Unlike robots, we need to take care of our lifestyle and support our body's proper functioning with 6 essential nutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and water. These are called “essential nutrients” because our body cannot synthesize them on its own to the amount needed. This means you need to provide them through your diet (a term used by nutrition specialists to describe the sum of food consumed by a person). Having a balanced diet, which is varied and rich in essential nutrients, is very important because a deficiency of one of these essential nutrients can cause various health problems. To help you understand how essential nutrients affect your body and what you need to eat to stay healthy, we have created the ultimate nutrition guide, accompanied by an infographic which gives you an overview of the most important facts and figures about nutrition.
The first thing you should know to start with your healthy lifestyle is that there are 6 classes of nutrients, divided in macro- and micronutrients. Macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) are needed in bigger amounts, since they provide us with energy throughout the day and support various important functions, while micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and water) are needed in smaller amounts, needed by macronutrients to work properly.
Carbohydrates, or saccharides are our main energy source, consisting of carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O). This energy is provided when the saccharide chains break down into simple sugars, with the most important one being glucose (blood sugar).
Carbs are divided into four groups: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides, classified by the number of simple sugars. Simple sugars are monosaccharides, to which all carbs are broken down to. These are glucose, fructose the fruit sugar and galactose, which is mainly found in dairy products. Galactose and glucose form the disaccharide lactose, also known as milk sugar, and fructose and glucose form sucrose, which we know as table sugar, or candy sugar, while maltose is formed by two glucose units and is known as malt sugar. Disaccharides consist of two sugars, while the complex carbs oligosaccharides consist of three to ten sugars and polysaccharides of more than ten. Starches and glycogen are polysaccharides that serve for energy storage, while dietary fiber enhances digestion and is important for absorbing other nutrients. Water-soluble fiber controls blood sugar levels and can help lower blood cholesterol, while water-insoluble fiber is connected with reduced diabetes risk. Since complex carbs are broken down slower than simple carbs and, therefore, digested slower, they are a longer-lasting source of energy. It is healthier to eat complex carbs (vegetables, oat, corn, fruits), because blood sugar is released in regular amounts, which prevents blood sugar lows and binges, while candy or sugar-drinks, for example, create sudden blood sugar lows.
Proteins are complex molecules formed from amino acids which are attached to one another in long chains. They consist of at least one long chain of amino acids and are differentiated by their amino acid sequence, the kind of amino acids forming the chain, and the protein structure, meaning the way the chains fold into a three-dimensional structure. Therefore, there are many variations possible and thus thousands of proteins in the human body.
There are nine essential amino acids, called as such because our body can't synthesize them on its own, and six conditionally essential amino acids, for which the synthesis isn't possible under special conditions, like stress or illness. The non-essential amino acids can be synthesized by the body through essential amino acids and can create more proteins. Proteins are more complex than carbs and take longer to digest, making them a longer-lasting source of energy. They fulfill a variety of very important functions, which are determined by the protein folding, like:
Proteins are nutrients extremely important for the health of all organs. They particularly benefit the health of the skin, as well as hair, bones, body tissues and muscles. Meat is generally rich in proteins, but if you prefer a meat-free diet, there are also many vegetables with a high protein content, like mushrooms, peas, broccoli, spinach.
Fats are chemical compounds of fatty acid chains, which consist of carbon and hydrogen compounds. The fatty acid chain is either saturated or unsaturated, depending on the number of carbon atoms in the chain and the type of bonding. Saturated fats have only single bonds between the carbons and are known as the unhealthy fats, while unsaturated fats have at least one double bond between the carbons and are known as healthy fats. The term “oil” mainly refers to the fat that is in liquid form at room temperature, while “fat” is solid at room temperature. There are two essential unsaturated fatty acids the body cannot synthesize on its own - alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) , and linoleic acid (omega-6). Omega-3 and omega-6 also synthesize other fats in the human body, therefore they are a very important part of your diet. Omega-6 fatty acids are important when being physically active since they promote growth and cell repair and stop cell damage. Omega-3 fatty acids are shown to lower blood pressure and may have a beneficial effect on people with varicose veins, as they stimulate blood circulation. They also increase the breakdown of fibrin, a protein necessary for blood clotting and scar formation, and have anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-3 fatty acids are linked with increased levels of “good cholesterol” (HDL - high-density lipoprotein) and decreased levels of “bad cholesterol” (LDL - low-density lipoprotein). Saturated fats, on the other hand, increase bad cholesterol and the risk of heart diseases. Fats are also a form of energy and are especially needed for the absorption and utilization of the fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, D, E and K.
