Micronutrient Foraging: Where to Get What Your Body Needs

Your body constantly seeks out the nutrients and energy you require from various foods.  To help you shortcut this process, this article will show you:

  • which nutrients you may be missing based on your preferred dietary template, and
  • where to find the micronutrients you need to prioritise. 

In part one of this two-part series, we looked at macronutrients, satiety, and diet quality in terms of Raubenheimer and Simpson’s Geometric Framework for Nutrition

This second part will show you where you can find each micronutrient using the same three-dimensional nutrient charts.

Optimal Foraging Theory

The Optimal Foraging Theory is the process in biology whereby animals optimise their hunting and gathering to get the food they require while minimising energy expenditure. 

Before the advent of agriculture, our primary goal was also to maximise energy from food while minimising the energy we expended to get it.  In other words, we are biologically programmed to eat more and do less! 

Sometimes we would hunt, which yielded a high payoff in terms of energy from fat and protein with high energy output and risk.   We would gather food from the more easily accessible plants around us the rest of the time. 

All the food we had access to was naturally grown and packed with micronutrients, so nutrient density wasn’t much of a concern until recently. 

Over the last ten thousand years or so, we have continued to leverage technology to optimise agriculture and get more energy with less effort.  As a result, we now live in a world of ‘eat more and do less’ flush with easily-accessible energy driving our diabesity epidemic. 

Today, we need to combine the principles of the old and present models for a more optimal foraging paradigm that is better suited to our modern environment. 

  • Old model: moderate energy with maximum expenditure (eat some, do a lot).
  • Modern model: maximum energy with minimum expenditure (eat more, do less).
  • Optimal model: maximum nutrients without excess energy intake (the most nutritional bang for your buck).

However, to maintain health and optimal body composition, we can use modern technology to get just enough energy while also obtaining the amino acids, minerals, and vitamins we require.  We like to call this nutrient density

Carbs vs Fat vs Diet Quality

In the previous article, we saw how we could use 3D heat maps inspired by Professor Raubenheimer and Simpson’s Geometric Framework for Nutrition.  These charts paint a fuller picture to help us move beyond carbs vs fat or high vs low protein to see how we balance macronutrients. 

To recap, the chart below shows:

  • A diet built around processed foods that emphasises energy from fat and carbs and minimises protein tends to have a very low nutrient density.  This trend is represented as the blue area along the diagonal edge. 
  • Conversely, higher-protein diets that contain less energy from fat and non-fibre carbohydrates tend to be more nutritious.  This is represented as the red area in the bottom left corner. 

But getting all the micronutrients you require is not simply about more protein; you need to learn to navigate around the carbs vs fat landscape intelligently. 

In their book, Eat Like the Animals, Professors Raubenheimer and Simpson tell how they tracked numerous insects, animals, and humans to watch what they eat.  While their behaviour seemed erratic and random over the short term, they observed a distinct pattern that provided them with a similar blend of the nutrients they needed over the long term. 

But this process tends to go awry when animals leave their natural habitat for one with foreign, hyper-palatable, energy-dense, readily available foods that prompt them to eat more than they need to satisfy their nutrient cravings.  Sadly, modern humans fed unnatural diets have a lot in common with animals in a zoo. 

This article will help you pinpoint the micronutrients you may not be getting enough of while staying under your energy budget.

The Satiety Response to Nutrients

Our previous satiety analysis has shown that we eat less when we optimise our nutrient density by packing enough of the essential micronutrients into the foods we eat.  Once we do this, our cravings subside, we are more satisfied with the nutritious food we have, and we are less likely to consume more energy than we need.  Because the food we eat contains enough of all the nutrients we require, we don’t need to consume excess energy. 

Profiteering supplement manufacturers are eager to point out that it’s more complicated than ever to get the nutrients we require from food.  While this is true, the real magic happens when we make an effort to get our nutrients from food rather than pills, liquids, and shakes. 

Controlled nutrient studies that use isolated supplements never seem to show the same benefit as the foods that contain the nutrients in the form and ratios your body recognises and understands. 

Downing a handful of pills in the name of ‘nutritional insurance’ isn’t exactly optimal.  Each nutrient works synergistically and antagonistically with the others.  Thus, taking your nutrients in a pill, gummy, or liquid doesn’t give you the same satiety benefit as getting protein, minerals, and vitamins in natural ratios from food!

