What are Nutrients and why do I need them?

So this post is a bit of a cheat – but not! I have been blogging recently (I promise!) but on a different site. I have been writing for the Clark County Food Bank (CCFB) blog, where I work as an AmeriCorps Nutrition Educator. I am so happy I get to incorporate blogging into my job, but I also have not been paying attention to this blog so much.

I think part of that has to do with the tone of my posts on here. Honestly, to me it is quite bland! I need to spice it up a bit! I started this blog to share with other nutrition minded individuals who are or want to be dietitians. But now, I am seeing that I have a lot more to share with the world! So this blog may become less  about only dietetic related activities and more about my journey of life in general. I am slowly learning that while figuring out my career is very important, there are so many other experiences I am having that are shaping me as a person. I know y’all don’t wanna miss out on those too! 😉

This post is part of a series that I just started for the Clark County Food Bank. I will be writing about the basics of nutrition. This is information we share with individuals who attend our cooking classes. After you read this blog post feel free to follow the link at the end to the CCFB wordpress blog to learn more about the classes and other programs we offer! It is pretty amazing.


This week is all about nutrients. Fundamentally, nutrition is a combination of chemistry and biology. With that in mind, nutrition can get pretty complex! No worries though; I won’t be teaching you about the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex (although I found this cool website that will!). Instead, lets ask and answer the questions of:

  1. What are nutrients?
  2. Why do I need them?

What are nutrients?

Nutrients can be defined as “the substances in food that provides structural or functional components or energy to the body” (University of Utah). To take this concept a step further, we define what an essential nutrient is: a substance that must be obtained from the diet because the body cannot make it in sufficient quantity to meet its needs.

This definition talks about our diet. This use of the word diet refers to the foods that we ingest on a daily basis. There are five categories of nutrients that are considered essential to our body. A basic description is given for each nutrient along with quality food choices, which are better choices because they give our bodies what they need to be healthy.

  1. Carbohydrates: simple (sugars) and complex (starches and fiber). Quality carbohydrate foods include: minimally processed grains such as oats, whole grain breads and pasta, no sugar added dairy, fruits, and vegetables
  2. Protein: the building blocks of proteins are called amino acids. There are 9 amino acids that we must receive from foods. Quality protein sources are: low-fat animal products, such as eggs, fish, skinless poultry, non-fat cheeses and yogurts (especially Greek yogurt); non-animal protein includes beans, nuts, lentils, quinoa, seeds, dark leafy greens, and many other vegetables!
  3. Fat: the fat our bodies need is called unsaturated fat, especially a class of fats called the omega-3 fatty acids, which we must receive from our diet. Quality dietary fat is received by oils from vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, peanuts, and avocados.
  4. Vitamins and minerals: The vitamins our body needs are separated into two groups: Fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K; and water soluble vitamins C and vitamin B group. The minerals our body needs are also separated into two groups: macrominerals – calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfur; and trace minerals – iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride, and selenium.We receive many of our vitamins from a diet that has a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables as well as quality protein, grain, and diary sources.
  5. Water: the majority of our bodies is water, so it is definitely essential! Drinking water throughout the day and with meals will ensure that you stay hydrated. We also receive water from our food! Aim to drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day. (Example: a 150 lb person should drink at least 75 ounces of water).

Now, to answer the even more important question of….

Why do I need nutrients?

We already established that these five categories of nutrients are essential to meet our body’s needs. Now to understand how each nutrient plays a critical role in healthy body function.

  1. Carbohydrates: the primary source of fuel for our bodies. They give us energy to complete our tasks and our brain energy to think and create! Quality carbohydrates give us lasting energy and help us stay full after eating.
  2. Protein: builds muscles and  organs; also repairs and replaces body tissue as we  grow and develop. Remember the amino acid building blocks I talked about? They are broken down from dietary proteins and are rebuilt into body tissues! How cool. Getting low-fat protein ensures we receive those amino acids without getting too many calories that our body cannot use.
  3. Fat: reserve of energy; keeps bones and joints well oiled; protects our organs like a cushion; helps in absorption of some vitamins. See, fat is very important! But fat does carry 2x the calories per gram than proteins or carbohydrates, which is why we need to get the most quality fats we can! Unsaturated (good) fat also helps to lower “bad” cholesterol. Whereas saturated (bad) fat actually raises “bad” cholesterol and can lead to heart disease!
  4. Vitamins and Minerals: support bone health (Calcium and Vitamin D); prevent birth defects (Folic Acid); helps carry oxygen to the whole body by red blood cells (Iron); and so much more!! Each vitamin and mineral plays a very special function. Deficiency in any of them can have serious health effects, especially during prenatal and childhood development.
  5. Water: I already mentioned that it is the major component of our body. Water also helps carry nutrients to all parts of the body. So after our body has digested the carbohydrates, proteins, fat, vitamins, and minerals from food, water is there to take the nutrients to where they need to go in order to do their job!

That is a lot of information for one post! We made a little infrographic to help you visual learners. Feel free to save and share.

Essential Nutrients graphic

Nutrition information can get very confusing and complicated, but when it comes down to it we can always come back to the basics of nutrients to determine which foods we need to include in our diet to be healthy and happy.

In our next post we will cover a short anatomy and physiology lesson of how our food is digested! This will help us tie together how important it is we receive quality sources of food.

To learn more about the Nutrition Education program at the Clark County Food Bank go here: https://clarkcountyfoodbankblog.wordpress.com/
*This blog post was originally published by myself, Lauren Cameron, on the Clark County Food Bank wordpress blog.

University of Utah, 2000. NetBiochem Nutrition.  http://library.med.utah.edu/NetBiochem/nutrition/lect1/2_1.html


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