In this HeartStrong.com video/article we will examine some important micronutrients. The word “micro” means small and thus “micronutrients” refer to things like vitamins and minerals, unlike the macronutrients protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Before we dig in to specifics on micronutrients, we really need to emphasize the fact that we should avoid a “reductionist” way of thinking about nutrition. Meaning we really do not want to always be thinking about “Am I getting enough ____” or “Does this food or meal have enough ___”. What we need to simply emphasize strongly is eating a variety of whole plant foods. If you do this you will get MORE than enough micronutrients for your body. In fact, eating a standard American diet or one heavy in animal based foods will leave you lacking many key micronutrients as you will see.
Well then…why should we even talk about micronutrients if all you have to do is eat whole plant foods? There are a few reasons. First, our society has been essentially brainwashed to think so much of vitamins and minerals. When vitamins were first discovered it was a medical breakthrough and they were added to every food product imaginable. Since so many people have the mindset that examining individual micronutrients is critical, we need to debunk that myth to make you comfortable eating a diet simply of whole plant foods. Second, it will help you to understand why eating a variety of whole plant foods is important and not focusing just on one plant food group. Third, you will understand more why animal sources of many micronutrients can be harmful. Lastly, it is important to understand vitamin B12 and why you will need to take a vitamin B12 supplement on a plant based diet. OK then…lets get to it.
The way this video/article will be organized is simple. Just going through the vitamins and minerals one at a time being concise and focused on what you need to know. Use this video/article in the future for reference if you need to. If ever a family member or friend says “What about ___ micronutrient” you will be able to come straight back here for a good answer.
Vitamin A is a powerful anti-oxidant that helps in many functions of the body. The role of vitamin in regards to heart disease is minimal if at all. Vitamin A deficiency is extremely rare in the U.S., especially in enough calories are consumed.
Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, is important to help the body use carbohydrates the proper way. Vitamin B1 deficiency is extremely rare in the U.S., especially when enough calories are consumed.
Vitamin B3 is also known as niacin or nicotinic acid. Like the other B vitamins, it helps the body to use carbohydrates as fuel. Vitamin B3 also plays an important role in the production of sex and stress hormones and reduces inflammation.
Perhaps the most important vitamins to understand on a plant based diet is vitamin B12. This vitamin is not made by humans, animals or plants. It is made by bacteria, small microorganisms found essentially everywhere.
Animal based foods such as meat and dairy have high bacteria levels. While this can lead to serious illness if not handled properly, the high bacteria levels provide vitamin B12. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors could get significant amounts of vitamin B12 from plant based foods since they would frequently have soil on them (they were not washed like we do today) and thus the plant foods would have higher bacteria levels. Also, stream water was used which contains bacteria, however our current water supply is sterilized to kill bacteria.
Today, a plant based diet does not have significant amounts of vitamin B12 due to how the plant foods are handles and washed. Thus, anyone following a 100% plant based diet should take a vitamin B12 supplement or consume daily foods that are fortified with vitamin B12.
No need to rush out and buy vitamin B12 the first day on a plant based diet though. The liver has anywhere from 6 months to 5 years worth of vitamin B12 stored. Nevertheless, taking 1000-2500 mcg once weekly is all that you need and can cost under $10 per year. It is also important to note that it is recommended to ALL people over the age of 50, regardless of their diet, to take a vitamin B12 supplement due to how frequent vitamin B12 malabsorption is in this population. Thus, vitamin B12 deficiency ends up being just as common in those on animal based diets as it is in those on plant based diets, especially over the age of 50.
Vitamin C is also called ascorbic acids. While carnivores like lions can make their own vitamin C, herbivores are not able to and must obtain vitamin C in their diet. Vitamin C plays many roles in the human body vital to good health including being a powerful antioxidant, is important in the function of the immune system, aids in wound healing, protein metabolism, and the production of collagen as well as other functions. Vitamin C also significant increases the absorption of non-heme iron – the iron found in plants.
Vitamin D is not a vitamin at all. It is actually a hormone that is important in calcium absorption and bone growth. It also plays a role in the modulation of inflammation.
Vitamin D is not made by plants, but only made by animals. Humans make their own vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Dietary vitamin D mostly comes through fortification of food, however some natural foods do contain vitamin D including.
The dairy industry has used the fortification of milk with vitamin D as a tool to promote the nutritional qualities of their product in order to make up for the overall negative health effects that it has in regards to cholesterol, saturated fat, casein protein and sugar. They add vitamin D since dairy products also contain significant amounts of calcium and vitamin D aids calcium absorption. Despite this fact, research shows that countries that consume the highest amount of dairy also have highest rates of hip fractures. This is related to the acidity of dairy products as they are digested. Simply leave a glass of milk outside on a warm day and look at it in 6-12 hours and you will see what happens to it inside the human body. Acidity from dairy and animal protein is neutralized by drawing phosphorus out of bones. Thus dairy, despite the calcium and vitamin D, does not prevent osteoporosis and hip fractures effectively.
Vitamin E acts in the body as a powerful antioxidant and is involved in immune function.
Vitamin K is involved in blood clotting and bone metabolism. The medication warfarin (Coumadin) acts to thin the blood by blocking the actions of vitamin K. Thus, giving extra vitamin K in the diet or intravenously can reverse the effects of warfarin.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin K is below:
Our bodies need iron as a part of “hemoglobin” to help carry oxygen throughout the blood. There are two types of dietary iron: Heme-iron and non-heme iron.
Heme-iron comes from animal based foods (since animals have hemoglobin to carry oxygen). Non-heme iron comes from plant based foods. While heme-iron is more readily absorbed into your body, it causes a significant amount of “oxidative stress” creating “free radicals” which can cause health issues. Also, since the body does not have any way to eliminate iron (except for bleeding), too much iron can be bad for you.
Non-heme iron from plants, while less readily absorbed, does not cause any negative health effects. People on a plant based diet are no more likely to be iron deficient than those not following a plant based diet.
Iodine is a trace element that is involved in thyroid function and metabolism as well as brain development. Table salt is frequently “iodonated” to be sure adequate amounts are ingested. The medication “amiodarone” has significant iodine in it’s structure, thus thyroid complications are common with this drug.
Calcium is a mineral important for bones, cellular activity and the central nervous system.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for calcium is below:
Phosphorus is a mineral important in bone and teeth development, but also plays a role in nerve signaling and metabolism. Diets too high in phosphorus may be dangerous due to the promotion of “FGF23”, a molecule that can damage arteries and lead to atherosclerosis.
Zinc is involved in many body including the immune system. The body has no way to store zinc, so daily dietary intake is important.
Summary and Conclusions
Micronutrients are important to consider, however eating a variety of whole plant foods will get you more than you need. Do not get caught up in micronutrient details and do not take supplements (with the exception of vitamin B12) unless your doctor has diagnosed you via a test with a specific deficiency. We simply need to focus on eating whole plant foods and avoiding processed foods and calories from animal based sources.
If you decide to track your micronutrient intake, you will see that on a plant based diet, you will be getting far MORE micronutrients than you would on an omnivorous diet. In fact, the standard American diet is quite devoid of many micronutrients, thus the booming supplement industry.
As an exercise in examine your micronutrient intake, try Chronometer.com, a free online tool. Just enter the foods that you eat and it will tell you the micronutrient intake that you are getting in your diet. You will see that a plant based diet gets you way more than needed for good health.
Chronometer.com – a free online tool to track your micronutrient intake