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What Are Nutrients and Why Are They Important?

The human body is the greatest machine on earth and is composed entirely of molecules derived from the food we eat. The fuel to make the body work smoothly depends on what is contained in our food and how well we digest and absorb the nutrients and other beneficial components within it. Food doesn’t just provide the raw material for energy to keep the heart beating and the muscles working (although it does this incredibly efficiently), it also provides the body with all the microscopic building blocks it needs to carry out a staggering number of highly complex biochemical tasks at every moment.

The nutrients in food are made available to the body once the food is digested (broken down) into its separate nutrients. These are then transported to the areas of the body that require them by being absorbed through the gut membrane into our blood system and lymphatic system (our drainage and filtration system which is composed of lymph vessels and nodes). For this to work efficiently and effectively, the gut membrane must be healthy, and this requires good quality, healthy food. The majority of food available today, however, is very poor in quality. To get the most benefit from your diet, it is important to select food carefully to ensure that it is fresh, organic, unrefined, and nutrient dense.

One of the most important messages you can take away from this passage is this:

Without the correct levels of nutrients, your body will not function optimally, and illness, and disease will be inevitable. Your body’s nutritional needs are as unique to you as your appearance. We are all biologically unique and we all have different nutrient requirements based upon our age, biochemical individuality, genetics, health status, medications, poor dietary selections (including processed and low nutrient-dense foods), lifestyle choices, and toxic exposure.

Studies sponsored by the U.S. government have identified that 80 percent of the American public are not getting the required daily amount of certain nutrients due to poor food choices. As a result there is a current pandemic in preventable conditions, symptoms, illness, and disease. Reaching your optimal intake is an absolute must if you are to achieve functional health and wellness—this includes absence from illness and disease, a long, healthy lifespan and high physical and mental performance.

Nutrients derived from foods are found in different forms including:
  • Vitamins; including the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and the water-soluble vitamins C and the B vitamins.
  • Trace elements, such as selenium, manganese, molybdenum, and chromium.
  • Plant chemicals, including bioflavonoids, and antioxidants such as quercetin.
  • Fiber, both soluble and insoluble, to support gut health and the elimination of toxins.
  • Water for hydration (the body is approximately 72 percent water).

These nutrients are all responsible for playing different roles in supporting the way the body functions, including:
  • For survival
  • For growth
  • To self-heal and repair the body
  • To form structures such as muscle mass, bone tissue, and organ tissue
  • To provide energy for the body to utilize
  • To assist in natural chemical reactions in the body
  • To make antioxidants, enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters, which are essential for good health, both mentally and physically

If the body does not receive the nutrients it requires in the quantities it needs, it will simply malfunction and eventually break down, and disease and illness will be inevitable. In order to keep this from happening it is essential to consume healthy food and to take specific supplements.

Unfortunately, much of our food also comes complete with a range of contaminants and noxious substances. Although some of these occur quite naturally, many more enter the food chain during production: by being sprayed on crops; in the feed given to livestock; or added during processing, preparation or packaging. Over-farmed soils become degraded and also lead to many foods being deficient in levels of nutrients.

The problem of food being low in nutrients and containing contaminants is widespread and a highly contentious issue that has been created by modern intensive-farming methods, global food markets, and (generally Western) shopping, cooking, and eating habits. We have ourselves to blame to a large extent for this situation: a supermarket-dominated consumer culture that demands a vast range of sorted, processed, and packaged foods that have been shipped or flown in from all over the world, available all year round, consistent in color, taste, and texture and that last for weeks.

