Learning how to be a healthy person starts with what you eat. Knowing a little about basic nutrition is essential to understanding what you are trying to accomplish here, so let’s cover some simple concepts:
Now nutrition is the process of consuming (eating) and utilizing (using) nutrients. Nutrients are substances that provide necessary nourishment to your body. The main types of nutrients include carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Technically, water is a nutrient and many other substances are as well, but for our purposes, we will stick to the “traditional” nutrient categories. Carbohydrates and fats primarily produce energy to use or store. Protein takes part in growth and repair although the body does use some for energy as well. Vitamins and minerals carry out biological processes that otherwise would simply not happen.
Understanding basic nutrition is very important because what you eat plays a large part in homeostasis; the maintaining of a proper equilibrium or balance so that your body can function the way it is supposed to. In other words, proper nutrition gives your body all the nutrients it needs to run most effectively.
Like a Car
A car uses gasoline, oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, etc. All have different roles, yet all are necessary for the vehicle to function properly. Just like your body though, a car can seem to run well for a while on less than optimal levels of some fluids. But eventually the car will fail sooner than it has to. If I run my car a little low on oil, it won’t blow up right away. In fact, it will operate pretty well for quite a while, but eventually, maybe over years, my car will experience problems that may not have occurred at all if I had just kept the oil full all the time. Nutrients in your body are the same. You need them for proper functioning and to avoid “breakdowns.” In human terms, you may “feel” fine if you don’t eat five servings of fruits and veggies every day, but down the road your health will eventually suffer as a result.
Good Nutrition ≠ Great Nutrition
What I’m trying to drive home here is the idea that good nutrition is not the same as great nutrition. Lots of people have a healthy diet, but not necessarily the healthiest it could be and really should be. Maybe you stop at the drive through and pick up a burger and fries dripping with grease almost every day. Is that a healthy choice? Certainly not, but what if you only eat that once in a while? Is that OK?
So the question becomes, how often could you eat artery clogging food and still be healthy? How about optimally healthy? I’m not giving an answer here because I’m not sure there is one, but I can tell you this: If you eat healthy for the most part and have some ‘unhealth’ food every day, your diet stinks. If you have a heart-attack meal once in a while, it probably won’t make any difference to your overall health. You have to decide where the happy medium is and hopefully the information contained throughout this book will help you to do that. But before we go further, it is helpful to understand some basic concepts.
Sugars are relatively simply molecules that consist of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. They enter our cells through the bloodstream and are subject to chemical reactions that produce energy that our cells are capable of using to carry out life. Because sugars are such small molecules, they tend to absorb very quickly after following consumption; sometimes through the stomach wall. The body however must keep the sugar content of the blood at about .1% to maintain homeostasis, that “balance” our body has to sustain to stay alive. That’s why sugar consumption should be limited. The body is made deal with and eliminate excess sugar if necessary, but because the body is not made to consume large amounts of sugar it can be taxing to do so. This “taxation” can lead to problems such as weight gain and maybe even diabetes.
Complex carbohydrates are sugars too, but long chains of them instead. Since complex carbs are so much bigger than sugars, they do not absorb in the stomach, but are broken apart in the digestive tract until they are separated into sugar. This allows a much slower release of sugar into the bloodstream. If you look at the picture above, you can see that sugar is just one (and sometimes two) molecules. They are very small and so can enter the bloodstream pretty easily. Since complex carbs are very long chains of these sugars and can’t enter the bloodstream until they are broken down to individual pieces by your digestive system, they digest more slowly.
Fibers are complex carbohydrates too, although their purpose is quite different. They are largely indigestible, but are necessary for proper digestion, basic nutrition and overall good health. Low amounts of fiber can wreak havoc on your insides and cause problems such as constipation and even cancer. It is sometimes referred to as roughage and comes primarily from plant sources.
Fats are perhaps the most feared energy source. The reason for this probably stems from the fact that fat provides more than twice the energy of carbohydrates or protein. In other words, one pound of fat is worth roughly 3500 calories, whereas one pound of carbs or protein is only worth about 1500 calories. However, the fact that “FATS” is a 4-letter word does not make it a profanity. Our bodies actually need, better yet, require fats. You are probably aware that not all fats are equal, which is true (more detail later), but what is also true is that even the “bad” fats play an essential role in human life.
The main function of protein is for growth and repair. Amino acid chains form proteins in much the same way in which long sugar chains make up complex carbohydrates. There are 20 total amino acids used in the human body to build protein (there are many others that are not part of protein), but we only technically need 9 of them because, out of those 9, our bodies can make the remaining 11. The 9 amino acids that we need in our diet are called “essential,” while the others are called, not surprisingly, “non-essential.”
All animal sources of protein contain at least the 9 essential amino acids and many contain all 20. Other protein sources such as nuts, legumes, and even vegetables provide “incomplete” protein. These sources are deficient in at least 1 essential amino acid. Since all 9 must be present to create human proteins, consuming incomplete proteins requires complementary foods throughout the day. For example, beans and brown rice both provide incomplete proteins, but together provide all 9 essential amino acids. If you eat meat, dairy or any animal products you will always be sure to get a complete protein, but plant sources of protein are rarely complete, so vegetarians must be careful to combine the correct foods so they are sure to get all 9 essential amino acids every day.
Vitamins and Minerals
Basically every food contains at least some vitamins and/or minerals. We need far smaller quantities of these than fats, carbs, and protein. In fact, your need for many vitamins exists in nearly microscopic daily doses. They work by making chemical reactions happen that must occur for our bodies to function properly. Without tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals, we would be unable to survive because most chemical reactions that define life could not happen. If you have ever taken a college chemistry class, you may remember the experiment in which you mix oxygen and hydrogen gas, but nothing happens. Then you pass electricity through the gas and suddenly water starts forming. Vitamins and minerals are like the electricity that ‘makes it happen.’