THE REAL DEAL ON NUTRITION
It makes intuitive sense to most of us that foods can harm you or heal you. But how? The connection is nutrition, a subject we all know something about, thanks to Mom’s admonitions to eat our veggies. But thanks to an explosion of new research over the past 20 years, it’s also a subject that’s much misunderstood.
To comprehend how good nutrition helps keep your body healthy, it’s a good idea to start with the basics: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are carbohydrates, fat, and protein—the nutrients you need in relatively large amounts. By contrast, vitamins and minerals and other substances are deemed micronutrients, because you need them in smaller amounts.
Every day, it seems, a new nutrient is touted as the key to good health—there are diets that revolve around lean protein, fiber, omega-3 fats, antioxidants, vitamin D, and much more. In reality, what you need is the right mix of nutrients. In this section, we’ll give you a quick overview of each one and what you really need.
How Carbohydrates Harm and Heal
In recent years, carbohydrates or carbs have endured close scrutiny and extensive debate as low-carb diets such as the Atkins and South Beach diets have captured the public’s attention. As a result, many people have come to believe that carbohydrates are inherently bad. But that’s not the case. In fact, carbs are our body’s primary source of energy.
All carbohydrates are made up of different types of sugars. Common sugars include fructose (found in fruits) and lactose (found in dairy foods). Our body breaks them down into glucose or blood sugar. Glucose is essential for the functioning of the brain, nervous system, muscles, and various organs.
Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, are so-called because they are chemically made of just one or two sugars. They can generally form crystals that dissolve in water and are easily digested. Naturally occurring sugars are found in a variety of fruits, some vegetables, and honey. Processed sugars include table sugar, brown sugar, molasses, and high-fructose corn syrup.
It’s hard to overdo it with foods that contain natural sugars; you’d have to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables to equal the amount of sugar in one piece of candy or one can of soda. Processed sugars, on the other hand, we overdo without realizing it. Most of the sugar in North Americans’ diets is added during food processing at the manufacturer—even to foods we don’t think of as sweet, like barbecue sauce or bread. These added sugars account for about 16% of the calories that Americans eat.
Complex carbohydrates are made of complex chains of sugars and can be classified as starches or fiber. Our digestive system can metabolize most starches but lacks the enzymes needed to break down most fiber. But both are important to good health; while starches provide glucose for energy, dietary fiber promotes colon function and may help prevent some types of cancer, heart attacks, and other diseases