Simply put, essential nutrients are those that the body cannot synthesize on its own and we must get through food. They’re called ‘essential’ because they are vital for the proper functioning of the body.
With so much information about nutrients, it’s hard to know exactly what they are. Broadly, they’re anything that nourishes our bodies, and each one has specific functions.
They can be divided into two categories: macronutrients compose the largest part of our nutrient intake, while micronutrients are taken in small doses and support metabolism.
In the case of essential nutrients, there are six groups. Three of them belong to the macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients. And of course, we have water.
For a healthy diet, it is helpful to know what these nutrients do and where to find them, so be sure to keep these 6 essential nutrients in mind.
Carbohydrates are a common target of weight-loss diets, but the truth is that there is no way to have a healthy diet without them.
Actually, there is little evidence to say that a diet rich in carbohydrates will lead to weight gain. The important thing to know is that not all carbohydrates are equally healthy.
Understanding them can help you choose the types of carbohydrates that work best for you.
Carbohydrates are our body’s main source of energy. Your body turns it into glucose, a type of sugar that your body uses as its main source of energy.
It gets absorbed by the intestines and then passes to the blood, where it gets to cells, tissues, and organs.
When your body gets all the energy it needs from a meal, the leftover glucose is stored in the liver and muscles or is converted into fat.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 45-65% of your daily calorie intake should be carbohydrates.
There are two main categories: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates:
- Simple carbohydrates are the sugars found on fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products.
- Complex carbohydrates are found mostly on grain, bread, cereals, starchy vegetables and legumes. These foods are also a great source of fiber, which can help with weight control by making you feel fuller on fewer calories.
When eating grains, try to choose whole grains instead of refined grains. Refined grains are stripped out of much of their fiber and other important nutrients.
Generally, limit the amount of added sugar as much as you can. Try to stick to fresh, canned or frozen vegetables and fruits that have no added sugar, and aim for dairy products that have low amounts of fat.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans(1) recommends that less than 10% of your daily calories should come from added sugars.
Another thing you can keep in mind for healthy carb intake is avoiding breakfasts that are heavy on carbohydrates.
Humans evolved to release extra sugar in the early morning to have the energy for the starting day, so a healthy, carbohydrate-mild breakfast will help you keep your blood sugar levels on point. This is especially important for people with insulin deficiencies.
There are many reasons why proteins are crucial for good health. They are everywhere throughout your body.
Since they are found in every cell, they constitute your muscles, skin, bones, hair, and every other tissue or body part.
Proteins are necessary to regenerate cells and create new ones, and they are crucial for growth and development. (3)
Proteins are made of chains of amino acids, which act as building blocks. Some of these amino acids can’t be produced by the body, so they have to be supplied by food. This makes proteins an essential nutrient.
Because there are many different amino acids, not all proteins contain all of the essential amino acids your body needs.
The proteins found in meat are complete (they have every essential amino acid), while most plant proteins are incomplete.
This means people who don’t eat meat have to be aware of consuming many different kinds of protein foods every day.
The amount of protein you should consume daily will highly vary depending on your sex, age, and level of physical activity.
For more information, you can check this table from the United States Department of Agriculture.
When balancing protein in a healthy diet, it’s very important to take note of the quality of the proteins.
What makes a protein more or less healthy than others is the package that comes with it. It is recommended to choose lean low-fat meats.
Keep in mind that any fat contained in the meat counts against your daily calorie count. The same goes for butter, margarine and other fats that may be added while cooking.
For example,(4) 170 grams (6 ounces) porterhouse steak contains a good intake of 40 grams of protein, but it comes with 12 grams of saturated fat, which already exceeds half of the recommended daily calorie dose.
You should get less than 10% of your calories from saturated fats. (1)
You should also keep an eye on the sodium (main component of salt) intake when eating processed meats like ham, sausage, frankfurters, and luncheon or deli meats.
Since these foods have added sodium, it is recommended(1) to check their Nutrition Facts label to look for low-sodium, reduced-sodium or unsalted versions of the product.
A great option for healthy protein intake can be found in omega-3 rich seafood like salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, Atlantic and Pacific mackerel, and other fatty fish.
Lentils are also an excellent choice to have in your diet since they have no saturated fat or sodium.
