Essential Nutrition Guide
You’re desperate to learn how food, diet, exercise and supplements affect your
health (and your weight), but have been too afraid of information overload to ask.
We’re here to help.
Eat fruit—it’s good for you/spurn fruit—it’s full of carbs. Avoid fat like the plague/make sure 30% of your calories come from fat. Count every calorie/calories don’t really count. Eat a high-protein/low-protein/water-and-avocado/seafood diet.
And you wonder why you’re confused about nutrition?
Fear not, gentle reader. Whether you’re looking to drop a few pounds or simply want a healthy eating plan you can stick with, what you really need is a straight-up nutrition primer that will allow you to make good food and lifestyle choices without having an advanced degree in the subject. Interested? Keep reading.
What’s in My Food, Anyway?
Most of the substances found in food (besides plain water) fall into three basic categories, known as macronutrients.
Carbohydrates (carbs) are sugar compounds that provide the majority of food’s energy value. Simple carbohydrates include sugar in all its permutations: Table sugar (sucrose), brown sugar, raw sugar, molasses, honey, corn syrup (including high-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS), malt or malt syrup, fruit sugar (fructose)—anything with an “ose” on the end of it is a highfalutin’ name for sugar. In addition, refined-grain foods—including such starches as white rice, white bread, etc.—also contain simple carbs. These break down rapidly, causing blood sugar, called glucose, to rise rapidly. That rise in blood sugar provides a quick burst of energy, often followed, alas, by a crash when glucose falls as quickly as it spiked.
Complex carbohydrates are found in whole foods: whole-grain breads and pastas, buckwheat pancakes, beans, most vegetables. Although these foods are eventually broken down into simple sugars within the body, the process takes longer. This means that blood sugar doesn’t rise—or fall—as quickly. Complex carbs also tend to be bulkier, which means you don’t need as much food to feel full, and often contain a variety of other nutrients. You may have heard of the glycemic index, meant to measure how quickly any particular food makes blood sugar rise. Complex carbs are lower on the glycemic index than simple carbs. (To learn more about how this concept works, visit www.glycemicindex.com.)
Fiber, which includes many substances the body cannot absorb into the bloodstream from the intestines, is a special kind of complex carbohydrate. Insoluble fiber—what Grandma called “roughage”—helps quick-march wastes through the gastrointestinal system. Found in stuff like wheat bran and whole-grain foods, it encourages regularity and keeps potentially harmful substances from lingering too long on the bowel walls. Soluble fiber, like that in oat bran and dry beans, forms a thick gel in the intestines. That helps trap bile, a fat-digestion agent chock-full of cholesterol, and push it out of the intestines. This causes the liver to grab more cholesterol out of the bloodstream, which can help lower cholesterol levels (and keep bile flowing freely through the gall bladder, which helps prevent stone formation).
Although most fruits contain a lot of simple carbs—that’s what gives them a sweet taste—many also contain a lot of fiber (such as the pectin in apples), along with vitamins, minerals and other healthy stuff. (There’s a reason they say an apple a day keeps the doctor away!)
Fats provide a lot of energy (called “calories” in nutrition-speak), but also are necessary for your body to make hormones, cell walls and other vital structures. Like carbohydrates, all fats are not created alike.
Saturated fats (sat fat) are usually solid at room temperature, like butter and lard. (Chemistry quickie: Fats consist of oxygen, carbon and hydrogen atoms; when as many hydrogens as possible are attached to the fat molecule, the fat is said to be saturated.) Sat fat is thought to increase both total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, which makes it a fat you want to eat less of. The other fat to avoid is trans fat, created when someone tries to fool Mother Nature by saturating an unsaturated fat in order to increase the shelf life and enhance the texture of baked products.
Unsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature, like plant oils. Unsaturated fats don’t carry a full complement of hydrogen atoms; depending on how many hydrogen atoms are missing, the fat is either monounsaturated (like olive and peanut oils) or polyunsaturated (like corn and safflower oils). Unsaturated fats generally lower total and LDL cholesterol while raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
It would seem that the idea would be to eat as much unsaturated fat as possible. This is true up to a point, but it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind. First, fat is very high in calories (9 calories per gram) and very low in fiber. That’s why you should be careful with foods like, say, nuts, which are very healthy but also very high in calories due to their fat content. One or two handfuls, fine; half the container, no.
econd—and to make the whole topic even more confusing—different unsaturated fats contain different fatty acids, the basic building blocks of which all fats are made. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in many of the most popular plant oils, including soy, corn and safflower. The typical diet consumed in industrialized countries, which depends heavily on processed food, contains high levels of omega-6 oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in flaxseed and fish oils, among other sources. They are good for you in many ways, but that doesn’t make omega-6s “bad”—actually, the body needs both. The problem is one of balance: Highly refined foods often have their omega-3 oils, which go rancid quickly, stripped away. This leaves the diet heavily tipped towards the omega-6s. Making an effort to consume more omega-3s helps balance your fat intake.
Protein is the stuff of which your tissues—muscles, organs, etc.—are made. Protein consists of 22 building blocks called amino acids, of which nine (or eight, depending on which nutrition expert you consult) are considered essential—they must be included in your diet. The others are non-essential amino acids, meaning your body makes them. Animal-derived foods, like meat and eggs, are complete proteins because they contain all 22 amino acids. Plant foods are incomplete proteins, in that they are missing one or more amino acids. (Vegetarians get the amino acids they need by eating different sources of protein, such as beans and grains, over the course of a day.) You need more protein if you are still growing, sick or injured (the latter includes having undergone surgery), or if you engage in strenuous exercise. Beware, though: Like carbs and fats, protein has calories, which can cause you to gain weight if eaten in excess. Consuming a lot of protein can also stress kidneys that aren’t entirely up to snuff.
