Nutrients for Survival

‘Nutrition’ refers to the complete set of processes by which our bodies take in and make use of the foods we need to survive, grow and develop. ‘Nutrition’ also refers to the study of the substances that an organism needs to survive. These substances are called nutrients and without them we will die.

Some organisms, such as plants, need no more than sunshine, water and a few simple chemicals in order to survive and thrive. Such organisms are known as Autotrophs, or Self-Nourishers. These Self-Nourishers are able to build all the nutrients they need, as well as capture energy in the process.

There are also a few non-plant Autotrophs that live near hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean. Despite a complete lack of sunlight, these organisms are able to build their own nutrients from the sulphur compounds found around these vents.

Now, animals and humans are not so skilled at manufacturing their own nutrients out of basically nothing. We need to gather our energy and nutrients from other life functions, such as plants, or supplement with vitamins and minerals in order to consume what is necessary for our survival.

There are 5 major classes of nutrients that are required for us to survive: carbohydrates, proteins, fats (lipids), vitamins and minerals. We also need fibre, water and oxygen, but they are not generally classified as nutrients.

  1. Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are chemical compounds, such as starch and sugar, used primarily as a source of energy. They also assist in the breakdown of proteins and protecting the body from harmful toxins. A carbohydrate deficiency can cause Ketoacidosis and a carbohydrate excess can cause Obesity, Diabetes and a range of cardiovascular diseases.

  1. Proteins

Proteins are large molecules built from a combination of simpler compounds known as Amino Acids. Human proteins consist of 20 Amino Acids, 12 of which the body can manufacture from the foods we eat. The body however cannot produce the remaining 8 that it needs for protein production. These 8 Amino Acids are therefore called Essential Amino Acids, as it is imperative that we include them in our diet. Proteins that contain all 8 Amino Acids are said to be complete proteins. These include beans, lentils, nuts and cereal grains. The function of protein is to promote normal growth, repair damaged tissue, manufacture enzymes and contribute to the body’s immune system. A protein deficiency can lead to Kwashiorkor and excess protein can cause Rabbit Starvation (or protein poisoning) and Ketoacidosis.

  1. Fats, or Lipids

Lipids, or fats and oils, serve a number of important functions. Like carbohydrates, they are used to supply energy. In fact, when burned, or metabolised, a gram of fat produces 3 times more energy than a gram of carbohydrates. Lipids also protect the body’s organs from shock and damage, provide insulation, assist in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as Vitamin A, D, E and K, and maintain hair and skin. A lipid deficiency can cause an essential fatty acid deficiency and a fat-soluble vitamin deficiency. An excess of fat can cause Obesity and a range of cardiovascular diseases.

  1. Vitamins

Vitamins are complex organic compounds found naturally in plants and animals. Our bodies need them in small amounts for growth and activity. However, we are unable to produce them ourselves and therefore need to ensure they are included in our diet. The most common vitamins are Vitamin A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, C, D, E, K, Biotin and Folic Acid. They are needed to process nutrients, regulate the nervous system and help build genetic material, protein, red blood cells and hormones. Depending on the particular vitamin, a deficiency can result in Night Blindness, Beri-Beri, Skin and Corneal Lesions, Anemia, Scurvy, Rickets, Neurological Diseases, Hemorraging and cardiovascular diseases. An excess can cause Cirrhosis, hair loss, Dyspepsia, Cardiac Arrhythmias, birth defects and diarrhea.

  1. Minerals

Minerals are inorganic substances needed for teeth, bone and blood cell formation, as well as for regulating bodily fluids and to assist in the chemical processes of the body. They come from the earth’s crust where they are extracted by plants through the soil. There are 2 main groups of minerals that are needed; macro and trace minerals. Macro minerals include calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphorus, sulphur, potassium and sodium. Trace minerals include copper, cobalt, iodine, iron, fluoride, manganese, selenium, zinc and molybdenum. Depending on the specific kind, a macro mineral deficiency can lead to Osteoporosis, Cardiac Arrhythmias, Hypertension, Hyponatremia, Tetany, Carpopedal Spasm and Laryngospasm. A macro mineral excess can lead to Depression, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, Hypotension, palpitations and Kidney Stones. A trace mineral deficiency can lead to Anemia, Goiter and Hypothyroidism, while an excess can lead to Cirrhosis, Hepatitis C and Heart Disease.

It is vital to ensure that we get adequate amounts of all of the above 5 necessary nutrients in order to survive and thrive. However, getting proper nutrition these days is not an easy task. With our busy, modern day lifestyles, fitting in 3 healthy meals consisting of a variety of fresh, unprocessed foods, is difficult. What’s more, it is now well documented that the nutritional quality of most foods has dropped significantly, making the task of getting proper nutrition even more difficult. It has therefore become increasingly necessary to add health supplements to our diet to ensure that our body gets everything it needs to function optimally and disease-free.

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