function, decreased work performance and, in extreme cases, anemia.

Iron deficiency happens in stages:

  1. Mild: Blood and bone levels of iron decrease. Functional abilities may be mildly impaired.
  2. Moderate: Iron stores are depleted, hemoglobin levels remain in the normal range and plasma iron levels continue to decline. Symptoms of functional impairment are worsened.
  3. Severe: Iron stores are completely exhausted. Hemoglobin levels plummet, resulting in anemia.

Manganese (Mn)

foods with high nutrient density

Why We Need It

Manganese does a lot of work in the body but doesn’t get much recognition, probably because everyone just assumes you misspelled magnesium.

Manganese has roles in forming bones, connective tissue and sex hormones, and it helps with blood clotting. It’s also an essential component of one of the body’s most powerful antioxidants: superoxide dismutase.

Manganese treatment may help people suffering from osteoporosis, arthritis, PMS, diabetes and epilepsy.

Where to Get It

The richest sources of manganese include nuts, seeds, legumes, wheat germ, grains and pineapple.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

 RDI

Men: 2.3 mg/day

Women: 1.8 mg/day

It’s estimated that about 37 percent of Americans don’t get enough manganese, so the probability of needing to supplement with manganese is moderate.

The upper tolerable limit of manganese is 10 mg/day.

Signs of Deficiency and Overconsumption

Symptoms of deficiency include bone malformation, infertility, general weakness and seizures. While you want to avoid those problems, be careful not to overdo manganese.

High levels of this mineral in the brain are associated with Parkinson’s disease in adults and low cognitive performance in children.

Molybdenum (Mo)

 Why We Need It

Molybdenum supports cell and bone growth and is needed to activate certain enzymes. It also plays a part in shaping the chemical structure of our genes.

Where to Get It

The top known dietary sources of molybdenum are peanuts, mung beans and pumpkin seeds. And trace amounts of molybdenum are found in a wide variety of sources, including municipal drinking water.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men and women: 34 mcg/day.

Though they differ on the actual number, multiple studies have shown the average intake to be well above the RDI. Given this, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d need to supplement with molybdenum.

The upper tolerable intake limit is 2,000 mcg/day.

Signs of Deficiency

Symptoms include mouth disorders and cancer, and deficiency can also cause impotence in older men. People who eat a lot of processed foods are at higher risk of deficiency.

Selenium (Se)

Why We Need It

Selenium is a powerful antioxidant.  It’s also necessary for reproduction, thyroid hormone metabolism, DNA synthesis and immune function.

It’s been suggested that high levels of selenium may have positive effects on declining testosterone levels in older men, though there isn’t much evidence to back this up.

Where to Get It

The most potent source of selenium is Brazil nuts, with a whopping 750 percent of the RDI per ounce (7)! Seafood and organ meats are also potent sources.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men and women: 55 mcg/day

The average intake of selenium for Americans without supplementation is 108.5 mcg/day, so the probability of needing selenium supplements is very low.

The tolerable upper intake limit is 400 mcg/day .

Signs of Deficiency and Overconsumption

The symptoms of selenium deficiency can be hard to spot. Not getting enough of this mineral can make male infertility issues worse and can contribute to iodine deficiency. Deficiencies can also make you more vulnerable to viruses.

Selenium overconsumption symptoms are much more obvious. Initially, you may notice you have garlic breath or a metallic taste in your mouth. Brittle hair and nails are also early symptoms.

Later symptoms include hair loss, muscle tenderness, tremors, lightheadedness, facial flushing, severe gastrointestinal disorders, acute respiratory distress syndrome, myocardial infarction, kidney failure, cardiac failure and, in rare cases, death.

Zinc (Zn)

Why We Need It

Zinc is the jack-of-all trades in the nutrient world—more than a hundred enzymes need it so they can function properly. Zinc also supports our

Zinc also supports our immune system and has a hand in synthesizing protein and DNA. It helps wounds to heal and cells to divide and grow.  And it helps keep our senses of taste and smell working well.

 Where to Get It

Since the body doesn’t have a specialized storage system for it, we need to consume zinc every day. The majority of zinc in the average American diet comes from beef and poultry, but oysters are the most zinc-potent food.

You can also get zinc from vegetarian-friendly sources such as fortified cereals, peas, nuts, beans, oatmeal and dairy products.

