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Nutrition is the study of nutrients in food, how the body uses them, and the relationship between diet, health, and disease.

Nutritionists use ideas from molecular biology, biochemistry, and genetics to understand how nutrients affect the human body.

Nutrition also focuses on how people can use dietary choices to reduce the risk of disease, what happens if a person has too much or too little of a nutrient, and how allergies work.

Nutrients provide nourishment. Proteins, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water are all nutrients. If people do not have the right balance of nutrients in their diet, their risk of developing certain health conditions increases.

This article will explain the different nutrients a person needs and why. It will also look at the role of the dietitian and the nutritionist.

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Consuming the right balance of nutrients can help maintain a healthful lifestyle.

Macronutrients are nutrients that people need in relatively large quantities.

Carbohydrates

Sugar, starch, and fiber are types of carbohydrates.

Sugars are simple carbs. The body quickly breaks down and absorbs sugars and processed starch. They can provide rapid energy, but they do not leave a person feeling full. They can also cause a spike in blood sugar levels. Frequent sugar spikes increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and its complications.

Fiber is also a carbohydrate. The body breaks down some types of fiber and uses them for energ; others are metabolized by gut bacteria, while other types pass through the body.

Fiber and unprocessed starch are complex carbs. It takes the body some time to break down and absorb complex carbs. After eating fiber, a person will feel full for longer. Fiber may also reduce the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and colorectal cancer. Complex carbs are a more healthful choice than sugars and refined carbs.

Learn more here about fiber.

Proteins

Proteins consist of amino acids, which are organic compounds that occur naturally.

There are 20 amino acids. Some of these are essential, which means people need to obtain them from food. The body can make the others.

Some foods provide complete protein, which means they contain all the essential amino acids the body needs. Other foods contain various combinations of amino acids.

Most plant-based foods do not contain complete protein, so a person who follows a vegan diet needs to eat a range of foods throughout the day that provides the essential amino acids.

Learn more here about protein.

Fats

Fats are essential for:

  • lubricating joints
  • helping organs produce hormones
  • enabling the body to absorb certain vitamins
  • reducing inflammation
  • preserving brain health

Too much fat can lead to obesity, high cholesterol, liver disease, and other health problems.

However, the type of fat a person eats makes a difference. Unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, are more healthful than saturated fats, which tend to come from animals.

In this article, learn more about the different types of fats and where to find them.

Water

The adult human body is up to 60% water, and it needs water for many processes. Water contains no calories, and it does not provide energy.

Many people recommend consuming 2 liters, or 8 glasses, of water a day, but it can also come from dietary sources, such as fruit and vegetables. Adequate hydration will result in pale yellow urine.

Requirements will also depend on an individual’s body size and age, environmental factors, activity levels, health status, and so on.

Click here to find out how much water a person needs each day and here to learn about the benefits of drinking water.

Micronutrients are essential in small amounts. They include vitamins and minerals. Manufacturers sometimes add these to foods. Examples include fortified cereals and rice.

Minerals

The body needs carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.

It also needs dietary minerals, such as iron, potassium, and so on.

In most cases, a varied and balanced diet will provide the minerals a person needs. If a deficiency occurs, a doctor may recommend supplements.

Here are some of the minerals the body needs to function well.

Potassium

Potassium is an electrolyte. It enables the kidneys, the heart, the muscles, and the nerves to work properly. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults consume 4,700 milligrams (mg) of potassium each day.

Too little can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and kidney stones.

Too much may be harmful to people with kidney disease.

Avocados, coconut water, bananas, dried fruit, squash, beans, and lentils are good sources.

Learn more here about potassium.

Sodium

Sodium is an electrolyte that helps:

  • maintain nerve and muscle function
  • regulate fluid levels in the body

Too little can lead to hyponatremia. Symptoms include lethargy, confusion, and fatigue. Learn more here.

Too much can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Table salt, which is made up of sodium and chloride, is a popular condiment. However, most people consume too much sodium, as it already occurs naturally in most foods.

Experts urge people not to add table salt to their diet. Current guidelines recommend consuming no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, or around one teaspoon.

This recommendation includes both naturally-occurring sources, as well as salt a person adds to their food. People with high blood pressure or kidney disease should eat less.

How much salt does a person need? Find out here.

Calcium

The body needs calcium to form bones and teeth. It also supports the nervous system, cardiovascular health, and other functions.

Too little can cause bones and teeth to weaken. Symptoms of a severe deficiency include tingling in the fingers and changes in heart rhythm, which can be life-threatening.

Too much can lead to constipation, kidney stones, and reduced absorption of other minerals.

