Organisms primarily provide themselves with carbon in one of two ways: autotrophy (the self-production of organic food) and heterotrophy (the consumption of existing organic carbon). Combined with the source of energy, either light (phototrophy) or chemical (chemotrophy), there are four primary nutritional groups for organisms.
Nutrients are substances used by an organism to survive, grow, and reproduce. The seven major classes of relevant nutrients for animals (including humans) are carbohydrates, dietary fiber, fats, proteins, minerals, vitamins, and water. Nutrients can be grouped as either macronutrients (carbohydrates, dietary fiber, fats, proteins, and water needed in gram quantities) or micronutrients (vitamins and minerals needed in milligram or microgram quantities).
In nutrition, the diet of an organism is the sum of foods it eats, which is largely determined by the availability and palatability of foods.
Human nutrition deals with the provision of essential nutrients from food that are necessary to support human life and good health. In humans, poor nutrition can cause deficiency-related diseases such as blindness, anemia, scurvy, preterm birth, stillbirth and cretinism, or nutrient excess health-threatening conditions such as obesity and metabolic syndrome; and such common chronic systemic diseases as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Undernutrition can lead to wasting in acute cases, and stunting of marasmus in chronic cases of malnutrition.
Animal nutrition focuses on the dietary nutrients needs of animals, often in comparison (or contrast) to other organisms like plants. Carnivore and herbivore diets are contrasting, with basic nitrogen and carbon proportions vary for their particular foods. Many herbivores rely on bacterial fermentation to create digestible nutrients from indigestible plant cellulose, while obligate carnivores must eat animal meats to obtain certain vitamins or nutrients their bodies cannot otherwise synthesize. Animals generally have a higher requirement of energy in comparison to plants.
Plant nutrition is the study of the chemical elements that are necessary for plant growth. There are several principles that apply to plant nutrition. Some elements are directly involved in plant metabolism. However, this principle does not account for the so-called beneficial elements, whose presence, while not required, has clear positive effects on plant growth.
A nutrient that can limit plant growth according to Liebig's law of the minimum is considered an essential plant nutrient if the plant cannot complete its full life cycle without it. There are 16 essential plant soil nutrients, besides the three major elemental nutrients carbon and oxygen that are obtained by photosynthetic plants from carbon dioxide in the air, and hydrogen, which is obtained from water.
Plants uptake essential elements from the soil through their roots and from the air (consisting of mainly nitrogen and oxygen) through their leaves. Green plants obtain their carbohydrate supply from the carbon dioxide in the air by the process of photosynthesis. Carbon and oxygen are absorbed from the air, while other nutrients are absorbed from the soil. Nutrient uptake in the soil is achieved by cation exchange, wherein root hairs pump hydrogen ions (H+) into the soil through proton pumps. These hydrogen ions displace cations attached to negatively charged soil particles so that the cations are available for uptake by the root. In the leaves, stomata open to take in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. The carbon dioxide molecules are used as the carbon source in photosynthesis.
Although nitrogen is plentiful in the Earth's atmosphere, very few plants can use this directly. Most plants, therefore, require nitrogen compounds to be present in the soil in which they grow. This is made possible by the fact that largely inert atmospheric nitrogen is changed in a nitrogen fixation process to biologically usable forms in the soil by bacteria.
Plant nutrition is a difficult subject to understand completely, partially because of the variation between different plants and even between different species or individuals of a given clone. Elements present at low levels may cause deficiency symptoms, and toxicity is possible at levels that are too high. Furthermore, deficiency of one element may present as symptoms of toxicity from another element and vice versa.
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- Diet, Nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases by a Joint WHO/FAO Expert consultation (2003)
- UN Standing Committee on Nutrition – In English, French and Portuguese