The 12 types of nutrients (characteristics and functions in the body)
We are what we eat. The more our knowledge of nutrition advances, the more we realize that this statement is incredibly true. And it is that if each one of the 30 million million cells of our body is alive it is because we feed ourselves.
Nutrition is, along with relationship and reproduction, one of the three vital functions of every living being. Therefore, human beings have a set of physiological systems that allow us to obtain both matter (the pieces to make up our body) and energy to keep us alive.
In this sense, nutrition is the metabolic process that allows transforming matter and energy to maintain stable biological functions. But where does this matter come from? Well, exactly about the nutrients, the bioassimilable molecules that make a food can be considered as such.
Depending on their characteristics, these nutrients can be carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, mineral salts and water. And in today's article, to understand the importance of including each and every one of them in our diet, we will analyze their particularities.
What are nutrients?
Nutrients can be defined as chemical compounds that are part of food. Although more than being part, they make food can be considered as such. And it is these substances that make a food nourish, worth the redundancy.
In this sense, nutrients are molecules present in the biological composition of living beings and that, by entering our digestive system by ingesting parts of these living beings (both plants and animals), we are able to digest, that is, to degrade into simpler molecules.
But for what purpose? Basically, that of allowing them to be absorbed by our cells, thus entering into a series of metabolic reactions that culminate in the long-awaited obtaining both matter (to constitute our organs and tissues) and energy (to have fuel for physiological processes). .
Therefore, nutrients are the set of bioassimilable organic molecules, which means that they can be digested, absorbed and used in the body's metabolic reactions. There are many molecules with these properties, but they can be classified into clearly delimited groups, which we will analyze below.
From a biological point of view, defining a nutrient is, as we see, somewhat complicated. But it is enough to understand that they are the chemical substances present in everything we eat and that it can be assimilated by our body to obtain both matter and energy. A nutrient is that which, at the molecular level, nourishes us. Food is nothing more than the sum of nutrients.
How are nutrients classified?
As we have said, in nature there are many molecules with the property of being bioassimilable. Fortunately, all of them can be classified into different families, each with specific molecular characteristics and physiological functions. Let's see, then, what are the main types of nutrients.
Carbohydrates, fats and proteins constitute the group of macronutrients, which, as we can guess from their name, are the most chemically complex molecules and those that constitute the pillar of metabolism in terms of obtaining both matter and energy.
Focusing on carbohydrates, also known as carbohydrates or carbohydrates, are molecules whose basic skeleton consists of chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Beyond this, the structural and chemical variety they can present is enormous, as they can bind to many different chemical groups, including other fats and proteins.
What interests us is that carbohydrates are the mainstay of nutrition, since represent the main form of fuel in our body. Of all the macronutrients, they are the ones with the highest energy efficiency. In other words, the energy that cells obtain by breaking down these carbohydrates is greater than with fats and proteins.
And it is precisely based on how they provide energy that these carbohydrates can be classified into three main groups:
1.1. Complex carbohydrates
They must be the basis of our diet. They are chemically more complex, so they are more difficult to digest and provide energy slowly but continuously over time. They are present in bread, rice, pasta, cereals, oats, quinoa, legumes, barley, potatoes ...
1.2. Simple carbohydrates
Beware of them. They are chemically very simple, so they are easy to digest and give a very fast peak of energy that goes down in a short time, making it more likely that what has not been used is transformed into harmful fat that accumulates in organs and tissues. They are present in basically everything that has a sweet taste, since sugar is the maximum exponent of this group: dairy products, fruit (it compensates for the fact that they provide so many vitamins), flour, jam, white bread, sweets, cookies, pastries industrial…
It is so complex on a molecular level that our bodies cannot digest it, so technically it is not a nutrient. Even so, it is beneficial since satiates but does not add calories (allows better control of body weight) and is used by our intestinal flora. It is important to include it in the diet and can be found in wheat, whole grains, oranges, kiwi, broccoli, asparagus, spinach, carrots, legumes, potatoes, nuts ...
Fats are another type of macronutrient that, despite having been demonized, are essential for a healthy diet. Fats are neither bad nor fattening. You just have to know which ones are good and which ones are more harmful to the body.
Fats, also known as lipids, are molecules made up of more or less long chains of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen, sulfur, etc., linked together by different types of bonds, which is what will determine whether fat is good or bad.
Either way, fats are part of all our cells, so we must forget that "fat" is synonymous with those undesirable signs of being overweight. They are nutrients that, despite not being as linked to obtaining energy (which they still are, and a lot) as carbohydrates, fulfill very important functions in the body.
