An essential nutrient is a nutrient that the body cannot synthesize on its own– or not to an adequate amount — and must be provided by the diet. These nutrients are necessary for the body to function properly. The Six Classes of nutrients are Carbohydrates, Protein, Lipids (fats), Water, Vitamins, and Minerals. Each performs a different function and is found in different foods.
Carbohydrates provide approximately 50% of our energy intake and are stored in the liver and muscles until needed. It is from carbohydrates that our dietary fiber is derived (from foods such as fruits and vegetables, rice, and wheat). The digestion process begins in the mouth where food is broken down by saliva. Further digestion occurs in the small intestine, and anything not absorbed at this point is broken down in the large intestine by bacteria.
Approximately 20% of the body’s energy intake comes from protein. It is responsible for building bones and muscles, it is essential for metabolism, and is important components in blood and cell membranes. Protein can be derived from animals such as poultry, beef, and fish and it can also be derived from plants such as beans and pulses and nuts. It is digested in the stomach and eventually broken down into amino acids in the small intestine.
Lipids provide approximately 30% of our energy intake and are digested in the stomach and small intestine. Fats are lipids that are solid at room temperature (butter) and oils are liquid at room temperature (olive oil). Lipids are divided into 2 categories: saturated and unsaturated. Most foods contain elements of both, but usually, plant oils contain more unsaturated lipid content and animal fats contain more saturated lipid content, which is the one to avoid. Essential fatty-acids EFA (Omega-3, Omega 6) are types of unsaturated oils that the body cannot produce on its own. These EFAs are important in regulating blood pressure, repairing, and synthesizing cell parts and are also linked to the prevention and treatment of depression and heart disease. EFAs are found in certain vegetable oils and in deep water fish such as tuna, sardines, and salmon. Trans-fatty acids are fats commonly found in many processed foods such as margarine and fast foods which should also be avoided.
Vitamins enable chemical reactions to occur in the body and are necessary for growth and well-being. They are responsible for maintaining eyes, skin, teeth, and nerves but provide no usable energy as do proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids. There are 13 vitamins, four of which are fat-soluble and nine that are water-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins are excreted from the body more readily than fat-soluble vitamins and are also easily destroyed in the cooking process.
The majority of women who exercise moderately and eat an adequate and vaired diet are not likely to benefit from vitamin and mineral supplements. In fact, unless the body is deficient in a nutrient, the extra water soluble vitamins are passed through the body, resulting only in expensive urine.
Those who may benefit from supplements are pregnant or lactating women, the elderly, vegans, athletes or those suffering from allergies or illness. People who may also need a supplement are those who live in areas where the quality of soil is poor. However, all supplements should get the O.K. from your health care professional, as some are potentially harmful. Vitamin A, for one, can actually harm the fetus in a pregnant woman, if taken in large quantities. Vitamin supplements are digested and absorbed better when they are taken with food. However, Vitamin E is the exception and is usually taken 20-30 minutes after a meal.
The best way to ensure you are getting all the essential nutrients is to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables as part of 20 – 30 different foods throughout the week. If you find it difficult to consume a lot of fresh produce, purchase a juicer with the money you would have spent on vitamins – fresh vegetable/fruit juices instantly become your multivitamin!
Minerals are inorganic substances that contribute to the functioning of the nervous system, water balance, and other cellular processes. There are 16 or more essential minerals needed for good health. Minerals play a major role in metabolic function. The body varies its the ability to digest and absorb minerals from food, depending on the presence of other minerals, vitamins, drugs, and toxins. There are 7 major minerals (those that the body requires more than 100mg per day) and numerous trace minerals (those that the body requires less than 100mg per day). The major minerals are discussed below, along with a few notes on some of the more common trace minerals.
Calcium absorption decreases by as much as 30% for people aged 35 and over. We can, however, enhance uptake with Vitamin D, Vitamin C, amino acids, sunshine, fat intake, and exercise.
Benefits: Essential for healthy bones, heart, nervous system, blood pressure. Calcium is used to treat osteoporosis, high blood pressure, cramps, heart disease, and tooth problems.
Foods: Dairy products such as cheese, milk, and yogurt as well as leafy green vegetables, almonds, seeds, salmon, soybeans, broccoli, and oysters.
Potassium is essential for protein synthesis.
Benefits: Treatment of fatigue, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.
Foods: spinach, prunes, nuts, bananas, pineapples, potatoes, milk, cereal, chicken, fish, beans, steak, and chickpeas.
Sodium is involved in many body metabolic processes, including the transmission of nerve impulses and muscle tone. Benefits: Sodium is necessary for water regulation and transportation of different substances. Supplements are unnecessary but are often added to sports drinks for electrolyte balance.
Foods: vegetables, milk, cheese, fish, ham
Chloride works with hydrogen to produce hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which assists in the break down of food.
Benefits: maintains water balance in cells. Foods: tomatoes, celery, spinach, chives, avocado, sunflower seeds.
Phosphorus metabolizes protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
Benefits: Essential for healthy bones. Foods: meat, wheat germ, poultry, cheese, milk, fish, nuts, chocolate.
Magnesium is essential for the production and transfer of energy.
Benefits: responsible for a healthy heart, bones, and muscles. Used in conjunction with Calcium, it assists in the treatment of migraines.
Food: kelp, wheat, bran, almonds, sesame seeds, berries, tropical fruit. Sulfur –
Benefits: aids in fat digestion and absorption, gives strength to skin, bones, teeth, hair, and nails, and is necessary for the function of hormones. Foods: nuts, seafood, shellfish, milk, and some vegetables.
Iron can be obtained from plant or animal sources, but the iron we get from animals is the most absorbable. Furthermore, iron should be consumed with some form of Vitamin C, which assists in the uptake. For example, steak could be served with a tomato salad, and oysters served with a squeeze of fresh lemon. An iron deficiency may cause anemia, weakness, and fatigue. Some plant sources are rice, peas, tofu, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and beans.
Many women who have experienced fertility problems have been diagnosed as having a Zinc deficiency. Zinc is important in detoxifying and eliminating alcohol from the body as well as for a healthy brain, teeth, bones, and skin. Zinc can be found in oysters, beef, liver, and nuts.
Iodine is a component of the thyroid hormones and is essential for normal metabolism. It is found in vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil, seafood and milk.
The average adult can survive without food for approximately 2 months, but without water for only a few days. Water is essential to cell function, metabolic processes within the body, temperature regulation, waste removal, to name a few. Thirst is our first message the body sends out to replace water, followed by headaches, fatigue, and nausea. The average adult should try to consume 2 liters of water a day in the form of broths, herbal teas, or filtered water. People who drink coffee, soft drinks, or alcohol, which all act as diuretics, may need to drink more water. Be aware during illnesses that involve vomiting, diarrhea or fever, water intake is critical to prevent dehydration