In honor of National Nutrition Month, we’re going to get down to the basics of nutrition and talk about the different types of nutrients and what they do in our bodies. This will be the first in a series of posts about each nutrient our bodies need to function. So while we normally focus on food and eating more like MyPlate, let’s get a little more detail about the nutrients that make up the foods we eat.
Water makes up 45-75% of our bodies and is important for good health. Water is used in different body processes and helps to regulate our temperature. Blood and other body fluids are mostly water, which helps to carry nutrients around the body and in and out of cells. The amount of water we need each day can vary depending on age, activity level, etc., but a good rule of thumb is to drink 8-10 cups of water each day.
Carbohydrates (carbs for short) are the main sources of energy in our body. In our body, blood sugar is the fuel that powers cells. Carbohydrates can be simple (easy to digest) in the form of sugar or complex (more difficult to digest) in the form of starch or fiber. We actually can’t digest fiber, but it plays an important role in gut health and cholesterol metabolism. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 45-65% of calories in our diet come from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, sugar, honey, and dairy foods.
Protein is made of amino acids, which are the building blocks of our tissues. Protein in our diet is used for growth, repair, and maintenance of body tissue. We can also convert protein into blood glucose to use as energy, too if we aren’t getting enough energy from carbohydrates or fat. Protein is in many different foods in different amounts. Meat, dairy, poultry, seafood, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and dairy foods are the best sources of protein.
Fat is our most concentrated source of energy, providing double the amount of calories per gram. Fat is how our bodies store extra calories for later use. Despite this less desirable function, fats are important to health in other processes, too. Fat is used in metabolic processes as part of hormones, insulate our bodies, and provide shock absorption to protect different body parts (in our palms or soles of our feet and around internal organs). Our cell membranes are made of fat and our brains are about 60% fat. Some fats, like Omega-3s, are essential and we must get them from our diets. Fats are found in animal products, dairy foods, and oils from different plants, like olives, avocados, canola seeds, or coconuts.
Although needed in much smaller amounts than the previous nutrients, vitamins are essential for your body to function. Each vitamin works as part of a different process in your body, helping make your metabolism, growth, and development, or immune system (among many other functions) work properly. Vitamins are classified as water-soluble (B complex vitamins and vitamin C) or fat-soluble (vitamins A, D, E, & K). Almost every food contains some type of vitamin and we’ll go into more specific detail as we look at each vitamin in future posts.
Minerals are elements (think the periodic table from chemistry) that are also essential for our bodies to function. Some minerals are used for metabolic processes and others are used as part of body structures, like calcium in our bones and teeth. Like vitamins, different foods contain different minerals and we’ll look at each mineral in future posts.
There are six major nutrients – water, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Each plays a unique and important role in how our bodies function. What would you like to know about each nutrient as we explore each one? What questions do you have about how a nutrient is used in the body or what foods have a specific nutrient? We’d love to know what information you’re interested in as we plan future posts about each nutrient group.