Here's to Your Health: The 6 Essential Nutrients Everyone Should be Eating
Essential nutrients are necessary for optimal human health. We rely on them to survive. These critical compounds most often cannot be made by the body in significant enough amounts and are best sourced from fresh, whole foods:
Macronutrients or “macros” are the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates we rely on for fuel. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to maintain optimal health. With these, a little goes a long way — except water, of which we need a whole lot.
We touched base with nutrition expert Andrea Giancoli, MPH, RD, to get the finer details of the six essential nutrients and how best to incorporate these must-haves into our daily routine.
Don’t just stick to meat as a protein source of your healthy diet — fish, nuts, dairy, soy-based foods, beans, seeds, eggs, and vegetables are valuable sources of protein, too. Strive for diversity in your diet to get a variety of vitamins and minerals.
The recommended Dietary Reference Intakes are as follows:
- 19–30 years of age should get 46 grams of protein per day
- 19–30 years of age should get 56 grams of protein per day
These numbers are just a loose guideline. Individual needs will vary depending on physical activity and other variables, such as height and weight.
You may go to great lengths to avoid carbs, but they’re necessary to fuel your body and they’re the preferred source of fuel for your brain, as well as your workouts. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for women and men is 130 grams per day. This is just a starting point. Individual height, weight, and activity level will cause these needs to vary.
When choosing carbs, don’t just go for white bread, potatoes, and pastries. Fuel up on vitamin-rich carbs like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains like steel-cut oats and brown rice.
There is no RDA for fat intake, but healthy fats remain essential to keep your body going. You’ve heard about “good” and “bad” fats.
Good fats include the unsaturated varieties:
Less healthy fats include:
- trans fats
Trans fats are so unhealthy that food manufacturers are practically prohibited from using them.
Focus on unsaturated fats; these are found in oily fish like salmon, as well as oils made from plants (such as olive and walnut oil). Other significant sources of unsaturated fats to fuel up on include nuts, like almonds and pistachios, and seeds, like flax and pumpkin seeds. Avocados are also a healthy source of unsaturated fats.
Fats help you absorb important nutrients that are necessary to support overall health.
Vitamins fortify our bodies. They support our immune system while optimizing our overall health.
“Each vitamin and mineral supports a variety of functions in the body. They are absorbed and metabolized in different ways,” says Giancoli. “Vitamins often work synergistically.” She adds, “For vitamin D to be absorbed and utilized, you also need vitamin K.”
While the vast majority of vitamins are water-soluble, vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble and are found in the oils and fats in foods. These important vitamins are best absorbed when they are in the presence of dietary fat. So get your fat-soluble vitamins from high-fat foods like seeds, nuts, avocado, and coconut.
Remember the periodic table from science class? Well, many of those same metals and other minerals are crucial to our health.
We need calcium for healthy bones and to keep the nervous system functioning optimally. Like the synergistic relationship between vitamin D and vitamin K, calcium and vitamin D also work hand in hand; vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium.
“When we think about bone health, we automatically think calcium — what is not so well known is that vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, and phosphorus also play important roles in maintaining strong bones,” adds Giancoli.
Important minerals that play a role in our bodies include:
- Calcium – Found in dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt, as well as leafy greens.
- Chromium – Found in broccoli and liver.
- Copper – Found in oysters, nuts, and shiitake mushrooms.
- Iron – Found in red meats, poultry, and spinach.
- Magnesium – Found in dark chocolate and avocados.
- Manganese – Found in beans and legumes, oatmeal, and brown rice.
- Molybdenum – Found in legumes, whole grains, and dairy products.
- Potassium – Found in bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew, spinach, and broccoli.
- Sodium – Found in the salt we season our food with. Just don’t overdo it!
- Zinc – Found in meats, shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts, and eggs.
These minerals help perform essential functions such as supporting circulation, immune function, and bone health.
Water is arguably our most vital nutrient. We won’t survive long without it. Not only does water help transport nutrients throughout the body, but it also helps us regulate body temperature, and serves as a lubricant for our joints and internal organs.
While needs vary based on the individual, on an average, a sedentary adult should drink 1.5 liters of water per day. Dehydration can come on quickly and can have a devastating effect on the body. Dehydration can potentially impact physical performance and may affect cognitive performance.
Having adequate fluid within the tissues of the body is essential for optimal body function. Insufficient fluid intake or excessive fluid loss can contribute to dehydration. Your daily water needs depend on how much you eat and drink as well as your physical activity.
Think you might not be getting enough fluids? A glance at your urine will give you an indication of your hydration status. While some foods, supplements, and medications can impact urine color, generally, a lighter color means you are likely well-hydrated, while darker colors mean you’ll need to get some fluids on board, STAT.