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Definitions of Food Terms: Protein, Minerals and Carbohydrates

By Angela Ogunjimi

Proteins, minerals and carbohydrates are vital nutrients that keep you alive. Protein helps you build and repair tissue. Carbs supply your body with energy. Minerals help you regulate certain bodily functions. You get these nutrients mainly from the foods you eat, and without enough of them, you could suffer from malnutrition and be at risk for many diseases. It’s also possible to get too much of these nutrients, so talk to your doctor or nutritionist to determine the right amounts for you.

Macronutrients and Micronutrients

Micronutrients are essential to help carry out important physiological processes. For example, they help build and repair tissue, work with your metabolism and regulate other functions and processes. Macronutrients -- protein, carbohydrates and fat -- supply your body with calories for energy. Minerals and vitamins are called micronutrients because your body needs them in smaller amounts. Minerals don’t have calories, so they don’t help provide energy for your body. However, they are essential for carrying out important physiological processes. Your diet is critical to providing the micronutrients needed to stay alive and healthy. Without enough macronutrients and micronutrients, you will be malnourished and at risk of illness. In the U.S., it’s common for people to overeat and become obese, yet still suffer malnutrition because they don’t eat enough nutrient-dense foods.


Proteins are complex organic compounds, made up of chains of amino acids. After water, protein is the most abundant substance in your body. All of your cells contain protein, including skin, muscles, organs and glands. Some of your bodily fluids also contain protein. Your body uses protein for growth, maintenance and to repair body tissues. In food, proteins are either complete or incomplete. Complete proteins contain the nine essential amino acids your body needs, but can’t make fast enough. Incomplete proteins lack one or more of those amino acids. Meat, fish, poultry, eggs and some dairy products are complete proteins, and soy is the only plant known to be a complete protein. The Institute of Medicine, or IOM, suggests that adults get 10 to 35 percent of their total daily calories from protein.


Minerals are inorganic elements your body uses for many purposes, such as bone building, helping produce hormones and regulating your heartbeat. Minerals come in two categories. Major, or macrominerals, include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium and sulfur. Trace minerals, or micro-minerals, include iron, iodine, selenium, zinc, fluoride, chromium, cobalt, copper and manganese. You generally need more macrominerals than microminerals. MedlinePlus says the best way to get the minerals your body needs is to eat a wide variety of food, but you should also contact your doctor to see whether you actually need to add supplements to your diet.


Carbohydrates are the macronutrients you need in the largest amounts. The IOM says you should get between 45 and 65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates. Carbs are your body’s main source of fuel. Carbs are most easily converted to glucose, which is used by your cells for energy. Your body systems and organs need glucose to function properly. The basic building blocks of carbs are sugar molecules, which join carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Different types of carbs include simple and complex carbs, the latter of which is often a good source of fiber. Simple carbs include sugars found naturally in fruits, vegetables and milk, as well as those added in food processing. Complex carbs are found in whole grain breads, cereals, starchy vegetables and beans.

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