‘You are what you eat’ is an old adage, and still relevant today. Irrespective of what you eat, be it a pizza or chicken biryani
, the body ultimately breaks it down to basic nutrients and micronutrients. Most of the body’s work takes place in cells, and these nutrients are a vital for the proper functioning of the body.
Types of Nutrients
On a broad level, the most important nutrients the body needs are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. These are called as macronutrients. In addition, the body also needs micronutrients like vitamin and minerals. And yes, water is an essential component of what you ingest, though it is not exactly called a nutrient. Fiber too is an essential nutrient.
Proteins are a group of biological compounds which are present in every live cell, organ and tissue of the body. They are there in the form of enzymes, antibodies, hormones and much more. Meaning ‘first’ or ‘of prime importance’ in Greek, proteins participate in every cellular process occurring in the body. Proteins are responsible for the formation, regulation, repair and protection of the body of each organism. It executes a range of functions within living beings including catalysis of enzymes, DNA replication communication and coordination within the cells, molecular transportation from one location to another. There are 20 amino acids considered essential because the body must have all of them in right amounts to function properly. Twelve of these proteins are manufactured in the body but the other eight amino acids must be provided by diet. Foods from animals sources such as milk or eggs often contain all these essential amino acids, while a variety of plant products must be taken together to provide the body and the mind all these necessary proteins. Good healthy sources of proteins are not hard to find for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Meat eaters can choose from eggs, chicken, cooked lean meat and fish. Vegetarians can choose from nuts, seeds, soy products like tofu, dairy products and legumes including variety of beans and split peas. Our muscles, hair, nail and skin are all made of various types of proteins. Our digestive and immune system is dependent on protein for proper working.
While our body is good at storing fat, it is not efficient in storing protein. If the body is deprived of protein, it starts to break the muscle and convert it into proteins. It is therefore necessary to consume protein continuously. Protein is very important for sportspersons, children, adolescents and pregnant women.
Carbohydrates (or carbs) are the basic source of energy in the body. They are formed from the bonding of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. Carbohydrates can be subdivided into simple and complex carbohydrates. Glucose is an example of simple carbohydrate, while starch is an example of complex carbohydrate. In general, simple carbohydrates provide quick energy vis a vis complex carbs. Simple carbs are usually called as bad carbs since they give empty calories without nutritional value. Complex carbs are more desirable as they are processed slowly, and give sustained energy to the body. In addition, they contain a lot of useful nutrients. Whole grain bread / rotis, meat, fruits and vegetables are the body’s main source of complex carbohydrates. Pizza, white bread, aerated drinks all provide simple carbohydrates and should be avoided.
Fats are the storehouse of body’s energy. They also store and transport vital nutrients to different parts of the body, regulate body temperature, and help process vitamins A, D, E and K. Fats are made of varying combinations of fatty acids. They can be classified as saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats form a cluster easily due to their regular shape, and tend to stick to side of the arteries. Unsaturated fats have an irregular shape and do not have this tendency. Therefore, unsaturated fats are better than saturated fats. The two main types of unsaturated fat are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. They are usually found in vegetable sources and most fish. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and come from animal sources (especially red meat) and dairy products. Saturated fat is also responsible for the rise of the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can cause cardio vascular diseases. Trans fats, made by adding partially hydrogenating oil, is one more type of bad fat. It is typically found in processed food, and is used to increase the shelf life of the product. Omega -3 fatty acid is a poly unsaturated fat that is beneficial to the body. It is found in fish and seeds like flaxseed, walnuts, sunflower, etc.
Though it is technically a carbohydrate, fiber is not considered as a nutrient. That is because it is not digested by the body. Rather, it acts as a catalyst and aids digestion, protects the body from some diseases and provides roughage necessary for our wellbeing.
Vitamins and Minerals
They are termed as micronutrients. Our body needs them in small quantities. They stimulate many vital processes of our body. For example, vitamin D is needed to keep our bones healthy, iodine helps regulate our thyroid glands, and so on.
There are two types of vitamins – water soluble and fat soluble. Water soluble vitamins are not stored by the body. They need to be consumed frequently. Fat soluble vitamins are stored in the liver and fatty tissues. They should be consumed with care. Like vitamin deficiency is a concern, consuming excess amounts of vitamins can be a cause for concern too – especially the fat soluble kind.
Minerals and trace elements are necessary for building strong bones and teeth, for controlling body fluids and for converting food to energy.
Last but not least, water makes up to 70 – 75% percent of our body weight. It is a vital fluid that regulates body processes, carries nutrients and minerals to our cells, and disposes of the waste products that our body produces. Fluid losses occur continuously, from skin evaporation, breathing, urine, and stool, and these losses must be replaced daily for good health.
When your water intake does not equal your output, you can become dehydrated. Fluid losses are accentuated in warmer climates, during strenuous exercise, in high altitudes, and in older adults, whose sense of thirst may not be as sharp. Cells that don't maintain their balance of fluids and electrolytes shrivel, which can result in muscle fatigue. Food with high water content tends to look larger, its higher volume requires more chewing, and it is absorbed more slowly by the body, which helps you feel full. Water-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, broth-based soups, oatmeal, and beans.