The foods we eat provide our body with the raw materials it needs for growth, development and function. Basically, our diet provides two groups of nutrients: macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients. The former are required for energy, the latter for optimal health.
Macro-nutrients are nutrients that provide calories, that means they provide the energy we need to function. There are three classes of macro-nutrients and are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. All of them are absolutely necessary and each one has its functions, that’s why it’s important to eat a balanced diet. Briefly, here are their main characteristics:
- Carbohydrates are further divided in simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates. Dietary fiber is a carbohydrate too and helps keep the bowel functioning properly. The human body uses carbohydrates by converting them in the form of glucose. Complex carbohydrates are converted more slowly ensuring a more constant glucose level and therefore a more constant energy. The body stores excess carbohydrate as glycogen in the liver and in the muscles. The amount stored is about 2000 calories equivalent to one day energy reserve. When this reserve is full it will be stored as fat and we gain weight.
- Proteins consist of strings of smaller units called amino acids. They are present in every living cell and provide structure to the body. They also regulate the body chemistry. Dietary protein is required for growth, tissue repair, immune system function, hormone and enzyme production, and for lean muscle mass and tone maintenance.
- Fats: Besides being a source of energy, fat stores protect the internal organs of the body. Because fats are such an efficient form of energy, they are stored either in the abdomen or under the skin for use when the body needs more energy. Fats also help regulate hormones, blood pressure, heart rate, and nerve transmission, as well as reduce inflammation and pain.
Fats are combinations of four main types:
Saturated fats consist of fatty acid chains that are fully saturated with hydrogen atoms and cannot incorporate more. They are solid at room temperature and are most often of animal or dairy origin. These fats provide a concentrated source of energy and building blocks for cell membranes. However, excessive quantities of these fats can make the body more inflamed.
Monounsaturated fats consist of fatty acids with one double-bonded carbon and all the other carbons single-bonded. They are liquid at room temperature. They help to stay healthy by reducing bad (LDL) cholesterol.
Polyunsaturated fats are composed mostly of fatty acids which have two or more double bonds in each molecule. They are also liquid at room temperature. Further divided in omega-3 and omega-6, they ensure proper nutrition to the cells and protect the integrity of the membranes. They also reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Trans fatty acids are produced by hydrogenation of vegetable oils (unsaturated fats) and are present in margarine, commercial baked foods, snacks and many fried foods. These artificial fats are extremely harmful for our health.
Micro-nutrients are vitamin and minerals. Although they are only a tiny amount of the body weight compared to macro-nutrients, they are essential for good health. They protect the body from chronic diseases and premature aging.
Each vitamin and mineral has a specific role in maintaining healthy cells. Since the body manufacture these essential nutrients only in insufficient amounts, they are mainly obtained through food. Different foods contain different levels of vitamins and minerals, so it’s important to eat a wide variety of foods. Vegetable and fruit are the most important source of micro-nutrients. However, because of depleted and toxic soils and environmental toxins the amount of vitamins and minerals in the food we eat is declining. Besides, since our lives are more stressful than ever we need even more of these essential nutrients. That’s the reason why vitamin and mineral supplements (at their natural state and not processed by Big Pharma), today, are absolutely necessary for a good health.