In part 1, I focused on the macronutrients, and outlined what a difference they had made to me during a fitness competition. You can read Part 1 here if you missed it. So, following on, it’s micronutrient time. I am not going to try to cover the 25,000 antioxidants that we so far know about, or indeed 92 minerals in one article. What’s important here is how you can tweak your food and supplements to increase the micronutrient absorption and therefore get the greatest benefits.
I’m going to keep it simple, and state that in general, most micronutrients are either water soluble or fat soluble. The fat soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K. The water soluble ones are B and C. But there’s more to life than just those 6 micronutrients. Let’s look a little closer.
If you’ve read Love Your Bones, (or even if you haven’t) you probably won’t need me to remind you that vitamins D and K are hugely important. So, on a plant-based diet, how do we maximise absorption? I take D3 and K2 as a supplement, so if you’re doing the same (which you should, especially if you live in a climate like the UK where there isn’t enough sun for half the year), take it with some food that contains fat. I take mine just after breakfast, since I have chia seeds with home made nut milk for my first meal of the day. I also take my essential fatty acid supplement at the same time. The one I use contains a fantastic mix of omega 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9, all from plant sources (fish oil is not necessary, or recommended). You can buy it here.
Other essential fat-soluble micronutrients that are better absorbed in the presence of fat are the carotenoids. You may have heard of beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, but also bear in mind that there are over 40 carotenoids that have a direct impact on our health, and we need all of them. The “old” method of improving absorption of carotenoids from plants was the recommendation to cook them with butter, but we’ve moved on, haven’t we. So if for example you’re having grated carrots in a salad, use a dressing that contains tahini to add a little healthy fat to that meal, or alternatively have some avocado with it.
On the subject of the fat-soluble carotenoids, there are two particularly important ones to mention here – lutein and zeaxanthin. Any ophthalmologist worth his Himalayan salt would be telling you that foods containing these carotenoids are absolutely essential for prevention of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The macula is located at the back of the eye, and is responsible for fine-detail vision. In one interesting study, blood levels of lutein and zeaxanthin increased by 44% after subjects took this food supplement for just 28 days. Needless to say, this is something that I personally use and recommend.
On to some of the water-soluble micronutrients, and what could be better than to talk about the polyphenols? In this category we have flavonols, anthocyanins, lignans and stilbenes. The flavonols and anthocyanins in particular have huge benefits as antioxidants in the prevention of heart disease, reducing the risk of metabolic syndrome and improving skin texture and appearance. Dark red berries contain fantastic amounts of these compounds – indeed, the darker the better. So, if you want really good results, you need to be eating (or taking supplements made from) those with blue-black pigments, such as blueberries, blackcurrants and blackberries. But there’s a new kid in town, better known to those from cold northern climates where this berry grows best – Lonicera caerulea, AKA the haskap berry, which has 3 times the antioxidant levels of blueberries. So if you live in Poland, Scandinavia, Russia or northern Japan, add some of these beauties to your smoothie.
Some of the beneficial phenolic compounds found in the dark berries can’t quite make up their mind if they are fat soluble or water soluble (indeed, some dissolve just as well in ethanol as they do in water). So if you’re putting berries in your smoothie and want maximum absorption, throw a bit of tahini in the mix to ensure you have everything covered.
What about minerals? I’ll make this clear – I don’t recommend taking mineral supplements. They just don’t get absorbed very well. It’s far better to eat mineral-rich vegetables, including dark green leaves and seaweed. Even so, the iron in these foods is better absorbed in the presence of vitamin C. The leaves themselves contain vitamin C, but for an extra boost to absorption, squeeze some lemon juice on your salad.
In summary, for the best absorption of your micronutrients, combine your meals to take advantage of what is water soluble and what is fat soluble. And if you’re using supplements, take them with food or just after meals, and make sure they are made from whole foods, always. Individual isolated supplementation is what people did in the 20th Century. From a health perspective, we’ve taken a giant leap forward, and so should you.