Nutrition Basics: The 5 Most Essential Nutrients in a Healthy Diet

Nutrients are substances that provide nourishment to the human body. However, the significance of nutrients in the diet is quite complex.

Learning about various nutrients, their functions, food sources, and the health problems caused by nutrient deficiencies can help improve and maintain your health.

The right balance of nutrients improves the immune system, builds strong muscles, and keeps the heart healthy, thus sustaining life and ensuring your body works most efficiently.

As scientists unravel more astonishing marvels of nutrition, the emphasis is now on preventing diseases with a nutrient-rich diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Nutrient Classifications

Nutrients are classified into macro and micronutrients depending on their size and as well as the quantities required for the daily functioning of the human body.

They are also divided into essential and non-essential nutrients based on whether they have to be supplied externally from the diet or not.

Macronutrients and Micronutrients

Macronutrients: Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are called macronutrients as they’re large in size and are needed in high quantities.

Micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are smaller in size and are needed in smaller quantities. But this does not mean they are any less important for health.

Microminerals such as potassium play a vital role in maintaining normal blood pressure and healthy heart function. Sufficient levels of calcium and vitamin D are crucial for a strong and sturdy skeletal framework.

Water, which is one of the most vital nutrients, is in a separate class of its own.

Essential and Nonessential Nutrients

Essential nutrients: Carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water are considered to be the six essential nutrients for human health as these nutrients cannot be produced by the human body.

These nutrients are ‘essential’ as the body cannot function properly if these crucial nutrients are not provided.

Non-essential nutrients can both be synthesized in the body and absorbed from food consumed.

Cholesterol is one such nonessential nutrient that is needed for a variety of functions in the body including the production of various hormones. The liver produces plenty of cholesterol while dietary sources of cholesterol include meat, poultry, full-fat dairy products, etc.

The 5 Most Essential Nutrients

To optimize our health and performance, we can focus on certain essential nutrients and become mindful about adding these to our daily diet.

1. Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates! The name now instills fear in the hearts of those trying to lose weight and get fit. Touted as the modern villain who is behind everything from weight gain to various metabolic disorders, carbohydrates are being demonized as “unhealthy”.

Are carbs unhealthy and fattening?

The truth is that some of the world’s healthiest foods such as fruits and vegetables come under the category of carbohydrates. These foods are most important in any diet as they are incredibly nutrient-dense and loaded with important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Even on a ketogenic diet, about 50 gms of carbs are consumed daily. Ensure your diets contain complex carbs such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to fuel your bodies and supply megadoses of nutrients.

Are carbohydrates good for pre-workout or post-workout nutrition?

Before a workout session, it is important to have a pre-meal to boost your stamina. Carbs are the answer to these prayers as they burn quickly and provide sustained energy for the workout session. Since it’s not advisable to snack during the session, it’s important to be primed beforehand with the right fuel.

What are the functions of carbohydrates?

The primary functions of carbohydrates include providing energy, storing energy, building macromolecules, and sparing protein and fat for other uses.

Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose which is the primary source of fuel for the body and brain. Liver enzymes convert all digestible polysaccharides, disaccharides, and monosaccharides into glucose or a metabolite of glucose.

The pancreas creates insulin which helps regulate blood glucose levels. Insulin helps in the uptake of glucose at cellular levels to release energy. It also helps the liver synthesize glycogen from glucose for storing energy. This helps preserve muscle mass by preventing the breakdown of proteins for energy.

The Good and Bad Carbs

Carbohydrates are classified into simple and complex based on their chemical structure. Complex carbs are considered the “good” carbs while simple carbs are the “bad” ones.

1. Simple carbs are easily digestible and they provide a quick burst of energy. But the bad news is that they spike up the blood glucose levels sharply which is then followed by an energy crash as the fuel quickly burns up.

Examples: Refined sugar, refined wheat flour, and white rice are examples of foods made up of simple sugars. Most processed foods like bread, cereals, crackers, pastries, and so on are made of these ingredients and they are not a healthy choice of carbohydrates.

2, Complex carbs on the other hand are combinations of various types of sugar molecules along with fiber. They take longer to break down and digest.