We can’t get zinc from plants because there are compounds in plants called phytates that stop our bodies from being able to absorb it.

Clinically Effective Dose and Mean Intake

RDI

Men: 11 mg/day

Women: 8 mg/day

Numerous surveys have found that the average intake of most Americans is well above the RDI. But at the same time, other surveys have found that 25 percent of people over sixty are zinc-deficient.

Based on this information, the probability of needing supplemental zinc is low, though it may have some benefits. Zinc is packaged with magnesium in ZMA, a popular muscle-recovery and sleep supplement, and it’s also commonly packaged with vitamin C as a supplement for providing relief from colds.

The upper tolerable limit for zinc is 40 mg/day.

Signs of Deficiency and Overconsumption

The signs of zinc deficiency are also signs of many other conditions, so it can be tough to diagnose.

Symptoms of deficiency include a weakened immune system, loss of appetite, impaired sense of smell and taste, impotence, skin and eye lesions, weight loss, mental lethargy, growth retardation and delayed sexual maturation. Vegetarians are at increased risk for zinc deficiency.

Overconsumption of zinc can disrupt the balance of other minerals in the body, such as copper, iron and magnesium. And acute zinc toxicity can lead to nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and headaches. Long-term use of a high-dose zinc supplement can make the symptoms worse.

How to Actually Get In All Your Micronutrients

micronutrient diet

So now that I’ve inundated you with everything you could possibly want to know about micronutrients (and then some), maybe you’re having a mild panic attack about all the deficiencies you think you have. And you’re certainly wondering how you’re going to devise a meal plan that hits all of the RDIs.

Well, let’s start with the obvious: Eat more vegetables!

Okay, I know that’s not very specific, so let’s apply the Pareto principle: What are the 20 percent of foods that will fill 80 percent of our nutritional needs?

First, let’s cover the deficiencies the average person is most likely to have. According to a 2014 study, at least 40 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamins A, C, D and E, magnesium and calcium.

And if we look back over the probable need for supplementing trace minerals in the previous section, we see that potassium is an obvious one to include.

With the exception of vitamins C and D, all these vitamins and minerals can be found in significant amounts in leafy green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli), brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and nuts.

The key here is to eat not just a lot of vegetables but a wide variety of vegetables.

I’ve changed my approach to eating vegetables by making them more central to the meal I’m eating: a mid-day chicken salad with bacon bits, for example, and raw spinach with cottage cheese and strawberries.

And for dinner there’s always that old standby: the stir-fry. As a rule, I’ll have a large serving of cooked leafy greens and a large serving of stir-fry with plenty of broccoli, carrots and peppers.

If I’m really on top of my micro game, I’ll include a salad with lots of raw greens as well.

So you see, devising a meal plan really is as simple as eating more vegetables. But what if you just aren’t getting enough of certain nutrients through diet?

That’s where multivitamins come in.

Supplementing with a Multivitamin

The theory behind taking a multivitamin is that it’s an insurance plan to fill any nutrient-sized holes in your diet. So it makes sense that a multivitamin would be jam-packed with everything that works, right?

Not quite.

For one thing, certain vitamins and minerals can interact to increase our ability to absorb them, while others interact and reduce absorption.

When micronutrients that are ingested together enhance absorption, they’re called synergists. When they harm absorption, they’re called antagonists.

Synergists help each other to be absorbed, like these pairings:

  • Calcium and vitamin D
  • Iron and vitamin C
  • Iron and B12

Meanwhile, antagonists inhibit one another’s absorption, as in these cases:

  • Calcium and magnesium
  • Vitamins A, D and E
  • Potassium and sodium

You can find a more comprehensive list of synergists and antagonists here.

You need to consider this issue when choosing a multivitamin because cheap ingredients such as calcium carbonate may be added to fill out a multivitamin but act as antagonists to a whole host of nutrients, preventing their absorption. Calcium is one of the most widespread antagonists.

Also, keep in mind that big numbers on the nutrition label don’t add up to the most beneficial package possible. What they do add up to is chalky pills jammed with more stuff than you can possibly absorb at one time.

So if not big numbers, what should you look for in a multi? Here’s a clue: Antagonists aren’t on the list.

Finding a Good Multivitamin

A good multivitamin is designed to be taken in multiple doses throughout the day to reduce the effect that antagonists might have.