The table below shows the reduction in the percentage of total calories that aligns with getting more of various nutrients with fewer calories.  While getting enough protein appears to be the highest priority, other nutrients also play a significant role. 

nutrientsatiety benefit
protein (%)55%
potassium (g/cal)49%
cholesterol (%)33%
folate (mg/cal)33%
calcium (g/cal)33%
niacin (B3) (g/cal)32%
vitamin B5 (g/cal)28%
riboflavin (B2) (g/cal)28%
iron (g/cal)28%
selenium (g/cal)26%
sodium (g/cal)24%
vitamin A (g/cal)23%
magnesium (g/cal)22%
fibre:carb ratio21%
vitamin B6 (g/cal)20%
energy density20%
vitamin K1 (g/cal)19%
thiamine B1 (g/cal)17%
vitamin E (g/cal)17%
fibre16%
manganese15%
vitamin C (g/cal)14%
zinc (g/cal)13%
omega 3 (g/cal)11%
vitamin B12 (g/cal)9%
copper (g/cal)8%

The Optimal Nutrient Intakes

You’ve likely heard of the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) and Adequate Intakes (AI).  These are the minimum intakes of each nutrient that are estimated to be adequate in preventing diseases of deficiency.  But if you’re reading this, you probably don’t want to merely stave off deficiency and simply survive!  It’s more likely you want to aim for the optimal intakes that supply your body plenty with all the raw ingredients it needs to thrive

Based on our satiety analysis, we have set a stretch target for each essential micronutrient shown to correlate with satiety.  We’ve normalised these Optimal Nutrient Intakes (ONIs) to 2000 calories. 

NutrientONIDRI or AIUnits
calcium16501000mg
iron3018mg
magnesium825320mg
phosphorus1250700mg
potassium60002600mg
sodium40001500mg
zinc258.0mg
copper30.9mg
manganese5.51.8mg
selenium30055mcg
vitamin A100002333IU
vitamin E2515mg
vitamin D1200600IU
vitamin C35075mg
thiamine (B1)31.1mg
riboflavin (B2)61.1mg
niacin (B3)6014mg
pantothenic acid (B5)125mg
vitamin B651.3mg
vitamin B12122.4mcg
vitamin K1110090mcg
folate1000400mcg
tryptophan2.2g
threonine8.1g
isoleucine8.8g
leucine15.2g
lysine15.2g
methionine4.8g
cysteine2.40.9g
phenylalanine7.91.6g
tyrosine6.61.6g
valine9.82.3g
histidine5.41.4g
omega-361.1g

The reality is that it’s challenging to achieve all of these ONI targets simultaneously.  So, Optimisers in our Micros Masterclass log their current diet and use the information to identify their priority nutrients.  From there, Nutrient Optimiser recommends foods and meals that contain more of their priority nutrients per calorie in place of foods that have less. 

Everyone has a unique micronutrient fingerprint based on their current diet and nutrient intake.  The chart below shows an example.  The x-axis shows this individual micronutrient intake as a percentage of the Optimal Nutrient Intakes.  This individual is getting plenty of the nutrients towards the bottom of their chart from their current diet.  However, the priority nutrients they need to emphasise are shown towards the top in yellow. 

This article shows you exactly where you can find each micronutrient across the carbs vs fat landscape.  No matter if you prefer an eating style like low-carb, low-fat, carnivore, or plant-based as your home base, you may need to venture out across the carbs vs fat landscape a little to obtain your priority micronutrients. 

If you want to identify your priority micronutrients and your micronutrient fingerprint like the one below, check out our Free 7-Day Nutrient Clarity Challenge

Minerals

The heat maps in this section show the concentration of minerals that Optimisers have obtained from net carbs vs fat.  The colour coding is based on the milligrams of each mineral per 2000 calories.   

Calcium

The following heat map shows that a more significant calcium intake aligns with a lower-fat diet focused on low-fat dairy and calcium-rich vegetables.  We need calcium for healthy bones, blood clotting, and nerve transmission.

For the need-to-know on calcium and where to find it, check out Healthy High-Calcium Foods and Recipes.

Iron

We require iron to make red blood cells and transport oxygen.  The following heat map shows carbs vs fat vs iron

Higher iron availability aligns with a diet with a higher-protein concentration.  This is found towards the bottom left corner.  Conversely, high-fat diets found in the top left, and low-protein diets located along the diagonal edge provide less iron.  

