Published 22nd August 2022

Understanding the different types of nutrients

Nutrients are molecules in food that are vital for bodily functions. Everything your body does requires nutrients — whether that’s breathing, growing, thinking, or moving around.

Your body needs certain nutrients in large amounts, like carbohydrates, protein, fats, and water. These are called macronutrients. 

On the other hand, micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, are nutrients that your body only needs small amounts of.

Though your body needs varying amounts of different nutrients, they are all important.

Here at ZOE, we know all bodies respond differently to foods, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for nutrition. With the ZOE at-home test, you can learn about your body’s unique food responses, as well as the “good” and “bad” bugs living in your gut.

From this, we can provide you with nutrition advice specifically tailored to your body.

To get started, take our free quiz.

Macronutrients

The prefix “macro” comes from the Greek word for “large.” Macronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in large amounts. 

These include fats, carbohydrates, protein, and water.

Each macronutrient plays its own role in keeping your body functioning properly, and each is an important component of a balanced and healthy diet.  

Fats

Fats are important for a variety of bodily functions, such as:

  • giving you energy

  • keeping you warm

  • helping you absorb certain vitamins

  • supporting your cells in functioning properly

There are three main types of dietary fat: saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat. 

Saturated fat

Red meat, butter, cheese, and certain oils — including plant oils like coconut and palm oils — are common sources of saturated fat.

Currently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend limiting saturated fats, as these increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. LDL is the “bad” type of cholesterol that can increase your risk of heart disease

However, recent evidence suggests that the link between saturated fat and poor health may not be as clear cut as scientists once thought. Rather, your diet in its entirety can impact your risk of chronic health conditions. 

Unsaturated fat

Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and may help promote heart health by lowering the risk of heart disease. There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. 

Foods like avocados, nuts, and olive and canola oils typically contain monounsaturated fats.

Walnuts, fish, and sunflower oil are good sources of polyunsaturated fats. 

Scientists have linked omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, with multiple health benefits, such as:

  • promoting heart health

  • improving the health of moms and babies during pregnancy

  • reducing cancer risk

  • reducing inflammation

  • potentially improving mental health

Your body can’t make them, so you must get these fatty acids from food. Many types of fish, as well as chia seeds and flaxseed oil, are good sources of omega-3s.

Trans fat

Manufacturers make partially hydrogenated oil, or trans fat, by processing vegetable oil. 

Trans fats lead to poor heart health and blood sugar control, and increased inflammation. The United States has banned the use of trans fats, but the United Kingdom still allows it.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are tiny sugar molecules in food. Your body takes these molecules and turns them into glucose — the body’s main source of energy. 

All carbs are vital for a healthy diet, but different types of carbohydrates affect your body in different ways

There are three main types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and fiber.

Sugars

Sugars, also known as simple carbohydrates, are quickly and easily broken down and absorbed by your body. There are different types of sugar: added, free, and naturally occurring. 

Added sugars, as the name suggests, are added during the manufacturing process. 

Many highly processed foods, like baked sweets and candy, contain added sugars.

Free sugars actually include added sugars, as well as the sugars in honey, syrups, fruit and vegetable juices, and juice concentrates. 

Fruits, dairy, and vegetables are sources of naturally occurring sugar. The sugar in these isn't categorized as free sugar because it occurs naturally within the foods, along with fiber and other nutrients.

Starches

Starches are chains of simple sugars linked together. They’re considered complex carbohydrates and take longer for your body to break down. 

Grains and some vegetables, like peas and potatoes, contain starches.

Fiber

Fiber is a complex carbohydrate that your body can’t digest. 

There are different types of fiber, and each comes with different health benefits, such as promoting heart, gut, and digestive health. Whole grains, beans, vegetables, and some fruits can all be good sources of fiber.

Some fiber is prebiotic, meaning it feeds the “good” bacteria in your gut that can benefit your health.

Protein

Proteins are large, complex molecules found in every cell and tissue in your body. 

Amino acids are the building blocks that make up proteins. The organization of these amino acids determines the protein’s specific shape and function. 

There are more than 10,000 different proteins in your body, and they play a variety of important roles, such as:

  • providing energy

  • protecting against harmful bacteria and viruses

  • helping different tissues and organs work together

  • providing structure for cells

  • transporting molecules around your body

There are 20 types of amino acids in the body, and nine of these are “essential.” This means that your body can’t make them, so you have to get them from food. 

Foods with protein are either complete or incomplete, based on how many of the nine essential amino acids they contain. Complete proteins contain all nine, while incomplete proteins are missing at least one.

Animal products, such as beef, eggs, dairy, chicken, and fish, tend to be good sources of complete proteins.

Plant-based foods typically lack one or more of the essential amino acids. But a diverse plant-based diet that includes beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts should meet all your requirements.

