Most of us have probably heard of mico- and macro-nutrients. But what exactly are they, what are the different types, and which ones are most important?
And what about vitamins and minerals? Do vegetarians and vegans need to supplement? What are the best sources of calcium? What’s all the hype about vitamin D?
Keep reading to find out the answers to these questions and more!
Macro-nutrients are those that provide energy (calories), and include carbohydrates, protein, and fat. A summary of each macro-nutrient is provided below:
- Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy
- Carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram
- Whole grains, fruits, and starchy vegetables are good sources
- Protein is used by the body for repair and maintenance
- Protein provides 4 calories per gram
- Vegan sources include beans, legumes, nuts, and nut butters, seeds, tofu and tempeh, and whole grains
- Dietary fat helps provide a sense of satiety after eating, and aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K
- Fat provides 9 calories per gram – it is the most energy-dense macro-nutrient
- Vegan sources include nuts and nut butter, seeds, avocado, coconut, and plant-based oils
Most diet plans – whether for weight loss, a food allergy, or ethical concerns, tend to over-emphasize the importance of macro-nutrients and under-emphasize micro-nutrients. While it is important to ensure that you consume adequate amounts of each macro-nutrient, doing so is easily achieved for most people by eating a varied diet with an appropriate overall caloric intake.
What’s more important for many people is taking care to evenly distribute their nutrient intake throughout the day. In particular, limiting the quantity of protein and/or fat eaten in one sitting can improve digestion and help reduce stomach upset.
Very dense protein sources, especially those that are also high in saturated fat, are extremely difficult to digest. This is one reason to avoid meat and other animal products.
You may also find that eating a lot of fat at a single meal causes digestive problems or just a general feeling of heaviness, or that you feel better by avoiding certain sources of fat, such as fatty meats or dairy products.
Diet quality and nutrient density are the most important considerations for overall health, well-being and maintaining a healthy weight. Although there are a number of sophisticated and often complicated systems for measuring diet quality (e.g. ANDI and other food rating scores), focusing on whole, unprocessed foods are the best way to ensure that your diet is nutrient-dense. Whole foods are closest to their natural form and are therefore rich in nutrients and free of unhealthy, unnatural additives.
Foods with the greatest nutrient density (from most to least dense) include:
- Raw leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and mixed salad greens
- Solid green vegetables, such as broccoli, asparagus, snap peas, and Brussels sprouts
- Non-green, non-starchy vegetables, such as beets, carrots, cauliflower and onions
- Beans and legumes
- Fresh fruits
- Starchy vegetables, such as winter squash, yams, and potatoes
- Whole grains, such as quinoa, brown rice, and teff
- Raw nuts and seeds
For optimal health, the foods listed above should form the basis of your diet. Meat, eggs, dairy and refined foods such as chips, cookies, crackers, white rice, and refined oils have extremely low nutrient density scores and should be limited or avoided.
Vitamins and Minerals:
In theory, vitamin and mineral supplements should not be necessary if your caloric intake is adequate and your diet includes a variety of whole foods. However, individual vitamin and mineral needs vary with age, gender, activity level, season, and climate.
A simple blood test can tell you a lot about your nutritional status, and is probably a good idea before beginning any supplement. With any supplementation regimen, tracking your levels over time is useful for ensuring your nutrition needs are met.
For example, your vitamin D level may be adequate during summer months when your sun exposure is greater, but may drop below a healthy range during the winter months. In this case, seasonal vitamin D supplementation would be beneficial.
The most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies, especially for vegetarians and vegans, are in iron, calcium, vitamin D and B12. Some plant-based sources of these vitamins and minerals are summarized below:
- Vegan sources of calcium include leafy green vegetables (like spinach and kale), almonds and sesame seeds. Many milk and yogurt alternatives are also calcium-fortified.
- Leafy greens are also a great source of iron, in addition to legumes, quinoa and pumpkin seeds.
- Many brands of nutritional yeast contain vitamin B12. Try it on popcorn, with lentils, or on pasta!
- Adequate sun exposure is important for everyone (but especially for vegans) to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D. Source of Life and GHT make an excellent vegan vitamin D3 supplement.
Levels of each of these nutrients should be monitored using a blood test in an annual (or more frequent) check-up to ensure optimal levels.
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“A common myth amongst vegetarians and vegans is that it’s possible to get B12 from plant sources like seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina and brewers yeast. But plant foods said to contain B12 actually contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block intake of and increase the need for true B12”