Skip to main content
Medicine LibreTexts

1.2: What Are Nutrients?

  • Page ID
    304
  • [ "article:topic" ]

    Learning Objective

    • Define the word “nutrient” and identify the six classes of nutrients essential for health.
    • List the three main energy (Calorie) yielding nutrients and how many Calories each of these nutrients provide.

    What is in Food?

    Your "diet" is defined as the foods you choose to eat.  The diet of most people contains a variety of foods: nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables and more!  The foods we eat contain nutrients. Nutrients are substances required by the body to perform its basic functions. Nutrients must be obtained from diet, since the human body does not synthesize them, or does not synthesize them in large enough amounts for human health. Nutrients are used for many body functions such as: growing, moving your muscles, repairing tissues and much more! There are six classes of essential nutrients required for the body to function and maintain overall health. These six classes of essential nutrients are: carbohydrates, lipids (fats), proteins, water, vitamins, and minerals. Foods also contain non-nutrients.  Some non-nutrients appear to be very important for human health, like fiber and antioxidants, some non-nutrients may be harmful to human health such as: preservatives, colorings, flavorings and pesticide residues.  

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Six Classes of Nutrients. Source: http://www.chemistry.wustl.edu/~edudev/LabTutorials/Vitamins/vitamins.html.

    Macronutrients

    Nutrients that are needed in large amounts are called macronutrients. There are three major classes of macronutrients: carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. All three of these nutrients are needed in relatively large amounts AND they contain Calories (note the capital C which indicates kilocalories) which can be "burned" in your body to create energy for your body cells. The energy from these macronutrients comes from their chemical bonds. This chemical energy is converted into cellular energy that is then utilized to perform work, allowing our bodies to conduct their basic functions. A unit of measurement of food energy is the Calorie.  The next time you are eating a packaged food, look on the "Nutrition Facts" panel to find out how many Calories you getting when you eat one serving of that food. Water is also a macronutrient in the sense that you require a large amount of it, but unlike the other macronutrients it does not yield calories.  One other possible component of the diet that can provide Calories is alcohol though it is generally NOT considered to be a nutrient.  Alcohol (in the form of ethanol) provides about 7 Calories per gram.    

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Macronutrients: Carbohydrates, Lipids, Protein, and Water

    Carbohydrates

    When you eat a food that contains carbohydrate, like bread for example, you will be receiving approximately 4 Calories for every gram of carbohydrate you eat.  Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The major food sources of carbohydrates are grains, milk, fruits, and starchy vegetables like potatoes. Non-starchy vegetables also contain carbohydrates, but in lesser quantities. Carbohydrates are broadly classified into two forms based on their chemical structure: fast-releasing carbohydrates, often called "simple sugars", and slow-releasing carbohydrates, often called "complex carbohydrates".

    Fast-releasing carbohydrates consist of one or two basic sugar units.  They are sometimes called "simple sugars" because their chemical structure is fairly simple with only one or two sugar units.  If the carbohydrate has one sugar unit we call it a "monosaccharide".  Mono means one and saccharide means sugar.  Examples of monosaccharides you have heard of are: Glucose (the sugar that is in your blood); Fructose (a sugar commonly found in fruit); and Galactose (a sugar that is found as part of milk sugar).  If the carbohydrate has two sugar units we call it a "disaccharide".  Di means two and saccharide means sugar.  Examples of disaccharides you may be familiar with are: sucrose (table sugar); lactose (milk sugar) and maltose (malt sugar).  Sucrose is made of a Glucose linked together with a Fructose.  Lactose is made of Glucose linked together with Galactose.  Maltose is made of two Glucose molecules bonded together.  In order to digest a disaccharide, your body has to break the two sugars apart.  We will talk more about this when we discuss lactose intolerance!  

    Slow-releasing carbohydrates are long chains of simple sugars (polysaccharides) that can be branched or unbranched. Some polysaccharides that you have probably heard of are starch and fiber.  During digestion, the body does its best to break down all slow-releasing carbohydrates like starch to simple sugars, mostly glucose. Glucose is then transported to all our cells where it is stored, used to make energy, or used to build macromolecules. Fiber is also a slow-releasing carbohydrate, but it cannot be broken down in the human body and passes through the digestive tract undigested unless the bacteria that live in the large intestine break it down for us.

    One gram of carbohydrates yields four Calories of energy for the cells in the body to perform work. In addition to providing energy and serving as building blocks for bigger macromolecules, carbohydrates are essential for proper functioning of the nervous system, heart, and kidneys. As mentioned, glucose can be stored in the body for future use. In humans, the storage molecule of carbohydrates is called glycogen and in plants it is known as starches. Glycogen and starches are slow-releasing carbohydrates.

