Essential nutrients are nutrients required for normal functioning but can’t be synthesized by the body. In other words, the body relies on certain nutrients for the proper function of tissues and organs, general health, and overall wellbeing.
Essential nutrients include vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids. In this post, we are going to focus on the nutrients you need to consume to remain healthy and support your lifestyle.
Vitamins belong to the group of micronutrients and are crucial for protecting us against diseases and improving our health and wellbeing. The term micronutrient refers to the essential elements the body needs in small quantities. Even though we need micronutrients to function properly, they are not produced by the body, and we need to consume them through diet (1).
There are 13 essential vitamins that we can categorize into two main groups fat-soluble and water-soluble. The main difference between these two types of vitamins is in the way they interact with the body once we ingest them.
Water-soluble vitamins are dissolved in water and readily absorbed in tissues for immediate use. Since the body doesn’t store water-soluble vitamins, we need to replenish them through the diet regularly. Excess of water-soluble vitamins is flushed via urine out of the body.
Water-soluble vitamins include:
- Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
- Vitamin B7 (biotin)
- Vitamin B9 (folate, folic acid)
- Vitamin B12 (cobalamine)
- Vitamin C
On the flip side, fat-soluble vitamins are dissolved in fats and absorbed by fat globules that travel through the small intestines and distributed to different parts of the body via the bloodstream. The body stores fat-soluble vitamins in the liver and fatty (adipose) tissues. That way, it saves them for later use (2). Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Each vitamin has a specific job, and the body needs all of them to work properly. Functions of vitamins are numerous including these:
- Antioxidant roles (for some vitamins)
- Healthy blood
- Healthy skin
- Improved absorption of calcium
- Prevention or delayed progression of certain cancers e.g., prostate cancer
- Resisting infections
- Stronger immune system
- Stronger teeth and bones
- Supporting the function of the brain and nervous system
- Supporting metabolism of carbohydrates and proteins
Bearing in mind that the body needs vitamins for various functions, it’s necessary to consume enough. While it’s easy to think multivitamins can do the trick, it’s better to eat them through your diet (3). To avoid vitamin deficiencies which can have serious consequences, you need to eat different kinds of foods. The reason is simple; each food group has different nutritional content and the number of certain vitamins. The diet needs to be diverse so that the body gets all the vitamins it needs to work properly.
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other foods such as lean meats are abundant in different vitamins, so ensure your diet is versatile. Generally speaking, if your diet is versatile enough and delivers various vitamins, there is no need to take vitamin supplements.
Recommended daily values of vitamins vary, so make sure you consult the doctor and learn as much as possible about this subject.
Dietary minerals are chemical elements required by living organisms. Like vitamins, minerals belong to the group of micronutrients and are essential for many functions in the body. The human body uses minerals for different purposes, including supporting the functions of muscles, bones, heart, and brain (4). We also need minerals to make enzymes and hormones, regulate metabolism, and stay hydrated.
Just like we can divide vitamins to fat- and water-soluble, we can also divide minerals into different categories. A dietary mineral belongs to either a macromineral group or to trace minerals.
The body needs large amounts of macrominerals. They have many roles, such as balancing water levels, improving bone health, and maintaining healthy hair, skin, and nails. Macrominerals include:
On the other hand, trace minerals are necessary for small quantities only, but their importance is massive. Your body needs trace minerals for stronger bones, prevention of tooth decay, aiding in blood clotting, helping carry oxygen, promoting healthy blood pressure, and supporting the immune system. Trace minerals include:
Probably the most common minerals we consume are zinc, calcium, and iron.
Zinc is required for a multitude of processes in the body, including gene expression, enzymatic reactions, immune function, testosterone production, reproductive health, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, and growth and development (5).
On the other hand, calcium is vital for strong bones but also carries out other important functions. Almost all calcium in the body is stored in teeth and bones, where this mineral supports their hardness and structure. Your body needs calcium for muscles to move properly, and it allows nerves to carry messages between the brain and other parts of the body (6).