Instead of spiking the sugar levels like the simple carbs, complex carbs burn slowly and consistently as a fuel source, as the sugar levels rise slowly and remain steady for a longer period before gradually dipping down to healthy fasting levels.

Examples: Starchy vegetables such as beans, peas, and sweet potatoes, fruits such as apples and pineapples, and baked goods made with whole grains are all examples of complex carbs.

Recommended daily allowance of carbohydrates: How much carbs can you eat in a day?

It is recommended that adults get 45 percent to 65 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also recommend 25 grams of fiber/per day for women and 38 grams/per day for men. An athlete will require more carbs than a sedentary desk jockey.

Obese people or those suffering from metabolic disorders such as diabetes are better off with fewer carbs in their diet as they may not be able to tolerate the carbs very well.

2. Protein

Protein is an extremely important part of the diet for people who exercise and train frequently.

It is important to eat a protein-based meal within 30 minutes of finishing a workout session. A whey protein shake with some tart cherry juice is a great pick-up as the protein helps with muscle recovery and the cherry has anti-inflammatory properties.

Protein is considered a “macronutrient,” as the body needs relatively large amounts of it.
It is required by every part of the human body, for a variety of functions.

  • Muscles and hormones are made from proteins.
  • Proteins are not only important building blocks for bones, cartilage, skin, and blood, but they can also be converted to fuel during low-caloric intakes.
  • Hair and nails are mostly made of protein.
  • Protein contains 4 calories per gram, the same as carbohydrates.

Essential Amino Acids

Proteins are composed of various combinations of amino acids. These amino acids are made up of even tinier units called peptides. Though there are 20 different types of amino acids, only 9 are considered essential as they are not synthesized in the body.

Nuts, beans, meat, eggs, and dairy are healthy sources of proteins.

A complete protein is one that contains all 9 essential amino acids. Animal proteins provide adequate amounts of all essential amino acids while plant proteins are lacking in many of them.

The 9 essential amino acids are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Read more: The 9 Essential Amino Acids and Their Role in Building Muscle

A diet rich in protein helps maintain a healthy body weight, or even lose weight, as proteins promote satiety and help curb hunger.

Does the body store protein as it does with fats and carbs?

If the body is running low on carbs, it has stored glycogen to fall back upon to tide over the shortage [for a limited period]. Unlike carbs or fats, the body cannot store protein, so there is no reservoir to take from in case of a protein shortage. However, excess intake of protein can cause fat gain as it gets converted to glucose and stored as body fat.

Bodybuilders and athletes should give extra emphasis to protein in their diets as it not only promotes growth and repairs damaged muscle cells and other tissue, but protein also synthesizes hormones and is needed for a variety of metabolic activities in the body.

How much protein should I take?

The daily protein allowance varies depending on the person’s age and activity levels. Though it is recommended that 10–35% of the daily calories should come from protein, most people would benefit from increasing their protein intake while decreasing their carbohydrate consumption. Those who are attempting to build more muscle will need to up their protein intake.

How much is too much protein? Can you overdose on protein? Can eating protein make you fat?

As they say, ‘the poison is in the dose’. Because of the general hype on proteins for building and repairing muscle, there is a tendency to go overboard with protein consumption, especially among those who exercise a lot. The body can use only a certain amount of protein a day. Excess consumption of proteins, beyond the daily requirements, will just cause people to get fat as the excess calories to get stored as body fat.

Protein deficiency: When people attempt to lose weight and cut down their caloric intake, they risk symptoms associated with protein deficiency, such as a sluggish metabolism, low energy levels, and fatigue.

This leads to difficulty in losing weight as well as muscle wastage. Joint pains and mood swings can also result from the lack of protein in the diet.

3. Fats

Dietary fats have a really bad reputation due to their association with body fat.

Though a high dietary intake of fats does lead to obesity, fat is an important macronutrient that the body needs in order to function properly. A diet that gives equal emphasis to fats and carbs, balanced with moderate protein intake will provide more endurance than relying on high-carb diets.

  • Fats are a major energy source in the diet. They provide nine calories per gram which is more than twice the number of calories provided by carbohydrates or protein. .
  • It boosts the absorption of certain vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K.
  • Fat deposits in the body provide insulation and cushioning that helps protect organs from damage.
  • Healthy amounts of stored fat in the body provide a backup source of energy when a person is going through a period of starvation.

