7 Nutrients That Are Essential

Oftentimes it’s easy to turn to fast food because it’s convenient. However, in order to look and feel your best, your body needs a complex blend of nutrients. Not only do you need the right proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals, but you also need adequate fluids to stay hydrated, and a good dose of fiber, too. Even the most careful eater can be hard-pressed to meet each nutrient target every day.

Balanced nutrition is based on a combination of healthy foods and supplements that help you meet your daily needs, coupled with the right calorie balance to help you lose, gain or maintain your body weight.

Experts classify nutrients as “essential” because your body cannot make them, yet requires these nutrients for growth, maintenance, repair, and so much more. These nutrients must come from food, and they’re vital for disease prevention, growth, and good health.

While there are many essential nutrients, they can be broken into two main categories: macronutrients and micronutrients.

  • Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are macronutrients because they make up most of your diet. These are eaten in large amounts and include the primary building blocks of your diet, which provide your body with energy.
  • 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.

7 Essential Nutrients to Maximize Your Health

Good health lies in eating the right foods, combined with regular exercise and rest. A proper, balanced nutrition will help fuel your daily activities and promote a lifetime of wellness.

1. 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 45-65% of your total daily calories like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends (1)?

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complicated matters, dividing carbohydrates into simple or complex subcategories, as experts once did, has become outdated.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. What matters is how much a particular carb raises your blood sugar. In fact, two slices of “healthy” whole wheat bread, a complex carbohydrate, can raise your blood sugar more than eating two tablespoons of table sugar!

It is true that 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 (2).

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 contains a whopping 10 teaspoons (2). 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. 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.

Low sugar fruits like berries as well as leafy and cruciferous greens have the correct ratio of nutrients.

2. 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.

Approximately 16% of the average person’s body weight is from protein (3). Protein is used primarily for growth, health, and body maintenance.

All of your hormones, antibodies, and other important substances are composed of protein. Protein is not used to fuel the body unless necessary.

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

Protein breaks down into two categories: 

  • Essential amino acids
  • 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 to 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.

While meat, fish, and eggs are good sources of essential amino acids, you can also get protein from plant sources like beans, soy, nuts, and some grains. Exactly how much protein you need daily depends on a variety of factors including how active you are, and your age.

Despite the growing popularity of high-protein diets, there haven’t been enough studies to prove that they’re healthier or can influence weight loss. 

3. Fats

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.

Dietary fat known as 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. 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.

Why Do 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. Protein and carbohydrate contain four calories per gram, fat contains nine per gram.

Hormones, Good Fats, and Bad Fats

While too many calories can contribute to weight gain, hormones matter more. And overall, healthy dietary fat positively impacts hormones that regulate satiety and appetite (4).

Some dietary fats, including saturated fat are still hotly debated (5). For these, the source matters: The saturated fat you get in healthy foods like coconut oil is different than what you eat in a fast-food cheeseburger.

Likewise, omega-3 fatty acids get classified as good while omega-6 fatty acids are bad. However, that’s not always the case! A few omega-6 fatty acids, like gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), are actually anti-inflammatory (6).

Additionally, many healthy foods including nuts and seeds contain omega-6 fatty acids. Many of us simply eat too many omega-6 fatty acids, about 20 times more and not enough anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids (7). Balance becomes key with these two fatty acids.

The one dietary fat nearly everyone agrees is bad TRANS FAT. But there’s an exception within every rule! Some dairy and meats contain naturally occurring trans fats. The truly bad ones are “partially hydrogenated” fats you find in some vegetable oils and processed foods.

4. Vitamins

Vitamins are organic compounds you require in small quantities, either because your body does not produce enough or doesn’t make that nutrient at all.

Your body can synthesize vitamin D from sunlight, and gut bacteria produce some vitamin K, but for the most part, you need to get vitamins from food or supplements.

Water-soluble and Fat-soluble

The 13 known vitamins fall into two categories – water-soluble or fat-soluble. The body cannot store water-soluble vitamins, which quickly excrete in your urine and need to be replaced more often than fat-soluble vitamins.

Many vitamins carry alternate names or come in different forms:

  • Researchers sometimes refer to vitamin C as ascorbic acid.
  • Vitamin D comes as ergocalciferol (D2) or cholecalciferol (D3).
  • Vitamin E comes in eight isomers: Four tocopherols and four tocotrienols.
  • The 8 B vitamins work as a team, and you’ll often find all of them in a B-complex formula.

When you read a food or supplement label, the nutrient breakdown will typically be clear as to amounts of specific vitamins. In other words, it might read “vitamin D (as D3).”