Also, a high-quality multivitamin will typically omit or at least minimize the presence of nutrients that may act as antagonists to many other nutrients.

Additionally, a multivitamin should contain doses that reflect the current state of research into the nutrients it contains. For example, copper, selenium, vitamin E, sulfur, zinc and iron can all result in toxicity when taken in large amounts.

A good multivitamin should contain amounts of these potentially toxic ingredients that are near or below the RDI. Likewise, current research promotes a much higher intake of vitamin D than the RDI, and a good-quality multivitamin should reflect that.

Finally, you want high-quality ingredients in a multivitamin. We haven’t gone into great depth on the differences between forms of available vitamins and minerals, their bioavailability and overall quality, but they’re important factors, and manufacturers should be transparent about their products’ production.

I’ve only found one multivitamin that meets all the criteria I’ve mentioned, and that’s Legion’s Triumph.

And before you accuse me of throwing in a plug for one of Legion’s products just because I happen to be writing for the Legion site, please read my article on multivitamins in which I dive into the benefits and drawbacks of multivitamins in more detail and describe why Triumph is my go-to multi.

Now, as important as all this information is, it’s not that helpful to you unless you know how to track your micronutrient levels.

Tracking Your Micronutrients

micronutrient tracking

One reason that people often don’t attempt to track their micronutrients is that there are so damned many of them!

Most of the people I’ve met who are successful in tracking their micronutrient intake tend to track only the nutrients that require a relatively large intake. They don’t usually bother to track their boron, cobalt, copper, or sulfur intake.

Other people have some success with rotating the nutrients they’re monitoring, tracking only three to six at a time. This gives them an idea of whether their intake is adequate or needs to be adjusted.

One of the biggest challenges with tracking intake is that not all foods contain as much of a given nutrient as advertised.

Another drawback is that the RDI requirements aren’t the best levels for everyone. And some people have issues with absorbing certain sources of nutrients but not other forms.

In this case, the amount of a nutrient that’s absorbed might only be a fraction of the intake.

Blood Tests

All things considered, the most expensive method of tracking micronutrients is also the most accurate.

Tracking your intake is helpful, and supplementing when you notice deficiencies can help you to bring your numbers back into the optimal range, but only a blood test will tell you the precise levels of your micronutrients.

Your doctor can order the blood tests that measure micronutrient levels, or you can go to a company like WellnessFX, that offers a variety of blood tests, including those that measure nutrient levels.

Even though not all nutrients can be accurately measured via blood tests, many can and there are a variety of tests designed specifically for nutrients that have the biggest impact on athletes and their recovery.

For example, athletes use vitamin D, magnesium, iron, calcium, folic acid and electrolytes at an accelerated rate, so the recommendations in this article may still not be enough.

Since blood tests give the most accurate measure of vitamin and mineral demands, the results provide you with a solid basis for making nutritional decisions.

There are also blood tests that determine if your need for a vitamin or mineral is higher than the RDI and if the RDI level is borderline toxic for you.

At the end of the day, the recommended intakes for nutrients are just a good guess and it would be ridiculous to assume that a six-foot-five, 230-pound man and a five-foot-seven, 150-pound man have the exact same nutrient requirements or absorb and use nutrients in the same way.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with one of the good people over at WellnessFX, and according to her, as helpful as knowing our nutrient levels can be, the real advantage of blood testing is that it can find substances called biomarkers that indicate the presence or likelihood of certain diseases.

Being aware of biomarkers gives us the raw data we need to make the best decisions to head off problems and start living optimally well.

