University of Massachusetts Amherst

It's MORE Than A Meal


Nutrition Basics

nutrients in foods

Many nutrients are needed to maintain health. These include protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and water. Most foods contain more than one nutrient. To provide the greatest amount of nutrients, serve a variety of foods in meals and snacks throughout the week. Some foods provide more nutrients than others. Also, a food may be a good source of some vitamins and minerals, but still lack other important ones. A "perfect" food with all essential nutrients does not exist.

The next few pages describe several key nutrients and list the foods that are good sources of these nutrients. The food groups listed are based on CACFP meal patterns. The examples provided are creditable foods in the CACFP program and do not necessarily follow the Pyramid guidelines. For example, yogurt counts as a serving from the milk group in the Pyramid; however, in the CACFP pattern, only fluid milk can count as a serving in this category.


Proteins play a role in growth, maintenance, and repair of body tissues. They form certain hormones and enzymes that regulate body processes. They also help fight infections and heal wounds. As a result, protein needs can increase during surgery, illness, or disease. Older adults lose protein easily due to the loss of skeletal muscle. 

Some food sources of protein include:

  • Meat/Meat Alternates: Meat, fish, poultry, dry beans, dry peas, nuts, seeds, cheeses, yogurt
  • Milk: Fluid milk


Carbohydrates provide energy to the body.  They come in three forms: sugar, starch and fiber. 

Sugars either occur naturally in foods, or are added to foods during processing or at the table. Naturally-occurring sugars are in milk, fruits, fruit juices, and vegetables. These foods contain some sugar, along with nutrients important to health. Added sugars are found in processed and sugary foods and beverages, such as donuts, cakes, cookies, hard candy, and soda. They include brown sugar, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, sucrose, and sugar syrup. Limiting foods and beverages with added sugars can help maintain a healthy weight, and can make room in the diet for more nutritious foods.   

Major Sources of Added Sugars in the United States
Soft drinks Ice cream and other dairy desserts
Cakes, cookies, and pies Hard candy
Fruit drinks such as fruit punch and lemonade  
Adapted from U.S. Department of Agriculture, United States Department of Health and Human Services.  Home and Garden Bulletin Number 232; Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2000.

Starch is a major source of energy for the body.  Sources of starch include grains (wheat, oats, corn, rice) and products made from grains such as flour, pasta, breads and cereals.  Other sources are starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and dry beans.

Dietary fiber is present in plant foods. It is not broken down during digestion. Eating fiber-containing foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains promotes proper bowel function. Dietary fiber provides bulk for stool formation and prevents constipation.

Consuming dietary fiber may help satisfy the appetite by creating a satisfying full feeling. Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods as part of a healthy eating pattern may also help protect against some chronic diseases. Fiber may also help control blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.

Some food sources of fiber include:

  • Fruits: apples, bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, cherries, peaches, pears, prunes, raspberries, strawberries
  • Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, corn, green beans, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes
  • Grains/Breads: whole grains such as brown rice, bulgur, whole grain corn, oatmeal, popcorn, pearl barley, whole oats, whole rye, whole wheat
  • Meat/Meat Alternates: dry beans, dry peas, lentils

See the section on Planning Meals and Snacks for tips to increase dietary fiber.

Fats and Cholesterol

Fats supply energy and essential fatty acids. Fats are the most concentrated calorie source in the diet (1 gram of fat provides 9 calories, while 1 gram of protein or carbohydrate provides 4 calories). Fats are required for brain development, vision, forming some hormones, and protecting the organs. They also transport vitamins A, D, E and K in the body.

We need some fat in our diets. However, we should try not to eat too much fat. The Dietary Guidelines advise that most people keep their total fat intake in the range of 20% to 35% of calories, and limit their saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of calories.

Foods contain different types of fats known as saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats.  Different foods contain different amounts of each type of fat.

Saturated fats are present in most fats, but many animal fats contain more saturated fat than fat from plant foods, except tropical oils (e.g., palm and coconut oils). Foods high in saturated fats tend to raise blood cholesterol. These foods include high fat dairy products (cheese, whole milk, cream, butter, and regular ice cream), fatty meats, poultry skin, poultry fat, lard, palm oil, and coconut oil.

Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Using monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in place of saturated fats can help keep blood cholesterol levels down.

  • Monounsaturated fats are found in large amounts in olive, canola, and peanut oils.
  • Polyunsaturated fats are found in corn, soybean, cottonseed, and safflower oils.

Trans fats can raise blood cholesterol levels because they act like saturated fats. They are found in hydrogenated vegetable oils. Foods high in these oils are commercially-made baked goods (such as muffins, pastries, donuts), snack crackers, and fried foods.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance produced in humans and animals. It is used to make hormones, cell membranes, and other body substances. High blood cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart disease. Eating foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol may affect cholesterol levels. Dietary cholesterol is only found in foods of animal origin such as meat, milk, cheese, and eggs. Some foods that contain fat, saturated fat and cholesterol also contain high-quality protein and are good sources of certain vitamins and minerals. Most varieties of lean meat, poultry and fish contain similar amounts of cholesterol per serving. However, organ meats such as liver, heart, and kidney contain more cholesterol than other meats.


