Nutrients - Definition, function and importance of macro and micronutrients

What are nutrients? – Definition

By definition, nutrients are the elements necessary for the growth and maintenance of life. Nutrients can be classified into macro and micronutrients. The former are those found in the highest proportion in food, and their primary function is to provide energy. The latter is found in trace amounts in food, in the case of vitamins and minerals.

When talking about nutrients, one of the first concepts that usually comes to mind is “essential nutrients.” These are the nutrients that a person cannot synthesize; yes or yes, they should be included through food. It treats vitamins (D, E, K, and A fat-soluble) and micro-minerals (iron, iodine, zinc), some amino acids, and Omega-3 fatty acids such as ALA.

Types of nutrients – macro and micro

By definition, nutrients can be divided into two types:

  1. Macronutrients:
  • Protein
  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates
  • Water
  1. Micronutrients:
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

Macronutrient ratio: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats

To have balanced nutrition, the WHO recommends a ratio of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats of:

  • Carbohydrates: 40-50% of total calories
  • Protein: 10-15% of total calories
  • Fat: 20-30% of total calories

To achieve this proportion, vegetable foods, cereals, and fruits in a higher ratio, healthy fats, and protein sources of high biological value must be included. The diets that best fit these proportions are the Mediterranean and Nordic diets.

Importance of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates play a fundamental role in nutrition; they are the primary energy source for the brain and muscles. However, they are not all the same. Sugar, fructose, and glucose are simple and should be limited to 10% of total calories. The complex carbohydrates (starch and fiber) are considered reasonable and should make up about 60% of the total calories. They are found in vegetables, cereals, and pseudo-cereals.

Importance of proteins

The importance of proteins is not only part of muscle tissue but also of DNA. Its absence affects the regeneration of muscle fibers and the synthesis of enzymes necessary for the proper functioning of the body.

Importance of fats

Fatty foods are traditionally considered flawed. However, this is one of the most frequent mistakes in nutrition. A complete rejection of fats is dangerous for health. Ideally, include a higher proportion of monounsaturated vegetable fats. The most important essential fatty micronutrients are the Omega-3 fatty acids ALA.

Vegetable fiber

Plant fiber is a class of complex carbohydrates that the stomach cannot digest. Despite this, the presence of this nutrient in the diet is necessary to improve the mechanical processes of digestion and maintain normal blood sugar levels. Fiber is found exclusively in plant foods and seeds (for example, chia seeds ).

Micronutrients – Definition

By definition, micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. Unlike macros, the daily need for micronutrients is measured in hundredths and even thousandths of a gram. Their function can also classify them as antioxidants, phytonutrients, etc.

What is the role of micronutrients?

Micronutrients are essential for a healthy brain, bones, and body. Some define the lack of micronutrients as hidden hunger. (1) This is because it occurs slowly, and its effects are not observed until they have caused irreversible damage.

Although a person may sleep every night with a full stomach, micronutrient deficiencies mean that their body is still starving for good nutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies can be catastrophic, particularly in pregnant women and children.

What are the micronutrients that must be given the most significant importance?

One of the micronutrients that must be given the most significant importance is iodine. Worldwide, 30% of the world’s population lives in iodine-deficient areas. (1) Symptoms of iodine deficiency are headache, weight gain or loss, concentration and memory problems, and mood swings.

On the other hand, the lack of micronutrients such as vitamin A  affects one-third of children living in low-income. (1) This immune system increases the risk of getting infections like measles.

The last two micronutrients to pay special attention to are iron and magnesium. When there is a lack of foods with iron in the diet, anemia appears, and the chances of infection and bleeding multiply. The lack of magnesium is the most frequent in athletes; this decreases the maximum respiratory capacity and lower muscle performance. Including magnesium foods regularly is essential for those who lead an active lifestyle.

Phytonutrients and antinutrients

It is of great importance not to confuse the terms phytonutrients with antinutrients. The former is a type of micronutrient found in plant foods. These are carotenoids, phytosterols, flavonoids, and glucosinolates and have potential benefits as antioxidants in nutrition.

By definition, antinutrients are components of food that impair the absorption of vitamins and minerals. For example, legumes contain phytic acid: its regular excessive consumption negatively affects the absorption of iron, zinc, calcium, and phosphorus.

By definition, nutrients are necessary elements for the maintenance and growth of life. They are found in food, and their correct balance can be achieved by following healthy eating rules. Macronutrients are protein, fat, water, and carbohydrates; micronutrients: are vitamins and minerals. The amounts of macro and micronutrients vary according to gender and age, with children and pregnant women most vulnerable to their lack.

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