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Essential Nutrients: What Your Body Needs

Author:Britt Maughan R.D.
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Essential Nutrients

The body is an amazing machine that can do so much to keep it functioning, however, there are nutrients that the body cannot make and must be obtained from other sources such as food or supplements. These are known as essential nutrients – and are organized into six different categories: vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, carbohydrates, and water. 

As athletes, we tend to be deficient in vitamins & minerals, essential fatty acids, and essential amino acids. These are the three areas we typically focus on when it comes to supplementation. The other categories – carbohydrates and water are worth mentioning – but are easily obtained and fulfilled through a balanced diet. 

Vitamins
Vitamins are foundational nutrients that play multiple functions in the body from energy metabolism to building bones, brain tissue, and providing overall support to the immune system. Most vitamins are considered essential, but your body can make a few of them such as vitamin D and vitamin K*. However, most people are found to be deficient in both and need to eat foods rich in both vitamins. All other vitamins are essential – and can be grouped into two categories: fat soluble (A, D, E, and K) and water soluble (B vitamins and C). To learn more about vitamins, their function, and what food sources and supplements contain each type, read our Vitamins & Minerals article. 

Minerals
Minerals are inorganic compounds that are not made by living things, but are absorbed by plants and eaten by animals.  Humans obtain minerals from the plants and animals they eat. Electrolytes and trace elements are the two main groups of minerals. Electrolytes are needed in larger quantities and include sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.  Trace elements include chromium, cobalt, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and zinc. Read more about the functions, benefits, and sources of minerals in our Vitamins & Minerals article. 

Protein
Your body needs protein to build and repair tissues. Protein is made from amino acids with 21 used by the human body in total, but your body cannot make them all – with 9 considered essential. Dietary protein is the main source of amino acids – both animal and plant sources. Complete proteins contain all necessary amino acids and include foods such as fish, lean meat, poultry, eggs, and cheese. Incomplete proteins include grains, legumes, nuts and seeds – all should be eaten to ensure you get a full range of amino acids. For vegetarians or vegans, complete proteins can be found in quinoa, buckwheat, and soy – or by combining foods together such as a peanut butter and whole grain bread. Click to read more about amino acids and protein powders to get your essential amino acids

Fats
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are required by the body for multiple functions and benefits. The two fatty acids that are considered essential are linoleic and alpha-linolenic. These particular fatty acids are used to build omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. There are three types of Omega-3 fats in the diet: EPA and DHA (both found in seafood and fish) and ALA (mostly found in plant foods).  Omega-6 fats are highly available in the western diet, and although they are considered ‘’essential’’ it is rare to be low in these fats. Read more in our Power of Omega Fats article. 

Carbohydrates

Glucose is the simplest form of sugar and is used as the primary fuel for energy production in the brain, muscles, organs, and tissues throughout the body.  Since your body cannot manufacture carbohydrates, you must obtain them from the diet where they are then broken down into glucose and used by body and stored as glycogen. While glucose can be made from proteins and fats, carbohydrates offer the fastest pathway to glucose, and offer a variety of vitamins and minerals when coming from quality sources such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Read our Carbohydrates for Performance article for more information. 

Water 
The human body is roughly 60% water and the fluid supply must be maintained daily for your body to function properly. In harsh conditions, you can live about 3 weeks without food, but only 3-7 days without water. Yikes! That being said, water is necessary to keep every living cell functioning. It acts as a lubricant for our joints, regulates our body temperature, delivers nutrients and oxygen to cells, and flushes out waste. We can meet our fluid requirements simply through drinking good old water and other beverages (about 80%) and from our food (about 20%). At this point, the recommendation of 8 cups a day is out, and drinking when thirsty is in. However, athletes have higher fluid recommendations and have to be more mindful of dehydration during training and competition – as fluids need to be replaced as it’s lost through sweat (along with electrolytes)*.  To read more about hydration read What’s in Your Bottle and Electrolytes: Hydration for Performance

Bottom Line
In order to keep your body functioning at its best it’s important to maintain a balanced diet rich in a variety of quality foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and healthy fats - along with plenty of water. As athletes, nutrient needs can often be greater due the physical demands of training and competition. Supplementation can help address deficiencies and improve performance. At minimum, we suggest taking a quality multivitamin and fish oil supplement. From there, amino acids can be a great addition to increase energy, improve performance, and speed up recovery. 
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*Vitamin D is synthesized by the skin cells using sunlight – but if you don’t get enough sunlight, you could be deficient (with roughly 42% of the US is deficient) and could need supplementation. Vitamin K comes in three forms, the bacteria that lines your intestinal tract makes K2, however, vitamin K deficiency is also common and you can increase your vitamin K with specific foods.   

*For athletes, hydration must be maintained before, during and after workouts for peak performance. Recommendations are different for every athlete – depending on body weight, sport, duration and environment. However, something as simple as urine color can help determine hydration status. It’s also important to note your sweat rate during exercise, as well as your body weight before and after training and competition. 


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