What are essential nutrients? What they are, what they do & how to get enough

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Many people have a general understanding of essential nutrients, or substances your body must have to survive.

But how many nutrients are truly essential? And which ones are they?

WellTuned spoke with Melissa Perry, registered dietitian-nutritionist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to find out.

What are essential nutrients?

Perry: Essential nutrients are substances that your body requires but cannot make on its own. You obtain these nutrients through the food you eat.

How many essential nutrients are there?

Perry: There are 6 essential nutrients:

  1. Protein
  2. Fat
  3. Carbohydrates
  4. Vitamins
  5. Minerals
  6. Water

Carbohydrates, protein and fat are called macronutrients. Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients.

What’s the difference between macro- and micronutrients? 

Perry: Macronutrients are needed in large (macro) amounts. We need to eat them every few hours throughout the day to provide energy and assist in other body functions. Micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts.

What does each of these nutrients do for the body?

1. Protein

Perry: Protein is the building block of the body. It makes up every single cell — not just your muscles.


  • Helps muscles, bone, hair and skin grow
  • Helps wounds heal
  • Aids in the formation of antibodies and hormones

Good sources of protein include lean meats, fish, seafood, eggs, nuts, grains, soy and beans.

20 plant-based proteins to try

2. Fats

Perry: Fats often get a bad rap because people assume that eating fat will cause them to gain body fat.

Fats actually help your body:

  • Create energy
  • Protect body cells
  • Build new cells
  • Balance blood sugar, nerve and brain health
  • Absorb fat-soluble vitamins
  • Improve heart health

The best fats to eat are those that are unsaturated. Those are found in nuts, seeds, fatty fish and many vegetable oils.

Body fat 101: Understanding the different kinds + 4 tips to manage it

3. Carbohydrates

Perry: Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for your body. They are essential to brain and muscle function. And the fiber they provide promotes a healthy digestive system.

There are simple and complex carbohydrates. Choose complex carbohydrates whenever possible.

  • Complex carbohydrates contain fiber and often vitamins and minerals as well. These include whole grains, fruits, legumes and starchy vegetables.
  • Simple carbohydrates contain less fiber and possibly more sugar. These include white rice, white breads and sugary foods such as soda or candy.

4. Vitamins

Perry: Vitamins are organic, which means they’re made by living things such as plants and animals.

There are 13 essential vitamins that help your body stay healthy by doing things such as:

  • Supporting the immune system
  • Lowering risk of certain cancers
  • Aiding in energy production
  • Healing wounds
  • Helping the body metabolize macronutrients
  • Supporting the brain and nervous system, etc.

Common essential vitamins


  • Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) helps your body metabolize protein and make red blood cells. B6 is found in meat, vegetables and fruits.
  • Folic acid is essential for making new healthy cells and preventing birth defects in the brain and spine. It is found in leafy greens, fruit, dried beans, nuts and enriched grains.
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) helps the body absorb iron and acts as an antioxidant, which prevents or slows damage to body cells. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits.
  • Vitamin A is needed for vision, skin, and immune system health. Carrots contain beta carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A.
  • Vitamin E is an antioxidant that protects cell walls. It’s found in plant oils, leafy greens, whole grains, egg yolks, nuts and seeds.
  • Vitamin K is needed to help blood to clot properly. It is found in leafy green vegetables.
  • Vitamin D helps bones absorb calcium. It is typically made by exposing skin to sunlight, but it is found in a few foods including egg yolks, liver, fatty fish and fortified dairy.

            How to get enough vitamin D

5. Minerals

Perry: While your body needs all vitamins, it only needs some minerals. These inorganic compounds are found in rock or soil and absorbed by plants or other substances you eat. For example, mushrooms absorb copper from soil, which your body uses to make red blood cells.

Common key minerals


  • Sodium and potassium are needed for fluid balance as well as muscle and nerve health. Sodium is mostly found in salt and processed foods. Potassium is found in meats, milk, fruits and vegetables.
  • Calcium is widely known for its role in bone health, but it’s also important in muscle and nerve functioning. It also assists in blood pressure regulation and blood clotting. Calcium is found in dairy products, canned fish, greens, legumes and fortified foods.
  • Phosphorus is important in bone health. It is found in meat, eggs, milk and processed foods.
  • Magnesium is important in helping the body make protein. It is also crucial to bone, muscle and immune-system health. Magnesium is found in nuts, seeds, leafy greens, seafood and chocolate.
  • Iron is found in red blood cells, where it carries oxygen to cells in the body. Iron is found in meats (especially red), egg yolks, legumes, dried fruits, dark leafy greens and enriched grains.
  • Zinc is needed to make protein and aids in wound healing. It is found in meats and vegetables.
  • Iodine is vital for the health of your thyroid, which regulates growth and metabolism. It is found in seafood, iodized salt, bread and dairy products.
  • Fluoride helps to form bones and teeth and prevent tooth decay. It is found in drinking water and fish.

6. Water

Perry: Water not only makes up most of your body, but it’s also required for any reaction in your body to occur.

Water is essential in:

  • Maintaining healthy blood pressure
  • Transporting nutrients
  • Lubricating joints
  • Removing toxins and waste from your body
  • Keeping your brain healthy

            Why do we need to drink water? The answers to 5 common hydration questions

How do you know if you’re getting enough essential nutrients?

Perry: If you eat even a somewhat-balanced diet and don’t have health conditions that directly lead to a vitamin or mineral deficiency, you’re probably getting enough essential nutrients.

To make sure:

  1. Eat mostly lean protein, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and
  2. Stay hydrated.

What are the signs of nutrient deficiency?

Perry: If you experience any of the following, talk to your healthcare provider:

  • Severe hair loss
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Burning sensation in feet or mouth/tongue
  • Slow-healing wounds (bleeding gums)
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle cramping
  • History of bone fractures
  • Vision loss

What’s the best way to get essential nutrients? Diet? Supplements?

Perry: Getting nutrients from food is the easiest and most efficient way to stay healthy. Often these nutrients do not work alone and actually need each other to perform their best.

Guide to nutrient absorption: What you eat vs. what your body absorbs

Supplements are sometimes necessary if you’ve been diagnosed with a deficiency, or if you are at risk for one. Vegans, for example, may need to take a B12 supplement since B12 is mostly found in animal products. Always talk with your doctor before taking a supplement. Some ingredients can interfere with other medications or can cause harm if you take too much.

Dietary supplements 101: What you need to know before taking vitamins & minerals

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

Filed under: Food & Recipes


Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).