Nutrition 101: Vitamins & Minerals

by Elle Penner, MyFitnessPal Registered Dietitian

At the grocery store, foods are often chosen based solely on their macronutrient content (carbs, protein and fat) without thinking much about what micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) they provide. Micronutrients are often overshadowed because they make up a much smaller part of our diet than the macronutrients. Micronutrients get less of our mindshare, too, because they don’t impact our weight the way the macros do.

Though they may seem less significant, vitamins and minerals are just as critical as the calories we eat. They play critical roles in the structure of our bodies. For example, calcium mineralizes our bones, and Vitamin C makes our collagen strong. Micronutrients also impact how well our bodies function. For example, sodium, potassium and calcium work together to moderate hydration and muscle contractions. Vitamin K allows blood to clot if we get a cut. Vitamin E, an antioxidant, protects healthy cells from being damaged.

It’s not necessary to know every function of every vitamin and mineral to understand their importance. There is a dizzying number of details and the scientific research changes almost daily. The idea behind this infographic is to show you just some of the major functions of these micronutrients, and some of the foods you’ll find them in. Instead of putting together an exhaustive list, here are some tips to get the most micronutrients from the foods you eat.

Eat from every food group. Protein foods, dairy, grains, fruits, and veggies can all be great sources of vitamins and minerals. But no single food, or food group, is a great source of everything. At mealtime, fill your plate with 3-4 food groups, and try to incorporate the ones you miss into snacks throughout the day. For example, if you have a bowl of cereal with milk and a hard boiled egg for breakfast, grab a piece of fruit to snack on later in the day.

Incorporate lots of colors. Micronutrients contribute color to foods. These colors are often associated with certain vitamins and minerals. Eating a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables is an easy way to make sure you’re getting a great variety of micronutrients.

Eat fresh or frozen when you can. Food processing, as well as exposure to light and air, can degrade important vitamins and minerals

  • Minimize the amount of processed and fast food you eat. These foods typically have little nutritional value when it comes to vitamins and minerals, and can be high in saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, and calories.
  • Don’t let your farmer’s market finds sit around too long before you eat them–even when those fruits and veggies are tucked away in the crisper section of the refrigerator.
  • Stock up on frozen produce. Frozen fruits and vegetables are commonly picked at peak freshness and quickly processed, which preserves their nutrient value.

Know a few kitchen basics. Certain vitamins and minerals can be lost or broken down in cooking, while others can be better digested and absorbed when paired with certain foods. Here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Eat some produce raw and avoid overcooking the rest.
  • When cooking: steaming, roasting or sautéing will preserve more vitamins and minerals, compared to boiling.
  • Eat iron-rich plant foods like lentils, spinach, tofu and beans with a squeeze of lemon juice or citrus dressing. The Vitamin C increases iron absorption.
  • For better absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K,  pair with a healthy fat, like oil & vinegar dressing. This is a great reason to choose low-fat milk instead of fat-free.

Choose foods over supplements. Vitamin and mineral supplements can be beneficial when treating nutrient deficiencies or certain medical conditions, but for most of us, they’re not necessary.  It’s possible to get a broad range of micronutrients, and plenty of them, from a healthy, well-balanced diet.

As you make decisions about what foods to eat, keep in mind it’s not all about calories, carbs, protein, and fat. It’s entirely possible to be malnourished from a lack of micronutrients even if you’re eating plenty of calories and macronutrients! A vitamin and mineral-rich diet is essential for good health. And the best way to get enough of these is by eating a healthy variety of colorful foods from the different food groups.

See our Vitamin & Minerals Infographic (English only).

Last Updated: Dec 07, 2016 05:00PM PST

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