A vitamin is an organic compound and refers to a number of vitamer compounds that are grouped under an alphabetized vitamin title. They are classified by their biological and chemical activity and not by their structure, therefore each vitamin group has similar functions. For example, all B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning the body cannot store them, and are needed in metabolical processes that convert either carbohydrates, fats or proteins to energy. They are either a co-factor for the process or are needed to create one. B vitamins are also important for metabolical processes creating new fatty acids, proteins and carbs, which are then necessary for other important body functions. For instance vitamin B9 (folic acid) is especially important during pregnancy and infancy, since it is important for DNA processes and it helps rapid growth and cell division. Vitamin B12 is involved in the metabolism of every cell, also affecting DNA processes.
The biochemical functions of vitamin groups are very diverse. Vitamin D, for example, has hormone-like functions, while others, like vitamin E and in some cases vitamin C, act as antioxidants. Vitamin A is important for various body functions, including vision, immune function, gene transcription, skin, bone, teeth and cellular health. Vitamin C is abundant in immune cells, thus playing a key role in strengthening the immune system. It is also needed to create at least eight different enzymes, which are needed for further body processes. Vitamin D is created in the skin with the help of UVB radiation (sunlight) and increases the absorption of essential minerals, like calcium, phosphate, magnesium and zinc. It is also important for the immune system. Vitamin E not only acts as an important antioxidant, but also as a regulator of enzymatic activity. It protects fatty acids, affects the ways genes are read during synthesises and is important for eye and neurological health.
Minerals are naturally occurring chemical elements that cannot be created by living organisms. The most important minerals for humans are magnesium, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and sodium. Other minerals, such as iron, zinc, copper or selenium, are trace elements. Most biometals are trace elements - compounds found in very low concentrations in the body, with key roles in growth and development but toxic in high amounts (a classic example would be arsenic, made famous as a poison by Madame Bovary). There are around twenty essential chemical elements, serving as electrolytes or serving structural and functional roles. Calcium, for example, is vital for the health of the cardiovascular and digestive systems, and is important for bone formation, as well as for stabilizing blood pressure and assuring blood coagulation.
Water is vital for the human body and is required in large amounts, much more than the body can produce on its own. For this reason, it’s considered an essential nutrient. Water plays a key role in all biochemical reactions that happen in the body. It transports nutrients to cells, assists in removing waste products from the body, regulates body temperature and protects joints, tissues and the spinal cord.
Water represents between 50-80% of the body weight and the most important sources are fluids, although water is found in all foods. Fruits and vegetables are the foods with the highest water content. Besides helping you stay hydrated, fruits and vegetables are also refreshing and rich in nutrients, especially vitamins. Some of the fruits with the highest water content are watermelons, oranges and strawberries. If you like salads, make sure to add some cucumbers and tomatoes, as these are the vegetables that contain the most water.
But what foods do you actually need for a healthy, nutritious diet and for staying fit?
Calories and weight management
We hear a lot about calories, but what are calories and what do we need to consider?
Calories are the units of energy which measure the nutritional energy provided by carbs, fats and proteins. The measurement unit most commonly used is kilocalories (kcal).
The most important rule when it comes to calculating your calorie intake is to consume as many calories a day as your body burns. If you eat more calories than you are actually burning, because you are not moving enough or eating too much, the extra energy will be stored in your body and will be turned into fat, since it is not being used. An adult usually needs 2000 cal or 2 kcal per day, which can also vary depending on your activity level or age. These calories should be provided through healthy food and a balanced diet, meaning they should be distributed among fats, carbs and proteins. Fats should be mostly unsaturated and proteins should be lean proteins, like fish, nuts, beans, lentils and seeds.
If your goal is to fit in your favourite jeans from two years ago and lose that fat, you should maintain a low calorie intake. Here are a few things you should consider for a proper weight management:
There are many tips and tricks and many diets to lose weight, but a proven fact is that hardcore diets are often not only depriving you from essential nutrients, but also leading to a yo-yo effect. Following these rules in the long run will lead to a weight loss because a steady low weight is only possible with a lifestyle change that needs to be guided by rules.
If you are interested in checking if you have a healthy weight for your height, you can calculate your BMI (Body Mass Index) with the formula you can find in the infographic below. Obesity can cause serious health problems, like diabetes type II, heart diseases, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, arthritis and varicose veins. But keep in mind that the BMI is only an indicator, not an actual statement about the right proportion between your weight and height, since there are many parameters that are not calculated, like muscle mass or age.
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