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There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to nutrition. Nutritional needs vary from person to person. There are so many factors to take into consideration when trying to determine what our bodies need nutritionally. Age, sex, life cycle stage, and physical activity are all important factors when it comes to figuring out individual needs.
There are specific guidelines that are followed and they vary from country to country. However, The World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have developed the Food Based Dietary Guidelines. These guidelines are what people talk about when they say things like ‘recommended dietary allowance.’
What are nutritional needs?
When we talk about nutritional needs, what does it mean? Essentially, it’s what we need to consume to stay healthy. Our bodies need proper nutrition in order to maintain good health. We obtain our nutrition through food and drinks. Macronutrients and micronutrients are two of the most important components to nutrition.
Macronutrients include protein, carbohydrates, and fat, which provide the calories (energy) our bodies need to function. They are vital for all biochemical processes to occur, and getting the right balance of protein, fat, and carbs for your needs is important.
Micronutrients are found within macronutrients. These include vitamins and minerals. For example, strawberries are a form of carbohydrates, but they also contain vitamin C, manganese, folate, and potassium.
The importance of water and hydration.
Our bodies are made up of mostly water, which is why it is extremely important to stay hydrated. Water is essential for lots of biochemical processes, including keeping our organs functioning properly (especially kidneys).
Water intake is not the only factor of hydration. It’s also important to have proper electrolyte balance. Excessive water intake, insufficient amounts of water, excessive exercise and heat exposure all throw off the electrolyte balance.
How do we assess our needs?
So how do you know what your nutritional needs are? They do, of course, differ from person to person. However, most of us should strive towards the general guidelines for eating a healthy and balanced diet.
If you feel you might be deficient or lacking in something, lab values are an accurate way to assess nutritional needs. Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals are typically assessed via blood work in a lab or your health care provider’s office. The most common are vitamin D, zinc, B12, iron, zinc, calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium.
Hydration status can be assessed by looking at blood levels. There are physical assessments that also look at hydration status too, such as skin turgor. Skin turgor is when a small piece of skin on the back of the hand is pinched and the “snap back” can determine hydration. Urine analysis can also help determine hydration status by looking at the color, clarity, amount of urine output. This is typically done in a clinical setting but you can easily do this at home too.
Symptoms of not meeting our needs
Besides being as healthy as we can, preventing vitamin or mineral deficiencies is important too.
Fatigue is a common symptom for several types of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. You might have other symptoms specific to certain vitamins or minerals, however. These could include memory problems, hair loss, skin problems, and much more.
For example, a person that lives in a place without much natural sunlight might develop a Vitamin D deficiency. This deficiency can cause symptoms and contribute to less than optimal bone health. It is important to make sure all deficiencies are corrected and maintained in order to prevent further issues.
What considerations go into determining your nutritional needs?
If everyone has slightly different nutritional needs, what are the main factors which impact them? Our lifestyles, age, general health, and even where we live can all impact whether we’re in need of extra vitamins, whether we have deficiencies, or whether we need to adapt our diets.
There are many factors that impact individual nutritional needs, including your lifecycle or stage of life. The nutritional needs of a newborn baby vary greatly from the needs of a teenager. The same thing goes for adults: a 30 year old female will require different nutrients compared to a 75 year old male.
There are many medical conditions that give rise to specific nutritional needs. These needs can vary depending on the person and condition. Here are just a few examples:
- Gastrointestinal (GI) tract: in conditions related to the GI tract, nutrients may have difficulty being digested, absorbed and even excreted. For example someone with celiac disease, if not on a gluten free diet, may have several deficiencies (iron and vitamin D).
- Cancer: Depending on the stage, location, treatment, there are many risks for nutrient deficiencies when cancer is involved. Lack of appetite and nausea as a result of treatment may prevent proper nutrition too.
- Diabetes: When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, they typically have to manage their carbohydrate intake. This is important to allow the insulin in the body or external can move the glucose to the cell in order to perform specific biochemical reactions in the body.
- Kidney disease: Kidney diseases can cause changes in protein, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and vitamin D needs.
- Liver disease: The liver has an extremely important role in detoxification and metabolism, it also stores and balances a lot of nutrients. Liver disease can also occur from inadequate nutrition, such as cirrhosis and non alcoholic fatty liver disease.
- Cardiovascular: Several illnesses can occur due to inadequate nutrition. High cholesterol may occur from excessive saturated and trans fat in the diet. Hypertension requires a change in sodium/salt intake.
- Bone health: Bones require several nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and vitamin K to remain strong and dense. When there are deficiencies present, it can affect the makeup of our bones and can possibly cause osteopenia, osteoporosis, and risk for fractures.
Physical activity levels
Those who are sedentary don’t necessarily require additional nutrients but may need less calories since they do not expend a lot. On the flip side, athletes often require specific nutrients. Protein is a very important component to an athlete’s diet.
Protein helps with muscle protein synthesis and muscle mass, so athletes tend to require more protein than regular people. Some of them may also consume more carbohydrates for extra energy, as carbohydrates can impact athletic performance positively.
Adequate water intake is also necessary to prevent dehydration from sweat.
Diets that require careful planning for nutritional needs
If you don’t follow a typical omnivorous diet without restrictions, you might also have different nutritional needs to the everyday person.
Vegan & Vegetarian
While most people choose to become vegan or vegetarian due to animal rights, there are also benefits to eating mostly plant based foods. However, vegans and vegetarians might also struggle with iron, protein, zinc, and vitamin B12 deficiencies. Careful meal planning is necessary in order to ensure all nutritional needs are met in order to prevent any deficiencies.
As mentioned above, celiac disease requires a complete diet change for improvement. The inflammation is due to the intake of gluten and when gluten is eliminated, the intestine microvilli can improve and absorb those necessary vitamins again.
In addition to celiac, there are a lot of people who have non celiac gluten sensitivity. While this isn’t the same as celiac, relief is achieved from eliminating gluten. A gluten free diet omits wheat, barely, rye, and some oats by default. These grains contain a lot of nutrients such as fiber, folate, magnesium, and calcium. If you avoid gluten, it’s important to make sure you get enough of these nutrients.
Many people omit dairy for several reasons. Dome have allergies or intolerances and feel better when they avoid dairy. Dairy products contain a lot of nutrients, such as protein, calcium, vitamin D, and fat.
When reaching for an alternative, it is important to check for fortification. Not all products contain the same nutrient composition typically found in dairy. While these other nutrients can be compensated from other foods, it is important to know which foods contain these nutrients and which ones are lacking.
Meeting your nutritional needs through diet and supplementation
Balanced meals and snacks are key in ensuring proper nutrition. A balanced diet consists of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein rich foods, and heart healthy fats.
Based on medical assessments, supplements may be needed to fix deficiencies and should be recommended by your healthcare provider based on proper assessments. A healthcare provider is essential when trying to determine nutritional needs, as they can recommend and provide appropriate testing and assessments. Trying to figure it out yourself can be harmful, especially if you supplement incorrectly and end up taking too much of certain vitamins and minerals.
Once you are aware of your specific nutritional needs, the Whisk app is a wonderful resource to help with meal planning. Whisk offers recipes and communities for different dietary needs and restrictions, and provides nutritional information for any recipe.