Health and Nutrition are the most commonly used words today, almost becoming synonymous with our well being.
But are we really clear in our concepts about what really is a nutrient and how do they actually provide nutrition to our body??
Yes, nutrient is something which helps to nourish our body, gives us energy to carry out your daily activities and aids in proper growth and development of our body. And Nutrition is all about the study of food and how our bodies use food as fuel for growth and daily activities.
But what are they and how do they help us?
Nutrients are basically of two kinds-
a. The macronutrients, or “big” nutrients which include proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
b. The micronutrients, or “little” nutrients which are the vitamins and minerals that we need to be healthy and to carry out important ant body functions.
“Macro” means big, so the macronutrients are the big nutrients, better known as protein, fats and carbohydrates. Whatever we put in our mouth, except water and zero calorie foods, contain these nutrients, though in varying quantities. All of these macro nutrients are vital for the functioning of our bodies and are needed in appropriate amounts on a daily basis. Drastically reducing or skipping any of them is not recommended and is bound to lead to unhealthy conditions sooner or later.
1. Carbohydrates include sugar, starch and fiber and are the energy providing nutrients, needed to carry out daily activities of walking, sitting, eating, working and playing. The starches or complex carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes or pulses, low sugar fruits and vegetables) are longer chains of glucose molecules and hence take slightly longer duration to get broken down than the simple carbohydrates( maida, potatoes, white sugar). Since the digestive enzymes work harder to break the chains into glucose molecules (in case of complex carbohydrates), this slow digestion and subsequent absorption provides us with a steady supply of energy , controls quick blood sugar fluctuations and also limits the amount of sugar getting converted into fat and stored as adipose tissue. This is precisely the reason why intake of complex carbohydrates is a preferred choice over simple ones, especially for diabetics and weight watchers.
2. Proteins are large organic compounds (macro molecules) made up of amino acids which are joined together by peptide bonds. Proteins are necessary for building the tissues in your body including all of the muscles, organs, skin and the parts of the immune system. Proteins are integral part of most of our enzymes, hormones and even genes. The stored protein (especially those as muscles) may be used as a fuel, particularly in starvation condition to support life. Dietary sources of plant proteins include pulses(dals), nuts, soybean and animal protein include eggs, fish ,chicken ,milk and milk products.
3. Fats are chemically composed of fatty acids and glycerides and may be solid or liquid at room temperatures, depending on their structure and composition. Fats play a vital role in maintaining healthy skin and hair, insulating body organs against shock, maintaining body temperature, and promoting healthy cell functions, including those needed for normal brain and nerve functions. Fats act as source of fatty acids in the body and are needed to digest, absorb and transport vitamins (A, D, E and K) across body tissues. They also serve as energy stores and just like proteins, the extra fat (stored as adipose tissue) can be used as fuel for the body. Dietary sources of fats can be classified as saturated fats (those in egg yolk, red meats, cheese and butter) and unsaturated fats (vegetable oils, edible oils, nuts, seeds, etc).
“Micro” means small so the micronutrients are the nutrients that we need in small amounts. These include the essential vitamins (grouped as water-soluble or fat-soluble depending on whether they can dissolve in fat or water) and minerals (major minerals and those required only in trace quantities) that we need every day.
Water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and the seven B-complex vitamins and fat-soluble ones include vitamins A, D, E and K .They are needed to maintain a state of growth and good health and any deficiency of these vitamins can result in poor health.
Major minerals include calcium, phosphorus, chloride, magnesium, potassium and sodium. These minerals are needed to maintain healthy bones, teeth, muscles and fluid balance in the body. The trace minerals are chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, selenium and zinc. Eating a healthy well balanced diet with optimum intake of fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, whole-grains, lean meats, chicken, fish and dairy products would provide us with all of the essential micronutrients. However, there are people who may need to take additional dietary supplements, such as during pregnancy or menopausal women at risk of osteoporosis or people with history of deficiencies. Always consult your physician and understand the needed dosages, before starting with any vitamin supplement.
“Phyto” refers to plants and as is evident are found only in plants and plant derived products. Most of these natural chemicals are found in the colorful skins and flesh of fruits and vegetables. Some of the best known phytochemicals are the carotenoids, such as beta carotene( carrots, pumpkin, spinach), lutein( dark leafy vegetables), lycopene(tomato) and zeaxanthin and flavonoids such as quercetin and anthocyanins ( straw berries, cherries, pine apple, mango, oranges).
Phyto nutrients are potent antioxidants that protect the cells in our bodies from free radical damage and fights infections. The exact requirement for each is yet not known, though it’s evident from extensive researches that they are available in ample amounts in fruits and vegetables, particularly the deep colored ones.
When you eat a food, you don’t eat just a carbohydrate, fat or protein. You eat a piece of apple or a bowl of soup or a plate of salads. Most of the foods you eat are made up of varying amounts of all of these nutrition components.
Good nutrition means getting the right balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, plus the required vitamins and minerals. Great nutrition means getting a lot of the phyto chemicals and antioxidants, too. The key is to eat everything in moderation and not label foods as good’ or bad foods.
The problems occur when you eat too many of one, or if the ingredients in the food are devoid of any nutrient (empty calories as in carbonated beverages)
Good Nutrition leads to Good Health
A well balanced diet will give our body the right amount of energy, enough raw materials and nutrients needed to stay healthy. Good nutrition will also provide phyto chemicals and antioxidants that will help keep us feeling young, looking great, and perhaps even disease-free. A lopsided mono diet, on the other hand will give you too many or too few calories, not enough vitamins and minerals, and will actually make you need more of the antioxidants that you aren’t getting.
Now that you have a better idea of why your body needs food, the next step is to learn more about a healthy pyramid to maintain a lifetime of good health.