The nutrient basics
You know a healthy diet has the right balance of nutrients. But what are nutrients?
We nutritionists love geeking out over the details. But you don’t have to. You just need to know the basics…
What are nutrients?
Nutrients are life.
From microscopic bacteria to the giant sequoia tree. Hedgehogs to humans. Every living thing requires nutrients to survive, grow, and reproduce. And everything that lives is a source of nutrients for other forms of life. “It’s the circle of life” to loosely quote Mufasa in The Lion King.
But you don’t eat nutrients. You eat food. And this is too often forgotten.
Absolutely, the combination and amounts of nutrients you consume determine your health. Now and in the future. But diets, nutritional guidelines and, dare I say, nutritionists often zoom in too close as they chase nutritional goals. A healthy diet is about the big picture.
So how do you get the nutrient balance right?
Your body is resilient and adaptable. There’s no need to seek nutrient perfection at every meal. Or even every day. Instead, eat a wide range of nutritionally high-quality foods most of the time. And your body will look after the rest. The simplest approach is a plant based omnivore diet. And for real control over the quality of your nutrients and diet, scratch cook most of what you eat.
A little nutrient knowledge is essential for healthy food shopping
But however you choose to pursue healthy eating, the first step is healthy food shopping. And a little bit of nutrient knowledge is essential.
Because filling a shopping basket with healthy foods in today’s supermarkets is an obstacle course. It’s easy to stumble. Grocery aisles are filled with a bewildering choice. Shelves full of food wrapped in dazzling packaging plastered in nutrient information. Some trying to help – the government recommended food traffic light system. And some trying to sell – the highlighted brash and audacious health nutrient claims.
Information and option overload is a hazard of healthy food shopping. It’s easy to muddle your carbs with your calcium or your fats with your fibre. And nutrient confusion propagates diet inertia. And the result is poor food choices.
Don’t let food packaging baffle you into a nutritionally subpar shopping basket. Ignore the large print nutrient information on the front of food packaging. Put on your reading glasses and turn to the back to check the ingredients label.
I’ll get into reading food labels in more detail in another article. And in others, I’ll drill down further into the details of individual nutrient.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to the nutrient basics. It’s the foundation of understanding nutrition and making good food choices. And enough to get you started shopping for and cooking healthier meals.
The different nutrient clans
There are over fifty known nutrients. And these are divided into six clans of essential nutrients
- Fats and oils
- Water – the only clan with just one member.
And a couple of noteworthy nutrients that don’t get crucial clan status.
The protein, carbohydrate and fat and oil clans are part of a larger gathering known as macronutrients. Macro – because your body needs them in larger amounts (grams/ounces). The macronutrient clan supplies you with energy and most of the raw materials to build and maintain your body.
Alcohol isn’t a critical nutrient. It doesn’t supply any raw materials. But if you drink, it does provide significant energy. I’d argue that makes it a macronutrient, albeit a not an essential one.
You need all 3 macronutrients in your diet
But macronutrients aren’t foods. Granted, a few ingredients are single macronutrients, e.g. sugar and vegetable oils. But the whole foods you eat are a combination of macronutrients. Still, despite a mixed macronutrient profile, many foods are mistakenly referred to as carbs, protein or fat. Soundbite labels tied to the changing health reputations of the individual macronutrients – not the foods nutrient composition.
Fats were the micronutrient villain of the late 20th century. High carbohydrate eating was the healthy choice. But now the tables have turned. Carbs are now frowned upon and fats are rebuilding their reputation. Food health marketing has made a dramatic shift. With carbohydrates in reputation in decline and fat’s still not recovered from the doldrums, what’s left? Every wannabe health food is now “a source of protein”.
Fats have never been evil. Carbohydrates haven’t grown metaphorical horns. And neither do proteins wave a magic wand. You need good quality sources of protein, fat and carbohydrates in your diet.
Macronutrients and energy
Gram for gram macronutrients don’t contribute identical amounts of energy. Fats and oils provide the most at 9 kcal/gram. Then alcohol at 7 kcal/gram. Lastly, carbohydrates and protein contain the least, both roughly 4kcal/gram.
It’s an oversimplification. But broadly speaking, your body’s preference for macronutrients as energy sources is hierarchical. The first choice, alcohol, next carbohydrates, then protein and last of all fats.
Macronutrient reference intakes
You’ll find reference intakes for fats, proteins and carbohydrates on food labels. They aim to steer you towards healthier food choices. But they’re largely unhelpful.
They’re are based on the percentage contribution of each macronutrient to total energy intake. The starting point is the mean daily energy requirement for an average sedentary woman – 2000kCal. And the macronutrient ratios are carbohydrate-heavy and relatively light on fat and protein. They might help a mythical average woman eating the average British diet – whatever that is.
But they take no account of diet quality. Plus, a high carbohydrate, low fat, low protein diet isn’t necessary for health. And unless you’re an example of the average British woman, your nutrient needs are probably very different.
Instead, food quality matters. Healthy carbohydrate, proteins and fats sources should all be part of your diet. But don’t overdo the fat. Not because it’s unhealthy, but because it’s so energy-dense. A little provides a lot of calories.
