There’s a constant flow of nutrition information circulating in the media. Some of it seems too good to be true, some of it is very complex, while some seems just about right (think Goldilocks). Paleo, Atkins, low carb, low fat…it’s no wonder many of us are confused and overwhelmed and have no idea where to start. When sorting through the nutrition mayhem, we have to start at the beginning…

In this first of a series of nutrition articles, we will travel back to basics and re-learn the nutrition foundation that puts on the path for a healthy lifestyle (no diets here) and from which we can build upwards. So let’s begin with a simple discussion about nutrients…from basic information to what’s considered “cutting edge” new information.

Carbohydrates

If I asked you what foods are considered carbohydrates, many of you would be able to throw out some examples: bread, pasta, cookies/sweets, etc. and you’d be right. Carbohydrates can be broken down into the following categories:
Breads/cereals/grains/starchy vegetables
Fruit/fruit juice
Milk/yogurt
Snacks/Sweets

Carbohydrates are also classified as simple and complex depending on their “sugar structure”. Simple carbs are made up of one or two sugars (e.g. fructose found in fruit or galactose found in dairy, candy, soda) while complex carbs have three or more sugars (e.g. starchy foods like bread, cereal, starchy veggies, whole grains). The simple carbs tend to be absorbed very quickly and therefore increase your blood sugars at a fast rate, which can lead to health issues over time.

Carbohydrates (in all forms) provide fuel for our bodies and brains. We need carbohydrates, but the type of carbohydrates we choose, and more importantly, the quantity are crucial components to the health of our bodies (think blood sugars, triglycerides, etc.). So what’s new with carbohydrates? What have we learned over the past few years?

Some of the most ground-breaking research as of late, has been with sugar (simple carbohydrate). We’ve seen some of the headlines: “Sugar is Toxic” and “Sugar is an Addiction” (to name a couple). We have compelling research that shows the link between high sugar/starch intake and an increase in triglyceride levels. We do know that there is an addiction component to sugar in which case “lack of willpower” is less to blame. We know that too many carbohydrates can cause inflammation which may be contributing to joint pain and headaches.

Because the role of carbohydrates and the effect of too much of them is so complex, we will be dedicated the next article to this one topic. We will take that opportunity to break down the science of it all.
Protein

The building blocks of our bodies – many of you have heard protein described with this one statement. I won’t disagree. I will say, however, that typically many of us eat way more protein than we need – especially those of you who are very physically active…

Protein foods are typically easy to identify for many of you – meat. That’s the answer I usually get when I ask people to name sources of protein. And yes, that is true – meat is a protein source. However, we have many more sources of protein that, when included, can provide us with more of a variety of foods to choose from…

Eggs
Cheese
Cottage Cheese
Nut butters
Tofu/soy

Like carbohydrates, there are two classifications of protein – complete and incomplete. Complete proteins are those foods that contain all of the amino acids (animal sources of protein). Incomplete sources of protein contain some (but not all) of the amino acids (e.g. beans, grains, nuts, seeds). The amino acid “makeup” in each food varies, so in theory, foods that fall into the incomplete category can be combined to make a complete protein. The beans and rice combination is a popular one – beans have a specific set of the amino acids and rice contains the amino acids that the beans lack. Together, they balance each other out.

We need protein in our diets. Protein encourages tissue repair and muscle growth. And, according to Harvard School of Public Health:

“Protein is found throughout the body—in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part or tissue. It makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. At least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.”

As I mentioned, most of us in the United States, get plenty of protein and many eat more than is needed. Our bodies are smart, however, so it will excrete excess protein in the urine. Our bodies can handle that function for the short term, but over time, it may be an overload on the kidneys. It’s like anything, things wear out as they get older: cars, machines, bodies/organs…so we have to treat them kindly and not overwork them if we don’t have to. So, a “high protein” diet may have some long term health effects. What constitutes a high protein diet? Check back on future articles as we take a look at some of the popular diets out there and the pros and cons of each.
Fats

Super-hot topic right now – fats. Not so bad? Not so good? How much? What kind? There are a lot of questions about fats looming out there. There is also a lot of really great research being done and reported on right now. In my opinion, this topic has probably had the most media attention lately – with sugar being a close second – and rightfully so as they tend to go hand in hand.

Fat sources – let’s just cut to the chase. Fat is in a lot of our foods – occurring both naturally and as an added ingredient. Many of us recognize fats like butter, mayonnaise, oils, and gravies. But fats are also naturally found in animal foods like meat and dairy.

We have unsaturated fats (liquid at room temperature) that include olive oil and nuts/seeds (further breakdown into mono and poly unsaturated fats) – and we also have saturated fat (solid at room temperature) which includes animal sources and coconut oil.

For the past 30 years or so, we’ve been on the low-fat/fat-free bandwagon…and frankly, it’s gotten us nowhere. As a country, our weight continues to sky rocket while our fat intake has dropped. Why? A lot of recent research is actually taking the heat off of fats and focusing in on sugar. We recognize two things:

When we remove fat from foods we also remove flavour. Admit it, fat tastes good. In order to make something fat-free more palatable, we need to add flavour back in – usually in the form of sugar. So those reduced-fat Oreo cookies that we buy have more calories and more carbohydrates (as sugar) in them than the regular Oreo cookies when comparing the same serving size!

Additionally, as we skim down fat (make whole milk into 2%) we decrease the size of the fat molecules – making them more readily available to our blood stream – where they tend to stick and accumulate more easily.

We know that saturated fat (mostly from animals) isn’t so bad for us either. TIME magazine recently had a cover that celebrated the recommendations to eat real butter! Look for an upcoming article that discusses the specifics on fat and the new recommendations…

What’s the Nutrition Lowdown?

In the end, going back to basics is key. Eating real food versus “man-made”, processed, highly refined food. Eating foods that don’t have a mile long ingredient list. Eating like our grandparents or great grandparents used to eat. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Of course there are a lot of variables added into the mix – like sugar addiction, portion sizes, where our food comes from, stress, mindful eating, lack of sleep (yes, this effects our health and weight), hormones, activity…a long list. However, we can break this all down into small steps (one floor at a time) and get all of the levels stacked on top of our foundation to have a healthy lifestyle. Next issue: Level one…carbohydrate specifics – the lowdown on sugar!

Author Bio

Melinda Lund, MS, RD has been a dietitian for over 12 years and currently practices in an outpatient clinic with a local hospital in Springfield, MO. She also maintains a private practice (Lund Nutrition Therapy, LLC) where she focuses on teaching clients to eat “Real Food” and encourages them to get back to basics and get back into the kitchen! She lives out in the country with her husband, 7-year-old son, a neurotic dog, and a flock of egg laying hens.