Your Guide to Understanding the Different Types of Nutrients
Nutrients - we hear a lot about them, but what exactly do they do? Here's how they help our bodies and overall health.
When it comes to what we eat, the make-up of different foods is often emphasized. High in fiber! Rich in calcium! A powerful antioxidant! While for very good reason, the why behind said nutritional values is often lost on many. We know these are good for us, but how exactly do these nutrients help our bodies?
Nutrients are broadly categorized into two main groups: macronutrients and micronutrients. Below, we explore what these are and why they matter to our overall health.
Macronutrients fuel our bodies, and are needed in large amounts in order for us to be able to grow and function. The food we eat is broken down into three types of macronutrients - carbohydrate, protein, and fat.
As the primary source of energy in our bodies, carbohydrates are used by our brain and muscles to function. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, or sugar, which fuels our cells. There are two main types of carbohydrates:
Complex carbohydrates - these are minimally processed and provide our bodies with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They are digested slower than refined carbohydrates, making them less likely to cause a rapid spike in blood sugar. Fiber has many health benefits, such as helping to lower cholesterol and manage blood sugar, keeping you fuller for longer, improving digestion, and reducing the risk of heart disease.
If you’re following the Plate Method, foods in this category make up about ¼ of the plate. Examples of complex carbs include vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and oats.
Refined carbohydrates - compared to complex carbs, refined carbs are highly processed. During processing, refined carbs lose vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Our bodies digest these carbs faster, which can lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes. Common examples of refined carbs include white flour, white rice, and white bread.
Building blocks, called amino acids, come together to form protein. Protein has many different functions in the body - it helps to build muscle, repair tissue, and fight infection. Each person’s protein needs vary greatly depending on factors such as age, gender, medical history, and overall health.
There are animal sources of protein, including meat and poultry, eggs, seafood, and dairy products, as well as plant-based sources of protein, including quinoa, soy foods (tofu, edamame, soy milk), nuts and nut butters, and beans, peas, and lentils. Compared to animal protein sources, plant-based protein sources are higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat.
Like carbohydrates, fats are an easily misunderstood nutrient; however, they’re an essential part of a healthy, balanced eating plan! Fats provide energy, support cell function, protect our organs, as well as help the body absorb certain nutrients and produce hormones.
There are two main types of fats. Saturated fats, which are found primarily in animal products such as pork, beef, and high-fat dairy foods, including margarine, cream, and cheese. This type of fat can also be found in many processed foods like packaged desserts, pizza, and hamburgers.
Unsaturated fats, when included in a balanced eating plan, have been linked to various health benefits, such as lower cholesterol levels and brain and heart health. They are broken down further into two types:
Monounsaturated fats - found in nuts and nut butters, seeds, avocados, and plant oils such as olive and peanut oil.
Polyunsaturated fats - includes omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and trout; walnuts, flaxseeds, and sunflower seeds; plant-based oils such as corn and soybean oil.
Though they aren’t required in large amounts (hence the name “micro”), micronutrients are still essential for overall health and disease prevention. The two main types of micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, each of which play a different role in the body. Aside from vitamin D, micronutrients are not produced by our bodies, which means we must get them from food. Following a balanced eating plan that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins will ensure you’re getting the right amount of micronutrients.
Minerals play many important roles in our bodies, a few of which include fluid balance, muscle and bone health, blood pressure regulation, nervous system function, and cell growth and repair. Macrominerals, which include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, chloride, potassium, and sulfur, are needed in larger amounts by our bodies. In contrast, trace minerals are needed in smaller amounts; these include iron, manganese, copper, zinc, iodine, fluoride, and selenium.
Vitamins help extract energy from the food we eat, and also promote the health of our eyes, skin, lungs, and digestive and nervous systems. Water-soluble vitamins (B-complex vitamins and vitamin C) dissolve in water and are not easily stored in the body. In contrast, fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K) dissolve in fat and tend to accumulate, or build up, in the body.