Different Types of Fats

All fats are not created the same. Some dietary fats are healthier and beneficial to the body while other types of fat if consumed, can cause serious damage to our organs.

1. Saturated fats

All fats that come from animal sources are saturated. Eg: Butter, beef fat, etc. Coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter are examples of saturated fat from plant sources. Saturated fat is best taken in limited quantities.

Saturated fats like coconut oil and butter are currently being promoted as the most healthiest source of fats, though they were considered the culprits behind heart disease and high cholesterol just a few years ago. More and more studies are coming up proving that these natural fat sources are indeed healthy for the human body.

Adequate fat intake from healthy sources is important as fats are important for recovery as well as joint health. Fats are slow to digest so they keep people more satiated. Adding more fat to the diet helps sleep better at night, which is most vital for recovery from exercise and training sessions.

2. Trans fat

This is considered the most dangerous type of fat. Trans fat or hydrogenated fat is a man-made fat that has been manufactured to be solid at room temperature. It was developed to protect us against butter but now the roles have been reversed.

Trans fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol levels which contribute to clogged arteries. Food manufacturers are required to list trans fat on their food labels if any. Look out for the terms “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredients list.

3. Unsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats called “MUFAs” and polyunsaturated fat or PUFAs are often referred to as “good fats.” MUFAs can help lower LDL cholesterol levels. These come from plant sources olive oil, canola oil, and avocado.

Polyunsaturated fats such as Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids provide significant health benefits. Salmon, tuna, and other cold-water fish are good sources of polyunsaturated fat.

4. Vitamins

Unlike macronutrients, vitamins have no calories, so they cannot be used to fuel the body. They are micronutrients that are required by the body only in small quantities, but a deficiency of even one type of vitamin can cause serious health problems. Vitamins are divided into water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins.

Water soluble vitamins: There are nine water-soluble vitamins, namely:

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin)
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin)
  • Vitamin B9
  • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
  • Vitamin C


Water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body. So they have to be supplied regularly in the diet. Excess amounts of water-soluble vitamins are passed out along with the urine. Martial artists should ensure their diets contain adequate B vitamins, especially Vitamin B12 as a deficiency of Vitamin B12 can cause decreased levels of energy and a higher risk of developing serious injuries.

B vitamins, in general, serve as coenzymes in the body, though each type has its own set of roles too. Coenzymes help enzymes trigger chemical reactions which wouldn’t otherwise happen on their own.

Riboflavin [B2] is required for converting nutrients to energy. Pantothenic acid [B5] is essential for the synthesis of fatty acids, amino acids, steroid hormones, and neurotransmitters.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that has numerous roles in the human body including improving iron absorption. Though the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of vitamin C is 100-200mg, strenuous and prolonged exercise has been found to increase vitamin C requirements. Martial artists can drink post-workout smoothies blended with vitamin C-rich fruits to meet such increased nutrient demands.

Fat-soluble vitamins

Fat-soluble vitamins are found in high-fat foods. Even when supplements are taken, they are better absorbed into the bloodstream when eaten with fat. The four fat-soluble vitamins are:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K

Unlike water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body. Too many of these vitamins, especially in the form of supplements cause serious side effects, health problems, and even death.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a group of compounds collectively known as retinoids. Retinol is the most common form of dietary vitamin A. It supports many critical aspects of body function, including maintaining vision, immune function, and reproductive health. Vitamin A is only found in animal-sourced foods such as liver and butter.

Vitamin A can also be derived from carotenoid antioxidants like beta-carotene, which are found in vegetables. Beta-carotene is plentiful in vegetables such as carrots, kale, and spinach. During workout sessions, oxygen consumption increases multifold.

Long-term exercise produces constant “oxidative stress” on the muscles leading to lipid peroxidation of membranes. Vitamins C and E, β-carotene, and selenium have antioxidant properties. They protect cell membranes from oxidative damage.

Vitamin D

Dietary vitamin D is classified into vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. D2 can be found in mushrooms such as maitake and portabella, while D3 is found only in animal-derived foods.

