Basic Nutrition for Holistic Wellness

The basic substances in food which are necessary for good health are called nutrients. Nutrients fit into two categories. Macronutrients consist of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and are needed for building and maintaining body tissue and providing energy for daily activities. Micronutrients include all other substances in food, such as vitamins and minerals that help regulate the function of cells. I realize that a lot of this nutrition stuff is kind of dry. I hope that you’ll realize the benefit of learning about nutrition because once you have a grasp on the concepts it can improve your overall health hugely!

Before we dig into these categories let’s consider exactly what the word calorie means:

A calorie is a unit of measure used to quantify energy in foods or used by the body. More technically, a calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. The amount of energy contained in a particular food or the amount used during physical activity is typically several hundred thousand calories! In order to simplify dealing with such large numbers we measure and report calories contained in food and energy expended during exercise in thousands of calories, or kilocalories (kcals). So if you read the nutritional content on the packaging of a food item (which I strongly encourage!) and you see “150 calories”, it is actually referring to 150 kcals.

Macronutrients

Carbohydrates

Most food we eat contains carbohydrates (or carbs) that our body breaks down into simple sugars. These sugars are the major source of energy for our bodies. There are two types of carbs. Simple carbohydrates are also called simple sugars. Simple carbs are found in refined sugars, such as the white sugar you put in your coffee. This glucose is the base sugar and it can be used by the body in its natural form. To be used as fuel, all other carbs must first be converted to glucose. After you eat, glucose is stored in muscles and the liver as glycogen, which is similar molecularly to glucose. The glucose remaining in the blood afterwards is converted to fat and stored as a future source of energy. Some examples of simple sugars are: soda pop, candy-bars, fruit juice, bread made with white flour, pasta made with white flour and most packaged cereals.

Complex carbohydrates provide micronutrients and the glucose necessary for producing energy. They are found in starches and fiber. Complex carbohydrates improve your digestion. They help stabilize your blood sugar, keep your energy at an even level, and help you feel satisfied longer after your meal. In contrast, simple carbs can alter your mood, create cravings and compulsive eating, as well as large spikes in blood sugar levels. Some examples of complex carbs are: spinach, broccoli, whole barley, oatmeal, brown rice, multi-grain bread, apples, oranges, potatoes and various beans and lentils.

Fats

Fat is an efficient storage form for energy because each gram of fat holds more than twice the energy content of either carbohydrates or protein. Excess dietary fat is stored in fat cells under the skin and around internal organs. Fat is not only derived from dietary sources, but can also be formed by the body from excess carbs or protein. Fat in the diet should not be totally avoided. Certain essential fatty acids cannot be produced by the body and therefore must be eaten as part of your diet. Fat helps with normal growth, healthy skin, protection to internal organs, and helps in absorbing and storing certain fat-soluble vitamins. There are three types of fats: simple, compound and derived.

The most common simple fats are triglycerides. Triglycerides constitute approximately 95 percent of the fats in food and are the form that the body stores fat. This is the type of fat that is broken down and used to produce energy to power your muscles. Fatty acids are the basic structural unit of triglycerides. Though important nutritionally because of their energy content, fatty acids also contribute to heart disease through their effects on cholesterol.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are both unsaturated fat. They are found in plants (beans, grains, vegetable oils). It is said that monounsaturated fats are thought to be less harmful because they lower the bad cholesterol levels. Polyunsaturated fatty acids decrease both good and bad levels of cholesterol. Omega-3, which is very popular now for its positive effects on the brain and cholesterol, is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids can also reduce the risk of heart disease.

Saturated fatty acids usually come from animals (meat and dairy) and sometimes plants. It is well accepted that saturated fatty acids increase cholesterol. High cholesterol levels promote the buildup of fatty plaque in the coronary arteries which can lead to heart disease over time.

