Nutrition Basics: Variety, Moderation, Balance

There is so much “Nutrition” information out there in the media, on the interwebs, and practically everywhere you look. It can be really overwhelming. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of wrong or misunderstood information and many useless and sometimes harmful fads. This is the first in a series focused on helping everyone understand the basics of nutrition so we have some sort of framework for us to sort all the nutrition information and claims that are out there.

First things first, we need a basic understanding of our bodies. If you never thought about it, it may be hard to picture your body from a scientific perspective, but we do understand that our bodies are the sum of many parts. We are skin, bone, blood, muscle, organs, nerves, eyes, brain, fingers, toes etc. So much like a building, we are made of different materials that make one useful, incredible whole that is the body you live in. Take a house. In the structure of a house you may find bricks and stone make up the foundation, wood or metal posts make up the structures around which the walls are built, walls built with concrete or wood or drywall. Then there will be tiles in the bathroom and maybe marble countertops in the kitchen. There are all sorts of different materials being used. And then if you want to get more specific, there are different types of materials like iron or aluminum or steel are all metals, and there are different types of wood like cedar or hickory or maple. At the end of the day the quality of the materials and the way they are used will determine the sturdiness, appearance and quality of the house.

It’s the same with the body. We have bones which are made of proteins and minerals like calcium and phosphorus. Our muscles which are attached to the bones and make them move are made of a lot of protein, some lipids/fats, carbohydrates and minerals. Our brains are mostly water with some carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins along with mineral salts. So our bodies are made of a lot of really common organic and inorganic substances (When I say organic here I am using the scientific meaning of carbon based molecules, and not the grocery store meaning of grown without insecticides, although I do hope you were grown without insecticides.). Like a house, because our bodies are constantly in use they can get worn down and we need to replace or maintain its parts to keep it in good condition. Yet our bodies get worn down much faster than a house and we don’t buy our new parts at the hardware store. Instead, we replace all the substances daily with the foods we eat. Yes, we literally are what we eat. There is truth in the cliché.

Fortunately, animals and plants are made of much of the same organic and inorganic matter as we are, so everything we need to keep our bodies either comes directly from what we eat and digest or can be made in our bodies from the raw materials in our food. These raw materials are called nutrients and there are 6 or 7 major ones that we must get daily to sustain our precious body houses. These nutrients are:

Carbohydrates

Fats and oils (lipids)

Proteins

Vitamins

Minerals

Water

Fiber

We will discuss each of these nutrients so you can understand how they are used in your body, how much you need and how to get them. It may seem like a lot of different components to think about if all you’re trying to do is eat something, but once you get used to recognizing and enjoying nutrient dense foods eating healthily becomes easier. Nutrient density refers to how much of those above nutrients are present in a meal/snack. If a food is nutrient dense it has a lot more nutritional “bang for its buck” because there is a variety of healthy nutrients that make it up compared to the calories it provides.  If a food is nutrient poor it does not have ingredients that provide a variety of nutrients and does not give your body much useful material to work with when you digest it. Nutrient poor foods are also often energy dense which means they provide a lot of calories and not much else.  If you use the above list of necessary nutrients as a checklist, and you look at the meal in front of you, the more different nutrients you can identify in the foods of your plate the more energy dense that meal is.

Sammiches
Sammiches! Yum!

For example, think of these two sandwiches, a.) a bacon cheese melt on a white bread roll vs. b.) a whole wheat sandwich with avocado, tomatoes and cheese. They both look and sound delicious. Which one is more nutrient dense, A or B? The answer is B since that sandwich would have more fiber and protein along with carbohydrates in the whole wheat bread, more vitamins and minerals in the avocado and tomato, cheese  provides protein and fat along with the avocado. Sandwich A is mostly carbohydrates from the bun, fats and protein from the cheese and bacon. Fewer nutrients, more calories.

For today, the main tips for healthy eating I’d like to leave with you are Variety, Moderation and Balance.

  1. Variety
  • No one food provides all necessary Selecting a variety of foods helps the body to obtain more of the nutrients it needs.
  • There are many interactions between foods. Selecting a variety of foods means you will provide the right combinations of nutrients to maintain all aspects of your body’s needs.
  1. Moderation
  • Moderation means all types of foods and beverages are okay, as long as they are taken in healthy, moderate amounts.
  • Moderation means not consuming too much energy, fat, sugar, sodium or alcohol.
  1. Balance
  • Generally speaking – when we put aside matters of opinion, strong beliefs, religion, or specific situations – there is no good food/bad food.
  • Balancing foods allow all foods to fit in a healthy diet.
  • Balance the energy you take in with energy you use out
  • Consume nutrient dense foods and use appropriate portion sizes

The other day I saw someone post a recipe for a zero carb pizza on Facebook as if having zero carbs is what made it healthy. Of course the result was that it was almost all fat and protein, nothing else, but no carbs though! So “healthy”! Like magic! (Sarcasm.) My aim over the next few weeks is to give you sound and balanced information so you don’t sound completely ignorant on social networks. Our bodies are not some unknowable magical thing; the more we understand them the better we can do to keep them healthy. Next “Health Talk” we will take an in-depth look at carbohydrates (aka the dreaded CARBS). Look out for it in two weeks.

 

© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved

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