What are Micronutrients?

The word micronutrient is a broad term that is generally used to refer to both vitamins and minerals.  Compared to macronutrients — aka protein, carbohydrates, and fat — your body requires them in much smaller amounts.  

Although you may not need all that much — we’re talking milligrams or even micrograms per day — your body needs an adequate supply of micronutrients in order to stay up and running.  In fact, vitamins and minerals play an essential part in all of your body’s major systems.  

Because your body cannot produce most micronutrients on its own, they must be obtained through your diet, which is why they’re known as essential nutrients.  

While they may be found in various food sources, each type of food contains different concentrations of vitamins and minerals — it’s one of the main reasons that eating a balanced diet is so important.    

Despite being lumped together as micronutrients, vitamins and minerals are actually quite different from one another, both in terms of their functions and how your body breaks them down (or doesn’t in the case of minerals). 

Even amongst themselves, vitamins and minerals can differ greatly.  In fact, each micronutrient plays an important and unique role in the body, which means that no two vitamins have the exact same function — the same thing goes for minerals.      

Vitamins

Vitamins are organic, meaning that they’re able to be broken down by your body to be used in a host of different roles.   In fact, some vitamins are actually broken down and converted into other substances once they’re inside of your body.  

They play a role in everything from brain function and neurotransmitter production to cell signaling and gene regulation.  There are 14 vitamins in total and each of which can be placed into one of two categories based upon their solubility.  

Water-Soluble Vitamins

Water-soluble vitamins are those that are contained within the water-content of food.  Because up to 60% of your body is water, they’re easily absorbed into your bloodstream during digestion.    

This also means that water-soluble vitamins can be easily transported throughout your body.  When you consume too much, your kidneys help to pass the excess amount out through your urine.    

Ultimately, water soluble-vitamins play a number of different roles in your body, however, one thing that many of them help out with is your metabolism.  They work in all different kinds of ways to convert the food you eat into energy that your body can actually use.   

List of Water-Soluble Vitamins

Micronutrient Function(s)Food SourcesRecommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
Biotin (Vitamin B7)Plays an important role in metabolizing amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose.  Also aids in the cell signaling process and gene regulation.  
Eggs, salmon, pork, beef, sweet potatoes, almonds30 mcg for adults
Choline* 
(phospholipids, phosphatidylcholine, and sphingomyelin)
Plays an important role in maintaining the structural integrity of cell membranes.  Also needed to produce neurotransmitters vital to brain and nervous system functionEggs, beef, soybeans, chicken, mushrooms, potatoes, cod, kidney beans, quinoa, milk550 mg for adult males425 mg for adult females
Cobalamin (Vitamin B12)Required for neurological function, red blood cell formation, and fat and protein metabolismClams, salmon, trout, tuna, beef, ham, milk, chicken, eggs, cheese2.4 mcg for those who are 14 and over
Folate (Vitamin B9)Aids in the metabolism of amino acids and the synthesis of DNA and RNA Spinach, peas, asparagus, brussels sprouts, lettuce, broccoli, spaghetti, rice400 mcg for adults
L-ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)Needed for the synthesis of neurotransmitters, l-carnitine, and collagen; also aids in protein metabolism and is an antioxidantRed pepper, green pepper oranges, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, brussels sprouts, potato 90 mg for adult males..75 mg for adult females…*add 35 mg if you smoke
Niacin (Vitamin B3)Assists in the function of over 400 enzymes; aids in the transfer of energy from macronutrients into ATPChicken breast, marinara sauce, turkey breast, salmon, tuna, pork, beef, brown rice, potatoes16 mg for adult males…14 mg for adult females
Pantothenic Acid (Vitamin B5)Plays a key role in a number of anabolic and catabolic processes including the synthesis and breakdown of fatty acid“Mushrooms, sunflower seeds, chicken breast, tuna, avocado, milk, potatoes, eggs5 mg per day for those 14 and up
Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6)Aids in the metabolism of protein, carbs, and fat.  Also plays a role in the production of neurotransmitters and red blood cell.  Chickpeas, tuna, salmon, chicken breast, potatoes, bananas, turkey, beef1.3 mg for adults…1.7 mg for men over 50…1.5 mg for women over 50
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)Aids in the cellular function and the production of energy.  Also helps with fat and drug metabolism Oats, yogurt, milk, cheese, beef, almonds, chicken, egg, quinoa, salmon, clams1.3 mg for adult males…1.1 mg for adult females
Thiamin (Vitamin B1)Critical for energy metabolism and cellular function Rice, egg noodles, black beans, pork, trout, tuna, mussels, macaroni, english muffin, acorn squash 1.2 mg for adult males…1.1 mg for adult females

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Compared to the water-soluble form, fat-soluble vitamins aren’t able to make it into your bloodstream as easily.  Once they do enter, most have to be transported throughout your body via carrier proteins.   

As with water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble ones also have a number of different functions in your body.  However, most of them contribute in some way to maintaining the health of your bones and eyes.  

