Nutrition: Getting Back to the Basics

In a culture where we get caught up in the latest trends and diets, it’s important to know what the basics are when it comes to nutrition.

There are several terms floating around in the world of nutrition, and to some, it may seem confusing or even overwhelming. But no worries, here is a simple breakdown of what some of those terms are and additional information that you should know.

Nutrients

What is a nutrient? A nutrient is simply a substance that our body needs to function properly.  While the body naturally produces a small amount of some nutrients, most of the nutrients we receive are from what we eat and drink.

There are seven essential nutrients: water, fiber, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Water, fiber, fats, carbohydrates, and protein are often referred to as macronutrients.1 They are called macronutrients because the body needs large amounts of them.  Vitamins and minerals are also important, but because they are only needed in small amounts, they are called micronutrients. Whether it’s a macro- or micronutrient, each is essential for your health and wellbeing. 

Water

Water serves several functions.  In addition to keeping the body hydrated, it lubricates joints, flushes waste from the body, helps dissolve vitamins and minerals, and regulates body temperature.2 Not only can you drink water, but it’s also found in many fruits and vegetables (e.g., celery, melons, and spinach). The recommended amount of water varies, but women should drink about 9 cups, and men 12.5 cups a day. 3

Fiber

Some people hear and see the word but have no idea what it is and what purpose it serves. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that plays an important role in your digestive and heart health.

Soluble and insoluble are two types of fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and helps to lower blood cholesterol and is found in foods like oatmeal, beans, apples, lentils, strawberries and nuts.

Insoluble fiber helps to prevent constipation by moving food through your digestive system.  Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water and includes foods like whole wheat breads, carrots, whole-grain cereal, and brown rice.

While fiber isn’t found in meat, many types of foods contain both types of fiber. The recommended amount of fiber is 20 – 30 grams per day.4

Vitamins & Minerals

Vitamins have several functions.  They help with growth and development, metabolism, nerve function, and defends the body from disease.

Minerals can prevent cell damage, regulate muscle and nerve damage, support cell growth, and protects the immune system.

Several vitamins and minerals rely on each other so that the body can function. The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements has a complete list of vitamins and minerals.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates (sugar, fiber, and starches) are broken down into glucose to give your body energy. Think of your body as a car. The food you eat breaks down into glucose and gives your body fuel so that your body can work properly; and just as it is important that a car needs the correct gas for a car to run, your body needs certain types of carbs, healthy carbs, to function properly.

There are two types of carbs, simple and complex. Simple carbs break down into glucose fast and can cause a spike in blood sugar for people with diabetes.5 Sugar naturally occurring in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) are simple carbs.  Other simple carbohydrates include white rice, white bread, honey, candy, and sodas.

Compared to simple carbs, complex carbs breakdown into glucose at a slower rate. Whole grains, oats, vegetables, beans and legumes are examples of foods that provide complex carbs.

Fats

The word fat usually has negative associations.  However, fat promotes cell growth, helps the body absorb nutrients, and helps produce hormones.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the “healthier fats” that are liquid in room temperature and consists of foods like nuts and seeds, fish, and avocado.  These are the types of fats that may help lower cholesterol, but they should be eaten in moderation.6

American Heart Association

Saturated fats are solid in room temperature (e.g., coconut oil and palm oil) and is in processed food, cheese, and meat. A diet high in saturated fat increases your risk of heart disease and high cholesterol.

Trans fats occur naturally in some animals in small amounts.  They are also created and added to products to extend the shelf life of some foods.  The FDA is working to remove artificial trans fats from foods.

Protein

Known as the “building blocks of life,” protein is needed for cell tissue growth, creates some hormones, supports the immune system, and is used to send messages between cells. 

Protein is also a source of energy and is found in meats, eggs, dairy, beans and legumes, soy, and in low amounts in vegetables.7 

There is a lot of information out there, so do your research and make choices based on your dietary needs.

Sources:

[1]. United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.) Macronutrients. https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/macronutrients

[2]. Mayo Clinic. (2018). Water: Essential to your body.
https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/water-essential-to-your-body

[3]. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2020). How Much Water Do You Need.
https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/healthy-eating/how-much-water-do-you-need

[4]. The Nutrition Source. (n.d.). Fiber.
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/fiber/

[5]. American Heart Association. (2018). Carbohydrates.
https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/carbohydrates

[6]. American Heart Association. (2014). Dietary Fats.
https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/dietary-fats

[7]. United States Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). All about the Protein Foods Group.
https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/protein-foods

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