Most people are familiar with the five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. Another way to categorize food is by the type of nutrient it contains and its role in the body. A nutrient is a compound your body needs for energy, growth, basic physiological processes and overall health. Many foods can be placed in several classes. An apple, for instance, is a carbohydrate and a rich source of vitamins, minerals and water.
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The first three classes of nutrients are called macronutrients because your body needs them in significant amounts. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, protein and fat. Carbohydrates are divided into two categories: Simple carbohydrates metabolize quickly, offering your body fast but short-lived energy. Complex carbohydrates digest slowly and provide a steady supply of energy. White rice and pasta are examples of simple carbohydrates. Whole-grain bread, steel-cut oats and lentils are complex carbohydrates.
The Skinny on Fat
Fat is a macronutrient much-maligned by the diet industry, but your body needs some fat for energy and cell structure and integrity. Fats are divided into categories based on their physical characteristics. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and include foods such as butter, cheese and the white marbling in steak. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and include foods such as olive and walnut oil. Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats as much as possible for good health.
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Protein plays an essential role in repairing damaged tissue and building new tissue throughout the body. It also acts as a tertiary source of energy. You don't need a protein shake to benefit from this food class. Many foods like dairy products, meat, beans, poultry, nuts and fish are naturally rich in protein.
Seeing in the Dark
A micronutrient is a compound your body only needs in small quantities and does not provide energy in the form of calories. Vitamins are organic, or carbon-containing, and essential micronutrients, which means the body cannot make them. There are 13 essential vitamins including vitamin A which aids with vision and vitamin C which promotes wound healing. The other important nutrients are the B vitamin group and vitamins E, D and K. Fruits and vegetables are particularly rich sources of vitamins.
Building Strong Bones
Minerals are inorganic micronutrients, which means they do not contain carbon. There are 16 minerals that your body needs to function, including calcium and iron. Iron is part of red blood cells and ensures that oxygen is delivered to all the cells in your body. Calcium keeps your bones and teeth strong and healthy. Electrolyte minerals, including sodium and potassium, help maintain fluid balance in your body. Minerals are found in an array of foods including dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables.
Drinking and Eating Water
It may seem strange to include water as a food class, but water acts as an essential solvent for chemicals in the cells, rids the body of waste and helps regulate body temperature. Drinking water is important, but you also get lots of water from fresh food.
- Portland Community College: An Overview of Nutrition
- UC Davis: School Nutrition Bites
- Harvard School of Public Health: Healthy Beverage Guidelines
- USDA ChooseMyPlate.gov: Food Groups
- MedlinePlus: Electrolytes
- Harvard Medical School: The Truth about Fats: Bad and Good
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Facts About Minerals