Differentiating between beneficial and harmful foods is the foundation of creating a healthy lifestyle. Good nutrition helps manage weight, increases energy level, improves body composition and decreases disease risk. Good nutrition isn't only for those looking to shed pounds. Everyone, regardless of weight goals, benefits from making healthy food choices.
Nutrients are broken up into two main groups: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are the ones you need in large quantities: fats, carbohydrates and protein. You get your daily energy needs from macronutrients. One calorie from healthy foods provides the same amount of energy as one calorie from junk foods. The difference between healthy choices and junk is the effect on overall health. The best food strategy is to maximize intake of good foods while eliminating the bad ones.
Dietary fat gets a bad reputation because of its name. People assume that because they're eating fat, they'll get fat. Fat doesn't make you fat, excess calories (from any of the three macronutrients) does.
Fats are split into three groups: saturated, unsaturated and trans fatty acids. Saturated fats come from animals sources and are usually labeled as 'bad fats' because of their effects on the body, mainly increasing levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol. Sources of saturated fats include dairy products, meat and eggs.
Unsaturated fats come mainly from vegetable sources and generally have a positive effect on health. Unsaturated fats are known as 'good fats' because they raise levels of good (HDL) cholesterol, reducing the risk of developing heart disease. Sources of unsaturated fats include vegetable oils, nuts/nut-butters, seeds, avocados and seafood.
Trans fatty acids are known as the 'very bad fats'. These fats are found in any food containing partially or fully hydrogenated vegetable oil. Unlike regular vegetable oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil is solid at room temperature. Hydrogenated oils increase shelf life and improve flavor.
Unfortunately, these "benefits" come at a high cost. Trans fatty acids have been shown to lower levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind) while increasing levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind). Any food that contains partially or fully hydrogenated vegetable oil contains trans fat and should be avoided.
Carbohydrates are the body's main source of energy. Greatly reducing or eliminating your intake of carbs, as some diets suggest, decreases energy levels making it much more difficult to increase physical activity.
Like fats, carbs have also gotten a bad reputation over the years. Fortunately for carb lovers, not all carbs have the same effect on overall health. Carbohydrates are split into two main groups: simple and complex.
Simple carbs are the ones you should stay away from. The problem with simple carbs is that they're digested very quickly leaving you hungry and wanting more food. This increases calorie intake.
Foods high in simple carbs are packed with sugars but contain little in the way of important nutrients: empty calories. Sources of simple carbs include soda, fruit juices, potato chips, pastries, sports drinks and candy. Simple carbs should generally be avoided except during and after an intense workout.
Complex carbs have many important health benefits. Complex carbs around found in 100% whole wheat flour (bread and pasta), brown rice, fruits and vegetables. Foods high in complex carbs are also high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber which lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease and certain types of cancer. Foods high in complex carbs are digested a lot slower than simple carbs leading to a more stable release of energy. This helps lower calorie intake throughout the day and eliminates sugar rushes and crashes.
The body uses protein to build/repair tissue, heal injuries and recover from an intense workout. Since protein is a macronutrient, it can also be used for energy in certain circumstances.
Protein is broken up into two main categories: complete and incomplete. Proteins are made of amino acids. The body has the ability to make some amino acids but lacks that ability for other amino acids.
The amino acids that can be made in the body are known as non-essential because we don't need to eat them (since our body can make them). The amino acids that the body cannot make are called essential amino acids because we must get them from food. To build or repair tissue (including muscle) and properly recover from exercise, the body needs access to all of the essential amino acids. Read complete vs incomplete proteins.
A complete protein is one that contains all of the essential amino acids. Complete proteins are found mainly in animal products making it a bit tricky if you're trying to stay away from saturated fats. Sources of complete proteins include meat, dairy products, eggs and protein supplements. Sources of complete proteins which are also low in saturated fat include low-fat dairy products, chicken, lean cuts of beef, fish, egg whites, soy and protein supplements.
An incomplete protein is one that lacks one or more essential amino acid. These proteins are mainly found in non-animal foods such as bread, rice, beans, legumes, nuts and vegetables. Is it possible to build muscle if you eat incomplete proteins? You can build muscle, gain weight and increase strength on a vegan diet if you include protein from a wide variety of foods.
Incomplete proteins are not a waste of calories. Though incomplete proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids, they still contain some. The body can combine essential amino acids from one food with the essential amino acids from another food in order to have access to all of the essential amino acids. This makes fitness progress (gaining muscle, improving strength/speed) possible on a vegetarian or even vegan diet.
Whether you're looking to lose, gain or maintain weight, energy balance is important. Regardless of what the latest diet craze says, the only thing that dictates whether or not weight changes is the amount of calories you eat versus the amount of calories you burn: energy balance.
If you want to lose weight, burn more calories than you take in. You can do this by either increasing your physical activity level, eating less, or a combination of both. Gaining weight requires you eat more than you burn. Gaining muscle, rather than body fat, requires combining more calories with more exercise. If you want to maintain your current weight, eat the same amount of calories that you burn.
Use the calorie calculator to figure out how many calories you burn each day.
Macronutrients are substances you need large quantities of while micronutrients are the ones you need small amounts of. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. These nutrients don't give you energy. Instead, they keep functions such as the immune system and energy metabolism working properly. Eating a wide variety of nutrient dense foods ensures you meet your daily requirements of vitamins and minerals. Multivitamins are not designed to replace healthy eating.
The Bottom Line
Nutrition doesn't have to be complicated. Failing to properly understand nutrition leads to a lifestyle built around lies and misinformation. A healthy lifestyle built around nutritious foods decreases disease risk, helps manage weight, improves energy level and leads to a well-balanced life.