    Lipids

    Lipids are also a family of molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, but unlike carbohydrates, they are insoluble in water. Lipids are found predominately in butter, oils, meats, dairy products, nuts, and seeds, and in many processed foods. The three main types of lipids are triglycerides (triacylglycerols), phospholipids, and sterols. The main job of lipids is to store energy. Lipids provide more energy per gram than carbohydrates (nine Calories per gram of lipids versus four Calories per gram of carbohydrates). In addition to energy storage, lipids serve as cell membranes, surround and protect organs, aid in temperature regulation, and regulate many other functions in the body.

    Proteins

    Proteins are macromolecules composed of chains of subunits called amino acids. Amino acids are simple subunits composed of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. The food sources of proteins are meats, dairy products, seafood, and a variety of different plant-based foods, most notably soy. The word protein comes from a Greek word meaning “of primary importance,” which is an apt description of these macronutrients; they are also known colloquially as the “workhorses” of life. Proteins provide four Calories of energy per gram; however providing energy is not protein’s most important function. Proteins provide structure to bones, muscles and skin, and play a role in conducting most of the chemical reactions that take place in the body. Scientists estimate that greater than one-hundred thousand different proteins exist within the human body.

    Water

    There is one other nutrient that we must have in large quantities: water. Water does not contain carbon, but is composed of two hydrogens and one oxygen per molecule of water. Water does not provide any Calories.  More than 60 percent of your total body weight is water. Without it, nothing could be transported in or out of the body, chemical reactions would not occur, organs would not be cushioned, and body temperature would fluctuate widely. On average, an adult consumes just over two liters of water per day from food and drink. According to the “rule of threes,” a generalization supported by survival experts, a person can survive three minutes without oxygen, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Since water is so critical for life’s basic processes, the amount of water input and output is supremely important, a topic we will explore in detail in Chapter 7.

    Alcohol (not a nutrient)

    Alcoholic drinks are a source of Calories even though they are generally not considered nutrients. Alcohol itself provides approximately 7 Calories for every gram consumed. In addition to alcohol, many alcoholic drinks contain carbohydrate as well. 

    Micronutrients

    Micronutrients are nutrients required by the body in lesser amounts, but are still essential for carrying out bodily functions. Micronutrients include all the essential minerals and vitamins. There are sixteen essential minerals and thirteen vitamins (Tables \(\PageIndex{1}\) and \(\PageIndex{2}\) for a complete list and their major functions). In contrast to carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins, micronutrients do not contain Calories.  This is often confusing because most people have heard how tired a person will feel if they are low in a micronutrient such as Iron.  The tiredness can be explained by the fact that, micronutrients assist in the process of making energy by being part of enzymes (i.e., coenzymes). Enzymes catalyze chemical reactions in the body and are involved in many aspects of body functions from producing energy, to digesting nutrients, to building macromolecules. Micronutrients play many roles in the body.

    Minerals

    Minerals are solid inorganic substances that form crystals and are classified depending on how much of them we need. Trace minerals, such as molybdenum, selenium, zinc, iron, and iodine, are only required in a few milligrams or less and macrominerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and phosphorus, are required in hundreds of milligrams. Many minerals are critical for enzyme function, others are used to maintain fluid balance, build bone tissue, synthesize hormones, transmit nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and protect against harmful free radicals.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): : Minerals and Their Major Functions
    Minerals Major Functions
    Macro
    Sodium Fluid balance, nerve transmission, muscle contraction
    Chloride Fluid balance, stomach acid production
    Potassium Fluid balance, nerve transmission, muscle contraction
    Calcium Bone and teeth health maintenance, nerve transmission, muscle contraction, blood clotting
    Phosphorus Bone and teeth health maintenance, acid-base balance
    Magnesium Protein production, nerve transmission, muscle contraction
    Sulfur Protein production
    Trace
    Iron Carries oxygen, assists in energy production
    Zinc Protein and DNA production, wound healing, growth, immune system function
    Iodine Thyroid hormone production, growth, metabolism
    Selenium Antioxidant
    Copper Coenzyme, iron metabolism
    Manganese Coenzyme
    Fluoride Bone and teeth health maintenance, tooth decay prevention
    Chromium Assists insulin in glucose metabolism
    Molybdenum Coenzyme

    Vitamins

    The thirteen vitamins are categorized as either water-soluble or fat-soluble. The water-soluble vitamins are vitamin C and all the B vitamins, which include thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyroxidine, biotin, folate and cobalamin. The fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, and K. Vitamins are required to perform many functions in the body such as making red blood cells, synthesizing bone tissue, and playing a role in normal vision, nervous system function, and immune system function.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Vitamins and Their Major Functions
    Vitamins Major Functions
    Water-soluble
    B1 (thiamine) Coenzyme, energy metabolism assistance
    B2 (riboflavin) Coenzyme, energy metabolism assistance
    B3 (niacin) Coenzyme, energy metabolism assistance
    B5 (pantothenic acid) Coenzyme, energy metabolism assistance
    B6 (pyroxidine) Coenzyme, amino acid synthesis assistance
    Biotin Coenzyme
    Folate Coenzyme, essential for growth
    B12 (cobalamin) Coenzyme, red blood cell synthesis
    C Collagen synthesis, antioxidant
    Fat-soluble
    A Vision, reproduction, immune system function
    D Bone and teeth health maintenance, immune system function
    E Antioxidant, cell membrane protection
    K Bone and teeth health maintenance, blood clotting

