Behind the Curtain of Our Food
When it comes to nutrition, things can become pretty confusing, so I want to break it down for you and help you wrap your head around it a little better.
What do you think of when you hear the word nutrition? Do you see it as just a fancier word for food?
That would be understandable, for a long time that is kind of how I felt about it too – or really what the difference was to me was I thought nutrition just meant “healthier” foods.
Which is not correct. Let me define the difference for you really quick:
Food is the stuff we eat or drink to fill our stomach and stay alive. Nutrition is the part of your food that ACTUALLY does the things that keep you alive.
So, they are not exactly the same, though they do always go together, the food we eat is how we get the nutrition we need.
All nutrition comes from food. And all food has nutrition.
You don’t HAVE to eat “healthy” foods to get nutrition. If that was the case everyone who ate a steady diet of only fast food and drank only soda would be dead.
Heck, you can even lose weight eating only fast food. You can see an example of that by what John Cisna did at this article here.
Now we certainly don’t recommend that, because, well, it’s not “healthy”.
The point I am making is all food has nutrition. The difference between simply staying alive and being healthy lies in understanding the nutrition that we provide to our bodies through the food we eat.
There are not bad foods, we talked about that in another article where we discussed having a relationship with food - we encourage you to check that blog out too.
And healthy foods are subjective too (see why I said it can be confusing off the top?).
Healthy food is subjective to a healthy diet.
Diet simply means the collective accumulation of what you eat. Period. Rather than a title to define a marketed approach for a plan to restrict what you eat (such as Whole-30 or Keto) see the difference?
A healthy diet means eating a balanced array of foods that give your body a high amount of helpful nutrition and moderates less helpful foods that come with far less nutrition.
This is not a “learn to be a nutritionist” article – rather I want to simply pull back the curtain of our food to understand it a little better.
Does that make sense so far? Good. Let’s dive into understanding the nutrition brought to us by our food!
Again, nutrition is the part of your food that actually keeps you alive. It is the part of your food that gives your body energy to sustain its functions. Different types of food have different nutrients that help with the different functions.
And those nutrients can be divided into two groups: macronutrients and micronutrients.
These are the nutrients you need in large quantities and that give your body energy.
Protein is found in many foods and is made from different amino acids that come together in different combinations for your body to use for important functions like building, repairing, and protecting your muscles, bones, and other tissues.
Protein is found in several places, animal products are high quality protein sources (such as poultry, fish, and dairy products). They are also found in soy products (such as soy milk, soy nuts, tofu and other soy meat-alternatives). You can also find proteins in some plant products like beans, lentils, nuts, and whole grains – though due to the amino acid makeup of these items they are considered “incomplete-proteins” and need to be combined with other foods to make “complete-proteins”.
Once again found in many different foods, your body needs a large amount of Carbohydrates for sustainability. Carbohydrates break down into glucose in your body which moves through your body’s bloodstream and into all your cells. All of your cells use glucose to function, your brain alone will use over 20% of your body’s glucose to function.
Carbohydrates come from plants and are found largely in breads, pasta, rice, beans, fruits and vegetables. This is also where you get Fiber, a very important type of carbohydrate for your digestive system, blood sugar, and other functions. When looking at carbohydrate quality plays a part, whole foods (like fruits and whole grains) that are minimally processed break down into better glucose for your bloodstream to distribute and use for energy when compared to processed food (like refined bread and french fries).
Fats are what allow you to store energy, create hormones, absorb vitamins and make up the cell membrane. There are three types of fats: trans fat, saturated fat, and unsaturated fat.
Fats are often overlooked, or seen as not “healthy”. This is because they contain a higher calorie count (some calorie explanation in a moment), and different types of fat are less healthy, such as trans fat. Fats are however crucial to good health, but vary more in the types of fat you can get and have varying results based on that.
All foods that have fats also have a mix of the type of fat they contain. Unsaturated fats brings the greatest benefits and can be found in plant based foods, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and oils - a lot of great unsaturated fats are also found in fish. Saturated fats are not inherently bad, but provide less benefits to the body than unsaturated fats. Larger amounts of saturated fats are found in cheese, butter, red meat, and desserts. Trans fats come from hydrogenating oils to make them solid (or what we know as fried foods). Trans fats are the worst type of fat for your heart and blood system, they should be limited to avoid long-term ill-effects (again, they’re not bad, they taste amazing. Trans fats just need to be balanced appropriately with the rest of your diet).
