Healthy eating is hard. It seems like every few months, there’s a new trendy diet, and everything we thought we knew about healthy foods goes out the door. So, we asked our nutrition science team to help us round up only the nutrition basics, things like the 6 basic nutrients, why they matter, and easy food swaps to get even more of these healthy foods into our diets. Because the answers to questions like “what should I eat to stay healthy?” should never intimidate us, but rather empower us to make the changes we need today that could help us for years to come.
Can You Name All 6 Basic Nutrients?
There are plenty of healthy eating tip lists out there, but before you begin trying out another new diet, it can help to understand which nutrients your body needs the most from food and what those nutrients do.
There are 6 basic nutrients: Carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water. Yep, you read that right. Water is a nutrient! Here’s a quick breakdown of what each of these 6 basic nutrients does in the body:
Proteins are chains of amino acids, which provide structure to the entire body, from bones and muscles to the skin—which is why amino acids are sometimes referred to as “the building blocks” of the body. They’re what our body is literally made up of. And amino acids aren’t just builders. They also drive some of the most important chemical reactions of the body.1,2
Carbohydrates are a major source of energy for almost every cell in the body, and some parts of the body use only carbohydrates as their main fuel source (eg the brain and red blood cells).2
Fats or lipids provide and store energy while also helping cells maintain their structure and protecting organs.2
Water is how everything is transported in and out of the body; without it, our bodies shut down, making it arguably one of the most vital nutrients.2
Vitamins are required for nearly everything the body does, but their exact roles vary depending on which of the 13 vitamins you’re talking about. Generally speaking, vitamins assist in everything from producing energy, building cells, and keeping your blood pumping to supporting your eyes, brain, skin, heart, bone, muscles, and immune system.3
Minerals carry out a lot of tasks as well, all of which also vary depending on which of the 15 minerals you’re talking about. One big role of minerals is to help maintain a balance of water in the body.3Other roles include carrying oxygen throughout the body (iron), building and maintaining bones (calcium), regulating muscle function (magnesium), helping support a healthy immune response (zinc), or assisting in every beat of your heart (potassium).3
There’s a lot more we could say about these 6 basic nutrients, such as why some are considered macro, and others are micro, or which nutrients are organic versus inorganic substances. But the point is that these 6 basic nutrients are not simply “nice-to-haves,” they’re “need-to-haves.” Proteins, carbs, fats, water, vitamins, and minerals are all called “essential” nutrients because the body needs them, not just so we can survive—but also thrive.
Healthy eating is all about giving back to your body. Every day we’re using and consuming these nutrients, so making sure we get enough of them in our diets is a big part of that.1 But it can be difficult to choose healthy foods for a lot of reasons, one of which may be we don’t really understand why these nutrients are so important. Here’s a quick breakdown of why these 6 basic nutrients matter so much and some tips for how to make sure you’re getting enough of these life-giving nutrients.
PROTEINS: Why they matter
Scientists estimate the human body contains more than 100,000 different types of proteins.4 Proteins give structure to everything in our body, from our bones to our muscles to our skin.4 That’s because when we eat protein, our body breaks it down into various amino acids.5
Amino acids are known to nutritional nerds as the “building blocks” of the body, and there’s a reason for that. They’re needed for almost everything in the body, from growth and development to daily maintenance of tissues. They form critical molecules like hormones, enzymes, and antibodies which help with everything from maintaining blood sugar to supporting immune health. Protein also makes up the neurotransmitters that influence everything from our ability to think to our mood.1,5
Like all nutrients, our protein supply is being used up every day. It needs to be replenished or all the parts of our body that rely on amino acids will suffer. And foods with protein are the only way we can get amino acids into our diets.
PROTEINS: Choosing healthy proteins
Animal sources such as beef, pork, fish, and chicken are the best-known ways of getting protein into your diet. But there are plenty of amino acids to be found in plant-based proteins too. However, animal sources do often contain more essential amino acids, whereas plants may contain fewer of them—but that’s okay!5
Choosing healthy proteins isn’t just about eating the foods that have the most amino acids or even the most protein. It’s about eating a range of healthy food options that also offer up protein, and introducing a little variety into your diet. If you’re looking for high-quality proteins, here are a few good options to start with:5
Fish such as salmon, trout, and herring are high in protein, with the added bonus of offering heart-healthy omega-3s.
Poultry such as chicken or turkey are good sources of high-quality protein, and if you remove the skin, you can reduce their saturated fat content as well (more about why that’s a good thing in the “fats” section below).
Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt offer healthy proteins as well, but watch out for their fat and sugar content and pass on the processed cheeses, which often contain a lot of other less than healthy ingredients.
Beans and peas are packed with protein and fiber (another important part of any healthy diet) and are easily added to soups, salads, or stews—not to mention being a vegan- and vegetarian-friendly option too.
