Essential nutrients are components in food that your body can't make on its own, and that we need to grow, function, and stay healthy.
There are six classes of essential nutrients. Carbohydrates are the main source of calories, or energy, in the diet. Fats also give us energy and help with normal growth and development, immune function, vitamin absorption, hormone production, and more. Proteins and the amino acids they are made of are major structural components of our bodies' cells and are responsible for building and repair of tissues, and maintenance of muscle and lean body mass.
There are 13 essential vitamins that have important jobs such as keeping our nerves healthy, helping us resist infection, assisting with blood clotting, and keeping our metabolism running. Minerals are only needed in small amounts but play a vital role in muscle contraction, fluid balance, food digestion, bone-building, blood pressure regulation, and more.
Water is also an essential nutrient that delivers other nutrients to cells, regulates the body temperature, acts as a shock absorber and lubricant, and helps in the removal of waste from the body. Bioactive compounds are not considered essential because they haven't been shown to lead to deficiencies if they're missing in the diet.
However, they may positively impact health.
....and scientists are trying to better understand and unlock their potential health benefits. Bioactives that you have likely heard of are carotenoids. These colorful plant pigments found in bright red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables --act as powerful antioxidants and may help prevent some types of cancer and heart disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, and enhance the immune system and more. Resveratrol is another bioactive found in the skin of grapes, blueberries, raspberries, and mulberries that may reduce the risk of heart disease.
Flavanols are a part of the flavonoid family that is found in tea, red wine, and cocoa and may positively influence our cardiovascular health. Phytosterols are steroid compounds in plants that may lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health. Phytoestrogens, found in many plants including soy and other legumes, are also being studied for their potential in reducing the risk of breast cancer.
...but the number of nutrients we need, and our bodies' ability to process them, can change over time and depend on your personal health status. As you age, you may need more Vitamin D and calcium for bone health, more B12 for brain and blood health, and more fiber for a healthy digestive system.
Some people may also need more water as their sense of thirst declines. Your medical conditions, or the medications you take, may also require you to adjust your diet. It's important to talk with your health care team when deciding the best nutrition plan for you. But most people can get the healthy nutrients they need from a well-rounded diet of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains--such as those recommended in the US Dietary Guidelines.
Some people with deficiencies, certain diseases, and conditions, or with evolving nutritional needs at different stages of life, may consider dietary supplements to add missing nutrition to their diets. Supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbals and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and bioactive. You may be one of the many adults that takes a dietary supplement of some kind, but do you know enough about what is safe and what you can trust? Too often what's popular one day, seems to make headlines the next for being unsafe.
The Food and Drug Administration that regulates the safety and effectiveness of drugs and medical devices also regulates dietary supplements. But supplements are not regulated as strictly as drugs, because they have been considered to be more like food than drugs. For example, companies don't need to get approval before producing or selling their supplements and don't have to provide evidence to support their claims about the products before marketing them.
There are many safe dietary supplement options out there that can help keep you healthy, and even improve your health, but there are others that may not be safe for you. This makes being an informed consumer important. When choosing a supplement to talk to your health care team about all the prescription and OTC medications you are taking AND all of the supplements.
They can advise you on their safety, as well as how they might interact with your medications.
Avoid mega-doses of supplements, which may be more than your body needs, and even cause you harm. Keep in mind that the term natural doesn't always mean safe. And watch out for claims that seem too good to be true. When searching for information online, turn to trusted sources. Look for authors who are academics, experts in the field, government agency employees, and well-respected members of the medical community.
Also, look to see if the claims come from studies that have been reviewed by other experts in the field.