“…I am following up on this post with basic nutrition info soon…”
-Me; previous post: What is Health
I don’t know what I was thinking using the words basic nutrition! Nutrition is complex. There is no such thing as basic nutrition unless one chooses to leave out or change some really long words, and summarize the hell out of it. Which is what I’m pretty confident I did here! My hope for you is to gain the necessary nutrition knowledge that will prevent you from falling subject to pervasive, ridiculous claims, and provide you with the means to know how to eat.
Learning about nutrition is a lifelong journey; there is A LOT to know. If there wasn’t, dietitians would not have to continue learning for the duration of their career to maintain their credentials. Even we are learning right along with you. Stick with it!! Let’s do this.
We all need carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and water to stay alive.
Carbohydrates are sugars that exist in nature. They are found in anything that grows in the earth – vegetables, fruits, grains – plus milks and milk products. Carbohydrates are important for us because they are a source of fuel, especially for our brain. Carbohydrates give us the energy to move, think, breathe, digest food, and carry out a number of processes constantly taking place within us.
When we ingest carbohydrates, they are broken down into smaller, manageable pieces and absorbed into the blood. An example of a very important carb that is absorbed into the bloodstream is glucose. Glucose is a single unit of carbohydrate that plays a huge role in producing energy. When glucose is present in the blood, the body will take what it needs for energy production. Some glucose will be carried to the liver and muscle to be stored as glycogen until our body needs easy-to-access energy. Any additional glucose in the blood is converted to and stored as fat.
Not all carbohydrates are digestible; these are called fibers. Fibers are what give plants structure. Therefore fibers are obtained from plant foods: vegetables, fruits, grains.
Fibers are responsible for healthy bowel movements, including the ease of evacuation and frequency. During digestion, fibers latch onto some nutrients or other components, such as glucose, bile acids, and fats, and remove them from the body. This action reduces the amount of absorption of these components into the bloodstream, controlling blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
Some fibers function a little like a sponge in which they take on lots of water causing a gel-like environment to form. When this occurs in the stomach, the rate at which the contents are emptied into the small intestine is slowed down, thereby causing you to feel full. When this takes place in the large intestine, where fecal matter (poop) is formed, a softer stool is the outcome. Hence: an easier bowel movement.
Other fibers function as prebiotics. You’ve probably heard a lot about probiotics, the good bacteria in your colon. Prebiotics are essentially food for those good bacteria, and this fosters their population. The good bacteria aid in prevention and treatment of various diseases and fight against harmful bacteria.
Protein serves many, many functions in our body. Protein is a source of energy, transports molecules, and plays a vital role in enzymes, hormones, neurotansmitters, and antibodies. Protein is also a building block for all tissues in the body, such as skin, eyes, muscle, bone, hair, nails, blood vessels, connective tissue, organs, nerve tissue, and more!
Very simply said, proteins are made up of a series of different amino acids connected to a long chain of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen molecules, called a polypeptide chain. Our body is capable of synthesizing some amino acids, but others must be obtained through the diet. Those that must be obtained through the diet are called essential amino acids and there are nine of them:
All of these amino acids are found in animal-based foods, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy. You may have heard the term quality, or complete protein before. Animal-based foods are referred to as a high-quality, or complete protein because all nine essential amino acids are present in the amounts we need. Some exceptions include gelatin, which does not contain tryptophan and therefore is not a complete protein; and soy, which is a plant-based food, but is a complete protein.
Plants contain amino acids as well, but they tend to have too little of one or more of the nine essential. In this case, vegetables, legumes and grains are referred to as low-quality, or incomplete proteins. To encourage consumption of all the essential amino acids, a variety of plant foods should be consumed. This is of particular importance to those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
A couple interesting facts on protein to note:
- Your body absorbs animal-based proteins more than plant-based proteins
- In times of excessive intake – including excessive protein intake – amino acids may be used to synthesize fat. I think this is important to note, as there has been such an emphasis on consuming plenty of lean protein foods without regard to their contribution to accumulated fat mass on the body.
Now that we are on the topic of fat, have you been limiting it in your diet to encourage weight loss or greater health? Reconsider! Fat is an important nutrient and has unfortunately gotten a bad rap for quite some time. It may be that it is the most calorie-dense nutrient, consisting of 9 calories per gram (compared to 4 calories per gram for carbs and protein), or that we can visibly see it settling all over the body. We have gotten used to looking at how fat is bad rather than looking at how fat is good. (And you know, the same can be true for carbohydrates! And protein, in that it “can do no wrong”.)
Dietary fat has a “high satiety value,” meaning it keeps you feeling full as a result of slowing down the rate at which the contents of the stomach are emptied. This is a very interesting point to recognize in the case of weight management: if fat intake is significantly reduced there is great potential for feeling hungry. No wonder why weight loss tends to be associated with hunger!
Fats play a role in transporting other fat molecules throughout the body, help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, can lower lipids in the blood, are a component of some cell membranes and nervous tissue, are involved in the creation of hormones, and can even promote positive heart health! That’s a mouthful! Some of the healthiest sources for fat include avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, and fatty fish. There has been plenty of controversy over coconut oil, and I will explore that in detail in a later post.
Of course, in any case with excessive consumption of the macronutrients carbohydrates, protein and fat, excess will either be excreted in the feces or urine, or otherwise stored as fat on the body. Stored fat on the body is necessary for energy production in times of fasting or starvation; or any other time glycogen stores in the liver and muscle have been used up, such as during exercise. Therefore, fat stored on the body is certainly important, but our fat stores become a problem when there is too much, and yes in some cases: too little!
I’m only going to touch briefly on water, vitamins and minerals. I can delve into so much detail on these in other posts. Let’s stay focused on the basics.
Water makes up approximately 60-70% of our body weight! Can you think about that for just a moment? How fascinating is that!?
Your body uses water in all of its cells, organs and tissues to help regulate its temperature and maintain other bodily functions. We can survive about one month without any food, but only a week without water. The best place to obtain water is quite obviously: water! Water is available in food and other beverages, but they are by no means an excellent source.
Vitamins and minerals play roles in all the processes happening in your body. Vitamins play roles in many reactions, act as antioxidants, facilitate gene expression, promote healthy skin and a strong immune system, and more. Minerals promote normal cell activity, assist with body fluid balance, impart hardness to bones and teeth and also take part in the many reactions currently taking place in your body. Deficiency, as well as toxicity of these nutrients can be characterized by a wide variety of abnormalities including poor bone health, anemia, and muscular weakness. Ideally, the best place to get vitamins and minerals is from food, as that is exactly where these are present! You don’t need to take a multi-vitamin supplement provided you give your body the nourishment it needs from food.
Woo! You made it! This was a lot to take in. There isn’t exactly a need to comprehend and put it all to memory. The take home message is: carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and water are essential to life and, consumed in the right proportions, promote your healthiest state of being. Let this serve as either a starting point to, or helpful source to promote fabulous health and a fabulous life.