What are the Essential Nutrients?
by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA(Hons), PGCert. Sport & Exercise Nutrition. L2 Strength & Conditioning Coach.
You may have already heard of essential nutrients, but you may not know what they are or where to get them.
This article gives you the essentials. We shall cover the following:
- Nutrients for calorie intake
Essential Nutrients: The Low Down
The essential nutrients everybody needs can be broken down into vitamins, minerals, and where we get out calories, including carbohydrates, proteins, fat, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Depending on your lifestyle, you might need an increase in your intake.
For example, athletes and those who are very active will need a balanced diet with sufficient amounts of proteins and carbohydrates to fuel their performance and recovery as outlined by the British Nutrition Foundation, here.
Bear in mind that military personnel may also require additional nutrition intake, with calorie expenditure reaching over 4000 calories at times.
It’s also important to rehydrate and get plenty of fiber.
Certain people are also at the risk of a vitamin or mineral deficiency and can, therefore, rely on supplements to bridge the gap.
You can complement your daily routine with a variety of supplements to boost your overall health and get the nutrients your body needs.
If you’re concerned your diet may be inadequate, here is a breakdown of the essential nutrients, their benefits, and tips on how to increase your intake.
Essential nutrients for calorie intake
In order to maintain a healthy diet, you need a balanced calorie intake.
You can determine how many calories you need to eat with your doctor, according to how much activity you do and other factors such as your age, size, and gender.
The UK's National Health Service recommends 2000-2500 calories daily.
If you’re an active person, such an athlete or military personnel you’ll need to ensure you consume enough calories.
The UK government macronutrient recommendations state that a persons energy intake should include the following:
- 50% should be carbohydrates
- 35% from fats
- 15% from protein sources.
Whereas the Ministry of Defence recommends that military personnel in a training context adjust their dietary intake to the following:
- 57% Carbs
- 28% Fats
- 15% Protein
This is due to the demanding nature of training that requires high levels of energy.
Essential Nutrients: Macros
Here are the main healthy food groups we get our calorie intake from.
You should aim to get a minimum of 10% of your daily calories from protein and we tend to need about 0.7-1g for every kilogram of bodyweight. Therefore the average male will require around 55g of protein daily.
However, athletes may need to increase this to 1.2-2g per kilo of bodyweight as outlined by the position statement of the International Society of Sports Nutrition published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Every cell in your body needs protein and it’s essential for the growth of muscle, bone, skin, and hair.
It also helps you build certain enzymes and hormones. We get essential amino acids from proteins, which our bodies cannot synthesize. You need food or dietary supplements to ensure you have a healthy supply of amino acids.
A protein deficiency could result in reduced muscle mass and strength over time. There are a few other signs you’re not getting enough protein.
You might also notice a change in your mood because your brain needs amino acids to make neurotransmitters.
General weakness, fatigue and higher risk of infection from disease are also key indicators of a protein deficiency.
If you think you may have a protein deficiency, speak to your doctor.
Carbohydrates are also essential for storing energy, protein, and fat.
Once you start doing any high intensity exercise which can help towards improving your v02max, carboydrates are a quick and immediate fuel source.
There are plenty of healthy carbohydrates such as fruits, grains, root vegetables, and beans.
There are several possible symptoms of carbohydrate deficiency. These include fatigue, cravings, and even nausea, constipation and headaches as a result of ketosis.
If you workout frequently, your body naturally loses muscle glycogen (carbohydrates stored in your muscle). This is an important source of fuel for your muscles, so you might want to consider a carbohydrate supplement to replace utlilized stores.
During exercise, it is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine to consume up to 90g of carbohydrate per hour for ultra endurance situations.
The right amount of fat is essential for a healthy diet. Certain vitamins are fat-soluble and your body can’t absorb them without it.
Fat is also high in energy. There are, however, good and bad fats. It’s better to try to replace saturated fats such as fatty meat, snacks, and confectionery with unsaturated fats like fish, olive oil, and avocados.
This way you can ensure you’re getting enough fat without raising your cholesterol or risk of weight gain or heart disease. If you want to control your fat intake you could consider healthy fat supplements.
