We love to talk about nutrition – but do we really know what it means? Have you ever thought of a meal as being nutritious, but on reflection, you’re not entirely sure just what or how exactly ‘nutritious’ it is?
By definition, nutrition is ‘the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth’ or, when it comes to the study of the same, nutrition is the branch of science that deals with nutrients in humans, or how full affects our bodies.
We strive for good nutrition, I know I do, or at least I’ve been doing more so of late. It’s important for our overall health and well-being. I’ve used the car analogy previously, comparing the food we choose to fuel our bodies with the fuel we choose to put in our cars. The right fuel will make it work as expected, travel as far as we need to and the maintenance easier. The wrong kind of fuel starts to lead to short-term issues and long-term problems.
Good nutrition, with the right mix of nutrients for you, can aid in building and repairing muscle tissue if you’re training for sport or recovering from injury, it can regulate body processes and support a healthy immune system. When you’re told to drink more water or eat more fruit and vegetables, there’s usually a good reason behind it.
Types of nutrients
There are six main types of nutrients that the body needs to function properly – seven if you opt to include dietary fibre. These are
Each of the above plays a unique role in the body and it is important to consume a variety of foods that provide each of these nutrients in the appropriate amounts. Depending on the individual, the amounts of these consumed will vary. You’ll hear a lot of talk about “low carb” or “high protein” diets which comes down to consuming foods that that low or lower than most in carbohydrates and higher in protein, or limiting one type of nutrient and replacing it with another.
Protein is necessary for developing and repairing tissues in the body, as well as maintaining the immune system. Animal products like meat, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, and nuts are good sources of protein.
We’re not all meat-eaters though (Mrs. Any Given Food is vegetarian), so what about vegetable sources of protein? You won’t be found wanting anyway – quinoa, chia seeds, soy, beans, nuts, chickpeas, green peas, almonds, Brussels sprouts, sweet corn and more are all decent sources of protein.
The body uses carbohydrates as its main fuel source. Foods including bread, pasta, rice, and fruits contain them. Simple and complex carbs are two different types of carbohydrates. The body uses simple carbs, like those in sugar and sweets, for energy fairly quickly. On the other hand, complex carbs are processed more gradually and offer an energy source which lasts longer.
Fat is also important for the body, but it is important to choose healthy fats, such as those found in nuts, seeds, and fatty fish. Avoiding unhealthy fats, like those found in fried foods (sorry KFC) and processed snacks (and apologies to most other things I’ve been eating for the past 20 years), can help reduce the risk of heart disease and other health problems.
Vitamins & Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are essential for many of the body’s processes, including immune function, bone health, and energy production. Good sources of vitamins and minerals include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products. Sure, you can go down the vitamin supplement road and I’m not going to advocate for or against it, it’s just there as an option. We’re all told we need “a good multivitamin”, and we’re all told during the winter months we should be chasing some vitamin D for our sunshine-starved lives. Me? I pop vitamin C and zinc tablets (the soluble kind) fairly regularly.
Water is also an essential nutrient, as it helps to regulate body temperature, transport nutrients throughout the body, and remove waste products. It is important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and other fluids throughout the day. This is one thing I’ve really been trying to work on. When I’m active, I’ll consume much more water – running (a rarity that it is), cycling (more so), jiu-jitsu (it’s been a while), gardening (there’s a fair bit of that) – but when I’m sat at my desk or at home it becomes an afterthought and that’s not really good enough.
A balanced diet
Eating a balanced and varied diet is key to ensuring that the body receives all of the nutrients it needs. Think of “proper” nutrition. A balanced diet includes a variety of foods from each of the food groups, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, and healthy fats. I’ll repost an interesting interview I did with a consultant gastroenterologist* a few years back, he can explain it way better than me. It is also important to pay attention to portion sizes, as eating too much of any type of food can lead to weight gain and other health problems.
Impacts on nutrition
In addition to eating a healthy diet, other lifestyle factors can also impact nutrition. Regular exercise can help to support a healthy metabolism and overall well-being while getting enough sleep is important for maintaining energy levels and supporting the immune system.
Unfortunately, many people in today’s fast-paced society rely on processed and convenience foods, which are often high in calories, unhealthy fats, and added sugars. Eating a diet that is high in these types of foods can lead to weight gain, heart disease, and other health problems.
While I’m not, at least to my knowledge, in the heart disease category, old habits die hard and I’ve become pretty reliant on most of the above, in particular anything with added sugar.
Making small changes to your diet and lifestyle can have a big impact on your overall nutrition and health. I’m preaching to the choir here but sometimes I need to remind myself of the truth of the matter. Changes could include swapping out processed snacks for fruits and vegetables, cooking more meals at home, and being more mindful of portion sizes. Setting realistic goals and tracking your progress can also be helpful for staying on track and making lasting changes.
Ultimately, nutrition refers to the science of how food affects the body.
How we improve nutrition – how I will improve my own nutrition and the understanding of the same – comes through making those small changes and adjustments over time, but I’ve got to want it. Do you?
You might find the below links of interest for further reading. If you’ve a link to share, leave one in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org
*that’s gut health, by the way