Diet and Nutrition Basics: Do You Know Why You Need to Eat?
Do you ever think about why you eat? The easy answers are because you are hungry, tired and your stomach is rumbling. Sometimes you might also eat because you are bored, sad or happy, just because it’s lunchtime, or because that chocolate-covered donut looks so good.
Those are some of the emotional and physical reasons why you eat, but do you ever put much thought into why your body needs food? Not just any food, by the way, but healthy, good-for-you food? Why is good nutrition important?
Diet and Nutrition Basics: Good Nutrition Provides Energy
The foods you eat provide the energy your body needs to function. Just like you need to put fuel in your car or recharge your cell phone battery, your body needs to be fed energy-providing foods every day. The main form of energy for your body is carbohydrates.
Your body has the easiest time digesting carbohydrates like sugar and starch. Carbohydrates are broken down into individual glucose, fructose or galactose units. Glucose is your body’s favorite form of energy. If you don’t get enough carbohydrates, your body can make glucose from protein or fat — and if you get too many carbohydrates, your body is very good at storing them as fat.
Diet and Nutrition Basics: Good Nutrition Provides Raw Materials
Protein in the foods you eat is broken down into individual amino acids. Your body uses the amino acids to build and repair the various parts of your body. Your muscles contain lots of protein, and you need to replenish that protein through your diet. Your body also needs protein for components of your immune system, hormones, nervous system, and organs.
Another raw material your body needs is calcium. Calcium has several functions in your body, but it’s best known as the mineral that is stored in your bones and teeth. You need calcium from your diet to keep your bones and teeth strong.
Your body also needs fats to be healthy. Membranes that contain fats surround all the cells of your body. Your brain has fatty acids, and fats are also needed to signal hormones.
Diet and Nutrition Basics: The “Little Helpers”
Vitamins and minerals you get from your diet are just as important as carbohydrates, protein and fats; however, you only need them in small amounts. Vitamins and minerals usually function as co-enzymes, which means they help chemical reactions in the body happen a lot faster. For example, many of the B complex vitamins help your body burn carbohydrates for energy. Vitamin A is needed for vision, zinc is involved in many metabolic processes, and vitamin C helps keep connective tissue strong and your immune system functioning.
Your diet needs to provide adequate amounts of all of these “little helpers.” A healthy, balanced diet will provide you with lots of vitamin and minerals. An unhealthy diet may make your body deficient in one or more of these helpers.
Diet and Nutrition Basics: Above and Beyond the Basics
Good nutrition provides more than energy, structural components, vitamins and minerals. There are other substances in the foods that you eat that have become better known over the last few years.
Phytochemicals are found in the colorful parts of fruits and vegetables. Although they aren’t required for body functioning, they may have a very powerful impact on your health. For example, quercetin (found in red apples) functions like an antihistamine and as an anti-inflammatory effect.
Antioxidants help protect your body from damage that comes from the sun, pollution, smoke, and poor dietary choices. They are found in the phytochemicals of fruits and vegetables, as well as some vitamins and amino acids.
When you eat a food, you don’t eat just carbohydrate, fat or protein. You eat a piece of apple pie, a steak, or a lump of mashed potatoes. Most of the foods you eat are made up of varying amounts of all three of these nutrition components. Good nutrition means getting the right balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, plus all of the required vitamins and minerals. Great nutrition means getting a lot of the phytochemicals and antioxidants, too.
Take carbohydrates for example. What are good carbs, what are bad carbs, and what difference does it make? Since your body breaks them all down into individual units, the carbohydrates themselves aren’t necessarily good or bad. The problems occur when you eat too many, or if the other ingredients in the food containing the carbohydrates aren’t so good.
That chocolate covered donut I mentioned in the first paragraph contains lots of sugar and white flour; if you eat too many of them, you will take in extra calories that will be stored in your body as fat. The donut also contains lots of fats, probably trans-fats, that can raise your risk of heart disease. The donut doesn’t provide you with much in the way of vitamins, minerals or other substances, such as natural antioxidantsor healthy fatty acids. When you think of it this way, that donut may not sound so good any more.
A good source of carbohydrates would be almost any fruit or vegetable. These options allow you to get the carbohydrates you need for energy, plus fiber for a healthy digestive system, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. About half of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. Those carbs should come from fruits, vegetables and 100% whole grain breads and cereals — not from candy, sodas and pastries.
This concept works with proteins and fats, too. A healthy protein source is one that does not add extra unhealthy fats and hopefully offers some fats that are good for you, like navy beans. These beans provide protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates. An example of an unhealthy protein is bacon. Bacon, and other processed meats like it, contain lots of saturated fats and calories which can impact your heart health, expand your waistline, and even increase your risk of cancer.
Healthy fats come from foods that contain polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, fish, walnuts, soy, flax seeds and canola oil. While these fats and oils contain a lot of calories, you do need the fatty acids they provide. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unhealthy fats to be aware of. Saturated fats in red meats and trans fats, found in some stick margarines, baked goods and processed foods, are very bad for your health.
Good Nutrition Means Good Health
A healthy diet will give your body the right amount of energy, enough raw materials and all of the “little helpers” you need to stay healthy. Good nutrition will also provide phytochemicals and antioxidants that will help keep you feeling young, looking great, and perhaps even disease-free. A bad diet 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.
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