Your body requires essential nutrients to function optimally. Nutrients are considered "essential" if your body cannot make them on its own; hence, you need to obtain these nutrients from external sources, such as food. A deficiency of any of these essential nutrients can negatively affect your body's ability to function. Eating a wide variety of food will help to ensure that you get adequate amounts of these nutrients.
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Your body needs energy to perform its daily functions. Carbohydrates are one of the main types of essential nutrients that fulfill your body’s energy requirements. The most common forms of carbohydrates – sugar, starch and fiber – play vital roles in promoting your health and fitness. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that you get 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates. Foods rich in carbohydrates include vegetables, beans, fruits and whole grains. Besides being abundant sources of carbohydrates, they are packed with vitamins and minerals your body needs to keep running at an optimal level.
You may ponder whether your body needs fats or not since some types of fats are commonly associated with weight gain, heart disease and stroke. In fact, fats supply your body with energy it needs to support cell growth. Additionally, they provide protection and warmth to your organs. Your body also needs hormones to perform vital duties, and fats help your body produce them. Likewise, fats help your body absorb important nutrients necessary for your survival and growth. It’s also important to note that you need only a small amount of fat to facilitate all of these functions. For maximum health, choose foods that contain healthy fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – as they can help lower bad cholesterol levels. You can find healthy fats in foods such as nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and fish. The American Heart Association recommends that you get less than 25 to 35 percent of your total calories from fats.
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Protein is a nutrient that is essential for building and maintaining your body's tissues. This nutrient also helps your body make hemoglobin, which serves as the oxygen-carrier in your blood. When you eat protein-rich foods, your digestive system breaks down proteins into basic units called amino acids. Your body uses these amino acids to build and repair your muscles, bones and organs. You should get 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories from protein, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Good sources of dietary protein include low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, black beans, kidney beans, lean cuts of beef or pork, skinless chicken or turkey, lentils and pinto beans.
The fact that 60 percent of your body weight comprises water clearly shows the importance of water in your body. Every part of your body needs water to function properly. A lack of water in your body leads to dehydration, which can make you feel lethargic. MayoClinic.com recommends that you drink 9 cups of water to meet your daily requirements. Other factors that can influence your water needs include health conditions or illnesses, exercise, pregnancy or breastfeeding and living in a hot climate.
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Like other essential nutrients, vitamins are key for the optimum functioning of your body. Vitamins, which are either fat-soluble or water-soluble, are organic substances made by animals and plants. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble vitamins, whereas vitamin C and the B-complex vitamins are water-soluble. Your body can store fat-soluble vitamins because they cannot be easily excreted from the body. Water-soluble vitamins, however, dissolve in water and are expelled through urine. Each vitamin has its own way of assisting your body. For example, B vitamins help your body make protein and energy, both of which are essential for your healthy growth and development. Vitamin A plays an important role in night vision, and vitamin K is important to your body’s blood-clotting mechanism. Foods rich in these essential vitamins include vegetables, fruits and dairy products.
Unlike vitamins, minerals are inorganic substances found in the soil and water. Two kinds of minerals exist: macrominerals and trace minerals. Your body needs macrominerals – calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium and potassium – in relatively large amounts. Trace minerals also deserve a place in your diet, but only in very minute amounts. Some examples of trace minerals include chromium, iron, selenium, zinc and iodine. These essential minerals help your body make healthy bones, maintain a normal heart beat and transmit nerve impulses. You can meet your mineral requirements by eating foods such as leafy green vegetables, meat, dairy products, nuts, legumes and fruits.
- Harvard School of Public Health: Carbohydrates: Good Carbs Guide the Way
- Mayo Clinic: Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit Into a Healthy Diet
- American Heart Association: Fats 101
- American Heart Association: Know Your Fats
- KidsHealth: Learning About Proteins
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Protein
- Mayo Clinic: Water: How Much Should You Drink Every Day?
- KidsHealth: Vitamins
- KidsHealth: Minerals
Mala Srivastava covers health and business for several online publications. She holds a Master of Science in microbiology from India's HNB Garhwal University and a Master of Pharmaceutical Business Management from ICFAI University.