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Bioavailability: Absorbing Micronutrients

Although dietary programs and fitness trackers like to convince us otherwise, calculating the nutritional content of a meal is not a straightforward reflection of the nutrients you’re actually getting. Think a vitamin supplement will cover those gaps? Think again!

The body is a complex system, and bioavailability comes in and stirs up the pot even more. The good news: research is continuously shining more light on bioavailability and how it works. We’ve already come a long way in terms of understanding how to make sure you get the most out of the micronutrients you consume.

What is Bioavailability?

Unfortunately, not all the micronutrients we consume are put to good use in the body. Bioavailability refers to the proportion of nutrients consumed that are actually absorbed and utilized by the body’s working systems. Think of it this way: an average banana has about 422 milligrams of potassium, but the body won’t absorb all 422 milligrams of this important nutrient – even if you eat the whole banana.

The structure of food and the compatibility of certain ingredients are two known elements that influence bioavailability, but researchers are still learning exactly how and why bioavailability fluctuates. Every micronutrient has various levels of absorption, and bioavailability can change depending on many factors, including pregnancy and the natural aging process. While you can’t avoid all of these life changes, you can have some control over your diet and increase your chances of absorbing more micronutrients.

Vitamins Aren’t Always Enough

“So what if I don’t absorb all the micronutrients I’m eating? My daily vitamin has me covered!” Though this thought process may be fueled by good intentions, the reality is that vitamins also have to face the body’s bioavailability hurdles.

In other words, just because the Nutrition Facts label says a vitamin contains 100% of daily needs for a given nutrient, that doesn’t mean the body will absorb it all. Plus, research suggests that certain micronutrients are more easily absorbed by the body when digested as a food source, rather than in mineral form (like a vitamin).

With that said, don’t ditch the daily vitamins! Just keep in mind that a healthy diet is still essential. Never rely on vitamins as a sole source of micronutrients.

How to Absorb the Most Micronutrients

New research about bioavailability is coming in every year. So far, here’s what the scientific community suggests for raising your chances of absorbing the maximum amount of micronutrients from each meal:

  1. Chop or mince foods with rigid tissue structures, like spinach leaves and celery, instead of eating them whole.
  2. Eat iron-rich foods alongside foods high in vitamin C, as this can increase the absorption of micronutrients found in both. This combo can also deter minerals from binding with phytates in the GI tract and becoming ‘unavailable’ for absorption. Hint: toss a few mandarin oranges on top of that spinach salad!
  3. Eat both raw and cooked foods. Processing – like pounding and soaking grains or draining water after cooking beans – can weaken antioxidant levels. Including raw and cooked dishes can help diversify food sources and boost bioavailability.

Bioavailability may change the way you think about diet and nutrition, but don’t let it get you down! Maintain a well-balanced diet and follow the advice of nutritionists as we discover more details about bioavailability.

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Dr. Candice Seti


California-licensed Clinical Psychologist, Certified Nutrition Coach, and Certified Personal Trainer

Dr. Candice Seti

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