Fat is a crucial nutrient for any healthy diet, and blindly cutting them down can be as unhealthy as eating too much of them.
The key here is in eating the healthy kind of fats and avoiding the unhealthy ones.
Despite the number of low-fat diets, it has been proved that replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates, although it can reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, it also reduces HDL (good) cholesterol and can increase blood levels of sugar.
This means that instead of focusing on reducing fat intake, it’s much more beneficial to focus on eating healthier unsaturated fats. (1)
Our bodies need fat for a variety of important processes. We can start by saying that fat is the body’s way of storing energy for extended periods of physical activity: after your body finishes burning calories from carbohydrates, it switches to fat.
Fat is necessary for keeping healthy skin and hair, and it allows your body to insulate itself and control its temperature.
Some crucial vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are fat-soluble, which means that they can only be digested if they are diluted in fat. (6)
Fat is also used as fuel for the creation of new brain cells and it is necessary for blood clotting and preventing inflammation.
To introduce fats into a healthy diet, it’s important to understand the types of fat and how they affect your body.
There is some of each of the three of them in every food that contains fat, but the proportions vary widely.
- Unsaturated fats are the good kind of fats. Consumed in the right dosage, they have many positive effects on health. They are mostly found on foods like vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, although they are also a part of fats in meats like chicken, pork and beef. Unsaturated fats are called liquid fats because they are liquid at room temperature. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least 10% of your daily calories should come from unsaturated fats.
The first kind of unsaturated fat is monounsaturated fats. You can find it in olive, peanut and canola oils, avocados, nuts like almonds and hazelnuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, amongst others.
Studies show that a diet rich in monounsaturated fats reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and lowered blood pressure.
They may also benefit insulin levels and blood sugar controls.
The second kind is polyunsaturated fats. It’s mostly found on sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils, walnuts, and fish.
Replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats reduces LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol level, thus preventing the risk of heart disease.
One of these fats is the omega-3 fatty acid, found in fatty fish, which decreases risks of many heart problems and diseases and lowers blood pressure.
- Saturated fats should be kept at low consumption. They are most abundantly found in animal products like beef and other meat products (sausage, bacon), cheese, butter, whole milk, ice cream, and in some oils like coconut oil. (9) Saturated fats tend to stay solid at room temperature. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that less than 10% of your daily calories should come from saturated fats, and many researchers warn for lower consumption, down to even 6%. (8)
Traditionally, it has been believed that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease by increasing total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels.
However, newer researches have questioned this link. Although it seems to be that saturated fats are not as harmful as it was thought, there are plenty of health reasons to replace them with unsaturated fats.
- Trans fats are the unhealthiest kind of fat. Although small amounts of it occur naturally in some foods, most of it is made through a process called partial hydrogenation, where vegetable oils are heated in the presence of hydrogen.
Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart diseases. Trans fats also contribute to insulin resistance and have other negative effects on health. (10)
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans say trans fats consumption should be kept as low as possible. (1)
Vegetable oils that are partially hydrogenated last longer before becoming rancid and can be heated repeatedly without breaking down, which is why it became commonly used in restaurants and fast food places.
In the last few years, restaurants and fast food places have greatly reduced the use of trans fats, but they can still be found on processed foods.
Vitamins are one of the essential micronutrients, and they are crucial for the growth and maintenance of cells and tissues.
Each vitamin has a different function, and the lack of any of them can cause a particular health problem.
Here are the 13 vitamins your body needs and how they benefit your health:
- Vitamin A helps your vision, stimulates the production of white blood cells, contributes to bone growth and helps to maintain the immune system. Good food sources of vitamin A are breakfast cereals, dairy products like milk, colorful fruits and vegetables, and liver.
- B vitamins are composed of thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, and folate. These are vitamins that your body needs to keep healthy metabolic functions. For example, B-12, B-16, and folate play a crucial role in the creation of new proteins, which allows the cells to replicate and maintain healthy DNAs. You can get B vitamins from animal products like poultry, liver, fish, shellfish, eggs and dairy products. Leafy green vegetables are another great source of B vitamins.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps to maintain and regenerating tissues like skin, bones and connective tissues. It prevents infections and heart disease and can even neutralize harmful free radicals. Great sources of vitamin C include fruits, especially citrus, red and green peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and leafy green vegetables.
- Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which is crucial for building bone. Vitamin D deficiency can cause bone diseases like osteoporosis and rickets. Foods rich in vitamin D include fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. Products like cereal and milk are often fortified with vitamin D. You can also get it through your skin: when exposed to sunlight, your skin will naturally produce vitamin D. This only works with direct sunlight, and it’s important to take care of the amount of time of skin exposure to sunlight.
- Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps to protect your body from free radicals, which are involved in the formation of conditions like cancer and vision loss. Vitamin E also contributes to the immune system and helps to maintain skeletal, cardiac, and smooth muscle. Vegetable oils like wheat germ, sunflower, and safflower oils are great sources of vitamin E. Other good sources include nuts and seeds and green vegetables.
- Vitamin K is a protein necessary for regulating normal blood clotting. Vitamin K deficiency, although rare, can cause excessive blood loss from injuries.
The best way to get every vitamin is by maintaining a healthy diet; however, vitamin supplements are used by some people to get important nutrients that otherwise would be missing from their diets.
Supplements might be necessary for people with a vitamin deficiency or in a restricted diet, and they’re especially helpful during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Vegetarian diets may also need to include vitamin B12 supplements. In any case, it’s better to ask a physician before taking vitamin supplements.
You can find more about vitamin supplements in this article from the National Institute of Health.
Try to avoid mega-dose vitamins and “super” supplements. They don’t really do anything beyond what a standard multivitamin does, and usually, the claims about their benefits are exaggerated.
Excessive consumption of vitamins, as of any other things, could cause problems, so don’t go overboard with supplements.
Dietary minerals are chemical compounds that life needs to perform essential functions. Since minerals come only from the soil and can’t be made by living organisms, they have to travel up the food chain to reach us.
We either get them from plants that absorb minerals directly from the soil, or from animals that eat those plants.
There are many different minerals that perform different functions, like taking care of your bones, muscles, and brain or regulating enzymes and hormones. There are two types of minerals:
- Macrominerals are needed in large quantities by the body. They include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur.
- Microminerals or trace minerals are only needed in small quantities. They include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride and selenium.
A healthy and balanced diet should give you all the minerals you need, but some people with restricted diets or certain diseases might be prescribed with mineral supplements by a physician.
Some other diseases can make people need to consume less of a certain mineral. Here are some of the examples of what minerals do:
- Calcium is the main component of bones and teeth. Consuming sufficient calcium keeps them strong and is necessary for their proper growth. Calcium is also important for nerve conduction and muscle contractions. Great sources of calcium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables and fish with soft bones.
- Potassium is able to conduct electricity, which cells need for important functions like transporting nerve impulses, muscle contractions, and protein synthesis. You can get it from foods like leafy green vegetables, fruits (especially citrus fruits and fruits from vines) and root vegetables.
- Magnesium is present in many biologic processes and by hundreds of enzymes. It’s needed for processes like energy production and protein synthesis. Some rich food sources of magnesium are leafy green vegetables and nuts. Dairy products and meat are good sources too.
Humans and every living creature depend on water to survive. While we can survive for more than a month without food, a couple of days without water would already be dangerous, and we can’t be for more than a week without it. (19)
55% to 75% of our body mass is made of water, and it’s crucial in every physiological process.
Dehydration won’t let your body perform normal functions and even just a little will make you feel fatigued.
How much water you need to drink depends on your age, size, level of physical activity and the weather you live in.
Usually, thirst is a good guide to drink the water you need daily, and there isn’t any upper limit to it.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends the dose of water for the average healthy adult living in a temperate climate to be of 3.7 liters for men and 2.7 liters for a woman. (21)
These numbers include water gotten from food and beverages like tea and coffee.
Factors like pregnancy, breastfeeding, exercise, hot or humid weather or sickness will increase the amount of water you need.
You might be wondering what nutrients aren’t essential. Non-essential nutrients, although they can be found in foods, can be synthesized by the body and aren’t as crucial to its functioning.
However, they have a great impact on health and they’re necessary for a healthy diet. For example, fiber is important for digestion, but it’s not absorbed by the digestive tract and it can be produced by is bacteria.