Essential nutrients are compounds that are necessary for the body to exhibit good health, prevent diseases, and grow. The nutrients must be consumed in the food we eat because our body does not have the ability to synthesize them.

The six essential nutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. These can be placed in two categories: macronutrients and micronutrients. Protein, carbohydrates, and fats are considered macronutrients because they are required in large amounts in the diet.

Vitamins and minerals are still a vital part of the diet but are required in lesser amounts, which is why they are micronutrients. Despite not being required in large amounts, deficiencies in specific vitamins and minerals can end up leading to serious health problems.

Ironically, experts consider water to also be a micronutrient despite the large quantity that is recommended to be consumed per day.

Protein

Protein is needed in every cell of the body - from enzymes, antibodies, antioxidants, all the way down to DNA. It provides the building blocks for bones, muscle, skin, cartilage, blood, and more.

The term protein derives from Greek and is translated to primary, which is quite fitting. Protein consists of amino acids, and there are twenty different amino acids that the body derives from it.

There are nine essential amino acids because the body cannot make them on its own. The other eleven can be synthesized and are considered non-essential. Although twenty amino acids may not seem like a lot when considering all of the functions, the different combinations of these twenty amino acids can combine to form thousands of different varieties of protein.

While protein is a necessary component in the diet we eat, it can get confusing how much protein should be consumed. The National Academy of medicine stated that around 7 grams, per 20 pounds of body weight. So, a 150-pound person would require approximately 52.5 grams of protein.

Deficiencies in protein can lead to atrophy in muscle mass, decreased immunity, a weaker heart, decreased function in the respiratory system, and eventually if not consuming enough protein, death.

Worldwide, protein deficiencies are quite uncommon, with many people getting most of their protein from animal sources. The "package" or in other words, source, that the protein is coming from is important to consider, because often, in sources such as red meat, the protein also contains high amounts of saturated fat which can lead to heart diseases and diabetes, along with many other health conditions.

In a study published in the American Health Association Journal, it was found that by replacing red meat for other plant-based protein, the participants received a significant decrease in risk factors such as cardiovascular disease.

Since red meat isn't the ideal food to get protein, other healthy forms of protein include eggs, lentils, quinoa, oats, beans, white meat, nuts, and fish.


Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are essential to the body and play a key role in fueling the body, particularly the nervous system. The name "carbohydrates" comes from the three elements that it is comprised of: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.

Carbohydrates are necessary for the brain to function properly, and are involved in mental processes such as memory and decision making. There are two types of carbohydrates, which are simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates contain one or two sugars, such as fructose or glucose. This is easy for the body to break down and can lead to spikes in energy. Foods with simple carbohydrates include fruit, milk, candy, and soda drinks.

The simple carbs in soda, candy, and syrup contain refined sugar with no added nutritional value such as fiber, vitamins, or minerals. Because of this, they are deemed "empty calories" and can lead to weight gain.

Complex carbohydrates contain three or more sugars and are in foods such as potatoes, beans, peas, lentils, bread, and cereals. This takes much longer for the body to process and break down than simple carbohydrates.

Nutritionists recommend that the carbohydrates consumed primarily consist of complex carbohydrates and that the simple carbohydrates are limited to fruit, avoiding candy, soda, and syrup.

A study conducted in 2018 found that replacing saturated fat, which is already known to cause heart disease, with foods containing high amounts of refined sugar, the changes of heart disease, and diabetes increased. When consuming carbohydrate, it is important to consider if it is a "good" carbohydrate or a "bad" carbohydrate.

Nutritionists highlight that good carbohydrates contain high amounts of nutrients and fiber and have low amounts of saturated fat, sodium, and calories. The good carbohydrates that nutritionists recommend eating are foods such as quinoa, oats, fruit, legumes, and potatoes. Bad carbohydrates are characterized as being high in calories, having large amounts of refined sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, while having little nutrients and fiber.

The amount of carbohydrates recommended per diet depends on not only weight but also physical activity. But, according to the USDA dietary guidelines, it is recommended have 45-65% of daily caloric intake come from carbohydrates.


Fats

Contrary to popular belief, fats are actually a key nutrient that holds many functions from energy, vitamin, and mineral absorption, brain function, and balancing blood sugar. There are four different types of fat: saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats.

It is important to distinguish between the four different types of fat because unsaturated, and polyunsaturated are good fats that are extremely beneficial to the body, while saturated and trans-fat should be avoided.

Unsaturated fats contain at least one double bond in their long hydrocarbon tails. This is important because it prevents blockage in arteries due to the shape since it is hard for the long hydrocarbon tails to stack on top of each other. Therefore, unsaturated fats, such as olive oil is liquid at room temperature, their shape makes it so they cannot closely stack together.