Let’s Review

  • Micronutrients include essential vitamins, macro-minerals and trace minerals.
  • Many athletes and bodybuilders fall short when it comes to getting the right amounts of vitamins and minerals every day for optimal health and performance.
  • When we don’t get the right amounts of micronutrients, muscle growth and development are hindered and we’re at risk for serious diseases.
  • Vitamins are the elements in fresh raw foods that we need in order to regulate metabolism and get the most energy and vitality from our food. We can’t survive without vitamins, and we have to get most of our essential vitamins from food.
  • We need relatively large amounts of the elements called macro-minerals. They’re important for nerve signaling, muscular contraction, tissue structure and function, and bone structure. Because of the extra stress that athletes put on muscle, tissue and bone, and because we lose electrolytes when we sweat, it’s very important for us to maintain optimal levels of macro-minerals.
  • Trace minerals are minerals that our bodies need in relatively small amounts.
  • Trace minerals are widespread throughout the body, and despite their small concentrations, they pack a big punch.
  • We need to eat a wide variety of vegetables. With the exception of vitamins C and D, all the micronutrients can be found in significant amounts in leafy green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli), brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and nuts. We need to make vegetables more central to each meal.
  • Most multivitamins are not ideal supplements, and some can do more harm than good.
  • When micronutrients that are ingested together enhance absorption, they’re called synergists. When they harm absorption, they’re called antagonists.
  • Good multivitamins are taken in multiple doses throughout the day to reduce the effect that antagonists might have. (One a day doesn’t cut it.)
  • High-quality multivitamins will typically omit or at least minimize the presence of nutrients that may act as antagonists to many other nutrients.
  • I’ve only found one multivitamin that covers all the bases, and that’s Legion’s Triumph.  (Read my article on multivitamins to learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of multivitamins.
  • Tracking your micronutrients is advisable, and supplementing when you notice deficiencies can help you to bring your numbers back into the optimal range, but only a blood test will tell you the precise levels of your micronutrients.

So That’s It

micronutrient functions

By now you should be pretty well-informed about all the micronutrients, their required intakes, deficiency and overconsumption symptoms, how to get all of them into your diet and how to track your intake.

Don’t worry if you can’t remember everything—this article will always be here to serve as a reference point for you.

Here’s to thriving!

Matt

P.S. I can’t believe beef liver is one of the most vitamin-dense foods.

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Thinner Leaner Stronger

Matt Daley

Matt Daley is the writer for fitness blog: Brawn for Brains. His articles highlight the importance of self-experimentation, and application of the scientific method to the world of fitness. Matt is a Phoenix based coach and Biomedical Engineering student.

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  • Jess M

    Hi Mike

    Think this is a bit of a typo “If you know what micronutrients are, what you need and why, and how to hit your “micros,” then you want to read this article.” Probably should read “If you WANT to know….” or something 🙂

  • Kyle Jacobs

    Good morning Mike!,

    Great article! This stuff fascinates me.

    One typo I saw. You wrote “B7: Pryidoxine”… I think you meant “B7: Biotin”

    Again, great article and thank you for all you do!

    Kyle

    • Hey Kyle! Thanks!

      Thanks for the heads-up too. Fixed!

      My pleasure for everything. 🙂

  • Brook Stefanou

    Being an avid reader of MfL I really resonate with the evidence based approach to training and supplementation. I am keen to start supplementing with a multivitamin such as Triumph. After looking at the ingredient list and all the signs of bad multivitamins I decided to compare Legion with some others on the market.

    I came across something interesting, EXOS (branch of thorne research) AM/PM complex, and they seem to have a good track record for taking an evidence based approach. It seems to be in a similar league as Legion with some of the added benefits of being produced by a large pharmaceutical company such as passing the rigorous Australian pharmaceutical grade analysis (the actual name of the accreditation eludes me right now).

    Im interested in your opinion of this supplement excluding the obvious price disparity.

    Thanks!

    • It’s actually not bad. A LOT better than a lot of the multivitamins out there.

      There’s still some improper dosages, but again, a lot better than most.

  • o_o

    Great article, although Im surprised you didnt distinguish between vitamin k and k2. SInce they have different effects and sources (k2 is from fermented food and grass fed animal products). Choline Should be in the list as well i think. Also, Isnt mcg an odd way to measure vitamin A? Plus. the amount of liver to get a huge dose of vitamin a is pretty low in fat. For example, an ounce of liver has 1.3g of fat for 7300iu of retinol (around 2100ish mcg i think). Additionally, some people dont convert beta carotenes well, “It should be remembered that human subjects may have different abilities to convert provitamin A carotenoids to vitamin A.
    These differences in conversion efficiency may be due to the genetic variability in β-carotene metabolism of individual human subjects. Therefore, provitamin A carotenoids might not be a good vitamin A source
    for those subjects of the poor converter phenotype.”
    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/91/5/1468S.full Pastured eggs seem to be a pretty decent source of vitamin A, higher then normal eggs. I also think the calcium requirement seems oddly high. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17921384 “The models predicted a neutral calcium balance [defined as calcium
    output (Y) equal to calcium intake (C)] at intakes of 741 mg/d [95%
    prediction interval (PI): 507, 1035; Y = 148.29 + 0.80C], 9.4 mg kg body
    wt(-1) d(-1) [95% PI: 6.4, 12.9; Y = 1.44 + 0.85C], or 0.28 mg kcal” . Keep up the good work mike.