Iron is crucial for hemoglobin; a protein the body needs to transport oxygen in the blood. This mineral is vital for mental and physical performance, healthy blood, energy levels, regulation of the body temperature, and gastrointestinal processes (7).
Focusing on specific minerals (or a group of them) would be a mistake. Your body needs minerals from both groups to function properly and support your health. In other words, balance is crucial.
Just like vitamins, minerals are also easy to obtain with proper diet. Just by making simple modifications in your daily menu, it’s entirely possible to consume more minerals. Remember, different foods have different mineral structures, so you need to ensure your diet is versatile.
Some of the most mineral-rich foods are red meats, seafood, iodized table salt, dairy products, vegetables, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, fruits, poultry, legumes, whole grains, egg yolks, and fortified bread and cereals.
Carbohydrates are, alongside fats, the most misunderstood nutrients. They belong to the group of macronutrients, which are nutrients required in large amounts in the diet because the body uses them as the main source of energy.
We often consider carbs as our enemy and strive to minimize their consumption. Low-carb diets have become incredibly popular lately, and they advise people to ditch sources of carbs out of their diet. We are led to believe that carbs harm our weight and pave the way to various health problems, including diabetes.
Not so fast!
The human body needs carbs to function properly. They are essential!
Carbohydrates are naturally occurring sugar, starches, and fiber in food. Sugars and starches provide glucose, the primary source of energy for the brain, central nervous system, and red blood cells (8). On the other hand, fiber is necessary for healthy digestion. What’s more, fiber keeps you full and prevents overeating, which is why it’s important for weight loss and weight management.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should account for 45-65% of the total daily calories (9).
Not all carbs are the same, though, although we are inclined to believe they are. We can categorize them in different ways, including simple and complex carbs. Simple carbohydrates are comprised of shorter chains of molecules and are faster to digest than complex carbs. The complex carbohydrates contain longer chains of molecules, and the body needs more time to digest them. Unlike simple carbs that provide fast, but the short-term spike in blood glucose and energy levels, the complex carbs raise blood sugar for longer and provide a more lasting energy boost (10).
Even though some simple carbs are present in healthful foods such as whole fruits and milk, they are usually found in foods with little to no nutritional value such as sugary drinks and other unhealthy items such as candy, syrups, table sugar, fruit juice concentrate, baked goods, and some cereals.
Complex carbs are also available in some foods with low nutritional value but are generally present in more nutritious foods such as whole grains. You can find complex carbs in brown rice, barley, buckwheat, bulgur wheat, oats, wild rice, and spelt.
Learning to differentiate good and bad carbs enables us to enrich our diet with quality foods and essential nutrients the right way. Bad carbs won’t do much for your energy, weight, and general health. On the flip side, good carbs are necessary.
For most people, it’s easier to tell good and bad carbohydrates apart when they refer to them as a whole versus refined. You see, whole carbs are unprocessed and contain fiber naturally found in foods. Refined carbs are heavily processed, and natural fiber is eliminated. Whole carbs are, of course, a healthier option. Refined carbs are present in unhealthy foods, snacks, sugar-laden beverages, and similar items we need to avoid entirely or decrease their intake to protect our health.
Instead of refined grains and sugar-laden foods, you should opt for healthier sources of carbohydrates such as beans, whole grains, and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. Keep in mind that many heavily processed and refined foods may contain sugar even if they’re not “sweet,” so always make sure to read the label.
Just like carbohydrates, the fats have been unfairly demonized. Somehow we believe that all fat is bad and we should stay away from it. Otherwise, it could lead to weight gain, jeopardize heart health, and so much more.
Not entirely correct!
Fat, a macronutrient, is an essential nutrient that supplies the body with essential fatty acids. The body can’t produce these fatty acids on its own. These include Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. As you’re already aware, Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for your brain, heart, and general health and wellbeing.
Additionally, fat aids the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. More precisely, without fat, the body can’t absorb and use fat-soluble vitamins, which could lead to deficiencies and all health-related concerns associated with them. Fat supports other functions such as blood clotting and muscle movement.
