With people focusing on different dietary and physical trends, like building muscle or losing weight, nutritional balance and overall health can be easily forgotten about. First it was fats that were left out of the diet (even healthy ones), and now it’s carbs. But the problem is, although Western diets do need to cut back on simple carbs, the body does need certain healthy carbohydrates to function, along with protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and water. The body cannot synthesize these nutrients on its own, meaning they need to be provided through food every day, and that’s why they are called essential nutrients…
What Are Essential Nutrients?
Nutrients are the categories of substance needed in nutrition, and essential nutrients are nutrients that the body cannot produce on its own. They need to be provided through the consumption of food or supplements. Essential nutrients are necessary for the body to be able to function normally, and include carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and water. Let’s take a closer look at what this means for your daily eating routine and what to do if you are not consuming what you need to…
This is a hot topic at the moment, because carbohydrates are in the bad books when it comes to nutrition and weight loss. The problem when science such as this arises is, it can be taken a step too far, and people do things like cut out carbs altogether, which is detrimental to overall health. What a lot of people don’t realize is that carbohydrates can be extremely healthy, and are found in foods like fruits and starchy vegetables, as well as the more recognizable sources, like grains and bread. Carbs are essential because they are a primary source of energy, helping the brain, central nervous system, kidneys and muscles to function. There are two carbohydrate categories – complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains (for example, buckwheat, brown rice and freekeh) and vegetables are better than simple carbs, which you get from anything sugary, including white bread. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains are full of fiber, which reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, while maintaining normal blood glucose levels, lessening the likelihood of sugar crashes and food cravings.
You’d likely be familiar with protein for building muscle and filling you up, but what you might not know is how and why. Protein is the major structural component of cells, and it is responsible for building and repairing tissues in the body. When consumed as food, protein is broken down into amino acids, which are then used as building blocks for protein in the body. Nine out of the 20 amino acids are essential amino acids, because they need to be provided through food and cannot be synthesized in the body. Protein is provided from both animal and plant sources, including meat, eggs, dairy, beans, soy, nuts and legumes. Up to 35 per cent of your daily calorie intake should be lean protein.
For a long time, fat was considered the enemy, but that 1990s trend of buying everything ‘low-fat’ or ‘fat-free’ is slowly losing its grip as people realize that fats are good. Having said that thought, many Western diets consume too much fat, and the wrong sorts of fats. When consumed in appropriate amounts, fat is used by the body as a source of energy that increases the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E and K. As well as this, fats and oils also insulate the body and cushion the organs from shock. Up to 35 per cent of your daily calorie intake should be a form of fat. Omega-3 is a good example of a healthy fat, and can be found in fish, walnuts, flaxseed and certain vegetable-based oils. Nuts, seeds and avocados are some of the healthiest plant-based fatty foods, while fatty meats and dairy should be consumed in much lower quantities.
We hear a lot about vitamins and how important they are. The reason you need to consume vitamins every day is to maintain the body functioning, through healthy cells, nerves, skin and tissues. Essential vitamins include A, B, C, D, E and K. Vitamin C, for example, is needed for the body to be able to produce collagen, providing structure to blood vessels, bones and ligaments. Fruits and vegetables, including citrus (like oranges and lemons), strawberries and peppers are excellent sources of vitamin C. Folate, which is a B vitamin, is a vital nutrient, particularly beneficial to women trying to get pregnant. A folate deficiency can potentially cause serious problems, including birth defects and blood diseases. Beans, broccoli, spinach and asparagus are some of the best folate foods, but in some cases, a doctor might recommend people take a folate supplement, especially women trying to get pregnant.
Vitamin D is another essential vitamin, which helps maintain calcium stability. It can be absorbed from the sun, but, of course, this comes with its own risks, such as melanoma and premature ageing of the skin. This essential nutrient can also be found in some food sources, such as fatty fish (tuna, mackerel and salmon), oranges, beef liver, soy milk, cheese and egg yolks. Vitamin A is needed for healthy skin, protecting against infections, and boosting the immune system. Some food sources include carrots, sweet potato, melons, pumpkin, mangoes, tomatoes, broccoli, and beef liver. Vitamin E helps protect cells from damage and prevents blood clots, thrombosis and atherosclerosis by improving the body’s use of oxygen. It is also good for the skin and improves fertility and wound healing. Some foods with vitamin E include sunflower seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds, peas, sweet potato, wheat germ, tuna and salmon. Lastly, vitamin K helps control blood clotting and is important for bone health. It also assists in preventing heart disease and reducing neural damage. Foods rich in vitamin K include cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, cabbage, beans, potatoes, tomatoes and peas.
Essential minerals help the body maintain proper organ, heart and respiratory functions, as well as growth. They include sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, iodine, calcium, iron and plenty more. Sodium helps cells function normally and maintains fluid volume outside the body’s cells. However, there are issues with over-consumption, and the maximum you should consume per day is 2,400 milligrams, which is actually very small. Sodium is found in salt and seaweed. Potassium plays a key role in skeletal and smooth muscle contraction, meaning it is important for digestion and muscular function. It is also crucial to heart function and helps prevent blood pressure from rising with increased sodium intake. Bananas, potatoes and tomatoes are the best sources of potassium. Calcium is one of the most important minerals, and is one that people are familiar with from a young age because of the role it plays in healthy teeth and bones. But the importance of calcium goes beyond that, with just about every cell in the body using the essential mineral in some way. The nervous system, muscles, heart and bones all use calcium, and rich food sources include milk, cheese and yogurt.
