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Categories of nutrients

How can the six nutrients be categorised, and what do these different categories mean? In this article, learn more about the categories of nutrients.

The six classes of nutrients can be categorised in a number of ways:

  • Macronutrients vs micronutrients
  • Organic vs inorganic
  • Energy yielding vs non-energy yielding
  • Essential vs non-essential

The following table displays how the six classes of nutrients are arranged under these different categories.

Macronutrients vs micronutrients

Macronutrients are required by our bodies in relatively large amounts – usually many grams daily. Protein, lipids (fats), carbohydrates and water are categorised as macronutrients. Interestingly, these macronutrients are also found in our food in relatively large amounts compared to the micronutrients.

Micronutrients are required by our bodies in relatively small amounts – usually milligrams or micrograms daily. Vitamins and minerals are categorised as micronutrients. Vitamins are generally divided into two groups based on their solubility: water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins. Minerals are generally divided into two groups based on the amount needed by our body: major minerals and trace minerals.

Organic vs inorganic

Organic nutrients include carbohydrates, protein, lipids (fats) and vitamins. ‘Organic’ means that these nutrients contain carbon-carbon or carbon-hydrogen bonds. Carbon is an element found in all living things.

Inorganic nutrients include water and minerals. ‘Inorganic’ means that these nutrients are not composed primarily of carbon-carbon or carbon-hydrogen bonds. Individual atoms found in these nutrients never change and so the identity of these nutrients never changes. They are seen as indestructible.

Organic – a chemical term: The term ‘organic’ is being used here to describe the chemical nature of these nutrients and should not be confused with the use of the term in food production when it is used to describe how food is grown under a certification system.

Energy yielding vs non-energy yielding

The energy yielding nutrients are carbohydrate, lipids (fat) and protein. These macronutrients can be broken down in the body to provide energy to fuel all the body’s activities. Excess of these nutrients can be converted to storage compounds, to provide energy reserves for later on when energy supplies might be low.
These energy yielding nutrients also provide the major raw materials for building the body’s tissues and regulating its many activities. Protein’s role as an energy source is relatively minor.
The non-energy yielding nutrients are water, vitamins and minerals. These nutrients are not broken down in the body to provide energy. Instead, they facilitate a variety of activities in the body, including assisting in the release of energy from the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, lipids).

Essential nutrients vs non-essential nutrients

Essential nutrients must be obtained from food because the body cannot make them for itself in sufficient quantity to meet physiological needs.
Non-essential nutrients are nutrients that the body can synthesise in sufficient quantities. This means that they do not need to be obtained from food, unlike essential nutrients.

A word on alcohol – not a nutrient

Alcohol is not seen as a nutrient, as it interferes with the body’s growth, maintenance and repair. However, alcohol can also be broken down by the body to yield energy. When consumed in excess of energy needs, alcohol will also be converted to body fat and stored, causing an increase in energy stores and weight gain.
Were any of these categories already familiar to you? Of the new categories of nutrients you learned of, are there any that stand out as something you might utilise in better understanding the food you eat?
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A Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Eating

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