Welcome to part two of our look into macro and micronutrients! So, we’ve checked out those marvellous macros, now let’s dive deeper and check out the small stuff.
Whereas macronutrients supply us with the necessary calories (energy) to move and function on a daily basis, micronutrients are the “spark plugs” that literally turn on the ignition, assisting the body in effectively and efficiently utilising calories, and driving the many biochemical reactions that occur in our cells.
Micronutrients (micro = small) are required in much smaller quantities than macronutrients, but this doesn’t mean they are any less important. All micronutrients (from vitamins A, the B complex, C, D, E, to K, along with minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc, to name but a few) are vital for normal energy metabolism, cellular function, and physical and mental wellbeing.
Where do we source micronutrients on a plant-based diet?
One of the many nutritional highlights of a well-balanced plant-based diet is its inherent high micronutrient content. Plant foods are naturally rich in vitamins and minerals, as well as being our major food providers of disease-preventative antioxidants and plant chemicals.
Whilst the mineral content of plants depends on the mineral content of the soil they’re nurtured in, as long the diet is built upwards from, and contains, a solid foundation of colourful vegetables, seeds, pulses, legumes and fruits, any plant-based eater should easily meet his or her micronutrient needs. Having said that, there’s always a way to get more in your diet!
Keeping it varied
Diversity is the key, and vital to instil in our diets. We must endeavour to look towards sourcing a variety of foods with a range of nutrients to cover our essential nutrient needs. Going for “colour” is always a good place to start, and along with having a good knowledge of some top “key” foods, we can take an average diet, to one that is super-healthy!
The “micronutrient challenges” for vegans, and plant-based enthusiasts begin to occur only with a lack of variety in the diet and a perceived lack of time; pretty much the very same reasons why any diet can be nutritionally inadequate and imbalanced. Well-balanced and varied plant-rich diets can be extremely healthy, in more ways than one and don’t have to be difficult!
The nutritional challenges that do crop up, mainly centre on getting adequate B12, iron, protein and zinc, as well as iodine, B6, vitamin D, and calcium. However, with a very varied diet of plenty of fresh veg, wholegrains, legumes and seeds/nuts, getting adequate amounts of all these nutrients really should not be a problem.
Plant-based diets are often criticised for not containing enough protein. However, it is not as much of a challenge as many realise. Protein of course is vital – for cell growth, tissue repair and regeneration, to ensure a strong immune system, and to achieve a healthy macronutrient balance in the diet.
Getting sufficient plant-based protein is therefore paramount, so choosing a variety of daily foods such as legumes, i.e. beans, lentils, peas, as well as wholegrain rice, oats, quinoa, millet, barley, green vegetables, raw green leaves, fresh and dried fruits, seeds, nuts, and tofu is sufficient to supply a range of proteins and amino acids to thrive. All these foods too are good sources of iron and calcium, so would cover these micronutrient needs too.
A word on B12
B12 is crucial for many reasons. It is vital for cellular and nerve production and a severe deficiency can cause anaemia, leading to irreversible nerve damage, and cognitive impairment
Our intestinal bacteria/flora contributes some B12 production, but it is unknown whether this is absorbed into the body. Some foods may contain a little "active" B12, such as Japanese fermented "Miso", some wild mushrooms, nutritional yeast, chlorella and some edible algaes, but make sure to keep things varied so that you get the most benefit possible!
Are algae the answer?
There is research to show that other edible forms of green and purple algae do actually contain bioavailable or true vitamin B12. The research from Japan found purple laver (an algae) contained 5 types of biologically active vitamin B12 compounds and coenzymes but this is only on a scale better for small mammals. We will have to wait a little longer to see if people can enjoy these as well, but we will definitely let you know once there are any results!
So there you have a look at micronutrients and why we need B12 in our diets! Check back soon for our top 10 list of foods with must-have micronutrients!