Micronutrients are a big deal
Catch yourself feeling tired for no reason? Think you’re looking pale? Have you been falling sick often? The cause of all this may be too small to spot.
The conversation about maintaining a nutrient-rich diet for good health usually highlights the importance of macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates and fat, which the body needs in large amounts (hence the word macro). It’s the micronutrients, vitamins and minerals that are required in small quantities to ensure physical well-being that are often overlooked—until they cause a big deficiency problem.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, hidden hunger—micronutrient deficiencies—afflicts more than two billion individuals, or one in three people, globally. Its effects can be devastating, especially for children with deficiencies leading to mental impairment, poor health, low productivity, even death. “The important thing to understand is that this is no longer just a problem limited to rural or low-income people. Everyone, even those with enough means, and living in cities, is at risk. In fact, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies are today a big problem, and almost every second person I see in my clinic is suffering from them,” says Sandhya Pandey, chief clinical nutritionist at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram, adjoining Delhi. “We need to understand that often, healthy-looking people are malnourished too, because their diet does not include the right micronutrients,” she adds.
Although they are needed only in minuscule amounts, in milligrams or micrograms (that’s why they are called micronutrients), micronutrients enable the body to produce enzymes, hormones and other substances that are essential for sustained growth and development. “That’s why the consequences of their deficiency can be severe,” says Pandey.
For instance, iron deficiency, which is extremely common, can lead to anaemia. Iodine deficiency is the primary cause of preventable brain damage in children and thyroid disorders in adults. Zinc deficiency impairs immune function and increases the risk of gastrointestinal infections. Low vitamin D levels affect bone health and can cause lifestyle-related chronic disorders like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune disorders, depression, and some cancers too. “In fact, without fully satisfying our micronutrient needs, the macronutrients also do not get absorbed and utilized effectively in the body,” adds Pandey.
Magic wands of health
Ritika Samaddar, chief dietitian at Max Healthcare in Delhi, says many micronutrients are missing from modern-day diets. “Calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B, particularly folate (B6) and vitamin B12 or cobalamin, and C deficiencies are a big concern today,” she says, adding, “All these have a huge role to play in our body and are needed for multiple processes, including the regulation of metabolism, heart function, cellular PH and bone density.”
Micronutrients, then, act as spark plugs for several body functions, which is why they are often referred to as the “magic wands” of health. Each nutrient has a specific role to play. For example, manganese promotes bone formation and energy production, iron helps the body produce the red cells needed for oxygen transportation, magnesium helps your heart maintain its normal rhythm, B-complex plays an important role in cell metabolism, and vitamin E protects cells in the body from damage caused by free radicals, which lead to cardiac disease and cancers. “The problem is that usually, until these deficiencies become severe, they are impossible to detect without clinical tests as their symptoms are vague and usually overlap with other mainstream disorders. That is why most people remain unaware that there is a problem until the nutritional deficiency becomes acute,” adds Samaddar.
A nourishing diet
The body cannot manufacture micronutrients on its own, so they have to be supplied through the diet, via a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products. Given that different foods contain different levels of vitamins and minerals, it’s important to incorporate different food groups in your diet to ensure that you get enough of everything. “Unfortunately, we tend to eat a lot more junk food today as opposed to nourishing foods like fruits, vegetables and lentils. And that often leads to deficiencies. Consuming only limited food items or heavy reliance on processed foods results in dietary deficiencies in the long run,” explains Pandey.
One way to maximize nutrient density: Eat fresh. “Pesticides, chemicals, preservatives and growth agents—they all detract from the overall nutrient content of food, so try to eat as fresh and organic (pesticide-free) as possible,” Pandey advises.
“At times though, even a good diet on its own is unable to address all the nutritional requirements due to non-availability or lack of time, etc. In such cases, one can look at consuming fortified foods to prevent deficiencies from setting in,” adds Anuja Agarwala, senior dietitian at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.
Fortification—a process that involves adding small quantities of vitamins and minerals to foods that don’t naturally have them, like rice, wheat flour, salt and milk— can help increase micronutrient consumption. Supplements, which contain concentrated sources of micronutrients, are prescribed by doctors when there is a severe deficiency. Vitamin D, which is naturally present in very few foods, and B-12, which has few plant-based sources for vegetarians, are common dietary supplements prescribed for adults.
Of course, this does not mean that you should consume fortified foods or supplements arbitrarily. Moderation is key, as fortification or supplementation may unwittingly lead to excess consumption of a particular nutrient that could, in turn, lead to a different set of problems. For instance, excess dietary calcium may lead to kidney stones, and affect the absorption of phosphorus, iron, zinc and magnesium. Similarly, excess vitamin A could lead to nausea, headaches, dizziness, etc
The best route remains a balanced diet where all food groups are represented fairly
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