Current guidelines for adults recommend consuming 1,000 mg a day, and 1,200 mg for women aged 51 and over.

Good sources include dairy products, tofu, legumes,and green, leafy vegetables.

Find out more about calcium.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus is present in all body cells and contributes to the health of the bones and teeth.

Too little phosphorus can lead to bone diseases, affect appetite, muscle strength, and coordination. It can also result in anemia, a higher risk of infection, burning or prickling sensations in the skin, and confusion.

Too much in the diet is unlikely to cause health problems though toxicity is possible from supplements, medications, and phosphorus metabolism problems.

Adults should aim to consume around 700 mg of phosphorus each day. Good sources include dairy products, salmon, lentils, and cashews.

Why do people need phosphorus? Find out here.

Magnesium

Magnesium contributes to muscle and nerve function. It helps regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and it enables the body to produce proteins, bone, and DNA.

Too little magnesium can eventually lead to weakness, nausea, tiredness, restless legs, sleep conditions, and other symptoms.

Too much can result in digestive and, eventually, heart problems.

Nuts, spinach, and beans are good sources of magnesium. Adult females need 320 mg of magnesium each day, and adult males need 420 mg.

Why is magnesium essential? Click here to learn more.

Zinc

Zinc plays a role in the health of body cells, the immune system, wound healing, and the creation of proteins.

Too little can lead to hair loss, skin sores, changes in taste or smell,and diarrhea, but this is rare.

Too much can lead to digestive problems and headaches. Click here to learn more.

Adult females need 8 mg of zinc a day, and adult males need 11 mg. Dietary sources include oysters, beef, fortified breakfast cereals, and baked beans. For more on dietary sources of zinc, click here.

How does zinc benefit a person’s health? Click here to find out.

Iron

Iron is crucial for the formation of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of the body. It also plays a role in forming connective tissue and creating hormones.

Too little can result in anemia, including digestive issues, weakness, and difficulty thinking. Learn more here about iron deficiency.

Too much can lead to digestive problems, and very high levels can be fatal.

Good sources include fortified cereals, beef liver, lentils, spinach, and tofu. Adults need 8 mg of iron a day, but females need 18 mg during their reproductive years.

Why is iron important? Find out here.

Manganese

The body uses manganese to produce energy, it plays a role in blood clotting, and it supports the immune system.

Too little can result in weak bones in children, skin rashes in men, and mood changes in women.

Too much can lead to tremors, muscle spasms, and other symptoms, but only with very high amounts.

Mussels, hazelnuts, brown rice, chickpeas, and spinach all provide manganese. Male adults need 2.3 mg of manganese each day, and females need 1.8 mg.

Find out more here about manganese.

Copper

Copper helps the body make energy and produce connective tissues and blood vessels.

Too little copper can lead to tiredness, patches of light skin, high cholesterol, and connective tissue disorders. This is rare.

Too much copper can result in liver damage, abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Too much copper also reduces the absorption of zinc.

Good sources include beef liver, oysters, potatoes, mushrooms, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds. Adults need 900 micrograms (mcg) of copper each day.

Why is copper important? Click here to find out.

Selenium

Selenium is made up of over 24 selenoproteins, and it plays a crucial role in reproductive and thyroid health. As an antioxidant, it can also prevent cell damage.

Too much selenium can cause garlic breath, diarrhea, irritability, skin rashes, brittle hair or nails, and other symptoms.

Too little can result in heart disease, infertility in men, and arthritis.

Adults need 55 mcg of selenium a day.

Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium. Other plant sources include spinach, oatmeal, and baked beans. Tuna, ham, and enriched macaroni are all excellent sources.

Learn more about selenium here.

Vitamins

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Eating a variety of healthful foods can provide the body with different vitamins.

People need small amounts of various vitamins. Some of these, such as vitamin C, are also antioxidants. This means they help protect cells from damage by removing toxic molecules, known as free radicals, from the body.

Vitamins can be:

Water-soluble: The eight B vitamins and vitamin C

Fat-soluble: Vitamins A, D, E, and K

Learn more about vitamins here.

Water soluble vitamins

People need to consume water-soluble vitamins regularly because the body removes them more quickly, and it cannot store them easily.

