Updated: May 6
Nutrition is a very complex topic, and the scientific research on nutrition is always making new discoveries. This lesson will just explain some basic information about nutrition and healthy eating. First, we will look at the three types of macronutrients: carbohydrates (carbs), fat, and protein. At the end, we’ll look briefly at vitamins and minerals.
1. Carbohydrates (Carbs)
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for your body. There are many types of carbohydrates:
Simple vs. Complex Carbs
Simple carbs have one or two sugar molecules in them. The most common sugar molecule is glucose. Think of glucose as 1 unit of energy for your body’s cells. It is very quick and easy for our bodies to use simple carbs. When we eat simple sugars, we get very quick energy that also fades away quickly.
Examples of foods with simple carbs
Candy, cookies, chocolate, etc.
White flour: white bread, cakes, muffins, donuts, pancakes
Sweeteners: white sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup
Complex carbs have long chains of sugar molecules. It takes more time for the body to break down these chains into glucose to use for energy. Therefore, complex carbs give us a steady release of energy over a longer time period.
Examples of foods with complex carbs are
Whole grains: whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, millet, oats
Starchy vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins
Legumes: green beans, soy beans, red beans, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts
When choosing what to eat, we should eat more complex carbs because they give us sustained energy. Simple carbs taste good, but we will get hungry very fast afterwards. In terms of their healthiness and nutrients, we need to look if it is processed or natural.
Processed vs. Natural Carbs
Processed carbs (also called refined carbs) are carbs that have been striped of all the outer bran, fiber, and nutrients due to factory processing. Examples include white flour, white rice, white sugar, and breakfast cereals.
You might be wondering why people would remove all those nutritious parts. One reason is because it makes cooking them easier and faster. But that’s not necessarily a good thing, because as we talked about earlier, complex carbs keep us full and provide us with energy for a longer time period. The main reason is because of profit. Processed carbs are addictive. They taste good and they give the brain a quick “high” that makes the brain crave more of it in the future. Have you ever felt stressed or sad and instinctively felt like reaching for a sweet snack? That’s proof of processed carbs’ addictiveness.
Natural carbs are carbs that have not been processed. Examples include whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. Natural carbs are healthy. Many people mistakenly label fruit as unhealthy because it has simple sugars. Although fruit does have simple sugars, its sugars are not processed, which means those natural sugars are bonded to lots of vitamins and minerals inside the fruit. In other words, if you crave something sweet, eating fruits is a great and healthy choice.
Switching to Healthy Carbs
Now that we know about four types of carbs, it’s clear that complex and natural carbs are healthy. Here are some simple things we can do in our diet to switch to healthy carbs.
Fat is necessary to support cell growth, protect organs, keep our body warm, and produce important hormones.
Fat is needed for a healthy body because our cells have fat. But too much fat, especially unhealthy fat, can lead to obesity and even disease. There are two main types of fats: saturated and unsaturated.
Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats
Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, such as the fat found in meat, butter, and cheese. Many sugary snacks are also high in saturated fat, such as cakes, pastries, and chocolate. They are called saturated fats because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules.
Unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature but not always. Examples include plant oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado. They are called unsaturated fats because the hydrogen molecules are broken up, so there’s more space between the molecules.
Generally speaking, saturated fats are unhealthy, while unsaturated fats in moderate amounts are healthy. Keep in mind that saturated fats are often found in processed foods with little nutritional value, while unsaturated fats are found in natural foods dense in nutrients. According to a Harvard Health article, eating a lot of saturated fats will increase bad cholesterol in the blood, and replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is a great way to lower the risk of heart disease.
There’s a third type of fat called trans fats. Trans fat was invented by food companies when they took vegetable oil and chemically altered it to stay solid at room temperature, which makes them last longer. It was for the purpose of profit, and now it is common knowledge that these trans fats are seriously unhealthy. Trans fats are found in many processed foods, and the US government is starting to ban them.
According to a Healthline article, trans fats significantly increase the risk of heart disease. It also increases inflammation in the body, which can lead to many chronic diseases such as diabetes and arthritis.
To avoid trans fat, we need to read food labels carefully and not eat foods with anything that says “partially hydrogenated.” Restaurants also often cook with oils that have trans fat. Examples of foods that are likely to have trans fat are
Some vegetable oils and margarines: Check the label
Fried foods: fried chicken, fried fish, French fries, hamburgers
Bakery products: muffins, cakes, donuts, pastries, pies
Other junk foods: Potato chips, pizza
When it comes to oil, healthy options include extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil. If you see cheap vegetable oil, you should check the label to see if it says anything about “partially hydrogenated”. That would indicate trans fat. Many processed foods and even restaurants use oils with trans fat because it is cheaper. Therefore, the easiest way to avoid trans fat is to avoid processed foods and junk foods.
Switching to Healthy Fats
Now that we know about three types of fats, it’s clear that natural unsaturated fats in moderate amounts are healthy, while trans fat and most saturated fats are not. Therefore, people should limit meat, dairy, and cheese because they are high in saturated fats. People should also avoid processed food, fried foods, and junk foods because they are high in trans fat. People should get healthy fat from foods like plant oils, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
Proteins give us amino acids, which are the building blocks for muscle. When our body digests protein, it breaks it down into amino acids, which the body then uses to make proteins for itself. If our diet lacks carbs, then our body is actually able to convert protein in our body into carbs. That’s why when people don’t eat for many days, they start losing muscle.
