You only need very small amounts of micronutrients, but they’re vital for good health.
Except for vitamin D, your body can’t produce micronutrients, so you need to get them from food.
They play a part in many of your body’s systems. For example, they’re essential for immune health, producing energy, and blood clotting.
The two main groups of micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are organic substances from animals and plants. Minerals are inorganic substances in soil or water.
In this article, we’ll explore what different micronutrients do, which foods contain them, and what happens if you don’t get enough.
We’ll also describe how micronutrients from food and those from supplements are different.
At ZOE, we know a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition doesn’t work.
With the ZOE at-home test, you can learn about your unique blood sugar and blood fat responses, and which “good” and “bad” bugs live in your gut. From this, we’ll provide you with personalized nutrition advice.
Types of vitamins
Vitamins fall into two two groups: fat-soluble and water-soluble.
Fat-soluble vitamins dissolve in fat, and your liver stores them.
Water-soluble vitamins can’t dissolve in fat but do dissolve in water. As a result, your body absorbs them more quickly and doesn’t store them.
Below, we outline some of the most important vitamins.
First, we’ll introduce the fat-soluble vitamins.
Vitamin A (retinol)
In children, a vitamin A deficiency can increase the risk of blindness. It may also increase the risk of death from infections, such as measles.
Foods rich in vitamin A include:
For people with vegan diets, several fruits and vegetables contain beta-carotene, which your body can convert into vitamin A.
Plant foods that contain beta-carotene include:
Vitamin D is important for the regulation of calcium and phosphate. These minerals support bone, tooth, and muscle health.
As you may know, your skin produces vitamin D in response to sunlight.
For people who live farther from the equator, sunlight can be scarce, especially during colder months.
So, it’s important to get this vitamin from foods, and supplements can also help.
Food sources of vitamin D include:
For people with plant-based diets, vitamin D is also in:
capsicum, a compound in chilies and other peppers
Vitamin E supports your immune system and protects your skin and eye health.
A deficiency of vitamin E can cause problems with reflexes and coordination. But this deficiency is rare.
Good sources of vitamin E include nuts and seeds, and plant oils — such as olive, sunflower, and rapeseed oils.
Some good sources of vitamin K include:
leafy greens, such as kale and spinach
Vitamins C and B are water-soluble.
Vitamin C protects cells and keeps them healthy. It also helps maintain healthy skin, bones, cartilage, and blood vessels.
Scurvy is very rare. It can cause irritability, bleeding gums, and sore legs or joints.
Many fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C, including:
Vitamin B1, also called thiamine, helps you extract energy from food. It also supports your nervous system.
A thiamine deficiency can cause tiredness, muscle weakness, and a loss of appetite.
Good sources of B1 include:
some fruits, like bananas and oranges
Vitamin B2 helps the body release energy from food. It also affects the health of your skin, eyes, and nervous system.
A vitamin B2 deficiency may lead to fatigue, depression, swelling in the throat, and blurred vision.
Good sources of B2 include:
Niacin, or vitamin B3, keeps your skin and nervous system healthy and helps your body convert food into energy.
A severe deficiency of B3 can lead to a skin condition called pellagra. This causes areas of skin exposed to sunlight to darken and become scaly.
Good sources of vitamin B3 include:
Vitamin B6 helps form hemoglobin, a protein in your blood that transports oxygen around your body. B6 also helps your body store energy.
A deficiency can lead to dermatitis, a swollen tongue, depression, confusion, and weakening of the immune system.
Good sources of B6 include:
Folate is important for red blood cell formation. And during pregnancy, it reduces the risk of neural tube defects.
A folate deficiency can lead to a type of anemia.
Good sources of folate include:
Vitamin B12 plays a role in forming red blood cells. Plus, it helps support the health of your nervous system, and it helps release energy from food.
A B12 deficiency can lead to a type of anemia. Symptoms include fatigue, lethargy, breathlessness, and feeling faint.
Some people may also experience heart palpitations, breathlessness, and a loss of appetite.
Sources of B12 include:
There are no naturally occurring plant-based sources. But some plant-based foods, like cereals and plant milks, are fortified with B12.
