Understand the Building Blocks of Your Diet

To understand the power of food, you have to learn about what it does once you chomp, chew, and churn it through your body.

In other parts of life, you probably don’t give a hoot about the inner workings of your stuff as long as it functions properly. Who cares what hoses, tubes, and wires go where as long as your car gets you from point A to point B? Do you really need to understand the Instagram algorithm as long as you can post your favorite sunset pic? Unless you have a special or professional interest in looking under the hood of your day-to-day machinery, you, like us, probably take a lot of things for granted.

Food, however, is different. You should know about how it’s built and how it works because its effect, function, and composition aren’t the same from bite to bite. And its behavior is certainly not the same once it’s torpedoed from your mouth to your digestive system. Taking your food for granted is a recipe for bigger jeans, more doctor visits, and an earlier expiration date.

The reality is that when you understand the fundamentals of food and how your body reacts to it, it becomes that much easier to manage the When Way of eating.

THE MACRONUTRIENTS: POWER AND EFFECTS

Food is more than just photographic fodder for your Facebook feed; it contains the building blocks you need to develop and maintain your body, supplying energy and raw materials so that organs, tissues, and cells are powered to work and renew 24/7. No fuel, no you.

 

Food also includes other necessary elements, known as micronutrients, which include vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. Together, these macro- and micronutrients help dictate your overall well-being, including your weight, your waist size, and your overall health risks.

Now, keep in mind that although it may seem simple to classify particular foods as proteins, carbs, or fats, the reality is that most foods include a combination of macronutrients (that is, fish has protein and fat; beans have protein and carbohydrates).

What does that mean? Well, we don’t have to think about fractions or do complex calculations every time you eat. But we should understand why certain foods are good sources of macronutrients, so we can learn how to use their benefits to your health advantage.

Carbohydrates: Carbs are like 1980s hair bands—like them or not, they usually elicit an immediate reaction. Some of us associate the word “carb” with breads, pasta, and cake; for others, just looking at them means gaining four pounds. Athletes employ them skillfully, often “carbo-loading” before a big race or game. Today, the diet industry seems to contain two camps: carb haters and carb embracers.

Fat: For a long time, people considered fat to be a four-letter word (and we’re not talking about “phat”). Experts believed that a high-fat diet was associated with a big-belly body; fat in food equaled fat on the body. Thank goodness that dogma has changed. Today, many, many people realize that fat isn’t necessarily what makes people larger.

Instead, fat (the macronutrient kind) should be thought of as a component of food, one that has a variety of chemical interactions.

Used for long-term storage of energy, fat contains more than double the energy of carbohydrates (2.25 times, to be exact). It comes in two forms: saturated and unsaturated.

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are typically derived from animal products (coconut and palm oils are exceptions as plant-based saturated fats). These are the least healthy kinds of fat, as they’re associated with increased inflammation and increased blood LDL cholesterol. Worse, they come with proteins that change the bacteria in the gut to make them produce inflammation throughout the body. Recent studies suggest that saturated fat may also increase the risk of insulin resistance.

Unsaturated fats are those derived from plants. There is consistent evidence that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats decreases inflammation, risk of cancer, mental decline, “bad” LDL cholesterol, and risk for heart disease. Unsaturated fats can be broken down further into polyunsaturated fats (corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish) and monounsaturated fats (olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, and most nuts). Studies have suggested that a diet rich in monounsaturated fats s associated with less visceral fat—the worst kind, which can accumulate around the organs.

Polyunsaturated fats make up the outer coating of cells, but cannot be made in the body; therefore, we rely on outside sources for these (wild salmon is by far the best). Numerous studies show that people with higher levels of omega-3 fats in their blood have reduced risk of heart disease and better cognitive function. (Salmon, by the way, don’t make the precious fish oil—DHA—themselves; the fish get it by eating algae.)

Protein: Proteins can be used for energy by being turned into glucose, but that’s not their main purpose. Proteins are truly the building blocks of life. They are made up of amino acids that, like metal, can be combined into wide varieties of machines that the cells of your body need to run.

Although most people think of meat as protein, all cells contain a lot of it—even the ones in celery. The big difference between the proteins in plant cells and animal cells is the amino acids; animal proteins contain a wider variety of amino acids than plants. The body cannot internally make many amino acids, which is why vegetarians should eat a wide variety of foods to receive the full mix.

These days, our culture is as obsessed with eating protein as it is with viral cat videos. In fact, many Americans eat almost twice as much protein as they actually need.  Proteins are worth four calories per gram, just like carbs, so eating too much of them can lead to weight gain. Although high-protein diets are all the rage, we don’t recommend eating more than the average American already eats—about 82 grams a day, the amount in about 10 ounces of a grilled chicken breast—because very high-protein diets can stress the kidneys.