The topic of micronutrition may sound boring but you can’t afford to ignore it. Long-term micronutrient deficiencies will impact your health and torpedo your training efforts.
Fortunately it’s doesn’t have to be complicated. By observing a few simple rules of thumb regarding your daily fruit and vegetable intake you can safeguard against deficiencies.
This article is less than a 5 minute read, but here are some key points for the super lazy:
- A multivitamin isn’t a substitute for a poor diet, but it is additional insurance on a good one.
- Dieters are at greater risk of micronutrient deficiencies and could benefit from supplementation.
- It is likely that there are performance benefits from eating vegetables -- Popeye was onto something with that spinach habit.
- If you have issues with energy, feel hungry, wonder why your skin is pale, or have messed up sleep patterns, it could be that you’re short of a few vitamins or minerals.
- Water is important for fat loss and performance. Aim for 5 clear urinations a day.
All the above I’ll explain in this article. I’ve tried to keep it short, relevant and practical.
What Are Micronutrients?
Vitamins and minerals.
‘Micro’ because of the quantities: While macronutrients are generally counted in grams, micronutrients are generally counted in milligrams (or less). Think of macros as being the gas in your car, giving it the energy to propel the engine; micros as the oil and lubricants, keeping the car from breaking down.
Minerals are non-organic. Some of these (calcium, sodium, potassium, magnesium, etc.) are needed in greater quantities than others (iron, copper, zinc, etc.). Not coincidentally, things containing the former group (dairy & salty foods for example) taste good to us, and things containing a lot of the latter don’t. Bear with me here…
Vitamins are organic. Some are water-soluble and others are fat-soluble. The fat-soluble ones are absorbed in the gut, so deficiencies or surpluses (overdoses) build over time. The water-soluble ones are very hard to overdose on because they will be passed through the body in your urine (which is why you probably haven’t heard of people getting sick from super-dosing vitamin C when they catch a cold). The flip side of this is that they need to be consumed daily.
Further reading: See the video at the bottom of this post, or wade through the micronutrient page on Wikipedia.
The Right Mindset
1. Take sensible precautions rather than go looking for issues
Some people are very quick to point the finger of blame at their diet whenever issues pop up. If someone comes to me lacking energy for example, though it could be a micronutrient deficiency, if they are currently dieting then usually just the fact that they are in a calorie deficit and have been going at it too hard, or for too long without a break.
Very often it’s completely non-related to the diet -- they haven’t been sleeping well, there is significant stress at work or home, or they’ve caught a cold but haven’t started sneezing yet.
If you have the time, economic means, and desire to go out and get a blood test to check, then by all means do so.
However, I suggest that rather than assuming you have a problem and getting a blood test to check for a deficiency, assume you don’t and take the reasonable dietary precautions by following the guidelines I have below. Then if you have issues later on that you think may pertain to the diet (as you’ve ruled out other things) then perhaps consider getting one. I’m going to assume here though that the majority of us don’t and won’t, hence the guidelines below.
(Just remember that the industry profits from our desire to feel special by inventing issues for us to imagine we have and then selling solutions to these invented problems. -- Those selling the idea of blood tests are also often those with a set of pills to sell.)
2. ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM) -- Use it, but don’t abuse it.
On working with competitors, commenting on their habits mid-diet cycle, this is worth quoting from Eric Helms:
“‘If it fits your macros’ (IIFYM) has become, ‘What can I fit into these macros and get away with?’ i.e. ‘What can I fit into these macros to satisfy my cravings?’ rather than ‘How do I meet my nutritional needs?’ When you combine that with extreme hunger and dieting you can run into some issues. People can end up having some pretty ridiculous menus to meet some very well set up macros, that can actually lead you running into problems micronutritionally.
I like flexible dieting, I love IIFYM, but there are some things that we want to think about so that we don’t run into issues with this so that it doesn’t end up short-circuiting our progress.”
Eric advises his competitors to think about a diet of inclusion rather than one of exclusion. An IIFYM diet abused with too many Pop-Tarts can be just as micronutritionally deficient as the ‘typical’ chicken and broccoli bodybuilder diet that excludes entire food groups.
Fruit and Fibrous Veg Intake Guidelines -- To Cover Your Bases
The vast majority of people reading this, the physique focused people, will be fine for the micronutrients we get in meat, dairy and starchy carbs. It’s generally the ones from fruit and veg that we need to pay attention to, as they are the foods most often skipped for ease. With clients I usually use these guidelines:
- Eat one or two pieces of fruit a day.
- Eat fibrous veg with every meal.
- Try and eat a variety of fruits and veg rather than the same things every day.
Then, if there are issues we may look at total fibre intake or suggest a multi and then see how they respond. This is the simplest way of looking at your micronutrition.
