The Six Essential Nutrients

If you’re looking for the easiest, quickest overview on everything you need to know about nutrients, you’ve come to the right place!

‘Essential’ nutrients are appropriately named, these are compounds that the body cannot synthesize on its own in sufficient quantity, that’s why these nutrients must come from food. They are essential because your body needs them to function — to grow, to prevent disease, and to keep your systems running smoothly.

What are the six essential nutrients?

Nutrients can be grouped into six categories:

  1. Carbohydrates (carbs)
  2. Protein
  3. Fats
  4. Water
  5. Vitamins
  6. Minerals

These six nutrients are further categorized according to their size and energy. Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are macronutrients because they make up the bulk of your diet. Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients because they are required in much smaller amounts. Another way to understand them is that the ‘energy’ nutrients are carbs, protein, and fat; the ‘non-energy’ nutrients are water, vitamins, and minerals.

What do these six nutrients do?

Great question! Let’s dive into each of them, what they do, how much you need, and where to find them.

I. Carbohydrates, or carbs:

Carbohydrates main function is to provide energy for our body. Carbs can be quickly converted into glucose and that glucose powers our body and gives us energy. There are two types of carbs to keep in mind when considering this food group: Complex carbs and refined, or simple carbs. Complex carbs provide you with nourishing vitamins, minerals, and fiber. You should make the conscious choice to consume complex carbs rather than refined carbs, or “empty calories” as the latter lack the vital nutrients found in complex carbs.

Complex carbs are found in foods like whole wheat bread, beans, fibre-dense fruits and vegetables, and nuts. Refined carbs are present in sugar-sweetened beverages, fruits juices, white bread, breakfast cereals, packaged biscuits, and baked treats.

To break down the science for you, complex carbohydrates contain long chains of glucose molecules bonded together. In order for your body to release energy, it must break these bonds and this takes time and work! This is why complex carbs are digested more slowly, and allow for a more sustained energy release.

If you eat more carbohydrates than your body needs, some of the carbohydrates are stored in your cells as glycogen, and converts the rest to fat. Glycogen is a complex carbohydrate that the body can easily and rapidly convert to energy, and is stored in the liver and the muscles.

How much of carbs do I need: Carbs should cover about 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories

II. Proteins

We have heard of proteins being referred to as the building blocks of our body, and for good reason. Protein helps to build muscle, synthesize antibodies, hormones, tissues, and enzymes. Protein-rich foods include lean meats, certain seafoods, beans and peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds.

Proteins consist of units called amino acids, strung together in complex formations. Because these are complex molecules, the body takes longer to break them down. As a result, they are a much slower and longer-lasting source of energy than carbohydrates.

While the body can create some amino acids on its own, there are many essential amino acids that can only come from food. You need a variety of amino acids for your body to function properly.

Soy products like tofu and soya nuggets are also good sources of protein. While animal-based sources of protein are considered higher quality, as they provide all the essential amino acids in right proportions, plant-based sources such as millets and pulses provide most of the amino acids, which complement each other to provide better quality proteins.

How much of protein do I need: Protein should make up about 15–20 percent of your total daily calories

III. Fats

Fats are complex molecules made up of fatty acids and glycerol. The body needs fats for growth and energy. It also uses them to synthesize hormones and as precursors for essential substances. Fats are the slowest source of energy but the most energy-efficient form of food, which is why the body stores excess energy as fat. Each gram of fat supplies the body with about 9 calories, more than double of that supplied by proteins or carbohydrates.

There are different kinds of fat: Monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats.

Saturated fats are more likely to increase cholesterol levels and increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Foods derived from animals commonly contain saturated fats, which tend to be solid at room temperature. Fats derived from plants commonly contain monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids, which tend to be liquid at room temperature. Palm and coconut oil are exceptions. They contain more saturated fats than other plant oils.

Trans fats are not included in the list because they are artificial, formed by adding hydrogen to monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids.

How much fat do I need: Fat should be limited to less than about 28% of daily total calories, and saturated fats should be limited to less than 8%.

IV. Vitamins

Vitamins are micronutrients, meaning that your body only needs tiny amounts. Most vitamins assist the enzymes and hormones that drive your metabolism. Vitamin C and the eight vitamins of the B-complex are all water-soluble. In contrast, vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble, meaning that your body needs fat to absorb them. For optimal health, you need to regularly get vitamins from your diet or through supplements.

V. Minerals

Minerals are compounds that assist with life-sustaining processes in your body. All minerals are essential to healthy living but we don’t need the same amount of every mineral. Your body needs macro-minerals in relatively large amounts, but trace minerals are required in small amounts. Bone, muscle, heart, and brain function depends on these minerals. Macro-minerals include sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. Bone, muscle, heart, and brain function depends on these minerals. Trace minerals are iodine, manganese, iron, selenium, and zinc. Both macrominerals and trace minerals are harmful if too much is ingested.

VI. Water

Water is defined as an essential nutrient because it is required in amounts that are greater than the body’s ability to produce it. All biochemical reactions occur in water. It forms tissue fluid and plasma, which fills the spaces in and between cells, acts as a carrier for nutrients and waste products, as a lubricant and shock absorber, and helps form structures of large molecules such as protein and glycogen. Both water intake and water losses are controlled to reach water balance. The regulation of water balance is very precise, even a 1% loss of body water is usually compensated within 24 h. Under normal temperate conditions, a volume of about 1.5 liters a day is normal. However, this should be adapted according to age, gender, climate and physical activity.

Eating a diverse diet full of fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins and fats, and whole grains is the best way to get enough of these six essential nutrients. Remember, the only person who can keep YOU the healthiest is YOU!

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