Good nutrition depends on eating all the essential nutrients – vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, carbohydrates, and water – and eating them in a balance nourishes your body.
The World Health Organization (WHO) note that essential nutrients are crucial in supporting a person’s reproduction, good health, and growth. The WHO divide these essential nutrients into two categories: micro-nutrients and macro-nutrients.
Micro-nutrients are nutrients that a person needs in small doses. Micro-nutrients consist of vitamins and minerals. Although the body only needs small amounts of them, a deficiency can cause ill health.
Macro-nutrients are nutrients that a person needs in larger amounts. Macro-nutrients include water, protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Why a balanced diet is important?
A balanced diet is important because your organs and tissues need proper nutrition to work effectively. Without good nutrition, your body is more prone to disease, infection, fatigue, and poor performance. Children with a poor diet run the risk of growth and developmental problems and poor academic performance, and bad eating habits can persist for the rest of their lives.
Rising levels of obesity, diabetes, heart diseases and cancer are prime examples of the effects of a poor diet and a lack of exercise.
A person’s body cannot produce everything that it needs to function. There are six essential nutrients that people need to consume through dietary sources to maintain optimal health.
Vitamins are organic compounds that are needed in small quantities to sustain life. Most vitamins need to come from food as the human body either does not produce enough of them, or it does not produce any at all.
Typically, a person who eats a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins can get all the vitamins they need in their food. However, those who eat less fruit and vegetables, and those with digestive conditions may need to take a vitamin supplement to reduce or avoid a deficiency.
Vitamins are micro nutrients that offer a range of health benefits, including:
- boosting the immune system
- helping prevent or delay certain cancers, such as prostate cancer
- strengthening teeth and bones
- aiding calcium absorption
- maintaining healthy skin
- helping the body metabolize proteins and carbs
- supporting healthy blood
- aiding brain and nervous system functioning
There are 13 essential vitamins that nutritionists divide into two groups: fat soluble and water soluble.
Fat soluble vitamins are:
- vitamin A
- vitamin D
- vitamin E
- vitamin K
Water soluble vitamins are:
- vitamin B-1 (thiamine)
- vitamin B-12 (cyanocobalamin)
- vitamin B-6
- vitamin B-2 (riboflavin)
- vitamin B-5 (pantothenic acid)
- vitamin B-3 (niacin)
- vitamin B-9 (folate, folic acid)
- vitamin B-7 (biotin)
- vitamin C
Minerals are the second type of micro-nutrients. There are two groups of minerals: major and trace minerals. The body needs a balance of minerals from both groups for optimal health.
Major minerals are:
Major minerals help the body to do the following:
- balance water levels
- maintain healthy skin, hair, and nails
- improve bone health
Trace minerals are:
Trace minerals help with:
- strengthening bones
- preventing tooth decay
- aiding in blood clotting
- helping to carry oxygen
- supporting the immune system
- supporting healthy blood pressure
A person can ensure they consume enough minerals by including the following foods in their diet.
- red meats (limit their use and choose lean cuts)
- iodized table salt (less than 2,300 milligrams a day)
- milk and other dairy products
- nuts and seeds
- leafy greens
- fortified bread and cereals
- egg yolks
- whole grains
- beans and legumes
Carbohydrates (carbs) are the body’s main source of energy and are essential for healthy muscles, tissues and brain function. They are sugars or starches that provide energy for all the cells and tissues in the body. They also help with the digestion process itself. When you eat carbohydrates, the process of chewing and digestion releases glucose (blood sugar), a simple sugar that our bodies need for energy.
There are two different types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. People should limit their intake of simple carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta, and rice. However, the body needs complex carbohydrates to support the following:
- the immune system
- brain function
- the nervous system
- energy to perform tasks
- digestive function
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a person consumes 45–65% of their daily calories from complex carbohydrates.
The following foods contain complex carbohydrates:
- brown rice
- whole grain pasta, bread, and other baked goods
People should avoid overly processed products that contain bleached, white flour, and foods with added sugar.
Protein is the macro-nutrient and major building material for cells throughout the body: blood, skin, organ tissue and muscle. It forms hormones and helps regulate the body’s metabolism — the rate of breathing and digesting food, among other things.
