What you put into your body has a direct effect on your health and well-being, but with so much conflicting information on what’s “good for you,” it can be difficult to make good choices. We did the work for you – here’s our curated list of essential nutrients for optimum health.
The first question is, “how many essential nutrients are there”? Well, to stay alive, there are six classes of nutrients you need:
Your body and your brain need carbohydrates for energy. They are converted to glucose, which then gets used by cells. The best sources of carbohydrates are complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, green vegetables, legumes, and starchy vegetables.
The amino acids in proteins are the building blocks for tissues like skin, muscle, bone, and hair. Proteins also play a role in producing hormones, antibodies, and enzymes. Stick to high-quality proteins like lean meat, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
As bad a name as “fat” has, they are a necessary source of energy for your body, and they also help with absorption of vitamins like A, D, E, and K. The best fats are the liquid monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind, such as olive oil and oils found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and oily fish.
We often forget to include water as an essential nutrient, but it’s something you won’t survive long without. 50-60% of your body is water, and it plays a role in most vital body functions. It’s recommended we drink at least 8 cups of filtered water each day.
These truly essential nutrients are vital for growth and development and each plays its own role across numerous physiological functions. Vitamins can be water-soluble, meaning they travel freely through the body with excess amounts being excreted in most cases, or fat-soluble, meaning they build up in the body and can become toxic if you exceed the necessary amount.
Minerals, like vitamins, are substances found in food that are vital for growth, development, and health. Minerals come in two forms – macrominerals, which are minerals we need in greater amounts, and trace minerals, which we only need in small amounts.
As part of the six classes of nutrients, these are an absolute must in your diet:
7. Vitamin A
Necessary for healthy vision, bones, teeth, and immune system. Also plays a key role in skin health by reducing sebum production and keratin build up in follicles. You can get it as retinol from animal sources like dairy, eggs, and liver; your body can also convert beta-carotene from dark, leafy greens, and dark orange fruits and vegetables (i.e. carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, etc.) into Vitamin A.
8. Vitamin B12
B12 aid in the production of red blood cells and helps with brain and nervous system function; older adults may have more difficulty absorbing it, so they should be mindful of getting enough. Eat lean meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and fortified whole grain foods for this essential nutrient.
9. Vitamin C
Also known as ascorbic acid, it functions as an antioxidant, is necessary for protein metabolism, aids immune function, and helps our bodies absorb iron. Vitamin C is also an essential component of collagen, works as an antioxidant, and may reduce risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and age-related vision disorders. It can only be obtained from fruits and vegetables, with citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, and cruciferous veggies being good sources.
10. Vitamin D
An essential nutrient necessary for calcium absorption and stored in bones, it also helps immune function, prevent age-related cognitive decline, and skin conditions like psoriasis. Good sources include fortified milk, egg yolks, liver, fatty fish; known as the “sunshine vitamin,” it can also be produced by skin during sunlight exposure.
11. Vitamin E
An antioxidant that protects cell walls, it also prevents oxidation of fats, enhances UV protection, and is a natural moisturizer that keeps skin healthy. Try leafy green vegetables, whole grains, liver, egg yolks, and nuts and seeds.
12. Vitamin K
Allows for proper blood clotting and important for bone health. Find it in leafy green vegetables, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale.
Required for strong bones and teeth. Best sources are dairy products like yogurt, cheese, and milk, as well as dark, leafy greens, white beans, and tofu. Eating or drinking foods with vitamin C at the same time as food with calcium will improve absorption.
Helps regulate blood sugar, carry energy to cells, and metabolize carbs, protein, and fat. Whole grains, broccoli, sweet potato, corn, and eggs have good amounts of this nutrient.
15. Folic Acid
Necessary for constructing DNA and cells, including red blood cells. Get it from leafy green vegetables, legumes, seeds, orange juice, and fortified grains.
Promotes metabolism, growth, immunity, healing, and is part of red blood cells’ hemoglobin and myoglobin that carry oxygen through the body. Heme iron, which comes from animal foods like meat, is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron, found in plant sources like leafy greens and legumes. Non-heme iron sources can be eaten with a vitamin C-rich food to help with absorption.
Helps with hundreds of functions, including growth, brain and body development, healthy pregnancy, and tooth and bone formation. Especially important for women over the age of 40 for prevention of bone loss that may lead to osteoporosis. Good sources include dark leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
18. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The two types of Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) have been shown to reduce inflammation, lower the risk of heart disease, fight depression, and improve skin health. The best way to get these beneficial fats is to eat oily fish at least twice a week.
There are more than 900 of these lesser-known nutrients, including ones we’ve heard of like beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene. They’ve been linked to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory functions, and are associated with improved immunity and DNA repair. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) even suggests they reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Phytonutrients are essential for good health and are found in colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, tea, whole grains and many spices. Target these five phytonutrient color groups for maximum benefit.
Good for immune function, growth, fertility, and skin health, as it aids collagen production, healing, and sebum regulation. You can get zinc from seafood like oysters, red meats, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. While you can also get it from plant sources like spinach, it binds to phytic acid (a type of fiber), which makes it more difficult to absorb.
A healthy, well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and water should help you get all the essential nutrients you need. But if you find yourself lacking in some areas, a good multi-vitamin or supplement should help fill in those gaps.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.