The difference between "monounsaturated" and "polyunsaturated" comes down to the number of double bonds in the fat. One double bond is "monounsaturated" while more than one makes it "polyunsaturated".

Healthy sources of food containing unsaturated fats include avocados, fatty fish, such as salmon, nuts, and seeds, and of course, olive oil. Saturated fats contain no double bonds which make it easy for the long tails to stack on top of each other in the body causing blockage in the arteries.

Because the tails can stack on top of each other, foods containing saturated fats are usually solid at room temperatures, such as butter, cheese, and ice cream. Saturated fats are bad, in general, to be consumed in large quantities, however, trans fat is the worst fat.

Trans fat contains double bonds, however, unlike unsaturated fats, where the double bonds are cis, the double bonds are "trans". This means that the double bond is on the same side, causing there to be no bend like there would be in unsaturated fats.

Trans fat has been found to raise LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and lower HDL (good cholesterol) levels, and in doing so, raising the chances for heart disease and diabetes. They are often labeled as "hydrogenated oil" and is usually in foods such as vegetable oils and margarine. In 1993, a Harvard study found that replacing just 2% of trans fat with healthy unsaturated fats reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by one-third.


Vitamins

Vitamins are important for the body because they aid in warding off diseases, releasing, and producing energy as well as building proteins and cells. They are known as "micronutrients" because only trace amounts are required in your diet.

Vitamins are organic compounds that can break down quite easily due to heat, air, or acid. They are naturally found in vegetables, fruit, and meat, however, because of how easy it is to break down vitamins, cooking these foods will result in a decrease of the vitamins. There are thirteen vitamins, each serving a different purpose in the body.

These vitamins are vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the eight B vitamins, which include, B1, B2, B3, B4, B5, B6, B7, B12, and folic acid.

Vitamin A is involved in vision, immune system, and reproduction. Foods containing vitamin A are carrots, spinach, broccoli, black-eyed peas, etc. Currently, vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children.

Vitamin C's main functions are aiding in the body's absorption of iron, the formation of collagen, and the maintenance of cartilage, and bones. This vitamin can be found in oranges, broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, etc. Scurvy is a well-known disease caused by a lack of vitamin C that affected a lot of sailors back in the 18th century. Scurvy is characterized by bruising, bleeding gums, fatigue, and rash.

Vitamin D is important in the absorption of calcium which promotes bone growth. Vitamin D can be found in milk, salmon, and egg yolk. A deficiency in vitamin D is characterized by thin, or brittle bones.

Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant in the body, defending against free radicals, which are unstable atoms that end up damaging cells. Vitamin K is essential for blood clotting and regulating calcium levels in the blood. Foods with vitamin K are distinguishable as green, leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, or parsley.

Vitamin K deficiencies are extremely rare in adults but can be noticeable in some instances with newborn babies if their blood doesn't clot right.

Lastly, the eight B vitamins are important in regulating energy levels, brain function, and metabolism. A good source of vitamin B comes from whole grains, eggs, legumes, and meat.


Minerals

Minerals are also considered to be "micronutrients" as not a lot is required for the body to healthfully perform. Minerals perform a wide array of functions in the body, from making hormones, maintaining the heartbeat, and transmitting nerve pulses.

Minerals are inorganic molecules and it is much harder to break them down from ailments such as heat, air, or acid, as in the case with vitamins.

Minerals can be broken down into two categories: macro minerals and trace minerals. Macro minerals are required in larger amounts and are calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfur.

The trace minerals are iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride, and selenium. It is also important to note, that a deficiency in these minerals is not good for your health, but an excess can also take a toll. For instance, iron is required to transport oxygen in the body, because it aids in the formation of hemoglobin, which is a part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen through the bloodstream.

A deficiency of iron is what causes anemia, and fatigue is a major symptom. Still, eating too much iron can cause an excess of free radicals in the body which can be taxing to your health.


Water

With 60% of a person's body weight consisting of water, it is no wonder why water is considered to be an essential nutrient. Water is so important because it regulates temperature in the body, lubricates joints, and helps retain certain levels of moisture in areas that require it. Experts recommend drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day to avoid getting dehydrated.

It is easy to discern if you are getting enough water just from the color of your pee. If it is clear, with a tint of yellow, that most likely means you are consuming an adequate amount of water. If your pee is darker than nutritionists recommend raising your intake.


Conclusion

Overall, these nutrients are vital in maintaining health and proper functions in the body. These nutrients cannot be produced by the body, so it is key that they are consumed in adequate amounts to ensure optimum health.

It is important to pay attention to the foods being consumed because they directly impact energy levels, emotions, and either the onset or prevention of certain diseases. It is important to incorporate each of the six essential nutrients into your diet to avoid having any deficiencies.

As previously noted, there are "good" forms and "bad" forms of certain nutrients, and this needs to be taken into consideration before adding such foods into your diet.