Let’s start with a quick review of what an essential nutrient is. It is a chemical that must be taken into to a person, digested and absorbed to reach a certain level in the blood or tissues in order for a person to function properly. Briefly, you need to eat enough of each of these chemicals in order to:
- Grow and
If any of the essential nutrients gets too low in the body, one or more of the above functions will not happen. These are the basic chemicals that people must ingest on a regular basis or something bad will happen to their health. Deficiencies of essential nutrients have been linked to every major disease that humans get including: cancer; diabetes; high blood pressure; stroke; colitis; hyper & hypo thyroidism; etc.
How Many Essential Nutrients Are There?
The answer to this will vary a little bit depending on who you ask, but they should all be close to 42. The reason for the variability is that each candidate for essential nutrient status must go through a rigorous scientific process to meet the definition criteria. People who write about essential nutrients are not always in agreement with research interpretations, or haven’t read the same studies, or have different standards of how many times a project must be repeated to be accepted, etc.
The essential nutrients fall into the following categories:
- Essential Amino Acids
- Essential Fatty Acids
Essential Amino Acids
There are approximately 22 different amino acids that humans use. Out of these 22, there are 9 that are essential. If you get enough of these 9, your body can convert them into all the rest of the 22. Here are the 9 essential amino acids.
Essential Fatty Acids
There are hundreds of fatty acids (fats & oils). Your body can make all of these if you only make sure to get enough of two in your diet (three for children). The essential fatty acids are:
- Linoleic Acid
- Linolenic Acid
- Arachidonic Acid (for children)
The body can convert these essential fatty acids to all the other fats your body needs. One of the recently discovered issues with fatty acids is getting the right ratios of these in your diet. Get the wrong ratio and you will have difficulty with pain and inflammation regulation, difficulty learning and athletic performance and a whole host of neurological problems (i.e. depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, etc.)
Here’s one example about the importance of linolenic acid. This fatty acid is converted in your body, or in plants and animals that we eat, into omega 3 fatty acids. One of these molecules actually makes up about 15-20% of our brains. It plays a major role in producing the myelin sheaths that surround many nerves, providing a type of ‘insulation’ around nerves. If your body is deficient in the omega 3 fatty acids, or gets too much of its competitor, omega 6 fatty acids, the brain will have a large number of problems.
Most US diets have excessive omega 6 fats which are very common in processed and fast foods. This results in slow learning, poor nerve repair, and contributes to many of the neurological disorders which are epidemic in our country right now.
This is the category of essential nutrients that most people are familiar with. They have the longest history of research and the best understanding of their wide-ranging health implications.
- Vitamin A – Beta-carotene, retinol
- Vitamin B1 – Thiamine
- Vitamin B2 – Riboflavin
- Vitamin B3 – Niacin
- Vitamin B5 – Pantothenic acid
- VItamin B6 – Pyridoxine
- Vitamin B7 – Biotin
- Vitamin B9 – Folic Acid
- VItamin B12 – Cobalamin
- VItamin C – Ascorbic acid
- Vitamin D2 & D3 – Ergocalciferol, cholecalciferol
- Vitamin E – Tocopherol
- Vitamin K – Naphthoquinoids
It may seem redundant to use the term ‘essential’ in front of minerals and vitamins. As the understanding of these nutrients has improved, it has become evident that many chemicals which were originally called vitamins turned out not to be essential, and many minerals do not have an essential function in the body while others are actually toxic (i.e. lead, mercury, cadmium)
You may have noticed that I did list any essential nutrients in the carbohydrate category. Carbohydrates are sugar molecules or chains of sugar molecules (starches). There are no nutrients in the carbohydrate category that are essential in human nutrition. This means that you can live, grow, repair and reproduce without eating any carbohydrates. It is very important to keep clear that I am referring to the carbohydrate category which includes nutrients such as: glucose; fructose; starch and sucrose. I am not referring to foods that are rich in carbohydrates such as: grains; fruits, breads; vegetables; candy and cakes. Some of these foods are generally regarded as very good to eat while others are considered a major detriment to health.
There are a couple of concepts in this topic however, that deserve greater explanation.
- Fiber – There is a group of carbohydrates that are collectively known as ‘Fiber’. They all share the properties of being: long chains of sugar and; having molecular configurations that make them indigestible for humans. They will enter the human digestive system and leave with basically the same molecular structure. Even though they do not supply anything in the way of chemical nutrition directly to humans, they do supply mechanical properties that improves our health. This indigestible material keeps the colon more completely full. This allows for proper intestinal transit times and prevents constipation which in turn prevents a host of potential problems such as bacterial overgrowth, autointoxication and diverticulosis.
- Calories – Carbohydrates are a very common source of calories that are converted by the body into energy molecules that keep us alive. Other nutrient categories such as proteins and fats can also supply our caloric needs. Carbohydrates are so dominant in our societies for supplying our caloric needs that many people consider them essential, but diets that are carbohydrate free can be maintained for extended periods of time without ill-health (i.e. specialized Total Parenteral Nutrition, Atkins Diet).
The basic concept is this, essential nutrients are chemicals that must be maintained at adequate levels in the body otherwise performance, health, safety and eventually life itself will suffer. So many people who have very limited training in nutrition say, “just eat a well-balanced diet and you will be fine.” This idea is not supported by research data which shows that almost everybody in the United States is low or deficient in one or more essential nutrients and by definition, almost everybody in the US is suffering sub-optimal health that could be relatively easily cured.
When is the last time you were tested for all of your essential nutrients by somebody who is trained in clinical nutrition?