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Nutrients 101: Essential and Non-Essential Nutrients Explained

Every day you consume food to nourish and fuel your body, as eating many different nutrients that are essential to maintaining optimal health. These are called essential nutrients and include vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and carbohydrates. However, some nutrients are made in the human body, and these are called non-essential nutrients. Although termed non-essential, they are still required by the body for supporting daily bodily processes. Some non-essential nutrients are also found in the diet, although many are also made by the body.

17nutrients.jpgEssential Nutrients


You need a variety of proteins, fats and carbohydrates every day because these are the precursors of energy, amino acids and essential fatty acids, as well as containers of essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. This is why it is so important to eat a well-balanced diet with a variety of nutrient-dense foods -- so that you are able to meet your needs.

Essential nutrients include the following:

Fats

Fats provide energy for the body and are essential to cells. Additionally, some fat sources contain essential fatty acids that cannot be synthesized in your body and must be consumed in the diet.

Essential Fatty Acids:

  • α-Linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid
    • Found in fish, flaxseeds and walnuts
  • Linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid
    • Found in nuts, most vegetable oils and some whole grains
Proteins

In addition to being the precursor for amino acids, proteins make up the structural foundation of the cells, tissues and organs. But the body needs to consume proteins with enough of the essential amino acids to synthesize the non-essential amino acids. Proteins are found in plant and animal foods.

Essential Amino Acids:

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

Carbohydrates


Some argue that since glucose can be made other ways besides consuming carbohydrates that it should not be considered essential. Although glucose can be created from amino acids and glycerol during fat metabolism or during gluconeognensis (a process that occurs during long-term carbohydrate withholding when the body breaks down protein stores to attempt to maintain normal brain function) consuming carbohydrates is still the best choice for optimal health. Mixed complex carbohydrates contain more than just glucose for fuel, they also contain many essential vitamins and minerals. Good sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, vegetables and fruits.

Vitamins

Found in a variety of foods, especially vegetables and fruits and are key in helping the body make energy from food.

  • Vitamin A (beta-carotene, retinol)
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamin)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Vitamin B3 (niacin)
  • Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
  • Vitamin B7 (biotin)
  • Vitamin B9 (folic acid/ folate)
  • Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
  • Vitamin D (ergocalciferol D2, cholecalciferol D3)
  • Vitamin E (tocopherol)
  • Vitamin K (naphthoquinoids)

Minerals

Electrolytes and trace elements are the two main groups of minerals. Electrolytes are needed in larger quantities than trace elements. Electrolytes include sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. The remaining minerals are trace elements and like electrolytes are found in a variety of foods.

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

Water


Although not technically a nutrient, almost all bodily processes require a watery environment. Water hydrates and helps the body absorb food in the intestines, as well as excretes excess nutrients or toxins.

Non-Essential Nutrients

Non-essential nutrients are still needed every day but you don't have to worry as much about them because some are synthesized by the body.

Some non-essential nutrients include the following:

Non-Essential Amino Acids

Non-essential amino acids are those amino acids that can generally be synthesized from the diet when there are enough of the essential amino acids available.

The list of non-essential amino acids includes:

  • Alanine
  • Arginine
  • Asparagine
  • Aspartic acid
  • L-Cysteine
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Glutamine
  • Glycine
  • Histidine
  • Ornithine
  • Proline
  • Selenocysteine
  • Serine
  • Taurine
  • Tyrosine

Some Vitamins

Almost all vitamins are considered essential, but a couple vitamins are actually made in the body. Conditionally, Vitamin D is a one example since it is synthesized by skin cells using sunlight. But if there is not enough access to sunlight, you are at risk of not having an adequate amount for your body. Biotin is also another vitamin that is not essential because it is made in your intestines by gastrointestinal bacteria. Unless you have digestive diseases, the lining of you intestines will produce adequate amounts for your bodily processes. Other vitamins, like vitamin K, are made in the body but there are still some additional daily recommendations for intake.

Fiber


Dietary fiber is not considered a nutrient but all the same it is essential for your health. Although it is not absorbed by the human digestive tract, it works by assisting digestion and helps your body to remove toxins and wastes.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is also needed for body processes but can be made in the body, as well as consumed in the diet, thereby not considered essential.

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Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.

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