What Are the 17 Essential Nutrition Elements?

Michael Salvadore Lynch Jr.

May 14, 2023

There are 17 essential nutrition elements that plants cannot complete basic functions or life cycles without. Some are naturally supplied by air, water, and soil – others must be supplemented with fertilizer.

The elements needed large amounts are called macronutrients – think concrete and steel for a skyscraper. The micronutrients required in small quantities are iron, manganese, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and chlorine.


Carbon is a central element of life as we know it. It is found in all living organisms and is responsible for photosynthesis, which produces oxygen gas. It is also the main component of fossil fuels and is used to make rubber, plastics, gasoline, and natural gas.

It is also present in most organic molecules and is part of the backbone of DNA, muscle tissue, fats, and sugars. It can uniquely form complex chains due to four unpaired electrons in its outermost shell.


The simplest and the most abundant element on Earth, hydrogen was considered physiologically inert in the body before 2007. But research showed that molecular hydrogen can penetrate deep into organelles to neutralize and scavenge cytotoxic oxygen radicals, protecting DNA, RNA, and proteins from damage.

Every day we consume hydrogen through drinking water (H2O), which comprises two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Hydrogen ions then enter mitochondria, the powerhouse of our cells, to create energy.


Oxygen is a key part of water (H2O), making up about 21% of its total mass. It is also a vital component of organic molecules and an essential nutrient for most aerobic organisms.

Gaseous oxygen is not framed as a nutrient within the discipline of nutritional science, owing to its entry via the nose and lungs (or gills) rather than through the mouth and gastrointestinal tract, as are what is customarily considered nutrients. However, all aerobic organisms need to survive and thrive.


Nitrogen is a major component of amino acids comprising proteins and nucleic acids, which carry genetic information. It’s also a key component of energy-transfer molecules such as ATP.

Our bodies get nitrogen from proteins in our food and from urea, a byproduct of protein digestion. Bacteria can also convert gaseous nitrogen from the air into forms our bodies can use through nitrogen fixation.

A nutrient is essential if a plant cannot complete its basic functions or survive without it. The 17 essential nutrients include hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, sulfur, chloride, iron, boron, manganese, and zinc.


Phosphorus is a common mineral found in many whole foods and is added synthetically to processed foods (up to 30 percent of the average American’s intake). It is also highly efficiently absorbed by the small intestine.

It is needed for nutrient absorption and the formation of bones and teeth, especially during childhood. It also helps form the blood-binding molecule 2,3-diphosphoglycerate, which regulates tissue oxygen delivery. Some studies have linked high serum phosphorus levels to cardiovascular disease risk (17).


Potassium is a mineral that helps the body regulate fluid, send nerve signals, and contract muscles. It is also crucial in preventing high blood pressure, water retention, stroke, and osteoporosis.

A potassium-rich diet may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and kidney stones. Potassium is available from foods and supplements. However, if you take medications such as loop diuretics (furosemide or bumetanide), you must talk with your doctor before taking any supplements.


The human body requires sulfur to make certain amino acids – particularly methionine and cysteine. These amino acids play a critical role in building proteins, as well as enzymes that are essential to many metabolic life functions.

Sulfur is also needed to produce glutathione, an antioxidant that supports the liver and helps detoxify the body. The body cannot generate sulfate independently, so it needs to get it from food.


Calcium is best known for building strong bones and teeth but is also used to help blood clots, muscle contraction, and nerve signal transmission. It is stored mainly in the bones, but some calcium enters the extracellular fluid and is available for use.

The body gets calcium primarily from food. Milk and yogurt are high in calcium, as are dark-green vegetables (except spinach), beans, soy products, nuts, and seeds. Some juices, breakfast cereals, and bottled water are fortified with calcium.


A magnesium-rich diet supports the health of muscles, including the heart. However, many people get less than the recommended magnesium from their diet and beverages.

Gastrointestinal disorders such as prolonged diarrhea, Crohn’s disease, and malabsorption syndromes can lead to magnesium deficiency. Diabetes mellitus and long-term use of diuretics can also cause magnesium wasting.

Several prospective cohort studies report that higher dietary magnesium intake is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. It is also known to reduce preeclampsia symptoms in pregnant women and lower lipid peroxidation.