For more on iron and where to find it, check out Iron: What Does It Do For Your Body?

Magnesium

The body needs magnesium for over six hundred enzymatic reactions within the body, including detoxification, muscle relaxation, nerve transmission, and neurotransmitter metabolism. 

The heat map for magnesium shows that it’s harder to obtain adequate amounts of it with a processed, low-protein diet found along the diagonal edge. 

You can see a lot of red dots in the lower protein zone towards the diagonal edge.  These likely represent days of data where people used magnesium supplements.  The 2D satiety response curve shows that foods that provide more magnesium per calorie align with a lower calorie intake.  But as we will discuss later, the noise from supplementation and fortification makes it hard to validate a statistically significant satiety response for other micronutrients when we look at their cumulative effect on satiety. 

For more on magnesium, visit Magnesium-Rich Foods and Recipes: A Practical Guide.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus is vital for bone integrity and fluid balance.  Bioavailable phosphorus tends to come packaged with protein, so it’s no surprise that the highest phosphorus intake aligns with the high-protein area in the lower-left corner.  Fortunately, most people find it easy to get adequate phosphorus, so it’s rarely a nutrient of concern. 

If you’d like to learn more about phosphorus and where to find it, visit High-Phosphorus Foods and Recipes.

Potassium

In contrast to phosphorus, potassium has been deemed a nutrient of public health concern.  We require potassium for energy production, fluid balance, and nerve transmission.  Potassium also balances dietary sodium.

The 2D satiety response to foods with more potassium is second only to protein.  People who get more potassium eat 49% fewer calories!  The typical baseline potassium intake is often low, which is likely why potassium-rich foods are more satiating. 

The heat map chart below shows that we can find plenty of potassium in a lower-fat diet.  However, we may struggle to get enough if we consume a low-fat diet of processed foods (diagonal edges) or a very high-fat, therapeutic keto-style diet (upper lefthand corner). 

 

Because blood pressure medications increase potassium retention, potassium supplementation is not common.  Hence, the data is relatively clean, and there are very few red splotches along the diagonal edge. 

As we will see, we have a strong and statistically significant satiety response to potassium because the data is largely ‘clean’ and free from supplementation. 

You can learn more about potassium and where to find it at High-Potassium Foods and Recipes: The Ultimate Guide.

Sodium

Sodium has become controversial, but we need enough sodium for immunity, digestion, nerve transmission, fluid balance, and hormone utilisation. 

We set the red limit for sodium in the chart below at our ONI target of 4000 mg per 2000 calories.  Regardless of the macronutrients someone prefers, we can see that most people obtain adequate sodium.  

For more on sodium, visit Sodium in Food: A Practical Guide.

Zinc

We need zinc for immunity, stomach acid production, reproductive health, detoxification, and to synthesise antioxidants.  While it’s easier to get calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium on a lower-fat diet from vegetables, the chart below shows that it tends to be easier to get zinc on a lower-carb diet rich in lean meats and seafood. 

At the same time, we see that many people following a low-carb diet like the one shown towards the right choose to supplement with zinc.

For more on zinc, visit Zinc-Rich Foods and Recipes: A Practical Guide.

Copper

Copper tends to be reasonably easy to obtain in adequate quantities regardless of what macros you focus on.  

We require copper for connective tissue synthesis, healthy red blood cells, iron absorption and transport, and making antioxidants.

For more on copper, visit Copper-Rich Foods and Recipes: A Practical Guide.

Manganese

Manganese is a trace mineral essential for bone health and antioxidant synthesis.  Unless you exclude all carbohydrates (towards the left of the chart), manganese is relatively easy to obtain enough of. 

For more on manganese, visit Manganese-Rich Foods and Recipes.

Selenium

Selenium is a trace mineral required for thyroid hormone metabolism, antioxidant synthesis, detoxification, immune function, and human growth.

Selenium tends to be more prevalent in high-protein foods (like meat, seafood, and Brazil nuts.  However, processed foods and a very high-carb, plant-based diet tend to lack it.  People also supplement selenium occasionally.   

For more on selenium and where to find it, check out Selenium-Rich Foods and Recipes: A Practical Guide.

Vitamins

Next, we’ll look at which foods tend to contain more vitamins. 

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is one of the many nutrients that has fallen precipitously since the 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were introduced.  We can correlate the subsequent decrease in vitamin A in the food system with the uptick in obesity.  

