Many people are mainly concerned with food and healthy eating for the purpose of managing their weight and therefore their appearance. Just think of the number of advertisements out there for companies claiming they can tell you which foods to avoid or include to ensure that you lose weight. How many Pinterest boards could you fill up with the low-calorie recipes you’ve found?
Nutrition is more than calories. Even though it is important to avoid regularly eating too many calories, there is much more to consider when it comes to making food choices.
The human body is an independent machine, able to build and repair itself (barring severe injury, illness, or genetic anomaly), given the appropriate tools. Food provides the tools for every organ system to keep running optimally. Here are just a few examples of what the body gets from food:
- Ingredients for the chemical reactions that take place in the body – some of those chemical reactions create new compounds that are used in other chemical reactions
- Proteins and parts of proteins that are used to build the structures of the body
- Calories that are turned to energy for use by the brain, muscles, and other organs
- Elements that are used to create compounds called neurotransmitters that carry nerve impulses between the brain and the body
- Compounds to create healthy red blood cells that take oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body
- Fiber that influences physiological processes in the colon
Even though calories are important, nutrition has a much more profound effect on your body than your weight and how you look (see my post on total health here). When you make decisions about nutrition, it is important to consider how a variety of nutrients affect your health.
There are two broad categories of nutrients:
- Macronutrients – these are the calorie-yielding nutrients that the body requires in large amounts: carbohydrates (sugars and starches), proteins, and fats.
- Micronutrients – these are nutrients required in small amounts that do not contribute calories but are extremely important in the functions and structures of the body: vitamins and minerals.
Both macronutrients and micronutrients are vital to ideal health. Even those that are needed only in very small amounts can have a huge impact on health and a deficiency can result in severe illness. Take iodine, for example. Although the Estimated Average Requirement for iodine is only 95 micrograms per day for adults, failure to get enough can lead to goiter, decreased metabolism, and mental retardation. Iodized salt takes care of this problem, but iodine is a great example of how a tiny amount of one single nutrient can severely affect health.
But if a little is good, more is not necessarily better.
Getting enough nutrients is essential, however, taking the mass action approach and eating huge amounts of food all the time is not the answer. The body is built to process nutrients in various systems, use the amount it needs, and get rid of the rest. Too much of a nutrient over a long period of time can wear out the system and cause problems. For example, very high intake of carbohydrates (think: drinking mainly soda every day) over time takes a toll on the body and can result in decreased ability use carbohydrates effectively.
Finding the right balance of nutrients is key.
Don’t worry – I’m not about to tell you that you have to figure out how much of every nutrient you need and eat a very specific diet based on those needs. Everyone can meet their requirements, even without a degree in nutrition. Here’s the secret: Eat a variety of foods from each food group. Nutrient-dense foods can be found in all food groups, and eating different kinds of foods provides a spectrum of required nutrients. So choose those low-calorie, nutrient-dense fruits and veggies, but know that there are lots of great nutrients in higher-calorie foods like nuts and avocados, too.
National Academy of Sciences. Dietary Reference Intakes. Institute of Medicine. http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/dietary-guidance/dri-nutrient-reports/vitamin-vitamin-k-arsenic-boron-chromium-copper-iodine-iron. Published 2001. Accessed March 7, 2015.