Essential nutrients are compounds that our body cannot make itself, or cannot make in the quantities needed for health, and so we must get them from the foods we eat. They’re jam-packed into every food group - so they’re fortunately inescapable!
With a sufficient intake essential nutrients will help prevent disease, support growth and development, as well as general health and vitality - essentially, they’ll assist everything with ticking along nicely, as they provide the body with (almost) everything it needs to do so!
While there’s a collective array of essential nutrients, they can be split into three key groups - macronutrients, micronutrients and water.
MEET THE MACRONUTRIENTS
These are nutrients needed in larger quantities (macro = big/large) for good health, with the word macronutrients being an umbrella term for carbohydrates, protein and fat. They’re the building blocks of our diet; supplying us with energy to burn, alongside a plethora of other physiological, structural and metabolic functions.
PROTEIN: if macronutrients are the building blocks of our diet, proteins are the building blocks of our body. This includes muscles, bone, hair and skin - every cell in fact! Protein is used for bodily growth and maintenance, but is also for vital for the creation of substances like hormones and antibodies. Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids, with nine being deemed ‘essential’ - this means we must get them from our diet, as we cannot make them internally. Our body will use all 20 to create a huge variety of proteins to fit the bill for whatever task is needed at hand metabolically - pretty nifty!
Sources include both animal derived proteins, found in fish, eggs, chicken and dairy; as well as plant-based derived proteins, found in legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds.
How much protein we need will depend on a few factors like our age, physical activity, and overall health.
CARBOHYDRATES: carbs come in three types - sugar, starch and fibre. They provide a readily available fuel for the body in the form of glucose, especially for our brain, and they’re fabulous for digestive health with fibre helping to make passing stools easier! Carbs are often referred to as simple or complex. Simple carbs contain sugars and some forms of starch, and they’re a good source of speedy energy for the body. Complex carbs, on the other hand, include some types of starches and dietary fibre, which take longer to break down - this has its benefits as it means we get sustained energy for longer from them!
Sources include fruit, veggies, oats, rice, potato, kumara, pumpkin and legumes.
FATS: are key in supporting many of the bodies functions including building cells, skin/heart/brain health, clotting blood, helping to balance blood sugar levels and the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. Some are powerful anti-inflammatories, like a hose to fire. They’re higher in calories compared to protein and carbs (which was typically villainised during the previous low-fat dogma when it was thought dietary fats should be limited), but these calories actually serve as an important energy source for our body.
Famed sources here include unsaturated fats, which are deemed essential as we must get them from the foods we eat - this includes omega-3 and omega-6, found in fish, seeds, nuts and veggie oils.
…AND THE MICRONUTRIENTS
These are nutrients needed in smaller quantities (micro = tiny/small) relative to macronutrients, but that’s not because they’re not important! With micronutrients, a little goes a long way, and they include the two sub-groups vitamins and minerals.
VITAMINS: vitamins are organic compounds made by animals and plants, and can be broken down by air, acid and heat. They play important roles in the body and are essential for everything from energy production to healthy vision to skin to movement to immune function. They can act as powerful antioxidants, helping to fight free-radical damage internally. While our body actually synthesises vitamin D from the sun, and our gut bugs can make some vitamin K, we need to get the rest from food (or supplements).
Vitamins are round richly in colourful fruit and veggies - this is one of the main reasons we’re told to eat the rainbow!
Vitamins can be divided into being soluble or fat-soluble. Water soluble vitamins are not stored in our body, and if we consume too much they get flushed out in our urine. This includes our B vitamins, as well as vitamin C. In contrast, fat-soluble vitamins are best absorbed when consumed with dietary fat (e.g. roasting vitamin A-rich carrot in a little oil will help your body absorb the vitamin A better!), and have the ability to be stored in fatty tissues and our liver, for future use. This includes vitamin A, D, K and E.
MINERALS: in contrast to vitamins, minerals are inorganic molecules which exist in water and soil, and cannot be broken down. They play an important role in many bodily functions, including metabolism regulation, keeping hydrated, as well as building strong bones and teeth. Some of the minerals include calcium (necessary for the proper structure and function of bones and teeth), magnesium (assists with over 300 enzyme reactions, including muscle function and the regulation of blood pressure), iron (helps provide oxygen to the muscles), sodium (aids fluid balance) and potassium (aids nerve transmissions and muscle function).
They’re found richly across natural foods e.g. leafy greens, salmon nuts, garlic, lentils, seaweed, salt, black beans and milk products.
LETS NOT FORGET WATER…
We can skip food for a while and still survive, but we can’t go for more than a few days without water. It plays a crucial role in every systems of our body - this makes sense given our body is made up of over 60% water! Even mild dehydration can impact our concentration, physical performance, and make us feel fatigued and ‘blegh’.
Best source is the pure stuff…but you can also get a good amount from fruits and veggies, especially those with a high water content e.g. watermelon, celery, cucumber or pineapple.
If you eat a varied balanced diet - much like our first article here delves into here - you’ll get in a good variety of essential nutrients. We don’t need to worry too much about the details, but instead just the big picture - go for variety, emphasising nutrient-dense foods, like plenty of colourful fruit and veggies, legumes (important for our vegan friends), seafood, meats and poultry, wholegrain and nuts - this should provide a great foundation. Variety is certainly the spice of life here - as the nutrient content of food is so different, it’s best to eat and go for a wide variety - always.
This blog was written especially for our friends at Westpac NZ, who we’re excited to be assisting with their workplace wellbeing this year. It’s thrilling to see a company go the extra mile for their staff!