Eating a balanced diet that contains all the nutrients your body needs is key to staying healthy. There are 6 main nutrient groups that provide energy and keep your body functioning properly. These essential nutrients are carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. They are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. Carbs provide fuel for the central nervous system and energy for working muscles. There are two main types of carbs:
- Simple carbs: Found naturally in foods like fruits, milk, and vegetables. They also include added sugars like sucrose, glucose, and fructose.
- Complex carbs: Found in whole grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, and beans. Your body breaks complex carbs down more slowly, providing longer-lasting energy.
During digestion, carbs break down into glucose which then enters the bloodstream. Glucose is carried to cells throughout your body where it’s used for energy. Any excess glucose gets stored in your liver and muscles for later use. It’s recommended that 45-65% of your daily calorie intake comes from carbs.
Benefits of Carbohydrates
- Main source of energy for the body
- Fuel the brain and central nervous system
- Help metabolize fat and protein
- Promote gastrointestinal health
- Complex carbs provide longer lasting energy and fiber
Food Sources of Carbohydrates
Protein is an essential macronutrient that helps build lean muscle mass, repair cells, and make enzymes and hormones. It’s commonly found in foods like meat, eggs, dairy, nuts, beans, and seafood. Your body breaks down protein into amino acids. There are 20 amino acids total and 9 of them are considered essential because your body cannot produce them on its own.
Consuming protein provides amino acids that create new cells, maintain tissues, and synthesize important compounds. Protein is especially important for growth, development, and healing wounds. It’s recommended that 10-35% of your daily calories come from protein.
Benefits of Protein
- Builds and repairs body tissues
- Makes enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals
- Builds lean muscle mass when combined with exercise
- Boosts metabolism and promotes satiety
- Strengthens immune function
- Needed for proper growth and development
Food Sources of Protein
- Lean meats
- Dairy products
- Soy products
Despite being vilified in the past, fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. Fat helps your body absorb vital nutrients, provides insulation to regulate body temperature, cushions and protects your organs, and is critical for proper brain function. Your body needs healthy fats to function at its best. There are several types of dietary fat:
- Unsaturated fats: Found primarily in plant-based foods and oils. They are considered healthy fats.
- Monounsaturated fats: Olive oil, avocados, nuts
- Polyunsaturated fats: Vegetable oils, salmon
- Saturated fats: Found mostly in animal products like meat and dairy. Eating too much may negatively impact heart health so they should be consumed in moderation.
- Trans fats: Formed through hydrogenation in processed foods. Trans fats should be avoided as much as possible.
It’s recommended that 25-35% of your daily calories should come from healthy fats. Balance is key – too much or too little fat can negatively impact health.
Benefits of Fat
- Provides energy for the body
- Helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K
- Insulates and cushions organs
- Maintains cell membrane health
- Plays a role in hormone production
- Reduces inflammation
- Satisfies hunger
Food Sources of Healthy Fats
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Chia seeds
- Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel
- Nuts and seeds
- Nut butters
- Full-fat dairy
Vitamins are essential micronutrients that serve many roles in the body. Since your body cannot produce most vitamins, you need to consume them through food. There are 13 essential vitamins that support bone, skin, eye, and heart health, boost immunity, facilitate mineral absorption, and more. The 13 vitamins are:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B7 (biotin)
- Vitamin B9 (folate/folic acid)
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
Each vitamin has specific functions. Since they work synergistically, consuming a variety of vitamin-rich foods is important to get all the benefits vitamins provide.
Benefits of Vitamins
- Convert food into energy
- Repair cellular damage
- Support bone health
- Produce red blood cells
- Improve immunity
- Boost mood
- Maintain healthy vision
- Promote healthy pregnancy
- Improve heart health
Food Sources of Vitamins
You can meet your vitamin needs by eating a balanced diet with a variety of these vitamin-rich foods:
- Fruits: Citrus fruits, berries, melons, tomatoes, bananas
- Vegetables: Leafy greens, broccoli, bell peppers, potatoes, carrots
- Grains: Fortified whole grain cereals and breads
- Dairy: Milk, yogurt, cheese
- Protein foods: Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans
- Nuts and seeds
- Healthy oils: Olive oil, flaxseed oil
Minerals are inorganic micronutrients that serve a variety of functions. Major minerals your body needs in larger amounts include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfur. Trace minerals like iron, iodine, zinc, copper, fluoride, chromium, manganese, selenium, and molybdenum are also essential but required in smaller amounts.
Minerals help build and maintain strong bones and teeth, control your metabolism, and play a role in muscle and nerve function. They assist in energy production, heartbeat rhythm, and blood pressure regulation. Minerals also help you form red blood cells and boost immunity.
Benefits of Minerals
- Support bone density
- Assist muscular and neurological function
- Regulate body fluids
- Maintain electrolyte balance
- Build proteins and enzymes
- Boost energy through metabolism
- Strengthen immune system
Food Sources of Minerals
You can consume minerals through these foods:
- Calcium: Dairy products, leafy greens, beans
- Phosphorus: Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy
- Magnesium: Nuts, seeds, whole grains, leafy greens
- Sodium: Table salt, processed foods, milk, beets
- Potassium: Fruits, vegetables, beans, dairy
- Iron: Meat, poultry, seafood, beans, dark leafy greens
- Zinc: Meat, shellfish, dairy, nuts and seeds
- Iodine: Seafood, iodized salt, dairy products
Water makes up about 60% of your body weight. It’s essential for every bodily function. Staying hydrated regulates body temperature, lubricates joints, flushes waste, transports nutrients, and keeps organs functioning properly. Even mild dehydration can drain your energy, impair cognition, and provoke headaches. Adequate water is vital for clear skin, optimal physical performance, digestion, and kidney health.
The Institute of Medicine recommends women consume 2.7 liters (91 ounces) of water daily from both foods and beverages. The recommendation for men is 3.7 liters (125 ounces) daily. About 20% of your water intake comes from food, so aim to drink 9-13 cups of fluid for women and 12-16 cups for men each day.
Benefits of Water
- Regulates body temperature
- Cushions joints and protects tissues
- Flushes waste from the body
- Transports oxygen and nutrients to cells
- Powers physical performance
- Aids digestion and prevents constipation
- Carries electrical signals to the brain and body
Sources of Water
The primary source of water is from drinking plain water. You also consume water from other beverages and foods. Sources include:
- Fruit and vegetable juices
- Fruits and vegetables
Consuming adequate carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and water is fundamental to supporting all aspects of health. Each nutrient group works synergistically to keep the body functioning optimally. Eating a balanced diet with nutrient-dense whole foods can provide the essential micronutrients and macronutrients your body requires. Pairing healthy eating with regular physical activity, sufficient sleep, and stress management forms the foundation for a long, healthy life.