What are the 6 essential nutrients and why do you need them? An in-depth guide to healthy eating.
If you’re looking for the easiest, quickest overview of everything you need to know about the 6 essential nutrients, you’ve come to the right place!
‘Essential’ nutrients are appropriately named as the body cannot synthesize them on its own in sufficient quantity, so these nutrients must come from food.
These nutrients are essential because your body needs them to function – to grow, to prevent disease, and to keep your systems running smoothly.
What are the 6 essential nutrients?
- Carbohydrates (carbs)
- Lipid (fat)
These six nutrients are further categorized according to their size and energy:
- Carbs, protein, and fat are macronutrients because they need to make up the bulk of your diet.
- Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients because they are required in much smaller amounts.
Another way to understand them is that the ‘energy’ nutrients are carbs, protein, and fat; the ‘non-energy’ nutrients are water, vitamins, and minerals.
What do these 6 essential nutrients do?
Let’s dive into each of them, what they do, how much you need, and where to find them.
1. Carbohydrates, or carbs
Carbohydrates main function is to provide energy for our bodies. They can be quickly converted into glucose which powers our body and gives us energy.
There are two types of carbohydrates to keep in mind when considering this food group, they are; Complex carbohydrates and refined, or simple carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates provide you with nourishing vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Always make the conscious choice to consume complex carbohydrates rather than refined carbohydrates, or “empty calories” as the latter lack the vital nutrients found in complex carbohydrates.
Complex carbs are found in foods like beans, fibre-dense fruits and vegetables, and nuts.
Refined carbs are found in processed, sugar-laden, packaged treats, grains, and grain-based foods such as bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, biscuits, chips, and fruit juices.
The Science behind nutrients
To break down the science for you, complex carbohydrates contain long chains of glucose molecules bonded together. For your body to release energy, it must break these bonds and this takes time and work!
So, complex carbs are therefore digested more slowly and allow for a more sustained energy release.
Glycogen is a complex carbohydrate that the body rapidly converts to energy, and stores in the liver and the muscles.
How much carbs do I need: Carbohydrates should cover about 20% of your total daily calories.
Protein helps to build muscle, synthesize antibodies, hormones, tissues, and enzymes. Protein-rich foods include meat, certain kinds of seafood, beans and peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds.
Proteins consist of units called amino acids, strung together in complex formations. Because amino acids are complex molecules, the body takes longer to break them down. Therefore, they are a much slower and longer-lasting source of energy than carbohydrates.
While the body can create some amino acids on its own, there are many essential amino acids that can only come from food. Therefore, you need a variety of amino acids for your body to function properly.
Animal protein sources, such as meat, eggs, fish and dairy, are similar to the protein found in your body, therefore typically contain all the essential amino acids. This makes them higher quality sources of protein.
Plant proteins, like legumes or soy products, are lower quality proteins because they may lack some amino acids. However, if you eat a diverse plant-protein diet, you will cover your intake of all the essential amino acids.
How much protein do I need: Protein should make up about 30% of your total daily calories.
3. Fats (Lipids)
Fats are complex molecules made up of fatty acids and glycerol. The body needs fats for growth and energy. But it also uses them to synthesize hormones and as precursors for essential substances.
Fats are the slowest source of energy but the most energy-efficient form of food, which is why the body stores excess energy as fat.
Did you know, each gram of fat supplies the body with about 9 calories, more than double of that supplied by proteins or carbohydrates?
There are different kinds of fat: Monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats.
Foods derived from animals commonly contain saturated fats, which tend to be solid at room temperature. Fats derived from plants commonly contain monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids, which tend to be liquid at room temperature. Palm and coconut oil are exceptions as they contain more saturated fats than other plant oils.
Trans fats are not included in the list because they are artificially created by adding hydrogen to monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids.
How much fat do I need: On a low carb diet, fats are typically 50% of daily total calories. But if following a keto diet, fats can make up to 75% of your daily calories.
Vitamins are micronutrients, meaning that your body only needs tiny amounts. Most vitamins assist the enzymes and hormones that drive your metabolism.
Vitamin C and the eight vitamins of the B-complex are all water-soluble. But in contrast, vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning that your body needs fat to absorb them. For optimal health, you need to regularly get vitamins from whole foods in your diet.
Minerals are compounds that assist with life-sustaining processes in your body. Therefore, all minerals are essential to healthy living but we don’t need the same amount of every mineral.
Your body needs macro-minerals in large amounts. Trace minerals are only required in small amounts. Bone, muscle, heart, and brain function depends on these minerals.
Macro-minerals include sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium.
Bone, muscle, heart, and brain function depends on these minerals.
Trace minerals are iodine, manganese, iron, selenium, and zinc.
Water is an essential nutrient because the body needs more water than it can produce.
All biochemical reactions occur in water. And it forms tissue fluid and plasma, which fills the spaces in and between cells, acts as a carrier for nutrients and waste products, as a lubricant and shock absorber, and helps form structures of large molecules such as protein and glycogen.
Under normal temperate conditions, a volume of about 1.5 liters a day is normal for adults. But your intake should be adapted according to age, gender, climate, and physical activity.
Eating a diverse diet full of vegetables, fruits, healthy proteins, and fats, ensuring that your body gets the vitamins and minerals it needs, is the best way to stay healthy and get the required amount of each of the 6 essential nutrients.