Vitamin A is essential for immunity, eye health, growth, and development.  Generally, it’s easy to get adequate vitamin A from a lower-fat diet that includes vegetables on the right and organ meats on the left.  

The DRI for vitamin A (2333 IU) seems extremely low compared to the available dietary vitamin A.  Thus, we have set our ONI for vitamin A at 10,000 IU to account for nutrient density and safety.  However, we have a strong satiety response to foods that provide more substantial amounts of vitamin A well above this. 

You can read more about vitamin A in Vitamin A-Rich Foods and Recipes: A Practical Guide.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin required for its antioxidant function.  Vitamin E is relatively easy to obtain in adequate quantities across a range of macronutrient profiles.  Plants or seed oils that are now ubiquitous in the food system provide substantial amounts of this nutrient, although they are not always in the most well-absorbed form. 

You can read more about what it does and where to find it in Highest Vitamin E Foods and Recipes.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D tends to be harder to get from food.  So ideally, you need to get out in the sun to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D

The speckles in the following heat map represent higher vitamin D intakes that are likely from supplementation and fortification.  However, we see some substantial intakes of vitamin D towards the lower left, which is likely from a higher seafood intake. 

For more on vitamin D and where to find it in food, visit Vitamin D-boosting Foods and Recipe: A Practical Guide.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that we require for detoxification, adrenal health, and immunity.  The heat map chart below shows that lower-fat plant-based foods provide most of our vitamin C.  However, supplementation also supplies a fair amount. 

For more on vitamin C, visit Highest Vitamin C Foods and Recipes: A Practical Guide.

Thiamine (B1)

We require thiamine for nervous system function, turning food into usable energy, circulatory function, and a healthy gastrointestinal system. 

We find more thiamine (vitamin B1) in lean, high-protein foods.  However, we also see that supplements and fortification provide some vitamin B1, too. 

For more on thiamine, check out Highest Thiamine (Vitamin B1) Foods and Recipes.

Riboflavin (B2)

Similar to vitamin B1, we tend to find vitamin B2 in high-protein foods found in the bottom left corner.  We require riboflavin for its antioxidant function, methylation, and turning food into usable energy.

For more on riboflavin, check out Highest Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) Foods and Recipes.

Niacin (B3)

Niacin is abundant in high-protein foods like meat, poultry, and seafood and less frequent in foods high in carbs and fat.  We need niacin to turn food into usable fuel.

Check out Highest Niacin (B3) Foods and Recipes for more on niacin.

Niacin is a precursor to NAD+, which is a popular anti-aging supplement associated with energy production and utilisation.  Yet, ironically, many people supplementing with NAD+ precursors actively avoid protein in hopes of increasing longevity. 

For more on longevity, protein, and NAD+ supplements, see Can Longevity Be Bought in a Bottle?  Thoughts on David Sinclair’s Lifespan and Protein and Can Too Much Protein Accelerate Aging?

Pantothenic Acid (B5)         

We need vitamin B5 for red blood cell production, hormone synthesis, and stress management. 

Pantothenic acid, or vitamin B5, is derived from the Greek word ‘pantos’, which means ‘from everywhere’.  True to its name, vitamin B5 is pretty much found everywhere in adequate quantities, particularly in the higher protein corner to the lower left.

For more on vitamin B5, check out Highest Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid) Foods and Recipes.

Vitamin B6

We need vitamin B6 to metabolise hormones, make red blood cells, metabolise protein, and energy production.  Vitamin B6, or pyridoxine, is found abundantly in high-protein or high-carb foods.  However, we can also see plenty of higher B6 intakes from supplementation. 

For more about B6 and where to find it, check out Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6) Rich Foods and Recipes.

Folate (B9)

Folate, or vitamin B9, is required for human development, the synthesis of healthy red blood cells, and methylation.  Folate tends to be more prevalent in high protein foods and higher carbohydrate lower fat vegetables. 

Refined foods are often fortified with synthetic nutrients like folate.  Although we have a strong satiety response to food-sourced folate, we don’t seem to have the same reaction to high levels of folate that only supplementation can provide.   


For more info on folate and where to find it, check out Folate (Vitamin B9) Rich Foods and Recipes.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble nutrient required for energy metabolism, nervous system function, and red blood cell synthesis.  Vitamin B12, or cobalamin, is absent in strictly high-carb and plant-based foods.  Thus, a greater vitamin B12 intake generally aligns with a higher-protein, less-processed diet. 

