Nutrition 101: Understanding Why We Need ALL Foods (August 2017)
Due to the various trends floating around, it’s easy to be confused about what to eat. So many discussions tout the best “clean” foods or “super foods.” For someone that does not work in nutrition, it can be overwhelming to constantly learn about, and follow, these trends. A crash course in nutrition can be helpful in becoming a discerning consumer that eats for nourishment and health.
To begin, there are basic macro and micronutrients in our diet that are necessary to allow our body to work at the highest level. Those macronutrients include carbohydrates, protein, fat, and water. Micronutrients include antioxidants, phytochemicals, minerals, and trace elements.
Carbohydrates are a huge point of discussion and there is a lot of misinformation out there. Carbohydrates areincredibly important, as they are the main fuel source that our body requires. Because of the diet industry’s treatment of carbohydrates as “the enemy,” people are often surprised when I tell them that our body requires 50-60% of their diet to be derived from them. Carbohydrates contain glucose, a simple sugar that provides our bodies with energy and allows our brain to work optimally. Our brains cannot store glucose like other parts of our body, therefore, we need to consume it consistently. Research shows that, at all times, 25% of all given circulating glucose is used by our brain. Our muscles require carbohydrates to function properly as well.
To be clear on what a carbohydrate is, some common sources include, bread, rice, pasta, cereal, crackers, popcorn, starchy vegetables, beans, fruit, milk, desserts, and alcohol.
Macronutrients, like carbohydrates, cannot assist the body and brain properly without the help of micronutrients. When a diet doesn’t include macronutrients, overtime we lose our ability to function at an ideal level. We begin to focus on food more, have “food swings,” obsess about what we are eating and not eating, become irritable and overall are unpleasant to be around. Physically, our bodies are not working at their maximum potential. Our brain function is altered, gut function is delayed and basically our body is slowly deteriorating. When complete food groups are removed from one’s diet, vitamins and minerals that are necessary for proper functioning are missing. The macronutrients are a part of the micronutrients and the two must have one another to perform optimally.
To understand what our body goes through when we deprive it of the necessary micro and macronutrients, it’s important to understand what causes these cravings. Longer periods of deprivation and dieting lead to a faulty error with our body’s hunger signals. When you are hungry, your brain releases a hormone called Neuropeptide Y (NPY), which then stimulates food intake, especially carbohydrate intake, since carbohydrates fuel our bodies. NPY is released in response to any time of fasting or food deprivation, from the extreme case of anorexia nervosa to normal fasting of going to bed and having breakfast the next morning. When people don’t have any disordered eating, the NPY levels drop once they eat. For people who deprive themselves or restrict often, this will cause chronically elevated or increased NPY levels that don’t change the way they are supposed to.
Essentially, if you have been chronically dieting, limiting carbohydrates, or both, the body will produce larger amounts of NPY, leading you to crave the higher carbohydrate foods that your body needs for fuel.
Protein is important to help repair muscle and tissues. It also helps to rebuild cells, organs, and enzymes as well as to manage blood sugar. In the media, there is so much attention on eating protein that our culture typically over consumes it. With eating disordered clients, it’s common to avoid protein or under-consume protein. When one does this, the body actually eats away at its own tissues to provide whatever nutrients or amino acids that it needs. Basically, we are eating ourselves for lunch, like a deleted scene from “Silence of the Lambs!”
Some of the obvious signs that our body is failing or breaking down due to low levels of protein is lack of energy, hair loss, changes in skin texture or color, achy muscles, dental problems, nail breakage or fragility, osteopenia or osteoporosis and, of course mood changes and problems with concentration. An individual experiencing these symptoms would benefit from adding protein to their meals and snacks.
Now, to talk about an area of nutrition that is HUGELY misunderstood: FAT. I always like to say: “let fat be our friend.” Many clients believe that eating fat will make them fat. This is a myth. There are many forms of fat. Whether one eats butter, salad dressing, avocado, nuts, hummus, olives, chia seeds, cream cheese, mayonnaise, olive oil, or the skin from their chicken, it’s important to add fat to our diet at all meals. Fat fills us up, allows us to feels satiated longer, allows us to not think about food, and is necessary to transport fat soluble vitamins in our body (vitamins D, A, K, and E). Fat also tastes good and delays the aging process. Without fats in our diet, our skin would shrivel up like a prune! This process will occur over time and that individual will, at least, complain about always being cold, since their bodies are not working to optimally to warm them. Also, their organs are lacking the protection and cushion that fat provides. Additionally, having sufficient amounts of fat allows women’s menstruation to work optimally.
Fluid is, of course, important for hydration. Many people know hydration is important but do not think of all the bodily functions water is needed for such as saliva, tear drops, urine, blood, our digestive juices, and lymph, a fluid that runs through the lymphatic system and helps rid our bodies of toxins. Our body fluids are dependent on water. Also, water is important to prevent constipation and for our electrolyte balance. It’s very common for clients to complain of headaches due to a suboptimal amount of electrolytes, as they may be consuming a lot of caffeine, which dehydrates their bodies, and/or they don’t drink much water to begin with. Clients also state that water makes them feel full or they fluid load (drink too much water), flushing out the electrolytes from the body. Water is necessary to help remove waste in our body and manage our temperature control.
I like to help clients incorporate balance, variety, and moderation into their lives. For many this is not an easy to achieve, whether mentally or physically. Our society often spreads incorrect and backward information about food and nutrition. It can be difficult for one to properly fuel themselves with all of the misinformation they’ve had engrained into them. Having a basic understanding of what our micro and macronutrients do for our bodies has been my intent for you today. Having a basic knowledge of nutrition can be an important weapon to battle against any misinformation we’re told and to work toward a more balanced and healthy relationship with food.
I hope these brief descriptions of the micro and macro nutrients explain the reasons as to why we do not want to exclude any food or food group. The long term goal is to be able to have a variety of foods and to not have any fears with food.