Nutrition Basics

Coach Becs
Remember that everyone’s body is different. You can experiment with different foods and talk to your healthcare provider about your unique dietary needs to learn what eating habits are right for you.

There are a lot of different nutrition recommendations out there – and they can be hard to navigate! We’re going to share some basic concepts (and if you want to delve deeper, go to the end of this article for links to references).

Let’s start with some basic definitions:

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA): The average daily dietary intake level that is sufficient to meet the nutrient requirement of nearly all (97 to 98 percent) healthy individuals in a group. (This is the amount that will prevent deficiencies, not necessarily promote optimal health. For example the RDA for Vitamin C is to prevent scurvy.)

Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL): The highest level of daily nutrient intake that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects to almost all individuals in the general population.

Macronutrient: These are dietary components that provide energy. Macronutrients include protein, fats, and carbohydrates.

Protein: One type of macronutrient that is the major functional and structural component of every animal cell. The current RDA for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound however, protein requirements vary based on many factors such as activity level, biological gender, age, and overall health.

  • Vegetable proteins come from plants such as beans, fruit, nuts, and whole grains.
  • Animal proteins come from seafood, eggs, meat, poultry, and dairy products.

Carbohydrates: Another macronutrient, these include sugars, starches, and fibers. 

  • Sugars include white and brown sugar, fruit sugar, corn syrup, molasses, and honey
  • Starches are made up of glucose units linked together. Foods that contain starch include vegetables, rice, wheat, barley, oats and corn.
  • Fiber is carbohydrates that are not digestible. Dietary fiber occurs naturally in foods like whole grains, leafy greens and nuts.

Fats: A third type of macronutrient. There are different types of fats with different chemical structures, some of which are more beneficial to the body than others. 

  • The four types of fats are: saturated fats, trans fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Saturated and trans fats are usually more solid at room temperature, like butter. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid, such as olive oil.

Whole grains: These are the entire grain seed called the kernel.The kernel includes bran, germ, and endosperm. 

Refined grains: These are grains that are missing the bran, germ, and/or endosperm.

Our bodies need a mix of macronutrients to function well, and enough calories to fuel activity.

The trick is that our food systems aren’t designed to give you the appropriate macronutrients and calories, instead many foods are designed for profit and some even ‘trick’ your body into consuming more than it needs.

This is why paying attention to things like calories and RDAs can be helpful. By paying attention to what you put into your body you can observe the effects of different foods and find a balance that feels right for you and your health goals.

Both the US Government and Harvard University have designed guidelines to help people get the right amount of calories and macronutrients. The USDA suggests the MyPlate plan which is an update of their earlier food pyramid. The government site allows you to customize a plan by answering some basic questions about age, biological gender, and activity levels.

Nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health created an alternative to My Plate with “more specific and accurate recommendations for following a healthy diet” called the Healthy Eating Plate. Their website offers a comparison of the two plans here.

Both plans have some basic recommendations to keep in mind, such as the importance of a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and adequate protein. Harvard’s model adds information emphasizing whole grains are often a better choice for health, that different types of fats can have an impact on health, and that vegetables like potatoes are different from other vegetables. It also emphasizes the importance of drinking water and getting activity into your daily routine.

Of course there are many factors that impact food choices including budget, availability, preferences and cultural traditions. Finding the right plate for you will mean experimenting a bit to see what feels good and is sustainable for the long term.

Food choices can have an impact on everything from energy levels, to mood, to sleep quality, but there is no one-size-fits-all plan. Attuning to your body and acknowledging circumstances that might affect your food choices will help you meet your nutritional needs in a way that’s right for you.

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