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On Macro and Micro Nutrients

Know your nutrients


Knowing your nutrients is the key to a healthy, balanced diet. In this article, we’ll go through nutrients – what they are, why we need them, and how we can make sure we’re getting enough of them.

Let’s get straight into it!


What are nutrients?

Nutrients are substances in food that allow the body to function. They’re needed for survival, growth and reproduction. While the body creates some nutrients itself, there are other important nutrients that we must include in our diet – these are called essential nutrients.


Why do we need nutrients?

Without sufficient quantities of nutrients, the body cannot function as it should. In the short term, nutrient deficiency can cause fatigue, stress, the inability to concentrate, feelings of weakness and a weakened immune system. In the longer term, it can lead to a whole host of more serious problems, like obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease. That’s why it’s important to make sure we meet the recommended daily intake of all the essential nutrients.


What are the different types of essential nutrients?

Nutrients can be split into two groups – macronutrients and micronutrients. Let’s take a closer look at what each of these means, and which nutrients sit within which group.


Macronutrients

Macronutrients are those we consume in large quantities. Most foods contain macronutrients, so it’s generally easy for us to consume enough of them as part of our day-to-day diet. There are four main macronutrients:

1. Protein

Protein is found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, don’t fret – you can also get protein from legumes like beans, peas, peanuts and lentils. Protein is essential for many of our body’s everyday functions, from digestion to muscle-building. It also allows the brain to communicate with the rest of the body via the central nervous system.

2. Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are to the body what fuel is to a car. They’re broken down and used for energy. Some types of carbohydrates are easy for the body to break down – these are called simple carbohydrates and include sugar and refined flours. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, take a longer time to break down, meaning they keep us energised for longer. Wholegrains, brown rice and vegetables are all great sources of complex carbohydrates.

3. Fats

There are three main types of fat – unsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Intake of the latter two should be limited, particularly trans fats. Unsaturated fat, however, is vital for the body. You can find it in things like fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds. It helps the body absorb vitamins, improves brain function and stores energy. Plus, it makes up some of our hormones.

4. Water

You may not think of water as a nutrient, but just because it doesn’t provide energy doesn’t make it any less important. In fact, it makes up around 60% of our body weight and is essential for our circulatory system.



Micronutrients

We eat micronutrients in much smaller quantities than macronutrients because our body requires far smaller amounts. That doesn’t make them any less crucial, though. There are two main types of micronutrients:

1. Vitamins

The role of vitamins is to help your body grow and function in the way it’s supposed to. They help keep inflammation at bay and boost your immune system, helping you fight against diseases. There are 13 essential vitamins – vitamins A, C, D, E and K, and B vitamins, which include B6, B12, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin and folate. Different vitamins are found in different foods. To get a healthy intake of all 13, you should aim to eat meat, fish, leafy greens, nuts, whole grains and dairy.

2. Minerals

Minerals have lots of benefits – they are essential for the everyday functioning of our cardiovascular system, nervous system and digestion, and they also help keep our bones strong. Macrominerals are required in larger amounts and include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulphur. Trace minerals, on the other hand, are only needed in very small quantities, and include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride and selenium. Meat, fish, dairy, fruit, vegetables, cereals and nuts all give us the minerals we need.


How much of each nutrient do I need?

People of different ages and sexes require different amounts of each nutrient. The government has produced a handy document outlining the recommended daily intake of essential nutrients for men, women and children.


How can I make sure I’m getting enough nutrients?

Modern lifestyles can make achieving the recommended daily intake of nutrients difficult. Many people find that they are too busy to cook nutritious meals every day, and opting for convenient ready meals and fast food can be tempting. On top of that, certain diets, such as vegan and vegetarian diets, exclude certain food groups which can provide some of the essential nutrients in high levels.

However, even if you’re vegetarian or vegan, if you eat a healthy, balanced diet, you should find it easy to incorporate all of the essential nutrients into your meals. While the body can store some nutrients for later use, it’s important to consume them consistently so that you’ve always got enough in your body. That’s why it’s useful to know the recommended daily intake of each.

If you’re worried about not meeting recommended levels of certain nutrients, vitamins or minerals through your diet, supplements can be helpful. Supplements are not intended to replace healthy balanced diets but can help bridge the gap if you’re struggling to maintain good levels. Taking certain daily supplements is also recommended for some people, for example during pregnancy, even if your diet is good.


The bottom line

Nutrients are essential for our overall health and well-being – if we don’t get enough of them, we can find ourselves at risk of serious health conditions such as heart disease and obesity. Most people meet the recommended daily intake of all the essential nutrients by eating a healthy, balanced diet. However, supplements can be useful to help maintain sufficient nutrient levels.

You will find more information and guidance about diet and nutrition on nutrition.org.uk, food.gov.uk and the British Heart Foundation.


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