"You are what you eat", many people in the health and wellness industry say. Eating a nutritious diet not only contributes to a longer life but also helps prevent chronic diseases. Knowing which nutrients your body requires and adopting habits to get them allows you to reap the benefits of a healthy diet. Find out which micronutrients and macronutrients your body needs to function at its peak capacity.
What are Micro & Macro Nutrients?
All nutrients belong to one of the two main categories - macro and micro.
Macronutrients are those substances that we need in large quantities to provide us with energy. These are protein, carbohydrates, and fats which are found in almost all foods, including fish, legumes, cereals, meat, nuts, and potatoes.
Macronutrients, also known as major elements, are considered essential because our body cannot produce them. Excessive consumption of macronutrients can cause cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, although the type and source of these play a significant role. On the other side, people who don’t eat enough macronutrients are at risk of malnutrition, Kwashiorkor, and Marasmus.
Types of Macronutrients
Macro comes from the Greek word ‘makros’, which means large, and as mentioned, macronutrients can be classified into 3 categories: carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
Carbohydrates provide 4 calories of energy per gram and also provide dietary fiber to your diet. There are simple and complex carbohydrates, which act completely differently in our bodies. Simple carbs are sugars, and while some can come from milk, most in the Western diet are added to foods such as soft drinks, cakes, cookies, breakfast cereal, etc. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates contain more nutrients and dietary fiber, which slows down the digestion of sugars and makes you feel fuller for longer. These are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains.
Fats provide 9 calories per gram, but the type of fat impacts our bodies in opposite ways. The main three types of fat include unsaturated, saturated, and trans fat. Unsaturated fats can improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and more. These are predominantly found in plant foods such as vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. Through decades of dietary advice, a link has been found between saturated fat and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Although all foods containing fat have a mix of specific types of fats, beef, cheese, ice cream, and coconut and palm oil contain higher amounts of saturated fats. Last, trans fats are the worst type of fat for the heart, blood vessels, and rest of the body, and are mostly made by heating liquid vegetable oils which turns it into margarine or shortening, but can also be found in small amounts in beef and dairy.
Proteins are the building blocks that help the body grow, repair, and keep bones and muscles healthy. We can obtain protein from animal and plant sources. Animal protein includes meat, dairy, fish, and eggs, while plant protein sources include beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Protein provides 4 calories per gram.
Micro comes from the Greek word ‘mikros’, which means small. Micronutrients are measured in milligrams or micrograms, which is much smaller than grams, the measurement for macronutrients. Micronutrients are consumed in smaller quantities as vitamins and minerals and are present in fruits, vegetables, eggs, green leafy vegetables, and fermented foods. Also known as trace elements, these prevent disease and contribute to body growth in the human body.
While rare through diet alone, overconsumption of vitamins can lead to liver and nerve damage.
Types of Micronutrients
Vitamins and minerals are the two main types of micronutrients that we obtain from food, given our body cannot produce them. Regardless of type, vitamins and minerals are absorbed in similar ways in your body and interact in many processes. The micronutrient content of each food is different, and the role of micronutrients in our body is unique, so it’s best to eat a variety of foods to get enough vitamins and minerals.
Vitamins are organic substances, meaning they are made by plants or animals and fall into two categories. The fat-soluble vitamins — A, D, E, and K — dissolve in fat and are stored in your body. The water-soluble vitamins — C and the B-complex vitamins (such as vitamins B6, B12, niacin, riboflavin, and folate) — dissolve in water. Our bodies can't store any water-soluble vitamins, so the ones our body doesn't use travel through the bloodstream and are lost (mostly when we pee). This means we need a fresh supply of these vitamins every day.
Minerals are inorganic elements found in soil and water, which are absorbed by plants or ingested by animals. Some of the most common ones include calcium, sodium, and potassium, but there are plenty of others, including trace minerals like copper, iodine, and zinc, required in minute quantities.
Eating a Rainbow Diet
Regardless of the strict and/or specific dietary pattern you opt for, many health professionals believe the essential diet includes eating a rainbow of different coloured fruits and vegetables daily The different pigments or phytonutrients that give foods their colour possess high levels of nutrients and are linked to different health benefits.
Red fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals found to have cancer-fighting effects. Most red berries are rich in bioactive compounds that protect against heart and Alzheimer’s disease. Nitric oxide has been associated with improved circulation and reduced risk of heart disease. The polyphenols and antioxidants in red fruits and vegetables can offer skin protection and may prevent skin cancer. Go for red capsicum, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, cherries, red onion, and beetroot.
Green fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin K, isoflavones and isothiocyanates, and vitamin K, which are good for blood and bone health. Broccoli and cabbage can improve immune function, while dark leafy greens may contribute to a better mood. Eat broccoli, asparagus, spinach, kale, kiwi fruit, zucchini, green cabbage, lettuce, peas, and beans.
Eating yellow and orange fruits and vegetables will get you vitamin C and carotenoids, which convert to vitamin A within the body. Citrus fruits contain the phytonutrient hesperidin, which can increase blood flow, help blood circulation, and reduce the risk of stroke. Eat plenty of oranges, mandarins, grapefruit, tangelo, bananas, pineapple, peaches, sweet potato, carrots, squash, pumpkin, and orange and yellow capsicum.
Some purple/blue fruits are known as superfoods for their anti-cancer and anti-ageing properties. The phytochemicals in dark-coloured berries can repair damage caused by oxidative stress and inflammation, are rich in anthocyanins and resveratrol, and have been studied extensively for their anti-cancer and anti-ageing properties. The polyphenol compounds and antioxidants in red grapes have been found to increase nitric oxide production and are good for heart health. Eat blueberries, blackberries, red grapes, plums, purple carrots, purple potatoes, and purple cauliflower.
You might not associate brown and white with colours of the rainbow, but these coloured fruits and vegetables still offer health benefits. The onion family of vegetables contain health-promoting compounds of allicin and quercetin, and garlic offers anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Eat onions, garlic, cauliflower, mushrooms, potatoes, and parsnips.
Whole Foods Vs Ultra-Processed Foods
Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables of different colours means you’re less likely to be eating ultra-processed foods. Mass-produced sugary cereal, cakes, biscuits, and boxed snack foods contain little to no nutritional value. They’re made of hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, and corn syrup that may increase the risk of chronic health conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and depression.
While processed foods don’t need to be completely forbidden, they should be eaten occasionally and definitely not every day. The food we eat plays massive roles in almost every part of our day, from our mood to our mental state and energy levels, and the feel-good state will make you want these healthy eating habits.
Remember, small changes in eating habits can significantly impact long-term health outcomes. If you’re feeling like your diet isn’t as good as it could be and you would benefit from talking to a specialist, see your GP for a referral to see a nutritionist or dietician. An extras cover policy can help cover the cost of an appointment with a nutritionist or dietician.