Nutrition ( Part 1)
My History with Food
Hello dear reader. Well, here we are - another year in the Gregorian calendar, we call it 2023. It’s sure to be an interesting ride with some fairing better than others. There are so many tempting topics to write about right now. With the world stage rife with disaster and deceit, promise and possibility, the available topics to choose from are many and all very tempting to write about. I have chosen the chop wood carry water approach, which means I am going to stick to basic things like food and water.
In this week’s post and the next, I will write about food and nutrition, I will follow that up with a blog about digestion, and later a post on water and hydration. With wonky supply chains and the attempt to shut down farms world wide, food will surely be on all of our minds for the foreseeable future. As you know, I usually tackle topics that could fill many a book. From agriculture practices to starvation, from nutrient content to food as medicine, topics around food are abundant.
Eating healthy has been a lifelong practice for me. As the daughter of organic gardeners and granddaughter and great granddaughter of Italian immigrant restaurant owners, food has been a central part of my life from the beginning. I have been fortunate to grow up on organic vegetables and fresh fish in the summertime - caught by my Dad who was a seasonal commercial fisherman. Both sides of my family were great cooks and my maternal Grandmother used to throw the most delicious and elaborate dinner parties I have ever attended.
I luckily inherited my mother’s metabolism, meaning I never had an issue with weight and was free to enjoy food without concern. I also escaped the travesty of anorexia and bulimia which so many people of my generation had to face. Suffice it to say I enjoyed food then and I enjoy it to this day. I love to eat and I also love to cook. When I moved away from home and went to college, the first two years I was stuck eating dormitory food, and it was the only time in my life that I actually gained weight. I had a stroke of luck when I moved out of the dorms and into a household of healthy eaters who loved to cook. In the following household I lived with someone who worked at a food co -op and used to bring me there to shop as I had no car at the time.
Years later when I went on to study Chinese Medicine, I added to my knowledge of food as medicine, as food is a distinct focus in that particular arena. Prior to that I had studied Ayurveda on my on and learned about Doshas. Doshas are primary energies that run through a person’s body and contribute to their overall constitution. The Ayurvedic diet promotes eating according to your constitution, but that is a topic for another time. I merely mean to say that the connection between food and health was instilled in me from an early age and has followed me throughout my life.
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Food Security and Food Waste
According to the U.N., one in four people globally are moderately to severely food insecure. There are many factors contributing to this devastating number. In the U.S. alone the Covid pandemic wiped out a decade worth of improvements in food security. In 2020 1 in 6 Americans and 1 in 4 children faced food insecurity. How maddening and criminal then to think of the perfectly good food ( about half of our crops ) that get wasted due to our obsession with blemish - free produce. Add to that the government’s insistence that farmers either destroy or throw away their crops ( called subsidizing) in order to keep the price index where they want it.
Consider all the produce thrown away daily by restaurants and grocery stores and combine it with the the aforementioned food waste. Add to that the amount of food that goes to waste in the average household, and I do believe the U.S. could be considered the most wasteful country in the world where food is concerned. The other problem we have is that much of the food consumed in the U.S. is calorie rich and nutrient poor ( think junk food and fast food).
It makes my head spin to think of all the wasted resources that go into food production related to junk food, fast food and gmo food. If you have not read them, I wrote three blogs on gmo food which are highly informative. They are entitled GMO Part One, Two and Three.
You are what you Eat…
Onward then to what we eat and why we eat it. Our diets are comprised mostly of carbohydrates, proteins, fiber ( soluble and insoluble) and fats. Let’s look at why our body needs each one of those and some of the best ways to get them from our diet. Before we jump in, I do want to mention that we are quite literally what we eat. Our body does an amazing job at renewing itself over and over and it uses what we ingest as building blocks. We eat food not only for calories , but for its nutrient content which in turn becomes the new us.
98% of the atoms in the body are replaced yearly. New brain cells are formed in the body every day via the hippocampus and subventricular zone. As a matter of fact, the body replaces billions of cells every day. The body makes about two million new red blood cells every second. Skin regenerates itself every 27 days. Cells in the stomach lining can renew as fast as every two days. A liver can regrow to a normal size after 90% of it has been removed ( heaven forbid that should ever be necessary ). Most liver cells replace themselves within three years in a non - compromised body.
Carbs, Fiber, Protein and Fats
You may have noticed that the old food pyramid has been swapped for what is now called the food plate. Honestly, I do not subscribe to either and I feel in general they are more related to food markets and current trends than to individual needs. Granted, it is important to get enough fiber, protein, carbs and fats. In the U.S. we love to put things in one size fits all boxes, but I can not say I find this approach to be beneficial. Different ages, genetic make ups, body types, blood types , all have different needs. Food can become super complex super fast and that takes all the fun out of it.
So I am going to side-step those complexities all together. I will say this; if you give your body a chance and you learn how to listen, it will tell you what it needs - mine does. The trouble is, many people eat more for pleasure than for health and they end up eating based on craving rather than the body’s necessity. In reality healthy eating is actually very pleasurable for the body and the senses. Let’s talk about each category I have mentioned starting with carbohydrates. You may also consider how eating according to season is important if you have never given it much thought.
Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are called macronutrients, so called because we need large quantities of them in our diet. Of these three, carbs are said to be the most important. Carbohydrates come in three forms : sugar, starch and fiber. While the former is considered a simple carb, starch and fiber are called complex carbohydrates ( due to their molecular structure). Carbohydrates fuel our bain, muscles and organs.
“Starches can be found in foods like beans, whole grains, and some vegetables, like potatoes and corn, while fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds “ ( Source 1)
“The healthiest sources of carbohydrates ( complex carbohydrates) —unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans—promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a host of important phytonutrients. “ ( Source 2)
“Unhealthier sources of carbohydrates ( simple carbohydrates) include white bread, pastries, sodas, and other highly processed or refined foods. These items contain easily digested carbohydrates ( simple carbohydrates) that may contribute to weight gain, interfere with weight loss, and promote diabetes and heart disease. “ (Source 2).
In summary, carbs are a macronutrient which provides your body with: starch ( needed to make glucose which is then converted to energy ), fiber, ( important for blood sugar regulation and bowel movements) phytonutrients ( anti - inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal) and vitamins ( vital nutrients ) . Carbohydrates coming from fast food and junk food do not offer us the same type of energy, nutrients, starch and fiber as healthier food choices do, and can lead to health complications including heart disease and diabetes. Starches high in fiber are the healthier choice.
Simply explained there are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Both play a role in our blood sugar, cholesterol, digestion and elimination. Sometimes we feel full due to the amount of food in our stomach and sometimes we feel full because our body is satiated with the right amount of nutrients. When you eat a nutrient dense meal, you can eat less and still feel full. If you eat food lacking in nutrients, you can eat quite a bit and not feel full, because your body does not feel satiated due to lack of nutrients.
“Fiber plays an important role in blood sugar. Carbohydrates ( where fiber comes from) become glucose (sugar) which is converted into energy ( ATP, heat) by the body. Fiber is the carb that helps manage diabetes and can even help reverse Type 2 diabetes. Fiber is commonly classified as soluble, which dissolves in water, or insoluble, which doesn't dissolve.” (Source 3)
Soluble fiber.” This type of fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material. It can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Soluble fiber is found in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyllium.” (Source3) This list is not exhaustive. See more under Resources below.”
Insoluble fiber. “This type of fiber promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and increases stool bulk, so it can be of benefit to those who struggle with constipation or irregular stools. Whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans and vegetables, such as cauliflower, green beans and potatoes, are good sources of insoluble fiber.” (Source3) I realize certain grains (especially wheat) are a controversial food, especially due to RoundUp toxicity , etc. I have to save that for another time.
Complex carbs allow for slower digestion which is good for stabilizing blood sugar. They also bulk up stool and allow it to flow freely through the digestive tract. We expend 75% of all our energy on digestion alone, so a healthy digestive tract is of utmost importance for both nutrient absorption, energy production and waste elimination.
“Like other biological macromolecules such as polysaccharides and nucleic acids, proteins are essential parts of organisms and participate in virtually every process within cells. Many proteins are enzymes that catalyse biochemical reactions and are vital to metabolism. Proteins also have structural or mechanical functions, such as actin and myosin in muscle and the proteins in the cytoskeleton, which form a system of scaffolding that maintains cell shape. Other proteins are important in cell signaling, immune responses, cell adhesion, and the cell cycle. In animals, proteins are needed in the diet to provide the essential amino acids that cannot be synthesized. Digestion breaks the proteins down for metabolic use.”
That’s a very scientific, almost intimidating (if science is not your jam) definition of protein. I chose to use it, so you can see what a vital role protein plays in the body. Mostly owing to the meat industry wanting to sell meat, for the longest time Americans ( U.S. specifically - America is a big place ) were lead to believe that meat was the primary way to get your protein, just as they told us that dairy was the primary way to get our calcium ( good ol’ capitalism).
Are you aware of the high protein content in black beans, lentils, quinoa, peas, broccoli, asparagus and avocados? Meat is a controversial subject. People care about the welfare and treatment of animals for good reason. Most people in the U.S. eat way too much meat which also has an extremely negative impact on the environment. That being said, I know some people eat it and some don’t. Some people may actually need to eat meat for health reasons. This is not a debate, it is an article about macronutrients.
Here are five compelling reasons why you should make sure you are getting enough protein every day:
1. Build. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage and skin. In fact, your hair and nails are comprised mostly of protein.
2. Repair. Your body uses it to build and repair tissue.
3. Oxygenate. Red blood cells contain a protein compound that carries oxygen throughout the body. This helps supply your entire body with the nutrients it needs.
4. Digest. About half the dietary protein that you consume each day goes into making enzymes, which aids in digesting food, and making new cells and body chemicals.
