Your body needs to obtain a number of essential nutrients from your food to function properly. ‘Essential’ means that your body cannot create them on its own, or at least not enough of them.
While there are many essential nutrients, they can be broken down into two categories: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Fat is the most calorie-dense nutrient, providing 9 calories per gram. Carbohydrates and protein each provide 4 calories per gram.
Carbohydrates: Controversial these days and probably will be for some time to come. However, they are your number one source of energy.
Fibers: A carb category of their own. They have a positive impact on heart and brain health, and can help prevent or delay the onset of diabetes, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and a wide range of cancers. Because of the strong connection between the gut and the brain, eating more fibers can have a significant positive impact on mental performance and wellbeing.
Fats: Your body needs fats, and since it cannot produce all the fats it needs, you need to get them from what you eat. Eating the right kinds of fats in the right proportions can boost your energy and benefit your health and wellbeing enormously.
Fats can be divided into healthier and less healthy types. ‘Good fats’ are the monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats omega-3 and omega-6. Ideally you should eat an equal amount of both of them. Saturated fats are often referred to as the ‘in-between saturated Fats’. This is because their relationship with health is controversial. Last but not least, there are the trans fats. Of all the fats, these are without a doubt the worse kind. They have no nutritional value whatsoever, and they are bad for you, no matter how little of them you consume.
Proteins: Your body primarily uses proteins for growth, maintenance and the repair of muscles, hair, nails, skin and every other organ and tissue in your body (such as your heart, kidneys and liver). It also uses them for the production of neurotransmitters in your brain.
Proteins are different from fats in the sense that there are no clear bad proteins or ones that top the rest. The 20 amino acids that your body uses to build its own proteins are the same but the ‘packaging’ in which they enter your body can differ tremendously in quality. So when it comes to protein, the trick is to look at what it comes with. What are the other nutrients in the foods that you get your protein from? Are your proteins coming from a variety of vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, fresh fish and whole grains, or are you getting them from processed red meats, protein bars and milkshakes? Look at the source, and make your decisions based on that information.
Vitamins and minerals. You only need a few of them but they are crucial to ensure a normal metabolism, growth and overall wellbeing.
Vitamins: There are 13 different kinds of vitamins, each with their own specific benefits, and most of them are extracted from your food. Vitamins are usually divided into two groups; fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins. Your body generally doesn’t store water-soluble vitamins, except for vitamin B12. That’s why you should try to obtain them from your daily diet. In contrast, your body does store fat-soluble vitamins in your fat and liver.
Antioxidants: All vitamins play important roles in your body but some have an added role, as antioxidants. As the name suggests, they combat oxidation; a natural process that produces free radicals, which ‘oxidize’ cells throughout your body in a process called ‘oxidative stress’. Over time, too much oxidation causes your cells and tissues to function less, potentially leading to chronic inflammation and an endless list of diseases. Antioxidants help counter this process.
Minerals: Although your body only needs super small amounts of minerals, measured in milligrams (mg) or micrograms (ug), they are essential for good health and performance. Your body needs them to regulate chemical reactions, body fluids, and maintain bone structures.