That said, I also like the simplicity of the following guidelines given by Eric to his competitors as it satisfies a deep need for some people to have specific guidelines on quantities:
The above uses the US cup food measurement system. (Which for the British, is what you can fit in a baby pint glass. For the rest of the world it’s a tiny bit more than what you can fit in a 250ml glass.) To those like myself that feel this is still a little vague, here is a quick guide:
As you can see they are based on daily calorie intake, with recommended intake tapering down the less that is eaten. Two main reasons:
- The less your overall food intake, the less fruit and veg you’ll be able to fit into your macros.
- The more you eat, the more fibre you’ll need to digest it and pass it through.
Now, I can appreciate that the reaction of the under 30 male crowd is going to be, “So, what’s the least I can get away with eating then?” to which I don’t have an answer for you. But I hope the two following quick sections will help.
Other Important Notes On Micronutrition
A Multivitamin is Not a Substitute for Fruit and Vegetable Intake
Up until my mid-twenties I considered them a pain in the arse to cook and expensive to buy. My tastes in food have changed and I quite enjoy vegetables now, but back then I believed there was an option of taking a pill instead. As for why not, this deserves a direct quote from Alan Aragon:
“It can’t be over-emphasized that a poor diet with a multi is still a poor diet. There are a multitude of biologically active and beneficial compounds within the matrix of foods that are not in -- and may never make their way into -- a multivitamin/mineral supplement.
It’s important to think of micronutrition not just in terms of essential vitamins & minerals, but also in terms of phytonutrients & zoonutrients; compounds that are not classified as vitamins or minerals but can optimize health and prevent disease. This is why attaining a variety of foods both within and across the food groups is important for covering all the micronutrient bases.”
Dieters Are At Greater Risk of Micronutrient Deficiencies
Those dieting (i.e. in a calorie deficit) are at greater risk of having some kind of micronutritional deficiency. The December 2013 editorial in Alan Aragon’s Research Review, ‘A critique of the recent multivitamin rant in the Annals of Internal Medicine,’ was a real eye opener in terms of how much this is so.
Recalling the findings of Calton, JB. ‘Prevalence of micronutrient deficiency in popular diet plans.’ from the June 2010 Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, regarding specifically the Atkins, DASH, South Beach, and Best Life diets:
- All four diet plans failed to deliver 100% sufficiency for the selected 27 essential micronutrients, based on RDI guidelines, when followed as recommended by their suggested daily menus using whole food alone.
- Six micronutrients (vitamin B7 (biotin), vitamin D, vitamin E, chromium, iodine, and molybdenum) were identified as consistently low or nonexistent in all four diet plans.
- A typical dieter on any of these four popular diet plans would be, on average, 56.48% deficient in obtaining RDI sufficiency, and lacking in 15 out of the 27 essential micronutrients analyzed.
- Thus, it is pretty clearly that when dieting it is especially likely that you will have some kind of micronutritional deficiency. (It also means I need to start going over the back issues of the JISSN). The advice then is to consider covering your bases with a multivitamin & mineral supplement.
We’ll go more in-depth on this in part #5 Supplements.
It Appears That There Are Performance Benefits To Be Had From Eating Vegetables
Green vegetables (spinach, rocket, and beetroot in particular) have a lot of nitrate. An increase in nitrate intake can reduces the cost of exercise and improves exercise tolerance. -- Yes, Popeye was onto something with eating all that spinach, and your mum was right in telling you to eat your vegetables.
The science: If we have sufficient nitrate in our diets, then we are able to elevate our plasma nitrite concentration, and that nitrite that’s elevated can become nitric oxide, which may be beneficial to enabling the appropriate amount of oxygen to be supplied to muscle tissue.
If your VO2 max and your lactate threshold is the same, then a lower oxygen cost for the same running speed will mean you’re operating at a lower percentage of your VO2 max, meaning you’ll fatigue less rapidly as you’ll accumulate less of the things that we think cause us to slow down. Lower oxygen cost, higher muscle efficiency is an important aspect of performance across the board.
For more on this topic, check out the Guru Performance Podcast, episode 54.
The Limits of My Knowledge -- Further Reading
Micronutrition is not my area of expertise. What I know was read in very boring few textbook chapters a long while ago and was brought to life in the video below by Eric Helms. He’s done a killer job and so that’s why you’ll find that this article in particular follows his work a lot more closely than the other articles in this series.
Water Intake Guidelines
Water is important for fat loss and performance. A few details on the fat loss part in the FAQ.
- Aim for 5 clear urinations a day. -- Lyle McDonald
- Aim to be pissing clear by noon. -- Me, though I’m sure I stole this from somewhere. Also,
- Make sure that you’re not dehydrated at the time of your workouts or they will be negatively impacted.
I don’t like the idea of setting water intake for people based on bodyweight, simply because some people sweat more than others, not to mention different climates and activity levels.
To maximise your gains from training you need to consider when you’re eating relative to when you train. We’ll cover that with detailed example set-ups next.
Prefer to keep with the web version? #4 Meal Timing & Frequency, Calorie & Macro Cycling →
Questions welcomed in the comments, but if you have specific questions or concerns on micronutrition then it’s best to see a doctor or your local registered dietician.