How Micronutrients Optimize Body Composition
Table of contents
2. Why micronutrients are so important
3. Vitamin A
5. Vitamin E
If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) is a famous dieting strategy that was initially designed to help people lose weight without feeling overly restricted. The idea behind it was to not only track calories but to focus on getting the right amount of each macronutrient. We’re talking about protein, fat, and carbohydrates. This allows people to have a flexible approach to their diet by eating any food they want, so long as they get their desired amounts of macronutrients. Sounds good so far, right? Well, it’s not like this approach won’t work, it’s just that it’s far from optimal. This all started with the idea that a calorie is a calorie. From an energy perspective that’s kind of true, but do you really think the only thing affecting someone’s body composition and health is energy? Of course not, multiple factors need to be considered here. And let’s not forget that most of the people following this kind of diet will allow themselves to fill their macro needs with unhealthy processed junk food. This is by no means a healthy approach to meeting your fitness and body composition goals.
Let’s start by explaining the bigger picture and then we’ll dig into some of the details. The main issue we have with focusing only on macronutrients is that we are completely disregarding how important micronutrients can be. Before we explain the specifics, we must first acknowledge that both the general population and athletes fail to meet their vitamin RDA’s by up to 40% and their mineral RDA’s by up to 54%. So when your average gym-goer says, “trust me, I’m eating pretty healthy,” it’s difficult for me to believe they are. We know each food has different amounts of vitamins and minerals, right? Some have more some have less. So when someone following IIFYM starts swapping out otherwise healthy foods for nutrient-void junk, they are essentially lowering their micronutrient intakes even further. A quick example to help you understand would be the difference between 50g of carbs from potato vs. 50g of carbs from sugar. One has high amounts of B vitamins, Iron, Phosphorus, Potassium, and vitamin C, while the other has nothing. Why would anyone choose to eat foods with little to no micronutrients when they are already failing to meet their RDA’s?
⦁ Why micronutrients are so important
Now I’m going to start breaking down why micronutrients are important for not only body composition but for overall health. One thing that most people are not aware of is that micronutrients are needed to metabolize macronutrients. For example, B vitamins are used to help convert carbohydrates into energy. So when athletes with high energy demands eat carbohydrates, they need much more B vitamins too. Often they assume that they are eating a healthy diet, yet include foods like white flour, white rice, and breads that have been stripped of most B vitamins. Over time B vitamin stores deplete and you are left with sub-optimal conditions for growing muscle, losing fat and maintaining energy levels. Instead, what they should be eating is whole foods like potato, quinoa, and buckwheat that contain all the necessary micronutrients required for metabolism. In developing countries, you see populations with beriberi disease due to eating high amounts of white rice with no additional nutrient-dense food. These extreme cases of B1 deficiencies cause muscle loss, nerve damage, heart disease, constipation, low stomach acid, loss of appetite and more. So what happens when you combine an athlete that requires more macronutrients than your average Joe and foods with little micronutrients? Well, the small micronutrients you do have available spread out between macronutrient metabolism and a host of other bodily functions. Now you’re left with low macronutrient utilization and poor nutrient cofactors affecting your overall health.
⦁ Vitamin A
Vitamin A, also known as retinol, is a fat-soluble vitamin commonly associated with vision and eye health. In regards to body composition, this vitamin has been shown to directly aid in protein synthesis, required for our muscles to repair and grow. Many people are not aware that this vitamin can also help optimize hormone levels. In Children with poor height development and delayed pubertal maturation, vitamin A supplementation was found to be just as effective as exogenous testosterone. Vitamin A is needed in helping control your body’s stress hormone release during physical and psychological stress. It also plays a role in altering your receptor sensitivity to the stress hormones itself. Animals with low vitamin A showed much higher cortisol levels in stressed induced situations. They also showed weaker receptor sensitivity. Another benefit of vitamin A is its ability to act as a natural aromatize enzyme directly in the testicles. Even aromatize inhibitor drugs like anastrozole and exemestane are not able to do this. When you consider that 40% of adults fail to meet RDA’s, how could you argue that optimal vitamin A intake would not improve one’s body composition?
Vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin, is another vitamin that is usually quite low in people’s diets. One UK study showed at least 80% of the population was deficient. We mentioned earlier that you need many B vitamins to utilize the carbohydrates you ingest. Well, B2 is one of them. In addition to this, athletes require even greater amounts as they also eat far more carbohydrates. Then you have the problem that B2 is heat sensitive, which means that most of the vitamin is lost when we cook our meat. The problem is that we need optimal amounts of B2 in our diet, because it plays such an essential role throughout the body. The primary function of B2 is that it is used as a cofactor in many metabolic pathways. It helps break down protein, carbohydrates and fats to produce ATP. It also helps with digestion and hormone production by the adrenals, which directly affects growth and development. So it is important to note that if people with already inadequate intakes of B2 are switching to cheat meals and junk food just to fill their macros, they would be placing themselves under suboptimal conditions for muscle growth and fat loss.
⦁ Vitamin E
This vitamin has many functions within the body, some of which directly contribute to strength and muscle development. Animal studies have demonstrated that those with the lowest vitamin E levels also showed the most inflammation and least muscle tissue. Similar to other micronutrients, studies have shown that 80% of adults do not get enough vitamin E. This being one of the highest known deficiencies throughout western culture right under vitamin D. The main reason this happens is because polyunsaturated fats deplete vitamin E. As we know America has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. This is of no surprise as one of the staple ingredients to their diet is vegetable oil. Fast food, pastries, desserts and deep-fried everything have the highest amounts. I should also point out that when using these oils to cook food, the effects are even worse. This is why I highly recommend that people seeking optimal body composition should avoid these foods at all costs.
Another micronutrient that varies widely in various foods is phosphorus. Some meats and fish like flounder have more than double the phosphorous content per gram of protein compared to chicken and beef. In studies, it has been shown to prevent metabolism shut down when dieting by preventing thyroid hormone T3 from downregulation. Because we need thyroid hormone for protein synthesis, phosphorous would also help prevent muscle loss. Several animal studies have shown that the more phosphorus was added to a diet, the higher the muscle growth and lower the fat gain. This happened even when calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats were equal among groups. One real-life example of this was seen in the famous bodybuilder Kevin Levrone. His protein intake consisted of mostly flounder and was notoriously known for being able to add immense amounts of muscle quickly while staying lean. Could this have something to do with his insanely high amounts of phosphorous in his diet? Maybe.
For information on the benefits of phosphorous, you should check out my previous article linked below.
One of potassium’s functions in the body is to store carbohydrates (glucose) as glycogen. Without a direct amount, you simply will not be able to store every single gram of carbohydrate you eat. When our bodies do not have optimal levels of glycogen, we compromise muscle growth and strength. We do not have an adequate amount of energy stored in our muscles. This affects our ability to train, which in turn leads to suboptimal hypertrophy. Low glycogen levels can even have negative cosmetic effects making your muscles look soft and flat. Potassium is also needed in thyroid hormone receptor sensitivity. Having optimal levels of thyroid hormone may not necessarily make any difference. Even if you take synthetic thyroid hormone, you would still experience negative effects if your receptors were not sensitive to it. This is quite similar to insulin sensitivity or resistance. As an example, a diabetic may need to take 30iu of insulin a day to utilize 200g of carbohydrates. Another person with diabetes may need 300iu of insulin to utilize 200g of carbohydrates. They are both taking the same dose of insulin, yet one person needs far more to get the same effect. So don’t expect to have the best conditions for fat loss when thyroid hormone sensitivity isn’t at its best. Potassium is also needed for optimal insulin release and insulin sensitivity. Insulin is the primary anabolic hormone in our body that is responsible for the storage of glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids. In muscle tissue, insulin acts as a gatekeeper to nutrients entering the cell and stimulates protein synthesis. Without this, ZERO muscle can be built. Without optimal levels of insulin and receptor sensitivity, we will not be growing as muscle as we could be.
