A simple way to think about our food

Feeding our brains

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Which nutrients matter? Where do we find them? What do they do? Some people may feel overwhelmed by the technical details: what each nutrient is called, what each one does, and which foods contain each one. Sometimes it might seem easier to turn our heads away from all this complexity and go back to eating the way we always have.

Yet there are many books and podcasts telling us that we should change the way we eat in order to improve our health. What should we do? Change, but how? It can all be so confusing. The two of us have published many studies showing that better mental health results from improving nutrient intake. So it is important to us to help solve the confusion in order to encourage people to improve and protect their brains.

We think we have a simple solution. Understanding just one bit of terminology used in describing nutrients can help you transform your diet and improve your health. That ‘bit’ is the difference between a macronutrient and a micronutrient. Macro means ‘big’ and micro means ‘little.’

  • Macronutrients are categories that include fats, carbohydrates (carbs) and proteins. Every package of food that you buy lists at least those three macronutrient categories and sometimes more. We need these to grow, build and repair tissues, help with cell membrane integrity, store and provide energy. But Americans are generally not lacking in macronutrients, and we think the almost exclusive focus on them tends to overshadow the importance of micronutrients.  
  • Micronutrient is the term usually used for one of the roughly 30 vitamins and minerals that we need to consume. You likely know about some (calcium, vitamin C, magnesium) though others may be less familiar (especially trace minerals like molybdenum, selenium). You will never find a package of food that lists all 30 micronutrients. Government requirements change every few years, but right now Americans can expect to see at least four: vitamin A, calcium, iron, and potassium. And each one states % DV (Daily Value), which refers to the amount your government says you should consume every day to protect your health.

Now let’s do an experiment. Every time you open a package of something to eat or to cook with, look at those four micronutrients. Also notice whether any other micronutrients are listed. Better yet, grab a piece of paper and make a chart like this one, which we made from common, popular products:

Product% DV vit A% DV calcium% DV iron% DV potassium

What this example tells you is that after eating these three packaged products you have not come close to reaching 100% of your DV for any of those four micronutrients. And as we explained, there are more than 26 other micronutrients for which information is not even provided. If the food is highly processed, chances are those other micronutrients aren’t even contained within that food product. But the consumer will never know, because food manufacturers are not required to list them!

Is this a problem? Probably. Americans are generally consuming suboptimal levels of virtually all of the micronutrients. Dietary surveys show that nutritional deficiencies, based on eating a typical western diet, are simply far too common. To name a few survey results, 94% of the US population do not even meet the daily requirement for Vitamin D, 89% for Vitamin E, 52% for magnesium, 44% for calcium, 43% for Vitamin A and 39% for Vitamin C. The message: some Americans are severely lacking in daily intake of minerals and vitamins.

And what concerns the two of us is that it is our brains that require the most and are likely suffering the most from our poor micronutrient intake. It is time to ask this question: how are we getting an adequate intake of our micronutrients when much of what our society consumes is in packages?

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