Nutrition might seem simple, but knowing how to do it right isn’t. There is a lot to learn about food and nutrition if you want to be healthy and enjoy yourself.
Food is, without a doubt, one of the most important factors in our health. Most of us understand this to some extent, but in reality, few know much about nutrition and how food may affect our health. This is true for most medical and nursing students I work with. It’s hard to know where to start when information seems contradictory, confusing, and overwhelming. This post will introduce the field of nutrition and food, basic chemistry and composition of food, their role in the body, and their impact on health. We’ll also look at how to weigh better and interpret the information overload about nutrition and health. Hopefully, this will help you make sense of things to move forward with your learning goals or even begin your practice!
- Improve Your Knowledge of Food, Nutrition, and Health
- The Impact of Nutrition on Health
- How to Be Your Expert
- Introduction to Nutrition
- The Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Essential Nutrients and Their Functions in the Body
- Macronutrients and Micronutrients
- Current issues in food, nutrition, and health
- The Best Way to interpret the Information Overload about Nutrition and Health
- Energy Balance, Weight Management, Physical Activity, and Energy Expenditure
- Food Trends and Marketing
Improve Your Knowledge of Food, Nutrition, and Health
Food is a key ingredient of human life and health. It brings people together in a common bond of sharing. Food also plays an important role in celebrating cultural and religious events worldwide.
At the same time, food is a major contributor to the global burden of disease. The consumption of unhealthy diets rich in energy, sugar, salt, and fat, along with low levels of physical activity, are the main risk factors for no communicable diseases (NCDs).
Food insecurity, linked to inadequate availability or access to food, often associated with poverty and conflict, is a global public health concern that affects one-third of all households worldwide. The number of hungry people in the world has increased over the past few years. It now stands at 821 million – up from 815 million in 2016 – according to a new edition of the annual United Nations report on world food security and nutrition.
The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018 says that conflicts are a major driver behind this increase and economic slowdowns.
The Impact of Nutrition on Health
Nutrition is a key component of health and well-being. Food provides the energy and nutrients you need to be healthy. Poor nutrition can reduce immunity, increase susceptibility to disease, impair physical and mental development, and reduce productivity.
Many people in the United States follow eating patterns that are too high in calories, saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium. Eating patterns that contain these characteristics are associated with increased risk for certain chronic diseases and other adverse health outcomes.
To achieve healthier eating patterns, Americans of all ages should aim to meet the following Dietary Guidelines recommendations:
- Eat various vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables, and beans and peas.
- Eat a variety of fruits, especially whole fruits.
- Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains.
- Consume less than 10 percent of saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
- Consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium (salt).
How to Be Your Expert
The best way to get on top of all this information is to use it as a tool. Learn how to spot the good stuff and let the rest dissipate into the background noise.
Become an expert
Start by becoming an expert in your health. What are your goals and objectives? What do you want from your health? Do you want to lose weight, run a marathon or live a long and healthy life? Work out what is important for you and start making those changes today!
Eat real food
Next, become an expert in food and nutrition. How do you know if something is good for you or not? The best source of advice is still your grandmother’s! If it comes out of a packet, has more than five ingredients, or requires a degree in chemistry to read the label, then it’s probably not good for you! Go back to basics and eat real food. That means foods that have been grown, raised, or caught – not manufactured in a factory with lots of added ingredients.
Find out more about food, cooking, and nutrition. Start reading labels to know what kinds of ingredients are on offer. Try doing some home cooking to control the quality of foods entering your body.
Introduction to Nutrition
Nutrition is a process in which an organism takes in and utilizes food. Nutrition is important because it provides energy and nutrients to the body. Organisms need the energy to carry out life processes, and they need nutrients to build body parts, fight disease, and repair damage.
The human digestive system breaks down complex food molecules into small nutrient molecules that are absorbed into the bloodstream before being delivered to cells throughout the body. Nutrients consist of chemicals with specific functions, such as supplying energy or building materials for growth. They include carbohydrates, proteins, lipids (fats), vitamins, minerals, and water.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise people about how well dietary habits can promote health and reduce the risk for major chronic diseases. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines help Americans eat a healthier diet. Intended for policymakers and health professionals, this edition of the Dietary Guidelines outlines how people can improve their overall eating patterns — the complete combination of foods and drinks in their diet.
The key recommendations encourage Americans to:
- Focus on variety, nutrient-dense foods
- Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake
- Shift to healthier food and beverage choices
- Support healthy eating patterns for all
The guidelines also encourage Americans of all ages — children, adolescents, adults, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and older adults — to be physically active each day for health benefits.