Consequently, our food may contain:
  • Pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and antifungal agents
  • Parasites, pathogenic bacteria, and molds
  • E numbers, artificial colorings, flavorings, and preservatives
  • Components that feed unhealthy gut bugs such as certain sugars (granulated, cane, and maple syrup), and phenols (compounds derived from certain foods and chemicals)
  • Growth hormones and antibiotics, as found in non-organic meat and fish
  • Fluoride, chlorine, and heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and aluminum

PROTEIN

Most of the human body consists of protein. It is used by the body for growth and development, for the manufacture of energy and enzymes (molecules involved in speeding up reactions), tissues such as muscle, skin, nails, and hair, as well as hormones and antibodies. Protein comes from the foods we consume and can be from plants—such as vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds—or from animals, such as eggs, meat, fish, and poultry. These proteins are made up of numbers of amino acids (the body’s building blocks).
Imagine these as strings of pearls that are broken down through digestion into single pearls (or single amino acids), absorbed across the gut membrane into the blood system and then used by the body to make new amino-acid combinations.

There are 20 amino acids that are central to virtually every function of the human body. These are used in structures or metabolic reactions for optimal functioning such as genetic coding, neurotransmitter and hormone production, reproduction, cell growth, and repair, tissue, and glandular function, detoxification, and energy production. Some amino acids are more important than others because they cannot be made in the body and must therefore come from the food we eat, digest, and absorb. These, called the “essential nine” amino acids and are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Although these amino acids are found in plants, better sources are derrived from meat and fish.

CARBOHYDRATES

Carbohydrates are principally starches and sugars found almost exclusively in plant foods such as fruit and vegetables, peas and beans, and are broken down via digestion into glucose and absorbed into the blood system. The glucose is then transported via the blood system to the brain, the body’s cells and the central nervous system where the glucose is used as the main form of fuel to make energy in each of our body’s cells. Excess blood glucose is stored in the liver or as fat, which is broken down to glucose for use when blood glucose levels drop.

Carbohydrates come in two forms: “fast releasing” and “slow releasing”. Fast-releasing carbohydrates provide a quick release of glucose into the blood, producing what are known as blood sugar spikes, or a fast rise of blood sugar. These foods include sugar, honey, refined foods, confectionaries, and some fruits such as bananas, dates, and raisins. Slow-releasing carbohydrates produce a slower, steadier release of glucose in the blood. These foods include starches, such as potato and white rice, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Slow-releasing carbohydrates are by far the better foods to select because they do not create the rapid increases in blood sugar that is related to many conditions and diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and many other related health conditions.


FATS

Fats are commonly viewed as the main food that leads to killer diseases such as heart disease and cancer. It must be understood that some fats are likely to cause damage to our bodies and other fats are supportive and essential for our health and wellbeing. Fats have become the most abused nutrient in our diet with a misunderstanding of their benefits and the belief that all fat is bad and should be avoided.

We need a number of very important fats in our diet, such as essential unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from food sources—such as nuts, seeds, and oily fish—and specific oils such as olive oil which provide omega-3, -6, -7, and -9 essential fatty acids that are absolutely vital for our body to function. These essential fats help in many ways, to:
  • Build healthy cell membranes and promote cell growth and cell division.
  • Help the body store and use the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
  • Help to insulate the nerve fibers by producing the myelin sheath that surrounds them.
  • Make important hormones such as the sex hormones and prostaglandins that help regulate important body functions such as reducing inflammation.
  • Help elevate mood and lift depression.
  • Help make hemoglobin in our red blood cells.
  • Support some mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), multiple sclerosis and learning disabilities
  • Help form, protect and moisturize the skin, hair and nails.
  • Help support leaky gut by reducing inflammation.
  • Support pre-menstrual syndrome.
  • Support prenatal brain development in babies.
  • Help protect our genetic DNA and RNA.
  • Help transport minerals.
  • Help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.
  • Be used as an important source of fuel to make energy.
  • Insulate our bodies and help protect the vital organs from injury.

