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What Is the Difference between Nutrition and Nutrients?

By Felicia Dye
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The words nutrition and nutrients cannot be used interchangeably, but they are closely related. Nutrition can refer to a supply of components that are derived from food, which keeps people alive and healthy. This term can also refer to the science used to determine which components are in which foods and to understand how the components in a person’s diet affect her health. Nutrients are the various components, such as fat, carbohydrates, and vitamins, that the body derives from the food that an individual consumes.

Nutrition and nutrients are two closely related terms. It is not possible to consider nutrition without considering nutrients. When a person eats, the body breaks down the foods that are consumed and extracts certain beneficial components. These are referred to as the nutrients, and examples include vitamins, protein, and minerals.

When considering what is obtained from a person’s diet, nutrition is therefore the collection of nutrients that a person receives from eating. If a person does not get a sufficient amount of nutrients, he is considered malnourished. If a person completely lacked nutrition, she could not survive, because nutrients are essential to human life. It is generally believed that the types, amounts, and mixture of nutrients that are in a person’s diet can have an effect on her health by helping to prevent and to treat disease. The supply of nutrients in a given item is considered its nutritional value.

It is also possible to assess the nutrition of individual items, which can help to determine whether they should be consumed, how much should be consumed, and whether doing so will offer the body any benefits. The general rule of advice is that people should try to maintain diets that consist mostly of nutrient-dense foods. It is believed the continuing study of the relationship between nutrition and nutrients will lead to a deeper understanding of how a proper diet can be used to maintain good health. For example, more attention is being given to the connection between nutrition and mental health.

Many studies in the field of nutrition also aim to reveal the negative effects that occur in the bodies of individuals with poor diets. The analysis of nutrition and nutrients is an important part of certain jobs in the health care field. Although physicians may address the effects of their patients’ diets to some degree, they do not usually specialize in the connection between food and health. Dietitians and nutritionists are professionals who concentrate on these topics.

How Nutrients and Nutrition Work Together

Think of nutrients and nutrition as a jigsaw puzzle. Each nutrient is a puzzle piece, and nutrition is the overall image of the completed puzzle. The individual pieces are separate and unique from each other, but when they come together, they form the whole picture.

If one piece is missing from a jigsaw puzzle, the overall image is still visible but isn’t complete. In the same way, when a body is deficient in one nutrient, it can still function, but an element of overall health is missing. 

When several nutrient pieces are missing, the holes in the puzzle begin to interfere with the overall picture. This situation is when body systems begin to struggle, and physical symptoms can become apparent.

The Main Nutrients Necessary for Adequate Nutrition

The human body requires several major nutrients. These are the elements that provide the overall nutrition the body needs for basic functions. When the body is deficient in one or more essential nutrients, its function becomes impaired.

The exact symptoms of nutrient deficiency will vary depending on which nutrients are lacking, but common signs include fatigue, impaired immune function, dry and brittle hair, ridges in nails, and irritability.

The main nutrients and the vital roles they have in the body are listed below.

Protein

Just about every tissue of the human body is made up partly of protein. It helps form the muscles, bones, skin, organs, and even hair. It aids the body's recovery after exercise or an injury, and it also lowers blood pressure, curbs hunger, and helps with healthy weight maintenance.

Meat and fish contain the largest amounts of protein, but protein-rich nutrition can also include eggs, nuts, dairy, and beans.

Fat

Though it often has a bad reputation, fat is essential for the function of the human body. It gives the body energy, helps it produce hormones, keeps it warm, supports cell growth, and protects the organs. It is also necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Some healthy fat sources include avocados, nuts, olive oil, fatty fish, eggs, cheese, and dark chocolate.

Carbohydrates

Carbs are the body’s primary source of fuel. They provide energy for the brain, central nervous system, heart, and kidneys. They also help regulate cholesterol, increase satiety, and decrease bloating.

Good sources of healthy carbohydrates include fruits and starchy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

Vitamins

There are many essential vitamins that the body needs, including:

  • Vitamin A
  • B Vitamins, including B6, B12, folate, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and more
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K

Each vitamin plays its own role in the body, helping with everything from nerve function to resisting infection to proper blood clotting.

Different foods contain different vitamins, so the surest way to get enough necessary vitamins is to eat various healthy foods. Vitamins found naturally in food are better for the body than synthetic vitamins added to food, so strive to get as many vitamins as possible from their natural food sources.