Vitamin D helps regulate calcium and phosphorus levels in the blood. Vitamin D is of special importance to martial artists as proper absorption of these minerals is essential for bone health. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to severe fatigue, weak muscles, a higher risk of fractures due to softening of bones as well as increased susceptibility to infections.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E functions as an antioxidant that guards the cells against free radicals and oxidative damage while Vitamin K supports bone health and is vital for blood clotting.

Antioxidants such as vitamin E help reduce inflammation and muscle soreness resulting from an intense exercise session. They help speed up the recovery process. So a vitamin E supplement or a higher intake of vitamin E-rich foods is recommended for martial artists.

5. Minerals

Unlike vitamins which are organic nutrients, minerals are inorganic compounds that are required for the proper functioning of the body. Minerals are classified as micronutrients as they are required in smaller quantities in comparison to macronutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

These minerals are further classified into macrominerals and trace minerals depending on how much of each mineral is required by the body. Trace minerals as the name suggest are needed only in relatively minute quantities. But this does not negate their critical importance in the human body.

Calcium, sodium, and potassium are macrominerals while iron, fluoride, and iodine are some of the trace minerals. Since minerals cannot be produced in the body, they must be obtained from the diet.

  • Calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body, along with the minerals phosphorus and magnesium are required to maintain healthy and strong bones. Calcium gives strength and density to the bones and teeth. A calcium deficiency can be disastrous for martial artists as this leads to brittle bones and osteoporosis which increases the risk of fractures.
  • Iron: Failing to get enough iron from the diet can also be disastrous for martial artists as this leads to lead to anemia. Weakness and fatigue are common symptoms of iron deficiency as without iron, oxygen molecules cannot attach to the red blood cells to generate energy in the body.
  • Potassium is important to keep muscles and the nervous system functioning normally. This mineral helps maintain the correct water balance in the nerves and muscle cells.
  • Zinc, though a trace mineral, is important for the immune system. It is especially important for martial artists as it helps the body heal wounds and fight infections. A mineral deficiency involving potassium, calcium, magnesium, or sodium can lead to muscle cramps. This can cause muscles to contract painfully during a training session.
  • Selenium assists in the production of special proteins called antioxidant enzymes which prevent cell damage. Iodine and selenium have important roles in the synthesis of thyroid hormones. The deficiency of selenium has been linked to increased risks of heart disease and even some types of cancers.
  • Nitrates help blood vessels dilate and reduce blood pressure. Nitrates also help with tissue development and building the immune system. Though a hearty pre-workout meal is definitely a must before a workout session, consuming a nitrate-rich liquid an hour or two before a sparring session can help martial artists improve their performance. A smoothie with beetroot or pomegranate juice is recommended as both of these are high in nitrates.


Those who find themselves weak and fatigued, more prone to fractures, and slow to heal from injuries, should all take a good look at their diet first. Macronutrients and micronutrients both play equally important roles in creating and maintaining a healthy body. Every nutrient has specific roles to play and each one is as important as the other.

Dieting for weight loss or focusing on high protein or ketogenic diets can lead to nutrient deficiencies which have serious consequences. When focusing on building more strength and muscle, up your protein intake, but also ensure that all other nutrient needs are met.

The list of essential nutrients is actually much longer. They include phytochemicals, water, dietary fiber, and much more. While such a long list of nutrients can seem daunting, getting all these nutrients from the diet doesn’t have to be a challenge.

Eating a well-balanced, healthy diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, legumes, and nuts will provide all the nutrients that the human body needs. A balanced diet helps maintain a healthy weight, reduce excess body fat, provide energy, promote good sleep and create a feeling of well-being.

About Anju Mobin 104 Articles
The Nutritionist Wordsmith with a Chocoholic Edge! Anju is not just a writer; she's a brush-wielding, coffee-sipping, chocolate-loving wordsmith! With a Fine Arts degree in one hand and a Home Science degree in the other, she blends creativity and nutrition to craft content that truly nourishes the mind. Whether she's painting a vivid picture with words or brewing up engaging web content, she pours her heart into every project. When she's not busy whipping up articles, you'll find her nurturing orchids to bloom in her garden, baking scrumptious treats, and indulging her chocoholic tendencies with dark delights. She is the founder and managing editor of Fitness Hacks.