Caroline Wallace combines two of her passions—science writing and complementary and alternative medicine, along with her knowledge of DoTERRA Essential Oils.

Micronutrient Inadequacies: What is This and How Does it Affect You?

A new year is right around the corner. Generally, January is when people give “healthy eating” their best attempts, which goes a long way for a person’s health compared to a fast-food diet. But what does “eating healthy” mean? Is it enough? Let’s explore some basics about our modern diet and see how it impacts our well-being. 

What are Nutrients? 

Nutrients are the building blocks of nutrition. Just like Legos, they can be constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed to make something else. Essential nutrients are compounds that our bodies require for survival, so we must consume (eat) them since our bodies don’t make them.

There are six essential nutrients in human nutrition:

  1. Proteins – macronutrient
  2. Carbohydrates – macronutrient; includes fiber
  3. Lipids – macronutrients, more commonly called fats
  4. Vitamins – micronutrients
  5. Minerals – micronutrients
  6. Water – probably the most overlooked, but arguably the most versatile nutrient

Fortunately, modern diets (in developed countries) do generally contain enough macronutrients. Therefore, this article focuses on micronutrients since consumption is often inadequate. 

State of Micronutrients in the U.S. Population

You may be surprised to learn that the Standard American Diet does not provide optimum nutrition! While supermarket shelves are full of “fortified” foods like cereals, breads, and pastas that claim to support a complete and balanced diet, the micronutrients are often not in the chemical forms that our bodies can easily use. Processed foods are also loaded with added sugar, artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated oils, and other modified ingredients. Couple that with the fact that these food-like products are frequently less expensive than fresh, whole foods, and it’s no wonder most Americans have low levels of one or more micronutrients. 

A survey of over 26,000 adults in the U.S. revealed the percentage of people with inadequate levels of key immune-supporting nutrients:

  • Vitamin A – 45%
  • Vitamin C – 46%
  • Vitamin D – 95%
  • Vitamin E – 84%
  • Zinc – 15%

If you want to read more about micronutrient inadequacies, check out this well-referenced article from Oregon State University

What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough Micronutrients?

If we don’t consume enough micronutrients, we get sick…ish. Significant nutrient deficiencies lead to debilitating and possibly fatal conditions like rickets (caused by an extreme and prolonged lack of vitamin D in children) or scurvy (caused by a severe lack of vitamin C). Fortunately, serious micronutrient deficiencies are not common in the U.S. 

For the vast majority of us, lower levels of some micronutrients aren’t enough to cause a significant or noticeable illness. There may be subtle clues that something is lacking – you may be a little sluggish or more irritable, catch a cold more often, or get seemingly random muscle cramps. 

If consuming inadequate levels of a few micronutrients doesn’t make a person that sick, what’s the big deal?

Years of inadequate levels of micronutrients make your body more prone to aging-related diseases and chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and cognition problems. A proper balance of micronutrients is one of the key ways to increase your healthspan.

In an age where infections and cancer rates are increasing, strengthening your body through proper nutrition is one of your best defenses. 

But Wait – I Do Eat Healthily! Isn’t That Good Enough?

If I eat a healthy, balanced diet, I’m good, right? Sorry, it’s just not that simple anymore. Here are some of the following reasons why even a “healthy diet” may not provide the average American with enough micronutrients:

Changes in farming practices

Many foods have become less nutritious as nutrition has been traded for higher yields. This BBC article explores why food has become less nutritious.

Insufficient stomach acid

Older adults commonly have reduced stomach acid, which reduces the absorption of nutrients. 

Poor gut health due to a processed diet

A healthy gut microbiome aids your body in digesting nutrients, making certain vitamins and amino acids, and supporting your immune system. Processed foods can wreak havoc on your gut microbiome, reducing the absorption of the nutrients you eat. 

Drug-nutrient interactions

The long-term use of certain medications can deplete some of our micronutrients. For example, omeprazole interferes with the absorption of folic acid and vitamin B12, and stains can lead to coenzyme Q10 deficiency

Most people are over-stressed

Stress can affect micronutrient concentrations. Even if you consume the recommended amount of micronutrients, you may have lower levels because your stress causes your body to use them faster. 

Working Toward Solutions

All of this makes something as simple as eating confusing. Ultimately, we all do the best that we can with the time that we have. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Shop local! Many areas have year-round farmer’s markets. 
  • Consider starting a garden. You’ll still have to go to the grocery store, but you can supplement your shopping list with fresh and tasty produce. 
  • Read labels. A glance at the label can tell you if the ingredient list is long and contains synthetic ingredients or if it is primarily whole-food ingredients.  
  • Eat the rainbow. The more naturally occurring colors on your plate at each meal, the better.
  • Supplement as necessary. Talk with your healthcare provider about getting a blood test to determine if you are deficient in essential vitamins such as vitamin D. (Note that it is possible to have too much of a good thing – please do not down a bottle of vitamins!)

Disclaimer: This article should not replace individual clinical judgment or professional medical advice.

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