4. Water and Alcohol
I bring these up under macronutrients for separate reasons. Neither are “true” macronutrients, but from time to time you will see them both listed as a macronutrient.
Remember how we defined a macronutrient? They are needed by your body in large quantities AND provide your body with energy.
Water and Alcohol each meet one of these qualifications – but not both. This is why it is valuable to understand where alcohol and water fall when learning to understand your food better.
-Water: you do need it in large quantities for healthy body functions, but it is a zero-calorie food (again, more on calories soon!), therefore not providing energy to your body.
-Alcohol: for the opposite reason as water, it is not needed for body functions, but it does have a high calorie count and does provide energy.
Your body needs all these macronutrients in large quantities for your body to have energy and function well (with the exception of water and alcohol each only meeting one of the criteria).
Understanding the macronutrients is the first step in building a nutritious diet and being able to make decisions that benefit your body the most – both through the types of food you are getting your macronutrients from and the amount of each you are putting in your body.
Here is a fast reference table for macronutrients:
Consuming high quality macronutrients in the proper portions and with balance is the biggest factor to healthy nutrition.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals your body needs, though in smaller amounts (hence the MACRO and MICRO terminology). Even though you need them in small amounts, they are incredibly critical to a well-functioning body.
Similar to macronutrients, all foods have micronutrients too, all different kinds in the different foods you consume.
Micronutrients include, but are not limited to:
· Vitamin B
· Vitamin C
· Vitamin A
· Vitamin D
And several more! Each with their own purpose and benefit to your body.
Micronutrients are contained within the macronutrients you consume, though they are not usually tracked regularly because it is very difficult to measure and adjust.
Learning to understand which foods are rich in the vitamins and minerals you need (such as fruits and vegetables) and maintaining a balanced diet of quality macronutrients will yield strong amounts of the necessary micronutrients.
Okay, here we are, calories. A well-known term seen on every food label in big bold text. What the heck is a calorie? Well, a calorie is the unit of energy that is received from food. All food has energy from the macronutrients within in – the amount of energy is measured in calories.
Our body needs energy to stay alive, we use energy to provide fuel for all the cells, tissues, and hormones in our body, hence why we eat. When we eat and drink, that energy is used up by our bodies for everything we do from breathing and digesting, to running and thinking.
And that is where calories come in – it is simply how we measure the amount of energy we get from the food we are eating. As discussed, different macronutrients have different benefits and the energy is used differently when we consume it from the different macronutrients – but they all have energy measured in the same way, calories.
In the short chart listed under the macronutrients I break down how many calories are in each gram of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
If you consume more energy (measured in calories) than you burn throughout the day, your body will store this energy as fat, this is a form of unwanted weight gain. Adversely, when you consume less energy than you burn in the day you will be in a calorie deficit and lose weight.
Of course there are many more factors that go into weight gain and weight loss that impact how fast those processes happen; but in a nutshell that is the gist of weight changes and calories.
We all mostly understand food, we know what fruits and veggies are, we know what pasta is or what beverages we like – but we often forget to take the time to understand nutrition that comes along with those foods. We can easily overlook the macronutrients and micronutrients coming with our foods that are actually what keep us alive.
We all mostly understand calories, we know that if we have too many calories we gain weight, and we know that we “burn calories” when we exercise – but we forget to think about how many calories we are consuming or burning and what the overall effects will be.
But by learning, even just a little, to understand what is happening behind the curtain of our food, we can be more aware of what our food is doing for us and be in better control of that process.
The world of nutrition is vast. I don’t even think we effectively scratched the surface of everything there is to talk about in this article; but I hope that by understanding some of the primary components of nutrition you can start to see your food for what it really is.
Your food does keep you alive, but it also greatly affects the quality of that life.
When we learn to take a bigger role in what we put into our body, and do so with more understanding, we can take control of what our body is giving us back.
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