Proteins carry out a variety of functions, including:
- ensuring the growth and development of muscles, bones, hair, and skin
- forming antibodies, hormones, and other essential substances
- serving as a fuel source for cells and tissues when needed
Protein comes from animal sources like poultry including chicken and turkey, red meats, fish and other seafood, eggs and dairy products as well as beans, legumes, soy products, nuts and seeds.
Lean, low-fat meats such as chicken, fish, and certain cuts of pork and beef are the best options. Removing the skin and trimming off any visible fat are easy ways to reduce the amount of fat and cholesterol in meats.
Although meats and fish tend to contain the highest levels of protein, vegans and vegetarians can get enough protein from various plant products like chia seeds, tofu, quinoa, hemp seeds, peanut butter, oats, broccoli and etc.
People often associate high fat foods with bad health. However, our bodies need certain fats to help maintain optimal health.
Fats provide the body with energy, help carry vitamins and minerals through the blood and they “lubricate” tissues throughout the body. However, too many or the wrong kind of fats — saturated and trans fats – can build up the in body’s tissues and arteries. Hence, it is essential to consume healthful fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
Healthful fats help with the following functions:
- cell growth
- blood clotting
- building new cells
- reducing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes
- muscle movement
- balance blood sugar
- brain functioning
- mineral and vitamin absorption
- hormone production
- immune function
According to recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a person should consume 20–35% of their calories from healthful fats.
A person can find healthful fats in several foods, including:
- fish, such as salmon and tuna
- vegetable oils
- coconut oil
Water is probably the most important essential nutrient that a person needs. A person can only survive a few days without consuming water. Even slight dehydration can cause headaches and impaired physical and mental functioning.
The human body is made up of mostly water, and every cell requires water to function. Water helps with several functions, including:
- flushing toxins out
- shock absorption
- transporting nutrients
- preventing constipation
The best source for water is to drink natural, unsweetened water from the tap or bottled sources. For people who do not like the taste of plain water, they can add a squeeze of lemon or other citrus fruits.
Also, a person can get extra water by consuming fruits that contain a large amount of water.
People should avoid getting their water intake from sugary drinks. Sugary drinks include sweetened teas, coffees, soda, lemonade, and fruit juices.
The number of calories in a food is a measurement of the amount of energy stored in that food. Your body uses calories from food for walking, thinking, breathing, and other important functions.
The average person needs to eat about 2,000 calories every day to maintain their weight. However, a person’s specific daily calorie intake can vary depending on their age, gender, and physical activity level. Men generally need more calories than women, and people who exercise need more calories than people who don’t.
The following examples of daily calorie intake are based on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines:
- children ages 2 to 8 years: 1,000 to 1,400 calories
- girls ages 9 to 13 years: 1,400 to 1,600 calories
- boys ages 9 to 13 years: 1,600 to 2,000 calories
- active women ages 14 to 30 years: 2,400 calories
- sedentary women ages 14 to 30 years: 1,800 to 2,000 calories
- active men ages 14 to 30 years: 2,800 to 3,200 calories
- sedentary men ages 14 to 30 years: 2,000 to 2,600 calories
- active men and women over 30 years: 2,000 to 3,000 calories
- sedentary men and women over 30 years: 1,600 to 2,400 calories
The source of your daily calories is just as important as the number of calories you consume. You should limit your consumption of empty calories, meaning those that provide little or no nutritional value. The USDA defines empty calories as calories that come from sugars and solid fats, such as butter and shortening.
If you have questions about your diet or feel that you need to lose weight or change your eating habits, schedule an appointment with your doctor or a dietitian. They can suggest dietary changes that will help you get the nutrition you need while promoting your overall health.
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020. (2015).
- Important nutrients to know: Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. (2019).
- Minerals and trace elements. (n.d.).
- Nutrients. (n.d.).
- Why is it important to make lean or low-fat choices from the protein foods group? (2018).
- Appendix 2. Estimated calorie needs per day, by age, sex, and physical activity level. (2015).
- Why good nutrition is important. (n.d.).