The human body needs a range of nutrients in order to stay healthy and function properly. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats, sometimes known as macronutrients, form the building blocks of a healthy diet. Vitamins and minerals, sometimes known as micronutrients, are needed in lesser quantities, but are no less important for maintaining good health. While much has been written about the importance of vitamins, minerals are often overlooked and undervalued.
Calcium is best known for its role in building and maintaining healthy bones and teeth, with adequate calcium intake helping to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and other bone diseases. Calcium is also essential for muscle contraction, nerve function, blood clotting and many other important processes within the human body. Calcium can be found in milk and dairy products, including yoghurt, cheese and cream. For vegetarians and vegans, soy milk is often fortified with calcium to help prevent deficiency. Calcium can also be found in green leafy vegetables, such as kale and spinach, fortified breakfast cereals and some fish, such as sardines, where the bone is also eaten.
Magnesium is also essential for bone health, muscle contraction and nerve function. In addition, magnesium helps to maintain a healthy heart, regulate blood pressure and stabilize blood sugar levels. Magnesium can be found in many foods, particularly green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, oatmeal and bananas. The richest sources of magnesium include spinach, almonds, cashew nuts, soybeans, kidney beans and peanuts.
Potassium is needed to regulate fluids within the body, maintain muscle health and ensure a healthy heart. It also plays a part in many important bodily functions, including metabolism, electrical activity of the heart and the proper working of organs. Potassium can be found in most meat and poultry, as well as vegetarian soy products. Milk, yoghurt, nuts, broccoli, peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, apricots, citrus fruits, bananas and prunes are all rich sources of potassium.
Phosphorous is important for the development and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth. It also helps to ensure proper muscle contraction, build healthy nerves, repair damaged cells and maintain a regular heartbeat. Phosphorous is mainly found in meat and dairy products. Vegetarians and vegans can usually obtain adequate amounts of phosphorous from wholegrain cereals and breads.
Sulphur is necessary for healthy skin, hair, nails, bones, tendons and cartilage. It is also thought to help the body purge itself of pollutants and dangerous substances, such as nicotine and alcohol. Sulphur can be found in high-protein foods, such as meat, fish and dairy products. It can also be found in beans, pulses, eggs, garlic and onions.
Excessive sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, fluid retention and other health problems. However, sodium is necessary to regulate blood pressure, ensure the proper working of nerves, keep muscles healthy and perform many other vital functions within the body. Therefore, it is important to get the right balance of sodium in your diet. Avoid adding extra salt to your food, as natural amounts of sodium are already present in most foods.
There are several other mineral elements needed by the body in lesser amounts than the main minerals above.
Chlorine is needed for maintaining a healthy digestive system. Deficiency of chlorine in the diet is rare, as it used in the processing and preservation of many foods. Dietary sources include wholemeal bread, oats, eggs, butter and prawns.
Chromium helps to ensure healthy metabolism and regulate blood sugar levels within the body. Trace amounts can be found in many food and drinks, including broccoli, yeast, grapes, liver, orange juice, potatoes, turkey, red wine and beer.
Cobalt is needed for the production of red blood cells, and can be found in liver, red meat, fish, green leafy vegetables, milk and nuts. Cobalt is also important for the absorption and use of other nutrients within the body.
Copper is needed for the formation of red blood cells, collagen and healthy bones. Copper can be found in a wide range of foods, including liver, fish, nuts, whole grains and green leafy vegetables.
Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells, with deficiency leading to anaemia and other health problems. Iron can be found in many different foods, including liver, pate, red meat, offal, bread, potatoes, green leafy vegetables, oatmeal and lentils.
Selenium is an antioxidant and is essential for good health. The richest sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, tuna, turkey, cod, chicken, oatmeal, rice, sunflower seeds and eggs.
Zinc is essential for performing many different functions within the human body, including maintaining a healthy metabolism and strong immune system. Rich sources of zinc include red meat, dairy products, cereal, chicken, cashew nuts, seafood and peanuts.
Trace elements of other minerals, such as fluorine, manganese, molybdenum and iodine, are also needed by the body. In most cases, unless there is a specific medical condition that causes deficiency, these minerals are consumed as part of a normal diet.