Nutrients can be divided into two categories: macronutrients, and micronutrients.
First we will discuss macronutrients…
Macronutrients are those nutrients that the body needs in large amounts. These provide the body with energy (calories). We all need three macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, and fat.
Carbs can be split into groups, simple carbs and complex carbs.
Simple carbs break down quickly so sugar hits the bloodstream fast, causing a spike in insulin which is best avoided as this causes feelings of fatigue shortly after and reduces our bodies ability to burn fat for fuel and to remain in a balanced state. Also, if you’re trying to lose fat, simple carbs are even more important to avoid as most of it’s energy released goes to fat storage.
Most manmade carbs are simple carbs, examples are X.
Complex carbs are the ones you want in your life. These include X. These break down more slowly. (research benefits of complex over simple carbs)
Try to get most of your carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, fat-free and low-fat dairy, and whole grains rather than added sugars or refined grains.
The fats you eat give your body energy that it needs to work properly. During exercise, your body uses calories from carbohydrates you have eaten. But after 20 minutes, exercise depends partially on calories from fat to keep you going.
You also need fat to keep your skin and hair healthy. Fat also helps you absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, the so-called fat-soluble vitamins. Fat also fills your fat cells and insulates your body to help keep you warm.
Fats come in different forms, as listed below.
- Unsaturated fat – Healthiest form. Helps the body function at it’s best and reduces the chances of getting heart disease or cancer.
(olives, nuts, avocados, seeds, fatty fish, eggs, tofu, legumes,)
- Saturated fat – In large amounts, saturated fat is known to increase cholesterol levels and can increase your risk for heart disease. Decreasing the amount of saturated fat in your diet can be beneficial
- (coconut oil, avocado, animal based meat, dairy )
- Trans fats – which is short for trans fatty acids, occur naturally in some foods but are also artificially produced. Because trans fats are not healthy, food manufacturers are phasing them out.
(some microwave popcorn, certain vegetable oils, fried fast food, non-dairy coffee creamers, some pizzas, and bakery products sometimes contain it as they are made with vegetable shortening or margarine.)
Protein: often called the body’s building blocks, protein is associated with building muscle and repairing tissue. However, protein is needed for more than just muscle growth. Protein is made up of many different amino acids which are the building blocks of organs, bones, hair, enzymes, and pretty much all of the tissues in your body.
Protein from plant sources tends to be lower in saturated fat, contains no cholesterol, and provides fiber and other health-promoting nutrients.
The protein foods group includes seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
The World Health Organization calls micronutrients “magic wands that enable the body to produce enzymes, hormones and other substances essential for proper growth and development.
Here are some of the important ones:
- Iron: helps transport oxygen throughout the body. If we don’t have enough, we’re likely to have lowered immunity and can become anaemic. Iron is found in: red meat (the best source), chicken and fish; grains, vegetables and legumes; nuts and eggs also contain some.
- Vitamin A: is important for vision, the immune system, skin and growth in children. Vitamin A is found in: liver, oily fish, milk, egg yolk and cheese.
- Iodine: is necessary to make thyroid hormones, which control the body’s metabolism and are responsible for bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy. Iodine is found in: fish and seafood; seaweed (e.g. nori and kelp); small quantities in dairy foods, vegetables and meat; fortified foods such as salt and bread in some countries.
- Vitamin C: is essential for keeping gums, teeth and bones healthy; helping wounds heal; helping the body resist infection; helping the body absorb iron and forming collagen to build bones and blood vessels.Vitamin C is found in: colorful fruits and vegetables.
- Calcium: is essential to build and maintain bones; enables the blood to clot and muscles to contract and helps regulate blood pressure. Calcium is found in: dairy (the best source) especially milk, cheese and yoghurt. It can also be found in fortified non-dairy milks; sesame seeds, nuts, prawns, sardines and dark green vegetables.
What Can We Conclude From This?
To get the essential nutrients and micronutrients, we need to eat a wide variety of food. The composition of a healthy diet can vary; different people need different combinations of foods and in different amounts.
Around the world, there are groups of people who stay healthy and live the longest. Known as the Blue Zones, people in these communities eat very varied diets. But there are some common factors, which are reinforced by scientific evidence. These factors are:
- An emphasis on plant foods – eating “mostly plants”, whether we include animal products or not – is clearly associated with good health
- An emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods – limiting refined carbohydrates, added sugars and processed foods – is important for good health.
- Eat a variety of different types of healthy foods, the gut microbiome thrives best on variety. (To learn about how the gut can help you build muscle quicker, or lose weight faster, read this!)
A good rule to live by is to make your main meal look like the perfect plate shown below.
Okay, great… I already knew all that but how do I stick to it?
It’s difficult to eat perfectly all of the time. That’s why we shouldn’t make eating a religion, and assume if we eat something unhealthy once it’s all over and we may as well give up on eating healthy. The key here is to eat mostly healthy foods. Automate your meals and make healthy the default. You can make this easier by meal prepping dinner for most of the week and eating the same breakfast every morning. Then you can give yourself a day or two at the weekend to slide if you want.
The important thing is to plan in advance. Create order. Then from that order, if you want chaos, create some controlled or planned chaos. Then it’s guilt free and all the more enjoyable. Eating healthy isn’t about never eating unhealthy things again, it’s about making your default healthy and having that as a foundation.