Obtain and store energy, absorb vitamins, promote blood circulation, maintain the integrity of our cells (they are fundamental pieces of their plasma membrane), regulate body temperature ...
Of course, excess fat is bad. Everything in excess is. What we must be very clear about is which are the sources of healthy fats and which are less healthy. And it is that lipids can be classified into different types:
2.1. Unsaturated fats
They are healthy fats. And they should be included in any healthy diet. They are those that, at room temperature, are liquid. And in addition to all the benefits we've seen, they help lower "bad" cholesterol levels. Where can they be found? The best sources of unsaturated lipids are blue fish, avocado, nuts, sunflower seeds, olive oil, eggs, legumes, saffron, and corn.
2.2. Saturated fats
They are unhealthy fats. There is no reason to include them in the diet, although if it is in moderation (they should never exceed 6% of the daily caloric intake), nothing happens. They are those that, at room temperature, are solid. In addition to not fulfilling the benefits of fats that we have discussed, they stimulate an increase in the levels of "bad" cholesterol. Where can they be found? The main sources of saturated fat are red meat, cheese, whole milk, butter, cream, ice cream, etc.
2.3. Trans fat
They are the harmful fats. It is not only that they should not be included in the diet, but that we would have to completely run away from them. Obviously, they do not have benefits for the body, but they also contribute much more than saturated ones to the increase in "bad" cholesterol in the blood. Margarine, ultra-processed products, potato chips, Industrial pastries, cookies and, in short, any food that specifies that it has been made based on totally or partially hydrogenated fats.
We come to the last macronutrient. Proteins are molecules made up of long chains of amino acids, smaller molecules that, depending on the sequence they form, will give rise to one protein or another.
Proteins are not the body's main source of energy (cells prefer carbohydrates and, if they do not have access to them, they pull on fats; proteins are the last resort), but they are one of the primary sources of matter.
In fact, proteins are the base molecules to make up our body, renew cells and allow proper development and growth of the body, both physically and mentally. They are the building block of our organs and tissues, regulate metabolism, are important in the immune and endocrine systems and allow the transport of molecules through the body.
The best sources of protein are, without a doubt, those of animal origin. And it is that these molecules are part of the organic structure of animals. Also from plants, but in smaller quantities and it is more difficult to obtain, from them, all the proteins we need, so you have to make sure you take a wide variety of plant products to meet your requirements.
Either way, proteins are obtained mainly from meat (it is not true that red has more protein than white), fish, eggs, legumes, dairy products and nuts (in vegan diets they are vital to cover the protein needs of the Body).
Vitamins are micronutrients, which means that, in addition to being structurally simpler than the macronutrients we have seen, they are not directly involved in obtaining matter or energy and we need them in small quantities. That is, they do not make up our organic structure nor are they fuel for cells.
But that does not mean, far from it, that they are not important. Vitamins are molecules that travel through the bloodstream and stimulate different functions in the organs. Some of them can be synthesized by our body, but others cannot.
We are talking about essential vitamins, of which there are a total of 13, involved in countless functions: maintaining healthy teeth and bones, facilitating wound healing, inducing an optimal macronutrient metabolic rate, enhancing the formation of red blood cells, stimulating brain function ...
Vitamin deficiencies can be very serious. Therefore, it is important to know what vitamins each food group provides us with. We leave you access to an article where we talk in depth about essential vitamins.
5. Mineral salts
Mineral salts are the second group of micronutrients, so, like vitamins, we need them in small amounts and, despite not being a direct source of matter and energy, they do participate in the performance of many physiological functions. Anyway, while vitamins are organic molecules, mineral salts are inorganic molecules.
Calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, selenium, copper ... The body needs all these minerals, which are vital to form bone structure, allow the absorption of nutrients, stimulate immune activity, allow the synthesis of hemoglobin, stimulate muscle activity , enhance the neuronal synapse, etc.
In this sense, mineral salts They are chemical elements of the group of metals with the ability to be bioassimilable, which means that they can be diluted in our internal environment (forming cations) and participate in these biological functions.
With mineral salts, we are done talking about nutrients. But we cannot close this article without talking about a compound that, Despite not being a macro or micronutrient, it is the key to life: water.
Water is a substance whose molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms which, at room temperature, are liquid. It constitutes the internal environment of our cells (the cytoplasm), so it is the place where all the metabolic reactions of processing of the nutrients that we have seen take place.
90% of our body is water. And this has to come from both drinking fluids and eating products that contain it. It will not be a proper nutrient, but it is the most important "nutrient" in nature. Without water, there is no life.