back to basics | nutrition 101
It’s National Nutrition Month! What do you mean you don’t celebrate it?
Our first quarter Back to Basics theme continues with a deeper dive into secondary foods nutrition—the value of the foods you put in your mouth.
In my work in Nutrition Services at a medical center, I’ve come to recognize the breadth and depth of the ignorance the general public has about what the foods they put into their mouths do to and for their bodies.
Someone on a heart healthy diet unerringly asks for the fettuccine Alfredo in all its creamy, cheesy glory. Another on a consistent carb diet without fail wants the pumpkin custard, probably the highest-carb item on the menu.
Neither of them understands what may have put them in the hospital and why they’re suddenly not allowed to eat whatever they like. (And I suspect they’ll go right back to whatever they want as soon as they’re discharged.)
nutrition vs. nutritionism
I’ve taken the USDA version of nutrition (what most RDs study). I’ve also done a lot of study on the subject on my own.
And it may surprise you to know that I don’t spend a lot of time discussing nutrition with my clients. Instead, we focus on the principles of healthy eating.
Why don’t I teach my clients nutrition? Well, for starters, coaching is not primarily about teaching.
And secondly, I generally find that people who want to learn about nutrition tend to slide into “nutritionism.”
I believe it was Michael Pollan who coined the term, and here’s how I distinguish between nutrition and nutritionism:
- Nutrition is the science that interprets the nutrients and other substances in food in relation to maintenance, growth, reproduction, health, and disease of an organism.
- Nutritionism is an obsession with the individual nutrients in a food at the cost of understanding the nutritional value of a food as a whole.
how is it serving you?
What does that mean on a practical level?
It’s fine to understand that proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are called macronutrients and that we get energy (calories) from them.
What’s problematic, in my opinion, is when we become obsessed with the amounts and/or balance of them in our diet all in the name of adhering to a particular eating style without paying attention to how well (or not) that eating style is serving us.
If you are trying to “be Keto” or “eat a zero-fat diet” you might be offended by this stance. But hear me out.
There are lots of apps and trackers we can use to enter our food choices. Some of them even tell us how we’re doing that day with respect to our diet of choice.
And I’m all for trackers right up until the act of tracking becomes problematic. I know people who track their food choices religiously … and then do nothing with the information.
By all means, track away. And promise me that you will take a step back and take a look at how you’re feeling—physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically/spiritually.
Because nailing your macro percentages is not an end in itself—the goal is to feel amazing. Making sure you’re getting the amount of [fill in the nutrient here] that your doctor recommends is important—and not at the expense of making good choices in other areas of your eating.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that this position fits with my stance on health and wellness in general. Looking at the whole person is more important than seeing them as the organ one happens to specialize in: heart, lung, kidney, brain….
Considering what other nutrients are in a food (whole, cooked from scratch, eaten in moderate portions with mindfulness, of course) is more important than how many grams of protein it has.
(And by the way, if you’re taking time to track all your nutrients, you probably do have time to cook from scratch.)
macronutrients | PFCs
So here’s our first Nutrition 101 lesson: our bodies need energy to survive and, hopefully, thrive. That energy comes from the food we eat in the form of calories.
What’s a calorie? Well, first of all, when we talk about calories in food, we’re actually talking about kilocalories. One kilocalorie is the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 °C.
Proteins, fats, and carbs (PFCs) contain calories, which our bodies turn into energy to build and maintain all our tissues: blood, muscle, bone, nerves, hormones….
Ever wonder why foods with more fat have more calories?
- Proteins have 4 calories per gram.
- Carbs also have 4 calories per gram.
- Fats have 9 calories per gram–more than twice that of proteins and carbs.
Just about every whole food already has a protein, fat, and carb content—and the ratios vary wildly. And it is possible to generalize about which foods provide the most of these nutrients. The lists below are all looking at where PFCs occur naturally. Meaning I’m not talking about adding sugar or deep-frying in fat.
Protein is found in whole foods all across the spectrum from plant to animal world. Yes, even broccoli. (So please—stop asking vegans where they get their protein.)
Ounce for ounce, however, the most protein is found in:
- Meat, poultry, seafood, dairy
- Beans, peas, lentils (including soy)
- Nuts + seeds
Like protein, fats are a component of most whole foods whether it’s solid at room temperature (a fat) or liquid (an oil).
The most fat-rich foods include:
- Certain kinds of meat, poultry, seafood, dairy
- Nuts + seeds
- Avocados + coconuts
And yes, there are a lot of types of fats, some beneficial and some more harmful. My advice:
- Focus on fat sources found in plants—not extracted from them—and use coconut in moderation.
- If you eat animal products, make sure the animals are pastured or wild-caught.
Carbohydrates are basically all forms of sugars and come in two types:
- Simple: think white sugar, white flour, white rice
- Complex: think whole grains, beans/peas/lentils, fruits + vegetables, especially sweet veggies like sweet potatoes, beets, and carrots
If there is a macronutrient we get too much of in the Standard American Diet, it’s carbs. And most of them are simple.
Again, the whole food rule applies: better to get your carbs from whole foods (complex) than highly processed ones (simple).
If macronutrients are something we need a relatively large amount of, micronutrients, logically, are those we need in smaller amounts.
The most important thing to know about micronutrients? If ever there were a sign of us focusing on the wrong nutrients, it’s this: our bodies can’t put the macronutrients to work making the energy and building blocks of our bodies without micronutrients!
Not getting vitamins and minerals from your food is like putting gas in your car and not turning the key in the ignition: all that energy is wasted.
Micronutrients are abundant in the plant world: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans/peas/lentils.
There are two more nutrients we can’t live without—and they exist somewhere between macro and micro. We need them in large amounts (like a macronutrient), and they’re disqualified from the macronutrient category because they don’t provide calories.
The “other” nutrients are:
- Water—not simply from water/other beverages but also from the foods we eat that are high in water content, mostly fruits + vegetables.
- Fiber—again, the plant world wins this competition hands down: fiber is plentiful in whole grains, beans/peas/lentils, and fruits + veggies.
make the connection
This has been a whirlwind tour of nutrients, and you may have to reread it a few times to solidify the information in it.
And the simple conclusions that we can draw from this introduction are as follows:
- The plant world provides a much richer variety of nutrients: this doesn’t mean you have to be vegetarian/vegan/plant-based. It does suggest that increasing the amount of food you choose from the plant world will give you a more well-rounded diet.
- Since micronutrients are more plentiful in the plant world, increasing the plants foods on your plate will help you put any animal foods you eat to more efficient use.
There is a lot more that can be said about nutrition, and I’ll be covering some of it over the next few weeks.
In the meantime: I often recommend that clients with no restrictions placed on their diet—by their primary practitioner, not by themselves—make 50–75% of their plate vegetables at every meal. Yes, even breakfast. (People with kidney disease and on potassium/phosphorus restrictions sometimes have to limit fruits and vegetables, a thought that—not gonna lie—horrifies me.)
Try it for a couple weeks and let me know how you feel—physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically/spiritually. If you don’t eat a lot of plant foods now, just two weeks can make an incredible difference, particularly in your digestion and energy levels.