5. Regulate. Protein plays an important role in hormone regulation, especially during the transformation and development of cells during puberty. “ (Source 4)
Protein Keeps you fit in the following ways:
Speeding recovery after exercise and/or injury
Reducing muscle loss
Building lean muscle
Helping maintain a healthy weight
Curbing hunger ” ( Source 4)
Another benefit of protein is that it fills you up faster.
“Protein plus fiber keeps us full longer, which means you don’t feel the urge to eat as often. This helps keep weight down while fueling our cells with the right nutrients they need.” (Source 4)
In short, proteins are one of the most important macronutrients we eat which perform multiple indispensable functions in our body. However, unless we truly need meat due to blood type or health condition , there are many ways to include protein in the diet. You can find a printable pdf of proteins in the Resources section below.
Not all fats are created equal and like I said before; market trends, capitalist mentality and corporate interests often dictate what people eat. To illustrate this have you noticed that crickets are all the rage right now along with faux health food meatless meat like “ The Impossible Burger” ? I won’t get into it now, but it has nothing to do with health. Remember when fat was discouraged? Fifty years ago the sugar industry quietly paid scientists to point the blame at fat Full article here. This is what I mean when I say capitalism and corporations dictate food trends.
Back to fat. Fat plays a role in: cell structure, nutrient absorption, energy storage, nerve, brain ( our brains are 60% fat) and heart function. Fat plays a part in hormones as well communication amongst cells. Fat also informs metabolism and blood sugar as well as blood pressure. It can also make food more flavorful and satiating, which means you don’t need as much to feel satisfied. In sum, fat plays a very important role in our overall health.
I will not go into all the science on saturated vs. unsaturated fat here. It is however important to understand as both affect cholesterol level in different ways. For the full skinny on fat ( see what I did there - lol ) I found a highly informative article written by an M.D. - read here. The author offers a comprehensive explanation of different fats, their roles , which to avoid and how to get enough. In general you want to incorporate both saturated and unsaturated fats into your diet. Saturated fats have received a bad wrap in the past. Dr Axe helps dispel that myth and gives you plenty of ways to incorporate both types of fat into your diet. I have provided his article in the Resource section below.
In closing, macronutrients are the building blocks of our bodies contributing to almost every aspect of our biological function imaginable. Variety in our diet is important as different foods have different nutrients. Fast and junk food contribute to poor health and lack the nutrients and building blocks we need for good health. Organic foods are the healthiest, because they are chemical free and have a higher nutrient content and contribute to a health gut microbiome as well as contributing to the overall health of our ecosystem.
Beware of market trends around food and always do your research before buying the “ latest news” in regards to food trends. Fiber is important not only for, elimination but also for a healthy digestive tract , assuring that we are able to absorb the nutrients we consume as well as contributing to a healthy immune system. Carbohydrates offer us not only soluble and insoluble fiber, but starch for energy. Proper types and amounts of carbs help stabilize our blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates also supply us with important phytonutrients ( anti - fungal, anti - bacterial and and anti-inflammatory).
Proteins come from many more foods than meat alone. Proteins play a role in everything from digestion, to building and repair , hormone regulation and oxygenation in the body. In short, protein is responsible for nearly every task of cellular life including: cell shape, organization, product manufacture and waste clean up as well as maintenance.
Healthy fats nourish our brains and hearts as well as our nerves and cells. Fat - specifically cholesterol - makes cell membranes possible. Fats aid in the production of cholesterol ( HDL and LDL) and also releases hormones, making the body feel full thereby reducing the odds of insulin resistance. Every cell in your body needs fat for the membranes to work properly - and that helps your hormones enter the cells. Did you know that if a woman does not have enough body fat, her body will stop making estrogen and she will not be able to become pregnant?
Naturally these are general guidelines to eating and everyone needs to find what works for them. I love the very simple approach by Danish CEO “ Wengel” . She says each meal should consist of four handfuls - one of protein, one of carbohydrates, and two of fruits and vegetables, plus a spoonful of fat. You should take into account: the season, your health, your age, your level of activity, etc. Remember to think outside the box when it comes to proteins. I have never counted calories. I think the gist is: lots of fruits and vegetables, a moderate amount of grains , legumes and meat and a healthy amount of fats ( an avocado a day keeps the doctor away) .
Source 1 Short and jam packed, this 1 page article helps explain the chemistry behind carbs and illustrates how they are broken down in the body and why it matters.
Source 2 This 1 page nutrient dense article is delicious and packed with great information about carbohydrates. It comes out of Harvard University
Source 3 More about fiber from The Mayo Clinic
Source 4 Why is Protein Important in Your Diet?
Top 20 Soluble Fiber Foods and their benefits (Dr. Axe website): Read here.
Printable pdf - a list of complex carbohydrates: Click here.
Short article on protein including a printable list. Click here.
Short article including a list of bad fats and good fats Click here
18 best sources of protein for vegans and vegetarians, Click Here You will be surprised , even if you are not vegan or vegetarian, I highly recommend taking a peek at this list.
Dr. Axe Article about saturated fats (excellent!) including links to the following topics What Is Saturated Fat?