Trans fatty acids also raise total cholesterol levels. This type of fat is created when polyunsaturated fat is hydrogenated, a heating process that changes the chemical structure of the fat. This is the unhealthiest type of fat and can put you at high risk of heart disease. It is because of this that trans fats have recently been removed from a lot of foods and now has to be clearly labeled on food products that contain it. Some products that may contain trans fatty acids are margarine, baked goods and fried foods.

The most important compound fats are lipoproteins. They are combinations of triglycerides, protein and cholesterol. The two primary types of lipoproteins are low-density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL cholesterol). HDL is considered to be the “good” cholesterol and LDL the “bad” cholesterol.

Finally, derived fats do not contain any fatty acids. They are considered fats because they are not water soluble. The best example of a derived fat is cholesterol. This is present in many forms of foods and as previously stated is essential for normal body function but also associated with heart disease.

Proteins

The main role of protein is to serve as the unit to build and repair body tissues. It also helps with synthesizing enzymes, hormones and anti-bodies. These compounds regulate the bodies’ metabolism and protect it from disease. Protein is not usually a main fuel source. Nevertheless, under conditions of low carbohydrate intake (fad diets), proteins can be converted to glucose and used as fuel. When you’re eating an adequate amount of carbs, any excess protein is converted and stored as fat.

Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are twenty different amino acids and they can be linked end-to-end in various combinations to create different proteins with unique functions. The body itself can make 11 of these amino acids. Since they are not needed as part of the diet they are called nonessential amino acids. The remaining 9 amino acids cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained through food. They are therefore called essential amino acids.

Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids and are found only in foods of animal origin (meat and dairy). Incomplete proteins are missing some amino acids and are present in numerous vegetables. It is for this reason that vegetarians and vegans must be really carful to combine a variety of foods in order to get all of the essential amino acids.

Micronutrients

Well you’ve made it this far! Isn’t it great to have a basic understanding of how the various components of the foods we eat affect our bodies? It’s very difficult to fit all of the information into a blog article. There are entire books dedicated to this stuff. With that in mind, here is a brief overview of micronutrients.

Micronutrients consist of vitamins and minerals. These are just as important as macronutrients and are required for our survival. Although they don’t supply energy, they are needed to breakdown the macronutrients.

Vitamins

Vitamins are small molecules that play a big role in many body functions, including regulating growth and metabolism. They are either water or fat soluble. The water-soluble vitamins consist of B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. Excess of these vitamins can be eliminated from the body through the kidneys. The fat-soluble vitamins consist of vitamins A, D, E and K. Because they are stored in fat, it is possible for these vitamins to accumulate in the body to toxic levels.

Most vitamins can’t be made by the body and must be consumed as part of our diet. The exceptions to the rule are vitamins A, D and K, which can be made by the body in small amounts. Vitamins in food can be destroyed by the process of cooking, so eating vegetables raw or steamed is best for retaining their maximum nutritional value. Vitamins are found in almost all foods and a balanced diet supplies the body with all vitamins essential to body function.

Minerals

Minerals are chemicals, such as sodium and calcium, which are needed by the body for normal function. Minerals are similar to vitamins in that they are important for regulating key body functions such as nerve impulses, muscle contraction, enzyme function and maintenance of water balance. Minerals serve structural function as well; calcium, phosphorus and fluoride are important parts of bones and teeth. Three of the most widely recognized minerals are calcium, iron and sodium. Low levels of iron can lead to anemia, which results in chronic fatigue. Too much sodium (salt) has been linked to hypertension, a risk factor for heart disease.

Water

Approximately 70% of the body is composed of water. It helps regulate body temperature, absorb and digest food, form blood and eliminate wastes. Since water is involved in all vital processes in the body, it is considered the nutrient of most importance to the physically active individual. In a hot, humid environment, an individual engaged in strenuous activity can lose 1 to 3 liters of water per hour through sweating. This can lead to weakness, fatigue and inability to concentrate. It is also possible to drink too much water, which results in low blood sodium concentration (hyponatremia), and can also be life threatening. Most people should try and take between 2.5 and 3.5 liters of water per day. The water can come from beverages other than water and moist foods as well.

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