Updated: Apr 22
Many dietary patterns these days focus heavily on which macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) to eat and in what proportions, to influence weight loss and improve health. Though this is important, since dietary fats and carbohydrates in particular influence greatly how we metabolise our food for energy, the micronutrient content (vitamins and minerals) of food is often overlooked. This can have dire consequences for our health generally and for our metabolic health in particular….
What is metabolism
Metabolism, at its core, is the conversion of the energy in the food we eat (calories) to an energy source that the body can utilise in its work of maintaining a stable internal environment of cells, tissues and organs (ATP). Metabolism is controlled by hormones but the metabolic pathways that lead to energy generation inside cells are driven by specialised protein catalysts called enzymes.
Our metabolic orchestra
Metabolism is like an orchestra where hormones act as conductors and enzymes act as the players – you need both to work well for your metabolism to be healthy. There are two possible conductors for this orchestra, each conducting a different tune. The hormone insulin is the primary conductor and will play the ‘sugar-burning, fat-storing’ tune. So, if you eat a lot of carbohydrates (which all turn to sugar in the gut) you are choosing insulin to be your metabolic conductor, since a rising blood sugar will stimulate insulin secretion from your pancreas.
However, if you eat a reduced level of carbohydrate and more fat you are inviting the hormone glucagon to be your metabolic conductor. Glucagon will conduct the ‘fat-burning’ tune resulting in your body burning fat for fuel instead of sugar. This obviously helps with weight loss.
So, what ‘macros’ you eat determines whether your metabolic orchestra plays the sugar burning tune or the fat burning tune. However, it doesn’t determine how well your orchestra actually plays!
Enzymes and cell receptors are the ‘players’ in your orchestra
The enzymes that drive metabolic reactions require assistance from molecules called co-enzymes and co-factors. Co-enzymes are the water-soluble vitamins (vitamins B and C) and co-factors are inorganic minerals such as magnesium, copper, selenium, zinc, iron and manganese. These molecules bind onto the enzymes to make them fully functional. Without them the enzymes work sluggishly or not at all. Many cell receptors, which act as gatekeepers deciding which molecules can enter cells and which cannot, also need vitamins or minerals to bind to them to make them work properly. So, you can see how important vitamins and minerals are in the diet.
Imagine in an orchestra if the string section and the brass section were playing the same music but the string section was playing it at half speed, the result would be very discordant. This can happen in your metabolic orchestra if some enzymes are missing their co-factors or co-enzymes and are running at reduced speed whilst others are running at full speed – you can end up with bottlenecks in the metabolic pathways, which can eventually lead to illness. So, even if your metabolic orchestra is playing the right tune, without an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals it may play that tune discordantly.
Micronutrients – which foods give you the most bang for your buck?
In a 2022 study (1) analysing the micronutrient content of thirty-seven different plant and animal foods (fig 1), only leafy greens were in the top nineteen nutrient dense foods all the rest were animal-based foods including meat, offal, cheese, dairy, and fish. In the bottom eighteen foods, chicken, fresh fish, and canned fish without bones were the only animal foods to feature the rest being plant-based foods.
There’s no doubt that animal-based foods are more nutritionally dense per calorie, but plant-based foods have important nutrients that are not found in animal foods called phytonutrients (2). These are chemicals produced by most plants and include things like resveratrol, isoflavones, caffeine, lycopene and many others. Many of these chemicals have strong antioxidant effects, help with detoxification, stimulate the immune system, modulate hormones and have anti-cancer activity.
For a truly nutritionally dense diet it is important to eat a mix of both animal and plant foods, and to eat a large variety of these foods to ensure a good mix of all micronutrients and phytonutrients.
Fig 1. Table showing the nutrient density of 37 different foods
The macronutrients you choose to eat will determine what your main fuel source will be to create energy inside your cells – fats or sugars. The hormones stimulated by your choice of macronutrients (insulin or glucagon) will conduct your metabolic orchestra and play your chosen ‘tune’. However, the micronutrients in your diet will determine how well that tune is played, so when you are embarking on your low-carb (or low-fat) diet you should not overly focus on the macronutrients in your diet but must also focus on the micronutrients if you want good general and metabolic health.
If you are interested in finding out about the quality of your diet then we provide a Dietary Deep Dive service in which we can analyse your current diet in detail and provide you with a report outlining the nutrient quality of your diet compared to government guidelines and some personalised recommendations to improve your diet. Find out more by clicking here