Minerals

Minerals function similarly to vitamins, each helping with different body functions. Some essential minerals include:

  • Calcium
  • Iodine
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium

As with vitamins, to achieve the best nutrition, it is ideal to consume foods with naturally occurring minerals rather than synthetic supplement versions.

Water

Water is as, or even more, essential for bodily function as proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins, and minerals. It is required by every body system for digestion, dissolving and absorbing nutrients, eliminating waste, and maintaining healthy blood flow.

Even low levels of dehydration will cause impaired cognitive function, headaches, dizziness, sleepiness, low blood pressure, dry mucous membranes, and decreased skin elasticity.

Most Commonly Lacking Nutrients in Modern Nutrition

The modern diet is not dense in nutrition, and most Americans are deficient in four essential nutrients, according to the USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

These four nutrients and the foods that contain them include:

  • Calcium – milk, yogurt, spinach
  • Dietary fiber – berries, popcorn, whole wheat, beans
  • Potassium – bananas, potatoes, lima beans, squash, tuna
  • Vitamin D – salmon, tuna, dairy, orange juice

It’s important to note that vitamin D is not only found in the foods we listed above. Sunlight is another essential vitamin D source, as the skin will absorb this vitamin when exposed to the sun.

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Discussion Comments
By Sinbad — On Aug 08, 2011

@snickerish - I was big on the 'low fat' diet and with my exercise routine; I seemed to be doing okay in the area of feeling healthy and looking healthy.

However, my husband when we were first dating kept preaching about whole foods. He said real foods, not processed foods were better for you because they contained more nutrients. He told me with many low fat items they actually lose nutrients when they take the fat out of the natural food and then...

they replace the fat with sugar! I researched it a bit and he was right. He always argued that people in France and other European countries eat fatty foods and drink wine but that they eat regular portion sizes and walk more.

Anyway, long story short, I tried it, lost weight, enjoy my food more, feel better, and my husband gets to enjoy hearing "You were right," at least once a month.

So my suggestion if you would like to simplify your diet but have it still rich in nutrients is to eat a variety of whole foods. And if you are feeling unwell after that, get checked as @turquoise discussed for food allergies or intolerances. You might find you are gluten intolerant, lactose intolerant, etc.

By snickerish — On Aug 07, 2011

Nutrients and nutrition... I did not know that they could not be used interchangeably! As my husband says, "Sometimes I feel English is my second language!"

So if we are to have a nutrient dense diet so that we do not become malnourished what are some of the best ways to do this?

I feel there is always a new "superfood" or a new diet or a new nutrient that is being discussed as the "best ever." I would like to simplify my diet and not have to read labels all the time.

By turquoise — On Aug 07, 2011

The way I remember the difference between nutrition and nutrients, and which one I should use in a sentence, is by thinking of "nutrition" as the overall subject of food science and "nutrients" as the elements in food.

Something else that I think is important to note is that someone might be taking in enough nutrients but they still might not have the best nutrition.

For example, there are some digestive problems that prevent individuals who have them from digesting certain nutrients. I have a friend who is lactose intolerant and she cannot digest lactose or milk sugar. Some people also have gluten intolerance and they cannot digest gluten.

So, it's not enough for someone to get nutrients, their body also needs to be able to digest it and use it properly for it to become nutrition for them. So nutrition is also specific to every individual. If two people eat the same hamburger, they are both getting the same exact nutrients from it but their bodies might process those nutrients differently having different results and nutrition.

By MissDaphne — On Aug 07, 2011

@EdRick - That's a good way to look at it. Another thing you'll miss out on if you only think about nutrients is fiber.

Fiber is not a macronutrient (these are just fat, carbs, and protein - yes, you will die without fat and carbs) or a micronutrient (basically vitamins and minerals). But both soluble fiber and insoluble fiber are essential as good nutrition. They lower bad cholesterol, keep you moving (ahem), make you feel full, regulate your blood sugar, and more. Don't forget the fiber!

By EdRick — On Aug 06, 2011

Another way to think about this is that nutrients are the good stuff that *is* in your food, while "nutrition" is a broader term. Good nutrition is about more than just nutrients; it's also about what's *not* in your food.

For instance, if you pour melted margarine all over your broccoli, you have not made a nutritious snack because the trans fat in the margarine is bad for you.

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