To put it in simple terms, nutrients provide nourishment. If you don’t have the right balance of nutrients in your diet, you won’t be able to achieve optimal performance and your risk of developing certain health conditions goes up.
Micronutrients are especially important in helping you to maintain your health.
For example, if you have an iodine deficiency it can lead to the development of serious diseases, despite only being needed in very small quantities – hundredths of a gram per day!
We will look at some essential nutrients that you cannot live without. At the top of that list are amino acids – the building blocks of all life, followed by a number of vitamins (mostly fat-soluble D, E, K and A) and minerals such as iron, iodine and zinc. For plant-based eaters vitamin B12 is absolutely essential.
Technically speaking, if you put all nutrients in a table it would look very similar to the periodic table. The human body uses basically all naturally occuring minerals (with the exception of radioactive ones). Plant-based food sources also contain many different components that can be classed as nutrients, which we will also look at in this article. Nutrients can be divided into the following categories:
- Protein (Amino Acids)
- Fat (Fatty Acids)
The key macronutrient in our diets is protein. In fact, proteins are literally the building blocks of life. Protein, or amino acids, are not only part of our body tissue, but also our DNA. The body is able to arrange amino acids in many different combinations, making it possible for it to create thousands of different kinds of proteins from just the same 21 amino acids. Out of these, 9 are called Essential Amino Acids (EAA). They are Arginine, Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine. If you don’t get enough of these it will show quickly and affect your metabolism in an extremely negative way.
It’s not just all about protein, though. Carbohydrates also play a vital role in your metabolism. Generally speaking, carbs can be separated into two categories: simple and complex carbohydrates. Sugars like glucose and fructose (fruit sugar) are simple carbohydrates. Various types of starch and fiber are complex carbohydrates. You can use the Glycemic Index (GI) to determine the ‘benefit’ of your carbohydrate source. The GI is an indicator of how quickly the carbohydrates spike your blood sugar. Carbohydrates with a low GI value (55 or less) are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolised and cause a lower and slower rise in blood sugar.
Fatty foods are usually seen as bad, but it’s not always the case. For example, saturated fatty acids are essential in your body’s production of testosterone – the main muscle building hormone. The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat, so excluding fat from your diet is just a bad idea in general. It’s important that you get plenty of the right kind of fat in your diet – in particular the Essential Fatty Acids. Omega-3 fatty acids, mainly found in oily fish, can reduce inflammation in your body. Omega-6 fatty acids, mainly found in sunflower and corn oil, can increase inflammation in your body.
Another thing that you have to keep in mind when it comes to fat in your diet, is the level of cholesterol. Cholesterol is a component of fat that is only needed by your body in small amounts. In fact, your body produces a significant portion of cholesterol on it’s own.
Technically, fiber belongs in the same class as complex carbohydrates, but it has its own unique function and properties. Cellulose, or fiber, does not get broken down during digestion in the stomach. Despite this, it is still absolutely essential for digestion and other bodily processes. It helps to maintain your blood sugar levels, absorbs water and helps you to ‘push waste out of the body.
Fiber is mostly found in plant-based food sources – primarily in vegetables, fruit and cereals. You can also get good amounts of fiber from seeds (for example, chia seeds). Fiber also contains prebiotics, compounds that boost the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
According to the NHS, the daily reference intakes of macronutrients for adults are:
- Energy: 8,400kJ/2,000kcal.
- Total fat: less than 70g.
- Saturates: less than 20g.
- Carbohydrate: at least 260g.
- Total sugars: 90g.
- Protein: 50g.
- Salt: less than 6g.
Keep in mind that these are based on a generic, 2000kcal diet and might significantly differ from person to person, especially for athletes. For example, the protein requirements of a normal adult are 0.75g per kg of body weight per day. For strength and endurance athletes, protein requirements are increased to around 1.2-1.7g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day.
Let’s look at micronutrients. Micronutrients are mostly vitamins and minerals, but this category also includes antioxidants and other phytonutrients.
The body uses vitamins for energy production, immune function, blood clotting and other functions.
Meanwhile, minerals play an important role in growth, bone health, fluid balance and several other processes.
These are natural chemicals that are found in a variety of plant foods. Phytonutrients mostly protect plants from insect attacks and UV radiation, but can also provide significant benefits for us. Among the benefits of phytonutrients are their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Phytonutrients may also boost your immune system and improve intercellular communication, repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxify carcinogens and alter estrogen metabolism.
This micronutrient is important for the health of your bones and cartilage. Chondro protectants, especially glucosamine, act to protect the joint. You can get the necessary amounts from animal tendons, cartilage and skin or in supplement form.
Unlike macronutrients, the need for micronutrients is measured in very small quantities (hundredths of a gram). You can get most of your micronutrients from plant-based food sources, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Before we wrap this up, it’s important to also mention antinutrients. These are plant compounds that impair the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients. Phytic acid is a compound found in many plant foods, such as legumes. Regular consumption can impair your body’s ability to absorb essential minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium and phosphorus.
Antinutrients should not be a big concern for the majority of people, but may become a problem for people who base their diets almost solely on grains and legumes.