All Around Nutrition
From Essential Nutrition To The Balanced Diet
3.9k words (14–16 mins to read)
This is not a thesis on nutritional science, but rather a romp over nutrition to help you get on top of it. In other words, it’s a nutrition hub 101. A quick-fire article if you will, intended to put you on the straight and narrow with the essential nutrition that you need in order to confidently pursue a balanced diet.
There’s much bad advice given with nutrition (and all around nutrition), made exponentially worse as of late due to social media where everyone’s looking for an audience.
Sadly, it’s easy for someone to be tricked if they don’t know the basics and the essential nutrition information that will allow them to separate the sense from the nonsense.
And one goal of this nutrition hub 101 is to make impotent much of that nonsense.
Knowing About Nutrition Is About Knowing How To Eat A Healthy and Balanced Diet
Knowing about nutrition is not so you can become privy to the latest snake-oil waffle that promises you some magic, physiological hack in pursuit of your goals.
It’s about eating a healthy and balanced diet.
Yes, we know, shocking you say! In an age where everyone seems to be on the latest fad and elimination diet (for what often seems like unknown reasons), recommending that people should be eating a healthy and balanced diet in nutrition may sound blasphemous.
Or maybe ignorant of all “the latest scientific research into the forefronts of human understanding”.
Or maybe it’s just some fad, marketing trend, or nutritional conspiracy!
But it’s none of these things. Eating a balanced diet is how you give your body all the essential nutrition that it needs. Nutrition that it needs in order to thrive.Eating a balanced diet is how you give your body all the essential nutrition that it needs. Click To Tweet
Indeed, if you’re not eating a balanced (and varied) diet then your body is almost certainly missing stuff that it needs to function optimally.
You might not even realise it because, well, it’s just business as normal. You have no reference point (and certainly no data) that would be required in order to make an informed decision or comparison.
This might seem obvious, but we had to get it out of the way so you aren’t expecting to become an informed “bio-hacker” later on.
To repeat, this article, as mentioned, is a nutrition hub 101. There is no secret, inner-circle knowledge here that “was buried by the powers that be to keep us all slaves to big business” (nor is there any to be found).
Anyway, that’s enough of a preamble. Let’s begin.
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And let’s first begin by covering some of the common myths about essential nutrition so as to put them to bed and get them out of the way
Common Nutrition Myths
Whether it’s “proper nutrition” or “essential nutrition”, nutrition of some sort is often a hot topic in the media. We have people trying to lose weight or live longer (and everything in between), nutrition in various forms and angles has been discussed at length in everything from daytime television to countless articles.
Unfortunately, with everyone and their mom talking about it, it has allowed rumors and myths to spread in a global game of telephone. Everyone is trying to ‘hack this’ or ‘hack that’ these days.
The problem with this is that nearly all of it is nonsense and doesn’t work, and is done for the sole reason to make money from the desperate who long for some magic trick to be true.
Of course, magic isn’t true, and your goals are achieved by hard work, discipline, and consistency. In fact, the magic that you are looking for is often in the work you’re trying to avoid.
Regardless, this really isn’t the place to discuss examples of such hacks, but here’s a couple of the more nonsense driven claims:
Potatoes Are Just Empty Calories
This one has been floating around since the low-carb high-protein craze first began. Potato nutrition is actually a pretty hot topic as of late, and for good reason.
From an abundance of nutrients to their energy density and versatility, potatoes are firmly in the category of ‘foods to always have in your pantry’.
Egg Yolks Cause Heart Disease
This myth stemmed from the fact that whole eggs are pretty high in cholesterol. In reality, eating foods that are high in cholesterol doesn’t necessarily make your blood cholesterol levels higher.
Your liver makes a lot of cholesterol all on its own and when you eat more cholesterol your liver simply makes less.
Coffee Is Bad for You
In fact, coffee drinkers tend to live longer (1, 2, 3, 4, 5,). The mechanisms for this are currently unknown, although maybe it has something to do with the antioxidants and its effect on the microbiome.
Coffee is a huge source of antioxidants (even more than fruits and vegetables).
Eat Small and Often
This myth has been touted for a long time claiming that it ‘kicks up your metabolism’ and so therefore is beneficial for losing fat.
While it can help people dealing with excessive hunger, various studies show that 2-3 meals has the same effect as eating 5-6 meals when it comes to your metabolism.
What matters for fat gain (or loss) is calories, not whether you have those calories in 1 meal or 10 meals.