Essential Nutrients and Their Functions in the Body
A nutrient is a chemical that an organism needs to live and grow or a substance used in its metabolism, which must be taken in from its environment. They are used to build and repair tissues, regulate body processes, and are converted to and used as energy.
The organism can synthesize most nutrients. Still, there are a few exceptions, such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin B12 (cobalamine), iron, omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid (LA), which must come from the diet.
The term nutrient is commonly used in agriculture for the compounds which must be supplied to the plants to survive and reproduce. In nutrition, it is the term for any substance that:
The Six Primary Nutrients
The body needs to acquire six classes of nutrients from food: protein, carbohydrates, fat, fibers, vitamins and minerals, and water. These nutrient classes can be categorized as macronutrients (needed in relatively large amounts) or micronutrients (needed in smaller quantities).
Protein is needed to grow and repair tissues, muscles, and organs. Foods with protein include meat, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, nuts, and legumes (beans).
Fat is needed to absorb some vitamins and minerals; it supplies energy; helps build cells; keeps skin healthy; protects organs from injury. It is found in butter, oils, milk products (milk contains a small amount of fat), meats, nuts, and avocado (a fruit).
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals perform a variety of functions in the body. For example, vitamin A is important for vision, iron is necessary for hemoglobin formation, and calcium contributes to bone strength.
Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for your body. Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, or blood sugar, which cells use for energy. The fiber in some carbohydrates can also help lower your cholesterol levels and keep you regular. Some foods that contain carbohydrates include grains, fruits and vegetables, milk products, and legumes.
Soluble fiber can help lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, helping to prevent heart disease. Insoluble fiber helps food move through your digestive system more quickly, which may help prevent constipation. Foods containing soluble fiber include oatmeal, oat bran, barley, dried beans, peas, and many fruits and vegetables. Foods containing insoluble fiber include whole-wheat bread and cereals and bran products such as rice bran and wheat bran.
According to the American Chemical Society, water is an essential nutrient needed by our body to function properly. It does not contain any calories but is a vital substance that transports nutrients to different body parts, removes wastes, and regulates the body temperature.
Macronutrients and Micronutrients
All food contains nutrients. The human body needs nutrients to live, grow and function properly.
There are two main classes of nutrients:
The body needs micronutrients in small quantities to work properly and macronutrients, which the body needs in larger quantities to produce energy.
Foods contain all nutrients, but they tend to be rich in some and lacking in others. For example, whole grains contain plenty of fiber but not much iron. Fish is high in protein and iron but low in fiber. Some foods contain very few vitamins or minerals (e.g., sugar, salt).
Carbohydrates provide energy. They include sugars, starches, dietary fiber, and undigested parts of plant foods.
Fats provide energy and help your body absorb vitamins. It’s found in oils from plants, fish, nuts, and seeds. Fats are also found in animal sources, including meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy products.
Protein builds muscle and other tissues. It is found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, and nuts. Protein is also found in milk products.
Micronutrients don’t provide energy. These nutrients help your body grow and develop. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals.
Current issues in food, nutrition, and health
Food, nutrition, and health are a major focus for many governments worldwide. Nutrients security, healthy diets, and foods are critical to national development and economic growth.
Food Poisoning is a serious problem in many countries. The prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) – the share of the population whose food intake is insufficient to meet its dietary energy requirements – was estimated at 10.9% in 2012-14, indicating that 805 million people were undernourished globally.
Poor diet and nutrition is also a major health issue in all countries, regardless of their level of development, with poor diet and nutrition leading to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and other no communicable diseases (NCDs).
Diets high in salt, fat, and added sugars can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other NCDs. These are some of the leading causes of death globally, accounting for 35 million deaths per year.
The Best Way to interpret the Information Overload about Nutrition and Health
In this section, we will look at ways you can better weigh and interpret the information overload about nutrition and health.
We’ll start by looking at studies that link diet and disease and learn how to distinguish between observational studies, in which researchers look for patterns among large groups of people, and randomized controlled trials, in which researchers assign one group of participants to eat one way and another group to eat another way.
We’ll also learn how to spot results from small studies presented as if they reflect a breakthrough for all humans everywhere — because they’re often not.
Then we’ll take a closer look at what happens when we try to apply these results to ourselves when we try to translate an abstract concept like “eat less salt” or “eat more fiber” into actual food choices. We’ll see that there are many ways of coming up with the same answer — or getting different answers entirely, depending on what assumptions you make.