The fat that body cells don’t use or isn’t converted into energy is stored in the body and turned into body fat. The same happens with unused carbs and proteins (11).
Generally speaking, healthy fats should account for 20-35% of your daily calorie intake. The WHO recommends keeping fat intake under 30% (12).
Even though fat is an essential nutrient, not all fat is good for you. This is where the difference lies! There’s good fat and bad fat.
Different types of fats in food include (13):
- Unsaturated fats – considered healthy because they have the potential to support cell growth, improve blood cholesterol levels, stabilize heart rhythm, lower inflammation, and more. They reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes, support brain function, muscle movement, hormone production, and immune function. Two types of good unsaturated fats include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Good sources of monounsaturated fats include olive, peanut, and canola oils, avocados, nuts, and seeds. Polyunsaturated fats are present in sunflower, flaxseed, soybean, and corn oils, walnuts, flaxseeds, canola oil, and fish (Omega-3 fatty acids)
- Saturated fats – mainly found in animal foods, but there are a few plant sources as well. These include coconut and coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. Saturated fats have been demonized and considered incredibly unhealthy, although that’s not completely true. Eating these fats in moderation isn’t likely to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. In other words, you shouldn’t eat too much of this type of fat, but keeping consumption low to moderate could be practical.
- Trans fats (trans fatty acids) – the worst type of fat in the diet. Consumption of trans fats can raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, contribute to inflammation and insulin resistance, lead to weight gain, and jeopardize your general health and wellbeing.
As seen above, not all types of fat are equal. Trans fats should be avoided entirely, saturated fats consumed in low or moderate amounts, while unsaturated fats (especially olive oil and Omega-3 fatty acids) are considered healthy for you.
Just like carbohydrates and fats, protein is a macronutrient, and it’s essential for building muscle mass. Protein consists of amino acids, and it’s necessary for a number of functions in the body. This macronutrient does most of its work in the cells required for the structure, function, and regulation of the tissues and organs (14).
More precisely, the body needs protein for (15):
- Growth and maintenance of tissues
- Aiding communication between cells, tissues, and organs because some proteins act as hormones
- Providing different parts of the body with structure, elasticity, and strength
- Maintaining proper pH
- Maintaining fluid balance
- Support immune health
- Transporting and storing nutrients
- Providing energy
While we usually think of protein as a nutrient that supports muscle growth, we also need it to lose weight, maintain weight in a healthy range, and other aspects of our health.
Between 10% and 35% of daily calorie intake should account for protein (16). The good thing is that you can consume enough protein through diet. The abundance of protein is found in red meats, poultry, fish and seafood, legumes, eggs, dairy products, soy, nuts, and grains such as quinoa.
When discussing essential nutrients, it’s impossible not to mention water. The importance of water for our health and wellbeing is undeniable, but we often take it for granted.
Around 60% of the body is made up of water (17). Water has a wide range of functions in the body, including these:
- Production of saliva
- Regulation of body temperature
- Lubricating and cushioning joints, spinal cord, and tissues
- Flushing out waste through urination and perspiration
- Maximizing physical performance
- Preventing constipation
- Supporting digestion
- Nutrient absorption
- Weight loss and weight management
- Fighting off illnesses
- Energy boost
- Improved cognitive function
- Better mood
- Skin health
- Preventing dehydration
Basically, your body needs water for pretty much all the functions. That’s why you need to stay hydrated throughout the day.
Most people wait to feel thirsty to drink water, but by then, the body already starts feeling some symptoms of dehydration, such as headaches.
Strive to drink between 2 and 3 liters (73-100 ounces) of water during the day. Drinking “regular” water is a much better option than flavored water and other similar products. Flavored water can contain hidden sugars. Of course, water is a better option than sugar-laden beverages.
You can also introduce water into your body with fruits and vegetables such as watermelons and cucumbers.
Our body needs a wide range of nutrients to remain healthy and function properly. In this post, we’ve focused on essential nutrients so that you can modify your diet accordingly. Enrich your menu with different foods because they deliver different nutrients.