Welcome to such an important topic to explore when we think about being healthy and how food can help us accomplish that.
My promise to you is to explore Food in the simplest way possible and do it strategically so that it's helpful and clarifying, so buckle up!
There is so much to learn about food and nutrition in general, that you can get into the matter and find a lifetime of information and different points of view, so I've made sure that we cover the must I know, therefore this is not your regular short blog post.
In any case, please consider reaching out to your physician if you need further information on your specific body and health condition.
Ok, with that being said, let’s begin!
We all need to eat food, and it's safe to say that you will do so today. If you don't take any food, that can cause a range of problems: hunger, weakness, and starvation. Food is essential for life!
Despite what you might think, we don't just eat food. Food is vitally important for our bodies and comes with its own set of benefits. Understanding what food is made of and how it fuels our bodies becomes a key factor in being as healthy as we can. "Carbohydrates", and "fats" are always present, but what do they really mean (especially on the "Nutrition Facts" labels on most of the food products we can find)?
We will try and solve all of those questions and others along the way, so hang on!
Every food you have taken, no matter if it was fast food, home food, or healthy food, they will always have 7 basic components:
- Carbohydrates (simple and complex)
Our bodies goal is to digest food and use it to keep our bodies functioning and therefore keeping us alive. It can be hard to make sense of exactly how the different systems of our body work on their own, but bear with me, we will go through the basics of the various parts that interact with food.
(Note that there will be a few non-food items in your diet, especially if you eat processed foods. Chemicals such as artificial colors and preservatives are the most common additives. These are not an inherent part of natural food so we will not explore them.)
In the simplest terms, carbohydrates provide the energy that cells in our bodies need to survive. Just like that!
It’s common to find Carbohydrates being treated like they're bad for us or even being considered poison, and being as respectful as I can, that’s not really what they're about.
Consider Carbohydrates as a great source of energy for our bodies, and more like a car engine thinks about fuel, that’s the way our bodies would “think” about Carbohydrates.
The simplest carbohydrate is Glucose. Glucose, also called “blood sugar”, flows in our bloodstream so that it's available to each and every cell in our bodies. Our cells then convert that glucose into energy to drive them. Chemical reactions on glucose then create ATP (Adenosine triphosphate), which then creates a bond that powers most of any human cells.
If we would drink a solution of water and glucose, the glucose would pass directly from our digestive system into our bloodstream and, finally, into our cells.
Glucose is a simple sugar, that's why to our tongs it tastes sweet! There are other simple sugars, for example in plants it's called Fructose, which has the same chemical formula as glucose, but with a slightly different atom arrangement. The same happens with Lactose, Sucrose (known as “white sugar”), and Galactose, they all have the same chemical formula as Glucose, but change the way the atoms are arranged for each one.
Glucose, Fructose, and Galactose are monosaccharides that are called “Simple” Carbohydrates.
There are also “complex” carbohydrates, known as “Starches”.
What makes them complex? They're made up of chains of glucose molecules. These complex carbohydrates are the way plants store energy. They create glucose and chain those molecules together to form starch. Most grains (rice, oats, wheat, corn) and plantains and potatoes (just to mention a few) are high in starch. Our digestive system breaks down a complex carbohydrate (starch) back down to its component glucose molecules so that the glucose can enter our system. Complex carbohydrates take longer to be digested than simple carbohydrates because of this.
One of the last key components of understanding carbohydrates is Insulin. Insulin by itself deserves a complete breakdown if you want to understand it in depth. If you think you need more information, I recommend you start here.
For the moment, the key functions of Insulin are:
- To enable glucose to be transported across cell membranes.
- To convert glucose into glycogen for storage in the liver and muscles.
- To help excess glucose be converted into fat.
- To prevent protein breakdown for energy.
Glucose is an essential energy source for our bodies. Our bodies have many mechanisms to ensure that the right level of glucose is flowing through our bloodstream. Like storing glucose in your liver as glycogen, and converting protein to glucose if necessary, which is essentially how we get energy.
Proteins are essential for cell growth and function. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and they provide the cells with the necessary structure and support. Proteins give our cells energy to grow and function properly.
Proteins make up approximately 20 percent of our bodies weight. The other 60 percent is water, with the remainder being minerals like calcium in our bones. Amino acids are referred to as such because each one has an amino group (NH2) and a carboxyl group (COOH). Our bodies need two different types of amino acids: essential and non-essential. Non-essential amino acids can be made by our bodies from other chemicals, but Essential amino acids can't be produced by our bodies, so we must get them from our food.
Animal and vegetable proteins both have a role in our diets. Many people get the majority of their protein from animal sources, such as meat, milk, and eggs. These animal-based proteins are typically referred to as "complete proteins," because they contain all of the essential amino acids that our bodies need. Vegetable proteins, on the other hand, are often lacking in one or more of these essential amino acids.
There are many different types of amino acids, and each one plays a vital role in the body. However, not all foods contain all of the essential amino acids that the body needs.
This is why it is important to eat a variety of foods throughout the day to ensure that you're getting all of the essential amino acids. Some vegetable sources, such as nuts, beans, and soybeans, are high in protein and can help provide complete coverage of all essential amino acids.
Proteins are essential for our bodies to function properly. They provide the structure for our cells and tissues, helping to regulate our metabolism, and play a role in many other important processes. Without protein, we would not be able to survive.
We commonly hear about saturated and unsaturated fats.
