Some Life Essential Nutrients

Some Life Essential Nutrients--


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Our body uses energy to fuel cellular metabolism, especially the major organs like brain, heart, liver and gastrointestinal tract, and for physical activity. Carbohydrates and proteins each provide 17 kJ/g of metabolizable energy intake, with fats and alcohol providing 37 kJ/g and 29 kJ/g respectively. Our appetite mechanism usually allows us to match energy intake to energy expenditure so that we maintain healthy body weight, but when we overeat, the excess energy intake is stored as fat. Overweight people should aim for an energy intake slightly less than their energy expenditure so that their energy deficit is met from their body fat, helping them to achieve lower, healthy body weight. Our total energy expenditure (TEE) depends on the rate at which the body expends energy at rest (basal metabolic rate – BMR) and our physical activity level (PAL), and this is expressed by the relationship: TEE = PAL x BMR. BMR can be predicted from body weight, sex and age, and PAL varies with lifestyle from 1.35 in sedentary people to 2.5 for the very active. At an average PAL of 1.63, men and women of average height need 11 MJ and 9 MJ of food energy each day for healthy body weight.


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Perhaps the ultimate building block, protein provides all the functional and structural components of the body: skin, bone, muscle, blood and all the organs. It consists of one or more long chains of amino acids linked by peptide bonds. Essential in the diet, protein provides the amino acids that are reassembled to build new body tissue during growth, used to maintain existing protein structures and to make smaller molecules like hormones and neurotransmitters. It can also serve as a fuel for the body – with the same energy density as carbohydrates (4 kal/17 kJ per gram). Protein is present in all foods – animal and plant – but rich sources include meats, dairy, fish, eggs, grains, legumes and nuts. The key is to eat a variety of these foods, to make sure that we absorb the right balance of the nine essential and the non-essential amino acids. This can be done with plant-based diets, as evident by the normal growth patterns of children in affluent vegan communities. The minimum dietary requirement of protein is for sufficient amino-acid nitrogen and indispensable amino acids to meet the demand for any growth, pregnancy or lactation and for body maintenance, balancing all nitrogen losses mainly through urea excretion. The minimum demand is usually small and is easily met in most nutritionally complete diets.


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Carbohydrates are one of the three main components of the diet (the macronutrients) and provide the major substrate for energy metabolism within the brain, kidney medulla, and red blood cells. Carbohydrates are also important for muscle function in high-intensity exercise. Whilst dietary carbohydrates can range from molecules such as glucose and fructose (the simple sugars), through the disaccharides (sucrose, maltose, lactose) to the complex polymers of glucose found in starch, all dietary forms are digested within the intestine so that the simple sugars are the molecules  that are absorbed into the body. Dietary recommendations for healthy people suggest carbohydrates should provide between 45 and 60% of dietary energy, depending on age, physical activity and body weight. High intakes of the simple sugars, sucrose or maltose, and even rapidly digested refined grains, are associated with risks to health, including tooth decay and unintentional overconsumption of energy (leading to weight gain). A healthy diet should have most carbohydrate in the complex form, particularly when contained in high-fibre wholegrain cereals and vegetables. The idea that carbohydrate is somehow toxic and that low-carbohydrate diets should be eaten by all is not backed up by research. 


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Dietary fibre is the indigestible component of foods and drinks which has a bulking effect in the large intestine and provides a substrate for the colonic bacteria. Originally, ‘fiber’ was limited to non-starch polysaccharides (such as cellulose) plus lignin from plants. In recent years the definition of fibre has widened to include all food components that are not digested and absorbed in the small intestine, including the non-digestible oligosaccharides (which are between the simple sugars and the starch polymers) and resistant starch. There is also an increasing use of novel, synthetic fibers in processed foods and drinks. Recent research suggests that a high intake of dietary fibre, particularly cereal fibre and whole grains, is associated with a reduced risk of cardiometabolic disease and colorectal cancer. Higher intakes of some fibre components are also associated with reductions in serum cholesterol and triacylglycerols as well as blood pressure. As a result, in recent years many countries have raised the recommended intake of dietary fibre to 30 grams (1 oz) or more for adults – almost twice the average present intake. The novel fibres, such as polydextrose, are of potential benefit, but the evidence is needed to show that they have beneficial effects on the people consuming them.


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Fat is familiar to us as a substance we eat in food and store in our body. Both have the same chemical structure known as triacylglycerols (TAG), which, when overconsumed in food, accumulates as body fat and increases body weight. The average 70-kg (155-lb) man has about 15 kg (33 lb) of body fat, which is equivalent to 140,000 calories or 40 days of stored energy, but only 0.3 kg (10 oz) of stored carbohydrate (900 calories). The physical and chemical properties of fats (TAG)  in food are determined by differences in their component fatty acids (FAs), which differ in size and number of carbon double bonds. Saturated fats are mainly derived from animal sources and are solid at room temperature due to  a lack of double bonds (such as butter),  while monounsaturated fats have one, and polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds, which turn these fats into liquid oils. These oils can be extracted from plant seeds, including flax, olive and sunflower. The human body can make all but two FAs, namely linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, so these fats must be acquired in our diet and are called ‘essential fatty acids’. Fatty acids are used as building blocks for cell membranes in the body and to make hormone-like compounds (eicosanoids) that have metabolic effects essential for life. 


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Minerals are inorganic substances that are not made by living things. Found in both soil and rocks, they are absorbed by plants that are then eaten. Minerals are largely classified as ‘major’ minerals or ‘trace’ minerals. Major minerals are those that the body requires in amounts of at least 100 mg per day, and include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur, phosphorus and chloride. Trace minerals are needed in amounts of less than 100 mg per day, and some, such as iron, fluoride, zinc and manganese, have established recommended daily allowances (RDAs) or Adequate Intake (AI) limits to ensure adequacy. A third classification, known as ‘ultra-trace’ minerals, requires less than 1 mg per day and include chromium, copper, iodine, molybdenum and selenium. Minerals play a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, bone and teeth health, muscle contraction, fluid balance and overall growth. A healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats is one way to ensure adequate intake of minerals; supplementation is another way. While deficiencies may present detrimental health conditions, it is important to be aware of intake amounts when supplementing, to avoid toxicity symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, which may occur with overconsumption.

Fats-Soluble Vitamins

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Vitamins A, D, E and K comprise a small group of fat-soluble vitamins of disparate chemical composition which are essential for good health. Various processes are dependent on an adequate availability of these vitamins, including vision (vitamin A), growth and tissue differentiation (vitamins A and D), bone and muscle function (vitamin D), immune function (vitamin A), protection against  free radicals (vitamin E) and blood clotting (vitamin K). Although fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the body for use in times of dietary scarcity, deficiencies do occur, with profound consequences. In some regions of the world, young children are at risk of becoming blind because of inadequate vitamin A. Vitamin D deficiency, which is common worldwide, may cause bowed legs and pelvic deformities of rickets in children and muscle weakness and bone pain of osteomalacia in adults. Foods of animal origin tend to be good sources of fat-soluble vitamins, but red, yellow and orange vegetables are an excellent source of carotenoids (a form of vitamin A), and vitamins E and K are found in nuts and seeds. Vitamin D is unusual as humans can synthesize it through sunlight on the skin, which is important because only a few foods are rich in vitamin D.

Water-Soluble Vitamins

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Water-soluble vitamins perform a wide range of important functions, including the extraction of energy from food, cell signalling, synthesis of DNA and conduction of nerve impulses. Water-soluble vitamins comprise nine compounds – vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12, C, niacin, folate, biotin and pantothenic acid – distinguished by their chemistry and function. They are required regularly in small amounts in the human diet as they are not stored in the body; the excess intake is removed by the kidneys. Symptoms of deficiency may occur if a diet lacks any one of these vitamins. For example, a diet lacking in vitamin C can lead to the development of scurvy, characterized by impaired wound healing, joint pain, tiredness and shortness of breath; a diet lacking in vitamin B12 may lead to anaemia and degeneration of the spinal cord. It has proved difficult to know exactly how much of each vitamin is required daily to stay healthy. Early experiments (that would be considered unethical today), systematically deprived human volunteers of vitamin C to determine how much of this vitamin reversed symptoms of scurvy. Such studies formed the basis of dietary reference values for water-soluble vitamins.  A varied diet that includes fruit and vegetables, cereals, meat, fish and dairy products is likely to satisfy a person’s requirements. 

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