Learn about the different nutrients and what they do for you.
When it comes to food, variety isn’t just the spice of life. It’s also the key to health.
“We know there are good things in foods,” says Melinda Johnson, RD, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We also know there is not one perfect food that gives us everything we need.”
Oranges, for example, are a great source for vitamin C and folate. But you’ll get no vitamin B12 from an orange. You can get that from cheddar cheese, however, which also has calcium. But if you just eat cheese, you won’t get any vitamin C.
“So, in order to get the different nutrients we need, we have to go to different sources of food,” Johnson says.
Why nutrients are important
You can’t live without nutrients.
All the food you eat breaks down into nutrients, the academy explains. These nutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream and distributed throughout your body’s cells.
Some of the most important nutrients and their functions include:
Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, sometimes called “carbs,” are a necessary source of energy, or calories. But “some carbs are better than others,” says Johnson. Soft drinks are a form of carbohydrates, but so is whole-wheat bread. And although the former doesn’t offer much more than calories, with the latter you also get fiber, minerals and vitamins.
Fats. Fats sometimes get bad press. But, like carbs, fats are a necessary nutrient with better and worse sources. Try to avoid saturated fats and trans fats, which can both contribute to heart disease. That means cutting back on high-fat meats, fast food, full-fat dairy products, and processed foods such as chips and crackers. Choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products instead. The healthiest fats are unsaturated, such as those found in vegetable oils, most nuts, avocados, olives and fatty fish such as salmon.
Proteins. Proteins, also known as amino acids, build body tissue, according to the academy. Skin, muscle, bone and organs are all made of protein. And, like carbs and fats, proteins also are a source of energy. Foods high in protein include meats and dairy products.
Vitamins. The different vitamins all have different roles to play in a healthy diet, says Johnson. “In a nutshell, though, they help us fight off and prevent disease,” she says. Each plays such a specific role, says the academy, that no one can replace any other. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of a number of different vitamins.
Minerals. Again, different minerals, different benefits, different disease-fighting qualities. For example, calcium, which is found in dairy products and some leafy vegetables, keeps bones strong and helps prevent osteoporosis. Potassium, abundant in tomato products and lima beans, aids muscle and nerve function.
Water. Water makes up as much as 75 percent of your body. It aids in a myriad of bodily functions, including regulating your temperature and expelling waste.
For more information
Talk to your a health care professional about what constitutes a healthy diet.
You can also find more information about nutrients, including the amounts you and other members of your family should consume daily, at the academy’s website www.eatright.org.