Diet is paramount in achieving optimal physical health. Luckily, its rather simple to have a good diet. Most of us are aware of macronutrients – protein, fats, and carbohydrates. There is much debate about how many calories is ideal, what proportion of macronutrients we should eat, what a good carb is or a bad carb or a good fat or a bad fat. This article will simply give an overview of the basics of nutrition and will not touch on calorie counting, restriction, or other advance dietary topics.
To keep protein simple, it can be complete or not complete, which means it either has or does not have all of the essential amino acids necessary for the body to function properly. Essential amino acids are amino acids not produced by the body and are necessary to be consumed through diet. Amino acids are the components that make up proteins. Complete proteins include meats such as chicken, beef, fish – and animal products such as eggs, cheese, and yogurt; there are also complete, non-animal proteins such as quinoa. Incomplete proteins are typically legumes, beans, vegetables, and other non-animal sources. So, to get all the amino acids needed for proper functioning, one can either eat meat, animal products, quinoa, or a combination of vegetables and legumes.
Fat consist of three types: saturated, monounsatured, and polyunsaturated. Saturated are heavy, such as coconut oil and butter – they are solid at room temperature and below. Monounsaturated are typically liquid at room temperature; examples of foods with monounsaturated include olive oil and avocados. Polyunsaturated tend to be liquid at room temperature as well – examples of foods with these types of fats are vegetable oils and fish oil.
Medium-chain saturated fats can such as coconut oil are supposedly easily absorbed, not readily stored as body fat, and thermogenic – meaning they “burn” stored body fat (1) There is also trans-saturated fat; a fat that was altered to increase its shelf-stability – it was once unsaturated but with high heat and pressured the molecular structure was changed.
There are three types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9. There are three types of omega-3 fats: ALA, EPA, and DHA (2). ALA is found in vegetables oils, nuts, and vegetables. EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish. ALA is partially converted to EPA and DHA in the body, although the efficiency at which this occurs is debatable, so eating EPA and DHA sources is likely a good idea. There is a debate about the proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in the diet, but close to 1:1 seems logical. Although numbers such as 12:1 for omega 6 to 3 or 17:1 have been suggested (8). Omega-9 can be produced by the body so it is not key in dietary planning.
So, the basics on fat are you need saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated in the diet. Moderate amounts are of course key. Sources should be fresh and not refined. Polyunsaturated is one to pay attention to – we often consume much more omega 6 than 3, so limiting vegetable oil (I Can’t Believe its Not Butter) and canola oil is ideal. Walnuts have the best ratio of 3:6 of the nuts. A fish oil supplement is helpful – from a trustworthy source, free of contaminants. Eating fish is okay – just from trustworthy, uncontaminated sources – which are few nowadays. A great source if from the wild waters of Alaska.
There is debate about what is the best cooking oil – logically it seems saturated fat, such as coconut oil, because it has the most stable molecular structure. I would think heating olive oil or vegetable oil for too long may cause a shift in bonds and structures that are difficult for the body to digest and utilize (3). The CDC disagrees with this view, as well as an old nutrition professor I had (4).
Carbohydrates (carbs) are fiber (soluble, insoluble), complex carbohydrates, and simple carbs (sugars) – fiber keeps our digestive system operating properly and ensures proper bowel movements. Too much fiber can cause an upset stomach. We all know too much sugar is not good for us, and can even be physically addictive (5, 9). Complex, unprocessed carbs include vegetables, fruits, beans/legumes, seeds, and whole grains. Carbohydrates are another touchy subject in the area of nutrition – some advocate for diets of many servings of whole grains, some advocate for cutting out grains and all sources of complex carbs completely besides vegetables. Valid points can be made on both sides, such as the use of ketogenic diets to combat cancer. All in all, it is up to individuals to decide what dietary strategy in regard to carbohydrates works best for them.
Micronutrients consist of fat soluble (Vitamins A, D, E, & K) and water soluble (B Vitamins, C, beta-carotene). Most of the nutrients are dietary – only D is converted in our bodies through direct sunlight exposure (UVA & UVB), although it can be taken orally through food and supplementation as well. Many nutrients are found in vegetables; therefore, eating vegetables is a good idea. B-12 is tricky for vegetarians – as it is highest in meat. Vegetarian sources of B12 can be found by clicking here; vegan sources of Vitamin B12 can be found by clicking here. There are also trace minerals such as iron, chromium, and copper which are found in foods. They are essential in the human body as well; in theory, if one consumes a balanced diet, then they will consume enough of these trace minerals for proper functioning in the body.
Water is simple – we must drink pure, clean water. Ideally, everyone would live by an uncontaminated spring or fill their jugs from a mountain peak waterfall. But, at the very least, a good filtration system is ideal. Some are better than others, but even PUR or BRITA removes bacteria, heavy metals, chlorine, and possibly fluoride. Bottled water is often unregulated – it is best to use filters. Some investigations have shown bottled water was the same quality as tap water – the only difference is you pay $1/liter and use valuable resources to convert oil to plastic for the bottle (6).
Diet is simple yet complicated – it is simple in the sense that we know when we are hungry, when we are full – we know what makes us feel good – what makes us feel lethargic – what tastes good – what tastes bad – it is our innate ability to know what to eat and when. But, in our modern society, we are extremely distracted and do not often actually pay attention to how our food makes us feel. We may repeatedly eat soy or dairy, even though we are allergic to it. We eat these allergenic foods, which cause inflammation, but we are accustomed to this feeling and have strong minds and busy schedules, so we deal with it. We also have created substances which interfere with our body’s chemical signaling, such as asparatame, so we may not even be sure whether or not we are full (7).
I would say the most simple dietary approach is to eat mindfully. If we have a basic understanding of general nutrition principles, such as sugar being bad, moderation being good, etc… and can physically feel how food is affecting us, we can make our own dietary decisions rather than relying on government agencies or even nutritionists and physicians to tell us what we should and should not be eating. All the information available by trained professionals is just a tool to help us eat properly; it is essential to understand the basics, and then choose foods that are the best for our bodies.
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*Originally posted on my old website which no longer exists, riverbearfitness.com