Defining Micronutrients: Best Food Sources for Vitamin A through Zinc

Did you know that you can look healthy on the outside, but you can actually be deficient in key micronutrients on the inside? This concept of “hidden” hunger, tied to micronutrient deficiencies that are not obviously visible, was coined by Dr. Hans Biesalski, a member of the Herbalife Nutrition Institute (HNI).

In his books on childhood nutrition, Dr. Biesalski describes the importance of micronutrients and how their deficiencies can lead to stunting in certain populations, which means children may not reach their optimal height. Interestingly, the research also shows that these deficiencies can lead to obesity later in life. In cultures where this is prevalent, you’ll find short children with obese parents. Malnutrition, stunted growth, and obesity can be passed from generation to generation.

Dr. Biesalski recently spoke on this topic at the American Society for Nutrition conference, where other HNI members, including myself, presented cutting-edge research and global nutrition trends to clinicians and scientists.

What Are Micronutrients?

Micronutrients are a group of essential nutrients that people need for normal growth and development. We require them in variable amounts throughout our lives. Our bodies cannot manufacture them, so we must obtain them through our diet or supplements.

Vitamins and minerals are the most well-known micronutrients, but phytonutrients –

substances found in plant foods that are antioxidants or have a special function in the body –

are also micronutrients. That means there are more than 100,000 types of micronutrients in the world. In this guide, we will focus primarily on vitamins and minerals.

Micronutrients vs. Macronutrients: What’s the Difference?

Macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) are the nutrients that the body needs in larger amounts, while micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are needed in much smaller amounts.

During my tenure at the University of California, Los Angeles*, I enjoyed teaching nutrition and explaining to students how macros and micros work hand in hand. If you focus solely on macros (a common trend, especially with tracking apps counseling high- or low-fat diets these days), you can still be deficient in micronutrients such as calcium or iron.

On the other hand, taking a multivitamin or multimineral supplement tablet does not  make up for the problems of a poor-quality diet with too much sugar, fat, and salt.

* The University of California as a matter of policy does not endorse specific products or services. Dr. Heber’s credentials as a professor are for identification purposes only.

A List of Vitamins and Minerals

In the table below, you will find an overview of the top vitamins and minerals and how much you need to have daily. Nutrition is personal, so there are different values for healthy men and women, as well as older adults.

My suggestions below are based on American guidelines and recommendations. Other countries may have different recommended values. Make sure to consult your doctor before making drastic changes to your diet.

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In the following table, healthy adult men and women are defined as ages 19 and above. Older adults are defined as over 50.

Micronutrient Adult Men Adult Women Older Adult Men Older Adult Women
Vitamin A 900 mcg/d 700 mcg/d 900 mcg/d 700 mcg/d
Vitamin C 250 mg/d 250 mg/d 250 mg/d 250 mg/d
Vitamin D 25 mcg/d 25 mcg/d 25 mcg/d 25 mcg/d
Vitamin E 15 mg/d 15 mg/d 15 mg/d 15 mg/d
Vitamin K 120 mcg/d 90 mcg/d 120 mcg/d 90 mcg/d
Vitamin B1 (thiamine) 1.2 mg/d 1.1 mg/d 1.2 mg/d 1.1 mg/d
Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) 1.3 mg/d 1.1 mg/d 1.3 mg/d 1.1 mg/d
Vitamin B3 (niacin) 16 mg/d 14 mg/d 16 mg/d 14 mg/d
Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) 5 mg/d 5 mg/d 5 mg/d 5 mg/d
Vitamin B7 (biotin) 30 mcg/d 30 mcg/d 30 mcg/d 30 mcg/d
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) 2 mg/d 2 mg/d 2 mg/d 2 mg/d
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) 4 mcg/d 4 mcg/d 4 mcg/d 4 mcg/d
Vitamin B9 (folate) 400 mcg/d 400 mcg/d 400 mcg/d 400 mcg/d
Calcium 1000 mg/d 1000 mg/d 1200  mg/d 1200  mg/d
Chloride 2.3 g/d 1.8 g/d 2.3 g/d 1.8 g/d
Copper 900 mcg/d 900 mcg/d 900 mcg/d 900 mcg/d
Fluoride 4 mg/d 3 mg/d 4 mg/d 3 mg/d
Iodine 150 mcg/d 150 mcg/d 150 mcg/d 150 mcg/d
Iron 14 mg/d 18 mg/d 8 mg/d 8 mg/d
Magnesium 420 mg/d 368 mg/d 420 mg/d 368 mg/d
Manganese 2.3 mg/d 1.8 mg/d 2.3 mg/d 1.8 mg/d
Phosphorus 700 mg/d 700 mg/d 700 mg/d 700 mg/d
Potassium 4.7 g/d 4.7 g/d 4.7 g/d 4.7 g/d
Selenium 55 mcg/d 55 mcg/d 55 mcg/d 55 mcg/d
Sodium 1.5 g/d 1.2 g/d 1.5 g/d 1.2 g/d
Zinc 12.5 mg/d 10 mg/d 12.5 mg/d 10 mg/d

What Are the Essential Vitamins?

