We All Eat, But How Many Of Us Actually Understand Nutrition?

Here at Lotus Tribe, there is not much we love more than movement, whether it be yoga, dancing, weight lifting, hiking, or any other way to get ourselves in motion. Another of our favorite things in life is delicious food, the stuff we need to fuel ourselves, so that we can do all of those movement based things we enjoy.

We all eat, but how many of us actually understand nutrition? As a society, we are becoming more technologically advanced all the time and the scientific community's understanding of the human body is constantly increasing. Unfortunately, the gap between the everyday person's knowledge and that of the health professional's only seems be increasing as well, as do our waist lines and the prevalence of lifestyle diseases. 

In blogs like this one, and upcoming blogs, we would like to bring you useful information about complicated topics, such as nutrition and human movement (Kinesiology). Demystifying and distilling them into bite sized pieces, stripped of unnecessary jargon, so that they are not only easy to understand, but also applicable to your life. 

Today, we will be looking at food and nutrition. First we will go over the basics of nutritional science and healthy eating, before taking a brief look at the different components of food, followed by some tips for healthy eating.

The Science of Nutrition- Digestion and Metabolism

We all understand the basics of feeding ourselves to greater and lesser degrees. We consume food, it goes through our digestive system, nutrients are absorbed, and later waste is expelled. This process is known as digestion.

However, this process actually starts well before you actually ingest any food. Just smelling, or seeing food when you're hungry, creates chemical changes in your body, preparing it for digestion. Once you start eating food, enzymes and chewing start the process of breaking food down. It is further broken down in the stomach. Then, as it goes through your small and large intestine, different nutrients are extracted along the way, until finally, all that is left is waste. Providing our bodies with energy and nutrients is the purpose of eating.

The unit used to measure the energy of our food is called a calorie. Calories are how we fuel our bodies. The amount of calories your body needs to sustain normal biological functions- like breathing, pumping your heart, healing, etc. plus the number of calories you burn in daily living and exercise, is what determines your metabolism. Your metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. 

A lot of things affect a person's metabolism, but in general, bigger people have higher resting and basal metabolic needs, as it takes more calories to move, maintain and repair a bigger body than a smaller one. This is why a 5' tall woman needs less food than a 6'4" tall man does. Your metabolism will also vary with age and your activity level.

Surplus calories that are not used for daily function are stored for later use, this is why eating too many calories leads to fat on your body. By eating nutrient dense foods, rather than foods that are full of "empty calories," your body will function optimally and be less likely to gain weight. 

Healthy Eating 101- Empty Calories and Nutrient Density

We often hear about "junk foods" being bad for our health and needing to stay away from "empty calories," but what exactly is an empty calorie? First, lets talk about nutrient density. Nutrient dense foods are exactly what they sound like, they are foods that are dense with nutrients. 

All foods have some mixture of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, but in nutrient dense foods, we are looking specifically at all of the health beneficial things inside of them. These are things like vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids and essential fatty acids. Choosing food that is full of these vital nutrients brings better health and overall wellness.

Junk foods with empty calories are the opposite of these. They are foods that are empty of those health beneficial nutrients, they provide only calories. Some processed foods even have the beneficial nutrients taken out of them, so that they can be super filled with sugar and fat. 

Not only are these foods unhealthy for us due to their high calories and lack of health beneficial nutrients, they also often have high levels of harmful compounds and things we should limit, such as chemical preservatives and saturated fats.

Additionally, many of these foods create a lot of GI distress and digestion problems. In general, it is best to eat as many whole foods as possible and curb our intake of refined and packaged foods. In general, the more processed a food is, the less nutrient dense it is. 

So, what's an empty calorie? Well, its a calorie that is derived from a food source that has no nutritional value. Fueling your body with empty calories is like giving your car low grade gas, it may still move, but it won't run as well and will eventually result in problems. Fueling your body with healthy foods that are nutrient dense will help your body stay healthy and function properly.  

So, what are those nutrients that make up food and determine how healthy it is? Lets take a look.

