What is nutrition? Nutrition can tell us what kinds of food we need to eat, foods we should probably avoid, and how an unhealthy diet can trigger disease.
Eating the right foods can set your life on a good path. Making sure you get enough macronutrients and micronutrients is key to a balanced diet — twice as key during pregnancy.
Don’t you fret! I’m here to lay it all out for you. You can find all the information you need explained in layman’s terms, and it will be backed by reliable, recent research.
Who knows? This knowledge could add years to your life.
“You are what you eat.” Perhaps this cliché is more applicable — “You reap what you sow.” What you put into your body often determines how healthy your body is.
There are several dietary imbalances nowadays that are contributing to obesity, heart disease, and other life-threatening conditions.
The average American diet exceeds daily recommended intake levels of:
Moreover, the typical American doesn’t get enough:
But don’t take my word for it. Recent research backs this idea that nutrition is paramount to overall health.
The Mediterranean Diet has been shown to decrease risk of heart disease (such as high blood pressure). Following healthy diets, like the Mediterranean or Japanese diets, decreases your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Most patients with rheumatoid arthritis have unhealthy eating habits.
An unhealthy diet has been associated with physical inactivity, bigger waist size, skipping breakfast, and taking no dietary supplements (which can help round out good nutrition).
The typical Western diet also leads to imbalances in your gut bacteria, which can ultimately lead to autoimmune disease and… well, most common health issues, since your gut health is so closely connected with the health of the rest of your body.
Malnutrition and food allergies can lead to several disorders. Not getting all your required nutrients or consuming too much bad stuff can trigger chronic illness.
Studies show Western diets are dangerously high in salt, added sugar, saturated fats, and trans fats. This combination leads to cardiovascular disease and chronic illnesses that are so common in our society.
The more acidic foods that you eat, the harder your body has to work to maintain your body’s pH levels. Though your pH levels usually remain the same, the amount of strain acidic foods put on the body can lead to several health problems. This phenomenon is known as “dietary acidosis” or “diet-induced acidosis.”
You shouldn’t be scared of talking nutrition with your healthcare provider. Whether it be a dietician, a nutritionist, or a functional medicine provider — don’t be scared of what they might tell you to stop eating. Get excited about what foods you will be encouraged to eat!
What is the difference between a nutritionist, a dietitian, and a functional medicine provider? I’m glad you asked.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention your traditional primary care physician. Sadly, unless they’ve completed additional certifications outside of their medical degree, physicians in the US get an average of less than 20 total hours (not course hours, but total time) on basic nutrition.
Outside of incredibly basic recommendations (cut portion sizes, eat less sugar), most traditional docs will direct you to a dietician if you ask about how to reshape your diet to treat your health conditions.
The human body requires seven types of nutrients. Not all nutrients provide your body with energy, but they are nevertheless important.
What are the two main types of nutrients? Macronutrient vs. micronutrient — these describe whether your body requires a lot of it (macronutrients) or smaller amounts (micronutrients).
What are the seven elements of nutrition? These are the seven nutrients everyone needs:
What a strange grouping — but your body needs relatively large amounts of proteins, carbs, fiber, fats, and fluids to survive.
Proteins, carbs, and fats are energy-providing macronutrients, whereas fiber and water are non-energy-providing macronutrients.
I want to stress that the quality of nutrients are vital and have a huge impact on health. Organic and non-gmo should be chosen over conventional foods. Grass-fed/grass-finished and pastured over conventionally raised animals, high quality fats over trans fats. There are differences in the quality of nutrients that make a difference.
Made up of amino acids, dietary proteins provide your body with energy. Although they provide roughly the same energy per gram as carbohydrates, proteins are more complex and take longer to digest, making proteins a longer-lasting source of energy.
There are nine amino acids your body can’t synthesize, called the nine essential amino acids:
Look for the highest quality proteins that contain these amino acids, known as “complete” proteins. It might take a tiny bit of research when you’re shopping, but it’s important to get these essential amino acids in your diet.
Carbohydrates, AKA carbs, are sugars and starches. Carbs provide your body with energy when the glucose in carbs is turned into ATP (the currency of energy).
Found most commonly is breads, fruits, vegetables, and milk products, carbs are typically broken up into three categories:
Polysaccharides are considered the best to eat because they are the most complex. This means polysaccharides are slowest to digest, so they won’t spike your blood sugar levels as significantly. Organic, non-gmo sources are the superior choice.
Fiber does not provide you with energy. It consists mainly of carbs, but it isn’t easily absorbed into the blood and does not spike blood sugar. So most of the sugars and starches stay out of your system.
Although fats are the slowest form of energy, they are the most energy-efficient. Each gram of fat provides about nine calories, whereas carbs and proteins only provide four calories per gram.
Because it is so energy-efficient, the body will store excess fat in your abdomen and under your skin to use during periods of caloric restriction. Eventually, your body may also store excess fat in your blood vessels and inside your organs, leading to heart disease or other conditions.
However, this is actually not connected closely to the amount of fat you actually consume, as was once the mainstream way of thinking. Quality, healthy fats are a necessity for optimal health.
