In this short and sweet crash course, we’ll give you a quick run-down of what nutrients are, and why they are essential for our health.
What is a nutrient?
According to the World Health Organization, a nutrient is a substance required by the body for survival, growth, and reproduction. In other words, nutrients are what give us energy and allow our bodies to perform their essential functions. Every organism on our earth needs nutrients; they are necessary for life! But humans need specific nutrients, which we get from food and water.
Why do we need nutrients?
Our bodies work hard every second of the day performing many functions simultaneously. These processes are carried out by chemical compounds, many of which are created in our bodies through chemical reactions. However, our body can’t create all of the compounds it needs, which is why we must consume food with essential nutrients. Essential nutrients are nutrients our body can’t make itself.
What are the different types of nutrients?
There are two types of essential nutrients: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fats, and water. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals.
Macronutrients are consumed in large quantities, and are vital for your body. They are also very easy to get; most food contains protein, carbohydrates, fats, and water.
Protein is crucial to the body because much of our body is built from it; our organs, skin, tissues, bones, and even our hair is primarily protein. Proteins also carry out many essential activities. They make up the enzymes that digest our food, some of the hormones that regulate bodily functions, and they help transport substances between our cells. Protein is essential for every body system, but it’s especially crucial for the brain because it allows it to communicate with your body through your nervous system. It’s also very important for building and maintaining our muscles. Meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and legumes are all excellent sources of protein.
Carbohydrates are our body’s first choice for fuel! Our bodies break them down and use them for energy. Carbohydrates can be either “simple” or “complex". "Simple” carbohydrates, like refined flours and sugar, are easy for the body to break down and use for energy. They give a quick burst of energy, but they don’t keep you energized for long. "Complex" carbohydrates take longer to break down because they contain fiber, so they give us energy for a longer period of time . Whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, legumes, and vegetables are a great source of complex carbohydrates! Fiber isn’t broken down by your body, but it is necessary for your digestive system because it absorbs water and helps move food through your digestive tract. This makes it easier for your body to absorb nutrients and to eliminate waste products (if you know what we mean.)
Fats are essential for your body. Like protein, they are an important building block, and make up some of our hormones. Fats also improve brain function, because the neurons in our brain and nervous system are made up of fat (and protein). There are three main types of fat: saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. Unsaturated fats are crucial for health, and include omega-3 fatty acids, which you can find in salmon, walnuts, and flax seeds. Saturated fats are typically found in animal products. Trans fats are typically found in packaged foods, like chips and cookies, and should be limited.
Water is also a macronutrient! It doesn’t provide any energy like the other three macronutrients do, but it is equally as important. It’s especially important for your circulatory system, because your blood is primarily composed of water! Dehydration can be very dangerous for the body, which is why staying hydrated is crucial. Check our blog post World Water Day for more information and tips on drinking more water.
Micronutrients are microscopic! You can’t see them, and they’re eaten in much smaller quantities than macronutrients. Nevertheless, they’re very important, and deficiencies in certain micronutrients can lead to many health problems. Whole foods like meat, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, and dairy are typically the best sources of micronutrients, which is why it is important to focus on fueling yourself with these foods. There are two main types of micronutrients: vitamins and minerals.
There are 13 essential vitamins--each with its own unique functions--that the body needs to stay healthy. Many vitamins are antioxidants, meaning that they help ward off inflammation and disease. At Health Start, we talk about several vitamins that are extra important, like Vitamin K! Vitamin K plays an important role in building strong bones. We also talk a lot about Vitamin C, which is crucial for your circulatory system and your immune system. You can learn more about how Vitamin C helps your body fight disease right HERE.
Minerals also help support the body, and they are important for your bone structure, nervous system, digestion, and even your heart! Minerals can be further broken down into two subcategories: macrominerals and trace minerals. Macrominerals are needed in larger quantities. For example, your body needs a lot of calcium to regulate bone health, and also requires a lot of sodium and potassium to help your heart pump, your muscles move, and your nervous system function. Trace minerals are needed in smaller quantities, but are still extremely crucial. For example, your body couldn’t transport oxygen to all your cells without iron!
If you want to learn more about macro and micronutrients, be sure to check out our Snack Science Video Series. In our videos, we teach children and their families about how nutrients support their body systems, and we make delicious healthy snacks that incorporate these nutrients.
We hope you found this crash course informative and helpful! If you have any questions or would like to learn more, feel free to comment below, or send us a message on Facebook or Instagram!
Ferriera, M. (2018, April 25). 6 Essential Nutrients: What They Are and Why You Need Them.
Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/six-essential-nutrients#water
Minerals. (2020, March 2). Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/minerals.html
Nutrients. (2017, December 19). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/elena/nutrient/en/