It’s no secret that eating a balanced diet, combined with regular physical activity, can reduce your risk for many chronic and degenerative diseases and contributes to overall health, but the role that nutrition plays in your everyday life is far more important than that alone.
The foods we eat provide our bodies with the energy and essential nutrients we need to live, work, play, grow and function properly. We need a wide variety of different foods to provide adequate amounts of these nutrients. All foods contain different amounts of macronutrients (protein, fats and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and without consuming enough of these nutrients, we may become malnourished (or nutrient deficient).
Whilst there are some groups of people and circumstances that can increase the risk of malnutrition (e.g- age, socio-economic status, people with disability, pregnant women and some medications), deficiencies are not exclusive and can affect most people. The amount of each nutrient we need is also not the same for everyone and can change as we age or as our circumstances change. Our requirements are largely dependent on our current health status and genetics. No ‘one-size fits all’ diet approach works, which is why the role of nutritionists is so important.
Here is an overview of the essential macronutrients (meaning you need these in larger quantities) and micronutrients (meaning you need these in smaller quantities) that are necessary for maintaining good health
Every cell in the human body contains and requires proteins. When you consume protein it is broken down into amino acids – which are often referred to as the building blocks of skin, muscle and connective tissues, blood and bones. These amino acids then go on to create neurotransmitters in the brain. Protein is really important for building and repairing muscle and tissues, maintaining healthy blood pressure and maintaining hormones and enzymes. Protein supports a healthy brain, immune and nervous systems.
Complete proteins are those that contain all 9 essential amino acids – which can’t be synthesised by the body and therefore must be obtained through food or supplementation. Complete proteins are: eggs, quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, blue green algae, seafood and soy beans. You can also combine foods to create complete proteins.
Other good sources of protein are: almonds, oats, broccoli, lentils, pumpkin seeds, peanuts and brussel sprouts.
Contrary to popular belief, fats are essential to the function of our whole body. Not all fats are equal though and we are talking about good fats here – Omega 3s, 6s and 9’s. Omega 3’s and 6’s are referred to as essential fatty acids as Omega 9s can be produced in the body.
Without fats in our diet, we are unable to absorb many nutrients that we need, as they are only absorbed through fats (the fat soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K). Fats are also essential for our brain (our brains are made up of more than 50% fat!), eye, muscle, joint, pancreas, skin, heart, hormones and gut health function. Essential fatty acid deficiencies are also often associated with the development of depression and can increase the frequency and severity of of anxiety symptoms.
Good sources of essential fatty acids: avocados, nuts, olives, flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, oily fish (salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel etc.), eggs and whole fruit/nut oils (avocado, olive, almond, hemp etc – not refined oils like canola or vegetable).
Although sometimes given a bad rap in the dieting world, your body’s number one source of energy comes from glucose, which is contained in carbohydrates. Without glucose, your body would need to use protein for energy – depleting it from your muscles. Carbohydrates also increase cognitive function as your brain required glucose to function, help you to feel happier and regulate sleep.
Whilst refined carbohydrates (e.g fried foods, soft drinks, lollies, chocolate and many other processed or packaged foods) may provide you with a ‘quick hit’ of energy, these are not the best forms of carbohydrates to be consuming. As you eat these foods, insulin is released into the bloodstream. When your blood sugar levels are constantly high your body starts to over produce insulin which can lead to insulin resistance, PCOS, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. It also means that excess sugar is stored as fat and metabolised quickly, giving you short bursts of energy only, leaving you feeling lethargic and hungry again.
However, many complex carbohydrates also contain vitamins, minerals, fibre and other nutrients which are much better for your overall health. Some examples are whole grains (like oats, buckwheat, quinoa etc) legumes, sweet potato and many fruits and vegetables. When you consume these carbohydrates, your body processes the sugars much slower, providing you with longer lasting energy and stabilising blood sugar levels.
Vitamins and Minerals
Whilst only required in smaller amounts than the previously mentioned macronutrients, different vitamins and minerals perform hundreds of roles in the body, making them really essential to your overall health. It is also more common for people to have micronutrient deficiencies (e.g – vitamin D, iron or vitamin B12) than it is to have macronutrient deficiencies. Long term, these deficiencies can lead to poor immunity, dysbiosis or poor gut health and many chronic diseases. Consuming a diet high in whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and legumes – and low in refined, processed foods – will help you reach your recommended dietary intake (RDI) of vitamins and minerals.
For more information on your RDI visit https://www.nrv.gov.au/introduction.
Please always consult with your trusted healthcare provider to find information on your specific nutrient needs.