Following a plant based omnivore diet to gives you the quality and balance of macronutrients your body needs to thrive.
Just as proteins, fats and carbohydrates are part of the macronutrient tribe. Vitamins and minerals belong to the micronutrient tribe.
Micro – as in small. You only need small, sometimes tiny, quantities of micronutrients in your diet (milligrams/micrograms).
Your body’s requirements may be small, even so, if a micronutrient is deficient from your diet it can have serious consequences for your health. And just a small deficiency can cause niggling health problems.
Still, more isn’t always better. Some micronutrients are toxic if taken in large quantities. Dietary overconsumption is very unlikely. It’s usually linked to vitamin and mineral supplements. But you need to know some micronutrients have a dark side.
Micronutrients don’t provide your body with energy. Instead, each micronutrient is vital to one or more specific functions or structures in the body. For example, calcium is essential for bone strength, nerve impulses, blood clotting and more. As a result, micronutrient deficiencies can have multiple symptoms.
The label of vitamin or mineral is based on chemistry, not function. Vitamins are organic compounds and minerals are inorganic. And if that just gave you a painful High School chemistry flashback – Sorry. I only mention it because we’re so used to hearing about vitamins and minerals. But in practical terms, the distinction isn’t that important.
Micronutrient reference values
Most countries have guides to mineral and vitamin intakes. The UK Dietary Reference Values list ideal and minimum daily intakes, as well as an upper limit for potentially toxic micronutrients. However, the guidelines have limitations.
- They assume everybody eats a diet of equal quality
- body size and activity alters requirements and isn’t allowed for
- A reference value for one micronutrient relies on no other micronutrient deficiencies
- Micronutrient bioavailability varies dependent on the source
- Other dietary elements can have positive or negative effects on absorption
One group of micro-compounds we haven’t looked at is antioxidants. Although antioxidants are important to your longterm health, a deficit doesn’t directly cause illness. So they’re not classed as micronutrients and there are no recommended intakes. Still, some antioxidants are micronutrients, for example, vitamin C.
The science around the importance of antioxidants is still relatively new, and there’s much we don’t know. That said, their importance in your diet shouldn’t be ignored.
Antioxidants help prevent and repair free radical damage. And free radical damage is thought to contribute to the ageing process and diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. How different antioxidants benefit us is complex and the science isn’t complete. And there are no recommended intakes. Yet there are possibly thousands of beneficial antioxidants almost exclusively in plant food.
I tend to think of antioxidants as a third group of micronutrients with subtler benefits that only materialise over time. But however you think of them, a healthy diet should cover as wide a range as possible.
Just as focusing on individual macronutrients isn’t the best route to a healthy diet, neither is chasing individual micronutrient intakes. A well thought out and varied diet of quality whole foods provides all you need*. It sounds more complicated than it is. The easy way to get the balance of micronutrients you need is to eat a plant based omnivore diet.
*If you live in Scotland or a country at a similar or higher latitude you need to supplement with vitamin D to make up for lack of year-round sunshine. Diet isn’t an adequate source.
Water is a unique nutrient. It’s the only one in a clan of its own. And it’s the only nutrient regularly consumed in isolation from all other nutrients.
The human body is roughly 60% water. And we all know people die of thirst long before they die of hunger – drinking enough water is important!
Because you’re constantly losing water throughout the day as you breathe, sweat and go to the loo. And you need to replace the lost water to prevent dehydration. But staying hydrated isn’t as complex or urgent as the internet would have you believe.
Hardly surprisingly, drinking is your primary source of water. But food contains varying amounts of water and makes a significant contribution to your daily intake.
Your body is very adept at maintaining your ideal water balance. Thirst drives your consumption. And your kidneys regulate excretion as urine. There can be a lag in the system. And you can ignore your thirst for a time. But your body’s system is robust and catches up.
Granted there are circumstances where you need to take more care to drink enough liquids. The elderly and the very young. When you exercise hard for twenty minutes or more. And during hot weather – not often an issue here in Scotland.
How much water do you need? It depends. Things like your diet, activity levels, body size even the weather all make a difference.
Start with about one to one and a half litres of liquids per day. Then keep an eye on the colour of your urine throughout the day. If it’s constantly clear you’re drinking too much. Dark – not enough. Pale straw colour – perfect.
What should you drink? (In an ideal world)
- Tea – unsweetened
- Herb infusions
- Coffee but- no lattes etc
- Sodas, diet or otherwise, are best avoided or drunk sparingly.
A last word
So there you have it. An introduction to nutrients. Not all you need to know. But enough to give you more confidence making healthy shopping and cooking choices. And a good foundation of nutrition knowledge to build on.
Nutrition knowledge gives you healthy eating freedom. And that’s powerful. It makes eating more fun. And living a healthy lifestyle more enjoyable.
Hi, I’m Ralph
I’m an Associate Registered Nutritionist with over 25 years’ experience as a professional chef.
My passion is helping individuals gain control of their diet to achieve food freedom and health in today’s broken nutrition environment.
I’m based in Edinburgh and provide 1-2-1 online nutrition coaching and support across the U.K.