Proteins are found in both animals and plants. Animal based proteins include chicken, beef, pork, fish, eggs, and dairy. Plant-based proteins include tofu, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lentils, chickpeas, soy beans, and other beans. There are also plant-based proteins that have a very similar texture to meat, such as seitan and tempeh.
Animal protein has become extremely common in modern societies and modern diet. According to a Harvard Health article, if people eat too much animal protein, they have a higher risk of diseases like kidney stones, heart disease, and colon cancer. However, a diet high in plant-based proteins may not have such risks.
Balancing the Macronutrients
By now, you’re probably wondering, “How much carbs, fats, and proteins should I eat every day?” First of all, there is no easy way to give you a clear answer. Secondly, don’t focus so much on nutrients. Remember, we don’t eat nutrients, we eat food. Healthy eating is not about hitting a particular number for our macronutrients, it’s about eating healthy foods in a healthy proportion and avoiding unhealthy foods.
From the above pictures, we can see that around 50% of our foods should be vegetables and fruits. Around 25% should be whole grains, and another 25% should be protein and fats. Keep in mind that this is just a suggested guide, and different people may need different things.
Proteins, Fats, and Illness
According to the Medical Medium, our current food industries promote protein heavily due to profit. If food companies really had the health of people in mind, they would promote fruits, leafy greens, and vegetables more. They would tell us to choose foods based on their vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant value, not on protein.
The Medical Medium also explains that the liver is responsible for turning amino acids into proteins for the body. Most of the proteins the liver makes are actually created from fruits, leafy greens, and vegetables, not from meat, eggs, tofu, fish, dairy, nuts, and seeds. We should not eat too much of the later mentioned foods because they are all high in fat, and a high fat diet is a big contributing factor to the development of chronic illness, and autoimmune diseases.
How does too much fat lead to disease? It’s because fat stays in the blood and makes it thick, which then makes it harder for our cells to get oxygen from the blood. The liver cleans out our blood, so when our blood is thick with fat, the liver can’t do its job properly, resulting in thick and dirty blood. It’s like when a garbage bin gets filled faster than it gets emptied. The garbage piles up in the body and makes us sick. When you eat too much fat, it doesn’t matter if the fat comes from meat or plants, too much fat burdens the liver.
The good news is that protein is actually found in all natural whole foods, so our options are endless. Raw spinach, potato skin, bananas, and tomatoes are just some examples. The Medical Medium urges us to eat more fruits, leafy greens, and vegetables, and if we eat animal protein, then limit it to one small serving per day. If you’re worried about getting hungry too fast, then you should eat more complex carbs for a slow, long-lasting release of energy.
Vitamins and Minerals
Whereas carbs, fats, and protein are macronutrients (macro = big), vitamins and minerals are micronutrients (micro = small) that our body needs for normal functioning. Most of them cannot be made by our bodies, so we need to get them from food or supplements. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains should provide enough vitamins and minerals.
Many people wonder if they should take vitamin pills like multivitamins. Harvard Health asserts that most studies show no health benefit from taking multivitamins. The Medical Medium explains that multivitamin pills are usually a guess blend of various vitamins in forms that may or may not be beneficial. And they put so many vitamins in there that there's very little of each, and such a small amount won't really help our health. Vitamins from real food is much better and more easily absorbed into the body.
Here is some basic information about common vitamins and minerals from Harvard Health.
*Regarding vitamin B12, the Medical Medium explains in this article that the best form of bioavailable B12 that our body can actually use is from unwashed or lightly-washed produced freshly picked from a garden. Examples include tomatoes, kale, herbs, sprouts, and microgreens.
To re-emphasize, this is very basic information, and the role that vitamins and minerals play is very complicated. Personally, I check with Medical Medium information when it comes to health and nutrition. According to his books, there are many types of the same vitamin and mineral. For example, real whole foods have bioavailable versions of vitamins and minerals that are easily digested into the body, whereas the vitamins in a pill are not as easily absorbed by the body. Another example: The copper in an apricot is very different from the copper in copper pipes. The copper from copper pipes is toxic to the body, whereas copper from an apricot can help remove the toxic copper from copper pipes.
When it comes to nutrition, the three main categories are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. We should eat natural over processed carbs, and eat more complex than simple carbs. For fats, we should avoid saturated and trans fat, and focus on getting a small amount of healthy unsaturated fats. For proteins, it’s important to get some but not too much since proteins are usually accompanied by fat in food.
To balance our macronutrient intake, experts recommend our plate should be 50% fruits and vegetables, 25% whole grains, and 25% protein and fat.
For vitamins and minerals, people will be fine as long they eat a well diversified diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Multivitamin pills, despite all their advertising, don’t actually help with people’s health. It’s best to get vitamins and minerals from real food.
Check your understanding questions
Give examples of the four types of carbohydrates. Which are healthy and unhealthy?
Give examples of the three types of fats. Which are healthy and unhealthy?
Give examples of the two types of protein. Which one is healthier?
How should people balance the three macronutrients?
What’s the relationship between high protein, fat, and illness?
Should people take multivitamin pills? Explain.