These days there is more information than ever on how to eat right. Everywhere we look, it seems like there is another special diet with restrictions or rules. What we need is basic information to get started on the road to healthy eating, and this starts with understanding the six classes of nutrients and how they affect the body.
Your nutritional needs cannot get simpler than this. Water is the root of every process in our body, from respiration to immune support to ridding the body of toxins and waste. Water also keeps your joints fluid and healthy and regulates body temperature. Lack of water contributes to fatigue, constipation, aching joints, and headache.
So how much water is enough? For women, the Mayo Clinic recommends nine cups of fluid a day, and for men, thirteen cups. Water from fruit, tea, and coffee can go towards that total, but for optimal health, the majority should be plain, clear water. Physical activity calls for an increase in water intake, as does any illness that causes diarrhea or vomiting.
One of the most maligned of the basic nutrients, carbohydrates (carbs) are vital for providing the body with sustained, steady energy. Carbs help your body produce glucose (energy), some of which is available for immediate use, and the remainder of which is stored in the liver and the muscles for later use.
There are two kinds of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbs are often referred to as “bad” carbs and can be found in refined foods, such as white bread, cakes, and cookies. Your body can access this energy quickly, but it fizzles out as quickly as it kicks in. Complex carbohydrates, such as the kind found in whole grains and unrefined foods, provide more sustained energy for the body. These complex carbs also generally contain more dietary fiber than simple carbs, and this fiber provides other benefits to the body as well.
Protein is a vital part of our diet. With it, we build muscle, repair or build tissue, and fight disease. Protein is made out of 20 different amino acids, some of which our bodies cannot produce on their own. These are called essential amino acids in that it is essential that we include them in our diet.
A protein source such as an animal protein (meat, fish, and eggs) or soy-based protein (such as tofu and edamame) has complete proteins (they provide all essential elements of a protein on their own), but vegetarians can combine two incomplete protein sources, such as rice and beans, to fulfill their protein requirements. Protein is necessary, but it needn’t be animal-based. It is possible for vegans and vegetarians to have a balanced diet with planning. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein is 10-35% of daily calories, but this recommendation can vary depending on activity and life stage. Marathon runners and expectant moms will both need more protein than normal!
Fats are another essential nutrient that many people just don’t understand. Our bodies require fat for hormone production and vitamin absorption. They also help to protect vital organs. The trick is to know which fats are healthy, which fats to avoid, and how much fat is truly needed in the diet.
There are three types of fat: saturated, unsaturated (mono and poly), and trans. Of these three, there are only two that are essential, omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, the kind found in wild salmon, avocados, and olive oil. The two others contribute to a wide range of health problems and are found in processed foods that require a longer shelf life (trans) and high-fat products like whole milk and high-fat cheese (saturated). The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released by the Centers for Disease Control, recommends that we consume less than 10% of our daily calories as fat (the American Heart Association has different recommendations). Of all fats, trans fats are most implicated in coronary disease and other health issues and should be avoided entirely.
We don’t often consider our diet similar to that of a plant, but it’s true: this part of our essential nutrients comes from the earth. Minerals are naturally occurring elements found in soil and water, and vitamins are in organic material.
The benefits we get from consuming a diet that is balanced with proper vitamins and minerals are too numerous to list here, as are the problems that insufficient amounts of these can bring. A diet that consistently includes fresh, whole foods and is a balanced mix of the previous four categories should provide the average person with plenty of vitamins and minerals without supplementation, but vegans or vegetarians may need to supplement certain nutrients only found in animal proteins and dairy.
Now you have the facts; what changes do you need to make?
Image by Jeff Kubina via Flickr