What is healthy nutrition? Let’s discuss what nutrients there are and how much you need of each and when.
What Is Healthy Nutrition?
Depending on whom you ask, you get to hear healthy nutrition is eating low carb, low fat, Caveman, organic, vegetarian, vegan, unprocessed and many more. Most of these come with a labyrinth of instructions that require very careful planning.
In reality, healthy eating doesn’t need an advanced degree in nutrition. It’s simply a style of eating that does two things:
- deliver all necessary nutrients to your body in the right amounts, while
- keeping your body weight in a healthy range
All the rest is just icing on the cake.
The Big And Awesome Macronutrients
The biggest group of nutrients in human nutrition are the so-called “macronutrients” (as in the opposite of “micro”), fat, carbohydrates and protein:
- Fat is your body’s fuel reserve and energy source for low maintenance tasks. Whenever you eat more calories than you burn, your body stores the excess as fat, which it will use in time of need (when you eat fewer calories than you burn). As it can form fat itself, the body’s need for dietary fat is low, with the only exception being the so-called “essential fatty acids” – a form of fat the body can’t produce itself.
- Carbohydrates are the fastest energy source available to the human body. They fuel activities where you need a lot of energy at once (heavy weightlifting, fast running etc.) and are the primary energy source for the brain, central nervous system and heart. They consist of chains of different types of sugars and depending on the length of that chain we call them simple or complex carbohydrates.
- Proteins are molecules that form muscles, bones, cartilage, skin and blood, build antibodies that defend against infections and a lot more. They consist of even smaller molecules called “amino acids,” of which there are 20 different kinds. Of these, the body can build 11 by itself, the other 9 (called “essential” amino acids) have to come from the food you eat. A food that delivers all nine essential amino acids is a “complete” protein source.
The Tiny And Sleek Micronutrients
In the other group we find the “micronutrients,” vitamins and minerals. The body needs them as well, but in smaller quantities:
- Vitamins are organic compounds which the human body mostly can’t build itself, and are divided into two sub-groups: fat-soluble (A, D, E, K) and water-soluble (B and C). They play a crucial role in many of the body’s mechanisms, among them cell growth (vitamin A) and building red blood cells (vitamin E).
- Minerals are chemical elements that like the vitamins take part in a lot of processes within the human body. Calcium, for example, helps build bones, while potassium and sodium lend a hand in transmitting nerve impulses. The minerals are either in the sub-group “major,” of which the body needs comparatively higher amounts (calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine and magnesium), or “minor” ( iron, cobalt, copper, zinc, molybdenum, iodine and selenium).
How Much You Need Of Each
For the macronutrients, the rule of thumb is to go for a 50/30/10 ratio, meaning
- 50% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates
- 30% from fat
- 10% from protein
If you are physically very active you may want to adjust: A very active runner, for example, should lower the amount of fat a bit, while a weightlifter can benefit from increasing his daily protein. The daily recommended amounts for vitamins are in this list, and the same for the minerals you can find on page 3 of this document (PDF).
Where To Get Them From
The easy way out is eating whatever you like and then throw in some vitamin and mineral supplement, but that can come with some health risks of its own. Supplements simply are exactly that, supplements. They aren’t substitutes.
But if you eat whole grain bread, you won’t only get your carbohydrates, you also get vitamin B and E and the minerals magnesium and iron. Eat fish and you get the essential fatty acids your body needs, with heaps of protein to boot. Eat legumes and you get the entire B complex as well as zinc, iron, calcium and selenium.
The key is to get the macronutrients from a wide variety of sources and the micronutrients will come on their own.
Now Is That A “Healthy” Diet?
You can have a perfectly balanced nutrition, following all this to the t, yet if you don’t have your body weight under control, you are still risking your health. Being overweight or obese significantly raises your risk of heart failure, high blood pressure, diabetes and many more illnesses.
In a nutshell, healthy nutrition turns unhealthy if it makes you overweight. You can have too much of a good thing!
On the upside, managing your weight doesn’t require any special diet plans – you can lose weight with practically any food. If you reduce your daily calories while keeping the nutrient mixture intact, you will also do it healthily.
The Icing On Healthy Eating
At this point you’ve come far in understanding what constitutes healthy nutrition. Now let us mention the icing we talked about above. I of course mean organic and unprocessed food.
Both may very well come with fewer pesticides, hormones and other stuff we rather don’t want to eat. But those will still be your body’s smallest problem, if after switching to organic nutrition you are still eating one-sided and therefore missing out on any of the components we discussed above. Similarly, you can also become (or stay) obese from organic and unprocessed food, developing the same illnesses as everyone else with a weight problem.
The only point at which you should get into these fine details and drive 30 miles for organic eggs laid by happy hens living in poultry paradise is when you have all the rest in order. Go and build a solid house, then worry about the ornamentation.
Picture courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.