Nutrition refers to the various nutrients that are found in the different foods we eat and how the body uses these substances in the various processes that it has to undertake to function correctly. Nutritionists are scientists who study what the nutritional content of foods is and try to establish what nutrition we should be taking in, based on the demands of the human body.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states, “Nutrition is a critical part of health and development. Better nutrition is related to improved infant, child and maternal health, stronger immune systems, safer pregnancy and childbirth, lower risk of non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease), and longevity.”
Why is Nutrition Important?
Not all foods are nutritionally equal. There are some foods that are nutritionally dense, and other foods that are less dense. Different foods have different concentrations of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. If we are to make sure that we are obtaining all of the necessary nutrients that we need to function healthily, then we need to have a good understanding of the nutritional content of what we eat. Luckily, this does not require complicated counting of vitamins and minerals and precise analysis of everything that passes our lips each mealtime. If it were this precise and demanding an activity, humanity would have long since become extinct! There are nutritional guidelines that give us some idea of how much of each food group, vitamin, and mineral we need in order to be healthy. However, all of these demands can be met by having a healthy varied diet rich in fresh produce including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Types of Nutrition
Nutrition is divided up into two different groups: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients include what we consider to be the major food groups, protein, carbohydrate, and fat. These are fairly easy to recognize; protein is found in meat, fish, nuts and seeds and eggs. Protein is found in every cell and is essential for growth, energy, muscle function and many other processes in the body which are essential for life. Carbohydrates are found in grains and starchy vegetables and provide energy for the body and fiber for the digestive system to function well. Fats are found in meat, dairy and oils and again are essential to provide energy and many other bodily functions. How much of these food groups we each need and in what ratio, very much depends on a wide range of factors, but all of them are needed for optimum health.
Micronutrients include all of the vitamins and minerals that we require for optimum functioning. Vitamins are organic compounds produced by plants and animals and absorbed or produced by our bodies. The 13 essential vitamins include Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Vitamin B1 (thiamine), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), Vitamin B3 (niacin), Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), Vitamin B6, Vitamin B7 (biotin), Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin) and Vitamin B9/folic acid (folate).
Minerals are inorganic compounds that are found in the earth and water and which are then absorbed by plants and animals. Both are very important for human health, contributing to every process that the body has to engage in. From the metabolic system to the nervous system, vitamins and minerals play essential roles. The US National Library of Medicine states,
“There are two kinds of minerals: macrominerals and trace minerals. You need larger amounts of macrominerals. They include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur. You only need small amounts of trace minerals. They include iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride and selenium”.
Everyone is Different
So, how do we ensure that our nutritional needs are met? Well, before we can establish this, we need to first state that not everyone has the same nutritional needs. What you need to function well, might not be the same as what the person next to you requires. Our nutritional needs greatly depend on a number of factors such as how old we are, our sex, and the kind of lifestyle we have. Just as someone who does a lot of heavy manual work might require more calories per day than someone with a sedentary job, so too do the nutrients each person needs vary. Nutritional needs change as we age, they change during pregnancy, and they change during periods of stress, illness, or development.
When the nutritional needs are not being met, perhaps because of a limited diet or a problem with absorption, we call this malnutrition. Being lacking in a particular nutrient is known as a deficiency, and this can be treated either by dealing with the root cause of the issue, changing the diet and lifestyle, or adding supplements to the diet. Supplements are a simple way of improving the nutrition that an individual receives, but the body does greatly prefer natural sources of nutrition. Nutrition found in fresh foods is more bioavailable and easier to absorb.
Eating the Rainbow
One of the most commonly offered pieces of nutritional advice is to eat the rainbow. Far from a gimmick, this advice is grounded in science. Studies show that the nutritional content of different foods corresponds with the color of the foods. So, as a general rule, increasing the number of colors on your plate at any mealtime, will also increase the nutritional content. Of course, that is assuming the colors are natural and coming from natural sources such as fresh fruit and vegetables.
You Are What You Eat
Understanding nutrition is important; it can help you ensure that you are getting all of the vital substances that your body needs. However, it is important to remember that nutrition is more than just a theory, it is essential for health and designed to help every individual optimize their health and wellbeing. For more information on nutrition from the USA government, see nutrition.gov.
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