Water

One of the simplest ways to improve your health is by drinking enough water. Water is involved in many bodily functions, such as:

  • controlling body temperature

  • lubricating joints

  • transporting nutrients

  • supporting healthy organ functioning

Everyone’s needs are different, but generally, a good daily target is about 6–8 cups, or 2 liters. 

Water can also come from the foods you eat. Some foods with a high water content include:

  • cucumber

  • celery

  • iceberg lettuce

  • zucchini

  • watermelon

  • strawberries

  • cauliflower

Micronutrients

While “macro” means large, “micro” means small. Micronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in smaller amounts. They include a variety of vitamins and minerals. 

Vitamins

Vitamins are compounds that your body needs to perform a variety of important functions. Most vitamins are essential, meaning that your body can’t make them. 

Vitamins are either fat soluble or water soluble, based on how they dissolve

Vitamins A, D, E, and K dissolve in fat. Vitamin C and the B vitamins all dissolve in water. 

The vitamins that dissolve in fat can build up in your body, so it’s important not to have too much of them. On the other hand, your body can get rid of the water-soluble vitamins, so they don’t carry the same risk.

Getting too much or not enough of a vitamin in your diet can have health consequences, so there are intake recommendations that can serve as a guide. 

There are 13 essential vitamins, and you can get them from a variety of food sources. These include:

  • vitamin A: beef liver, spinach, mangos, carrots, and sweet potatoes

  • vitamin B1: pork, black beans, egg noodles, and enriched or fortified grains

  • vitamin B2 (riboflavin): beef liver, yogurt, oats, and fortified grains

  • vitamin B3: chicken breast, beef liver, peanuts, brown rice, and turkey breast

  • vitamin B6: chickpeas, potatoes, beef liver, and yellowfin tuna

  • vitamin B12: clams, beef liver, bluefin tuna, eggs, and some breakfast cereals

  • vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid): beef liver, fortified breakfast cereals, and shitake mushrooms

  • vitamin B7 (biotin): eggs, sunflower seeds, beef liver, and canned salmon

  • vitamin B9 (folate or folic acid): beef liver, asparagus, spinach, and black-eyed peas

  • vitamin C: sweet red pepper, oranges, and kiwi

  • vitamin D: cod liver oil, white mushrooms, eggs, oat and almond milks, and rainbow trout

  • vitamin E: wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds, and almonds

  • vitamin K: collard greens, turnip greens, and spinach

Also, your body can make vitamin D by spending time in sunlight. And the bacteria in your gut can make vitamin K, but it’s more effective when it comes from food.

Minerals

Foods also contain minerals, elements that your body needs to function and develop properly. As with vitamins, eating too little or too much of a mineral can have negative side effects, so each mineral has a recommended intake level. 

There are two categories of minerals, based on how much you need. Macrominerals are minerals you need in larger amounts, while trace minerals are those you only need in very small amounts.

Macrominerals and good sources of them include:

Trace minerals include: 

  • iron: oysters, white beans, and beef liver

  • manganese: mussels and hazelnuts

  • copper: beef liver, oysters, and unsweetened chocolate

  • iodine: cod and dried seaweed

  • zinc: beef roast and crab

  • cobalt: fish, nuts, and broccoli

  • fluoride: often found in fluoridated drinking water and shrimp

  • selenium: Brazil nuts, yellowfin tuna, and halibut

How do I include all the nutrients in my diet?

If you eat a balanced diet, rich in colorful, high-quality, nutrient-dense plant foods, you should be getting all of the nutrients that your body needs. 

Trying to eat more plants? Here are 10 ways to add more plants into your diet

Your body is a finely tuned machine, capable of utilizing the nutrients in your food to keep you healthy. 

Your precise nutrient requirements depend on your personal circumstances. Dietary patterns, such as following a vegan diet, and life stages, like pregnancy, may mean that your personal requirements of certain nutrients are higher or lower. 

You can check with a healthcare professional to find out what your personal nutrient requirements are. 

Summary

Nutrients are substances in food that your body needs to function. While your body needs more of certain nutrients, they are all important for your health.

Nutrients that your body needs in larger amounts are called macronutrients. These include fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and water. They each serve different and important functions. 

Micronutrients are nutrients your body only needs in small amounts, and they include vitamins and minerals. Though your body requires less of them, they are also very important for your health.

To get the wide range of the necessary macronutrients and micronutrients, aim to eat a varied, colorful diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. 

At ZOE, we know how important nutrition is for being the healthiest version of yourself. And since every person is unique, the best way to eat for your body will vary from person to person.

With the ZOE at-home test, you can learn about your blood fat and blood sugar responses to different foods. You’ll also receive a breakdown of the “good” and “bad” bugs living in your gut.

With this, we can provide you with personalized nutrition advice specific to your body.

Take our free quiz to get started.

Sources

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