Nuts and seeds are rich in protein and fiber as well and serve as a source of “good” fats (more on that below). They’re easily added to a stir-fry, salad, or eaten as a tasty afternoon snack.
Healthy eating shouldn’t mean giving up your favorite foods but rather finding new ways of enjoying them! Going on a mini adventure with each meal or snack to help find new recipes that use healthier ingredients and spicing them up in ways that are easier on our bodies and often on our wallets too. Here are some easy swaps you can make right now to add more healthy proteins into your diet!
Quick tips for how to sneak healthy protein into your diet:5
Swap your chip snacks for nuts and seeds
Ditch baked desserts for a delicious Greek yogurt (with a dollop of fresh fruit or jam)
Grill up some chicken instead of beef
Add beans and lentils to salads or pasta.
CARBOHYDRATES: Why they matter
Carbohydrates fuel almost every cell in the body.4 Some parts of the body rely completely on carbs for their energy.4 According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, a whopping 45-65% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates.6 But these calories should be mostly from complex “unrefined” carbs, not simple carbs.6 Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, releasing their sugars and generating energy gradually over time, versus one big spike.6 Plus, complex carbs also tend to be higher in nutrients and fiber.6
Cutting out all of those delicious, simple carbs is no easy task. Simple carbs seem to be hidden in everything, including pasta sauce!6 But that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to enjoy the foods we love while still sticking with your healthy eating plan.
CARBOHYDRATES: Choosing healthy carbs
Here are a few easy foods you can add to your diet to pack in more of those healthy carbs and ensure your body has the fuel it needs to keep you thriving.6
Whole grainslike oatmeal, multigrain bread, brown rice, and even bran cereal can all be delicious and healthy options for complex carbohydrates.
Vegetablessuch as spinach, green beans, tomatoes, and even celery and Brussels sprouts offer complex carbs.
Legumeslike peas, baked beans, kidney beans, and lentils make for a great foundation or side dish to some of your favorite comfort foods, like a warm homemade bean-only chili or a lentil-based Sloppy Joe!
Here are some easy changes you can make right now to help add more complex carbs into your diet.
Quick tips for how to sneak healthy carbs into your diet:6
Swap white potatoes for sweet potatoes or a cauliflower mash.
Swap your white rice for brown rice, wild rice, or riced cauliflower.
Trade instant oatmeal for steel-cut or rolled oatsSwap corn or potato chips for nuts or veggies.
FATS: Why they matter
Fats (or lipids) are generally seen as always bad and to be avoided at all costs, but this simply isn’t true. While yes, “bad” fats have been directly linked to a range of health problems, fat is an essential nutrient. Lipids are mostly used to provide and store energy, but fats also protect your organs, provide insulation to help your body regulate its temperature, help absorb vitamins, and provide essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids that help support your heart and brain health.4,7 Good fats are good for you! And your body needs them.
Because your body depends on fat for so many things, it’s important the fats you eat really deliver on that promise. That’s why, just like proteins and carbs, it’s all about the *types of fats you eat.
FATS: Choosing healthy fats
When it comes to fats, “low-fat” doesn’t always mean healthy.8 So, how do you get more of these “good” fats into your diet? Here are some solid places to start:7
Oils such as olive, canola, peanut, and sesame offer up healthy “monounsaturated” fats versus the saturated fats found in butter.
Avocados are trendy for a reason. They contain both healthy monounsaturated fats and healthy omega-3s.
Nuts such as almonds, peanuts, pecans, cashews provide good amounts of not just one but two types of healthy fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Seedsare such as flax and chia are powerful little healthy-fat friendly options as well.
Fatty fishsuch as salmon, tuna, or oysters provide healthy polyunsaturated, omega-3 fats and make a great substitute for red meats that are heavy in saturated fats.
Tips On Making Easy Healthy Fat Trades:7
Move from red meats to poultry like chicken or turkey.
Cook with olive oil instead of corn oil.
Find a way to add omega-3s fats to your diet with fatty fish, walnuts, or flaxseeds.
Move from whole milk to 1-2% options.
Sprinkle nuts on your salads instead of croutons.
Avoid anything with a “trans fat” in it.
Make sure your “low-fat” treats don’t contain additional sugars in them to make up for the missing fat.
WATER: Why it matters
This one may seem like a no-brainer, most of us are aware that water sustains life, but water does far more than just quench our thirst. Our body weight is made of more than 60% water for a reason.4 Without water, nothing gets transported into or out of the body.4 Toxins aren’t flushed out, nutrients aren’t absorbed.3 Chemical reactions don’t occur.4 Organs are no longer protected and cushioned.4 Even our body temperature can’t be regulated properly.4
Despite all that, it can be hard to stay hydrated. This may leave a lot of us walking around with a constant state of tiredness, low energy, and can even cause headaches.4 This thirst is often and easily mistaken for hunger, which can lead to even more snacking.3
Here are some general healthy hydration tips and some ways to enjoy drinking water more!9,3
Carry a water bottle: Keep water by your side wherever you go. All-day hydration really adds up.
