Scientists Say: Nutrient

This word describes chemicals that living things need to consume to survive

girl at farmer's market

Plants need nutrients to grow. The vegetables and other food we eat provide nutrients for our bodies.

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Nutrient  (noun, “NEW-tree-ent”)

This word describes chemicals that living things must consume to survive. From bacteria to fungi to animals, all living things use nutrients to make their cells and get energy. For example, plants need the elements nitrogen and phosphorus to grow. Plants get these elements from molecules in their environments. To boost plant growth, gardeners sometimes add fertilizers that contain these elements to their lawns or gardens. People also need nutrients. Like other living things, our bodies need vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Most of these nutrients come from food. Some people also take supplements

An excess of some nutrients can cause harm. For instance, too much vitamin A can damage the liver. Too much of the mineral zinc can make a person feel like vomiting. It’s hard to consume too much of these nutrients from just food, though. That’s why doctors recommend eating a variety of foods instead of relying on supplements to provide nutrients. 

In the environment, too much of a nutrient can also cause problems. Excess phosphorus in a body of water, for example, makes algae grow rapidly. When the algae die, bacteria consume them along with the water’s oxygen. This kills fish and other creatures that live there.

In a sentence 

Mass drownings of wildebeests flush a river ecosystem with nutrients. 

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Carolyn Wilke is a former staff writer at Science News Explores. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Carolyn enjoys writing about chemistry, microbes and the environment. She also loves playing with her cat.

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