The significance of the 6 Vital Nutrients:
What is it in our food that keeps our body ticking? Why do nutritionists suggest a “balanced” diet to stay healthier? Why do certain foods make you feel better and some make you suffer?
The basic building blocks for our cellular structure comprise of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, water, vitamins and minerals. They support functions that supply energy (in the form of calories), enable growth, fire our metabolism, and keep us healthy and alive. Out of these our body requires carbs, proteins and fats in larger quantities to fulfill its vital processes and functions hence these are labeled as macro nutrients. Vitamins and minerals, though critical, are needed in smaller amounts, and hence called micro nutrients.
Each nutrient has a specific essential role in the complex body machine so a prolonged deficiency of any nutrient from your diet leads to imbalances that stoke up diseases and other ailments.
The Need for PROTEIN?
Protein, made up of amino acids, is the “growth and repair” nutrient that not only builds new cells and organ tissues but fixes damaged ones throughout your body and helps muscle tissue develop and function. Proteins aid in preserving muscle mass and in the production of hormones and enzymes, support the immune system by building antibodies, and act as an energy source during depleted carb levels. As per the RDA figures 10% – 35% of calories needed daily by our body should come from protein.
“Essential” amino acids need to be derived from diet whereas “non essential” amino acids can be produced by the body internally. Protein from animal sources contains all of the essential amino acids whereas plant based protein lacks most of them.
Sources: Protein is found in nuts, seeds, beans, meats, poultry, fish, meat substitutes, cheese, milk, eggs, soybeans, legumes, and in smaller quantities in starchy foods and vegetables.
The Need for CARBOHYDRATES?
Carbohydrates are organic compounds that are either simple (sugars like fructose (fruits), lactose(milk), and sucrose(table sugar)) or complex (plant starches found in vegetables, fruits, etc.). The RDA of 45-65% of calories needed daily, should come from carbs, especially the complex carbs that contain valuable nutrients and fiber.
Carbohydrates, upon digestion, provide the body’s primary energy source – glucose. Glucose is assimilated in the bloodstream quickly and forms the fuel for the brain, nervous system, red blood cells, kidneys and muscles. Carbs are stashed away in the liver and muscles as secondary energy sources, available on demand.
Did you know that fiber is also a type of indigestible carbohydrate that promotes healthy bowel movements by allowing waste to move more quickly through your gut and can also absorbs cholesterol?
Sources: Carbohydrates are mainly found in starchy foods (like grain and potatoes), fruits, milk, and yogurt. Other foods like vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and cottage cheese contain carbohydrates, but in lesser amounts.
The Need for FAT:
Fat (lipids) provides insulation for the body, padding around internal organs and are a concentrated source of energy. Fats broken into essential fatty acids are crucial for absorption and transport of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and to maintain cell membranes. Fats are important in our diet, particularly triglycerides and cholesterol. Triglycerides are the main form in which fats stored in the body.
As per RDA, 20-35% of calories should come from fat.
Sources: Types of fats are monounsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Unsaturated (good) fats, can be found in canola, corn, cottonseed, olive, peanut, safflower, sesame, soybean and sunflower oils, avocados and nuts whereas saturated (bad) fats, can be found in meat, butter and lard. Trans fats, the worse of the lot, are found in baked goods, fried foods and junk food.
The Need for VITAMINS and MINERALS:
Vitamins are complex organic compounds found in small amounts in most foods. As they do not contain calories they do not provide energy but are important for metabolism and for our organs to work properly. There are two types of Vitamins: water soluble and fat soluble.
B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, vitamin B-6, biotin, pantothenic acid, vitamin C, and vitamin B-12 are water soluble and are easily disposed off through the urine avoiding any toxic build up. This means that the body doesn’t store it and we need to replenish these every day through diet. They form energy, build protein and collagen, help release energy from food, prevent neural tube birth defects, are needed for DNA and RNA synthesis and play a role in development of the nervous system.
Vitamins A, D, E, K, are fat soluble, get stored in fat cells and have to be transported through your body through a protein escort. Fat-soluble vitamin A is necessary for vision, vitamin D helps build strong bones, vitamin E functions as an antioxidant and vitamin K aids clotting of blood. Too much of these vitamins in our system can lead to toxic build-up.
Vitamin A: milk, butter, cheese, eggs, chicken, kidney, liver, liver pate, fish oils, mackerel, trout, herring.
B vitamins, especially B12 and B6: meat, poultry, yeast extracts, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, bananas, potatoes, dried apricots, dates, figs, milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, nuts, pulses, fish, brown rice, wheat germ, wholegrain cereals, avocado, herring, salmon, sunflower seeds and walnuts.
Folic acid: Animal liver , beef, lamb, pork, green vegetables, citrus fruits, dried beans, fresh orange juice, tomatoes, wheat germ (wholemeal bread and cereal) and wholegrain products (pasta and brown rice).
Vitamin C: Fresh fruit and vegetables.
Vitamin D: Oily fish, liver, and cod liver oil.
Vitamin E: Avocados, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, watercress, brussels sprouts, blackberries, mangoes, corn oil, olive oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, mackerel, salmon, nuts, wholemeal and wholegrain products, soft margarine.
Vitamin K: meat, most vegetables and wholegrain cereals.
Similar to vitamins, minerals are not a source of energy due to its lack of calorie content. Minerals are vital for normal functioning of the body such as building and maintaining healthy bones and teeth, formation of blood cells, oxygen transportation, healing wounds, clotting of blood, transmission of nerve signals, contraction of muscles and regulation of water balance. Minerals often work together and too much of one mineral may upset the balance of other minerals. There are two groups of minerals: major minerals and trace minerals.
Major minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sulfur, sodium, chloride and potassium) or electrolytes, balance bodily fluids. RDA recommended is >100 milligrams per day.
Trace minerals (iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, selenium, molybdenum, chromium and cobalt) perform various tasks such as carrying oxygen throughout your body, blood clotting, strengthening the immune system and the bones. RDA recommended is <15 milligrams per day.
Sources: Major minerals are found in a variety of foods including milk, meat, poultry, fish, and green, leafy vegetables. Trace minerals are found in shellfish, seafood, whole grains and legumes.
The Need for WATER:
Our body loses water through perspiration, waste disposal and metabolic functions. Since the body doesn’t store water we need to refresh our water stores daily. Water forms about 60% of the body weight and does not provide energy due to lack of calories in it. Water helps to maintain blood volume, blood pressure, body temperature, moisturize tissues of the eyes, nose and mouth, in smooth urination, bowel movements and sweating, to protect your spinal cord, to provide a barrier and lubrication for your joints and as a transporter of nutrients to the different cells.
Sources: Water, soda, milk, coffee, juice, and tea provide inorganic sources of water. Solid foods, such as lettuce, celery, melons, and most fruits contain organic sources of water.
A note on CALORIES:
Calories are present in all foods and these are the primary source of our energy. But calories that lack vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, and fiber give you energy bit without nutrients. Called “empty calories” these are the calories that you should strictly avoid to stay healthy. Table sugar and alcohol are examples of empty calories.
If you take in more energy (calories) than you spend (burn off through exercise) you gain weight. If you take in less energy than you spend, you lose weight.
A gram of protein or carb has 4 calories while a gram of fat has 9 calories. So a diet rich in carbs and proteins provide better nutrition with less calories as compared to fat. The goal should be greater nutrition from the food you intake while managing to keep your calories lower, especially when you lead a non-active sedentary life.