Add sliced cucumbersto your water either individually or into a pitcher in the fridge for a more tasty treat with the added bonus of a little hydration boost too.
Eat your water. Fresh fruits and vegetables such as cantaloupe, strawberries, watermelon, lettuce, cabbage, celery, spinach, and squash are over 90% water!10
Skip sugary drinksentirely if you can, especially sodas.
Thirst can often be mistaken for hunger,so if you’re feeling hungry, try drinking some water first!
Coffees and teascan still be enjoyed, and decaf teas are a great way to get your hydration in without the extra calories or jitters coffee often brings.
VITAMINS: Why they matter
Vitamins are a must-have for everything from making red blood cells to supporting normal vision, healthy nervous systems, immune systems, and more.4 Like proteins and other nutrients, we use our vitamin stores daily, and some we use up faster than others. Water-soluble vitamins (C and all 8 of the B vitamins) need to be replenished daily, whereas fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are stored in the body for longer but still need to be replenished regularly.
While most people are familiar with vitamin deficiencies and the range of health issues they cause—vitamin “shortfalls” or “gaps” can cause problems for our health as well, both in the short- and long-term. Even though we assume we can get most of our vitamins from the food we eat, that’s not the case. Studies year after year show that most Americans aren’t even meeting the bare minimum requirements for key vitamins such as A, D, and E.12
Minerals are inorganic substances that do everything from helping to maintain a balance of fluids in the body, to building bone tissue, relaxing muscles, and even providing antioxidant support.4 There are two categories of minerals: macrominerals (such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium) and trace minerals (such as iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, and selenium). We don’t naturally make minerals, so we have to consume them from our diets.11 And similar to all of the other nutrients, we’re constantly using up our mineral supplies and need to replenish them regularly.
Plants get minerals from the soil they grow in, and we get minerals from eating those plants (or by eating products from animals who’ve feasted on those mineral-rich plants themselves).11 Minerals are also in our water (which is just another reason it’s important to keep hydrated).11
VITAMINS & MINERALS: How to get more from your food
There are 15 minerals and 13 vitamins, each found in varying amounts in various foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, and lean proteins. So, without getting too far into the weeds about which foods contain how much of which nutrient, here are some general tips for sneaking in more fruits and vegetables, a food group rich in many key vitamins and minerals into your diet, to help increase your overall vitamin and mineral intake:3
Add berries to everything! Smoothies, yogurts, breakfast cereals, salads, or oatmeal. Berries are rich in a variety of vitamins, plus they contain antioxidants!
Fruit medleys of oranges, mangos, pineapples, and grapes can make for a delicious midday snack or even dessert.
Saladsseem like a boring and obvious healthy eating option, but we promise there are ways to get creative with them. Find your favorite types of lettuces (spinach, romaine, living lettuce, and arugula are some of our faves), mix your own guilt-free dressings (olive oil, garlic, and lemon is an easy, guilt-free option), stir in a grain like quinoa, plus a protein like chickpeas. Sprinkle it all with a bit of cheese, salt, and pepper—and you’ve got yourself a delicious and nutritious salad!
Swap your processed, packaged snacksout for treats like apples, bananas, carrots, snap peas, or cherry tomatoes. Dip them in hummus or peanut butter for a little extra protein too.
Grilled, roasted, or sautéed veggiesmake for tastier ways of serving up these colorful and nutrient-dense side dishes (rather than steaming or boiling), and that can only help when it comes to eating them more often.3
Fruits and vegetables are light on calories and heavy not only on vitamins and minerals but also antioxidants and fiber.3 Aim for a minimum of5 servings per day (or 2.5 cups) of various fruits and vegetables—the more colorful, the better!3 When you don’t have access to some foods, a multi-strain probiotic supplement is a great way to support your gut health.†
Nutrition Knowledge is Power
Understanding why our bodies need these nutrients should help fuel us like a good complex carb. It can drive us to find new ways of supplying our bodies with the support they need. Whether that’s through a committed healthy diet and lifestyle or a mix with supplements to help fill nutrient gaps in our diets. Our bodies need us, just like we need them. They’re relying on us to listen, to learn, and to help. After all, we’re all we’ve got!
This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.
Carroll is a nutrition scientist and communicator with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, researcher, and educator at major universities, medical centers, and nutrition industry settings. She is a passionate advocate of nutritional health and established the nutrition education and science platforms at Pharmavite. Carroll is an expert in personalized nutrition and has published several scientific papers on vitamin and mineral inadequacies and the impact on health and wellbeing. Prior to joining Pharmavite, Carroll taught nutrition at UCLA Medical School and Santa Monica College and was a chief clinical dietitian and researcher.