How to Get ALL Your Essential Nutrients!

Did you know that not all nutrients are essential??

No, I am not going to suggest that “science got it ALL wrong! We really don’t need vitamin C!”

Instead, I am talking about a distinction in nutrition science between nutrients that are essential and those that are not. What is the difference?

Essential nutrients cannot be manufactured by the body, and must come from the food we eat.

Some examples of essential nutrients include B-vitamins, potassium, and tryptophan (an essential amino acid).

All minerals that are important to human function are considered essential, as the human body does not manufacture minerals — we can thank the rocky crust of the Earth for that.

Most — but not all — vitamins are essential. The exception is vitamin D, which our skin synthesizes from sunlight and cholesterol.

Nine of the 21 amino acids necessary for human functioning are essential and must be obtained from food. The other 12 can be synthesized by the body from other amino acids.

There are only two essential fatty acids — α-Linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, and Linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. Your body can synthesize all other necessary fatty acids from what you eat.

Finally, carbohydrates are an essential nutrient, as the body cannot make them (plants do that!). Fiber, an indigestible carbohydrate is also essential, and entirely under-consumed.

Congratulations! You’ve just learned one of the basic principles of human nutrition. Hooray for you!

So… what?

Now I didn’t just teach you this purely out of the goodness of my heart. There is actually more that this concept can teach us.

For example, did you know vitamin C hasn’t always been essential? It’s not because we didn’t used to need it, but that our body used to be able to make it!

So why did we ever stop? Why did our bodies stop making vitamin C, forcing us to get it from food, pills, or of course, vitamin water?!


Ah, the beauty of green leafy vegetables


It turns out our body stopped making it because we were getting so much of it from our food! Our prehistoric ancestors ate so much plant matter that they got an estimated 600 mg a day of vitamin C — that’s the amount found in TEN oranges! We also got the amount of vitamin E found in two cups of nuts, and the amount of calcium found in five cups of collard greens (and we weren’t milking any prehistoric mammals, this came from whole plants)!

With a flood of vitamin C entering our bloodstream every single day, it simply wasn’t worth the energy to hold onto the process of making our own. It was so reliable in the food environment that we could rest easy and skip the Emergen-C tablets.

One more note: since we were eating such a vast quantity of plant foods (mostly fruits and leafy greens) we got an estimated 100 grams of fiber a day! 100 grams! The recommendation today is just 28 grams, and we struggle to even get half of that!

We evolved eating 100 grams of fiber and now get 14% that; 600 mg of vitamin C, and now we get 1/10th!


Next week we’ll delve deeper into the lessons essential nutrients teach us!

Source: Jew S, AbuMweis SS, Jones PJ. Evolution of the human diet: linking our ancestral diet to modern functional foods as a means of chronic disease prevention. J Med Food. 2009 Oct;12(5):925-34.