Essential Nutrients Your Body Needs

Calcium, fiber, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and E—these nutrients have been flagged as nutrients of concern by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as Americans generally aren't eating enough of them. But what exactly are these essential nutrients, why do you need them, where can you find them, and how much of them do you need daily?

Nutrients

A nutrient is defined as a substance that provides nourishment essential for the growth and maintenance of life. All nutrients are broken down into two groups: macronutrients and micronutrients. Food is composed of both macro and micronutrients of different varieties and quantities. Generally, macronutrients are needed in larger amounts compared to micronutrients.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients provide the majority of the calories (or energy) you need for proper functioning. The three major macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

Carbohydrates

  • Why? Carbohydrates provide most of your energy; in fact, they are the sole source of energy for your brain. Carbs are broken down into sugars, starches, and fiber. One gram of carbohydrate provides four calories.
    • Fiber: A type of carbohydrate, fiber is incredibly important for your digestive health. It can be found in fruits, vegetables, and grains. It's recommended that men consume at least 38 grams per day and that women consume at least 25 grams.
  • Where? Carbohydrates can be found in grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and any other sugar- or starch-containing food.
  • How much? The brain needs at least 130 grams of carbohydrates daily just to function properly. Beyond that, the recommendation is that 45–65 percent of your total daily calorie intake should be from carbohydrate-rich foods.

Protein

  • Why? Protein helps you rebuild your muscles, bones, and skin.
  • Where? It can be found in meat, poultry, fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes.
  • How much? It's recommended that 10–35 percent of your total daily intake is from protein.

Fat

  • Why? Fat is a backup source of energy in the body. It also provides insulation, helps your body absorb other important nutrients, and is a key component of your cells.
  • Where? Fat is found in animal products, nuts, seeds, oils, butters, lards, and certain vegetables.
  • How much? The recommendation for fat is 20–35 percent of total daily intake.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are nutrients that you need trace amounts of for certain functions within your body. They're broken down into vitamins and minerals.

Vitamin/Mineral Functions Sources
Vitamin A Vision, bone growth, immune health Orange veggies and fruits (sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, apricot), dark leafy greens
B Vitamins All eight B vitamins are involved in energy metabolism Animal products including fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy
Vitamin C Immune function, growth and repair of cells Citrus fruit, kiwi, pineapple, strawberries, cantaloupe
Vitamin D Strong bones Fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, cheese, eggs, natural sunlight
Vitamin E Antioxidant that fights off damaging free radicals in the body Nuts, vegetable oils
Vitamin K Blood clotting, strong bones Dark leafy greens
Calcium Strong bones and teeth Dairy products, dark leafy greens, legumes
Magnesium Key component of enzymes in the body, energy and protein production, blood sugar, and pressure regulation Dark leafy greens, grains, legumes, bananas, yogurt
Phosphorus Bone, tooth, and tissue development Dairy products, beans, legumes, grains
Potassium Electricity conduction throughout the body Beans, dark leafy greens, potatoes, bananas, fish, yogurt
Iron Used for oxygen transfer in blood Meat, seeds, nuts, grains, tofu
Zinc Immune health Seafood, meat, grains, beans, nuts, dairy

Do you need to read every label and count how much of each macro and micronutrient you're consuming to ensure you're getting enough? No! In fact, the specific measurements of each micronutrient that's needed daily is excluded from such labels. But rest assured—by eating a balanced diet full of variety and rich in fruits and vegetables, you should be getting enough of each micro and macronutrient.

A good visual reference for creating balanced meals and snacks is the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate. If you're concerned that you're not eating enough fruits and vegetables (and therefore, not enough micronutrients), consider taking a multivitamin with minerals (from vitamin A to zinc). Otherwise, use the above information to build healthy, diverse meals for you and your family featuring the essential nutrients that everyone needs.