Nutrients and Nourishment

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As I’m currently working towards a Fitness Nutrition Specialist Certification, I thought I would share some of the information I’m learning with you via these monthly articles.  If we can become better informed about foods and nutrients, it should certainly empower us to make better decisions in our day to day eating and exercise habits.  This first article is just a quick overview of our food and what it contains.  In the coming months we will look more deeply into each of these elements to truly understand how our bodies use them.

First of all think about this?  Do you eat to live, or live to eat?  I have heard this question posed in regards to work – and in this context it is trying to ascertain the same thing.  Are you focusing too heavily on the joy of eating versus the importance of good and healthy nourishment for your body.

Many things influence the way that we eat.  Our age, gender, genetic make-up, lifestyle, family and cultural background affect our food choices.  We use food to project an image, show our creativity, build relationships, show friendship and express feelings.  

We eat to cope with stress, or perhaps we don’t eat when we are stressed.  We eat as a reward when we have done a good thing, or we don’t eat as punishment for personal failure.  It would be interesting to figure out specifically what dictates our food preferences, and then to compare that with what we should be eating daily for optimal health.

Our food preferences can begin very early in life.  Experiences we have had as a child cause us to like or dislike a food, and that can carry all the way to adulthood.  To some degree what you eat says a lot about who you are.  Age is certainly a factor.  Infants with wide exposure to various foods will usually try new foods whilst pre-school children usually have a fear of trying new foods.  Contrastingly school age children begin to be braver about trying new things and teenagers tend to be influenced in their food choices by their piers.

Look at which foods appeal to your senses.  Taste, smell and texture play a roll – some people dislike certain foods just based on the texture.  Color, moisture and temperature can also play a roll.  Some people prefer salty foods to sweet, and others the reverse.  Cognitive influences come from learned food habits which can go back to childhood.

If we were to generalize, we would see that in the typical American diet the most common grain is white bread.  The favorite vegetable is the potato (usually in the form of French fries), and beef seems to be the favorite protein.  As a whole, Americans eat few fruits and whole grains, focusing more on cereals, snack foods, juices and sodas.  It seems many Americans do not know what they should eat, and even when they do learn what to eat it doesn’t necessarily make a difference to their daily food choices.

Some other factors that effect food choices are: 

Environmental – where do you live, hot or cold, you will choose different foods depending on the weather

Religion – many religions have rules in regards to foods not to be consumed, or certain times when foods are limited.

Culture – certainly the culture you are born into plays a part.  If you are like me and were born in another country, you carry many of your food and beverage habits with you to the new country – I’m specifically thinking of my 4pm tea time which my husband has also adopted.  

Lifestyle – this plays a large part.  How much time do you have to cook? What foods are available at your workplace?  Does your schedule cause you to resort to convenience foods, or do you eat out several times a week?

Economics – What types of food can we afford or not afford?  It used to be the refined foods that were available only to the wealthy, and the poor folk grew what they ate and raised their own meat etc.  These days things are flipped around to where the refined foods are the cheapest, and the organic and more healthful choices are much more expensive.

Our goal should be to focus first and foremost on nourishing our bodies for optimal health.  We can do this in a way that will still allow us to enjoy eating and look forward to our meals, perhaps even more so.  Nourishment is necessary for growth and development, for cell and tissue maintenance,  to provide fuel for physical activities, and to properly regulate our body processes.

There are 6 classes of nutrients:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Lipids (fats/oils)
  • Water
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

These nutrients can be divided into organic and inorganic.  Vitamins, carbohydrates, lipids and proteins are all organic and contain carbon in their biological structure, whereas water and minerals are inorganic with no carbon present.

  1. Inorganic nutrients:  Water, minerals.  Inorganic nutrients have a simple structure containing just one element
  2. organic nutrients: Fats, Proteins, Carbohydrates and Vitamins.  Organic nutrients have more complex chemical structures.  Carbohydrates, lipids and proteins are made of smaller building blocks and vitamins have an elaborate structure of compounds.

Foods generally do not contain just one nutrient, although we might consider meat a protein and bread a carbohydrate – we are really generalizing based on the fact that protein is the largest part of meat and carbohydrate is the largest part of bread.  However, there are usually small amounts of a variety of nutrients in most foods.  A lot of carbohydrates also provide our body with fiber which is not technically an essential nutrient, but is very important for our overall health.

The purposes of nutrients:

  1. To aid in body processes
  2. To contribute to cell and body structure
  3. To supply energy

Carbohydrates

Main dietary sources: (Plant based):  Starches, sugars, grains, vegetables, dry beans, peas, legumes, fruits.

Main purpose of carbohydrates: To provide your body with energy.

If thinking of water makes you think about hydrating, then the word carbo-hydrate tells you the exact composition of this nutrient.  Carbohydrate is made up of Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and is an important source of fuel for the body.