But More Meals Can Sometimes Be Better
A reasonable argument in favour of more meals (such as 3–5) instead of fewer meals (1–2) is for muscle building, since if you spread your protein consumption out at more regular intervals then your body has more opportunities to be in an anabolic (building up) state, rather than a catabolic (breaking down) state.
However, even this argument only really applies if you’re trying to maximze your muscle protein synthesis. If you don’t care about that extra couple of percent that this may grant you then just ensuring you get adequate protein through the course of a day is probably sufficient to maintain your health.
Intermittent Fasting Is Just Superior To All
A counter argument to this comes from the intermittent fasting (IF) crowd who like to tell us that IF increases the growth hormone in our system, therefore making IF superior for growth, such as with the muscles.
But this logic is analagous to saying that just because there’s more carpenters on a job means that more things get built. But this isn’t true at all because carpenters need materials (such as wood) to build things, just like the body needs materials.
Said another way, you can’t build musle without sufficient protein, irrespective of the hormones that are present.
So no, the IF crowd are mistaken.
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In terms of popularity, after the common myths often comes the common bad habits:
3 Common Bad Habits
Unhealthy in this regard refers to eating habits that can lead to weight gain (as well as weight loss) or even health issues in general.
Arguably, there are a number of bad habits, and many people who struggle with maintaining a healthy life style can develop some unhealthy habit or other related to eating. Here are the 3 most common ones, and potentially most detrimental, in regards to weight gain.
Mindless eating often occurs due to boredom, in times of stress, or when people are feeling emotional.
Mindless eating mostly leads to eating larger portions than normal, which is why mindless eating can be a reliable path to weight gain because larger portions means more calories.
One way to avoid the downsides of mindless eating is to make sure that the portion size is small.
Instead of eating from the bag or filling an entire bowl with popcorn, make a smaller serving in a small container or sandwich sized bag.
Snacking All Day
Snacking throughout the day, most often on foods that are high in simple carbohydrates, can leave you feeling unsatisfied.
You also get more energy out of them, so you get to eat less food for the same amount of energy intake.
Swap snacks that are little more than empty calories for more filling foods that are high in nutrients.
Protein is a good choice because protein fills you up for longer.
Favouring High Calorie Dense Foods
Whether it’s condiments, drink, or food in general, high calorie dense foods are exactly what they sound like—food that’s dense with calories. That is, lots of calories in a small volume.
This leads to easy weight gain for two main reasons:
They give lots of calories in a short space of time.
They’re not very satiating per calorie.
If you’re looking to gain weight, then high calorie dense foods are the way to go!
High calorie dense foods are also pretty lacking on the nutritional front as well since they’ve generally had much of their goodness stripped out even though some have been fortified back with certain vitamins and minerals.
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It might actually be worth backtracking a little here as we hear this word ‘nutrients’ being thrown around all the time, but what are these things called nutrients anyway?
Your body requires a lot of materials in order to maintain itself, especially in optimal shape, and eating a healthy and balanced diet is THE method for getting these materials into your system in abundance.
One of the more important of these materials come in the form of nutrients, which can be divided into macronutrients and micronutrients.
You know what macro-nutrients are, you’ve probably just been calling them something different so the classification might seem a little alien to you. Here we’ll bring them to light and highlight why they’re so important to health.
What Are They?
Macronutrients make up the majority of our diet, and they come in the following three groups:
As you can see, you knew these already, and we consume them all in some form each day.
Strictly speaking, alcohol is also a macronutrient, but since the health benefits of alcohol consumption appear non-existent and abstinence improves health, it’s generally excluded from the listing.
Let’s cover the three main ones in a little more detail:
Another word for carbohydrate is sugar, and there are two types of carbohydrates (carbs): simple and complex.
Simple carbs/sugars are broken down fast and they also provide very little nutritional value or satiation. Some examples of simple carbs/sugars include:
Fructose (found in fruit)
Galactose (found in dairy products)
Lactose (found in milk and dairy products)
Maltose (found in fermented foods)
Complex carbohydrates take more time to break down, and is what you should generally focus on when eating carbohydrates.
Complex carbs also have fibre in them, which is good for your digestive and heart health. Some examples include:
Starches like legumes, grains, peas, and potatoes
Dietary fibre like veggies and whole grains
We can break down carbohydrates again into starch and fibre. Simplistically speaking, we can say that:
Starch is the energy.
Fibre is the goodness.
Our bodies are mainly built from protein and it’s used for many things, including repairing and building muscles and tissue. Some sources of protein include:
Meats like beef, pork, chicken, lamb
Fish or seafood
Dairy, like milk (but more carb than protein) and yogurt
Nuts (although more of a source of fat)
Fats are a store of energy and it’s used for various things such as hormone production, helping us absorb vitamins, coating cells and nerves and protecting our organs. We need to eat fat.
