7 must-know facts about nutrition

There is so much information out there when you type the words ‘healthy nutrition’ into your search engine, it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are seven facts to get you started.

First published by kidspot.com.au on May 18, 2015.

How much do you know about nutrition? While it’s common knowledge that we should eat a balanced diet for optimum health, with so much information out there it’s not easy to get your head around it all. Our food choices are also complicated by the vast array of products on offer at the supermarket. So it’s not surprising that many don’t have an intricate understanding of ingredients and additives or are able to decipher food labels on sight.

Ultimately, nutrition is about getting enough nourishment to maintain good health. It’s about eating foods that provide our bodies and minds with the sustenance we need to grow and prosper and to do this is to choose nutrient-dense foods over products with added sugars and other additives.

Traditionally, to obtain the food necessary for survival, humans have hunted game and fish and gathered vegetables, seeds and nuts. But as we advanced as a race, so too did our ability to work the land and farm crops and animals. These days, our expansive food industry supplies us with everything we nutritionally need – and more. Supermarkets, greengrocers, butchers and eateries are now our go-to resource for food and sustenance, which is certainly convenient! But it doesn’t mean we always make good nutritional choices for ourselves and our families …

Getting the nutrition we need

At different times in our lives we will require different nutrition. Newborns, for example, get the very best nutrition they could possibly need to grow and develop from breast milk for at least the first four-to-six months of life. Thereafter, a balanced diet consisting of protein, vegetables, fruit, grains and dairy (supplemented by breast milk) continues to support a child’s development. Adults maintain health by also eating a balanced diet but also controlling portion sizes and minimising alcohol consumption. Those trying to conceive or who are pregnant or breastfeeding also need to maintain a heightened level of nutrition.

The foods we eat can have a significant impact on our health. Australia is in the midst of a obesity epidemic that is affecting adults and children and resulting from poor food choices, oversized portioning and lack of exercise. Obesity can lead to a whole range of diseases and illnesses – type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, stroke, sleep apnoea and even some cancers, to name just a few. Which is why understanding and implementing good nutrition from a young age is so important.

Below are seven must-know facts about nutrition to consider when feeding yourself and your family. This is a general guide only – please seek professional advice and information from your health practitioner.

1. Refined carbohydrates aren’t so good for you

No, we’re not suggesting you stop eating carbs. PLEASE DON’T DO THAT! In general, there are two different kinds of carbohydrates we consume in our modern diet. Complex carbohydrates are the ones you find in a whole range of nutrient-dense foods such as most fruits, veggies, nuts and eggs (they’re the good ones!). And then there’s the refined carbs, found mostly in processed products with a high GI.

GI stands for Glycemic Index, which is the measure of food to describe how quickly the carbohydrate in the food is broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream – the higher the GI, the more rapid the increase in blood sugar levels. As it rises so quickly, it falls rapidly too, meaning a slump in your energy levels and a desire to eat more.

You’ll find refined carbs in sweeteners, fruit juices, all kinds of flour, white rice, ‘instant’ grains (porridge and other cereals), food starches (corn, potato, etc.), some fruits (watermelon, rockmelon, pineapple), some vegetables (white potatoes, carrots, beets and parsnips), breads, pastries, cookies, cakes, chocolate (gasp!), pasta, noodles, couscous, jellies, jams, sweetened dairy products (ice cream, cream, yoghurt), sauces … yes, it’s a long, exhaustive list. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy these foods … sometimes. Consumed in moderation, refined carbohydrates are OK.

Just be aware that you’ll get more nutritional bang for your buck if you choose to regularly eat the foods with complex carbohydrates instead.

2. Don’t drink your calories

No doubt you know already that sugary drinks like soft drink, orange juice and beer contain empty calories. There’s absolutely no long-lasting nutritional value in them and any immediate benefits are cancelled out by added sugars. Why? because when sugar is liquefied the brain doesn’t compensate for the calories by eating less of other foods, which means you’re going to consume more than you need.

Of all ‘junk foods’, sugary drinks are by far the worst. Sugar is a form of carbohydrates and can quickly convert to energy, which is what makes them so popular – and addictive. If sugar calories are not used as energy shortly after they are consumed, they are converted into stored body fat – otherwise known as lipogenesis. Best way to avoid this is to stick to water!

3. Cholesterol isn’t the bad guy

It’s important to understand that when people talk about the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol, they’re actually referring to the proteins (lipoproteins) that carry the cholesterol around the body. So it’s actually not the cholesterol that does the damage, it’s the type of lipoproteins that the cholesterol are travelling with. Cholesterol is an essential fat that our bodies need to function. When we don’t get enough of it from our diets, our livers will produce it for us so it’s certainly not something to avoid.

There are two different lipoproteins – Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL) and High Density Lipoprotein (HDL). You’ve heard that eggs yolks are high in cholesterol and therefore bad for your heart, right? Yes, they are high in cholesterol and because of this, over the past few years, they’ve been unfairly demonised. But it has since been scientifically proven that eggs do not have an impact on blood cholesterol levels for the majority of people. Why? because they’re part of ‘Team Good Cholesterol’ (HDL). Foods on this team, including eggs, nuts, olive oil, avocados, seeds and oily fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines, provide some essential fats that the body requires such as polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated. The cholesterol in these foods doesn’t have a significant impact on blood cholesterol and actually works in the battle against Team Bad Cholesterol.