An essential vitamin is one that must be obtained from the diet and cannot be made in the body. An instructive exception to this is choline. Choline can be made in the body from phosphatidylcholine and so has not been classified with the B vitamins. However, there is  a recommended daily intake in the United States of 550 milligrams.

Essential vitamins can be grouped into two categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins (C and the B vitamins) dissolve in water and can be easily excreted when you take them in quantities above the recommended amounts.

Our bodies have mechanisms that work as a buffer from absorbing too much of these water-soluble nutrients. In the ancient jungles, for instance, our ancestors used to consume lots of vitamin C from fruits. Fortunately, our liver and kidney can flush out the excessive levels from eating fruits and vegetables of vitamin C and other phytonutrients out of our bodies.

Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble essential vitamins that accumulate in the body’s fat cells and membranes. Vitamin A has toxic effects at just twice the RDA, so many multivitamins substitute beta-carotene, which can be converted by the body to vitamin A without any concern for toxicity for all or some of the vitamin A in tablets. Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries is a major concern and simply providing needed vitamin A can prevent blindness in hundreds of thousands of children globally.

Here’s how essential vitamins support your health:

What Are the Major Minerals?

Major minerals, unlike trace minerals, are used and stored in large quantities in the body. Here’s how they support your health:

What Are Trace Minerals?

The human body only needs small amounts of trace minerals. Here’s how they support your bodily functions:

Do You Need Different Levels of Micronutrients?

Some micronutrients are more important than others, depending on life stage, diet restrictions, activity level, and so on. Here are some examples where micronutrient needs differ:

While we talk about hidden hunger and nutrient deficiencies often in the context of children in vulnerable populations, we should also pay heed to the needs of adults aged 65 and above.

Inadequate nutrition disproportionally affects the elderly due to various reasons, including healthcare, environmental, or biological challenges. It’s best to start your healthy aging journey as early as your 40s or 50s.

*Anyone who has a health condition, uses medication, or is pregnant or nursing should talk with their health care provider about their nutritional needs and restrictions.


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Getting the Most Out of Your Food: How Cooking Affects Micronutrient Value

Cooking and food preparation can affect the nutritional value of your food. In some cases, your food can lose micronutrients, but in other scenarios, preparing your foods properly can enhance their nutrition values. Below are some examples.

How cooking enhances nutrient value:

How cooking may decrease nutrient value:

Should You Take Dietary Supplements?

You might have heard the saying, “Take your vitamins every day.”

While you can certainly obtain all of the above micronutrients from a healthy diet, it’s quite difficult to have a perfect diet record every single day of the year. Daily multivitamin and mineral supplements offer convenient access to micronutrients, and most brands adjust the nutrition values according to their target demographic, such as by age or gender.

When considering dietary supplements, make sure to read the nutrition label and compare your options. Vitamins and minerals offer many benefits, some more useful depending on your life stage or personal wellness goals.

With the exception of vitamin D, micronutrients cannot be made in the body. Unlike macronutrient goals, it is harder and quite cumbersome to calculate micronutrient intake, as you would in a meal plan or a macro tracking app. Therefore, I encourage people to focus on a healthy diet and supplement as needed to achieve optimal micronutrient levels every day.

Key Takeaways

Vitamins and minerals are important, but they don’t work in a vacuum: they work together in a healthy balanced diet. Taking a convenient daily multivitamin helps you focus on the macros, so you won’t have to worry about meeting the nutritional requirements for every vitamin and mineral.

Combine macros and micros by adding more color to your diet: add spices to your meals, incorporate more low-fat protein sources, and obtain healthy fats from sources like fish, avocado, and tree nuts. A good source for carbs are colorful fruits and vegetables, which have a low glycemic index.

During our nutrition education training sessions, independent distributors often ask me why we only fortify our Formula 1 meal replacement shakes up to the 50 percent of one’s daily recommended micronutrient values. My response is that many customers consume two shakes a day based on their meal plan, and others also supplement with Formula 2, which is our multivitamin product.

Dietary supplements and the micronutrients they contain provide a form of nutrition insurance, since none of us eats perfectly. There’s a reason why Formula 1 is number one, and Formula 2 is number two. However, dietary supplements and micronutrients do not make up for a poor diet and a lack of exercise.

David Heber, M.D., PhD, FACP, FASN – Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute

David HeberM.D., PhD, FACP, FASN – Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute

Dr. David Heber is the Chairman of the Herbalife Nutrition Institute (HNI), which promotes excellence in nutrition education for the public and scientific community and sponsors scientific symposia. The HNI Editorial Board is made up of key scientific opinion leaders from around the world in the fields of nutrition, exercise physiology, behavioral medicine and public health.