VitaminEffect of too littleEffect of too muchSources
B-1 (thiamin)Beriberi

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
Unclear, as the body excretes it in the urine.Fortified cereals and rice, pork, trout, black beans
B-2 (riboflavin)Hormonal problems, skin disorders, swelling in the mouth and throatUnclear, as the body excretes it in the urine.Beef liver, breakfast cereal, oats, yogurt, mushrooms, almonds
B-3 (niacin)Pellagra, including skin changes, red tongue, digestive and neurological symptomsFacial flushing, burning, itching, headaches, rashes, and dizzinessBeef liver, chicken breast, brown rice, fortified cereals, peanuts.
B-5 (pantothenic acid)Numbness and burning in hands and feet, fatigue, stomach painDigestive problems at high doses.Breakfast cereal, beef liver, shiitake mushroom, sunflower seeds
B-6 (pyridoxamine, pyridoxal)Anemia, itchy rash, skin changes, swollen tongueNerve damage, loss of muscle controlChickpeas, beef liver, tuna, chicken breast, fortified cereals, potatoes
B-7 (biotin)Hair loss, rashes around the eyes and other body openings, conjunctivitisUnclearBeef liver, egg, salmon, sunflower seeds, sweet potato
B-9 (folic acid, folate)Weakness, fatigue, difficulty focusing, heart palpitations, shortness of breathMay increase cancer riskBeef liver, spinach, black-eyed peas, fortified cereal, asparagus
B-12 (cobalamins)Anemia, fatigue, constipation, weight loss, neurological changesNo adverse effects reportedClams, beef liver, fortified yeasts, plant milks, and breakfast cereals, some oily fish.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)Scurvy, including fatigue, skin rash, gum inflammation, poor wound healingNausea, diarrhea, stomach crampsCitrus fruits, berries, red and green peppers, kiwi fruit, broccoli, baked potatoes, fortified juices.

Fat-soluble vitamins

The body absorbs fat-soluble vitamins through the intestines with the help of fats (lipids). The body can store them and does not remove them quickly. People who follow a low-fat diet may not be able to absorb enough of these vitamins. If too many build up, problems can arise.

VitaminEffect of too littleEffect of too muchSources
Vitamin A (retinoids)Night blindnessPressure on the brain, nausea, dizziness, skin irritation, joint and bone pain, orange pigmented skin colorSweet potato, beef liver, spinach, and other dark leafy greens, carrots, winter squash
Vitamin DPoor bone formation and weak bonesAnorexia, weight loss, changes in heart rhythm, damage to cardiovascular system and kidneysSunlight exposure plus dietary sources: cod liver oil, oily fish, dairy products, fortified juices
Vitamin EPeripheral neuropathy, retinopathy, reduced immune responseMay reduce the ability of blood to clotWheatgerm, nuts, seeds, sunflower and safflower oil, spinach
Vitamin KBleeding and hemorrhaging in severe casesNo adverse effects but it may interact with blood thinners and other drugsLeafy, green vegetables, soybeans, edamame, okra, natto

Multivitamins are available for purchase in stores or online, but people should speak to their doctor before taking any supplements, to check that they are suitable for them to use.

Antioxidants

Some nutrients also act as antioxidants. These may be vitamins, minerals, proteins, or other types of molecules. They help the body remove toxic substances known as free radicals, or reactive oxygen species. If too many of these substances remain in the body, cell damage and disease can result.

Find out more here about antioxidants.

Here, learn which foods are good sources of antioxidants.

A registered dietitian nutritionist (RD or RDN) studies food, nutrition, and dietetics. To become a registered dietitian, a person needs to attend an accredited university, follow an approved curriculum, complete a rigorous internship, pass a licensure exam, and complete 75 or more continuing education hours every 5 years. Dietitians work in private and public healthcare, education, corporate wellness, research, and the food industry.

A nutritionist learns about nutrition through self-study or formal education, but they do not meet the requirements to use the titles RD or RDN. Nutritionists often work in the food industry and in food science and technology.

Nutrition is the study of food and how it affects the body. People need to consume a varied diet to obtain a wide range of nutrients.

Some people choose to follow a specific diet, in which they focus on certain foods and avoid others. People who do this may need to plan carefully to ensure they obtain all the necessary vitamins to maintain their health.

A diet that is rich in plant-based foods and that limits added animal fats, processed foods, and added sugar and salt is most likely to benefit a person’s health.

Find out about different diets here:

Q:

Do you recommend any particular type of diet for overall health?

A:

I firmly believe that there is not a one-size-fits-all diet. Genetics, family history, diagnoses, sustainability, and more factors influence what is the best diet for someone.

However, the basis of any diet that I do recommend for a specific person (whether it is low carb, Mediterranean, Dash, paleo, or keto) is that it is plant-heavy, providing adequate fiber to feed gut bacteria, as well as antioxidants, phytochemicals, and nutrients for optimal health.

Natalie Butler, R.D., L.D. Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.