On ‘Team Bad Cholesterol’ (LDL) you will find foods that contain high levels of saturated and trans fats, which can increase a person’s risk of developing a fatal case of cardiovascular disease. Foods high in saturated fat include fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, butter, coconut oil, palm oil and most deep-fried takeaway foods and commercially baked products, such as pies, biscuits, buns and pastries. Foods high in trans fats include most deep-fried takeaway foods and commercially baked products.

The cholesterol from these foods contributes to plaque, a thick, hard deposit that can clog arteries and make them less flexible (atherosclerosis). Heart attack or stroke can result if a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery.

And then there’s genetics – some people are just predisposed to high cholesterol so maintaining a diet rich in good cholesterol is essential for them to maintain their health and avoid complications.

4. Just because it’s low fat, doesn’t mean it’s healthy

Ah, fat. It’s had a bad rap over the past few decades. All bundled into the one group and labelled evil, it has been avoided and removed from various products to reduce calorie intake. Low-fat or no-fat have become a famous selling point for many food manufacturers and, while we’re thinking low-fat is good and consuming these products, often we’re not aware of just how much added sugar is being put in to compensate for the reduction of flavour from the fats.

As with sugary drinks, if the energy sugar provides is not used, it turns to fat. Which pretty much cancels out low-fat products actually being … low fat.

Depending on the kind of fat removed from the product, the person consuming it will also miss out on the benefits that full fat has to offer – namely, a natural, sustaining energy boost and plenty of flavour. While calorie dense, the nutritional benefits of, say, full-fat natural yoghurt, when consumed in moderation, has positive implications on maintaining energy levels and reducing hunger over its low-fat counterpart. But as always, moderation is key!

5. What you weigh is not a good indication of how healthy you are

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a method to estimate your total body fat and determine if your weight is within the ‘normal’ range. But the problem with BMI is that it’s so basic and generalised – we’re all so different so a standardised test such as this doesn’t factor in the unique characteristics of an individual. It also can’t determine the difference between body fat and muscle, nor does it take into account different types of fat, each of which can have different metabolic effects on health.

You see, there are different kinds of fat that are more dangerous to your health than others. Visceral fat, for example, sits around the tummy and develops around muscles and organs (like the liver). This type of fat also releases hormones and other agents that can disrupt the body’s ability to balance energy requirements. The problem with visceral fat is that even thin people can have it – a person’s weight on the scales can’t measure it at all. So while their BMI may be good, they still have a high risk of developing health problems related to weigh gain.

A better way to determine whether you are a healthy weight is to measure your waist circumference or wrist circumference.

6. Sugar is addictive

Craving sweet things is surely a common condition. But did you know that these cravings are probably a sign that we’re actually addicted to the sweet stuff? It’s not surprising, given the immediate energy sugary treats can provide.

Sugar glucose, when consumed in food, is absorbed from the intestines and distributed to all cells of the body via the bloodstream. Glucose is also essential for proper brain function – it provides a major source of fuel to the billions of neuronal nerve cells that live there. So we’re physiologically wired to want sugar for its energy-boosting qualities.

Sugar can really boost mood because it prompts our bodies to release the ‘happy hormone’ serotonin into our blood streams. At the same time, sugar triggers an increase in insulin as the body battles to reduce blood glucose levels. What goes up, must come down, which makes us crave sugar even more. Sugar doesn’t make us feel full the way fat does, so we’re inclined to want to eat more calories than we should, which can potentially result in obesity and a whole range of other health conditions.

Kids in particular are more inclined to prefer sweet over savoury. Scientists have speculated that this is actually an ‘evolutionary hangover‘, as youngsters who preferred high-calorie foods in times gone by would have had a better chance of survival when food sources were unreliable.

These days, sugar is an additive in so many of the processed foods on offer at the supermarket that sometimes we consume it without even knowing it. The best way to reduce or eradicate sugar addiction is to avoid processed foods as much as possible and enjoy the natural sugars found in fruits and some vegetables instead.

7. Going gluten-free is not always a healthy option

Eradicating gluten from your diet is no easy feat but for some people with coeliac disease or a wheat intolerance, it’s essential for health.

Replacing wheat breads for gluten-free breads, now readily available in supermarkets and eateries, would appear to be an obvious option. But what ingredients are actually being used in that gluten-free bread to supplement the flavour and ‘look’? Among other things, it’s likely sugar will be a significant additive (see above), increasing calorie intake and reducing the health benefits of the gluten-free bread considerably.

Some scientists and nutritionists also argue that cutting wheat out of the diet for non-medical reasons (coeliac disease or wheat intolerance) means denying the body the benefits of wholefood nutrients found in wheat.

Whichever way you choose to go, just be sure to eat in moderation and read nutritional labels on packaging.