What are Nutrients?
Nutrients are molecules in food that all organisms need to make energy, grow, develop, and reproduce. Nutrients are digested and then broken down into basic parts to be used by the organism. There are two main types of nutrients, macronutrients and micronutrients. The three main categories of macronutrients include carbohydrate, protein, and fat. The two types of micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, and these are extra molecules that cells need to make energy.
Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient used for quick energy in cells. The basic unit of carbohydrates is a monosaccharide. An example of a monosaccharide is glucose or sugar. Glucose can be by itself, or assembled into long chains to make things like starch, which can be found in potatoes.
Have you heard of the athletic term, carbo-loading? Athletes load up on carbohydrates before a big race to give themselves a store of quick energy. Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap lately, but everyone needs carbs! It is important to eat a balanced diet with all the major nutrient categories. Foods that contain carbohydrates include grains, cereal, bread, pasta, potatoes, fruits and sweets such as soda and candy.
Proteins are a macronutrient that the cells in your body use for structure. Protein is very important for building tissues, such as muscle. Muscle is mainly made up of proteins. Think how bodybuilders are always eating plain chicken and protein bars – they’re trying to build their muscles by getting lots of protein in their diet!
Proteins are made from smaller monomers called amino acids. There are twenty amino acids that make up all the kinds of protein your body needs. Imagine that amino acids are like Legos. To build a fancy Lego building, you need all shapes and colors of Legos. But there aren’t infinite shapes of Legos; you only have so many to work with. The same thing with protein. Your body can make some of the amino acids you need, but there are nine that you must consume in your diet. These are called essential amino acids. Meat, fish, beans, and eggs are examples of foods rich in protein.
Fats are called lipids and are a macronutrient in your body that stores energy. Fats have long chains of carbon and hydrogen, which store lots of energy in the chemical bonds. Fats are important in our body to cushion organs, protect our cells, and send signals in the form of hormones around our body. Foods that are rich in fats are butter and oil.
Vitamins and minerals are the two types of micronutrients. While only needed in small amounts, they play important roles in human development and well-being, including the regulation of metabolism, heartbeat, cellular pH, and bone density. Lack of micronutrients can lead to stunted growth in children and increased risk for various diseases in adulthood. Without proper consumption of micronutrients, humans can suffer from diseases such as rickets (lack of vitamin D), scurvy (lack of vitamin C), and osteoporosis (lack of calcium).
Types of Micronutrients
Vitamins are available in two forms: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins are easily lost through bodily fluids and must be replaced each day. Water-soluble vitamins include the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. Vitamins B6 and B12 are two of the most well-known B-complex vitamins. Since they are not lost as easily as their water-soluble counterparts, fat-soluble vitamins tend to accumulate within the body and are not needed on a daily basis. The fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K.
Minerals are also available in two forms: macrominerals and microminerals.
Macrominerals are needed in larger amounts and include the following:
Microminerals are only needed in trace amounts and include the following:
Micronutrients in Food
All foods contain micronutrients. Here’s a list of important micronutrients and common foods where they can be found:
- Calcium – milk, yogurt, spinach, and sardines
- Vitamin B12 – beef, fish, cheese, and eggs
- Zinc – beef, cashews, garbanzo beans, and turkey
- Potassium – bananas, spinach, potatoes, and apricots
- Vitamin C – oranges, peppers, broccoli, and bananas