Food provides the energy and nutrients you need to be healthy. Nutrients include:
Protein is in every cell in the body. Our bodies need protein from the foods we eat to build and maintain bones, muscles and skin. We get proteins in our diet from meat, dairy products, nuts, and certain grains and beans. Proteins from meat and other animal products are complete proteins. This means they supply all of the amino acids the body can’t make on its own. Most plant proteins are incomplete. You should eat different types of plant proteins every day to get all of the amino acids your body needs.
It is important to get enough dietary protein. You need to eat protein every day, because your body doesn’t store it the way it stores fats or carbohydrates. How much you need depends on your age, sex, health, and level of physical activity. Most Americans eat enough protein in their diet.
Carbohydrates are one of the main types of nutrients. They are the most important source of energy for your body. Your digestive system changes carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar). Your body uses this sugar for energy for your cells, tissues and organs. It stores any extra sugar in your liver and muscles for when it is needed.
Carbohydrates are called simple or complex, depending on their chemical structure. Simple carbohydrates include sugars found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products. They also include sugars added during food processing and refining. Complex carbohydrates include whole grain breads and cereals, starchy vegetables and legumes. Many of the complex carbohydrates are good sources of fiber.
Fiber is commonly classified as soluble, which dissolves in water, or insoluble, which doesn’t dissolve.
- Soluble fiber. This type of fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material. It can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Soluble fiber is found in oats, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables.
- Insoluble fiber. This type of fiber promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and adds bulk to the stool, so it can be of benefit to those who struggle with constipation or irregular stools. Insoluble fiber is found in foods such as wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains.
For a healthy diet, limit the amount of added sugar that you eat and choose whole grains over refined grains.
We need a certain amount of fat in our diets to stay healthy. Fats provide needed energy in the form of calories. Fats help our bodies absorb important vitamins—called fat-soluble vitamins—including vitamins A, D and E. Fats also make foods more flavorful and help us feel full. Fats are especially important for infants and toddlers, because dietary fat contributes to proper growth and development.
Problems arise, though, if we eat too much fat. Dietary fats have more than twice as many calories per gram as either proteins or carbohydrates like sugar and starch. Excess calories, of course, can pack on the pounds and raise your risk for diabetes, cancer and other conditions.
Foods can contain a mixture of different fats. Unsaturated fats are considered “good” fats. They’re sometimes listed as “monounsaturated” and “polyunsaturated” fat on Nutrition Facts labels. These can promote health if eaten in the right amounts. They are generally liquid at room temperature, and are known as oils. You’ll find healthful unsaturated fats in fish, nuts and most vegetable oils, including canola, corn, olive and safflower oils.
The so-called “bad” fats are saturated fats and trans fats. They tend to be solid at room temperature. Solid fats include butter, meat fats, stick margarine, shortening, and coconut and palm oils. They’re often found in chocolates, baked goods, and deep-fried and processed foods.
Vitamins are substances that your body needs to grow and develop normally. There are 13 vitamins your body needs. They are:
- Vitamin A
- B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12 and folate)
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
Vitamins are classified as either fat soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K) or water soluble (vitamins B and C). This difference between the two groups is very important as it determines how each vitamin acts within the body.
You can usually get all your vitamins from the foods you eat. Your body can also make vitamins D and K. People who eat a vegetarian diet may need to take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Each vitamin has specific jobs. If you have low levels of certain vitamins, you may get health problems. For example, if you don’t get enough vitamin C, you could become anemic. Some vitamins may help prevent medical problems. Vitamin A prevents night blindness.
The best way to get enough vitamins is to eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods. In some cases, you may need to take vitamin supplements. It’s a good idea to ask your health care provider first. High doses of some vitamins can cause problems.
Minerals are important for your body to stay healthy. Your body uses minerals for many different jobs, including building bones, making hormones and regulating your heartbeat.
There are two kinds of minerals: macrominerals and trace minerals. Macrominerals are minerals your body needs in larger amounts. They include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur. Your body needs just small amounts of trace minerals. These include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride and selenium.
Water is your body’s principal chemical component and makes up about 60 percent of your body weight. Every system in your body depends on water. For example, water flushes toxins out of vital organs, carries nutrients to your cells, and provides a moist environment for ear, nose and throat tissues.
Lack of water can lead to dehydration, a condition that occurs when you don’t have enough water in your body to carry out normal functions. Even mild dehydration can drain your energy and make you tired.
Every day you lose water through your breath, perspiration, urine and bowel movements. For your body to function properly, you must replenish its water supply by consuming beverages and foods that contain water.
Choose Nutrient-dense Foods
To eat well, it’s best to choose a mix of nutrient-dense foods every day. Nutrient-dense foods are foods that have a lot of nutrients but relatively few calories. Look for foods that contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats.