Most sources say that weight gain comes from eating too many calories and not burning those extra calories off. Other sources point out that what you eat is as important as the quantity. For example, you’re more likely to gain weight if you consume lots of ultra-processed carbohydrates and sugar that cause insulin spikes. There’s truth to this idea too. However, there’s another line of thought. Some experts believe that micronutrient deficiencies can also increase hunger and lead to weight gain.
What is a Micronutrient Deficiency?
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. Unlike macronutrients, which include carbohydrates, fats, and protein, micronutrients play a supportive role in chemical reactions and don’t directly supply the body with energy. You need micronutrients in much smaller quantities but that doesn’t make them less important. Your body couldn’t survive without the supportive role that vitamins and minerals play. You need micronutrients for a healthy immune system, growth, fertility, brain function, heart function, energy metabolism, and a host of other activities.
Unfortunately, most people don’t eat a micronutrient-rich diet. The reason? Processed foods make up the bulk of the American diet and these foods lack micronutrients. The processing these foods undergo can lead to such a loss of micronutrients that manufacturers often must add synthetic ones to products to make them more nutritious. Some of the more common micronutrient deficiencies include vitamin D, vitamin A, calcium, potassium, iron, vitamin B12, and magnesium. Many people don’t get enough of these micronutrients in their diet.
Some medications also deplete the body’s stores of micronutrients. One example is diuretics used to treat hypertension and some heart conditions. Certain types of diuretics cause your body to lose sodium and potassium. Another example is proton-pump inhibitors that treat acid reflux. When you take one of these medications, you increase your risk of developing vitamin B12, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and magnesium deficiency.
Can Micronutrient Deficiencies Cause Weight Gain?
Some experts believe being deficient in one or more micronutrients triggers hunger. One study found that being deficient boosted the odds of being obese by more than 80%. It makes sense that you might feel hungrier if your body is missing key micronutrients. Hunger could be your body’s way of telling you that you need more of a vitamin or mineral. But is there evidence to support this idea?
How Micronutrient Deficiencies Could Contribute to Weight Gain
One way one or more micronutrient deficiencies could contribute to weight gain is by altering energy metabolism. Many micronutrients support the production of energy and if you’re deficient, these energy-producing reactions may slow down and cause you to feel tired. If you’re tired, you’ll move less and be less inclined to exercise. That could cause you to burn fewer calories and gain body fat from reduced activity. Some micronutrient deficiencies, such as a low iodine level, directly contribute to a slowing metabolism by reducing thyroid function. Studies point out that deficiency of some micronutrients can alter insulin metabolism and affect appetite hormones leptin too.
Are there studies that show this? One study found that people who take vitamin and mineral supplements, even after controlling for other factors that affect body weight, are leaner. However, studies looking at whether taking vitamin and mineral supplements leads to weight loss have been disappointing. One factor that could affect the results is whether you’re deficient in micronutrients to begin with. Consuming more micronutrients may only have an impact if you’re low in a particular micronutrient.
Another study looking at supplemental micronutrients and their effect on body weight is more encouraging. In this study, Chinese subjects took a vitamin and mineral supplement with 29 ingredients for 26 weeks. Another group took a placebo. The results? The group who took the supplement lost more weight and more inches off their waist. Their resting energy expenditure rose too. Plus, they experienced other favorable changes like a drop in blood pressure and an improvement in their lipid profiles.
Why You Should Eat a Micronutrient-Rich Diet
Though results are mixed when you look at whether supplemental micronutrients boost weight loss or help with appetite control, it’s still important to eat a micronutrient-rich diet. You need micronutrients for health and healthy aging. The best way to get those micronutrients is to eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, and lean sources of protein.
Plant-based foods rank high on the list of micronutrient-dense foods since they’re rich in potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene), and folate, a B-vitamin. However, plant-based foods lack or are low in some key micronutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iron. So, it’s best to eat a variety of whole foods to get enough micronutrients for good health.
One reference for choosing micronutrient-rich foods is Dr. Fuhrman’s list of foods with a high nutrient density score. He created a scale that ranks foods based on their nutrient density per calorie. Interestingly, the top five are leafy greens, including kale, collard greens, mustard greens, watercress, and Swiss chard. So, eat your greens! Berries are another excellent source of micronutrients and they’re low in sugar and calories. Try to consume at least one serving of each per day. Keep your diet diverse by eating a variety of whole foods. Make sure you’re getting enough protein too for satiety.
The Bottom Line
There’s conflicting evidence about whether consuming a micronutrient-rich helps with weight control. However, it’s one of the best things you can do for your health. Skip the ultra-processed junk and increase the quality and nutrient density of your diet. It’s better for your health overall.
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