By now, I'm sure you've seen your well-meaning hippie friends posting about how the gardener should be your pharmacist, not your doctor. While extraordinary claims like onions curing Bubonic plague and alkaline diets curing cancer are total horseshit, the buzz about micronutrients being keys to better health are notsomuch. The IronBeaver would never recommend any foods over a doctors order or needed prescription medication, EVER, but I would say to keep your body strong and able to protect itself, you should always start with what you're feeding it. Micronutrients are "micro" because they're only needed in small amounts, but they pack a big wallop.
Oxygen is what nourishes us and destroys us.
Believe it or not, the same molecule that provides every cell in our body the energy it needs to live, also ages us and kills us slowly (or on some occasions quickly, depending on the damage.) What happens is when we burn the oxygen to use its energy, it leaves byproducts behind, called "free radicals." Free radicals are unstable molecules that are missing an electron. If you remember grade-school biology, you know what happens next - the free radicals try to steal electrons from molecules in surrounding cells to stabilize themselves. Someone always gets hurt. Usually a healthy cell minding it's own business. Then it has to be repaired or regenerated. This is the primary cause of aging. Since free radicals can even damage DNA, they can also cause problems that eventually become cancer and heart disease. What antioxidants seem do in the body is prevent the oxidization process. Just like you can put lemon juice (citric acid) on an apple slice to keep it from turning brown, antioxidants appear to neutralize the same chemical reactions inside the body.
Vitamins regulate internal processes by enabling enzymes to synthesize and react in your body. Basically, they are helpers to build new stuff and keep everything running smoothly. Some vitamins also protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals. There are two kinds of vitamins, fat soluble and water soluble.
Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) are broken down and carried through the bloodstream by fat. They build up in the body, making you more susceptible to toxicity and overdose, so be mindful about excess.
Water soluble vitamins (all the B's, C, Niacin, Folate, Pantothenic Acid, and Choline) are dissolved in water and excreted by the body. While they aren't as likely to cause toxicity, excessive intake can cause kidney stones and digestive misery.
Minerals also act as helpers to regulate body processes like fluid balance, muscle contraction and nerve impulses. They also give your body structure. Not just bones and teeth and all the hard stuff, either - we're talking blood vessels and cells, too. If we didn't have minerals, we'd all be wet piles of gross, if even piles.
Major minerals, like calcium, magnesium and phosphorous are needed in greater quantities than trace minerals like chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, selenium and zinc, which are only needed in very small amounts.
Also considered major minerals are electrolytes - sodium, chloride and potassium. These guys regulate all the fluid in your body and transmit nerve impulses. Kind of a big deal, especially for active people who do a lot of sweating.
Phytonutrients come from plants. When we eat the plants, we are also eating the nutrients inside them that protect them from sun damage, pests, bacteria and fungus. They include carotenoids and flavanoids which appear to slow the aging and oxidization process, protect cells, and maintain health and bodily functions.
Prebiotics are indigestible plant fibers and starches that seem to feed healthy bacteria in your intestines. Probiotics are live cultures of beneficial bacteria that are added through your diet to maintain a healthy digestive tract.
I can get deeper into this, but it really is a separate post for another day. All you need to know right now is vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients - aka micronutrients - are vital to your health. As far as weight goes, yes, you can eat junk food all day in your calorie range and not be fat. Great. Simply being "not fat" isn't healthy, though. Switch your focus from losing weight to getting healthy. That's what it's all about.
Say No to Mega Doses and Miracles
All these new studies, findings and insinuations have caused opportunists in the health industry to go full steam, pumping out high-dose vitamin supplements and antioxidant wonder pills and tinctures. The Wonderful Wizard of Lies, Dr. Oz, springs to mind. But they aren't all Oprah Winfrey made-machines. These folks are everywhere, from small-time bloggers to quasi-famous gurus, with their misleading articles on targeted websites, over-hyped advertising claims, fake photos and weak testimonials. Don't buy into the hype!
Look, the facts are this: we do not know the exact mechanisms by which each of these micronutrients work (We're pretty sure on the vitamins and minerals, but not as much on the antioxidants and phytonutrients.) A few studies aren't generally conclusive of anything. And, with all the possible interactions with other nutrients and supplements, it's hard to tell whether it will do harm or good to take them in medicinal form. Mega-dose vitamins have been linked to poor health, heart disease and some cancers, as a matter of fact, in quite a few studies. So, too much of a good thing is very real and very unpleasant.
Until we have a better grasp on all of these new nutrients and how they work in the body and in combination with other nutrients, the best course of action is to simply eat a wide variety of plant-based foods including: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains.This seems to do the trick for most people. You can also take a multivitamin and mineral supplement to fill in the gaps if you aren't consuming enough of these types of foods. Leave the mega dose supplements alone and only take regular dose supplements for a real deficiency, not an imaginary hope of living forever. Chances are, most of these things at best do nothing except drain your wallet, but at worst, they also might harm you, especially in high doses.