Deficiencies in any specific vitamin can create widespread problems that span from mild to life-threatening.

For instance, intaking insufficient pantothenic acid or vitamin B5 can create a “pins and needles feeling.” On the other hand, vitamin B6 deficiencies can create anemia, peripheral neuropathy, or damage to parts of the nervous system other than the brain and spinal cord.

Most vitamin recommendations come largely from guidelines set by the Institute of Medicine, which typically recommends amounts in milligrams (mg), micrograms (mcg), or until recently international units (IU) (8).

Some experts believe these vitamins recommendations are too low, making supplementing necessary.  Even with a healthy diet, cooking, storage, and exposure to air can deactivate these fragile compounds.

5. Minerals

While both are micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals differ in that minerals are inorganic and hold onto their chemical structure. This makes minerals more stable, but other obstacles, including soil depletion, mean we might not get sufficient amounts from food.

Like vitamins, minerals support numerous bodily functions, including building and maintaining healthy bones and teeth, supporting muscle function, optimizing immunity, and energy production.

Minerals fall into two categories – major and trace minerals.

  • Your body requires and stores large amounts of calcium, magnesium, and other major minerals. You’ll often find these in milligrams (mg).
  • Trace minerals come in smaller amounts, usually micrograms or mcg, but they are equally important. Trace minerals include chromium, selenium, and zinc.

Mineral deficiencies can create widespread problems. Take magnesium, which plays a role in over 300 enzyme systems, including protein synthesis, muscle, and nerve function, controlling blood glucose, and regulating blood pressure (9). Chronic diseases, medications, and getting insufficient amounts from food are among the reasons many people are at risk for magnesium deficiencies (10).

Like vitamins, minerals interact with each other. Too much of one mineral can create imbalances in another. Too much manganese, for instance, can trigger iron deficiencies. Others, such as chromium, perform therapeutically on their own in higher doses for specific conditions (11).

Consider conferring with a healthcare practitioner before using larger amounts of individual nutrients.

6. Water

You can survive for weeks without food, but water? While some experts speculate up to a week, 3 or 4 days might be more accurate.

Overall, about 60% of your body is water. Your brain and heart are about 73% water (12). Muscles and kidneys, about 79%. Your skin is made of about 64% water. But the top organ? Your lungs are about 83% water.

Sufficient water intake becomes vital for nearly every bodily function. Water can improve energy, increase mental and physical performance, remove toxins and waste from your body, keep your skin healthy and glowing, and may even help you lose weight.

Water improves your brain function and mood. It acts a shock absorber and a lubricant in the body. It also helps flush out toxins, carry nutrients to cells, hydrate the body, and prevent constipation.

Your body constantly loses water via sweat, urinating, and even breathing. Dehydration can occur more easily than you might imagine, and its repercussions can jeopardize your health and even become fatal. Even mild dehydration can make you feel tired and impair your concentration and physical performance.

How Much Water Do You Need?

How much water you require depends on numerous factors including age, gender, health status, and physical performance. The average adult man needs about 3 liters per day (12), whereas an adult female needs about 2.2 liters daily.

You don’t have to chug water to stay hydrated. Fruits and vegetables can also be a great source. Munch on some spinach or watermelon to stay hydrated.

Pay attention to clean and filtered water! There are hundreds of chemicals, pollutants, and toxic metals like mercury and arsenic that have the potential to wind up in our water.

A good rule of thumb is half your body weight in water ounces every day. If you weigh 160 pounds, that’s about 80 ounces of water. Keep a BPA-free canteen nearby filled throughout the day to meet that quota.

The best way to know if you’re properly hydrated is the color and volume of your urine. If your urine isn’t frequent and pale yellow or nearly clear, you need more water.

7. Phytonutrients

Plant foods produce a wide range of natural compounds called phytonutrients. They contain a number of benefits, such as preventing disease, enhancing immunity, and repairing DNA damage. Their pigments give fruits and vegetables their beautiful colors. That’s why it’s important to eat colorful, plant-filled meals.

The Bottomline

Regularly consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins and fats, and whole grains is the best way to get enough of these six essential nutrients plus the important category of phytonutrients.  These nutrients are important for your body to function properly and to stay healthy! 


(1) https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf

(2) https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/simple_carbohydrates_are_part_of_a_complex_problem

(3) https://www.britannica.com/science/human-nutrition

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53550/

(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5642188/

(6) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17168669/

(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4808858/

(8) https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/listing_of_vitamins

(9) https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/listing_of_vitaminshttps://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/listing_of_vitamins

(10) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5786912/

(11) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15208835/

(12) https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/water-you-water-and-human-body?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects


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