How Your Body Gets Nutrients From Foods


Eating a wide range of foods that include a variety of nutrients is the easiest way to have a healthy diet.

On this page, you'll learn why your body needs each of the following nutrients, and which foods you'll find them in:

Proteins

Proteins give your body amino acids — the building blocks that help your body's cells do all of their everyday activities. Proteins help your body build new cells, repair old cells, create hormones and enzymes, and keep your immune system healthy. If you don't have enough protein, your body takes longer to recover from illness and you're more likely to get sick in the first place.

During treatment for breast cancer, some people may need more protein than usual. Good sources of protein are lean meat, fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy products, as well as nuts, dried beans, peas, and lentils.

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Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates give you quick energy — they quickly go into your blood as glucose (blood sugar), which your body uses for fuel first, before turning the leftovers into fat.

Fruits, vegetables, bread, pasta, grains, cereal products, crackers, dried beans, peas, and lentils are all good sources of carbohydrates. Many of them are also good sources of fiber, which your digestive system needs to stay healthy.

Sugar (white and brown), honey, and molasses are also carbohydrates. But these types of carbohydrates are high in calories and don't offer any other benefits (like vitamins and minerals). Whole grains and fruits and vegetables are healthier sources of carbohydrates than refined grains and sugars.

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Fats

Fats give your body the fatty acids it needs to grow and to produce new cells and hormones. Fat also helps some vitamins move through your body. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins, which means they need some fat to be absorbed. They are also stored in the fatty tissues in your body and the liver. Fat also helps protect your organs against trauma. Your body stores excess calories as fat, which is saved up as reserve energy.

Fats give you more concentrated calories than carbohydrates or proteins. In other words, a teaspoon of fat will have more calories than a teaspoon of carbohydrate or a teaspoon of protein.

There are three basic types of fats:

  • Saturated fats, found mainly in meat and whole-milk products, are only found in foods that come from animals, not those that come from plants. Saturated fat is the type that raises your blood cholesterol level. Trans fats (also called trans-saturated fats or trans fatty acids) are formed when liquid vegetable oils go through a process called hydrogenation, in which hydrogen is added to make the oils more solid. Hydrogenated vegetable fats are used in food processing because they give foods a longer shelf-life and a desirable taste, shape, and texture. The majority of trans fat is found in shortening, stick (or hard) margarine, cookies, crackers, snack foods, fried foods (including fried fast food), doughnuts, pastries, baked goods, and other processed foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fat also raises your blood's level of "bad" cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL), and lowers your level of "good" cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL).
  • Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are found in plant foods such as vegetables, nuts, and grains, as well as oils made from these nuts and grains (canola, corn, soybean). Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated. Besides vegetables, nuts, and grains, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found in coldwater fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel. Some studies have shown that eating foods that have mono or polyunsaturated fats can help reduce your levels of "bad" (LDL) cholesterol. Mono and polyunsaturated fats also may keep your triglyceride levels low. Triglycerides are a form of fat in your bloodstream. People with high triglyceride levels often have high total cholesterol, high LDL cholesterol, and low HDL ("good") cholesterol. Studies have linked high triglyceride levels to increased risk of stroke and heart disease.

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Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins keep your bones strong, your vision clear and sharp, and your skin, nails, and hair healthy and glowing. Vitamins also help your body use energy from the food you eat.

Minerals are chemical elements that help regulate your body's processes. Potassium, for example, helps your nerves and muscles function. Calcium helps your teeth and bones stay strong. Iron carries oxygen to your cells.

If you eat a balanced diet with enough calories and protein, you're probably getting enough vitamins and minerals. But if you're receiving treatment for breast cancer, this may be a challenge. And certain treatments may sap your body's supplies of some vitamins or minerals.

It's also important to remember that there is a big difference between getting your nutrients through food and taking supplements (vitamins, minerals, and herbals/botanicals). Vitamins and minerals work together in your body in very complex ways, affecting each other's absorption and processing and influencing how your body functions. When you get your vitamins and minerals through eating foods, it is often easier for your body to maintain a balance of these nutrients. When you take a supplement, such as a vitamin C or E tablet, you're getting a highly concentrated dose that you would probably never get from food. While some supplements may be beneficial, others may reduce the effectiveness of certain breast cancer treatments.

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Water

Water is necessary for life, which makes it vital for good health. Water makes up about 50% to 66% of your total body weight. It regulates your temperature, moves nutrients through your body, and gets rid of waste. Breast cancer treatment can sometimes cause diarrhea or vomiting. Losing a lot of fluids plus the chemicals and minerals they contain can lead to dehydration.

In general, it's a good idea to drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day. If you've lost fluids because of diarrhea or vomiting, you need to replace both the fluids and the essential ingredients in them. Chicken or vegetable broth, tomato juice, fruit juices, and sports drinks such as Gatorade are examples of fluids that can help you replace the vitamins and minerals your body has lost.

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