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Essential Nutrients 101: Your Guide to Nutrition, What You Need, and the Science of Why

Updated: Jun 19, 2019

Adapted from maxliving.com


Experts classify nutrients as “essential” because your body cannot make them, yet requires these nutrients for growth, maintenance, repair, and so much more.


“Essential nutrients are compounds that the body can’t make or can’t make in sufficient quantity,” says Mandy Ferriera. “According to the World Health Organization, these nutrients must come from food, and they’re vital for disease prevention, growth, and good health.”


Essential nutrients can be grouped into six categories: Carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water.


Carbohydrate, protein, and fat are macronutrients because they make up most of your diet. Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients because you need them in much smaller amounts. Smaller doesn’t mean unimportant: Deficiencies in specific vitamins and minerals can create massive problems. Interestingly, experts classify water as a micronutrient, even though you might drink liters or gallons daily.


As you’ll see with this overview, all six categories of essential nutrients play unique fundamental and often overlapping roles in health and wellbeing.


Carbohydrates


Carbohydrates encompass three categories:

Fiber, starch, and sugar. Among macronutrients, they frequently become oversimplified or miscategorized. Will carbohydrates make you fat, or should you make them 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends?


Experts and media reports don’t help. One day, you’ll read that the right carbs can keep you lean and healthy; the next, you’ll hear that some celebrity avoided carbs and lost 50 pounds.


Simple or Complex Carbohydrates?


To further complicated matters, dividing carbohydrates into simple or complex subcategories (as experts once did) has become outdated.


“The whole complex simple carb idea has retired to the dustbin of history,” says Mark Hyman, MD, in What the Heck Should I Eat? “What matters is how much a particular carb raises your blood sugar.”


Hyman says two slices of “healthy” whole wheat bread — a complex carbohydrate — raise your blood sugar more than eating two tablespoons of table sugar!


True, healthy carbohydrates contain more nutrients and fiber. Because your body digests them more slowly, they fill you up faster.


Sugar, on the other hand, absorbs quickly, spiking blood glucose levels to give you a short-term boost that soon leaves you crashing.


If you’ve ever had a cola or candy bar and got a “quick fix,” but quickly felt tired (and oddly enough, craving more sugar), you know that feeling. Because sugar contains no nutrients, experts call it an “empty-calorie” food.


Many processed foods and drinks contain more sugar than you might realize. A 12-ounce cola (small, by today’s standards) contains a whopping 10 teaspoons. Those numbers add up quickly.

Some surveys show the average American consumes about 152 pounds of sugar and 133 pounds of flour that converts to sugar annually, says Hyman. That’s about a pound of sugar every day!

Choosing the right carbohydrates, then, becomes fundamental to having steady blood sugar levels and getting sufficient nutrients for vital health. In general, the least-processed carbohydrates make your best sources.



These nature-packaged foods — low-sugar fruits like berries as well as leafy and cruciferous greens — don’t have barcodes or ingredient lists, and they come intact with the correct ratio of nutrients.

Protein


Protein — or more accurately, the 20 amino acids your body derives from protein — provides your body the building blocks for muscle, bone, skin, hair, and so much more.


Protein helps build hormones, enzymes, and antibodies. DNA and important antioxidants like glutathione require protein. In fact, every cell in your body contains and requires protein.

You can understand, then, why “protein” comes from the Greek word meaning primary.  Unlike carbohydrate or dietary fat, your body so we must get this macronutrient from food or supplements.


Protein breaks down into two categories: Essential and non-essential amino acids.

The nine essential amino acids are those your body cannot make. You must get them from food or supplements.The remaining 11 amino acids your body can synthesize, making them non-essential.Of those 11 non-essential amino acids, six classify as conditionally essential. In other words, some people must get these amino acids from food or supplements.


How much dietary protein you need depends on numerous factors including your age, level of physical activity, and your overall health. Certain demographics — including people with chronic illnesses, athletes, and pregnant or breastfeeding moms — require additional protein.


How Much Protein Do You Need?


Your body goes through 300 – 400 grams of protein daily, but that doesn’t mean you need that much since you can recycle used proteins.


The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends the average adult get about 0.36 grams of protein per pound. For a 150-pound person, that would be about 54 grams of protein per day. Some experts believe that number is too low, especially considering the numerous roles protein plays.

Protein comes from many sources including cold-water fish, grass-fed beef, nuts, seeds, and legumes.


Whereas most animal foods contain all the essential amino acids, many plant foods are low or absent in at least one essential amino acid. Some plant proteins are also less bioavailable than animal protein.


That doesn’t mean vegans and vegetarians can’t get sufficient protein from plant foods. You just need to be more mindful and incorporate plenty of protein-rich foods like nuts and seeds.


Fat


For decades, health experts believed fat was unhealthy. After all, eating fat makes you fat, right? Not quite. As with carbohydrates, the answer is more complex.


Three Types of Fat: Saturated, Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated


Dietary fat (scientifically called lipids) falls into three categories:


Saturated fats are generally solid or waxy at room temperature. You mostly find them in animal products and a few oils such as coconut oil.Monounsaturated fats have a “heart-healthy” glow because research shows many foods rich in them (including olive oil) can reduce your risk for cardiovascular-related problems. They contain one double bond, hence the name monounsaturated. Many sources of monounsaturated fat are rich in the fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin E.Polyunsaturated fats contain more than one double bond, making them more unstable than other fats. That fishy smell? Fish are high in unstable polyunsaturated fats, which can go rancid quickly. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which are considered essential for brain function, cell growth, and more because your body cannot make them.You’ll find omega-3 fatty acids in cold-water fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts. The primary omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid, which your body can theoretically convert to the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).You’ll find omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. The primary omega-6 is linoleic acid, which your body converts into longer-chain omega-6s.


Very few foods contain just one type of fat. A grass-fed steak contains some saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat.


You Need Fat


Your body requires healthy fats for many roles, including:


Absorbing vitamins and minerals, building cells, muscle movement, and blood clotting.Balancing your blood sugar levels.Keeping your brain operating at peak levels.Lowering your risk of arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.


So why did dietary fat get a bad rep? That answer is complicated and involves politics as well as nutritional misunderstanding.


But fat can make you fat? Well, foods rich in dietary fat are more calorie-dense: Whereas protein and carbohydrate contain four calories per gram, fat contains nine per gram.