What is an Essential Nutrient?


Apples - MSThere are many different definitions used for what an essential nutrient is, even between dictionaries and textbooks.  We will be discussing nutrition extensively in the Diagnosis Foundation, so I thought it important to define how we will be using it and comparing it to other similar terms.

Essential Nutrient – This is a specific chemical or element that is required to be eaten, digested and absorbed on a regular basis.  If any of these chemicals become too low in the body, you will either:

  • die
  • be unable to repair from daily injuries
  • be unable to grow or
  • unable to reproduce.

There are approximately 42 essential nutrients that fit this definition.  I say approximately because new essential nutrients are being added to the list on a regular basis. Each potential essential nutrient typically needs to be studied for decades until there is consensus that a specific chemical meets the criteria.  The list of current essential nutrients is given at the end of this post.

Nutrient Category – These are groups of chemicals that many people confuse with essential nutrients!  Each nutrient category include dozens to hundreds of different chemicals that have some type of similarity.  Each nutrient category may contain some chemicals that are essential and some that are not essential.  The basic nutrient categories are:

  • Proteins – amino acids linked together are the building blocks of proteins.  Of the approximately 22 different amino acids common in the human diet, some are essential, while other amino acids are not essential.
  • Carbohydrates – predominantly starches and sugars
  • Lipids – fats, oils and related compounds like triglycerides and cholesterol
  • Vitamins – compounds that are generally co-enzymes for functions in the body. Almost all vitamins are essential.
  • Minerals – Elements from the periodic table that tend to be solid at room temperature.  Some are essential while others are toxic.
  • Other – This is a catch-all category that includes items such as water, oxygen, etc.

Food Groups – These are categories of food that you might typically find at a grocery store.  Typical food groups would be:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Grains
  • Meats
  • Dairy

It is important to understand that each individual food in each of the food groups typically contain a blend of nutrient categories.  Let’s look at beef within the meat group for example.  Beef contains a relatively large percentage of protein compared to foods in other categories, but they also contain minerals, fats, etc.

Macronutrient Elements –  This refers to minerals that are present in the normal body in relatively large quantities.  Officially, they make up greater than 0.005% of the body.  This would include calcium, chloride, magnesium and a few others.

Micronutrient Elements – This refers to minerals that make up less than 0.005% of the body by weight.  Included here would be chromium, cobalt, copper, iodine, iron, zinc and others.

List of essential nutrients within each nutrient category


  • α-Linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Linoleic acid (LA)
  • Arachidonic acid – required in children

Proteins (listed are the specific amino acids that are essential)

  • Isoleucine
  • Lysine
  • Leucine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine
  • Histidine
  • Arginine – essential for preterm children:


There are no essential nutrients in the carbohydrate nutrient category for humans.


  • Vitamin A (retinol)
  • Vitamin Bp (choline)
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamin)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin, vitamin G)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin, vitamin P, vitamin PP)
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine, pyridoxamine, or pyridoxal)
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin, vitamin H)
  • Vitamin B9 (folic acid, folate, vitamin M)
  • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
  • Vitamin D (ergocalciferol, or cholecalciferol)
  • Vitamin E (tocopherol)
  • Vitamin K (naphthoquinoids)


  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Chloride (Cl)
  • Chromium (Cr)
  • Cobalt (Co) (as part of Vitamin B12)
  • Copper (Cu)
  • Iodine (I)
  • Iron (Fe)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Manganese (Mn)
  • Molybdenum (Mo)
  • Phosphorus (P)
  • Potassium (K)
  • Selenium (Se)
  • Sodium (Na)
  • Zinc (Zn)

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