There are two main types of fats: Saturated and unsaturated.
Your intake of saturated fats should to be limited because it increases LDL and reduces HDL cholesterol, a condition that increases risk of heart disease (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,), especially when coupled with high blood triglycerides, which is generally a result of being overweight.
Some example sources of saturated fat include:
Full fat dairy products
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, should play a bigger role in your diet. Some examples of these include:
Vegetable oils like olive, canola, sunflower
Micronutrients is an umbrella term used for minerals and vitamins.
Relative to your body’s macronutrients, your body needs vitamins and minerals in a smaller amount (hence the names macro and micro).
The Difference Between Vitamins & Minerals
Vitamins are compounds that are made by plants and animals (C, D, K, etc) that are broken down by a variety of materials, such as acid or heat.
Minerals exist in water or soil, and they cannot be broken down. This makes them inorganic (iron, zinc, magnesium, etc).
It can be difficult to discern which food items contain the most amount of micronutrients, so it is recommended to eat a variety of foods to be on the safe side.
Why Do You Need Micronutrients?
Micronutrients are essential for a whole myriad of reasons, from maintaining blood flow, the immune system and other parts of your body, to building bones and keeping them healthy, to blood clotting, fluid levels, muscle contractions, cell and neuron communication… the list goes on and on.
Low levels of micronutrients have been linked to various conditions and an increased risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic conditions, so don’t be part of that crowd that doesn’t eat fruit and vegetables because they’re a carb or they contain fructose (a sugar).
How Can You Ensure You Have Enough?
For those who do not have a deficiency, a well-balanced diet that incorporates healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables will ensure your body has a great internal balance for what it needs.A well-balanced diet that incorporates healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables will ensure your body has a great internal balance for what it needs. Click To Tweet
For the sake of foods that you eat every day, the best source of micronutrients are whole foods. So to ensure that your body has the fuel it needs to maintain functioning, incorporate a well-balanced diet into your daily routine.
The nutrients themselves can always be found on nutritional labels, so next we’ll discuss reading these so as to give you a leg up in your knowledge of what you’re reading (and eating).
Easy Tips for Reading Nutrition Labels
If you are like most consumers, you seldom look at nutrition labels, but you can use this information to make smarter choices when purchasing what to eat.
Here are the important parts of the nutrition label and how to read them properly:
Take a look at the serving size specified on the label and then compare it to the actual number of servings you eat per day.
For example, if you have two servings of said food daily, then you will be consuming twice the amount of calories stated on the label.
Servings sizes should be in weight. Ignore volume measurements (such as cups) as they can be so far off with regards to weight it’s shocking.
For example, if the packet says a serving is 50g then a serving is 50g, irrespective of whether or not it also says a serving is 1/2 cup. It might be, but it might not be, so go by the weight and ignore cup measurements.
Additionally, “% DV” is Daily Value.
Another important part of the nutrition label is the amount of calories. Some folks like to dismiss calories as though they’re not really relevant, but calorie is a unit of energy, so the calories tells you how much energy said item has.
Compare the calorie amount with the nutrients itemized on the label to determine whether or not the product is worth eating. If it has 1000 calories but yet is made of nothing but simple sugar and fat then, well, it’s not exactly doing anything of benefit to you (apart from giving you energy and tasting scrummy!).
Food companies can be sly here as they know people look fondly upon things being ‘nutritious’, but they also know that the average consumer will seldom read the label to verify.
If it says nutritious but yet the packets says it’s 200 calories and 80% of the product is carbohydrate, 70% of which is sugars, then this food being nutritious is questionable.
Some products have added sugars, which provide more calories yet fewer nutrients. Go for foods and drinks with low amounts of added sugars. It always helps to read the ingredients list. The sooner an item is in an ingredient’s list then the more of that item there is in the food.
Jellies, for example, have sugar as the first item in the ingredient’s list. As such, that food item is mostly sugar.
Added sugar comes in a wide variety of names, here is a select list and in no way exhaustive:
Limit your intake of saturated fats.
Avoid trans fat.
Aim for products with healthy fats, namely monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as found in things like nuts and fish.
Generally speaking, the lower the added sugar and fat the more nutritious it’s likely to be since the amount of protein and carbohydrate (including fibre) will be higher.
Portion Sizes For Eating A Healthy & Balanced Diet
Proper portion control can be difficult for some, so if this is you consider exploring the following portion guide. Of course, individuals are different, have different lifestyles and therefore needs, so use the following as a starting guide and then adapt it to your specific circumstances.