The DRI for vitamin B12 (2.4 mcg) is much lower than our ONI of 12 mcg.  As the chart below shows, the DRI aligns with a much greater calorie intake than the ONI.   However, once we reach the ONI of 12 mcg our cravings for higher B12 foods seem to settle down.

Since the 1977 USDA Dietary Guidelines were introduced, B12 is another nutrient on the decline.  It appears to be beneficial to consume a diet containing more than the DRI minimum for vitamin B12.

For more on vitamin B12, check out Highest B12 (Cobalamin) Foods and Recipes.

Vitamin K1

Vitamin K1 is a fat-soluble nutrient required for blood clotting.  A more significant vitamin K1 intake generally aligns with a lower-fat diet rich in green leafy vegetables.  However, some fat is needed to absorb it. 

Vitamin K1 is another nutrient where our ONI target (1100 mcg) is much higher than the DRI (90 mcg).  As shown in the chart below, we get a substantial satiety response from foods that naturally contain more vitamin K1.

For more info on vitamin K1 and where to find it, check out Highest Vitamin K Foods and Recipes: A Practical Guide.

Regression Analysis

To better understand how each of the micronutrients aligns with each of the macronutrients, I also ran a multivariate regression analysis between macros and each of the micronutrients.  This quantifies the visual observations from the charts above. 

Protein

The multivariate analysis found that a higher protein % correlates with higher levels of the following micronutrients per calorie:

  • Niacin,
  • Zinc,
  • Selenium,
  • Phosphorus,
  • Calcium,
  • Sodium, and
  • Potassium. 

So if you’re getting adequate protein, you’ll also get plenty of these micronutrients.  Conversely, if you’re getting plenty of these nutrients from the food you eat (without relying on supplements), you’ll also be getting plenty of protein.  Protein and this cluster of micros go together. 

Fibre

While fibre is not an essential nutrient, higher intakes of dietary fibre are correlated with higher intakes of the following micronutrients:

  • Manganese,
  • Copper,
  • Iron,
  • Vitamin C,
  • Vitamin E,
  • Potassium, and
  • Calcium.

While fibre isn’t a nutrient that we encourage people to target a minimum level of, you’ll be getting plenty of fibre if you get plenty of these nutrients from your diet.   

Non-fibre carbs

Only manganese was positively correlated with me non-fibre carbohydrates (which is also correlated with higher fibre foods).  So as a general rule, the more energy you get from carbs, the lower your overall nutrient density will be.

Fat

Only vitamin E was positively correlated with fat intake.  Similar to non-fibre carbohydrates, the more energy you get from fat, the lower your overall nutrient density will be. 

Is This Significant? 

While many of the individual micronutrients positively influence satiety, we want to know if it makes a difference in the complete food matrix. 

The table below shows the results of a multivariate analysis showing that protein, potassium, B2, calcium, sodium, fibre:carb ratio and vitamin A all have statistically significant impacts on how much we eat.  It appears that the leverage often attributed to protein is actually due to other micronutrients that we have cravings for. 

 p-value15th85thcalories%
protein (%)< 0.00000520%43%-435-27.0%
potassium2.18746E-6322535748-116-7.2%
vitamin B22.46948E-076.418.4-87-5.4%
calcium5.58291E-095111801-35-2.2%
sodium1.04402E-1315074875-35-2.2%
fibre:carb ratio1.32521E-090.140.43-34-2.1%
vitamin A0.064898156343135211-10-0.6%

While we have tried to remove supplementation and fortification, there is still some noise in the data.  If supplements and fortification could be removed, it is anticipated that other nutrients would also show a statistically significant relationship with calories. 

Summary

Hopefully, from these heat map charts, you can see that to construct a nutrient-dense diet, we need to forage around the carbohydrate vs fat landscape to get all the nutrients we require.   

Similar to protein, you don’t need to jump from where you are now to a perfect 100% Diet Quality Score.  Many people in our Micros Masterclass are able to achieve 100% in the final week, but it’s hard to achieve and hard to sustain.  But moving from where you are towards a higher nutrient density by chasing your priority nutrients is a very worthy goal. 

And, as shown in the chart below, a diet with more nutrients packed in per calorie tends to be more satiating.  As you chase your priority nutrients, your cravings will reduce, and you will feel more satisfied. 

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