Micronutrients Made Simple

micronutrients density compared to space density in a hubble milky way picture

There are a number of reasons that you may not be performing optimally – you may not be eating sufficient amounts of calories (be they protein, fat, or carbohydrate) for performance and recovery, you may not be getting adequate rest, you could be under a great deal of stress; it’s also possible that all three of those examples are just fine, but your diet is garbage and you forgot about micronutrients.

 

One of my criticisms of the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) movement (at least what it “became,” perhaps not what it was intended to be) is that it denigrated into an equivocation between the calories in a Twinkie and that from much more nutrient-dense foods.  The truth of the matter is that many of us – because of food palatability, emotional attachment, taste preference, or myriad other reasons find ourselves eating foods which lack a nutrient punch.  In the keto community we talk at LENGTH about the essentials of understanding your macronutrients.  It’s one of the first questions we ask:

  • I can’t lose weight! How are your macros set up?
  • I’m tired all the time! How are your macros set up?
  • I need a small business loan for setting up my figurine business? How are your macros set up?

We beat it into our on consciousness, and then we proceed to do so with others.  However at no point do we ask – how are your micros set up?

So we eat anything and everything which “fits my macros, bro.”  We find people in this countercultural dietary lifestyle who eat sticks of butter, who drink 800 Calorie coffees, or who eat 100g of fiber per day. They never stopping to ask themselves one simple question: at a holistic level, how nutritious is my diet?  And that matters when a statistically disproportionately large number of people who come to a ketogenic approach to eating fall into the camp of “there’s something metabolically/medically/dysfunctionally wrong with me and I need help fixing it.”  We don’t recommend bloodwork, we don’t recommend a LC Paleo (or Paleo-ish) approach to diet, nor do we concern ourselves with understanding that the nutritional world does not end with macronutrients.

So what are these micronutrients that we need to be concerned with?  Well…all of them, however, if I were asked to list them, there are functionally two groups:

  1. Vitamins
  2. Minerals

There are really three areas that I see which need to be discussed, and since I’m the one behind the keyboard, that’s how it’s going to go down.  I could write pages and pages on the research about some of the challenges with the approach the US Government has taken in establishing recommended intakes and how they fail to appreciate inter-individual variability and genetic/genomic factors, but I’ll spare you as much of my rant as I can.

The Right Micronutrient Density

 

As I have hinted at above, one of the chief challenges in any diet is ensuring that you are getting sufficient vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) from your food choices.  In our culture, or with a hectic lifestyle, that may be more easily said than done.  The question of multivitamin / multimineral supplementation frequently comes up. The reality is that, while they could confer some benefit as a nutritional insurance policy, many of the formulations which exist are (to quote a friend) “beyond utter garbage.”  They are the product of least-cost manufacturing processes using poor isoforms which have minimal bioavailability.  So the insurance policy is a bit like buying the “2-year protection plan” from a third party when you buy a laptop from Amazon.  You might get some benefit, but the reality is it won’t be much, it will require a lot of time and expense to receive the benefit, and at the end, the cost vs the benefit of doing so is pretty minimal.

So shifting back to diet, the density of your micronutrients may be less difficult to attain for those eating ad libitum diets (those seeking to GAIN weight) or those who are eating at maintenance.  For those of us in a perpetual state of “hypocaloric intake,” the fancy word for “I’m on a diet, ma’am,” the degree of difficulty just went up.  The approach at Ketogains has always been to recommend the most whole / close to origin approach to dieting that one is able to sustain, and this is one of those reasons why.

The benefit for many of us is two-fold:

  1. By eating sufficient whole-food sources of Calories, the meals contain substantially more vitamins and minerals (and generally in very bioavailable forms),
  2. The cost and advantage of supplementation is significantly diminished.
  3. The foods tend to be less calorically dense, which means my meals are larger, and I feel less like I’m on a diet.

Approximately 200 Calories of four common foods.  With apologies to Sesame Street, one of these things is NOT like the other…one of these things just doesn’t belong.  Which one is likely the most nutrient-dense?  Which one is likely the most satiating?  Which one is likely going to yield the best dietary outcomes?

 

  The Right Form of Micronutrients

 

A great example came to me the other day around Vitamin E.  If you look at your current run-of-the-mill multivitamin, you will likely find that the entire amount is made up of something called “alpha-tocopherol.”  This is only one of eight isoforms of Vitamin E which I’m aware of.  And the really interesting thing is that their uptake in the body (so that you can USE what you consume) is really nuanced.  Overconsumption of any one of them tends to cause LESS bioavailability in the overall Vitamin E in your diet.  Translation for my nerdspeak: laboratory formulations will seldom be in the right ratios/amounts/forms for maximal uptake by the body, and in many cases imbalances can actually cause the body to become deficient.  This is deep-nerd DEFCON 1-level stuff…and I’m not trying to suggest that you go get a degree in biochemistry so that you can learn this level of depth.  I want this to serve as a cautionary point about a diet which consists of pork rinds, coke zero, and whey shakes chased by a megadose of vitamins -that the “gym bros” or your “GNC guy” told you was the best- will NEVER rise to the level of a well-formulated dietary approach.  It just won’t.

So how do I know if I’m getting the right form of micronutrients?  There are really four options to answer this:

  1. Hire a competent nutritionist who understands the science, not just her textbooks and government recommendations.
  2. Find a competent doctor who can treat and manipulate your diet along with your supplementation by dealing with “how I feel” along with “what does your lab say”
  3. Hire a competent coach who has seen and experienced the problems you’re having with hundreds of other clients.
  4. Buy a lab coat and a pocket protector, put tape on your glasses, and learn from reading the research and self-experimentation.

The truth of the matter is that #3 and 4 are probably something which can be done with the guidance of #1 or 2.

The Right Timing for Micronutrients

 

This one is actually pretty simple, but important.  The human digestive system is not designed for massive gut expansion from feast/famine environments.  There are benefits to periods of short (or even intermediate) fasting, however if we consider animals who eat in this fashion, their “down time” is generally “VERY down time.”  If the Cheetah isn’t chasing down a gazelle, it is usually laying under a tree unwilling to move for anything.  It is digesting its previous meal, conserving energy, and trying to remain cool (as protein has a higher TEF and they live in hot places).  Generally speaking, the answer to when to consume the right amounts of the right kinds of micronutrients is – in every meal you consume.  If that’s going to be 3 meals per day, find a place to fit in 1/3 of your nutrient-dense foods into each.  If it’s 1 meal per day, that makes it pretty simple.

In Summary

The long and short of this conversation is:

  • We don’t know all the details about micronutrients digestion and absorption…but we do know that the SAD/WD approach is severely lacking.
  • We don’t know all of the mechanisms and interrelationships which exist between various minerals and vitamins…but we do know many of them.
  • We can’t say to any level of specificity how many of each you need in a day…but we do know that megadosing low-cost supplemental forms is likely at best useless and may be detrimental.

 

How you choose to make your overall diet as nutritionally dense as possible is entirely up to you.  Obviously, our focus is on a well-formulated ketogenic approach with whole foods– and a large part of the “well-formulated” part is in the details like this; however this approach should apply for people eating a Paleo diet, for those eating a higher-carbohydrate diet, for vegans, for ovo-lacto-puerco-loco-vegetarians (I’m teasing you…don’t crucify me!), or anyone who ingests food of any kind.  Make it the best food, so you can have the best life possible.

About Author

Tyler Cartwright
Former fat guy (well, I'm still fat...but less so and getting thinner and stronger). I've lost 295 lbs - while on a ketogenic diet. I love to lift, to learn, and to live...anything else...just ask.

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