8 nutrients you need every day

Most of us have heard that we need a nutrient-rich diet. But what exactly is a nutrient? It’s a chemical compound found in all foods. These compounds include proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins and minerals. Your body uses all of them to help stay alive and grow.

“The reason we need to eat is to add nutrients to our body,” says Tara Coleman, a clinical nutritionist based in San Diego. “Without nutrients, our bodies can’t function as well as they need to. We start to notice symptoms like lack of energy, brain fog and getting sick more often.”

You get nutrients from all types of food. So, eating a balanced diet of plant and animal foods is key to staying healthier. That’s easier said than done though. Roughly 90% of adults don’t eat the recommended 5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day, for instance.1 Supplements may fill the gap in some cases. But getting your nutrients through food is the gold standard.

So, what should you be eating to get the nutrients you need? Here’s what nutritionists say are the 8 top nutrients to focus on getting every day.

1. Protein

“People should focus first on getting their macronutrients — carbohydrates, protein and fat,” says Haley Bishoff, R.D.N., owner of Rūtsu Nutrition in Las Vegas. While eating enough carbs and fat usually isn’t a problem, protein sometimes is. To get enough, try to eat protein at every meal, advises Bishoff.

The body needs about 5 ounces a day to keep muscles strong and fight infections.2 A small piece of meat or fish is about 3 ounces. An egg is 1 ounce. Along with fish, lean meat and dairy, consider adding in more plant-based foods high in protein, including tofu, nuts, beans and lentils, she adds.

2. Fiber

Fiber isn’t technically a nutrient. But it plays a critical role in our daily diet. “Fiber is essential for your digestive system to function well. And it can help your body absorb nutrients,” says Mascha Davis, R.D.N., a dietitian in Los Angeles. She’s also the author of Eat Your Vitamins.

You can take fiber supplements. But it’s better to get most of your fiber from fruits and vegetables, says Davis. “Make sure to start slow. Then build up to 25 to 30 grams per day. Going too fast with fiber can cause gastrointestinal upset,” she says.

3. Calcium

Micronutrients are also important. These are the vitamins and minerals we need to keep our bodies running. One essential mineral is calcium. We need it to keep our bones strong.

It’s important to get calcium from food first. Excellent sources include dairy (especially yogurt), calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milk, and leafy green veggies such as kale.3

4. Magnesium

For a micronutrient, magnesium plays a big role in the body. It helps keep your nerves and muscles healthy. It also helps keep blood pressure and blood sugar levels steady.4 Signs you’re not getting enough may include muscle cramps, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and constipation, says Coleman.

Eat plenty of nuts, seeds and beans, all good sources of this mineral. Also find it in avocados, low-fat yogurt and bananas. It’s hard to get all the magnesium you need from food alone, Coleman says. So talk to your health care provider about taking a supplement.

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5. Vitamin D

There’s a reason why vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin. Our bodies make it when we’re outside on sunny days. You need vitamin D to help your body and bones absorb calcium. But many people don’t get enough, says Jandra Mueller, D.P.T., M.S., a physical therapist and nutrition expert in San Diego.

Find your daily dose in fatty fish such as salmon, fortified dairy or soy milk, fortified cereals, and supplements.5 

6. Iron

Without enough iron, you’re at risk of developing anemia. Anemia is when the body isn’t getting enough oxygen via its red blood cells. It can leave you feeling tired, dizzy and short of breath.6

Lean red meat has the most iron. But you can also get iron from beans, dark leafy green vegetables, salmon and even dried fruit. If you’re anemic, your provider will probably recommend an iron supplement.

7. Vitamin B12

B12 helps keep blood and nerve cells healthy. Without it, the risk of anemia and nerve damage increases.7 The best food for getting this essential vitamin is beef liver.

If that’s not something you enjoy, get your B12 from seafood, including clams, tuna and salmon. Ground beef, milk and yogurt are options too.8

8. Omega-3 fatty acids

You might think anything with the words “fatty acids” in it would be bad for you. But those are healthy fats. And they’re very good for helping keep your brain and vision sharp.8 They can also help reduce inflammation, says Mueller.

You need about 3 grams every day. Fatty fish like salmon, trout and sardines are high in omega-3s. Bump up your daily intake by cooking with canola or flaxseed oil, sprinkling flaxseeds or chia seeds on oatmeal, and snacking on walnuts.9

The bottom line: To get all the necessary nutrients, do your best to eat a healthy, balanced diet. But if you find yourself falling behind, talk to your provider about supplements. It’s another way to keep your body healthy.

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