    • Brawn For Brains

      Thank you!

      In hindsight two distinguished sections for K and K2 probably would have been a good addition. I left Choline out because I wanted to focus on the essential vitamins; vitamins our bodies need to get through diet. The measurement of vitamin A in mcg was probably the result of my own bias towards using standard metric units.

      Interesting note on the poor digestability of beta carotene by some individuals. If I were to update the article I’d definitely include this.

      • o_o

        ah sorry mate, didnt realise you wrote it. good job. I still think choline would be a worthy addition because it is an essential nutrient needed from the diet. “The recommended adequate intake (AI) of choline is set at 425 milligrams (mg)/day for women and 550 mg/day for men.” http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/choline

  • Harry Snell

    Fat soluble vitamins…would you say that they are less important to get every day as we can store them?

    • Brawn For Brains

      I think it’s possible to make a case for this for A and E. However, the majority of people are getting insufficient vitamin D and should certainly focus on a regular daily intake.

      It’s the kind of thing that I’d say don’t kill yourself getting more vitamin A and E but certainly don’t neglect it.

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  • John

    I have a question about losing fat and gaining muscle. So I know you can’t do both at the SAME MOMENT AMD DAY. But can you lose fat and cut like on days you’re not doing upper body strength workouts and just doing cardio or legs? And then be in a little bit of a surplus a couple times a week to gain muscle from the upper body workouts? And if you can do you think that wouldn’t be as effective and as nice results them the famous cutting and having a “bulking” phase?

    • At the beginning, “newbie gains” will allow you to do both. After 6-12 months, then you’ll have to cycle cutting and bulking phases for best progress. What you are describing is Calorie Cycling, which is an advanced technique for experienced lifters to stay lean and make slow steady gains:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/calorie-cycling/

      • John

        oh i see. so I’m an athlete and obviously i need to work on lower body strengthening and plyos and I’m starting to cut again, but I’m only gonna cut by like 100-150 calories on the days I’m training for my sport or doing lower body strengthening/ plyos. which will be 5 days a week becuz obi ill be burning a lot of cals so i need to make sure I’m eating. but for the couple days a week I’m resting during the weeks I’m gonna cut a little more like maybe 300-400 calls. Anyways i can still do that to get my lower body stronger while being in a small deficit right? becuz i do need to get rid of this last 15 pounds of fat so i can get under 10 percent. thanks

        • That’s right. You can still get stronger while on a small deficit while calorie cycling. However, the rate of fat loss will be slow if your weekly deficit is higher than -20-25%

          • John

            if i am retaining water and am on a calorie deficit am i still losing fat? becuz obi my stomach looks a little big on some days then others. But is my body still getting leaner if I’m on a calorie deficit?? thanks

          • You will get leaner and lose fat on a deficit as long as you are preserving muscle by eating enough protein and engaging in weight lifting exercises.

  • Bill

    What’s the truth about cooking and nutrient loss?

    • Long story short: best for veg is steamed, second best is microwave (ironically). A lot of the conventional veggies available are grown in shitty soil, unfortunately.

      • Bill

        ironically literal shitty soil is good.

  • Adam Rozen

    Mike, given that I need simple carbs pre-workout and the fact that most
    kids cereals are high in macronutrients and sugar (aka simple
    carbs)…how bad is it for me to get those pre-workout carbs from a half
    cup (2/3 serving) of something like Lucky Charms or Cocoa Krispies, if I
    don’t have cravings issues (i.e., having them in my house won’t make me
    eat them at other times)?

  • Jennifer Stephan

    What if you can’t get all the micronutrients you need in the exact right amounts in your food every single day? Micronutrient supplements by Hardy Nutritionals are amazing.

  • Here’s a random, somewhat-related question: how good of a source of fat are peanuts? By far, my favourite source of fats is natural peanut butter, but I never see it listed on any “good” fats lists. I see almonds, egg yolks, avocados, and, of course, fish (for omega-3). But not peanuts. Just wondering if I’m short-changing my body’s micronutrient needs with peanuts or should I go with egg yolks and increase my amount of fish.

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