Trans-fat or hydrogenated fats are the type of fat made from oils through a food-processing method called hydrogenation to help keep them liquid at room temperature. This makes them easier to use in the kitchen for cooking but they are particularly bad for our health. These hydrogenated trans-fats are used in many processed foods such as breads, biscuits, cakes, cereals, soups, chocolate, chips and fries, convenience and junk foods. Trans-fats may:
  • Increase the risk of cancer.
  • Increase the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular disease.
  • Interfere with insulin function and decrease hormones such as testosterone.
  • Increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and lower healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

Saturated fat is a type of fat that comes mainly from animal sources of food such as red meat, and poultry that has been consumed since the beginning of human evolution, as well as full-fat dairy products. Saturated fats, if consumed in excess, may:
  • Raise the level of total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.
  • Increase the stickiness of the platelets.
  • Interfere with insulin function.
  • Interfere with the functioning of our essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6; therefore, the more saturated fats consumed the more omega-3 and -6 essential fats need to be consumed.

VITAMINS

There are 13 different vitamins, each with a specific role to play in the body. These are divided into two groups: water soluble vitamins, which include the B vitamins and vitamin C, and the fat soluble vitamins, which include vitamins A, D, E, and K. Most vitamins are used as co-factors or “spark plugs” which connect to an enzyme to make it work. The majority of enzymes are protein structures that are made in the body from different amino acids. Once built, they require a co-factor, such as a vitamin or mineral, to make the protein structure work. If the diet fails to deliver the correct vitamin or mineral, the deficiency will fail to fire the enzymes required for optimal function. Just one benefit of nutritional supplementation is that it can provide adequate nutrients to support enzyme functionality. Vitamins are needed to balance hormones, produce energy, support brain and nervous function, act as antioxidants to reduce cellular and genetic damage and premature aging, and to support detoxification.

MINERALS AND TRACE MINERALS

Like vitamins, minerals and trace minerals are vitally important for most body functions and processes. They are essential for making body tissues such as the bones and teeth, and are involved in energy production, brain, nerve, and cell function, the transportation of oxygen and the management of blood sugar. They are also needed for enzyme reactions and supporting the immune system. Minerals and trace minerals come from food that grows in the soil and the animals that eat that food. Calcium, for example, may be found abundantly in dairy products but it comes from the grass consumed by the cow and not the cow itself. There is more calcium in a head of broccoli than in two pints of milk.

WATER

The body is composed of approximately 70 percent water. It is our most vital nutrient and is involved in every function of the body. It helps to transport nutrients and waste products in and out of our cells, it is necessary for digestion and the absorption of nutrients, and it provides the solution—or plasma—within our lymphatic and blood circulatory systems. Water supports the elimination of toxins via sweat and urine, and carries vital nutrients such as vitamins and minerals around the body. It is also essential for managing body temperature and body pH.

Without water we would die within three to five days. Our minimum requirement for water is approximately two pints per day (4 × 8 1/2 fl oz glasses) because we lose water through our lungs, gut, skin, and kidneys. Ideally we should drink approximately 3 1/4–4 1/4 pints (6 to 8 × 8 1/2 fl oz glasses) per day. Alcohol should not be classified as a drink containing water, as it will dehydrate the body if consumed.

It is vital to select a quality source of water. Preferably choose filtered water or spring water in a glass bottle. The quality of tap water differs from area to area and may be full of harmful chemicals such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, industrial chemicals, fluoride, chlorine, arsenic, aluminum sulfate, soda ash, and inorganic minerals that are toxic and cannot be used by the body.
Tap water can also contain bacteria, parasites, fungi, and viruses. Look for cloudiness in your tap water. If it is caused by chlorine, it will clear if left to sit, whereas cloudiness caused by sediments or bacteria will remain. You can test your own water through your water authority, local university, or health department for both bacteria and chemical content. Filtering water through a reverse osmosis filter, distillation units, or ceramic filtration units are recommended purification systems.

If you do not enjoy pure water, it is fine to flavor it naturally using natural fruit juices such as lemon or lime, or herbal teas, such as ginger or spearmint, and green tea.

When you feel thirsty, it commonly indicates that you are dehydrated. Dark-colored urine is also a sign of dehydration. (Please note that excessive vitamin B2—riboflavin—in a supplement can discolor the urine making it orange in appearance.)

HOW TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THESE VITAL NUTRIENTS

Please refer to the nutrient descriptions section for a detailed look at each of our required nutrients.
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