(This blog is in continuation of first blog in this thread Story of THE FOOD WE CONSUME (1/3))
In 1827, William Prout, a British physician first proposed that humans need three macronutrients to survive: these were later named as Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins. Since then there is a constant debate trying to figure out exactly how much of each of these nutrients will optimize our health. During the process of digestion, carbohydrates (sugar units) are broken down and converted into glucose, which can then be metabolized by the body to produce usable energy as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). If energy demands are low, glucose can be stored as adipose tissue or fat. Dietary proteins are also broken down into amino acids, which can be used to build and repair lean tissues in body and other important functions. They can be also used for energy and when consumed in excess are stored. Dietary fats can also be broken down and are energy dense and when consumed in excess are stored as adipose tissues. For reference, Fats (nine calories per gram), alcohol (seven calories per gram), carbohydrates (four calories per gram) and proteins (four calories per gram). Any calories that aren’t converted into usable energy by body in form of ATP is stored in the body for later use as adipose tissue. The main role of adipose tissue is to store energy in the form of fat, although it also cushions and insulates the body. A healthy body needs to maintain a balance of these nutrients and calories.
There is a need to shift back the focus from the Nutrients to the real Food, as this has left us confused what is good or bad and essential or optional. We are living in a modern food environment that fails to support our health. What we see is not real and what is real is kept hidden, such are the marketing techniques adopted by most food companies. We today prefer buying a can of packaged juice (average twelve months of self-life) instead of a fresh fruit (approx. one-week of shelf-life) from the same supermarket. Some diabetics avoid direct forms of natural sugar like sugar from fruits which is completely safe compared to factory refined sugar. Many prefer a bottle of coke to quench the thirst instead of regular plain water. In order to please their customers, stores are even offering pre-cut fruits and vegetable. These options may look appealing and convenient from outside, but could be actually dangerous for our long term health. Many of nutrients are lost in the long process of cutting, packaging and transporting of these cut foods and further they are usually wrapped into substandard plastic bags which may lead to leaching of toxins into food.
Most of the processed and preserved food we eat outside usually lacks nutrients essential for our body yet they contain high amount of calories. The balance between food intake and energy expenditure is disrupted, and body’s ability to store energy as fat becomes maladaptive. Obesity is an epidemic that the World Health Organization has termed as “a worldwide public health crisis”. For those who are trying to loose excess of weight, finding the right balance of energy consumption and energy expenditure must be a priority. This can be achieved by consuming lower calories, burning more calories through exercise, or a combination of both.
When we talk about long term health, the quality of food matters just as much as calorie consumption. Within each category of macronutrients, we need to choose food that will support our health, rather than working against it. We need to clearly understand one thing, that what we eat becomes a part of our body. Everything we consume becomes our body, such is the brilliance of our existence. The home-cooked food, moderately processed in hygienic conditions using fresh natural ingredients, is undoubtedly the best meal we can consume. Occasional exposure to restaurants, junk food, packaged food can be excused to satiate our cravings. They say, your health is in your hands. It’s completely in our hands, what we are going to feed us. My mantra is simple: Eat healthy to stay healthy! Now the challenge is to understand what is genuinely healthy.
To develop healthy eating habits, we need to shift focus from nutrition to category of foods. Popular diet trends encourage to drastically reduce carbohydrates in diet, even to point of limiting intake of fresh fruits and suggest free consumption of protein and fats. A diet rich in animal protein without any whole grain or not enough fruits and vegetables could leave us with serious problems in long term. The category of carbohydrates has a wide spectrum of food to choose from. Whole grains like brown rice and rolled oats are carbohydrates that provide our bodies with a usable source of energy and bound together in the same food is significant amount of fiber, which slows the release of glucose from that food into the bloodstream.
The glycemic index of a food is the measure of speed at which glucose is released into the blood stream after it is digested. A whole grain like brown rice or quinoa will result in a slower release of glucose and a more muted insulin response. On the other hand, a food that’s high in refined carbohydrate like white bread or soda, will lead to a more rapid release of glucose into the blood. And in response to this body releases a large amount of insulin, the hormone in our body that lowers blood sugar. Because of spike of glucose and insulin, it leads to less stable blood sugar levels; eating food that are refined, especially highly processed carbohydrates, can result an earlier return of hunger and a tendency to overeat. The glycemic index of a food is lower when the food contains fiber or when it’s eaten in combination with protein foods and food containing dietary fats. Eating food that has low glycemic index is especially important for people struggling to manage their weight and blood sugar levels, but in general it is a good idea for even a healthy person to choose such a diet.
Protein rich food including animal and plant based proteins can also vary enormously in their quality and thus their implication on our long term health. Proteins are said to as building blocks for the lean tissue in our body. There are 20 types of amino acids needed by our body but only nine are essential. This means our body can’t make enough of these nine amino acids and we consume them through our food.
Animal source of protein like Fish and eggs are said to provide all these essential amino acids to the level that they are called complete protein sources. Whereas plan based proteins sources like lentils, nuts and tofu tend to be incomplete source of protein. It may seem that plant based proteins are nutritionally inferior to animal based proteins but the fact is that health benefits of substituting plant based diet far outweighs than the risk of falling short on a few amino acids. Meals that contain vegetarian sources of protein also contain more fiber and less fat (saturated fat) compared to animal protein. Excess consumption of saturated fat can lead to high level of LDL cholesterol. Thus, moderating our intake of red meat is a sensible idea. So if you are thinking of a low carb, high protein diet to reduce weight, it’s important to pay attention to kinds of proteins that are being consumed and in what quantities. Processed meat often contain nitrates used as a preservative, which can damage blood vessels and block arteries. These meats also tend to be high in sodium, which can contribute to high blood pressure.
For decades, dietary fats were considered as major contributor for the obesity epidemic. Despite measures to reduce or eliminate fats the epidemic continues. This led to increased availability of fat free and reduced fat food. Today, there is a rising awareness about good fat and bad fat and its importance for our body. Dietary fats can be divided into two families, the saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats get their name from the fact that fatty acids are saturated with hydrogen molecules, thus, they are densely packed together and tend to be solid at room temperature (animal fats like lard and butter). In contrast, fatty acids that make unsaturated fats possess double bond between carbon atoms that cause the chains to be less saturated with hydrogen, thus, they don’t pack together leaving most them in liquid state at room temperature. Omega 3 fatty acids are a special kind of unsaturated fatty acid with double bonds in specific position of hydrocarbon chain. They are found in high concentration in fish oil and also to some degree in nuts, flax seeds and other vegetable oils. Omega 3 fatty acids are only kind of fatty acids human body cannot make, they are essential for our health and need to be consumed through the food we eat.
Unsaturated fatty acids can be naturally occurring like in Olive oil, nuts, avocado. Or they can be chemically manipulated to become unsaturated. These are fats found in margarine and some oils that are often used for repeated cooling and reheating in deep frying machines like the ones used in many fast food outlets. The problem with chemically engineered unsaturated fats is that the chemical bonds between carbon atoms are less stable, so they can slip into trans orientation instead of cis orientation. And this is how we got the name trans fats. Trans fats are problematic for our health because they increase amount of LDL cholesterol in blood and lower amount of HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol in blood. Trans fat promote formation of arterial plaques and increase risk of heart diseases.
An ideal diet for fats would be to enjoy reasonable amount of food that contain naturally occurring unsaturated fats (like olive oil, nuts, avocado), avoid all foods containing trans fats and limit intake of red meats that are high in saturated fats.
Next Blog: Story of THE FOOD WE CONSUME (3/3)