Minerals and Vitamins Required by Humans

Humans and other animals get the chemical energy and carboncontaining building blocks they need from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. All these substances are carbon compounds with high potential energy.

A carbohydrate, protein, or fat is an example of a nutrient: a substance that an organism needs to remain alive. Food is any material that contains nutrients.

The amount of energy provided by foods is measured in kilocalories (on food labels, kilocalories are referred to as Calories). Because fats are rich in C-H bonds, they provide more energy than other nutrients: about 9 kcal/g versus about 4 kcal/g for carbohydrates and proteins.

Understanding which nutrients an individual needs, and in what amounts, are basic issues in research on nutrition in humans and other animals. Let’s consider what humans need to maintain good health.

In 1943 the Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences1 published the first Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs). The goal of the RDAs was to specify the amount of each essential nutrient that an individual must ingest to meet the needs of most healthy people. Although all nutrients are necessary for growth and survival of animals, essential nutrients are those that cannot be synthesized and must be obtained from the diet.

Humans require four classes of essential nutrients:

• Essential amino acids are amino acids that an animal cannot synthesize from simpler building blocks. The human diet requires nine essential amino acids, which must be obtained from food. (20 amino acids are required to manufacture most proteins; humans can synthesize 11 of them.)

• Essential fatty acids are fatty acids that an animal must obtain in its diet. Humans can synthesize all fatty acids except two, which must be obtained from eating certain plants or fish.

• Vitamins are organic, or carbon-containing, compounds that are vital for health but are required in only minute amounts. They have a variety of roles; several function as coenzymes in critical reactions. Table 1 lists a few of the vitamins for which RDAs have been established, notes their functions, and indicates the problems that develop if they aremissing in the diet.

Table 1: Some Important Vitamins Required by Humans

Vitamin B1 (thiamine)Legumes, whole grains, potatoes, peanutsFormation of coenzyme in citric acid cycle
Vitamin B12Red meat, eggs, dairy products; also synthesized by bacteria in intestineCoenzyme in synthesis of proteins and nucleic acids and in formation of red blood cells
NiacinMeat, whole grainsComponent of coenzymes NAD+ and NADp+
FolateGreen vegetables, oranges, nuts, legumes, whole grains; also
synthesized by bacteria in intestine
Coenzyme in nucleic acid and amino acid metabolism
Vitamin C
(ascorbic acid)
Citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, green peppersUsed in collagen synthesis, prevents oxidation of cell components, improves absorption of iron
Vitamin DFortified milk, egg yolk; also synthesized in skin exposed to sunlightAids absorption of calcium and phosphorus in small intestine

• Minerals are inorganic substances used as components of enzyme cofactors or structural materials (see Table 2). Some, such as calcium and phosphorus, are needed in relatively large quantities. Others, such as iron and copper, are required in small or trace amounts. Minerals include ions of electrolytes, which influence osmotic balance and are required for normal membrane function. Sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), and chloride (Cl-) are the major ions of electrolytes in the human body.

Table 2: Major Minerals Required by Humans

MineralsSource in DietFunction
Calcium (Ca)dairy products, green vegetables, legumesbone and tooth formation, nerve signaling, muscle response
Chlorine (Cl)table salt or sea salt, vegetables, seafoodfluid balance in cells, protein digestion in stomach (HCl), acid–base balance
Fluorine (F)fluoridated water, seafoodmaintenance of tooth structure
Iodine (I)iodized salt, algae, seafoodcomponent of the thyroid hormones thyroxine and t3
Iron (Fe)meat, eggs, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, legumesenzyme cofactor; synthesis of hemoglobin and electron carriers
Magnesium (Mg)whole grains, green leafy vegetablesenzyme cofactor
Phosphorus (P)dairy products, meat, grainsbone and tooth formation; synthesis of nucleotides and Atp
Potassium (K)dairy products; meat; nuts; fruits; potatoes, legumes, and other vegetablesnerve signaling, muscle response, acid–base balance
Sodium (Na)table salt or sea salt, seafoodnerve signaling, muscle response, blood pressure regulation
Sulfur (S)any source of proteinamino acid synthesis

To obtain nutrients, animals must ingest them, usually via a mouth. The structure of animal mouthparts is therefore often highly specialized for the capture of specific types of food.

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