Nutrition is the process of consuming, absorbing, and using nutrients needed by the body for growth, development, and maintenance of life.
To receive adequate, appropriate nutrition, people need to consume a healthy diet, which consists of a variety of nutrients—the substances in foods that nourish the body. A healthy diet enables people to maintain a desirable body weight and composition (the percentage of fat and muscle in the body) and to do their daily physical and mental activities.
If people consume too much food, obesity may result. If they consume large amounts of certain nutrients, usually vitamins or minerals, harmful effects (toxicity) may occur. If people do not consume enough nutrients, a nutritional deficiency disorder may result.
To determine whether people are consuming a proper amount of nutrients, doctors ask them about their eating habits and diet and do a physical examination to assess the composition and functioning of the body. Height and weight are measured, and body mass index (BMI) is calculated. BMI is calculated by dividing weight (in kilograms) by the square of the height (in meters). A BMI between 19 and 24 is usually considered normal for men and women.
Body composition, including the percentage of body fat, is sometimes estimated by measuring skinfold thickness or doing bioelectrical impedance analysis. More accurate ways to determine this percentage include weighing people under water (hydrostatic weighing) and doing a dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan, but these methods are seldom used.
Levels of many nutrients can be measured in blood and sometimes in tissues. For example, measuring the level of albumin, the main protein in blood, may help determine whether people are deficient in protein. Nutrient levels decrease when nutrition is inadequate.
Components of the Diet:
Generally, nutrients are divided into two classes:
Water is required in amounts of 1 milliliter for each calorie of energy expended or about 2.6 quarts (2,500 milliliters) a day. The requirement for water can be met by the water naturally contained in many foods, and by drinking fruit or vegetable juices and caffeine-free coffee or tea as well as water. Alcoholic beverages and caffeinated coffee, tea, and sodas may make people urinate more, so they are less useful.
Foods consumed in the daily diet contain as many as 100,000 substances. But only 300 are classified as nutrients, and only 45 are classified as essential nutrients: vitamins, minerals, some amino acids (components of protein), and some fatty acids (components of fats). Essential nutrients cannot be synthesized by the body and must be consumed in the diet.
Foods contain many other useful components, including fibers (such as cellulose, pectins, and gums). Foods also contain additives (such as preservatives, emulsifiers, antioxidants, and stabilizers), which improve the production, processing, storage, and packaging of foods (see Overview of Nutrition: Food Additives and Contaminants).
Last full review/revision July 2008 by Margaret-Mary G. Wilson, MD