Choosing Your Portion Size
Protein Portion – the size of your palm.
Fruit & Vegetables Portion – the size of your fist.
Carbohydrate/Starch Portion – a cupped handful.
Fats – the size of your thumb.
For men or women with a lot of lean tissue – double everything.
Hacking Your Portion Size For Weight Loss
A tactic that can be explored here is using smaller plates and utensils to trick the brain into thinking it’s satiated much sooner than it actually is. A study in Australia found that individuals that used larger bowls and plates to consume their meal would unconsciously fill the entire space and thus consumed more calories than they should.
Interestingly, eating and drinking out of red containers also appears to have similar effects.
Incorporate both tactics and see how you get on!
Create a Rainbow
Put colorful food on the plate.
Greens are wonderful, but the addition of vegetables of other colors will add even more nutrients.
Red vegetables contain anthocyanins that are powerful antioxidants, reduce the risk of macular degeneration and lower the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables have Vitamin C, Vitamin A and folic acid. Butternut squash and sweet potatoes offer potassium that helps to lower blood pressure, and the bromelain in pineapples may improve digestion and lower water retention.
White vegetables like onions, mushrooms or cauliflower also contain important nutrients.
The list goes on and on with this sort of stuff and a thousand page book could be written on it, but all vegetables and fruit are good for you, so eat the rainbow!
Add Whole Grains
The calories in whole grains are less available to other kinds, so if weight is a consideration of yours then try swapping to wholegrain instead of redined grain.
Alternatively (or as well as), making the starches a resistant starch also decreases available calories.
A resistant starch is achieved by cooking the starch (potato, pasta, rice, etc.) and then allowing it to cool. Whether you eat it cold or reheat it, it’s still a resistant starch.
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Balanced eating is about portion sizes, whole foods, and a general restriction on calories that don’t have much goodness coming along with them.Balanced eating is about portion sizes, whole foods, and a general restriction on calories that don't have much goodness coming along with them. Click To Tweet
Once people understand how to achieve these simple steps it becomes easy to adapt recipes to match the needs of the family and even to choose healthier options when dining out.
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More About Nutrition
I wish to leave you with two more worthwhile lessons.
Avocado—The Food That Has All Nutrients?
Avocado is often touted as a ‘super food’, but there really is no such thing as a super food. And, sadly, avocado is also not a food that has all nutrients.
But they’re still excellent!
And contrary to most fruits, avocados are not sweet. They are generally eaten in salads and made into oils or condiments and dips, such as guacamole.
The Nutrition Of An Avocado
Avocados contain a high amount of monosaturated fat. Incorporating unsaturated fats into your diet is important for proper cell function and may even play a role in lowering risk of heart disease.
In addition, avocados are jam-packed with stuff. One avocado:
Contains vitamins B-6, C, E, K.
Has more potassium than a banana.
Is an excellent source of magnesium,
Contains omega-3 fatty acids.
Has lots of antioxidants.
The only potential downside is that they’re high calorie, so care if weight loss is a goal of yours.
Nutrition Bars – Don’t Believe The Marketing!
With so many nutrition bars claiming wholesomeness, how do you know which ones are and which ones are basically junk food in a pretty wrapper?
Indeed, a lot of it is just marketing as it’s been discovered that putting ‘protein’ on something allows the price to be hiked. Whether or not said item is actually a good source of protein seems to be neither here nor there.
Putting ‘fibre’ on things also looks to be taking off somewhat, so expect to see more of these in the near future.
To know what’s what, read the nutrition label.
What To Look For In Nutrition Bars
If something is claiming to be, say, ‘a protein bar’, then the protein content should be the highest macronutrient on the nutrition label.
The same reasoning applies to fibre bars, or carb bars, or whatever.
Too often you won’t see this. Instead you’ll see ‘protein bar’, but when looking at the label you’ll realise it’s basically a bar of sugar with some protein.
Technically it’s not wrong since most everything has protein in it, but if you’re buying a protein bar then what you’re really looking for is a good chunk of protein, right? Exactly.
For example, the nutrition label of the protein powder I currently have in the cupboard reads:
Per 34g / 125 calories
some vitamins and minerals.
That’s a protein supplement!
Never trust the glaring, whamo sticker on the front claiming PROTEIN POWER! Read the label and see for yourself.
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Basic nutrition is a lot simpler than many make it out to be, and I hope this nutrition hub 101 has been an interesting quick romp over the topic and been of some help.
Good luck with your balanced diet… and the increase in health you will gain from it!