We’re often told to think of food as fuel, as if our bodies were cars powered by servings of protein, carbohydrates and fat. True enough—but when you look under the hood, so to speak, there’s another level of activity made possible by micronutrients we rarely think of (and may not even be aware of). These micronutrients—choline, coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), potassium and B12—are crucial to the proper functioning of cells, making it possible for you to think, move and breathe. Unfortunately, most of us fall short on some of these four essentials.
One big reason we’re deficient: The rush-rush of everyday life leaves little room for home-cooked meals, and the processed foods we’re settling for don’t provide us with ample amounts of nutrients such as potassium, says Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD, owner of High Performance Nutrition in Mercer Island, Washington. What’s more, some of our health-inspired moves—avoiding meat and eggs, taking anticholesterol drugs—may actually contribute to shortages of vitamins such as choline and B12. And even if our diets are dead-on, our bodies get less efficient at absorbing many nutrients (such as CoQ10) as we age. This means that after menopause we may need to consume more of some nutrients in order to receive the same benefits we got when we were younger.
Here are four power nutrients you need—why they’re important, why you may be missing them and how you can easily get back up to speed. Note that doctors rarely test for deficiencies; you can guess you’re not getting optimal amounts of these essentials if you fall into certain categories—for instance, if you’re a strict vegetarian or vegan. Always check with your physician before you change your regimen.
Power nutrient: Choline
Biggest benefit: Mental sharpness
Choline is a type of B vitamin that aids in the synthesis and release of acetylcholine, the most abundant neurotransmitter in the body. Additionally, this micronutrient is necessary for the production of fatty molecules that help create the channels that allow nutrients to enter brain cells and toxins to exit them. “Choline is responsible for every thought and every movement you make,” Kleiner says. “Without choline, you cannot have a healthy brain.”
Who’s falling short: Egg avoiders; postmenopausal women
“Choline is found in very limited amounts in foods. Egg yolks are an excellent source, but because it’s been drummed into our heads that we should eat only the whites of eggs, we’ve been dumping our only major supplier of choline down the drain,” Kleiner says. After menopause, women also face an increased risk of a deficiency. A 2007 study found that estrogen activates a gene in the liver that produces choline. That means premenopausal women may be relatively resistant to a deficiency, but postmenopausal women, with their lower estrogen levels, may need to consume more of this vitamin.
The fix: Egg yolks have gotten a bad rap because they contain a lot of dietary cholesterol. But nutrition experts now know that dietary cholesterol plays a much smaller role than saturated fat in raising “bad” (LDL) blood cholesterol. If, like most Americans, you get only half the required 425 milligrams of choline a day, you’ll boost your consumption significantly (113 milligrams) by eating one whole egg a day. To bring your total even higher, make sure your multivitamin includes at least 200 milligrams of choline, suggests Russell H. Greenfield, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.
Power nutrient: Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ0