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What are Essential Nutrients? How do you know if you’re getting enough?

sunrise over a boat
December 11, 2018
Lily Moran

It’s the ultimate irony. In America, we have an abundant food supply. And a lot of people take full advantage—which has led to an obesity rate of 35%. Yet despite being well fed—even overfed—most Americans are undernourished and don’t get nearly the amount of essential nutrients they need to stay healthy and prevent disease.

A nutrient is defined as a substance or compound that provides nourishment to facilitate growth and health.

Broken down further, “essential nutrients” are those that cannot be produced by the body or that the body doesn’t make in sufficient amounts. They must be obtained through diet. There’s a vast array of essential nutrients that the human body needs—everything from macronutrients like carbohydrates, fats and proteins, to micronutrients like specific vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids. Even water is considered an essential nutrient.

“Nonessential nutrients” are just as important as essential nutrients, but you don’t have to worry as much about them because the body produces them on its own. Examples of nonessential nutrients include cholesterol, certain amino acids, and some vitamins like K and biotin, which are produced by bacteria in your gut. (Vitamin D is also considered nonessential because it is made by your skin from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Even so, this is one nonessential nutrient that most people are deficient in.)

As you can see, the list of nonessential nutrients is short—while the list of essential nutrients is extensive. This means a healthy diet is a must if you want to give your body an adequate supply of vitamins, minerals, and other compounds to not only stay healthy and strong, but live optimally. However, as mentioned earlier, despite eating plenty of food, most Americans are undernourished and deficient in essential nutrients. There are several reasons why.

Why Is There an Epidemic of Deficiency?

The main reason so many Americans have nutritional deficiencies is that the standard American (or Western) diet is devoid of any substantial nutrition. It is high in processed meats and cheeses, packaged junk food, unhealthy fatty or fried food, refined grains, and various forms of sugar like high fructose corn syrup. Most of these food items are high in calories, but low in vitamins and minerals. Eating a lot of them leads to weight gain and nutrient deficiency—which is reflected in this country’s obesity rate.

Unfortunately, though, even people who do eat a very well-balanced, healthy diet (rich in fresh, organic vegetables and fruits, nuts, lean protein, and monounsaturated fats like avocado and olive oil) may not be getting adequate amounts of essential nutrients from their food either. Sadly, modern agriculture practices have left soil so depleted that produce is less nutritious today than it was 100, even 50, years ago.

This is why supplementation is so important. It fills the nutritional voids that everyone experiences, despite a near-perfect diet.

The solution seems easy enough…take a multivitamin. But then there’s another problem…

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When it comes to nutritional supplements, government health agencies set “recommended daily allowances,” or RDAs. These levels, though, are notoriously low and aren’t nearly enough to promote truly excellent health. They’re merely the minimum people need to not develop diseases related to malnutrition, like rickets and scurvy. Moreover, RDAs have not been updated since 1968—when they were initially established!

There’s a big difference between being in excellent health and being free of disease. The current RDAs may have been effective decades ago, before we really began to see and feel the effects of the standard American diet and the resulting epidemics of diabetes and heart disease. But by today’s standards, the RDAs are simply not high enough for people to reach their healthiest potential.

This becomes more and more evident when you look at how many nutritional deficiencies exist today. Some of the more common deficiencies are vitamins A, D, K, B6, B12, magnesium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids.

How to Make Sure You Get Adequate Essential Nutrients

It’s not all bad news. There are definitely ways to ensure you get the essential nutrients you need, in the dosages you need.

First and foremost, follow a healthy diet that’s high in organic vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and seeds, and get your protein from animals that have been grass fed or pasture raised. Even though food these days is less nutrient dense than it was even 50 years ago, diet still lays the foundation for good health. You can take the most potent supplements in the world, but if you still eat terrible food every day, you will never truly be healthy.

Second, talk to your doctor about getting tested for the most common nutrient deficiencies. Based on your results, you and your doctor can tailor your supplement program to address your individual needs.

Regardless of your results though, it’s important to remember that a high-quality multivitamin is a good idea for everyone. Look for a brand that provides dosages of essential nutrients that are significantly higher than the paltry RDAs. The active ingredients should also be naturally sourced. Generally speaking, cheaper products use synthetic forms of vitamins instead of the natural and more easily absorbed varieties.

Hopefully this information will make shopping for a multivitamin and other supplements a little less overwhelming. There are a lot of options, but a little bit of knowledge beforehand can ensure that your choices are effective and provide the nutrients you need for optimal health.

References

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