Phrases like nutritious, nutrient-rich, nutrient-dense, or on the flip side, nutrient-lacking, are thrown around, but do you know exactly what they’re referring to? Sure, nutritious and nutrient-rich sounds healthier for you (anything with the word rich in it is better, right?) than nutrient-lacking, but what makes up the nutrients that are necessary every day?
First, you need to know what “nutritious” is referring to. Nutrients are substances that are essential for our body’s growth, metabolism, and all body functions. Our bodies require most all nutrients from our diets because our bodies cannot synthesize, or create, these essential nutrients by themselves.
Nutrients are defined into two different categories – macro and micro. While they’re both essential, the differences between the two are their functions and the amount needed.
As you can probably guess, macro means bigger, which is exactly why these nutrients are in this category. Macro-nutrients are those that provide our body with calories, or energy, and are the largest nutrients needed for our daily functions. These are the only substances that contain calories, besides alcohol – and no, it is not a macro or essential nutrient.
Carbohydrates – The primary energy source for our body (about 50-60% of caloric intake) and the largest nutrient available from nature – all plants are primarily carbohydrates (grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables). Even lactose from dairy contains carbohydrates as a simple sugar. Carbohydrates are the sole source of energy that our brain uses and is needed for our central nervous system, kidneys, brain, and muscles to function properly. Fiber, which is not a macro-nutrient but comes from carbohydrate sources, is needed for intestinal health and waste elimination. Carbohydrates can also be synthesized from amino acids and fatty acids, if needed.
Fats – About 20-30% of daily caloric intake should come from healthy fats, as they are needed for hormone development, energy, absorption of fat soluble vitamins, organ functions, and insulates our bodies and protects us from shock. There are three main types of fat – saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat. Unsaturated fats are the “healthy” fats that you want, while saturated and trans fats can increase heart disease risks and cholesterol levels. Good sources of healthy fats are nuts, natural oils, fish, and avocados.
Proteins – Most natural foods contain some amount of protein, which are amino acids bonded together, and again are essential for fuel and the building blocks of body tissues for growth and repair, along with their role in immune function, fluid regulation, hormones, collagen building, and preserving lean muscle mass. Amino acids are found in animal sources such as meats, milk, fish and eggs, as well as plant sources such as whole grains, legumes, soy, fruits, and nuts.
Protein needs vary for individuals and their specific diets, but usually about 10-15% of daily caloric intake is needed from protein. Bodies only absorb about 20-25 grams of protein at a time, so any extra protein is stored as fatty-acids.
While these are still essential nutrients, our bodies don’t need them in as large of quantities as macro nutrients, and they do not contain calories as energy sources for our body. Micro nutrients consist of vitamins and minerals that are also necessary for our body functions.
Vitamins– Vitamins are vital organic compounds that are needed by our bodies in limited amounts. They are essential nutrients for the healthy maintenance of the cells, tissues, and organs and also enable our bodies to efficiently use energy provided by food, and to help process proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. There are nine water soluble vitamins, which mean they need water to dissolve and are easily excreted and not stored in our body, and four fat soluble vitamins, which are those that are absorbed in the intestines with the help of lipids (fat) and are more readily stored.
Generally, vitamins are obtained through diet or supplementation, but a few are obtained by other means. For example, microorganisms in the intestine — commonly known as “gut flora” — produce vitamin K and biotin, as well as one form of vitamin D is synthesized in the skin with the help of natural sunlight. Vitamins are vulnerable to heat, light, and chemical agents, which mean food prep and storage are important to preserve the vitamins in food.
Minerals– Minerals are vital inorganic compounds that are much more stable than vitamins, so they won’t be lost in food prep, but can be vulnerable to specific substances in the food that would change their properties. They are required to support our body’s biochemical processes by serving structural and functional roles. Important minerals needed by our bodies are in two categories, as well. Some are “macro minerals” because of the large amount needed – calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, and sulfur, while the other minerals categorized as “trace minerals” are needed in smaller amounts – iron, iodine, zinc, chromium, selenium, cobalt, molybdenum, copper, manganese.
Dietary Intake and Supplementation
A well-balanced diet should provide everything we need; however, not everyone eats nutrient-rich food 100% of the time. Even if we did, it depends on other factors, as well – how much we eat, where we get our food from, how fresh our food is, how we prepare our food, and how we store our food.
It’s not completely clear who needs to supplement or how much, but you can get blood work done from your doctor and they can let you know based on your body’s levels. A quality multi-vitamin can be taken, if you don’t think you’re getting enough nutrients from your diet, as well as a particular vitamin, if your physician has told you that you are deficient. One vitamin that is most widely lacking is vitamin D, as sunlight is the natural source of one form of this vitamin on a daily basis, so supplementation is generally needed.
Charge UP Health | Fitness
Rena Roark, CHC, CPFT, is a Certified Health Coach and Certified Personal Fitness Trainer and owner of Charge Up Health and Fitness, LLC. She works with individuals and group clients as a health and fitness coach to offer support and guidance for their health goals through a holistic look at their lives, helping to find balance between exercise, diet, career, and relationships. Providing accountability and motivation, she can help reduce stress, increase energy and self-confidence, and ultimately help individuals work towards the best version of them.
Please be aware that this article is not a diagnosis, prescription or recommendation for any individual. Before starting food, and/or exercise programs, or using any vitamin or supplement, you should always talk it over with your doctor. He or she may have specific recommendations or warnings depending on your health and the other medicines you take.