Let’s start by looking at studies that link diet and disease
There are two main kinds of studies that scientists use to look for patterns between what we eat and what happens to us: observational studies and randomized controlled trials.
Observational studies are the kind where researchers follow groups of people — sometimes hundreds of thousands of people — for years or decades, recording everything they eat and how healthy they are. These studies allow researchers to see what large groups eat and how their health outcomes compare.
But these large-scale observational studies can’t tell us whether a certain food or lifestyle caused certain health effects because so many other factors — genetics, socioeconomic status, and the environment — might also be involved.
For example, it could be that the people who eat more whole grains also exercise more than people who don’t eat whole grains or that their economic status is such that they have better access to health care when they do fall ill.
A randomized controlled
A randomized controlled trial (RCT) is the gold standard for proving cause and effect. An RCT is a scientific experiment that investigates whether there is a direct relationship between what one does (the independent variable, also known as exposure) and what happens due to this act (the dependent variable).
For example, studying the effects of eating fat vs. carbs by assigning participants to two groups at random: the diet with fat and the diet without fat. The groups should otherwise be identical (age, gender, starting weight), except for the treatment – in this case, which group gets the diet with fat.
Let’s start with a basic example. Say you’re trying to figure out what foods to eat, and you read a report that tells you, “Eating more fruits and vegetables leads to better health!”
You might think, “Well, I don’t eat many fruits and vegetables right now, so I guess I should eat more of them.”
But then you read this other report, which says, “Eating more fruits and vegetables doesn’t lead to better health!”
What do you do? Do you go back to eating the way you were before? Or do you try to figure out why the two studies came up with different results?
Trying to figure out why two studies came up with different results is a lot harder than it sounds. You’ll need to dig into the details of each study. Need to understand how researchers conducted each study — what researchers asked people about their diets, how they measured the health effects of those diets and whether those measurements are reliable. You’ll also learn how these studies are funded, which can matter quite a bit.
Here are some ways you can filter the information and apply it to your life:
- Don’t worry about the specific advice to humans, not mice.
- Make sure you know if a study is observational or experimental.
- Look for results that are statistically significant — and meaningful.
- Make sure the conclusions are appropriate for the study design.
- Be aware of what isn’t in the article.
- Keep your story straight when making nutrition choices based on the latest news.
- Don’t freak out about small numbers; try to think in terms of big risks, not small ones.
Energy Balance, Weight Management, Physical Activity, and Energy Expenditure
Weight management is the process of monitoring body weight and taking action to reach and maintain a healthy weight. This means that, in the context of energy balance, weight management refers to efforts to keep a person’s body weight within recommended ranges.
Maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active are important ways to stay healthy. When people think about physical activity, they usually think about exercise, like walking briskly or playing a sport. But there is more to physical activity than just exercise. Physical activity is any movement that uses energy. To reduce your risk for obesity and other chronic diseases, it is important to be physically active every day — even if you have not been very active before. The types of activities you do every day — housework, gardening, walking upstairs instead of taking the elevator — can add up over time and help you lose excess body fat and prevent weight gain.
Physical activity includes all activities that use energy when we do them; this includes sleeping and eating and activities such as working or playing sports. Some physical activities use large amounts of energy: running, swimming laps, or playing soccer; other physical activities such as sleeping take very little energy but are still extremely important to your health.
Food Trends and Marketing
The food industry is a highly competitive, multibillion-dollar business. And to succeed and remain profitable, companies need to keep on top of the latest trends in food.
The following are some of the most popular ones:
Vegan and vegetarian foods
The number of people switching to plant-based diets has been growing rapidly over the past few years. A search for “vegan” on Pinterest yields more than 52 million results, with many restaurants offering vegan options in addition to their regular menu items.
Although not a new concept, sustainable seafood has gained popularity recently as consumers become more aware of the damage caused by over-fishing and other unsustainable practices. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), stocks of nearly half of the world’s marine wildlife have collapsed since 1970 due to overfishing and other threats such as pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.
Functional foods and beverages
Foods with added health benefits have long been popular among those who want to stay healthy and manage certain conditions like heart disease or diabetes. Nowadays, some food manufacturers are adding probiotics (beneficial bacteria) or omega-3 fatty acids that are believed to boost brain function or improve digestion.
By now, you should have a basic understanding of nutrition and how it impacts your health. Nutrition and food science are nothing if not complex, and as with all things, there is always more to learn. We hope that you have been inspired to question and further explore the world of nutrition and food science to make an informed decision about your health and lifestyle. Please take what you’ve learned here, mix it up with advice from others, and see how the knowledge you gain about food can help you lead a better life.