The 12 Types of Nutrients and Their Functions

We are going to tell you which are the main nutrients that are consumed daily in the diet and the most important functions they perform.
The 12 Types of Nutrients and Their Functions
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 14 September, 2021

There are several types of nutrients in food. It’s important that all of them are introduced into the body on a daily basis, albeit in just the right measure. In this way, the proper functioning of the human body is ensured. The risk of developing pathologies in the future is also reduced.

Within the types of nutrients we can establish two groups. On the one hand, there are those that consume large amounts: macronutrients. Micronutrients, meanwhile, are eaten in small portions.

Macronutrients and their functions

The main characteristic is that any of the elements that we’ll name below can be transformed into energy. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s their priority task. The macronutrients are as follows.

1. Carbohydrates

They are substances made up of glucose molecules under different types of bonds and groupings. The simplest unit is called a monosaccharide and the most complex are called polysaccharides. The more bonds there are in the molecule, the more difficult it will be to decompose, and it can become an indigestible substance. In that case, we would talk about fiber.

The main function of carbohydrates is to provide energy. They serve as a substrate for carrying out daily activities, being essential for those maximum or submaximal efforts. The performance of many athletes depends on their intake.

In addition, they can perform certain structural functions at a cellular level. However, they are not decisive tasks and a small amount of carbohydrates in the diet is enough to perform this task optimally.

According to their quality, we can distinguish two types: simple and complex. The former are present in fruits, in table sugar and in many processed foods. Except in the case of fruit, it’s recommended to limit its intake, as its consumption has been associated with an increased risk of diabetes. This is evidenced by a study published in the British Medical Bulletin.

On the other hand, there are those of the complex type. These appear in foods that have fiber inside. Their digestion is slower and they generate less pancreatic stress, altering blood glucose less.

For this reason, they can appear in the diet on a regular basis without any problem. In any case, it isn’t advisable to eat too many of them if you don’t exercise.

They are found in foods such as root vegetables, legumes, whole grains, rice, and pseudo-cereals. It must be taken into account that both flours and their derivatives contain carbohydrates that act as if they were simple in the body. Its impact on blood glucose is great.

Carbohydrates are macronutrients.
Carbohydrates can be divided into simple and complex. Fiber, for example, is not digested in the human body.

2. Proteins

Proteins have many different functions. Generally, they stand out for their role at a structural level, forming part of muscles and tissues. However, they’re capable of acting as transmitters, hormonal precursors, signallers, and elements of the immune system.

There are two fundamental types: those of high biological value and those of low biological value. The former are found in foods of animal origin. They have all the essential amino acids inside. For their part, those of plant origin are deficient in some essential amino acids and aren’t used as well.

Protein requirements vary throughout life, as shown by the main dietary and nutritional guidelines. According to research published in the Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism, a healthy sedentary adult should consume more than 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of muscle per day.

In this way it is ensured that the lean mass will function correctly, generating adaptations to exertion and hypertrophy if necessary. Keep in mind that a protein deficit can cause weakness. You could even experience hormonal changes.

In the case of athletes, protein needs are higher. As muscle effort increases, so do the requirements of the nutrients responsible for tissue recovery.

3. Fats

Fats are types of nutrients made up of simple units known as fatty acids. These substances differ according to their arrangement in space and according to the amount of double bonds that exist inside. They can be classified as saturated and unsaturated.

Like proteins, fats perform multiple functions in the body. One of the most important is the energy reserve, since they can be oxidized serving as a substrate. They also ensure homeostasis in the internal environment.

It is important to ensure the regular consumption of fats in the diet, but they must be good quality. Both saturated and unsaturated are considered positive for health. The best thing is to avoid the trans type. These are capable of increasing the state of inflammation, according to a study published in Progress in Lipid Research .

The lipids of the trans series are found in ultra-processed foods, such as pastries. Also in all foods with a high fat content subjected to aggressive thermal processes, such as frying or baking at high temperatures.

Micronutrients and their functions

We have discussed what role macronutrients play in the diet. However, there are many other types of nutrients that are found in food in small amounts, but which are necessary for the body to function optimally.