It is worth noting that healthy fats in your diet can help regulate hormone levels.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids have multiple benefits. They help promote a healthy brain and can help boost your mental health. They also help to lower your blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Omega 3 is also good for your joints and skin. It’s important to ensure a sufficient intake of this all-round essential nutrient because your body can’t make it itself.
You can only get omega 3 fatty acids from foods such as fish oil from salmon, mackerel, and sardines, or certain seeds and nuts including linseeds, pecans, hazelnuts, and walnuts.
There are several ways to tell you aren’t getting enough omega 3 in your diet. Omega 3 reinforces cell walls, so if you have a deficiency you might notice problems with your hair, skin, and nails, such as rashes or dandruff.
There are a variety of omega 3 supplements available on the market. One of the most common is in the form of fish oil. You can get omega 3 from both natural and processed fish oil. Another type is mammalian oil, which is extracted from seal blubber.
There’s also a vegan option, however, which is ALA oil. This is derived from things like flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds.
Whichever type of omega 3 supplement you choose, it will have many benefits. Omega 3 supplements are popular as it’s one of the more difficult nutrients to get solely from your diet.
If you would like to increase your intake of omega 3 fatty acids, speak to a doctor or pharmacist about the best option for you.
Here's a snapshot below what a rugby player should aim for.
It is worth noting that a game of rugby lasts 80 minutes with a break at 40 minutes. The game consists of many short bursts of high-intensity and high impact game play whereby the ball is in 'play' but many players could be stationary or moving at a slow pace.
The half-time break is a good opportunity to rehydrate and refuel with a carbohydrate source such as a gel which typically includes 25g of carbohydrate usually from a mix of sources such as fructose and maltodextrin.
Additionally, some gels also include micronutrients which we are about to cover...
Essential Nutrients: Vitamins
As well as balancing the right amounts of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates in your diet, there are also many essential vitamins to consider.
Food can be a source of different vitamins, and supplements can also help plug the gaps in an inadequate diet.
You can opt for multivitamin supplements which contain a mixture of the most important vitamins and minerals your body needs.
Here are a few examples of essential vitamins to look out for. These all have different benefits in your body.
Vitamin A is also known as retinol, and has several important health benefits. One of these is that it promotes a healthy immune system.
It helps to boost your body’s natural defenses against illness and infection. These defenses include mucous barriers which trap harmful bacteria and infections.
Vitamin A also increases the amount of white blood cells and improves their functioning. These are essential for fighting infection and a speedy recovery.
Vitamin A is also associated with healthy vision, particularly at night or in dim light. Vitamin A is involved in the process your body uses to convert light into signals sent to your brain enabling you to see clearly.
It supports the general functioning of different parts of your eye. This is why vitamin A is an essential nutrient for good vision and eye health. It also promotes skin and bone health. The vitamin is important for growth and development in general.
Some symptoms of a vitamin A deficiency can include a longer recovery time to get over certain illnesses, due to the effect vitamin A has on your immune system.
Another common sign of a lack of vitamin A is night blindness and other eye problems. Certain skin conditions such as acne and dryness could also be caused by a vitamin A deficiency.
If you would like to up your intake of vitamin A you should eat more of certain foods such as cheese, eggs, oily fish, milk, yoghurt, and liver.
Your body can also get vitamin A by converting sources of beta carotene which include red, green, and yellow vegetables, carrots, and yellow fruits. You could also check out our more indepth guide, here.
Alternatively, you could try vitamin A supplements.
There are many types of B vitamins with different benefits. Here is a quick overview.
- Vitamin B1
Vitamin B1 promotes a healthy nervous system and digestion. It can be found in peas, whole grains, fresh fruits, nuts, and liver.
- Vitamin B2
Vitamin B2 aids your body in digestion and maintains healthy skin, eyes, and nervous system. Some good sources include milk, yoghurt, eggs, cereal, and mushrooms.
- Vitamin B3
Vitamin B3 is good for your skin, nervous system, and digestion. Sources include meat, eggs, fish, and wheat flour.
- Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 helps your body store and use proteins and carbohydrates. It also stimulates the production of haemoglobin in red blood cells. It can be found in white meat, soy beans, oats and cereals, milk and bananas.
- Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 promotes a healthy nervous system and blood flow. You can find it in meat, fish, cheese, eggs, milk, and cereal.
Other types of B vitamins include folate and folic acid. Folate can be found in foods such as green vegetables, liver, and beans.
Folic acid is a synthetic version of this which can be taken as a supplement. Both enable the body to form healthy red blood cells and can even reduce the risks of birth defects.
To increase your intake of B vitamins, you could try complex supplements which are made up of a combination of B vitamins.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, protects your cells and promotes wound healing. It’s an antioxidant and is beneficial for your skin, bones, cartilage, and blood vessels.
You can get your vitamin C intake from a variety of fruits and vegetables including citrus fruits, berries, peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and potatoes. Ideally, you need to include vitamin C in your diet everyday as it cannot be stored.
Vitamin C deficiency can eventually cause the breakdown of different tissues in your body. Some of the common symptoms include joint pain, easy bruising, and fatigue.
A persistent lack of vitamin C could also result in scurvy. If you have a vitamin C deficiency you can try taking supplements to boost your intake.
Vitamin D assists your body in regulating the amounts of two other essential nutrients; calcium and phosphorus.
These both promote healthy teeth, bones and muscles. Most people get vitamin D from sunlight, but if you’ve been inside for long periods, or during the winter months, you might benefit from a supplement.
There are a few signs your vitamin D could be low. These include fatigue and changes to your mood, and even depression.
You may also experience bone or muscle pain or weakness in general. Vitamin D deficiency can be common and a lack of exposure to sunlight is probably the culprit.
Seen as vitamin D is only found in a few foods, such as oily fish, liver, red meat, egg yolk, and fortified foods, it’s better to increase your intake with a supplement.
Vitamin E is great for your skincare, and this is why vitamin E oil is used in many skincare products. Vitamin E also gives your immune system a boost and promotes eye health.
The good thing is you can find it in a variety of sources such as nuts and seeds, plant oils, and wheatgerm. If you prefer, you could opt for vitamin E supplements to up your intake.
Although vitamin E deficiency is rare, many people don’t get enough of it in their diet. Signs you might need more vitamin E include muscle weakness, reduced endurance, problems with vision, or a weaker immune system. Symptoms of a weakened immune system can include fatigue, frequent illness or infection, and a longer recovery time.
There are actually a group of Vitamin K compounds, and some of these also contribute to bone development and cardiovascular health.
If you would like to increase your intake of vitamin K, some sources include green leafy vegetables, grains, and vegetable oils. Your body requires vitamin K in small, but regular amounts, so taking supplements might also be a more convenient way of ensuring you get enough.
Vitamin K is versatile and can improve fitness even in healthy athletes. It’s important for prevention and immunity, especially for those exposed to the possibility of injury. It’s also essential for anyone taking blood thinner medication.
Essential Nutrients: Minerals
Your body relies on certain essential minerals in order to stay healthy. You can get the minerals you need from a variety of foods and supplements.
Here are few examples of the most common essential minerals and their benefits.
Calcium’s main functions in the body include building strong teeth and bones, helping blood clot, and keeping muscle contractions and your heart rate regulated.
A calcium deficiency can result in bone disorders over time. Osteoporosis and osteomalacia are more likely to occur later in life from a lack of calcium.
Fortunately you can get your calcium intake from various foods such as milk and dairy, fortified flour, small fish bones, for example sardines, and green vegetables.
You can also get calcium from supplements, although there are reports of calcium deposits building up in the arteries from their use.
Iron is one of the most essential minerals due to its vital role in the immune system. It also boosts haemoglobin in red blood cells and helps to prevent the blood condition anaemia.
Iron is involved in the making of red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. It’s important to manage your iron levels because iron deficiency can cause fatigue, affect cognitive function, and impair the healing process.
A lack of iron can lead to a higher risk of anaemia. Anaemia has a range of symptoms including increased heart rate, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, pale skin, and leg cramps.
Iron supplements are often recommended to treat anaemia and reduce the risk. Alternatively, you can ensure you get enough iron-rich food sources such as liver, red meat, fortified breakfast cereals, soy, beans, nuts, and dried fruit.
