Essential Nutrients – Nutrition Essentials (2024)


  • The six essential nutrients
  • Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients
  • Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The foods we eat contain nutrients. Nutrients are substances required by the body to perform its basic functions. Nutrients must be obtained from our diet since the human body can not make them. Nutrients have one or more of three basic functions: they provide energy, contribute to body structure, and/or regulate chemical processes in the body. These basic functions allow us to detect and respond to environmental surroundings, move, excrete wastes, breathe, grow, and reproduce. There are six classes of nutrients required for the body to function and maintain overall health. These are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, water, vitamins, and minerals. Foods also contain non-nutrient that may be harmful such as natural toxins common in plant foods and additives like some dyes and preservatives or beneficial like antioxidants.

ProteinNecessary for tissue formation, cell reparation, and hormone and enzyme production. It is essential for building strong muscles and a healthy immune system.
CarbohydratesProvide a ready source of energy for the body and provide structural constituents for the formation of cells.
FatProvides stored energy for the body, functions as structural components of cells, and signaling molecules for proper cellular communication. It provides insulation to vital organs and works to maintain body temperature.
VitaminsRegulate body processes and promote normal body-system functions.
MineralsRegulate body processes, are necessary for proper cellular function, and comprise body tissue.
WaterTransports essential nutrients to all body parts, transports waste products for disposal, and aids with body temperature maintenance.

Nutrients that are needed in large amounts are called macronutrients. There are three classes of macronutrients: carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. These can be metabolically processed into cellular energy. The energy from macronutrients comes from their chemical bonds. This chemical energy is converted into cellular energy used to perform work, allowing our bodies to conduct their basic functions. A unit of measurement of food energy is the calorie. On nutrition food labels, the amount given for “calories” is actually equivalent to each calorie multiplied by one thousand. Akilocalorie (Calorie) is the amount of heat generated by a particular macronutrient that raises the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius. On the Nutrition Facts panel, the calories within a particular food are expressed as kilocalories, which is commonly denoted as “Calories” with a capital “C” (1 kcal = 1 Calorie = 1,000 calories). Water is also a macronutrient in the sense that you require a large amount of it, but unlike the other macronutrients, it does not provide calories.

Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The major food sources of carbohydrates are grains, milk, fruits, and starchy vegetables, like potatoes. Non-starchy vegetables also contain carbohydrates but in lesser quantities. Carbohydrates are broadly classified into two forms based on their chemical structure: simple carbohydrates, simple sugars, and complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbohydrates consist of one or two basic units. Examples of simple sugars include sucrose, the type of sugar you would have in a bowl on the breakfast table, and glucose, the type of sugar that circulates in your blood.

Complex carbohydrates are long chains of simple sugars that can be unbranched or branched. During digestion, the body breaks down digestible complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, mostly glucose. Glucose is then transported to all our cells, stored, used to make energy, or used to build macromolecules. Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate, but digestive enzymes cannot break it down in the human intestine. As a result, it passes through the digestive tract undigested unless the bacteria that inhabit the colon or large intestine break it down.

One gram of digestible carbohydrates yields four kilocalories of energy for the body’s cells to perform work. Besides providing energy and serving as building blocks for bigger macromolecules, carbohydrates are essential for the nervous system’s proper functioning, heart, and kidneys. As mentioned, glucose can be stored in the body for future use. In humans, the storage molecule of carbohydrates is called glycogen, and in plants, it is known as starch. Glycogen and starch are complex carbohydrates.

Proteins are macromolecules composed of chains of subunits called amino acids. Amino acids are simple subunits composed of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. Food sources of proteins include meats, dairy products, seafood, and various plant-based foods, most notably soy. The word protein comes from a Greek word meaning “of primary importance,” which is an apt description of these macronutrients; they are also known colloquially as the “workhorses” of life. Proteins provide four kilocalories of energy per gram; however, providing energy is not protein’s most important function. Proteins provide structure to bones, muscles, and skin and play a role in conducting most of the chemical reactions that take place in the body. Scientists estimate that greater than one-hundred thousand different proteins exist within the human body. The genetic codes in DNA are basically protein recipes that determine the order in which 20 different amino acids are bound together to make thousands of specific proteins.