    Vitamin deficiencies can cause severe health problems. For example, a deficiency in niacin causes a disease called pellagra, which was common in the early twentieth century in some parts of America. The common signs and symptoms of pellagra are known as the “4D’s—diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death.” Until scientists found out that better diets relieved the signs and symptoms of pellagra, many people with the disease ended up in insane asylums awaiting death (Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Other vitamins were also found to prevent certain disorders and diseases such as scurvy (vitamin C), night blindness (vitamin A), and rickets (vitamin D).

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): This video provides a brief history of Dr. Joseph Goldberger’s discovery that pellagra was a diet-related disease.

    Food Energy

    Though this is only Chapter 1, you have already seen the words "Calories" and "Energy" used several times.  In everyday life you have probably heard people talk about how many Calories they burned on the treadmill or how many Calories are listed on a bag of chips.  Calories, are a measure of energy.  It takes quite a lot of Calories (energy) to keep us alive.  Even if a person is in a coma, they still burn approximately 1000 Calories of energy in order for: their heart to beat, their blood to circulate, their lungs to breathe, etc... We burn even more calories when we exercise.  The carbohydrates, fats and proteins we eat and drink provide calories for us (and alcohol as well if we choose to consume it).  Sometimes people refer to these nutrients as "energy yielding".  As you read above, carbohydrates provide 4 Calories for every gram we consume; proteins provide 4 Calories for every gram we consume; fats provide 9 Calories for every gram we consume and alcohol provides 7 Calories of energy for every gram we consume.  Vitamins, minerals and water do not provide any calories, even though they are still essential nutrients.  

    Food Quality:  Nutrient Density compared to Calorie Density

    One way to think about the quality of your food is to consider how many nutrients you receive from a serving of that food compared to the number of Calories you receive from one serving of the food.  For example, a candy bar gives you quite a few Calories but not very many of the essential nutrients.  We would say that the candy bar has Calorie density but low Nutrient density.  An apple on the other hand, has quite a few essential nutrients but not very many Calories.  We would say that the apple has high Nutrient density but low Calorie density.   

    Please watch the following Ted Ed video called "What is a Calorie" which will describe in more detail what a Calorie is and why you may want to know how many Calories you are consuming compared to how many you are burning each day.  

    Video: What is a calorie? - Emma Bryce

    One measurement of food quality is the amount of nutrients it contains relative to the amount of energy (Calories) it provides. High-quality foods are nutrient dense, meaning they contain lots of the nutrients relative to the amount of Calories they provide. Nutrient-dense foods are the opposite of “empty-calorie” foods such as carbonated sugary soft drinks, which provide many calories and very little, if any, other nutrients. Food quality is additionally associated with its taste, texture, appearance, microbial content, and how much consumers like it.

    Food: A Better Source of Nutrients

    It is better to get all your micronutrients from the foods you eat as opposed to from supplements. Supplements contain only what is listed on the label, but foods contain many more macronutrients, micronutrients, and other chemicals, like antioxidants that benefit health. While vitamins, multivitamins, and supplements are a $20 billion industry in this country and more than 50 percent of Americans purchase and use them daily, there is no consistent evidence that they are better than food in promoting health and preventing disease. Dr. Marian Neuhouser, associate of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, says that “…scientific data are lacking on the long-term health benefits of supplements. To our surprise, we found that multivitamins did not lower the risk of the most common cancers and also had no impact on heart disease. ”Woodward, K. “Multivitamins Each Day Will Not Keep Common Cancers Away; Largest Study of Its Kind Provides Definitive Evidence that Multivitamins Will Not Reduce Risk of Cancer or Heart Disease in Postmenopausal Women.” Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Center News 16 (February 2009). http://www.fhcrc.org/about/pubs/center_news/online/2009/02/multivitamin_study.html

    Key Takeaways

    • Foods contain nutrients that are essential for our bodies to function.
    • Four of the classes of nutrients required for bodily function are needed in large amounts. They are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and water, and are referred to as macronutrients.
    • Two of the classes of nutrients are needed in lesser amounts, but are still essential for bodily function. They are vitamins and minerals.
    • One measurement of food quality is the amount of essential nutrients a food contains relative to the amount of energy it has (nutrient density).

    Discussion Starters

    1. Make a list of some of your favorite foods and visit the “What’s In the Foods You Eat?” search tool provided by the USDA. What are some of the nutrients found in your favorite foods?

      http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=17032

    2. Have a discussion in class on the “progression of science” and its significance to human health as depicted in the video on pellagra (Video \(\PageIndex{1}\).