Focus on a simple healthy diet
By Rachael Link, MS, RD
With so much information circulating out there about nutrition, it can be challenging to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need each day. In fact, with some sources listing as many as 90 essential nutrients, following a balanced diet can quickly become overwhelming.
However, getting all the nutrients you need doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, by simply being mindful about a few specific nutrients, eating a healthy diet full of nutrient-dense foods can be pretty simple.
Breaking it down into essential versus nonessential nutrients can help simplify and streamline your diet, making it easier than ever to achieve better health. But what are those nutrients, and what do nutrients do, anyway? Let’s take a look at the 11 essential nutrients your body needs, why and how to obtain them.
What are nutrients?
According to the dictionary, the official definition of nutrients is “a substance that provides nourishment essential for the maintenance of life and for growth.” This encompasses the broad spectrum of micronutrients, fatty acids, amino acids and other substances your body needs to function, survive and thrive.
Most of these are obtained through the things you eat, drink or supplement in your diet. However, this definition of nutrients doesn’t differentiate between essential and nonessential nutrients.
While there are thousands of specific nutrients, each with its own unique benefits and functions, there are a few specific nutrients you should be especially mindful about incorporating into your day.
The 11 essential nutrients your body needs
Despite being demonized as “unhealthy” or “fattening,” carbohydrates are critical to the function of your body. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the primary source of fuel for your body and brain.
Not only do they provide energy for the body, but they also help stabilize blood sugar levels and preserve muscle mass by preventing the breakdown of proteins for energy.
Plus, some of the world’s healthiest foods fall into the category of carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables, for instance, are incredibly nutrient-dense and loaded with important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Even on a low-carb or ketogenic diet, you’re still taking in a few grams of carbohydrates here and there, making carbohydrates an important part of any diet.
Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down, which can help you feel fuller for longer and keep blood sugar levels regular. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are a few examples of healthy complex carbohydrates that can fuel your body and supply you with a megadose of nutrients.
It’s no secret that protein is critical to good health. From forming muscle to creating new enzymes and hormones, getting enough protein in your diet is key.
Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are composed of even smaller units called peptides. There are 20 types of amino acids, all of which are important. However, nine of these are considered essential amino acids because they can’t be produced by your body.
While animal proteins provide adequate amounts of all essential amino acids, plant-based proteins are typically lacking in one or more. The best way to ensure adequate protein intake is to include a variety of protein foods in your diet, such as meat, eggs, dairy, nuts and beans.
Much like carbohydrates, dietary fat has earned an undeserved bad reputation because of its association with body fat. Fat is an essential nutrient that provides energy, boosts the absorption of certain vitamins and helps protect your organs from damage.
Some types of fat are better than others, however. Trans fats, for example, are a type of fat found in processed foods, baked goods and shortening. This type of fat has been shown to significantly increase the risk of heart disease and should be avoided at all costs.
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can actually help protect the heart and aid in the prevention of heart disease. Healthy sources of fat include nuts, avocados, salmon, olive oil, flaxseed and nut butters. Including a few servings of these foods per day can help provide the fats your body needs and protect against disease.
The human body can survive for long periods of time without food. In fact, there have been case studies reporting on some extreme cases of people who have successfully gone without eating for 382 days under medical supervision with no negative side effects. Of course, such extreme fasting isn’t recommended, but only offered as a contrast, to highlight the importance of water.
While you may be able to go without food for quite a while, even just a few days without water can be detrimental. Water accounts for a large portion of the body, making up somewhere between 55 percent to 75 percent of your body mass. It plays an essential role in waste removal, digestion, and temperature regulation and makes up a core component of every cell in your body.
Dehydration can lead to symptoms such as dry skin, dizziness, fatigue, a rapid heartbeat and even death if left untreated. In addition to the things you drink, you also take in water through the foods you eat too. Fruits and vegetables, in particular, tend to have a higher water content and can help keep you hydrated.
You’ve likely heard all about the importance of vitamins such as folate, vitamin C and vitamin A, among others, so it should come as no surprise that vitamins make the list of essential nutrients. There are many different types of vitamins, each with its own specific function and role in the body, but all equally vital for maintaining optimal health. Vitamin A, for instance, is critical for the health of your eyes and skin, while vitamin K builds strong bones and is involved in blood clotting.