List of Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Micronutrient Function(s)Food SourcesRecommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
Choline* 
(phosphocholine, glycerol phosphocholine, and free choline)
Plays an important role in maintaining the structural integrity of cell membranes.  Also needed to produce neurotransmitters vital to brain and nervous system functionEggs, beef, soybeans, chicken, mushrooms, potatoes, cod, kidney beans, quinoa, milk550 mg for adult males…425 mg for adult females
Vitamin A (retinol, retinal, retinyl esters)Plays a crucial role in vision and is also involved in the immune system and cellular communication.  Needed for the maintenance of heart, lung, and kidney healthSweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, cantaloupe, mangos, apricots, black-eyed peas, broccoli, red peppers, cheese900 mcg for adult males…700 mcg for adult females
Vitamin D (ergocalciferol & cholecalciferol)Vital for promoting and maintaining bone health; aids in the absorption of calcium Swordfish, salmon, tuna, sardines, orange juice, milk, yogurt, eggs15 mcg for adults…20 mcg for adults > 70
Vitamin E (tocopherols & tocotrienols) It functions as an antioxidant, aiding in immune function and also appears to support cell signaling and gene expression Sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, peanut butter, spinach, broccoli15 mg for those 14 years of age and up
Vitamin K (phylloquinone & menaquinone)Its main function revolves around the production of proteins involved in blood clotting but it also aids in bone metabolismCollards, turnips, spinach, kale, broccoli, soybeans, carrots, pumpkin, okra, pine nuts, blueberries, lettuce120 mcg for adult males…90 mcg for adult females

Minerals

Like vitamins, minerals can be broken down into two categories.  But with minerals, the categories are based upon your body’s requirements, not solubility.  

Unlike vitamins, which your body breaks down, minerals maintain their chemical structure when they’re ingested.  They have a plethora of different roles in your body, helping with everything from keeping your bones healthy, to balancing your body’s fluids.  

Major Minerals

Major minerals are the ones that your body requires in relatively high amounts, although we’re only talking milligrams.   There are 5 major minerals in total and each of which has its own unique functions.  

While they may have multiple functions, 3 of the 5 major minerals are electrolytes, which means that they help to regulate your body’s fluid levels.  The other 2 minerals — calcium and phosphorus — play an integral role in maintaining the health of your bones.  

 List of Major Minerals

Micronutrient Function(s)Food SourcesRecommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
CalciumCritical for bone structure and function, cellular signaling, muscle function, nerve transmission, as well as vasodilation and vascular contractionYogurt, cheese, milk, orange juice, salmon, sardines, tofu 1,000 mg for adults 
MagnesiumAids in protein synthesis, blood pressure regulation, and nerve function.  Also plays a role in the DNA and RNA synthesisAlmonds, spinach, cashews, peanuts, beans, bread, avocado, potatoes, rice, yogurt400 mg for males < 30…420mg for males > 30…310 mg for females < 30…320 mg for females > 30 
Phosphorus Plays a role in DNA and RNA formation along with supporting bone and teeth health.  Also aids in supporting the structure of cell membranes and the transfer and storage of energy across cells.   Yogurt, milk, cheese, chicken, beef, salmon, scallops, cashews, lentils, potatoes700 mg for adults
PotassiumPlays several roles in cellular function, including maintaining the volume of intracellular fluids.Apricots, prunes, lentils, squash, raisins, potatoes, banana, milk, orange juice, soybeans, kidney beans3,400 mg for adult males…2,600 mg for adult females
SodiumHelps maintain fluid balance, supports nerve and muscle health, and bolsters blood pressure.  Pizza, tomato sauce, soup, ham, cottage cheese, sandwiches, tortillas, deli meats1.500 mg for adult…1,300 mg for adults > 50

Trace Minerals

Trace minerals are those that your body requires in smaller amounts — we’re talking about micrograms here in many cases.  Again, they’re not any less important that major minerals, your body just doesn’t need as much of them.  

Although they may work in a number of different ways, several trace minerals help to keep your muscles and brain functioning properly.    