The best way to identify them is by the way they are at room temperature:
Saturated fats are normally solid at room temperature , while unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. However, most fats contain a mixture of both saturated and unsaturated fats, being olive oil is one great example of this.
We can deepen our understanding of unsaturated fats separating them between monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
The best way to see all of this is by making a small experiment. Try putting your olive oil bottle in the fridge, and after a while, you will see how the saturated fats solidify and precipitate to the bottom, while the unsaturated fats remain liquid. That is because olive oil has both of them!
Overall, unsaturated fats are thought to be more healthy than saturated fats, and monounsaturated fats (as found in peanut oil and olive oil) are thought to be healthier than polyunsaturated fats.
The fats we eat, when entering our digestive system, meet with an enzyme called Lipase, which breaks down the fat into parts: Glycerol and fatty acids. These components are then transformed into triglycerides for transport into our bloodstream. Fat adipose cells and muscles absorb those triglycerides either to use them as fuel or to store them.
Ok, but why eat fat? First of all, some vitamins are fat soluble, which means fats are the only way to get them. We will touch base on this later. As crucial as amino acids are, also are fatty acids (brain cells are built using linoleic acid for example). Our body has no way of producing these fatty acids, so food is the only way to obtain them. Last but not least, Fat is a great source of energy. It contains two times the calories per gram as do carbohydrates or protein, meaning that, if necessary, our body can burn fat as fuel (keto enthusiasts support this as a key feature of that diet).
Vitamins are various organic substances that are essential in minute quantities to our nutrition. They don’t provide energy or serve as building blocks, but are key in the regulation of our metabolic processes. We can find them in natural foodstuffs and sometimes our bodies produce some of them.
They are the smallest molecules that our bodies need to keep working properly, and we need 13 different vitamins to do so:
- Vitamin A (fat soluble, if that rings a bell)
- Vitamin B, (water soluble) has several specific vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, Folic Acid)
- Vitamin C (Water soluble)
- Vitamin D (Fat soluble)
- Vitamin E (Fat soluble)
- Vitamin K (Fat soluble)
- Pantothenic Acid (Water soluble)
- Biotin (Water soluble)
Not having enough vitamins in our body can cause severe health problems, ranging from Night Blindness (lack of vitamin A) to Anemia (lack of Vitamin E).
Having a diet based on natural food usually provides all the vitamins we need. Processed foods have most of their vitamins destroyed, so they are “fortified” with man-made vitamins. When we have trouble incorporating natural food into our diet, that’s when organic superfoods come in handy, as they help us achieve the correct amount of nutrients we need in our diet in easy ways.
Our bodies create specific molecules that require elements such as minerals in order to be created.
Some of the most common minerals our bodies need are:
Food provides these minerals, so in order to avoid diseases and various problems we need them to be part of our diet.
Surely you have heard that our bodies are about 60% water, but did you know we lose about 40 ounces of water every day? This happens in different ways, by urine, in our breath as we exhale, evaporating through our skin, and so on. Not to mention that if you're sweating hard you can lose much more water.
As we lose all of “our water” we need to be constantly replenishing it. We need to take at least 40 ounces a day (I wonder why) of water, either in the form of moist foods or liquids. In hot weather and when exercising, our body may need twice as much.
Many foods contain lots of water, like fruits and some vegetables. Making them part of our diet helps to maintain our hydration levels optimal, as drinking pure water and drinks can provide the rest we need in our day-to-day.
When we eat things our bodies cannot digest, those foods are broadly named “Fibers”. The three fibers we eat on a regular basis are Cellulose, Hemicellulose, and Pectin.
Plants are structurally composed of Cellulose, which gives vegetables their known shapes. Hemicellulose is found in the hulls of different grains like wheat (Bran is Hemicellulose for instance). Pectin is mostly part of fruits and is water-soluble but we cannot digest it. What about animals and insects like termites? Well, they have some enzymes that help them digest Pectin, and in some cases, they have beneficial bacteria in their digestive systems so that they can break down cellulose into glucose. In our case, human beings have neither the enzymes nor these beneficial bacteria, so cellulose is fiber for us.
All this information has made me hungry
Last but not least, let's take a look at Hunger and, most of all, why do we even feel hunger?
Ever wondered how our bodies know when it is our time to eat? Where do we get that sense of need to get something to eat? I bet you’ve heard somewhere that our rumbling stomachs are the ones responsible for triggering our hunger and urge to eat. Well, it happens to people who have their stomachs removed, but still, feel hungry… it’s clear that’s not the right answer.
Hunger it's known to be activated by our bodies pretty much as a switch. The main control for that switch to be turned on and off is our Hypothalamus, a small brain structure that is considered the center of hunger. If one part of the hypothalamus is hurt, that person will not feel hunger, while if the other part is hurt, that person might never stop feeling hungry and eat endlessly. So those two parts of the hypothalamus and the balance in between them is what produces our sense of hunger.
Scientists are still wondering how does the hypothalamus sense what kind of food our bodies need, but if you want to know a bit more about this, check this article out
All set, now let's eat!
Well, if you’ve come this far, congratulations! You now know a bit more about food, or you at least took a refresher course. I think it’s important to know the basics, and hopefully, this article kept my promise on being as simple as I can be. Please take in mind that, in no case, this information is the absolute all you need to know about food & nutrition, and it’s just a simple overview of the subject. So if you find yourself wanting more information I would recommend the same sources I used to write this post.
I hope you found this loooong article useful, I promise the ones to come won’t be this detailed, but this subject is so important!
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Have a great day!