The basics of nutrients
Having a balanced diet is essential to ensuring you are properly fueling your body. While dietary needs vary based on the needs of the individual, most people should be consuming a balanced diet consisting of all the macronutrients and a good variety of micro nutrients. Unless directed by a doctor for specific needs or for specific times, you should be cautious of any eating plans that severely limit or completely restrict entire nutrients. Your body needs variety to function properly for long-term health.
There are six types of nutrients that the body needs. These nutrients consist of the macro-nutrients which are protein, fats, and carbohydrates, water, and the micro-nutrients, which include vitamins and minerals. You may also consume other foods that contain non-nutrients, meaning they are not essential but they may be beneficial (like antioxidants), neutral (food additives), or harmful (some additives can be harmful, as well as too much alcohol).
Macro-nutrients are the foods that contain the energy (calories) you body needs to survive. Macro-nutrients are made up of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, all which play essential roles in the body.
Protein is required for muscle growth, bone health, and many of the hormonal and chemical reactions that occur in the body. Protein can be found in meat, seafood, and dairy products and from plant sources such as soy. You can also find protein supplements (protein shakes) when you are not reaching your protein goals with your diet alone. A variety of lean protein included in your diet is necessary to build strong, healthy bodies.
Fats are also essential for the health of your body. Although fat was demonized for a period of time, it is in fact necessary to have fat in your diet because fat stores energy, is important for cell health, protects organs, and helps to regulate body temperature. Fats also help the body to absorb the vitamins and minerals found in other foods. When choosing fats to add in your diet, you want to primarily choose unsaturated fats that also have other nutrients, such as olive oil, avocados, fatty fish, and nuts and seeds.
Carbohydrates are essential as they are the nutrients that give us energy. Simple carbohydrates (sugar) provide immediate energy for the body, whereas complex-carbohydrates give the long lasting energy. Complex carbohydrates can be found in grains, starchy vegetables, and fruit. Another carb, fiber, is essential for proper digestion. Carbohydrates are necessary for glucose creation, and for proper heart, kidney, and nervous system function.
The micro-nutrients are the vitamins and minerals in our food that are necessary for many bodily functions. There are 16 essential minerals and 13 essential vitamins needed by the body. Micro-nutrients on their own do not contain energy (calories) but are components of those macro-nutrients. Minerals ensure proper fluid balance, bone health, energy production, and hormone production and regulation. Vitamins assist with metabolism, aid in growth, promote good vision, build a healthy immune system, and other bodily needs.
The last nutrient is water. It does not have energy (calories), but is crucial to everything the body does. Water moves all the nutrients around the body, helps flush waste from your system, and aids in regulation of body temperature. Humans are mostly water--so it's important not to forget about water when considering what a healthy diet looks like.
If you have questions about your individual dietary needs, please talk with your doctor. While there are general recommendations, your needs are going to depend on a number of factors, especially if you are considering or have undergone bariatric surgery. If you have questions about vitamin and mineral levels, your doctor can do blood work to test those levels as well, to see if you have deficiencies in any essential nutrient. They may recommend certain foods or supplements to increase those vitamin/nutrient levels.