Food substances found in smaller amounts—otherwise known as micronutrients—are one reason mothers have always told kids to eat their vegetables (whether Mom knew it at the time or not). Vitamins help regulate body processes of all kinds. Some vitamins dissolve easily in water; such water-soluble vitamins (the various Bs and vitamin C) are not stored in the body. Others—vitamins A, D, E and K—are fat-soluble, and the body does store them. Minerals, like vitamins, help keep the body running properly. Major minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, are needed in greater amounts than trace minerals, such as iron and zinc. Phytonutrients are substances plants use to defend themselves against the vagaries of weather, disease attack and pest infestation. These generally colorful compounds, like the lycopene in tomatoes, appear to help humans fend off serious ailments, including cancer and heart disease.
What’s a Calorie and Why Should I Care?
Just as a fireplace burns wood to produce energy in the forms of light and heat, our cells burn glucose (and sometimes fat) to produce the energy we need. Bodily fuel comes from the food we eat; calories measure the amount of energy that is released when a specific amount of food is burned.
If you take in the same amount of calories in food that you burn off in a day, your weight remains stable. However, if you take in more calories than you burn off, the extra calories have to go somewhere, so they get stored as those lumps and bumps that make you dearly wish you hadn’t hung a full-length mirror in the bathroom.
What’s a would-be thin person to do? First, control calories by controlling portion sizes. For packaged foods, this means keeping a wary eye on the number of servings as stated on the label. (Some companies get away with outrageously low calorie claims by breaking a package into serving sizes that wouldn’t whet a gerbil’s appetite.) For other foods, the average serving size is probably less than you think.
In addition, try to eat the bulk of your calories during the day; especially, do not skip breakfast. Daytime calories (assuming you aren’t a night-shift worker, or a complete slug) have a better shot of going towards fueling your activities than those consumed at night, which run an excellent chance of congealing into fat while you sleep. And not eating all day sets you up for a case of the raging hungries by dinnertime, in which you eat everything you would have eaten during the day anyway, and then start attacking the fridge and pantry. Some nutritionists recommend consuming six smaller meals instead of three large ones, in the belief that healthy snacking can prevent mealtime gorging.
In addition to reducing calorie intake, you need to increase calorie output—and that means exercise. (You’re right, life isn’t fair. Get over it.) Early human beings were an active bunch, what with all that running away from predators and such. And even today, when many of us spend our days tapping away at keyboards, our bodies are still designed to move. Another factor in the exercise-consumption equation: If you try to lose weight by severely restricting your food intake without extra exercise, your body will go into survival mode and actually become more energy efficient. Energy efficiency is good for your hot water heater, bad for you.
While any kind of movement beats just sitting there, a good fitness regimen includes two kinds of activities. Aerobic exercise includes bicycling, jogging, running, swimming or walking long enough to get your heart beating a bit more quickly, but before you become totally out of breath. Aerobic exercise helps burn off calories and condition your heart; it also takes the edge off of stress.
Resistance training basically means weightlifting, either with free weights (barbells and such—you can even use such things as handle-equipped plastic jugs filled with water) or fancy-schmantzy machines like they have in health clubs. Weights build muscle, which (at least in theory) burns more calories pound-for-pound than fat tissue. You don’t have to worry about looking like Ah-nald, either; building massive muscles takes extreme—one could say obsessive—effort. Getting a physical before undertaking a lifting regimen is a good idea, as is taking at least a couple of lessons from a trainer so you learn proper, injury-avoiding technique.
So there you have it—nutrition facts in a nutshell. Put this knowledge to work by finding an eating plan you can love for a lifetime.
Sizing Up Servings
Measuring out servings of everything you eat just isn’t practical. That’s where the following eyeball portion guides come in handy:
* 1/2 cup beans or vegetables: a rounded handful
* 1/2 cup cooked pasta or rice: a small ice-cream scoop
* 1/3 cup nuts: a level handful
* 3 ounces cooked meat: covers your palm
* 1 ounce cheese: 4 dice
How Do I Pick Healthy Foods in Restaurants?
Restaurant dining is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to healthy eating. That’s because it isn’t management’s job to feed you healthy food; it’s their job to feed you food that makes you want to come back and eat again and again, and in stomach-staggering portions. But you can enjoy meals out without going overboard:
* Have some water, or water and fiber before going out.
* Either don’t order as much food as you usually do, or have part of what you do order bagged for the next day’s lunch before digging in.
* Turn down the sugary drinks and go with club soda or water. Keep in mind that some types of diet soda can provoke insulin release.
* If you’re doing the low-carb thing, pass on the breadbasket. If you’re a complex carber, ask for whole-grain breads/rolls.
* Ask for sauces and dressings on the side, and then only use what you really need.
* Go easy on fried foods, especially (gasp!) deep-fried. Stick with roasted or broiled items instead.
* Ask for reduced amounts of cheese and/or butter. Don’t order anything with a cheese sauce.
* Don’t be shy when it comes to inquiring about healthy menu options and cooking techniques—not having loads of salt added to your dish in the kitchen, for example. If you get a huffy attitude in response, don’t return to that eatery.
* Split dessert with a friend, or at least take part of it home for consumption the next day (and not at 2 a.m., either).