Often when we talk about diets in the athletic space, the focus is all on calories and macronutrients. And that makes sense: calorie balance means having enough total energy to perform the way we want to perform, and maximizing our macronutrient intake helps us move towards a body composition favoring muscle and minimizing bodyfat. All wins.
But sometimes we focus too narrowly on just those two measurements, completely forgetting that the food we eat provides a lot more than just energy and macros (see: the If It Fits Your Macros, or IIFYM, style of eating that dominated the online fitness space for a long time). We also need to consider our micronutrient intake.
Micronutrients are the compounds found in our food in small amounts – milligrams and micrograms (vs the grams upon grams of macronutrients we take in). When we talk about getting enough vitamins and minerals, we’re talking about getting enough micronutrients. And the honest truth is that we STILL don’t have a very clear picture of everything in our food. Nutrition scientists are discovering new phytonutrients/phytochemicals (literally chemicals found in plants) and what roles they play in the human body.
The list of currently known vitamins and minerals is already long. There are 31 essential (you need to consume them in your diet because your body either does not produce them or does not produce enough to maintain health) vitamins and minerals. I’m not going to list them all in this post, but we will get into a few specific micronutrients for active people to focus on below. For more information on all 31, check out this basic breakdown.
How do we get micronutrients? You may have heard the term “nutrition density” before. Foods that are nutrient dense typically have a large amount of micronutrients per calorie (and a favorable macronutrient composition). Foods that are nutrient sparse would be high calories and low in micronutrients (and maybe have an unfavorable macronutrient breakdown, like they’re high in fat and carbs but have little protein).
You know what this means: whole foods are generally the way to go. Vegetables are the best band for your nutrient buck, particularly the leafy green ones. They contain a relatively large amount of vitamins and minerals, are low in calories and high in fiber. All the fiber leads to feeling more satiated (read: stomach fullness) with fewer calories, so my fellow volume eaters can rejoice.
Another fantastic source, if you can stomach it: organ meats. In fact, beef liver (preferably from a humanely raised, grass fed cow) might be the MOST nutrient dense food you can get your hands on. With 3oz of beef liver, you’re getting just 140 calories, 22 whole grams of complete protein, and less than 4 grams of fat. And that’s not even the best part! Liver is high in Vitamin A, most of the B Vitamins, Choline, Folate, Copper, Iron, Phophorous, Selenium, and Zinc (and has lots of other vitamins and minerals too). This is, of course, if you choose to eat it. I’ll be honest, I’ve tried several times, and despite my mom’s best tips and tricks, couldn’t get past the taste. Luckily, there are plenty of other options.
Fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, seafood and some lean meats are ALL great options. A theme to remember: these are the foods you mostly find on the periphery of your grocery store. Venture down the aisle that sells grains and rice, the bakery for fresh amazing sourdough, but otherwise, you’re sticking to the produce and meat/seafood sections.
What isn’t a great option? You can also guess this one – foods that are classified as “ultra-processed” are going to be pretty nutrient sparse. Ultra-processed foods include most of what you’ll find in the center aisles of your grocery store. Cookies, candies, chips, ice cream, and all things designed to be delicious and hard to stop eating! These foods tend to be high in calories, are typically high in fats and carbohydrates with little fiber or protein, and unless you’re looking at a fortified breakfast cereal, probably don’t contain many micronutrients.
Should you avoid these foods completely? I say no. A life without Oreos sometimes is not the life for me. But should they be a frequent presence in your diet? Not if you want to really optimize your nutrition and performance.
Eating to Survive vs Eating to Thrive
Remember, we still don’t know every detail of what makes nutrient dense food so good for us. That not knowing is why it’s so important to prioritize eating whole, nutrient dense foods whenever possible. It can be tempting to just take a multivitamin each day and say “I’m good,” but you’re probably missing out on a lot of those extras we haven’t quantified yet! A multivitamin can be a nice addition, but not a replacement for eating real whole food.
