How to Understand a Healthy Food
What is a "healthy" food?
Technically speaking, a healthy food is any food item that delivers a dose of macronutrients, vitamins, and/or minerals without delivering an imbalanced proportion of empty calories (energy delivered without other vital nutrients) or toxins to the body. This definition therefore applies to almost any food that is consumed in moderation, but is especially applicable to what the nutritional field refers to as functional foods. These are foods that when consumed regularly offer physiological or psychological benefits beyond simply providing nutrients to the individual, i.e. foods that have been shown to fight/prevent chronic illness.
What are macronutrients?
Macronutrients are the main components of food: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. All three nutrients are vital to a healthy and balanced diet, and while moderation must be exercised in all cases, any diet that severely restricts or omits one of these nutrients is considered dangerously unhealthy, leading to illness and possibly death.
Carbohydrates are the human body's favorite source of energy. Broken down into simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (long chains of sugars arranged to form starch or fiber), they are the fuel for all of the body's various functions. Additionally, carbohydrates are the only form of energy easily utilized by the human brain, which is why many "lo-carb" diets are associated with poor concentration, "brain fog", and irritability. Carbohydrates contribute about 4 calories (Kcal) of energy per gram.
Sugars, the simplest carbohydrates found in fruit, candy, and table sugar, are absorbed quickly by the body and put immediately to use. Though they provide immediate energy to our system, their simple structure means they are broken down quickly, and therefore generally provide only short bursts of energy. This is why some people experience a "crash" after consuming a quantity of simple or refined sugars without combining other macronutrients: a handful of candy eaten for lunch may provide a quick pick-me-up, but will be quickly absorbed and burned off, leaving you sluggish shortly thereafter.
Better options for long-term energy are complex carbohydrates in the form of starch or fiber, found in fruits, veggies, and grain/whole-grain products like rice, bread, and pasta. These are broken down less easily by the body, and are longer lasting providers of energy. Fiber also helps to keep you fuller longer, decreasing appetite and the amount of food needed to feel satiated.
Proteins are compounds that are responsible for most of the body's vital functions, such as blood clotting, immune response, and maintaining fluid/electrolyte balances that prevent dehydration; every protein has a different job. Some proteins can be created by your body, but others "the essential amino acids" can only be obtained through consumption of foods.
Proteins also contribute 4 Kcal of energy per gram, and are most readily found in meat, nuts, and legumes.
Fats, which can be broken down into saturated, unsaturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, cholesterols, and fatty acids, are perhaps the most confusing and misunderstood nutrient. Fat is the body's storage form of energy (calories), meaning it is energy that the body has reserved for times when energy is low and not easily replenished (this was the body's way of surviving thousands of years ago when food could become scarce at any time); fats yield 9 Kcal per gram. Some fats also have duties within the human body, which is why a diet completely devoid of fats can lead to nutrient deficiencies and illness.
Now that food is more readily available and humans are less active, stored fats can go unused, leading to weight gain and obesity. But it is important to recognize not all fats are bad. Unsaturated fats, including both mono and polyunsaturated, found in fish, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains, have been found to be quite healthy, and can lower levels of "bad" fats in the body while making you feel full longer. Saturated fats, found in red meat and dairy, are fats associated with heart disease and illness, and should be consumed in careful moderation only.
Vitamins and Minerals
These are the additional substances needed to generate healthy activity within the body while maintaining normal body function. While the body does generate some vitamins and minerals on its own, most need to be eaten to be utilized by the body.
Balance and Moderation
The DRI (Daily Recommended Intakes) for Macronutrients are as follows:
- 40-65 percent from carbohydrates
- 15-35 percent from protein
- 15-35 percent from fat (no more than 10% in the form of saturated fats)
These recommendations should be customized to the individual by a licensed professional to account for weight, activity level, and dietary needs.
By definition, almost any food can be considered healthy when it is consumed in proper proportion to other foods. Contrary to popular belief, no one nutrient makes you fat. Too much of any nutrient leads to weight gain and obesity the same way too little leads to illness and death. Sugar, despite lo-carb claims to the contrary, is only converted into fat when excesses are not burned off; the same is true for fats/proteins. All are essential to maintain healthy function within the body.