Lipids are also a family of molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, but they are insoluble in water, unlike carbohydrates. Lipids are found predominantly in butter, oils, meats, dairy products, nuts, seeds, and processed foods. The three main types of lipids are triglycerides (triacylglycerols), phospholipids, and sterols. The main job of lipids is to provide or store energy. Lipids provide more energy per gram than carbohydrates (nine kilocalories per gram of lipids versus four kilocalories per gram of carbohydrates). In addition to energy storage, lipids serve as a major component of cell membranes, surround and protect organs (in fat-storing tissues), provide insulation to aid in temperature regulation, and regulate many other body functions.

There is one other nutrient that we must have in large quantities: water. Water does not contain carbon but is composed of two hydrogens and one oxygen per molecule of water. More than 60 percent of your total body weight is water. Without it, nothing could be transported in or out of the body, chemical reactions would not occur, organs would not be cushioned, and body temperature would fluctuate widely. On average, an adult consumes just over two liters of water per day from food and drink combined. Since water is so critical for life’s basic processes, the amount of water input and output is significant, a topic we will explore in detail

Micronutrients are nutrients required by the body in lesser amounts but are still essential for carrying out bodily functions. Micronutrients include all the essential minerals and vitamins. There are sixteen essential minerals and thirteen vitamins. In contrast to carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, micronutrients are not sources of energy (calories), but they assist in the process as cofactors or components of enzymes (i.e., coenzymes). Enzymes are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions in the body and are involved in all aspects of body functions, from producing energy to digesting nutrients to building macromolecules. Micronutrients play many essential roles in the body.

Minerals are solid inorganic substances that form crystals and are classified depending on how much of them we need. Trace minerals, such as molybdenum, selenium, zinc, iron, and iodine, are only required in a few milligrams or less. Macrominerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and phosphorus, are required in hundreds of milligrams. Many minerals are critical for enzyme function. Others are used to maintain fluid balance, build bone tissue, synthesize hormones, transmit nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and protect against harmful free radicals in the body that can cause health problems such as cancer.

MineralsMajor Functions
SodiumFluid balance, nerve transmission, muscle contraction
ChlorideFluid balance, stomach acid production
PotassiumFluid balance, nerve transmission, muscle contraction
CalciumBone and teeth health maintenance, nerve transmission, muscle contraction, blood clotting
PhosphorusBone and teeth health maintenance, acid-base balance
MagnesiumProtein production, nerve transmission, muscle contraction
SulfurProtein production
IronCarries oxygen, assists in energy production
ZincProtein and DNA production, wound healing, growth, immune system function
IodineThyroid hormone production, growth, metabolism
CopperCoenzyme, iron metabolism
FluorideBone and teeth health maintenance, tooth decay prevention
ChromiumAssists insulin in glucose metabolism

The thirteen vitamins are categorized as either water-soluble or fat-soluble. The water-soluble vitamins are vitamin C and all the B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, biotin, folate, and cobalamin. The fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, and K. Vitamins are required to perform many functions in the body, such as making red blood cells, synthesizing bone tissue, and playing a normal vision, nervous system function, and immune system function.

VitaminsMajor Functions
Thiamin (B1)Coenzyme, energy metabolism assistance
Riboflavin (B2 )Coenzyme, energy metabolism assistance
Niacin (B3)Coenzyme, energy metabolism assistance
Pantothenic acid (B5)Coenzyme, energy metabolism assistance
Pyridoxine (B6)Coenzyme, amino acid synthesis assistance
Biotin (B7)Coenzyme, amino acid, and fatty acid metabolism
Folate (B9)Coenzyme, essential for growth
Cobalamin (B12)Coenzyme, red blood cell synthesis
C (ascorbic acid)Collagen synthesis, antioxidant
AVision, reproduction, immune system function
DBone and teeth health maintenance, immune system function
EAntioxidant, cell membrane protection
KBone and teeth health maintenance, blood clotting

How do you know if you are eating the correct amounts of the macro and micronutrients for good health? Every 5 years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) publish The Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The goal is to promote healthier eating habits to prevent chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. The guidelines are developed from an analysis of the latest science-based research and recommendations. Review the infographic below on the process to develop the new dietary guidelines for Americans.

Essential Nutrients – Nutrition Essentials (1)

Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Learning Objectives

  • Define and discuss the six essential nutrients. (MCCCD Competency 5)
  • Identify where to obtain information about the micronutrient and macronutrient content of food?(MCCCD Competency 2)
  • Discover the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and identify your unique nutrient needs. (MCCCD Competency 4)
  • Summarize the process required to develop the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (MCCCD Competency 4)
Essential Nutrients – Nutrition Essentials (2024)
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