Still, people with plant-based diets may need B12 supplements — and so may people whose bodies don’t absorb B12 effectively, including older adults.
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Types of minerals
Two main types of minerals are important for your body — trace minerals, which you only need in tiny amounts, and macrominerals, which you need more of.
Macro minerals are sometimes called essential minerals. We describe these below.
Calcium is very important for keeping your bones and teeth healthy. It also regulates your heartbeat and other muscle contractions, and it plays a role in blood clotting.
A calcium deficiency may cause rickets in children and osteomalacia or osteoporosis in adults. These conditions all relate to poor bone health.
Sources of calcium include:
Phosphorus has many important jobs in the body. For instance, it’s a key building block for DNA and RNA. It also plays roles in your nerves, muscles, teeth, bones, and your cell membranes.
A phosphorus deficiency is rare. It can cause a lack of appetite, muscle weakness, anemia, and bone pain.
Sources of phosphorus include:
Plant sources include:
some vegetables, like asparagus and tomatoes
Without magnesium, many of your enzymes wouldn’t work. These enzymes play a part in protein synthesis, blood pressure, and glucose regulation, for example.
Magnesium is also neccessary for your muscles and nerves to function.
A deficiency may lead to nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, and muscle cramps and spasms.
Food sources of magnesium include:
Sodium is necessary for your muscles to contract and relax, and for the conduction of nerve impulses. Plus, it’s essential for maintaining the right balance of minerals and water in your body.
Too much sodium, however, can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
While the Dietary Guidelines for Americans haven’t established a maximum limit, research suggests that it’s best to have less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day.
Currently, most people in the United States have more than this.
Ultra-processed foods tend to be high in sodium, while plant foods generally have less.
Potassium helps maintain fluid levels outside cells. It’s also important for maintaining blood pressure, and it helps muscles contract.
A balance of potassium and sodium is crucial.
Good sources of potassium include:
Chloride is an electrolyte — a compound that conducts electricity when dissolved in water.
In your body, chloride helps regulate fluids and nutrient absorption. It also maintains pH levels and stimulates the release of stomach acid.
A chloride deficiency is very rare — having too much is more common. As with sodium, too much chloride can lead to high blood pressure and increased cardiovascular risk.
Trace minerals, or micro minerals, get their name because we only need tiny amounts. We explore these below.
Iron is a component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen around your body in red blood cells.
It’s best to have your iron levels checked by a doctor if you’re concerned.
Sources of iron include:
soy protein, including edamame beans
Copper is involved in many of your body’s processes. Some examples are: the breakdown of iron and the formation of red blood cells, collagen, and neurotransmitters.
It also supports immune function and brain development.
A copper deficiency can lead to anemia, high cholesterol, and osteoporosis.
Food sources of copper include:
nuts and seeds
An iodine deficiency is rare. It can lead to an enlarged thyroid, puffy skin, scaly or dry skin, hoarseness, thinning hair, and even infertility, in extreme cases.
And a lack of iodine during pregnancy can increase the risk of complications.
Good sources of iodine include:
Some cereals and grains contain iodine, but the levels vary, depending on how much was in the soil where they grew.
Some people with vegan diets find it hard to get enough iodine, so they opt for supplements.
Zinc is vital for healing, cell growth, and building DNA and proteins. These processes are particularly important during childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy.
Symptoms of a zinc deficiency include depression, slow wound healing, poor appetite, a loss of taste and smell, and diarrhea.
Selenium helps protect against cell damage and infection. It also helps your body form DNA.
Sources include shellfish, beef, beans, lentils, and brazil nuts.
Are food sources and supplements the same?
At ZOE, we believe it’s best to get nutrients through your diet, rather than through supplements.
It's a good idea to speak with a healthcare professional before you start taking any supplements.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals you need to maintain your overall health.
Vitamins are either fat-soluble or water-soluble. Minerals are generally divided into two groups, too: trace minerals and macro minerals.
A balanced, diverse diet that includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and healthy oils should cover most of your micronutrient needs.
But it can be difficult to get certain vitamins or minerals in certain circumstances.
If you’re concerned about your intake, speak with a healthcare professional.
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