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Nutrition basics

Learn about the different nutrients and what they do for you.

When it comes to food, variety isn't just the spice of life. It's also the key to health.

There is no single perfect food that will give you the nutrients you need. That's why the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Heart Association recommend that you eat a wide variety of foods.

Oranges, for example, are a great source for vitamin C and folate. But you'll get no vitamin B12 from an orange. You can get that from cheddar cheese, however, which also has calcium. But if you just eat cheese, you won't get vitamin C.

So, to get different kinds of nutrients, you must eat different kinds of foods.

Why nutrients are important

You can't live without nutrients.

All the food you eat breaks down into nutrients, according to the academy. These nutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream and distributed throughout your body's cells.

Some of the most important nutrients and their functions include:

Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, sometimes called "carbs," are a necessary source of energy, or calories. But some carbs are better for you than others. Soft drinks are a form of carbohydrates (because of their sugar content), but so is whole-wheat bread. And although the former doesn't offer much more than calories, with the latter you also get fiber, minerals and vitamins.

Fats. Fats sometimes get bad press. But, like carbs, fats are a necessary nutrient with better and worse sources. Try to avoid saturated fats and trans fats, which can both contribute to heart disease. That means cutting back on high-fat meats, fast food, full-fat dairy products, and processed foods such as chips and crackers. Choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products instead. The healthiest fats are unsaturated, such as those found in vegetable oils, most nuts, avocados, olives and fatty fish such as salmon.

Proteins. Proteins, also known as amino acids, are part of every cell in your body, according to the academy. Skin, muscle, bone and organs are all made of protein. And like carbs and fats, proteins also are a source of energy. Foods high in protein include meats and dairy products, as well as beans, peas, nuts and seeds.

Vitamins. Different vitamins all have different roles to play in a healthy diet. Each plays such a specific role that no one can replace any other, according to the academy. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of a number of different vitamins.

Minerals. Again, different minerals, different benefits, different disease-fighting qualities. For example, calcium, which is found in dairy products and some leafy vegetables, keeps bones strong. Potassium, abundant in tomato products and lima beans, aids muscle and nerve function.

Water. Water makes up about 60% of your body. It aids in myriad bodily functions, including regulating your temperature and expelling waste.

For more information

Talk to your healthcare professional about what constitutes a healthy diet.

You can also find more information about nutrients, including the amounts you and other members of your family should consume daily, at the academy's website,

Reviewed 2/5/2024

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