There may be minute differences in the necessary amounts of specific vitamins for men versus women, but in general, the essential vitamins your body needs are:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- B vitamins
The best way to get in all of these vitamins is to eat a healthy and balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. A multivitamin may also be useful to help fill in the gaps if you have a restrictive diet.
Similar to vitamins, minerals are also important for helping your body function properly and stay healthy, and each comes with its own specific role. Iron, for example, is key to blood production, phosphorus strengthens the bones and teeth, and magnesium is a crucial component of more than 300 reactions in the body.
The minerals your body needs include:
- Trace minerals
These can all be obtained through food, so eating a nutritious diet can prevent deficiencies and ensure you’re getting the minerals that you need.
You probably know calcium as the most important nutrient for bone health, and that’s true. Although there are several nutrients that are key to building strong bones, over 99 percent of the body’s calcium is found in the bones and teeth.
However, that’s not all calcium is good for. Calcium is also involved in muscle contractions, nerve function and the movement of blood throughout the body.
Calcium is found naturally in dairy products, leafy greens, white beans and certain types of fish such as sardines and salmon. Including these foods in your diet is the easiest way to ensure you’re meeting your daily calcium requirements.
Although sodium receives a good deal of negative attention for its association with high blood pressure, it’s actually incredibly important to health. Sodium regulates fluid balance and blood volume, while also keeping your nerves and muscles working correctly. Of course, sodium should be included in moderation as excessive amounts can lead to high blood pressure in some people.
The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams per day, which equates to about one teaspoon of salt. Sodium is found naturally in many foods, including seeds, nuts, vegetables, meats, grains and legumes. Intake of high-sodium foods like frozen and ultra-processed foods, salty snacks and canned meats with added salt should be minimized.
Potassium is an essential electrolyte that helps maintain fluid balance and blood pressure. It also is necessary for muscle contractions, heart health and regulating the pH level of your blood to prevent it from becoming too acidic.
While most people instantly associate potassium with bananas, potassium is actually found in a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables too. Spinach, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, salmon and sweet potatoes are all other excellent sources of potassium.
- Omega-3 fatty acids
From optimizing brain health to preventing heart disease, omega-3 fatty acids are a vital component of many aspects of health. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that are considered an essential fatty acid. This means, unlike other types of fatty acids, your body can’t synthesize omega-3 fatty acids and needs to obtain them from food.
Varieties of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, are the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. These contain the active forms of omega-3 fatty acids that can be easily used by the body. Some plant foods, such as chia seeds, flax and walnuts, also contain omega-3 fatty acids. However, they contain a form of omega-3 fatty acid that is converted only in small amounts to the more active forms.
You should include one to two servings of fish in your diet each week to help meet your omega-3 fatty acid needs. Otherwise, consider taking a fish oil or algae supplement to get some omega-3 fatty acids into your day.
- Vitamin D
Also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” getting enough vitamin D is incredibly important.
Vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of calcium and can promote good bone health, making it an especially important vitamin for women to help prevent osteoporosis. Additionally, some research shows that vitamin D could strengthen the immune system and influence muscle function.
Vitamin D is produced in the skin as a result of sun exposure and can be obtained in small quantities through foods like mushrooms, eggs and fish. Those who have dark skin, are obese or get limited exposure to sunlight are at a greater risk for vitamin D deficiency. For these individuals, supplementation can be beneficial to prevent deficiency.
Benefits of essential nutrients
Meeting your essential nutrient needs can come with major benefits in terms of your health. In fact, these nutrients are called “essential” for a reason. Without these crucial nutrients, your body would not be able to function properly.
Meeting your potassium needs, for example, helps your heart pump blood throughout your body, while calcium and vitamin D keep your skeletal framework strong and sturdy.
Other important benefits that come with getting enough nutrients include improving your immune system, building muscle, keeping your heart healthy, staying hydrated, sustaining life and keeping your body working efficiently.
This article originally appeared on DrAxe.com and is republished here with permission.