4. Vitamin A

A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is involved in visual physiology. It is essential in order to prevent problems related to vision, such as macular degeneration.

In addition, its consumption is capable of stimulating the synthesis of collagen, so it has a beneficial healing power for the skin. This is evidenced by research published in the journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice.

5. Vitamins of group B

Within the B group vitamins, a wide set of nutrients with very diverse functions can be mentioned. However, they share a common characteristic, which is that they have a great implication in nervous physiology. Some of them, such as folic acid, are decisive during pregnancy.

Others, like vitamin B12, are a limiting factor in the context of vegan diets. Plant-based foods fail to provide it. A deficiency of it causes a type of anemia known as megaloblastic.

6. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is in the group of water-soluble nutrients – the group of nutrients that dissolve in water. It has multiple functions within the human body. Among them, its antioxidant power stands out, as it’s capable of neutralizing the formation of free radicals and their accumulation in the tissues.

On the other hand, vitamin C also actively participates in the synthesis of collagen. An adequate supply of the nutrient contributes to the regeneration of the tissues and to avoid muscle breakages.

As if all this weren’t enough, this vitamin plays a determining role in the body’s defense system. Maintaining adequate levels of the micronutrient reduces the incidence of infectious diseases, according to an article published in Frontiers in Immunology.

7. Vitamin D

Among the fat-soluble vitamins, special mention must be made of vitamin D. This can be synthesized within the body from exposure to sunlight. It is also obtained through diet, as it is found in foods such as oily fish, eggs, and enriched dairy.

In the first place, it is an element capable of enhancing the absorption of calcium at the intestinal level. For this reason, it helps to avoid skeletal problems, such as bone fractures from the menopausal stage.

It also plays a decisive role in the immune system. Not only is it capable of reducing the incidence of many infectious pathologies, but it also prevents the development of complex diseases. According to a study published in the journal In Vivo, having low levels of this nutrient is associated with increased cardiovascular risk.

8. Vitamin E

This is one of the types of nutrients that is also found in the fat-soluble group. It’s found in some vegetables and stands out for its high antioxidant power.

It is capable of neutralizing the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Their accumulation could lead to the development of chronic pathologies, such as neurodegenerative ones.

9. Iron

Iron is a mineral that stands out for its difficult absorption. It is found in foods of animal origin and in other foods of plant origin and its availability increases when it is consumed together with a dose of vitamin C. However, even in the best of scenarios, an absorption of 20% isn’t achieved.

A deficiency of the nutrient causes anemia, since the main function of the mineral is the transportation of oxygen through the blood. If this disease develops, a feeling of chronic fatigue is experienced.

10. Zinc

Zinc is another of the minerals present in small amounts, but with great importance within the human body. In men, it is decisive because it participates in the synthesis of testosterone at the testicular level. In addition, it also intervenes in the differentiation of cells of the white series.

11. Calcium

Among minerals, special mention must be made of calcium. This element is part of the bones.

In fact, a deficit of it in the diet causes a progressive loss of density in bone tissue, leading to fragility in the medium term. This is one of the reasons why you can develop osteoporosis.

However, calcium is also involved in the transmission of the nerve impulse. It is one of the elements that allows muscle contraction.

Dairy is a source of calcium.
Dairy products concentrate a large amount of calcium that can be well absorbed by the body.

12. Potassium

As far as salts are concerned, potassium has a determining role. It not only intervenes in nerve signaling, but it also modulates blood pressure, exerting an antagonistic effect on sodium.

For this reason, its regular consumption is associated with a reduction in cardiovascular risk, since hypertension increases the chances of suffering heart attacks. It is one of the key nutrients in people with circulatory inefficiencies.

It’s important to guarantee an optimal supply of nutrients

It must be taken into account that both the defect and the excess of essential nutrients for the body is considered harmful to health. The best way to ensure that these elements are within optimal levels is by following a varied and balanced diet.

Sometimes you can use a supplement to avoid or correct deficiencies. In any case, it is always advisable to consult a nutritionist who approves these types of products before they are included in the diet.

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