Have you ever wondered why nutritionists, dieticians and doctors all insist that you maintain a healthy diet? Well, the answer lies in understanding the essential nutrients that the body needs to function properly. Join us as we explore the building blocks of a healthy diet and discover why essential nutrients are so important for a balanced diet.
1. Nutrients: What They Are and Why They Matter
Nutrients are the building blocks of a varied and balanced diet. They provide the energy, vitamins, minerals, and other essential components needed for the body to work properly and stay healthy. Taking in the right level of macro- and micro-nutrients each day is an important factor in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and warding off disease.
Macronutrients provide the body with energy and are divided into three distinct categories—protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Protein, found in foods like meat, fish, nuts, eggs, dairy, and plant-based sources, is necessary for the building and repair of muscles, organs, and tissues. Carbohydrates are essential to provide energy and are found in bread, cereal, starchy vegetables, legumes, and other grains. Fats, while oftentimes considered a “bad” health risk, have several health benefits when taken in moderation. Fats can be found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish.
In addition to the three macronutrients, micronutrients are also necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The body needs certain vitamins and minerals to operate properly and provide the following health benefits:
- Improving immune functions
- Strengthening bones and teeth
- Maintaining brain functioning
- Supporting body operations like metabolism
- Cushioning organs and other tissues
Micronutrients are found in abundance in a wide variety of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
2. An Overview of the Essential Nutrients
What are the Most Essential Nutrients?
Our bodies are complex machines that require nourishment to keep going. This nourishment consists of essential nutrients that enable our bodies to perform certain biological processes. Without these nutrients, our bodies can’t grow, stay healthy, and survive.
The three macronutrients are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. In addition to these, there are several micronutrients, which are essential vitamins and minerals.
- Proteins – Proteins are essential for building tissue and helping metabolic processes. They can be found in poultry, fish, dairy products, beans, nuts, and seeds.
- Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates are our main source of energy and are needed for cell growth and repair. They are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
- Fats – Fats are essential for providing energy and other vital functions. They can be found in oily fish, avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.
- Vitamins – Vitamins are essential for healthy skin, bones, and blood. They can be found in fruit and vegetables, and certain fortified cereals.
- Minerals – Minerals are necessary for maintaining healthy teeth, bones, and muscles. They occur naturally in dairy products, soy foods, dark leafy greens, legumes, and nuts.
The quality of the food you eat has a significant impact on your health. Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and proteins can help you get the most essential nutrients your body needs.
It’s recommended to consult with a qualified nutritionist to get a better understanding of the best foods for your individual needs and goals. Additionally, you may need to supplement your diet with various vitamins or minerals to meet your nutritional goals.
3. Optimizing Your Diet with Key Vitamins and Minerals
When it comes to keeping your body in tip-top shape, one of the first places to start is with your diet. Eating a balanced diet with the right vitamins and minerals is essential for boosting your health. Let’s take a look at some of the key vitamins and minerals you’ll need to include in your diet to keep your body running at its best.
First and foremost is calcium. This essential mineral is incredibly important for building strong bones and maintaining healthy teeth. It’s also necessary for nerve and muscle function, blood clotting, and even maintaining a regular heartbeat. To get your daily dose of calcium, consider adding more low-fat dairy products to your diet, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Alternately, you can find plenty of calcium in green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, as well as iron-fortified bread and cereal.
Folate is a vitamin that your body needs to help create DNA and other genetic material. It’s especially important for women planning to become pregnant, as it helps prevent neural tube defects in developing babies. You can get some folate in many common foods such as:
- Bean and lentil varieties
- Citrus fruits
- Whole grains
- Leafy greens such as spinach and broccoli
If you’re looking for a boost of folate, you can also consider taking a folate supplement.
4. Making Sense of Macronutrients
Macronutrients are essential for a balanced diet and can act as the building blocks for good overall health. Most Americans get the majority of their macronutrients – proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids – from the food and drinks they consume. Knowing the basics about these key nutrients and how they work in the body can help you optimize your diet and stay fit.
Proteins are found in many of the foods we consume, making them a key energy source in the diet. They are made up of amino acids which form structures in the body for tissue repair, enzyme synthesis, muscle development, and the production of hormones. Animal products are a good source of proteins, with eggs, meats, and dairy being the best options.
Carbohydrates provide the body with energy and should take up the majority of space in a healthy diet, supplying 40-60% of your daily calorie intake. There are two types of carbohydrates: complex (starches originating from plants, like grains and potatoes), and simple (your body processes simple carbs quickly for fast energy, like fructose, lactose, and glucose).
Lipids (or fats) may have a bad reputation; however, they play an important role in the body including:
- Providing energy
- Insulating body organs
- Giving flavor to food
- Absorption of certain vitamins
Fats should make up no more than 30% of the total calorie intake in a healthy diet, and choosing low-fat or unsaturated fat sources is key. Sources of healthy fats include nuts and avocado.
5. Tips for Healthy Eating Habits
Explore Healthy Cuisines
Healthy eating starts with exploring healthy cuisines. Look for light recipes featuring colorful fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. Consider adding a few new flavors and ingredients to your repertoire to keep meals exciting and satisfying.
Shop Smart at the Grocery Store
Head to the grocer with a plan. Make a list of the foods you need for the week and stick to it. Choose whole, unprocessed items whenever possible, and be sure to add plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid the temptation of processed snacks and junk food. If you know you tend to give in, bring a healthy snack with you when you shop.
Prepare Meals at Home
Preparing meals at home doesn’t have to feel daunting. Put some music on and take your time. Home cooked meals tend to be healthier, and they often save you money too. When you have leftovers, pack them up for a delicious lunch or dinner the next day.
Avoid Sugary Drinks
Resist the urge to choose sugary and processed drinks. Instead, opt for nutritious beverages like green tea, soda water with a splash of fruit juice, smoothies and shakes made with fresh fruit, and plenty of water.
You don’t have to completely overhaul your diet to eat healthy. Start by making some simple swaps. Reach for olive oil instead of butter, choose wholewheat bread and pasta over white, and snack on fresh fruits and vegetables instead of processed treats. These small steps can eventually add up to big changes.
You don’t have to be a nutritionist to understand the basic building blocks of a healthy lifestyle. With an understanding of the essential nutrients and how to obtain them, you can easily make smart and informed decisions that will lead to a balanced nutrition. So now that you know all about the essential nutrients—a word to the wise—remember to eat smart and live happy!