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What Are the Most Important Nutrients for a Healthy Body?

author image Paula Martinac
Paula Martinac holds a Master of Science in health and nutrition education from Hawthorn University, with an emphasis on healthy aging, cancer prevention, weight control and stress management. She is Board Certified in holistic nutrition and a Certified Food and Spirit Practitioner. Martinac runs a holistic health counseling practice and has written extensively on nutrition for various websites.
What Are the Most Important Nutrients for a Healthy Body?
A balanced diet helps ensure a healthy body. Photo Credit BRETT STEVENS/Cultura/Getty Images

For a healthy body, you need a nutrient-dense diet. No one macronutrient or group of vitamins or minerals will magically transform your health; each nutrient provides a piece of the big picture. You’ll get the nutrients you need by limiting empty-calorie junk foods and opting for a balanced diet that incorporates all the major food groups and all the colors of the rainbow.

Macronutrients for a Healthy Body

Protein, carbohydrates and fats are called macronutrients because you need them in large amounts; they are measured in grams. Your body uses protein from foods to build and repair tissues. Several different popular diets recommend protein in varying amounts, but the Institute of Medicine suggests women get 46 grams a day, and men get 56 grams. Many protein foods also contain saturated fats, which may compromise your heart health, so opt for lean protein from poultry, fish, beans and nuts more often.

Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel for your body, including your brain, and the IOM recommends adults get at least 130 grams a day. However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Refined carbs, which are found in sodas, baked goods, candy, white bread and pasta, digest quickly and leave you feeling hungry, so you may overeat and gain weight. Carbohydrate-containing foods that are high in fiber -- an indigestible form of carbohydrate that doesn't supply calories -- provide a steady stream of energy that keeps you feeling satiated so you eat less. High-fiber foods include whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans.

You need dietary fat to produce hormones and tissues, but, like carbs, some fats are better for a healthy body than others. Adults need a minimum of 20 to 35 grams a day, most of which should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, the type of fat in foods like fish, olives and olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.

Water is considered one of the macronutrients, too. It is critical for a healthy body, assisting with functions like digestion and nutrient absorption, and helping regulate body temperature and heartbeat. Women should get about 72 ounces a day, and men need around 100 ounces, or 9 and 12 cups, respectively.

Importance of Vitamins

Thirteen essential vitamins perform different functions to keep your body in healthy working order. The nine water-soluble vitamins – those your body can’t store – include vitamin C and the B family of vitamins. Your body stores the four fat-soluble vitamins – A, D, E and K – for future use.

Each vitamin plays a role in your overall health. Vitamin A supports vision, and vitamin C promotes wound healing and tissue growth and repair. Your blood wouldn’t clot without vitamin K, and vitamin E helps you build red blood cells. Vitamin D supports healthy bones, while the B vitamins help you metabolize food and promote healthy nerve function. Some vitamins also work synergistically with minerals; vitamin C, for example, helps you absorb iron.

You require varying amounts of all these vitamins, and a diet filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and lean protein can fulfill your needs.

Minerals for Good Health

Minerals perform a range of functions, including providing support for bone health, regulating your heartbeat, building healthy blood cells and producing hormones needed for a healthy body. Your body needs the macrominerals calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur in large amounts, and the microminerals iron, zinc, manganese, iodine, copper, cobalt, fluoride and selenium in trace amounts.

A balanced diet that incorporates fresh produce, lean protein, low-fat dairy, nuts, beans and seeds provides the minerals you need, but diets high in processed foods can tip the balance in an unhealthy direction. Many processed and fast foods, for example, are high in sodium, which can lead to high blood pressure when consumed in excess. Fruits and vegetables, in contrast, supply more potassium than sodium, a natural ratio that helps keep your heartbeat regular and your blood pressure in the healthy range.

Phytonutrient Support for the Body

Plant foods have an added benefit; they supply your body with a host of phytonutrients. These natural compounds help protect plants from disease, and a growing body of scientific evidence strongly suggests they benefit human health, too. The anthocyanins in dark blue berries, for instance, may boost your brain function as you age, while the carotenoids in orange and yellow foods like carrots and squash support eye health and fight free radicals, molecules that can damage your cells. The sulforphanes in green cruciferous veggies like broccoli and Brussels sprouts may have a protective effect against cancer. While you won't find recommended intakes for these types of nutrients, eating plant foods in each color of the rainbow will provide you with a variety of these compounds to promote a healthy body.

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