Macronutrients- Fats, Proteins and Carbohydrates

Macronutrients are called this because we need a large (macro) amount of them to function. Macronutrients are fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Each of these macronutrients play many vital roles within the body, but each has a main role and number of calories they provide.

  • Fats: Fats provide the body with 9 calories per gram. Fats provide insulation and protection of internal organs, absorb fat soluble vitamins and provide the body with energy. Fats are also very important for hormone regulation and cognitive function. The main types of fats are saturated fats, unsaturated fats and trans fats.
  1. Unsaturated fats primarily come from plants, like avocadoes and nuts. These are the good fats that you should try to consume for overall health.
  2. Saturated fats are found in animal-based foods like beef, pork, poultry, dairy products and eggs. These fats should be eaten in moderation and limited. 
  3. Trans fats come from fried foods, margarine, and packaged foods, such as frozen pizza and commercially made baked goods like cookies, cakes, and pies. These should be avoided. 
    • Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates provide the body with 4 calories per gram. The main function of carbohydrates in the body is to be used for energy. Carbohydrates come in two main forms, simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
    1. Complex carbohydrates burn slow and steady and provide good energy. Found mostly in whole plant foods, they maintain their natural fiber and fuel your body with the energy it needs. Examples include bananas, peanut butter, potatoes, and oatmeal.  
    2. Simply carbohydrates are quickly broken down by the body to be used for energy. So they need to be used right away, or they cause weight gain. Simple carbohydrates are found naturally in foods such as fruits, and milk products. They are also found in processed and refined sugars such as candy, syrups, junk foods and soft drinks.
    • Proteins: Like carbohydrates, proteins provide the body with 4 calories per gram. Proteins play many significant roles within the body, but the main role of protein is tissue growth and healing. Although most people think of animal products for their protein needs, there are many vegetarian and vegan options that are just as good, or even better sources of protein, such tofu, tempeh, seitan and beans. 


    Micronutrients- Vitamins and Minerals 

    Micronutrients are called this because we need only a small (micro) amount of them to function. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. Micronutrients do not provide the body with calories or energy, however, they are essential for normal functioning and health.  

    • Vitamins: Vitamins have numerous roles within the body. They help regulate and control everything from tissue growth to the immune system and so much more. Vitamins come in two main types, water soluble and fat soluble. Vitamin C and all of the B Vitamins are water soluble, they can be taken with water and be assimilated by the body. Whereas Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble. These vitamins need be taken at the same time as a food with fat in it, so that they can be properly broken down and metabolized by the body for use. 

    • Minerals: Minerals are one of the four essential nutrient groups for humans. Minerals are chemical elements, you might remember some of them if you ever took a chemistry class. All biological life is made out of chemicals, the human body included. The five main minerals the human body uses are potassium, phosphorus, calcium, sodium and magnesium. The rest of the minerals are called "trace minerals," as we need a very small amount of them for normal, healthy functioning. Minerals play numerous roles within the body. For example, sodium and potassium are both crucial for regulating energy and movement.


    8 Tips For Healthy Eating From The Harvard School of Public Health: 

    1. Don't cut all carbohydrates out of your diet. Instead, eat good carbohydrates, such as whole grains.

    2. Pay attention to proteins; fish, poultry, nuts and beans are the healthiest. 

    3. Choose foods with healthy fats. Plant oils, nuts, and fish are the healthiest sources. Limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats. 

    4. Eats lots of fiber. These include things like whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

    5. Eat more fruits and vegetables, try to eat a variety of colors.

    6. Calcium is important. Dairy isn't the only (or the best) source. 

    7. Drink lots of water and stay hydrated. Avoid sugary drinks and be mindful of milk and juice intake.

    8. Watch your salt intake. Try to eat more fresh foods and less processed foods. 

    Final Thoughts

    Nutrition is a complicated science, yet key to our health and well-being. Instead of trying to master the science of nutrition, master the art of food, eating and cooking. Try your best to ingest lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and proteins low in saturated fats. Make sure to get plenty of vitamins and minerals and limit processed foods and the over consumption of salt and sugar. Eating a variety of colors and what is local and in season is best. Add in a little movement and drink plenty of water and you will be well on your way to health and wellness. 


    *This blog is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.