Nutrition: A foundation for building lasting wellness
Exploring the world of food as a “builder of wellness” has never been more accessible than it is today.
This article gives a nod to the idea that nutritional education can be a guiding light in our search for improved self care practices, and that increasing our nutritional education can provide a solid foundation for building the culture of wellness in our personal lifestyle and our surrounding environment; improving our circumstances and overall quality of life.
The concept of energy in, energy out
We consume the world around us with each of our senses; sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Everything we consume has the potential to change us and is powered with a potential cost and a potential reward. What we choose to look at we remember, what we choose to touch imprints on our mind and what we smell creates chemical signaling in our brain which influences the people, places and things that we are attracted to. The inputs and outputs of daily life create our biological structure, our desires and even our further capacity to continue consuming… our very experience as human beings is shaped by our choices, both big and small.
We consume energy for daily movement in the form of food and we expend that energy in the form of our daily functions. “You are what you eat” has relevance in our lives that is too often lost amidst the demands of work, relationships, hobbies, volunteer efforts and everything else that monopolizes time in a day. Whether we are exercising in the gym, working in front of a computer, or learning algebra in a classroom, life as we experience it is a matter of complex energy exchange. What we put out we must replace, what life demands of us we must supply. It should come as no surprise that if we want to function at an elevated level of performance, we must consume foods that provide the structural components and energy to meet elevated performance demands.
Dialing in on food consumption
Knowing “when” to eat can be just as important as knowing “what” to eat when it comes to understanding nutrition and maximizing our efforts to be healthy and feel energized and well.. Your body is currently operating with an ultimate objective to survive, and it’s doing the best it can under the tutelage of processes created by your own repeated behavior. The influence of external environmental factors like food availability, lifestyle, taste and convenience have created chemical memories that have led you to the consumption behavior that you now practice. Knowing whether or not they are the “best” for your overall health is the very process of learning that each of us has the opportunity to recognize and explore. Choosing to acknowledge this process, challenge current behaviors and introduce new knowledge leads to lasting wellness improvements, including the development of nutritional intuition; the ability to know what your body needs and when it needs it.
Nutrients and their value
Generally speaking, nutrients can be classed as either macro or micro. Macronutrients have an energy value, meaning they provide fuel for the many processes performed every second by the body. Micronutrients have no energy value but provide vitamins and minerals that are crucial for cellular function. Micros are found in vegetables and fruits and should find their way in abundance to each of our mealtimes; especially the vegetable variety. Macros can be broken down into the following nutrient categories:
These are the building blocks for life. A complete protein is a combination of 22 elements called amino acids. These elements are used by the body to replace cells that have been used to excess. Without proteins (amino acids grouped together in long and short chains) our cells cannot perform as they are designed, nor can they burn up, die and regenerate. We need to eat proteins at every meal; meaning every time we consume food. The capacity for protein consumption in the average body is 25g - 30g every 2 - 4 hours. While this is not a boundary established in every body, it is a good place to start as we make choices related to food. Consuming too much protein causes slowing of many of the natural processes in the body, which can lead to physical, mental and emotional challenges.
Sources of protein are best identified as we look to living plants and animals. Every living thing contains structural components that we have identified as proteins. Every living thing has a very specific protein structure, an arrangement of amino acids that allows it to continue to survive. If we are to continue functioning optimally, learning the amino acid needs of our body and the amino acid contents of our food is a valuable pursuit. When we know what we need, we know what to consume!
Every cell in the body needs fuel to perform its protein driven processes optimally. Carbohydrates are one source of cellular fuel. When the body is tired from use, depleted from both external and internal work, these are the best sources to consume for replenishment; especially post exercise or other high energy output activity. Some carbohydrates are complex, meaning that they are fibrous, robust and require a level of breakdown that is facilitated primarily in the liver in order to absorb and use their energy. Sources are things like oatmeal, whole grains, beans, and legumes. Other carbs are simple, meaning they lack the fiber and other elements which are found in complex carbs. Absorption of these simple carbohydrates begins as soon as food hits the mouth and is done before it leaves the stomach and enters the small intestine. Sources of simple carbohydrates are table sugar, enriched flour found in most bread and pasta, and processed foods including granola bars, fruit snacks, fruit juices etc..
So, the question that often comes up is what are the best kinds of carbohydrates to eat?
In the story Alice in Wonderland, the inexperienced Alice comes to a fork in the road and is met with a decision. Along comes the Cheshire Cat who confronts Alice in her predicament. Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, “which path do I choose?”. To which the wizened old cat responds, “well that depends on where you want to go.” When Alice answers without conviction or destination the Cheshire Cat wisely proclaims, “If you don’t know where you are going, then it makes little difference which path you choose!”.
In order to answer the question, “which carbohydrates should I be eating?”, we first have to know what it is that we are trying to accomplish?
Simple carbs burn hot and fast. We should use them in moments of energy depletion, when we need to refill energy loss following bouts of high stress, exercise, brain work etc. Complex carbs burn slow and steady. We should look to them when energy stores are more full and we don’t need a quick dump into empty muscles or a depleted brain. They are also great when we are getting ready to go into an activity that is going to require increased action, and therefore energy. An easy way to think about it is like this: complex in the morning when the batteries are full, simple in the afternoon when the batteries are depleted.
Another dietary nutrient the body can use for fuel is fat, otherwise known as the triglyceride. Triglyceride, aka, “3 glucose”, is just a multipack of glucose molecules, or carbohydrates. From a bio-accessibility standpoint, the difference between carbs and fats is that fat requires energy from the body in order to provide energy for the body, and carbs do not. In the case of fat, the payoff is a net positive, but because of the cost of breaking down the triglyceride, aka, the output requirement, the body is more inclined to use a simple carb if the option is available. It comes as no surprise to even the most ignorant person that we live in a carb-saturated world. Because of the accessibility factor and the high carbohydrate society in which we now live, fats have become the enemy to the body, simply because they are consumed alongside quantities of carbs and then stored more often than they are used. However, we can evolve. When used appropriately, alongside proteins and without the distracting effect of too many carbs, the triglyceride can be a valuable and sustained source of fuel. Though they are not able to provide sufficient fuel for the brain (another reason why carbs are the “go to” when they are present), when they are used as a primary source of fuel, their breakdown and preparation for distribution stimulates the production of ketones, which are becoming known for their efficiency in fueling the brain during times of low/no carb intake.
The wrap up
Our bodies require energy and they require building blocks in order to survive and thrive. Creating a healthy diet, balanced with complex and simple carbs and healthy fats, and combining them with whole proteins in all their many forms will support our behavioral efforts to be healthy and make wellness a priority in our lives.
Positive growth on the path of personal wellness need not be complicated, just intentional and incremental. If you’re looking to take some steps toward improving your health and engaging more intentionally with wellness practices and think that nutrition might be a good place for you to start working today, consider the following steps as action points:
- Begin keeping a record of all of the foods you consume and the time that you consume them. Writing things down raises awareness and provides valuable data when you are considering which adjustments to make.
- Choose a whole protein source to accompany each meal. Building blocks should always be a part of each meal.
- Make lists for each of the macronutrients, choosing foods for each that you personally enjoy. Balancing meals becomes simple when you know what you like and where foods fit as macronutrients.
- Create meals and write them down using your personalized lists.
- Plan to try new vegetables and include them in each meal.