Last, but certainly not least, is water – the most important nutrient that humans cannot live without. More than 50 per cent of our bodies are made of water and, along with oxygen, it is considered a ‘life source’. Water helps the body process certain vitamins, regulates body temperature and keeps you hydrated. It ensures the body maintains homeostasis, transports nutrients to cells, and helps the body remove waste products. As an approximate guideline, adult men should drink about 2 liters of water per day and women should consume 1.6 liters. This, of course, varies depending on the amount of energy you use, how much you sweat and the climate you live in. Water can be consumed directly, and part of your daily intake can also be consumed through food, like watermelon, cucumber, celery, lettuce and cantaloupe.
How Do I Put This Information Into Practice?
It’s all well and good to know what the six essential nutrients are and why we need to consume them every day, but how do you ensure you get what you need? The first thing you need to know is what percentage of each essential nutrient you need in a day and what foods and beverages to consume them through, which we’ve already touched on a little above. Guidelines vary, but as an approximate outline, carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 per cent of your daily calories (but remember, that’s not all grains – carbs are in vegetables and other foods as well); fat should make up about 20 to 35 per cent and protein 10 to 35 per cent. This varies, of course, depending on a great number of things, including age, gender and exercise or work regime.
However, having said all that, it is not necessary (or healthy) to obsess about the RDA of every vitamin, mineral and everything else based on your age and gender. Instead, you can approach the situation, and the question, in a more realistic way. The best thing to do is to stop worrying about the intricate details, and instead look at the big picture, which involves an overall balanced diet, consisting of a colorful range of fruits and vegetables, along with beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts and protein. Go for nutrient-dense foods that you know are packed full of vitamins and minerals with less calories, such as avocados, beans, kale, spinach, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, eggs, seeds, nuts, barley, oats, quinoa, yogurt, berries, lentils, and fish, lean meat and poultry, if you are not a vegetarian.
Essential Nutrient Cautions
Although these vitamins, minerals, fats, protein and carbohydrates are essential, there are risks with over-consumption. Vitamins and minerals, for example, are necessary every day, but the percentage you need in your diet is actually very miniscule, and certain vitamins can become toxic if over-consumed. You only need a few milligrams or micrograms of each essential vitamin and mineral each day, but, again, this is not something to obsess over or worry about exact measurements. Instead, focus on it only if you notice any symptoms to suggest you might have any deficiencies.
What Are Anti-Nutrients?
The next problem we face in a world full of processed foods is ingredients that actually rob your body of essential nutrients. Food that needs more nutrients for the body to use it than what it provides itself is called an anti-nutrient. These compounds reduce the absorption of essential nutrients from the digestive system. They aren’t a major concern for most people, but can become problematic for people whose diets consist almost entirely of grains and legumes. When eaten on a regular basis in large amounts, anti-nutrients can gradually create a toxic overload, robbing your body of vital nutrients that support its functionality, which is of particular concern during periods of malnutrition. As well as grains, seeds and legumes, anti-nutrients can come from certain deep-fried foods, refined sugars, certain drugs, environmental chemicals, pollution, some food additives, cans and plastic containers. An overload of these anti-nutrients can also make it difficult for your boy to eliminate toxins.
Phylate, tannins, lectins, protease inhibitors and calcium oxalate are the most widely studied anti-nutrients to date. Phylate, or phylic acid, is mainly found in seeds, grains and legumes, and can reduce the absorption of minerals from other foods in a meal, including zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium. Tannins are a class of water-soluble polyphenols that may impair the digestion of certain nutrients and affect the utilization of vitamins and minerals. However, phylate and tannins may also have some health benefits, such as lowering serum cholesterol and potentially even contributing to the prevention of certain cancers. Lectins and protease inhibitors are found in nearly all edible plants, especially grains, seeds and legumes, and may be harmful when consumed in extremely high amounts by interfering with the absorption of nutrients. When calcium is bound to oxalate, which it is in a number of vegetables, the mineral can’t be absorbed as easily. Anti-nutrients can be tainted with a few simple preparation tricks, including heating, boiling, soaking, sprouting and fermenting, which is why beans are nearly always soaked and boiled. They tend not to be an issue healthy people have to worry about, especially when preparing food according to instructions and consuming a balanced diet.
How Do Empty Calories Affect Essential Nutrients?
On average, two-thirds of calorie intake in the Western world consists of fat, refined sugar and refined flour. In sugar, they are called ‘empty calories’, because they provide no nutrients, and are often hidden in processed foods. When people’s diets consist of two-thirds empty calories, it is difficult to then consume the levels of essential nutrients you need on a daily basis.
That’s why the main focus should always be on consuming natural, nutrient-dense foods, through a balanced diet rich in a range of colorful fruits and vegetables. Remember to include plenty of fiber and protein, and without even trying too hard, you’ll probably be consuming the six essential nutrients that you need for a healthy life!