Fats are usually made up of multiple fatty acids.
Two thirds of your body is water. Drinking fluids is necessary for your body’s vital processes, though water does not directly provide your body with energy. There is no evidence that "the more you drink, the healthier you become" is true. And experts disagree on the right amount of water.
I would argue this is because every human is unique — another reason why functional medicine is so important. Every person needs a different amount of water each day, somewhere between one half and seven liters.
Your water intake goals can depend on BMI, age, medical history, salt consumption, and other factors. In my experience, most people are in a state of mild chronic dehydration and need to consume more water.
Micronutrients are paramount to your body’s overall health. However, micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts than macronutrients.
These micronutrients are vitamins (water-soluble or fat-soluble) and minerals. While it is prefered to get our micronutrients from whole food sources, sometimes that is not enough. We need to supplement because the quality of our food sources today are inferior compared to a century ago and the nutrients in the soil are not what they once were.
Vitamins are organic compounds that your body cannot synthesize at all or cannot synthesize enough of.
As far as humans are concerned, there are nine water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and the eight B vitamins) and four fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K).
Water-soluble vitamins are harder to store and eliminated in urine more quickly than their fat-soluble counterparts. So you need to consume water-soluble vitamins more consistently.
Dietary minerals are the elements you need besides hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen. A well-balanced diet will often include all needed minerals.
Sometimes, food is fortified with minerals. A great example is iodized salt, which is fortified with iodine, a mineral some two billion people are deficient in.
Necessary minerals include:
Antinutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that are bad for your overall health — limiting your body’s capacity to take in healthy nutrients . For some antinutrients, the negative effects come with high levels of consumption. Others should be avoided altogether. The highest concentration of antinutrients is in grains and legumes.
Here is a list of seven harmful antinutrients to cut out of your diet:
How to eat healthy seems like a huge idea. But think of these principles as simple changes, one step at a time.
What are the basic principles of nutrition?
And always work with your functional practitioner on dietary changes and lifestyle adjustments.
My goal is to help you know how to choose foods wisely.
What foods are part of a healthy diet? The answer is nutrient-dense foods.
Nutrient-dense foods are high in nutrients, but typically low in calories (the opposite of empty calories). Examples include:
Organic meats ensure animals weren’t fed harmful chemicals or antibiotics. Choosing grass fed, ethically and sustainably raised animals ensures we limit greenhouse gasses and damage to the environment — plus, we consume the healthiest meat possible.
Organic fruits and vegetables will not have been sprayed with chemicals found in pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides. Often organic varieties are heritage seed produced and have a higher nutritional profile.
Consuming organic foods can even lead to decreased risk of cancer!
Prioritize replacing your meats with organic options, as hormones and antibiotics given to non-organically raised animals are especially problematic. Replacing produce can come more gradually.
If you can’t go 100% organic with your produce, check out the EWG’s dirty dozen. EWG explains which products likely contain the most and least amount of pesticides.
You also want to look for foods that are as unprocessed as possible. Whenever companies process foods, nutrients are harder to find, and unnatural chemicals are more common.
A good rule is to stick to the edges of the grocery store. In the aisles are where most food is packaged. The edges are where fresh food generally dwells. Choose foods that are in the closest form to that which they are initially harvested in — a potato not a potato chip.
Many health advocates suggest smaller portions. This works for a lot of people who aren’t motivated to completely cut out processed foods and added sugars.
Snacking leads to more stored fat, which can lead to heart disease. In fact, benefits have been demonstrated in intermittent fasting, sometimes less is better and can give the body a chance to clean house and repair damage.
On the flip side, there is evidence that eating six meals a day but still consuming the average amount of daily calories is associated with lower levels of bad cholesterol in your blood vessels.
Especially useful for patients with type 2 diabetes, six half-sized meals a day better regulate blood sugar levels.
Despite the FDA’s recent and problematic changes, there are many helpful nutrition facts to find on the food you purchase.
The nutrition information is also beneficial for controlling portion sizes — make sure you’re sticking to single servings of foods, which may actually be smaller OR larger than you expect.
MyPlate is the United States government’s answer to healthy eating. It is the successor to the popular Food Pyramid, which had its own problems.
However, some have criticized the MyPlate for its over simplicity and the influence of lobbyists. I believe its most glaring issue is the absence of healthy oils/fats and its reliance on dairy.
While I am not in complete agreement, I do prefer Harvard’s response to the MyPlate — the Healthy Eating Plate. Harvard saw the USDA’s MyPlate as a lobbying tool, so Harvard focused on the science behind nutrition and came up with the Healthy Eating Plate.
Some key takeaways from the Healthy Eating Plate:
Fad diets are never one size fits all. Some diets are beneficial to some, and some are good for no one. The most popular diets are not always the best.
There is no magical weight loss diet. Coupling the above steps with 30 minutes of physical activity a day is the way to maintain healthy weight. The best way to do this is working alongside your functional health provider, who can give you helpful advice and feedback as you improve your nutritional habits.
Your functional medicine provider can determine what diet best suits your current health, genetics, and digestive abilities.
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