Carbohydrates are converted in the body to glucose, a simple sugar compound.  Glucose is what our body uses to provide energy for cells and tissues.   Carbohydrates provide the body with it’s preferred energy source.  In the absence of enough carbohydrates it can use fats and proteins, but using alternative energy sources can deplete our bodies since fats and proteins have other important jobs that will be neglected if they are called upon to become a carbohydrate ‘stand-in’!!

Fats (Lipids)

Main dietary sources:  Fats and oils, natural fats found in meat and fish, dairy products and other less obvious plant sources such as avocado and coconut, olives, nuts and seeds.

Main purpose of fat: The body uses fat as a fuel source, and fat is the major storage form of energy in the body. Fat also has many other important functions in the body, and a moderate amount is needed in the diet for good health. Fats in food come in several forms, including saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.

Lipids are substances known as fats and oils.  But they can also be fat like substances in foods such as phospholipids, and lipoproteins.   Fats are organic compounds containing carbon hydrogen and oxygen.

Another type of fat:  triglyceride. Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in your blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. The triglycerides are stored in your fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals.  Triglycerides are an important fuel source for the body.  Also triglycerides, lipoproteins and phospholipids have other important jobs in the body, such as providing structure for body cells, carrying fat soluble vitamins and providing cholesterol.  Our bodies need cholesterol for important metabolic processes but we don’t need to consume it, our body can make enough using other compounds.  Of course we all know that too much blood cholesterol is not good for us so we need to keep it all in balance.  

Proteins

Main dietary sources:  Meat and fish, nuts, dairy products, Soy

Main purpose of protein:  Hair and nails are mostly made of protein. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.

Proteins are organic compounds made of smaller building blocks called amino acids.  Unlike carbohydrates and fats, amino acids contain nitrogen as well as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.  Some amino acids also contain sulfur.  The amino acids you get from protein combined with those in the body to make hundreds of different body proteins. We can divide these proteins into two groups:

  1. Structural proteins:  Build and maintain body structures
  2. Functional proteins:  Regulate body processes

Vitamins

Vitamins are organic compounds that contain carbon, hydrogen and sometimes nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur.   Some vitamin functions in the body include:

  • Regulating body processes such as energy production, blood clotting and calcium balance.  
  • Keeping organs and tissues healthy.   
  • Extracting energy from carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Vitamins divide into two groups:  fat soluble and water soluble.

Fat soluble:  A, D, E and K. Fat soluble vitamins can be stored in larger amounts in the body, and are all transported in the same way.

Water soluble:  C and 8 B vitamins: Thiamin(B1) Riboflavin(B2) Niacin(B3) Pyridoxine(B6) Cobalamin(B12) Folate, Pantothenic acid and Biotin.  Most interact with the energy metabolism pathways.

Vitamins are in a variety of foods.  If you have a balanced diet you will get enough of each and can rarely overdose on any.  But if you overdo supplementation, some vitamins can become toxic and cause serious issues.

Minerals

Minerals are inorganic substances.  16 essential to health:  

Microminerals: 

  • Iron
  • zinc
  • copper
  • manganese
  • molybdenum
  • selenium
  • iodine
  • fluoride

Minerals have diverse functions:

  • Structural roles – calcium phosphorus, fluoride
  • Regulatory roles – control of fluid balance, muscle contraction

Water

Water chemically the simplest nutrient.  While we can live sometime without food, we cannot live long without water.  60% of our body is water so it is essential.  Water is used for:

  • Temperature control  
  • Lubrication of joins 
  • Transportation of water soluble vitamins and waste

Sources of water:  Water itself is our best source.  We should drink about half of our body weight in fluid oz per day, not including any we sweat out.  We also gain some hydration from beverages, fruits and vegetables

Energy sources: 

Carbohydrates, Proteins, Lipids (but only as triglycerides)

  • Carbohydrates = 4 Cal/gram
  • Protein = 4 Cal/gram
  • Fat = 9 Cal/gram
  • Alcohol = 7 Cal/gram

Sorting fact from fiction

Finally, I’m sure you are constantly hearing of new claims regarding the healthfulness or lack thereof of certain foods, the latest fad diet etc… the media is very good at overstating any new finding that is out there.  All this contradicting information can be very confusing.  How do we sort out the scientific facts from so much misinformation?  First of all consider the source.  Usually news stories are sensationalized, over simplified, facts are distorted, omitted or modified.  Also beware of anything that has the following claims:

  • Quick fix
  • Dire warnings of dancer
  • Claims that are too good to be true
  • Simplistic conclusions
  • Dramatic statements

There is still much to learn about food and its healthful properties.  As scientists continue to conduct studies we will find out more about things that are helpful and harmful and as we learn we will adjust as we have always done.  Just remember this, what you eat really does matter.  Your diet will likely effect your quality of life and ultimately could effect the length of your life.  Making good and healthful daily choices will give you the best chance to live a long and healthy life, continuing to do all the things you love.