Nutrients. How would you define them? You know they are in food, they’re what makes food “nutritious,” but what does it really mean? How important are they, and how do we know if we’re getting enough?
Nutrient comes from a latin word literally meaning “to feed or nourish”. They are the components of food that help our bodies survive and grow. Nutrients are categorized into macronutrients, the large building blocks of food, and micronutrients, the smaller, but equally important, building blocks.
The three primary macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. You might be familiar with these because they are commonly mentioned in different diet trends.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel. They are necessary for the healthy functioning of our brains, hearts, and all other organs. Carbohydrates are further categorized as simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar, are broken down into glucose and absorbed much faster than complex carbohydrates, such as oatmeal. Dietitians recommend trying to make the majority of carbohydrates intake complex carbohydrates.
Protein has many roles in the body, primarily providing energy, aiding in growth and development while also regulating many processes. Protein plays an important role in building muscle tissue and protein itself is made of building blocks called amino acids. There are nine essential amino acids: Isoleucine, Phenylalanine, Lysine, Leucine, Threonine, Valine, Tryptophan, Methionine, and Histidine. You can commonly get these from animal protein sources, however, it can be harder for vegans and vegetarians to find plant protein sources with all nine essential amino acids.
Fats aid in the absorption of nutrients, play a role in growth and development, and provide energy too. Some vitamins (A,D,E, and K,) require fats for absorption. There are a few different kinds of dietary fats: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are “healthy fats” because they can lower cholesterol and risk for heart disease. You can get these healthy fats from foods like fish, nuts, oils, and avocados. Saturated fats have been associated with increased risk for disease and are recommended to be consumed in moderation. Trans fats should be avoided as they are strongly associated with increased disease risk.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals: trace elements in the food and earth that are essential in the processes of our body that allow us to function. We get most of our vitamins and minerals from the food we eat. Fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and dairy are packed with different micronutrients in different amounts.
We can synthesize some micronutrients in our bodies, like Vitamin D with help from the sun. Yet, most vitamins and minerals that we need can only be found in our foods, and that is why we are recommended by the USDA to eat certain amounts of each of these foods daily.
Unfortunately, with busy lifestyles, limited availability, and expensive health food prices, the American diet has shifted from fresh foods to mainly processed foods, and processed foods tend to have fewer micronutrients. To avoid effects from micronutrient deficiencies, it is important to try to get the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals through diet and if that is not possible, to appropriately and safely supplement.