Essential nutrients are components in food
that your body can’t make on its own, and that we need to grow, function, and stay healthy. So we must get these nutrients through our
diets. There are six classes of essential nutrients. Carbohydrates are the main source of calories,
or energy, in the diet. Fats also give us energy and help with normal
growth and development, immune function, vitamin absorption, hormone production, and more. Proteins, and the amino acids they are made
of, are major structural components of our bodies’ cells, and are responsible for building
and repair of tissues, and maintenance of muscle and lean body mass. There are 13 essential vitamins which have
important jobs such as keeping our nerves healthy, helping us resist infection, assisting
with blood clotting, and keeping our metabolism running. Minerals are only needed in small amounts
but play a vital role in muscle contraction, fluid balance, food digestion, bone building,
blood pressure regulation, and more. Water is also an essential nutrient that delivers
other nutrients to cells, regulates the body temperature, acts as a shock absorber and
lubricant, and helps in the removal of waste from the body. Bioactive compounds are not considered essential
because they haven’t been shown to lead to deficiencies if they’re missing in the diet. However, they may positively impact health. Bioactives are a big part of nutrition research
and scientists are trying to better understand and unlock their potential health benefits. Bioactives that you have likely heard of are
carotenoids. These colorful plant pigments found in bright
red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables –act as powerful antioxidants and may help
prevent some types of cancer and heart disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, and enhance
the immune system and more. Resveratrol is another bioactive found in
the skin of grapes, blueberries, raspberries, and mulberries that may reduce the risk of
heart disease. Flavanols are a part of the flavanoid family
that are found in tea, red wine, and cocoa and may positively influence our cardiovascular
health. Phytosterols are steroid compounds in plants
that may lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health. Phytoestrogens, found in many plants including
soy and other legumes, are also being studied for their potential in reducing the risk of
breast cancer. Healthy eating is important at every age,
but the amount of nutrients we need, and our bodies’ ability to process them, can change
over time and depend on your personal health status. As you age, you may need more Vitamin D and
calcium for bone health, more B12 for brain and blood health, and more fiber for a healthy
digestive system. Some people may also need more water as their
sense of thirst declines. Your medical conditions, or the medications
you take, may also require you to adjust your diet. It’s important to talk with your health care
team when deciding the best nutrition plan for you. But most people can get the healthy nutrients
they need from a well-rounded diet of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and
whole grains–such as those recommended in the US Dietary Guidelines. Some people with deficiencies, certain diseases
and conditions, or with evolving nutritional needs at different stages of life, may consider
dietary supplements to add missing nutrition to their diets. Supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbals
and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and bioactives. You may be one of the many adults that takes
a dietary supplement of some kind, but do you know enough about what is safe and what
you can trust? Too often what’s popular one day, seems to
make headlines the next for being unsafe. The Food and Drug Administration that regulates
the safety and effectiveness of drugs and medical devices, also regulates dietary supplements. But supplements are not regulated as strictly
as drugs, because they have been considered to be more like food than drugs. For example, companies don’t need to get approval
before producing or selling their supplements and don’t have to provide evidence to support
their claims about the produce before marketing them. There are many safe dietary supplement options
out there that can help keep you healthy, and even improve your health, but there are
others that may not be safe for you. This makes being an informed consumer important. When choosing a supplement talk to your health
care team about all the prescription and OTC medications you are taking, AND all of the
supplements. They can advise you on their safety, as well
as how they might interact with your medications. Avoid mega-doses of supplements, which may
be more than your body needs, and even cause you harm. Keep in mind that the term natural doesn’t
always mean safe. And watch out for claims that seem too good
to be true. When searching for information on-line, turn
to trusted sources. Look for authors who are academics, experts
in the field, government agency employees, and well-respected members of the medical
community. Also look to see if the claims come from studies
that have been reviewed by other experts in the field. If you still have questions, ask someone from
your health care team, or visit the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes
of Health. To learn more about what scientists are discovering
about the role of nutrition in cardiovascular health, watch Heart Healthy Aging with Nutrition
at www.agingresearch.org/nutrition.