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Published on July 12, 2022

salmon with wild rice and veggies

Six Essential Nutrients for a Healthy Body

There is no question that food is our fuel. But what do we truly need from the food we eat?

A balanced diet is something that can help your whole body – and your health overall. But knowing what goes in is critical; here’s a quick look at the six big “needs” in nutrition.

Water

Water is actually the most critical thing we consume. Our bodies can go weeks without food, but only a few days without water. It’s got tons of jobs, including:

  • Temperature regulation
  • Maintenance of blood pressure and volume
  • Lubrication of joints
  • Protective cushioning, especially in the eyes and spine

Vitamins

We can synthesize vitamin D from sunlight, but for the most part the 13 vitamins we require come from food. Water-soluble vitamins include ones like vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B6, along with a few others. Water-soluble vitamins are easily destroyed by cooking and aren’t stored in the body so we must consume them regularly.

Fat-soluble vitamins – A, D, E and K – also are vital, but can be stored in the body so they are less critical day to day.

A variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help ensure you get them. They keep up your immune protection as well as countless other important physiological functions.

Minerals

Beyond their role in hardening bones, minerals are also involved in muscle contraction, nerve transmission, blood clotting, immunity, blood pressure maintenance as well as general growth and development.

Calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium and iron are ones we know, but magnesium, zinc, iodine, and many others are equally important.

Like vitamins, it can be hard to track mineral intake. But unlike their nutrient cousins, the cooking process doesn’t ruin them.

Don’t forget minerals can be toxic in big doses, and that’s why mineral supplements are not recommended.

Fats

In addition to transporting fat-soluble vitamins, the fats in food provide us that wonderful mouth feel and creaminess in food. They also are packed with energy.

Our bodies produce nearly all fatty acids, with the exception of omega-3s and 6. So make sure to eat grains, nuts, seeds and vegetables to get omega 6 fats. Eat fish weekly to get your heart-protective omega 3s.

These fats do a lot for us, like regulate blood pressure, blood clotting and immune response.

Protein

Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the basic structural material for nearly every part of the body. The 20 amino acids that make protein are put together in different ways to make all our parts, and nine of them cannot be made by the body.

Animal proteins are often referred to as complete proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids.

Quinoa, soy products and chia seeds are a few complete plant proteins. Legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and vegetables contain some – but not all – of these essential amino acids.

If you vary plant proteins throughout your day, you can ensure all needs are met. Proteins also give us energy.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates serve as the primary fuel for the brain, nervous system and red blood cells. Sugars, starches and fibers make up this family of nutrients, and the first is found in fruit and dairy products.

Starch is most common in grains, legumes and potatoes. Both make glucose we use as essential fuel, especially for brain function.

We don’t digest fiber, but we need it. Insoluble fiber from whole grains, wheat bran and vegetables helps keep us “regular,” while the soluble form in fruits, oats and legumes can help lower cholesterol.

Carb-cutting is a popular idea, but since it’s a critical fuel source, get 50 grams a day, at least.

Diets and nutrition can be complex, yet if you focus on these six simple ideas when eating, you’ll feel better.

Learn more about nutrition and your health by contacting Avera Heart Hospital of South Dakota Dietitian Lauren Cornay.

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