Updated: Apr 1, 2019
I’ve noticed in conversations with friends, family members, and clients that questions will come up that are seemingly very simple: What actually is a carbohydrate again? Could you re remind me why protein is important?
It’s not their fault they don’t know the answer; these are the types of things I’m quite shocked we don’t cover in health classes—at least they didn’t when I was a student.
So, today’s post is designed to answer some basic nutrition questions so you can feel more informed and educated about your health.
Macronutrients versus Micronutrients
Macronutrients are nutrients that provide the energy/calories we need to fuel our activity. The main ones are protein, carbohydrates, and fats, and each one packs a different calorie punch. Carbohydrates and proteins contain 4 calories per gram, while fats contain 9 calories per gram (more than double!). This information is actually super useful because it allows us to assess how many calories in a food come from protein, carbs, or fat. If you see that a 100-calorie snack contains 8 grams of fat, for example, you’d multiply that by 9 since each gram of fat contains 9 calories. That means 72 out of the 100 calories are from fat... not the healthiest choice!
Unlike macronutrients, micronutrients do not provide us with calories, but they’re vital for optimal functioning. Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, trace elements, phytochemicals, and antioxidants, which are essential because they help produce enzymes, hormones, and proteins that allow us to complete different bodily functions. For a super useful infographic about the importance of different vitamins and minerals, click here.
The main job of carbohydrates is to provide us with energy, and they’re actually our body’s preferred source of fuel. There are simple versus complex carbohydrates. Simple sugars are broken down and absorbed very quickly in the body, while complex carbohydrates take longer to break down. Simple carbohydrates include some fruits, fruit juices, table sugar, honey, and others. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down because (chemically-speaking) they’re composed of three or more linked sugars. Even highly refined foods like breads, cakes, and pastries are technically complex carbohydrates, but they’re broken down so quickly in the body that they can have negative impacts on your blood sugar levels.
Fibre includes the parts of plant foods that your body can’t break down or absorb. There are two types of fibre:
• Soluble fibre: attracts water and turns into a gel-like substance during digestion. The purpose of soluble fibre is to slow digestion so that we can have more stable blood sugar levels (which is always a good thing). Source include: oat bran, barley, beans, lentils, peas, some fruits and vegetables, and psyllium husk, which is a common fibre supplement.
• Insoluble fibre: its job is to add bulk to the stool so food can pass through more quickly. Sources include: wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains.
Fibre helps maintain regularity with bowel movements, stabilize blood sugar levels, and feed good bacteria in the gut.
Second to water, protein is the most abundant substance in the human body and is found in every single cell. Organs, muscles, and tissues are all made up of protein. It’s also involved in creating some hormones and providing us with energy. While carbs are made up of different sugar molecules, proteins are made up of amino acids. A protein is considered “complete” when it contains all nine of the essential amino acids—that is, amino acids our bodies can’t make and thus have to come from food. Who cares? Well, this is super important information for vegetarians and vegans because unlike animal proteins, most plant-based proteins are not considered complete proteins. This explains why quinoa or seitan are such a big deal to vegetarians and vegans—because they’re one of the few plant-based foods that are a complete protein!
The neat thing about protein is that unlike carbohydrates, it actually takes energy for our body to break protein down. In other words, we actually burn calories when we’re breaking down protein. This has implications for people who are trying to regulate blood sugar levels and lose weight, particularly.
Fats take the longest to digest and slow the digestion process, and up to 95% of dietary fats are absorbed into the body. They’re required to transport certain vitamins, protect our vital organs, cover nerves, and produce certain hormones. There are different types of fats that play different roles in the body, which include:
• Monounsaturated fats: made up of olive oil, canola oil, almond oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
• Saturated fats: found in beef, pork, lamb, poultry, milk, butter, and cheese.
• Polyunsaturated fats: include omega-3 and omega-6pm fatty acids, and provide our bodies with essential fatty acids.
• Trans fats: the God damn devil. Avoid these at literally all costs.
These are found in fried foods and some baked items like cookies, cakes, crackers, and chips. The main thing I want to point out here is that most of us are consuming way too many saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids and not enough monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. In other words, we’re eating lots of meat, eggs, and butter, but not as much fish, nuts, and seeds. Increasing the amount of fish, nuts, and seeds we consume can have amazing consequences for our physical and mental health.
As stated previously, vitamins don’t provide energy, but they help with metabolism, digestion, elimination, and resistance to disease. Fat-soluble vitamins require fats to be absorbed and include vitamins A, D, E, and K, whereas water-soluble vitamins just need water to be broken down and absorbed. Water-soluble vitamins include B vitamins, vitamin C, and others. All vitamins have different functions, but the Cole’s Notes version is that vitamin A helps your eyes, vitamin D helps your immune system and bones, vitamin C is a good antioxidant, and vitamin E is good for body tissue.
Minerals are chemical elements found in food that also help catalyze different reactions in your body. Macrominerals are minerals your body needs in larger amounts, where as microminerals are needed in smaller amounts. Macrominerals include: calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium, whereas microminerals include chromium, iodine, iron, selenium, and zinc. All of these have particular functions as well, but if you have any questions about them in particular please do not hesitate to comment below!
Prebiotics & Probiotics
Probiotics are foods and supplements that contain good bacteria that help improve the environment of your intestinal system, a.k.a your “gut.” They help enhance mineral absorption, reduce cholesterol, and strengthen the immune system, control inflammation, and improve digestion. As they leave the body quite readily, it’s good practice to consume them every day. Sources of probiotics include: yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, and other fermented foods. Prebiotics are kind of like Miracle Growth for soil—they help probiotics grow and thrive. The best sources of prebiotics are wheat bran, bananas, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, chicory root, asparagus, garlic, leeks, onions, barley, oats, apples, and more.
Health Tips 101
Here are some of the most simple health tips I want to leave you with:
1. Eat more omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and seeds, and avoid trans fats at all costs.
2. Add more protein to your diet if you’re looking to lose weight and/or regulate blood sugar levels.
3. If you’re low on energy, it’s very possible that you’re lacking vitamins, minerals, and good-quality proteins and fats in your diet. Junk foods and fried foods contain a ton of calories, but they aren’t “nutrient dense,” which is nutritionist-speak for: they don’t provide any substances that help your body.
4. Trade simple carbs for complex ones like quinoa, whole grains, steel cut oatmeal, brown rice, etc.
5. Consume probiotics regularly—even on a daily basis if you can—and incorporate prebiotics into your diet, too. The Bottom Line While I feel like this blog post was kind of dry, I also feel like it