8 Essential Nutrients, According to Dieticians
You know you’re supposed to eat a healthy balance of carbs, fats, and proteins, but how often do you think about the other essential nutrients in your diet? Chances are, you’re not calculating how many omega-3s or how much vitamin D you’re consuming each day—but those nutrients (and plenty of others) are just as essential to keep your body functioning. Here, nutritionists weigh in on why certain nutrients are a crucial part of your diet, plus how much you should aim to consume each day and what recipes can get you there. And if you’re still not reaching the right levels? Try a multivitamin supplement like Centrum, which is packed with tons of nutrients that power your cells.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Why they’re important: “These are major antioxidants and are essential because you cannot make them,” says Jill Nussinow, R.D.N., author of Vegan Under Pressure. “You must get them from food,” Plus, “omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Alena Kharlamenko, R.D., a New York City-based nutritionist. They decrease triglyceride levels, slow down the formation of plaque in your arteries, and reduce blood pressure.
How much you need daily: women need 1.1 grams of ALA omega-3s, while men need 1.6 grams; there are no recommended amounts for EPA or DHA (more on that below)
How to get them: There are three main types of omega-3s: EPA, DHA, and ALA. “The most beneficial types are EPA and DHA,” Kharlamenko says, “and although the body can convert ALA into EPA, it can only convert a small percentage.” Fill your plate with EPA and DHA omega-3s like fatty fish and seafood. (Meanwhile, you can get ALA from plan oils, seeds, nuts, and green leafy vegetables.) This Seared Salmon with Braised Broccoli packs in omega-3s.
Why it’s important: You probably know that fiber keeps food moving throughout your system, but also, “it can help your body maintain healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels,” says Beth Auguste, R.D., a nutritionist based in Philadelphia, “[and] it reduces risk for heart disease and diabetes.” It also helps provide a feeling of fullness, Kharlamenko notes.
How much you need daily: women under 50 need 25 grams, while women over 50 need 21; meanwhile, men under 50 need 38 grams and men over 50 need 30
How to get it: There are two types of fiber: soluble fiber, which slows digestion, and insoluble fiber, which adds bulk to stool and helps food pass more quickly through the stomach. You can find soluble fiber in oats, beans, apples, and carrots, Kharlamenko says, while insoluble fiber is in foods like whole wheat flour, asparagus, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Try to get your soluble and insoluble fiber at the same time with recipes like Apple and Cheddar Pita Pockets or Coconut-Carrot Morning Glory Muffins.
Why it’s important: “Potassium is essential for maintaining blood pressure and bone density, muscle contractions, balancing the body’s fluids and pH levels, and countering excess sodium intake,” says Jane Pelcher, R.D.N, a nutritionist based in Mountain View, California. The more processed foods (and sodium) you consume, the more potassium you’ll need, Nussinow adds.
How much you need daily: women need 2,600 milligrams (although they need more if they’re pregnant or breastfeeding), and men need 3,400 milligrams
How to get it: When it comes to potassium, what comes to mind first for most people is bananas (a medium one has 422 milligrams), but there are lots of other options out there: Pelcher suggests trying fruits like cantaloupe, oranges, and honeydew; legumes like beans and soybeans; and vegetables like potatoes, kale, and tomatoes. A medium sweet potato packs over 500 milligrams of potassium; combine it with black beans (a cup of canned black beans has over 700 milligrams) with this recipe for Black Bean-Smothered Sweet Potatoes (tip: keep the fiber-filled skin on the sweet potato for more health benefits).
Why it’s important: Our bodies can make vitamin D from sunlight, but many people are deficient, Nussinow says. That’s no good, because “vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium so that can you have strong bones and reduce your risk of osteoporosis,” Auguste explains. “Vitamin D can also help with immune function.”
How much you need daily: adults need 15 micrograms (600 international units)
How to get it: “Sunlight should be your first source of vitamin D, but it can also be obtained in tuna, mackerel, salmon, mushrooms, eggs, cheese, and fortified milk and cereals,” Pelcher says. Start your day off strong with a Red Pepper and Goat Cheese Frittata; you get vitamin D from eggs and cheese, plus those red peppers happen to be a great source of vitamin A.
Why it’s important: Water makes up two-thirds of your body weight and plays a big role in helping your body function.
How much you need daily: between 91 and 125 fluid ounces from both food and beverages
How to get it: For an easy rule of thumb to stay hydrated, Auguste recommends drinking half your body weight in ounces. There are no recommendations for how much water to drink, specifically, but something to keep in mind is that “20 percent of water can come from food—like non-starchy vegetables such as bell peppers, cucumber, carrots, and tomatoes, or high-water fruits such as melons, oranges, and berries,” Auguste says. DIY your own juice, like this Tomato-Vegetable Juice: It’s guaranteed to hydrate with bell peppers, celery, and carrots.
Why it’s important: “It is the most abundant mineral in the body,” Nussinow says, and you need it for strong bones and teeth. But that’s not all: “Your heart needs calcium to function properly, and adequate calcium has been shown to reduce risk of heart disease and diabetes,” Auguste says. “It also plays an important role in nerve transmission and muscle contraction,” Kharlamenko says.
How much you need daily: adults between ages 19 and 50 need 1,000 milligrams
How to get it: Obviously, milk (and other dairy products) does a body good—but so do canned salmon or sardines with bones, figs, beans, and green leafy vegetables, Nussinow says. You can also get it from calcium-fortified cereals, tofu, soy milk, rice milk, and orange juice. Instead of plain ol’ cereal and milk, though, why not try a breakfast dish like Berry Chia Pudding? Just 1 ounce of chia seeds covers 18 percent of your recommended daily allowance for calcium.
Why it’s important: “Iron is important for growth and development, and is needed to make hemoglobin and myoglobin,” Kharlamenko says, which are how your body delivers oxygen to your cells.
How much you need daily: generally, women between ages 19 and 50 need 18 milligrams, although pregnant women need 27 milligrams, and breastfeeding women need 9 milligrams; men who are between 19 and 50 years old need just 8 milligrams
How to get it: There are two forms of iron: heme, which is found in meat products, and non-heme, which is found in plants and iron-fortified foods. “Heme iron is more bioavailable than nonheme iron,” Kharlamenko says, meaning it’s absorbed more easily by your body. Some foods can enhance your body’s ability to absorb iron, Auguste says, while other foods can interfere with the absorption process. She suggests eating foods high in vitamin C, like citrus, along with iron-rich foods for maximal absorption, like in this Citrus Chicken Salad, and saving your tea and coffee for after your meal.
Why it’s important: Pelcher credits vitamin A with contributing to cell growth, as well as eye health and good night vision. Remember all those times your mom told you to eat your carrots? That’s because they’re full of vitamin A (a medium one has over 500 micrograms RAE). “It can reduce the risk of macular degeneration, a common cause of age-related vision loss,” Auguste says.
How much you need daily: generally, women need 700 micrograms RAE (retinol activity equivalents), although they require more if they’re pregnant (770 micrograms RAE) or breastfeeding (1,300 micrograms RAE); men need 900 micrograms RAE
How to get it: Great sources of vitamin A include orange vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin, Pelcher says, as well as tomatoes, dark leafy greens, grapefruit, mangoes, apricots, cheese, eggs, and fortified milk. And FYI: “Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means your body absorbs it best when you eat it with fat,” Auguste says. Just one serving of these Roasted Carrots with Cardamom Butter gives you over 600 percent of the daily recommendation for vitamin A. Pair it with a healthy fat for a delicious and nutritious meal.
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