How Your Body Extracts Nutrients from Food, Part 1

When we think about healthy eating, we often think about fruits and vegetables that contain vitamins and minerals. So, if we want to increase our potassium intake, we may eat a banana, which contains, on average, 422 mg of potassium. But have you ever thought about how much potassium your body is actually absorbing? When you eat something, healthy or not, how much of its nutrients are you getting and how does your body make use of it?

Even if you’re eating whole and healthy foods, you could be absorbing as little as 10% to as much as 90% of the nutrients. Everything from your age and stress levels to your gut bacteria can affect how much of the vitamins and minerals from food that your body absorbs. We refer to this absorption as nutrition extraction, which is the process of breaking down foods until they can be predigested so your body can more easily absorb the nutritional elements in the food.

While you may have never before been interested in understanding how your digestive system works, it’s important to know that you’re absorbing nutrients at an optimal level to maintain a healthy well-being.

But before we dive into which organs play a role in extracting energy and nutrients from food, let’s look at some of the main nutrients your body needs:

Proteins: proteins are what give your body amino acids, which help your body build and repair cells, create enzymes and maintain a healthy immune system. Without enough protein in your body, you may take longer to recover from an illness and you might be more inclined to get sick. If you’re ill, you may need more protein to help your body recover.

You can find healthy amounts of protein in lean meats, fish, poultry, dairy, nuts, legumes and lentils.

Carbohydrates: carbs are what give you energy. Carbs enter your blood as glucose, which your body uses as fuel, while leftovers are turned into fat.

You can find carbs in pasta, bread, grains, cereal, crackers, as well as fruit, beans and lentils. Foods like whole grains, fruit, beans and lentils also contain sufficient amounts of fiber, which help your digestive system stay healthy. Carbs are also found in sugar, but they don’t offer vitamins or minerals, so you don’t want to overdo it with these types of carbs.

Fats: similar to proteins, fats give your body fatty acids that help your body create cells and hormones, as well as help vitamins get from point A to point B in your body. Fats also protect your organs from injury and can be used as energy. Some vitamins, like A, D and E, are fat soluble, which means they need fat for the body to absorb them. As fats contain more concentrated calories than protein or carbs, you don’t want to overdo it with fats. You also want to make sure you’re consuming healthy fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as opposed to saturated fats.

Foods with saturated fats include foods that come from animals, like meat and dairy. Trans fats, which are formed when vegetable oils are hydrogenated, are found in margarine, shortening, fried foods, pastries and baked goods. Healthier fats, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are found in plant foods, like nuts, grains, vegetables and fatty fish.

Vitamins and minerals: these are essential for keeping your body in tip-top shape and helping regulate your body’s processes. Different vitamins and minerals contribute to different functions. Here are just a few of the most important vitamins and minerals your body needs to properly function:

  1. Vitamin A: helps keep your eyes healthy and sharp, and is found in orange vegetables like carrot and sweet potato.
  2. Vitamin B: helps your body absorb iron and produce energy, and is found in whole grains, lentils, beans and other whole unprocessed foods.
  3. Vitamin C: strengthens your blood vessels and boosts your antioxidant function and can be found in many fruits and vegetables.
  4. Vitamin D: helps keep your bones strong and can be found in eggs, mushrooms and fish, as well as from spending a few minutes out in the sun each day.
  5. Vitamin E: helps your blood circulate and protects your body from free radicals, and can be found in nuts, seeds and tomatoes.
  6. Folic acid: assists with cell renewal, and is found in dark leafy greens, lentils, legumes, nuts and many vegetables.
  7. Calcium: like vitamin D, this helps keep your teeth and bones healthy. Calcium can be found in dairy and tofu.
  8. Iron: helps build muscles, and is found in clams, oysters, soybeans, lentils and spinach.
  9. Zinc: good for boosting your immunity, iron is found in seafood, cashews, beans, dark chocolate and spinach.

If you’re eating a healthy and balanced diet, you likely are consuming enough vitamins and minerals. However, if you aren’t or if you’re ill, you may require a supplement.

Water: water is vital for health, making up at least half of your body weight. Water may seem like it only hydrates your body, but it also regulates your body temperature, help move nutrients throughout your body and eliminates waste.

Now that we’ve reviewed the main nutrients your body needs, in our next post, we’ll focus on the organs that extract these nutrients from food and help your body stay healthy. Stay tuned!