Earlier on, we mentioned how different foods have different amounts of micronutrients, right? For argument’s sake, let’s say we need to eat 50gof carbohydrates per meal. You could either chose baked potatoes with 1430mg of potassium, white rice with 63mg worth of potassium or a sugary snack with zero. As you can see, if you had to choose between these three options objectively, you would go with the potatoes. If someone starts trying to strip down some body fat, they would likely have to lower their carbohydrate intake. Now they are left with say 30g, so their potassium intake drops even further. This becomes problematic when your average person requires 4700mg a day, which doesn’t even take into account that an athlete or massive bodybuilder would need much more. Couple this with the fact that not only the general population but the majority of athletes are failing to meet 50% of their RDA’s. From personal experience, I believe that the studies are 100% accurate on this one as I have seen this countless times in my clients.
People following IIFYM diets will often pick an amount of fat that they can eat per day. Little do they know fats eaten raw have up to 30% fewer calories than fats eaten cooked. This means the difference between 100g of raw fat vs. cooked fat would be 300 calories. You can start to see how over a long period, this would add up to an immense amount of calories directly affecting fat loss. In most scenarios, a person who is bulking would use large amounts of oil for cooking. Then when they try to cut, they remove all of the cooking oil. Because their calories are now so limited, they will generally choose to eat fats contained in food, which also happens to raw. Some examples of food would be nuts, seeds, avocado, and cheese. Now this same person basing their cut on a 500 calorie deficit would have completely miscalculated his intake.
Another interesting point to make is that each type of fat has a different effect on body composition. The most notable being polyunsaturated fats, which increases muscle growth and decreases fat gain. One study in particular had groups of people eat muffins enriched with either polyunsaturated fats or saturated fats. Both groups were in an overfed state where their diets were adjusted to purposely gain 3% of their body weight over 7 weeks. The people who ate PUFA muffins gained almost entirely muscle, and the people who ate SFA’s gained almost entirely body fat. Saturated fats have also been shown to decrease insulin sensitivity, while polyunsaturated fats have the opposite effect. I should also note that PUFA’s are very misunderstood for being unhealthy. Yes, heated PUFA’s which undergo oxidation are, as they increase inflammation. But raw PUFA’s from whole foods actually decrease inflammation. This shows us that filling your daily fat intake with any food source may have a significant detrimental impact on your body composition.
I started this article by stating that following an IIFYM diet is not a healthy approach to meet your fitness and body composition goals. I then explained several reasons why this may be the case. The main issue being that inadequate amounts of micronutrient intake do have detrimental effects, especially when we are already failing to meet our RDA’s. Several vitamins and minerals have been listed, and I have detailed the specifics on how they relate to body composition. I should mention that these are only some micronutrients that play a role. There are many more. There are also many factors to consider in regards to fat intake. This being caloric differences between raw and cooked fats, as well as having immense negatives or positives depending on which type of fatty acid you consume. When people are given free playing field to make their own food choices, they are almost certainly going to use foods with compromised nutrients. Some may argue that you can simply add in a multivitamin to compensate. This is a topic for a future article, but for now, I will say that synthetic vitamins and minerals seem to behave differently in the body than those found in whole foods. Several studies have demonstrated this to be true. One little quick explanation I can give you is that high doses of synthetic micronutrients offset other vitamins and minerals in the body. This can lead to severe deficiencies, especially when taking these supplements over a long period of time. For these reasons, I highly that people avoid only focusing on filling their macronutrient intake. IIFYM should not be used as a strategy to maximize muscle growth and fat loss. Instead, I recommend people eat nutrient-dense whole foods and track their intakes with something like Cronometer. https://cronometer.com/
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