Tracking your micros from food [Part 1] - Should I bother?

Hands up if you've used a calorie or macro counting app before? That's most of us. I can't count the number of times that I've logged in to an app to track protein, carbs and fats. If I'm competing, I could tell you my daily macros in a second. And I'm not the only one. Most of the food related talk in the fitness industry all comes back to macros - meeting macros, fitting macros, cycling macros, etc. But how often do you think about the micronutrients in the foods that you eat each day? Are you confident that you're eating a diet rich in all of the micros necessary for your health and performance? Why bother thinking about micros? Let's face it. Macros are easy. Micros are difficult. This is a reality check that features in Stan Efferding's nutrition protocol, The Vertical Diet. And it's one that we need to confront. It's easier to focus on macros and not micros because: 

  • Macros are easier to track. There's only three and all data sets include protein, fats and carbs.

  • People that track macros usually have goals that depend on a caloric surplus or deficit (ie, muscle gain or fat loss), and macros are directly related to caloric balance. Macros are more relevant (maybe on the surface, but micros indirectly have a huge impact on your metabolism and energy expenditure.)

But here's the thing. You can track micros, it just takes a little practice. There are reliable databases available. And it makes sense to do this, because there's 30 essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies don't make and that only come into our bodies in our foods (or supplements.) If you look at your nutrient profile for a usual day, you can start to spot and address deficiencies. Let's take a closer look at some of the common reasons to side step tracking micros.

'It's imprecise.' 

All tracking based on generic data sets is imprecise. Just like macros. But it's still data and it's a starting point you can use to check if you're near the RDI. 'The RDI is useless.'

It's useful, but maybe not optimal. Dr Rhonda Patrick explains that a lot of various studies are used to formulate the RDI for each nutrient. The RDI is based on an Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) for the population. It is set higher than the EAR in an amount that is supposed to make sure that 97.5 % of the population has adequate levels. Dr Patrick does say that the RDA (as it's called in the US; in Australia, it's the RDI) may not be optimal because it is set to prevent acute disease rather than promote health for the life span. Dr Ames' points out that the RDI figures that we use today have their origins in historical, short term diseases. They don't reflect the quantities required for optimal long term function across years, decades and a life time. So, how do we know if we're getting enough for long term health? That, Dr Ames says, is the 'million dollar question.' We don't really know for sure. But still, the RDI gives us a useful starting point.

'The RDI is generic.'

Yes, that's true. It may not be optimal for each person. The RDI is based on the ‘normal’ population and doesn't factor in things like your training goals and related increases in nutrient needs. In addition, there's biological variation in requirements and a diet that might be fine for one person might not be for you. To properly assess your deficiencies (aside from testing), you'll need to think about your foods, any possible micro deficiencies that you can identify on the face of it, and then your symptoms and bio clues - sleep, digestion, mood, energy, etc. The RDI is another tool available to you, and you can use it in addition to listening to your body. 'If you just eat real foods, you don't need to think about micros.' 

Food comes first. If you eat a varied diet of quality animal meats, fish, plants, eggs, dairy, salt and spices, you are doing many of the right things to make sure that you consume a nutrient dense diet. Dr Ames focuses on food and believes that a varied and balanced diet supplies enough vitamins and minerals to the body. But it's easier than you may think to under consume certain micros, even if you just stick to real foods. For example:

  • If you eat the same foods on rotation, because your meal plan stipulates a limited range of foods, or you're used to preparing the same foods.

  • If you're in a caloric deficit, because you're eating less total food.If you're eating in a caloric surplus, because then the emphasis tends to be on calorie dense foods, and you may either intentionally or unintentionally eat less real foods and plants because nutrient dense foods are often the same foods that make you feel full.

  • If you eat set foods or choose from a selected list of vegetables and fruits, because your food choices are not based on what's local, fresh and in season, and locally harvested produce has less of a distance to travel so it's given more time to ripen on the vine. Foods that are left to ripen on the plant rather than ripen during shipping contain more vitamins and minerals. 

  • If you restrict or eliminate certain food groups, like fruit or dairy, because you may not adequately replace the nutrients that are more prevalent in the restricted foods.

In each case, there are simple ways that you can adjust your food choices to complement your goals while also making sure that you build your calories on a strong micronutrient foundation.

'Micros are for dietitians. I don't need to think about micros.'

Thinking about micros broadens our discussion about foods. More coaches, trainers, athletes and health and fitness enthusiasts should be talking about the many beneficial properties of real foods. Popular messages around food influence our food choices. Thinking about the nutrient density of our foods helps us to realise that there's more to it than just calories and carbs and value on the nutrient density of our food choices. You don't need to memorise all of the different essential vitamins and minerals or understand the properties of each nutrient, but it's useful to make sure that you have your nutrient basics in check. There's been a recent increase in the discussion about nutrient dense foods in the fitness community, but the emphasis still remains firmly on macros, calories, 'clean' and 'dirty' foods, supplements and stacks. This has to change. Our bodies need real food and plenty of it. Tracking micros helps to put more of an emphasis on the nutrients in real foods like it should be.