A person's body cannot produce everything that it needs to function. There are six essential nutrients that people need to consume through dietary sources to maintain optimal health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) note that essential nutrients are crucial in supporting a person's reproduction, good health, and growth. The WHO divide these essential nutrients into two categories: micronutrients and macronutrients.
Micronutrients are nutrients that a person needs in small doses. Micronutrients consist of vitamins and minerals. Although the body only needs small amounts of them, a deficiency can cause ill health.
Macronutrients are nutrients that a person needs in larger amounts. Macronutrients include water, protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Keep reading for more information about where to find these nutrients, and why a person needs them.
The six essential nutrients are vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, water, and carbohydrates.
Vitamins are micronutrients that offer a range of health benefits, including:
- boosting the immune system
- helping prevent or delay certain cancers, such as prostate cancer
- strengthening teeth and bones
- aiding calcium absorption
- maintaining healthy skin
- helping the body metabolize proteins and carbs
- supporting healthy blood
- aiding brain and nervous system functioning
There are 13 essential vitamins that nutritionists divide into two groups: fat soluble and water soluble.
Fat soluble vitamins are:
Water soluble vitamins are:
- vitamin B-1 (thiamine)
- vitamin B-12 (cyanocobalamin)
- vitamin B-6
- vitamin B-2 (riboflavin)
- vitamin B-5 (pantothenic acid)
- vitamin B-3 (niacin)
- vitamin B-9 (folate, folic acid)
- vitamin B-7 (biotin)
- vitamin C
Typically, a person who eats a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins can get all the vitamins they need in their food. However, those who eat less fruit and vegetables, and those with digestive conditions may need to take a vitamin supplement to reduce or avoid a deficiency.
Minerals are the second type of micronutrients. There are two groups of minerals: major and trace minerals. The body needs a balance of minerals from both groups for optimal health.
Major minerals are:
Major minerals help the body to do the following:
- balance water levels
- maintain healthy skin, hair, and nails
- improve bone health
Trace minerals are:
Trace minerals help with:
- strengthening bones
- preventing tooth decay
- aiding in blood clotting
- helping to carry oxygen
- supporting the immune system
- supporting healthy blood pressure
A person can ensure they consume enough minerals by including the following foods in their diet.
Protein is a macronutrient that every cell in the body needs to function properly.
Proteins carry out a variety of functions, including:
- ensuring the growth and development of muscles, bones, hair, and skin
- forming antibodies, hormones, and other essential substances
- serving as a fuel source for cells and tissues when needed
A person can take in proteins through their diet. The following foods are good sources of protein:
- red meats (limit their use and choose lean cuts)
- poultry, including chicken and turkey
- fish and other seafood
- beans and legumes
- dairy products
- some grains, including quinoa
Although meats and fish tend to contain the highest levels of protein, vegans and vegetarians can get enough protein from various plant products.
People often associate high fat foods with bad health. However, a person needs certain fats to help maintain optimal health.
Fats provide the body with energy and help it carry out a range of functions. However, it is essential to consume healthful fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and limit or avoid saturated and trans fats.
Healthful fats help with the following functions:
- cell growth
- blood clotting
- building new cells
- reducing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes
- muscle movement
- balance blood sugar
- brain functioning
- mineral and vitamin absorption
- hormone production
- immune function
A person can find healthful fats in several foods, including:
- fish, such as salmon and tuna
- vegetable oils
- coconut oil
Carbohydrates are essential to the body. They are sugars or starches that provide energy for all the cells and tissues in the body.
There are two different types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. People should limit their intake of simple carbohydrates, such as white bread, pasta, and rice. However, the body needs complex carbohydrates to support the following:
- the immune system
- brain function
- the nervous system
- energy to perform tasks
- digestive function
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a person consumes 45–65% of their daily calories from complex carbohydrates.
The following foods contain complex carbohydrates:
- brown rice
- whole grain pasta, bread, and other baked goods
People should avoid overly processed products that contain bleached, white flour, and foods with added sugar.
Water is probably the most important essential nutrient that a person needs. A person can only survive a few days without consuming water. Even slight dehydration can cause headaches and impaired physical and mental functioning.
The human body is made up of mostly water, and every cell requires water to function. Water helps with several functions, including:
- flushing toxins out
- shock absorption
- transporting nutrients
- preventing constipation
The best source for water is to drink natural, unsweetened water from the tap or bottled sources. For people who do not like the taste of plain water, they can add a squeeze of lemon or other citrus fruits.
Also, a person can get extra water by consuming fruits that contain a large amount of water.
People should avoid getting their water intake from sugary drinks. Sugary drinks include sweetened teas, coffees, soda, lemonade, and fruit juices.
A person needs to consume all six types of essential nutrients to ensure the best possible health. These nutrients support vital functions, including growth, the immune, the central nervous system, and preventing disease.
Typically, a person who eats a healthful, balanced diet that includes lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, complex carbohydrates, and water will get the nutrients they need.
People with digestive issues, who take certain medications, or have other conditions may require supplements to help them get the body's essential nutrients.
An individual should speak to their doctor about any medical conditions and the medications they are taking before they start to take any supplements. Also, they may want to see a dietitian or nutritionist to discuss their nutritional intake before they begin taking any supplements.