Additionally, it’s useful to know the aim of what are now called the Dietary Reference Intakes that we use to decide how much of each micronutrient we should be eating daily. When reading about nutrition, you’ll typically encounter the idea of the Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA, for each food. That number represents the sufficient intake needed to meet the nutrition requirements of 97-98% of the healthy adult population. And that sounds good, but also note that this number is just accounting for the most basic level needed to avoid deficiency. It’s what we can call the “survival amount.” Go below it and eventually, you’ll encounter problems.
Consistently consume too little Vitamin C? Scurvy is coming your way. Too little iron (or too little iron absorption)? Anemia.
But what about optimizing your health? Or optimizing your performance? Yes, you’ll need to meet those bare minimums, but you may ALSO benefit from going above and beyond in your micronutrient intake.
For example, look at iron again. We know that iron is a key component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood. Endurance athletes know that adequate levels of iron are vital to quickly get oxygen from your lungs to your working muscles, so you continue moving faster and longer. You run out of iron, you can’t transport that oxygen needed for energy, and you have to stop. Additionally, endurance athletes run through iron very quickly, so replenishing it needs to be a priority for optimal performance. And menstruating endurance athletes need to work even HARDER to keep iron levels up. Just shooting to meet the RDA amount may not be enough to power your active lifestyle. And that’s just one example!
Some Areas of Focus for Active People
Aside from iron, what other nutrients should active people be focusing on? Let’s be more specific than ALL OF THEM (even though that is the case). Here’s the next three:
Vitamin D is vital for bone health, and also has been shown to support muscle strength and immune health. Luckily, the best source of Vitamin D is through sunlight! Unluckily, sunlight can be hard to come by in a lot of places for a huge part of the year! We can get some Vitamin D through our diet, but likely not enough. This is an area where supplementing can be both helpful and necessary. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning that if you take it orally, you’ll want to consume some fat with it as well.
Vitamin B12 comes up a lot for two reasons: it’s popularly considered the “energy vitamin” for its role in the energy metabolism of every cell in the body, AND because it’s mostly found in animal products. Plant-based eaters will need to supplement this vitamin, and some people on more omnivorous diets (myself included) may want to keep an eye on this one if your overall intake of meat and dairy is low. Some athlete like to megadose on B12 despite the research not really supporting the practice. Luckily, this vitamin is water-soluble, so if you take in too much, you’ll just pee it right back out.
This one is HUGE for athletes of all kinds. Magnesium is critical for bone health, plays a role in muscle and nervous system functioning, and plays a part in glycolysis, the process that lets your body breakdown glucose (blood sugar) for energy. Active people fly through their magnesium by nature, so it is one of the few vitamins or minerals that can be beneficial when consumed in higher amounts than “normal.” You can find it in leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and fruit, and may also want to add a magnesium supplement to your day. Natural Calm is a popular one, but I just take a simple ZMA pill each night and try to utilize epsom salt baths when I can (you can absorb magnesium through your skin, how cool!).
How To See What Micros You Need
While it’s probably best (and easiest) to bias your diet towards whole foods, you may also want to target your micronutrient intake. The most accurate way to do that is by getting a thorough blood test done. Your doctor can help you interpret the results to see where you’re lacking. But in lieu of that, online food trackers, particularly Cronometer, can be a godsend.
I don’t track my food everyday, but a few times a week I’ll try to get the full picture of what I’m eating. That lets me see which micros I’m missing – usually iron, B12, and somehow Vitamin E? That way, I can adjust the foods I’m eating, or add a supplement when needed.
I could write an entire article on every one of the essential vitamins and minerals (not to mention allllll of the other compounds that can be beneficial when we eat them), and maybe one day I will. But for now, the takeaway:
Prioritize whole, nutrient dense foods often. The more colors you eat, the wider the variety of nutrients you’re taking in. Eat your favorite tasty processed foods sometimes and mindfully (and enjoy the hell out of them when you do). Get some sunlight. Take an epsom salt bath. Train hard and sleep harder. The basics will get you far.