Potassium is an electrolyte which assists in many bodily functions by sending electrical impulses. Electrolytes can contribute to nerve impulses, muscle contractions, healthy blood pressure, digestions, heart rate, and pH balance.
Potassium-rich foods include fruits, particularly bananas, certain vegetables, lean meat, grains, beans, and nuts.
A potassium deficiency can cause fatigue, muscle problems, an irregular heartbeat, or digestive issues.
Excessive sweating can affect your levels of potassium. People who do a lot of physical exercise such as athletes may need a potassium supplement to help normalize their levels as well as eating or drinking electrolytes.
Phosphorus is a natural mineral found in the human body and is needed to help build strong and healthy bones.
There are plenty of reasons to include phosphorus in your diet as it helps your body produce energy, and manage how your body stores and uses this energy.
Phosphorus is also involved in balancing and using vitamins B and D, and other minerals.
Protein-rich foods are also a source of phosphorus including meat, fish, dairy products, beans, and nuts. Phosphorus from animal products is easier to absorb than phosphorus derived from plants.
Athletes or military personnel can benefit particularly from phosphorus as it can help reduce muscle pain and fatigue after exercise.
You also need phosphorus to move and strengthen your muscles in general. Supplements are available in the form of phosphorus salts and multi-mineral options.
Zinc is an essential mineral found in the body but it has many benefits as a supplement. Zinc supplements help to stimulate your immune system which can reduce the risk of infection.
It also accelerates wound healing by promoting the production of collagen and inflammatory response. Zinc works by decreasing oxidative stress which otherwise leads to inflammation.
There are several foods that are high in zinc. These include meat, fish, shellfish, eggs and diary, nuts and seeds, certain vegetables and grains. Naturally occurring zinc in animal products is more efficiently absorbed.
Magnesium helps to maintain healthy blood pressure, heart rhythm, and keeps your bones strong. One of the main symptoms of magnesium deficiency is the risk of elevated inflammation. This is associated with other health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
There are several food sources which are rich in magnesium such as green vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, and certain dairy products.
Plus don’t forget...
As well as getting all the essential nutrients, in order to maintain healthy digestion, you need plenty of fiber and water.
Fiber is technically a dietary carbohydrate that your body can’t break down into sugar, like with other carbohydrates.
This is why it promotes healthier digestion. It’s also essential not to forget to stay hydrated, as drinking enough water is essential for many bodily functions.
Opt for wholewheat breads and cereals and whole grains. Include plenty of pulses, fresh fruits, and vegetables in your diet. You can even check the fiber percentage on the food labels of products to ensure you’re getting the amount you need daily.
Fiber deficiencies can result in digestive issues such as irregular bowel movements. Fiber supplements are a way to top up the fiber in your diet and help fix the problem. Fiber supplements usually contain high-fiber foods in powdered or granular form, and promote a healthy gut.
Water is the final essential nutrient on the last, but hydration is hugely important. Your body needs a regular supply of water for a number of functions. These include digesting food, getting rid of waste, and the absorption and transportation of other nutrients. It also hydrates your body, increasing energy and relieving fatigue.
Whether or not you do a lot of physical activity, your body needs rehydrating. Dehydration can cause a variety of problems such as headaches, fatigue, and impaired cognitive functions.
The best thing to do is to rehydrate as often as possible. This is essential for the extremely active from athletes, to military personnel, and people going about their everyday lives.
It’s vital to remember to drink plenty of water as well getting a sufficient intake of vitamins and minerals.
There we have it, the low down on essential nutrients. As you can see, your body needs them to function correctly, a deficiency can lead to numerous problems such as cognitve decline, fatigue, increased risk of disease and even death.
Some are obvious, and they will likely be part of your normal everyday food intake, but some others may not, and they could make the difference between suffering from muscle cramp or not when playing sport.
Additionally, many fad diets encourage the reduction of nutrients such as carbohydrates, but for your brain needs carbs and the guidelines for sport performance encourage the consumtion of large amounts to be competitive.
You can get many easily through foods, but if you are particularly active it may be dificult to keep on top of the required amounts, in which case a muscle building supplement such as Military Muscle can help you acheive your needs.