By: Riley Johnson | Purdue University | Dietetic Intern
In our culture, everyone seems to want to find out the secrets of nutrition and the best diet out there. Year after year there is a new fad diet claiming to be the best and get you the results you want even faster. In a world where everyone seems to be an expert on nutrition, it can be confusing to know who to listen to or what to believe. So let me try to be a resounding voice of reason and bring clarity to a topic which seems very muddy. In reality, nutrition isn’t very complex and in fact, is pretty simple to understand. Here are the essentials of nutrition. I hope this brings clarity to you and helps give you a better overall understanding of nutrition.
Nutritional Components of Food
There are 6 main nutritional components of food which are: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are considered macronutrients and are what provide you with calories, or what I refer to as energy. Vitamins, minerals, and water are considered micronutrients and don’t provide you with any energy. Both macronutrients and micronutrients are important to your body and provide different functions for your body. Macronutrients provide fuel for the body to give you energy as well as play crucial roles in maintaining overall health. Micronutrients don’t provide you with energy but play critical roles to ensure the body operates as it should. Let’s dive more in-depth with each of these categories.
Carbohydrates – the main role of carbohydrates is to provide energy and fuel for your body much like gas provides fuel for a car. Carbohydrates are made up of sugars or starches that are bound together. Carbohydrates get stored in your muscles and also your liver as glycogen. Your body stores carbohydrates to always make sure you have enough energy for your daily activities, even if you were to skip a meal or two. Your body breaks down those carbohydrates mainly into glucose which is the main form your cells use for energy. Carbohydrates are found in fruits, grains, rice, beans, and numerous vegetables. Some carbohydrate-rich vegetables are potatoes, yams, and corn.
Protein – the main role of protein is to provide your body with the building blocks to build cells and other tissues. Protein gets broken down into amino acids which mainly get used for growth, development, repair, and maintenance of body tissues. Protein provides structure to muscle and bones. Protein also helps to repair tissue when it gets damaged. For example, your skin has a protein in it called keratin and when your skin gets damaged then the keratin protein helps to harden the new skin cells to repair the damaged layer. Protein has a lot of functions in the human body and too many to explain in this brief summary. Good sources of protein can be found in beef, pork, chicken, fish, beans, eggs, and dairy products. There are other sources of protein as well but this is a general list of the main sources. Lastly, not all proteins are created equal. Animal proteins have been shown to have better bioavailability, or absorption, in the body. This just means that your body can absorb animal proteins better than plant proteins.
Fats – the main role of fat is to provide structure and cushion to cells and membranes. Fats help to prevent damage to the human body by providing cushion. Fats are also crucial in helping to absorb certain vitamins. The vitamins A, D, E, and K are the only fat-soluble vitamins. The rest of the vitamins are water-soluble. Dietary sources of fat are animal fats, avocados, oils, nuts, dairy, fish, and coconut. Not all fats were created equal either. Try to consume more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats than saturated fats. Saturated fats have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and increase cholesterol levels. Unsaturated fats help to lower LDL cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are animal fats, dairy, coconut oil, and palm oil. Unsaturated fats are avocados, olive oil, fatty fish such as salmon, and nuts and seeds.
Vitamins and Minerals – the main roles of vitamins and minerals is to support overall health and play an important role in cell metabolism and neurological functions. Vitamins help to aid in energy production, wound healing, bone formation, immunity, and eye and skin health. Minerals also perform a vast array of functions in the body such as providing structure to the skeleton, helping to maintain cardiovascular health, and also to act as cofactors in enzymatic reactions. Consuming a balanced diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and lean meats can help to ensure that your body has enough nutrients to perform all of its functions. A few examples are:
Vitamin A – helps to maintain good eyesight
Calcium and Phosphorus – helps to maintain strong bones and teeth
Iron – helps blood to transport oxygen throughout the body
Vitamin E – acts as an antioxidant and helps to maintain healthy skin
Water – the of few of the many roles of water in the body are to regulate body temperature, dissolve and aid absorption of vitamins and minerals, flush out waste products, and protect and moisturize joints. Your body is in fact about 60% water so it is a very large and important part of our health. Your body naturally loses water through breathing, sweating, and digestion so it is important to rehydrate by drinking enough water. There is no exact amount of water you need since it depends on various factors like the climate you live in, how physically active you are and other health factors. The main rule of thumb is to listen to your body. If your body tells you that you are thirsty then drink water, and if you’re not thirsty then you probably have a sufficient amount of water in your system.
When planning or preparing meals try to think about the 5 major food groups. Grains, protein, vegetables, fruit, and dairy. Try to make half of your plate fruits and veggies. Try to get a little more vegetables on your plate than fruit. Then fill the other half of your plate with grains and protein. Once again try to get a little more grains than protein on your plate. Then top it all off with a glass of milk to get your dairy intake. The picture below shows a representation of what your plate should look like. If your plate doesn’t look like this every meal don’t sweat it; this is just an ideal to shoot for. Once you get in the habit of making your plates like this it will become natural and you won’t even have to think about it. Also, get creative when making meals and try new foods because you might try something that you really like!
Energy Balance and Weight Control
A lot of people want to know what the secret to weight and fat loss are and the truth is, is that there is no secret. What primarily determines a person’s weight gain is calories eaten minus the calories burned off which can equal either a positive, negative, or neutral energy balance. Take a look at the picture below if you need a visual understanding of the concept. Many people will tell you that this is a simplified version of what determines a person’s weight and that is true. However, this is the most significant factor in what determines a person’s weight and the other factors are negligible. So if you want to lose weight then you need to burn off more calories than you consume.
Don’t Get Swooned by the Next Popular Trend
The next time someone tells you about this awesome new diet they are on and they want you to try it, don’t listen to them. No foods are restricted or off-limits, and in fact, you need a wide variety of foods in your diet to get all the nutrients your body needs. If someone starts a new diet and is seeing results it is most likely that they are now eating fewer calories than they did before. For example, right now the Keto diet is very popular and a lot of people have seen results from that. They claim that they are changing their metabolic pathways to help them burn off fat better and for some people that may be true, but for the majority of people that is not the case. The reason all of those people are losing weight it because they cut out an entire macronutrient and are now eating fewer calories than they did before. The average person usually consumes about 45-65% of their diet from carbohydrates. So if you cut that out then that is a major hit on your caloric intake, and you will likely not make up those calories with fat and protein. The key to eating healthy is moderation. Eat plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meats, and dairy and you will be alright. The occasional dessert is also necessary to satisfy a craving and just to enjoy life. The next time you hear about someone’s awesome diet plan then you can share your diet plan with them and I guarantee they will be jealous of yours since you don’t have to restrict anything!
Keto Diet Meme for your enjoyment and also mine 🙂
Annigan J, Media D. What Does Food Provide in the Human Body. SF Gate. Accessed September 10, 2019