With all of this diet talk and attempting to keep up with the trends these days, I thought it would be an appropriate time to bring us back to basics. Think of this as “Nutrition 101.” This will likely be a refresher for many, but new information for others. I cannot tell you the number of times I have gone into great detail counseling patients on their diet specifics only later to find out they did not have a grasp on some of the fundamentals. In order for us to eat to heal our bodies, we must understand some of the essentials so that we are in a better place to learn more advanced information.
At the foundation of nutrition are nutrients. The food that we eat is composed of nutrients, and it is these nutrients that we are going to take a closer look at. Nutrients are broken down into two subgroups: Macronutrients and Micronutrients. These two groups make up all of the foods that we eat.
So the term “macro” means “large-scale,” or I like to think “big.” Think of macronutrients as the main nutrients that make up the framework of our foods. Macronutrients are again divided into subgroups, but this time there are three. They are carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Carbohydrates are the sweets and starches. They are the food group that thousands of Americans boycotted while the Atkins diet craze ran rampant across North America. The Low Carb Diet was “the thing” and people lost lots of weight…for a little while that is. Until many realized that it’s an unsustainable way to live and began eating those pesky carbs gain- thus gaining all of their weight back. Carbohydrates of course include anything that tastes sweet and contains sugar such as cakes, cookies, pastries, candy, as well as fruits. They are also those foods that are starchy and don’t necessarily taste sweet, for example, bread, pasta, rice, tortillas, flours, and other grains. The there are the starchy vegetables that we must also consider carbohydrates. They are white potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, corn, winter squash, and peas. As a registered dietitian, I advocate for carbohydrates. When eaten in their “whole” form, they are a wonderful part of a balanced diet. By “whole” form, I mean whole grain bread, brown rice, beans, and other fruits and vegetables. Of course there is always a place for sweets on my table, just not super often and in moderation.
Protein is a macronutrient found in the highest concentrations in animal products such as meat and eggs. The building blocks of protein are amino acids. Although there are more amino acids in nature, our body utilizes 20. Of that 20, approximately 10 are essential meaning that our body cannot create them out of other compounds and must take them in from food sources. Animal products contain all of the essential amino acids required, and are therefore considered “complete” proteins. Protein is essential to build and maintain lean body mass (muscle) as well as skin, healing bodily tissue, synthesizing chemicals and hormones, as well as many other functions performed throughout the body. When consuming animal-based protein, I recommend choosing lean options such as lean meats and lower fat dairy products. There are TONS of plant-based protein options that are delicious and nutritious as well. All fruits and vegetables have some form of protein in varying amounts, so eaten in large quantities, one may meet their protein needs. However, those that are exceptionally high in protein are soy beans (and soy products like tofu), lentils, sprouts, beans, nuts, and seeds. I recommend eating plenty of these plant-based options as well as many other green leafy vegetables throughout the day.
Fats. So fats are the other food group that has been demonized over the years- and in some ways rightfully so- but in general, they are not to be feared. Fats play a very important role in our body. From lining our cell walls to assisting in hormone production, it is imperative that we incorporate fat into our diet on a regular basis. are found in many foods such as butter, oils, meats, dairy, nuts, seeds, coconuts, avocados, and other foods. Are some fats better than others? Well, yes. In general, I like to encourage people to be mindful of the fat found in animal products, because this is mostly saturated fat and may increase cholesterol. That means avoid chicken skin, don’t eat large amounts of fat in steaks and other meats, limit butter, purchase lower fat dairy. Choose healthy fats such as fatty fish (like salmon, sardines, and anchovies), nuts, seeds and avocadoes. Fill up on those healthy fats and eat the less healthy fats in moderation…and paaalease don’t fear the fat!
Now that we have made it to micronutrients, let’s look at this word. “Micro” means “small.” Think of micronutrients as those small nutrients sort of sprinkled through our food adding nutritional quality. Micronutrients are divided (again) into two groups: Vitamins and Minerals.
Vitamins, such as A, B, C, D, E, and K, play a vital role in most bodily functions. They are required for normal growth and overall health. Our body does not “make” vitamins, so it is important that we eat a varied diet consisting of a wide array of colors to ensure we are consuming the necessary amount of vitamins needed.
Minerals such as sodium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc, copper, and others, are compounds found naturally in foods that we consume. Like vitamins, it is important to eat a large variety of foods to make sure that we are getting a nice variety of these minerals.
I hope this has somewhat enlightened you and I leave you today with a better understanding of foods! The more we understand our nutrition, the more likely we are to make positive choices for our diets. Now, think about your own diet. Do you eat a wide variety from all of the macronutrient groups?
*Please understand that any recommendations made in this article are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All nutrition recommendations should be discussed with your physician.
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