You may have already read our blog post about Macronutrients, here we’re going micro, into the world of vitamins and minerals, otherwise known as micronutrients.
While 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, helping the body to effectively and efficiently utilise 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.
One of the many nutritional benefits 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 antioxidants and plant chemicals that can help to prevent disease.
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 a solid foundation of colourful vegetables, seeds, pulses, legumes and fruits, any plant-based eater should easily meet their micronutrient needs. Having said that, there’s always a way to get more in your diet.
Diversity is the key. You should try to eat a variety of foods with a range of nutrients to cover your essential nutrient needs. Going for colour is always a good place to start. A colourful plate is mostly likely packed with micronutrients. By pairing colourful fruit or veg with a macronutrient rich meals, you can transform an average diet into a super-healthy one.
The micronutrient challenges for vegans and plant-based enthusiasts happen when there is a lack of variety in the diet. Often this can come down to a perceived lack of time, which is the same reason why any diet can be nutritionally inadequate and imbalanced. Well-balanced and varied plant-rich diets can be extremely healthy, and they 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 varied diet of plenty of fresh veg, wholegrains, legumes, beans and pulses, seeds and nuts, getting adequate amounts of these nutrients should not be a problem.
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 plant-based foods may contain a little “active” B12, such as Japanese fermented miso, some wild mushrooms, nutritional yeast, chlorella and some edible algaes.
Research shows that 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 five 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 benefit from eating algae, but we will let you know once there is news on that front.