Nutrition is the process of consuming food and having the body use it as raw materials for growth, fuel, and function. Nutrition comprises nutrients, reasons to eat healthy, ways to eat smart, and much more.
Benefits of a Nutritious Diet
A healthy diet will give your body the right amount of energy, enough raw materials, and all the “little helpers” you need to stay healthy. Good nutrition will also provide phytochemicals and antioxidants that will help keep you feeling young, looking great, and perhaps even disease-free.
A healthy diet includes lots of fruits and vegetables, some whole grains, high-quality protein, enough dairy or other calcium sources, and a bit of healthy fat.
While you don’t want to deny yourself a few treats and the foods you love, it’s best to cut back on unhealthy foods that are high in sugar, fat, sodium, and calories. That’s where portion control comes in handy. Eating right looks easy enough on paper (or on a computer screen). But if you haven’t been doing it for some time, it can be difficult to get back on track.
The foods you eat provide the energy your body needs to work. Just like you need to put fuel in your car or recharge your cell phone battery, your body needs to be fed food that provides it with energy every day.
Glucose is the body’s favorite form of energy. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose as well as fructose and galactose. If you don’t get enough carbohydrates, your body can make glucose from protein through a process called gluconeogenesis. If you consume too many carbohydrates, your body will convert them into fat, and store them in your adipose tissue.
Fiber is another form of carbohydrate, but it does not break down into sugars. Fiber is present in all plant foods and is important in the digestive process. Fiber can help both regulate blood sugar and lower cholesterol. In turn, this may help prevent heart disease, some cancers, and obesity.
Protein comes from foods you eat and is broken down into individual amino acids. The body uses these amino acids to build and repair the various parts of itself. Also, muscles contain lots of protein, which needs to be replenished through diet. The body even uses protein in its immune system, hormones, nervous system, and organs.
The body also needs dietary fats. Fats are part of the structural building blocks of the body. They are also responsible for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, hormone signaling, growth and brain development, and are important for maintaining hair and skin health. The body can also use fat for fuel, especially during bouts of exercise.
Micronutrients—the vitamins and minerals you get from your diet—are just as important as the carbohydrates, protein, and fats (even though you only need them in small amounts).
Micronutrients usually function as co-enzymes, which means they help speed up some of the body’s chemical reactions.
- A few of the micronutrients the body needs to function include:
- B-complex vitamins helps convert carbohydrates for energy.
- Vitamin A promotes vision.
- Vitamin C helps to keep connective tissue strong and the immune system functioning.
- Vitamin D is essential for proper calcium uptake.
- Zinc is involved in many metabolic processes.
Calcium is probably the best known dietary mineral. It has several functions in the body. But the reason you hear or read about calcium so much is that lots of it are stored in your bones and teeth. Therefore, you need it from your diet to keep your bones and teeth strong. Another mineral you’ve probably heard a lot about is iron. Although you don’t need as much iron as calcium, it’s essential for your cells to get enough oxygen.
Your diet needs to provide adequate amounts of all of these “little helpers.” And a healthy, balanced diet will give you lots of vitamins and minerals. An unhealthy diet may make the body deficient in one or more of them.
Antioxidants and Phytochemicals
Good nutrition provides more than energy, structural components, vitamins, and minerals. Antioxidants are the phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables (responsible for the bright colors). Some vitamins and amino acids even function as antioxidants as well.
Antioxidants help protect the body from damage that comes from the sun, pollution, smoke, and poor dietary choices.
Phytochemicals are antioxidants found in plant-based foods. Although they aren’t required for body function, they may have a very powerful impact on your health. For example, quercetin (found in red apples) operates like an antihistamine and has an anti-inflammatory effect.
The dietary supplement industry is a big business and you can find supplements that claim to do a lot of things. However, the use of dietary supplements can ensure you get all the vitamins and minerals you need every day—most any multivitamins will accomplish that. But, as long as you eat a balanced diet you shouldn’t need to take any supplements.
And about those claims. Despite what you see on the labels, there isn’t always scientific evidence to back them up.14 While there are times when taking supplements is supported by evidence, it’s always best to speak with your health care provider before taking them, especially if you have any health issues.