The body needs vitamins to function properly. Many chemical reactions in the body depend on vitamins. As adults age, they may need vitamin D and B12 supplements because their bodies cannot absorb these vitamins efficiently.

Vitamin A is an antioxidant that helps protect the body’s cells from damage. It is important for healthy skin, hair, and mucous membranes. It helps people see in dim light. Beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, may reduce the risk of chronic diseases and macular degeneration.

Some food sources of vitamin A include:

  • Fruits: cantaloupe, mandarin oranges, mangos, nectarines, peaches, plums
  • Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, greens, kale, pumpkin, spinach, winter squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes
  • Meat/Meat Alternates: liver, whole eggs, yogurt
  • Milk: fluid milk

Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps protect the body’s cells from damage. It plays a role in forming collagen, a protein that gives structure to bones and muscles. Vitamin C also helps the body absorb iron.

Some food sources of vitamin C include:

  • Fruits: cantaloupe, citrus fruits and juices (grapefruit, orange, etc.), kiwi, pineapple, raspberries, strawberries, watermelon
  • Vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, peppers, romaine lettuce, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes

Vitamin D is needed to build and maintain strong bones because it helps the body absorb calcium. Your skin can make vitamin D from sunlight, but loses some of this ability with aging.

Some food sources of vitamin D include:

  • Meat/Meat Alternates: fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel)
  • Milk: vitamin D-fortified fluid milk

Vitamin E is another antioxidant. It helps keep cell membranes stable and regulates oxidation reactions in the body.

Some food sources of vitamin E include:

  • Meat/Meat Alternates: nuts, seeds, salmon, shellfish, shrim
  • Fruits: apples, apricots, nectarines, peaches
  • Vegetables: dark green leafy vegetables, pumpkin
  • Grains/Breads: multi-grain and enriched breads and cereals
  • Oils: vegetable oils such as corn, cottonseed, safflower, and soybean oils; mayonnaise,
    margarine, salad dressing

Folate (also called folic acid or folacin) is a B-vitamin that helps build cells. It plays a role in red blood cell production.

Some food sources of folate include:

  • Meat/Meat Alternates: black-eyed peas, lentils, red kidney beans
  • Vegetables: green peas, leafy green vegetables (such as spinach and mustard greens),
    romaine lettuce, spinach
  • Grains/Breads: whole-grain bread products; fortified ready-to-eat breads, cereals, pasta
  • Fruits: melons, oranges, orange juice, plums, raspberries, strawberries, tangerines

The other B vitamins (besides folate) are thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamins B6 and B12. They help the body release energy during metabolism. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal-based foods or vitamin B12-fortified foods. 

Some food sources of B vitamins include:

  • Grains/Breads: Enriched and fortified bread products are good sources of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B6.
  • Meat/Meat Alternates: Pork products are good sources of thiamin. Poultry and fish are good sources of niacin.  All meats are a good source of vitamin B12.
  • Milk: Fluid milk is a good source of riboflavin.


Minerals have important roles in the body systems.  They help convert carbohydrate, protein, and fat into energy. They help maintain body fluids. They also play a role in muscle contractions. Examples are calcium, iodine, iron, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and zinc. 

Iron is used to make hemoglobin in red blood cells.  Its primary role is to carry oxygen in the body, both in the blood and muscles. If the body has low iron levels, energy levels may seem low, too.

Some food sources of iron include:

  • Meat/Meat Alternates: dry beans, dry peas, eggs, meat, poultry
  • Grains/Breads: whole grain, fortified, or enriched breads and cereals
  • Vegetables: dark green leafy vegetables, dry beans, dry peas, lima beans, spinach

Calcium helps the body build and maintain bones and teeth.  It also helps muscles to contract, blood to clot, and nerves to send messages. Older adults may need calcium supplements in their diets. 

Some food sources of calcium include:

  • Milk: fluid milk
  • Vegetables: broccoli, spinach, turnip greens, collards
  • Fruits: calcium-fortified orange juice
  • Meat/Meat Alternates: cheeses, yogurt
  • Grains/Breads: calcium-fortified products such as breakfast cereals


Water is often a "forgotten nutrient." It plays vital roles in transporting nutrients throughout the body, removing wastes, and regulating body temperature. Water is an important part of an adequate diet. It is needed to replace body water lost in urine, sweat, and the breath.

Dehydration is a common problem for many seniors.  A decreased thirst sensation and use of medications may affect the body’s ability to regulate fluid balance. Dehydration worsens symptoms of kidney dysfunction and constipation. To prevent dehydration, older adults need at least 8 cups of fluids each day. Many sources can contribute toward the recommendation for fluid: water, fruit juices, milk, soups, fruit, and decaffeinated coffee and tea.

For more information on fluids, see the section in Special Nutrition Needs of Older Adults.

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Developed for the Massachusetts Department of Education Child and Adult Care Food Program by the University of Massachusetts Extension Nutrition Education Program. Permission is hereby granted by the Massachusetts Department of Education to copy any or all parts of this document for non-commercial educational purposes. The Massachusetts Department of Education, an Affirmative Action employer, is committed to ensuring that all of its programs and facilities are accessible to all members of the public. We do not discriminate on the basis of age, color, disability, national origin, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.