List of Trace Minerals

Micronutrient Function(s)Food SourcesRecommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
ChromiumHeightens the action of insulin, which aids in the metabolism of macronutrientsBroccoli, potatoes, garlic, basil, orange juice, turkey breast, grape juice35 mcg for adult males…25 mcg for adult females
CopperAids in iron metabolism, connective tissue synthesis, energy production, and the synthesis of neurotransmittersPotatoes, cashews, chocolate, mushrooms, chickpeas, avocado, turkey, tofu 900 mcg for adults
FluorideSupports bone health and structureBlack tea, cereal, grapes, salmon, tuna4 mg for adult males…3 mg for adult females
IodineAids in the production of the thyroid hormone thyroxine.  Cod, shrimp, tuna,  yogurt, milk, eggs, macaroni, bread, iodized salt150 mcg for adults
IronImportant component of red blood cells; also helps to support connective tissue and muscle metabolismOysters, beans, chocolate, lentils, spinach, tofu, potato, cashews, beef 8 mg for adult males…18 mg for adult females8 mg for females over 50
ManganeseAssists in the metabolism of carbohydrates, glucose, amino acids, and cholesterol.  Mussels, clams, oysters, pecans, hazelnuts, brown rice, chickpeas, spinach, pineapple, soybeans, peanuts2.3 mg for adult males…1.8 mg for adult females
MolybdenumSupports the function of enzymes that aid the metabolism of amino acids Black-eyed peas, lima beans, 45 mcg for adults 
SeleniumIn addition to protecting against oxidative stress, it also plays a central role in DNA synthesis and thyroid hormone metabolism  Tuna, halibut, sardines, ham, steak, macaroni, turkey, chicken, rice, beef, eggs, baked beans, brazil nuts 55 mcg for adults
ZincIt plays a role in cellular metabolism and protein synthesis.  Also helps to support the immune system and wound healing.  Oysters, crab, lobster, beef, pork, chicken, yogurt, cashews, pumpkin seeds, baked beans, 11 mg for adult males…8 mg for adult females

Common Micronutrient Deficiencies

Ok, so we’ve touched on why micronutrients are important to your overall health, but what happens when you don’t get enough of a particular vitamin or mineral?  

While micronutrient deficiencies are far more common in developing countries, there are still several deficiencies that occur somewhat frequently here in the U.S.  If you’re not meeting your body’s nutritional needs, it can be detrimental to your health in a multitude of different ways.       

Iron Deficiency

According to the World Health Organization, as many as 5 billion people are iron deficient, which makes it the world’s most common micronutrient deficiency.(1) Those who are pregnant or very physically active are at an increased risk of iron deficiency.  

Your body needs iron to synthesize hemoglobin, which is a protein that transports oxygen throughout your blood.  Without enough iron in your diet, your body’s oxygen-carrying capacity is reduced, which amongst other things, can gravely impact your immune system.(2)

As much as 50% of the people who are iron deficient are also suffering from anemia, which is a condition in which your body isn’t able to produce enough red blood cells.(3)

Vitamin b12 Deficiency

Here in the U.S., vitamin b12 is another micronutrient that some of the population is likely to be deficient in — especially older folks.(4) B12 deficiency is often caused by the growing inability of your body to absorb the nutrient, which in many cases, is related to the aging process.(5)

Vegans and other non-meat-eaters may be at an increased risk of vitamin b12 deficiency, as the vitamin can only be obtained from animal-based sources like meat, eggs, and dairy.  

Numerous studies have illustrated that b12 deficiency can lead to a decline in cognitive functioning.(6)  It’s been associated with everything from impaired memory and depression, to more serious conditions like dementia.(7) 

Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D is another micronutrient that some people may not be getting enough of, especially those who don’t get a lot of sun exposure.  

While it can be obtained from both plant and animal sources, your body can also convert 7-dihydrocholesterol, which is absorbed by the skin during exposure to ultraviolet rays, into vitamin D. (8)

Vitamin D deficiency can lead to several bone-related conditions such as osteoporosis and osteomalacia.(9) It can also negatively impact your immune system, increasing the chances of contracting diseases like tuberculosis.(10)

On top of that, it’s an important cofactor for adequate testosterone levels, and a deficiency can lead to low testosterone in both men and women.  

Iodine Deficiency

While it’s a little less common, iodine deficiency can have a number of negative effects on your health.  Iodine plays an important role in the production of thyroid hormones, which in turn, help to maintain the health of your bones and brain (amongst other things). (11)

A lack of iodine can lead to hypothyroidism, which is a condition where your body doesn’t have the thyroid hormones it needs to keep itself functioning normally.(12)

Being iodine deficient can also negatively impact your child during pregnancy.  Without enough iodine, your child is at an increased risk of developing several neurological and cognitive conditions such as diplegia and intellectual disability. (13)(14)

Micronutrient Supplementation

While you can meet your micronutrient needs from your diet alone, the fact of the matter is that many people don’t.  That’s where supplementation comes into play. Supplements like multivitamins are easy to take and can help you to assure that you’re meeting your nutritional needs.  

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While supplementation can help, it can also be detrimental to your health if you’re taking too many vitamins and minerals.  In fact, micronutrients like vitamin A, vitamin D, and iron can actually be toxic to your liver at high dosages.  

Wrap Up

The term micronutrients refers to both vitamins and minerals.  They’re also referred to as essential nutrients because your body needs an adequate supply of them in order to properly function.    

Because your body, by and large, isn’t able to produce them on its own, most vitamins and minerals must be obtained from your diet, though different types of food contain different concentrations of micronutrients. 

Together, they play an important part in every major system in your body and while they may share some overlapping functions, each vitamin and mineral has its own unique role.    

Ultimately, not getting enough micronutrients in your daily diet can lead to a whole host of health problems including anemia, osteoporosis, and cognitive decline.