Relating Micronutrients to Our Food Choices and Avoiding Deficiencies

What key nutrients are most Americans missing out on?

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Although micronutrients are often overshadowed by macronutrients, they are just as essential for a balanced diet. Many Americans are nutrient deficient. Professor Ormsbee explains what you can do to increase your micronutrient intake.

Foods rich in micronutrients
Studies show that there simply are nutrients that just can’t be reproduced in dietary supplements, therefore, requiring people to get them via the foods they eat. Photo By Tatjana Baibakova / Shutterstock

Relating Micronutrients to Food

Micronutrients, which are smaller nutrients like vitamins and minerals, are essential to our health. How can we relate the micronutrients to our food choices? 

One common example is the comparison of whole wheat bread to white bread. The argument for whole wheat bread is loosely termed the Whole Grain Advantage, and the basis for this argument comes from whole wheat bread’s micronutrient content. 

For example, when comparing the vitamin E, vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium, and fiber content of whole wheat versus white bread, there is undeniably a higher amount of these vitamins and minerals in whole wheat.

Therefore, all else being equal—that is the total calorie content, the carbohydrate content, etc. of a food—micronutrients could make the difference in making a food more nutrient dense and should not be overlooked.

Consider this, too: Whole wheat bread is different than simply wheat bread. Wheat bread is at times even more processed than white bread and can even contain fewer nutrients. Don’t be fooled by marketing and packaging, and be sure to check food labels when buying products for the words whole grain or whole wheat. 

Phytochemicals

Another component of nutrition that is often considered along with micronutrients is phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are biologically active compounds found in plants that provide zero calories or direct energy but can influence your overall health. 

Even now, only a few of an extensive list of known phytochemicals have been studied. Some phytochemicals that you may be familiar with are isoflavones from soy and resveratrol from grapes or red wine.

Phytochemicals have numerous roles, but are most often linked to disease prevention. They can function as antioxidants that reduce damage caused by reactive oxygen species, have hormone-like actions, and can even be considered metabolic boosters. 

Food Sources Versus Supplements

Most experts will recommend getting most of your micronutrients from food sources instead of dietary supplements. Although the reason why is not entirely understood, it is thought that the different types of nutrients in whole foods may interact in a synergistic manner that results in a greater absorption of the combined micronutrients than if they’re taken as a supplement or as a multivitamin. 

Also, there are nutrients that just can’t be reproduced in dietary supplements. Plus, some of the research shows that single nutrient supplements can have adverse effects—like a higher risk of toxicity, or possibly just a nutrient-nutrient interaction that may unfavorably impact nutrient absorption—even though intentions were good. 

In addition, you’ll likely get other active compounds like phytonutrients by eating a diet consisting mostly of whole foods. The trouble is, a lot of people don’t eat enough variety of nutrient dense whole foods in their day-to-day eating. Instead, whole foods get replaced by heavily processed foods for a majority of meals and snacks.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Over time, nutrient deficiencies can come about by relying solely or mostly on these processed and easily accessed foods. Deficiencies can lead to more than just poor health; they’ve also been linked to a greater risk of becoming obese. Recently, it was reported that in the United States, more than 40% of people are vitamin A, C, D, E, and calcium or magnesium deficient.

The EAR, or Estimated Average Requirement, is the amount required to meet the needs of 50% of the population—for vitamin A, D, E, calcium, and magnesium. Compared to normal-weight adults, obese adults had significantly lower intake of both fiber and potassium, which are linked to metabolism and heart health. 

Even worse is that over 90% of people, both normal weight and obese, were deficient in fiber, potassium, and choline. With fiber alone, it is thought that for every 10 grams you eat, you can reduce your overall risk of mortality by up to 34%. 

Because the nutrients that are found to be at low levels in the diets of Americans are commonly found in foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy, this study may mean that many Americans, and particularly obese Americans, are not eating enough of these foods. In addition, if you throw these deficiency issues on top of hard exercise training, which can also lead to a greater need for certain nutrients, you can easily see how many people could be at a huge risk for deficiency.

Therefore, Americans should consume a balanced diet of unprocessed foods to avoid nutrient deficiencies. Foods high in choline include eggs, meat, and soybeans. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of potassium. Oatmeal, beans, and nuts are high in fiber.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 277 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.