Basics of Food Composition: Macronutrients and Micronutrients
"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Hippocrate
Hello and welcome to this second post on nutrition. As promised in my first nutrition article, I am very excited I am so excited to be sharing with you the essentials of food composition. Today, it gets a little bit long and technical but bear with me. It’s really important to have a clear understand of the types of nutrients out there, and the role they play in your health and wellbeing. Once you have this information, you will be empowered and could make educated choices about your food intakes. You will know exactly where to get all the nutrients you need through your daily food intake even if like me you follow a plant-based diet.
I must confess that I was a little bit overwhelmed when I first started to study macro and micro nutrition. But when you understand the ropes and get the basics, it becomes really easy to put together balanced meals that cover all your nutrition needs, without sacrificing taste and pleasure and without needing to spend lots of money. Overtime, it becomes part of your lifestyle, and even when you are out or travelling, you will be automatically reaching for healthier food options and making the right nutrition decisions. It is an understatement for me to say that knowing this and applying it daily has literally changed my life. My biggest regret is that I have not learnt those much earlier in my life.
I will be talking today about the two types of essential nutrients that we get through our daily intake of food, macronutrients required in large amounts that include (proteins, fat and carbohydrate) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Protein is required for growth and repair of tissue. It also acts as enzyme, carriers, hormones and help with immunity among other elements. Protein is believed to increase satiety which may in turn lead to a reduced calorie intake. Protein plays therefore an important role in maintaining a healthy weight. Protein is also essential for skin, hair and nails that are made of keratin, a type of protein.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a daily intake of 0.75 g of protein /Kg body weight. For example, in my case as I weight 48 kilos, this translates to 36 g of protein a day.
Contrary to popular belief, with a varied plant based diet, you should be able to cover all your protein needs without having to consume animal proteins. Some excellent sources include: almonds, banana, broccoli, brown rice, chickpea, corn, lentils, peas, fresh spinach, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds etc. To take my example again, I know a cup of lentil will provide me with 18 grams of protein, this is great news as it covers half of my need. Two cups of broccoli will get me another 10 grams while two slices of whole wheat bread will get me 5 g. By snacking with a handful of almonds, I get my missing 3 g. For some protein rich recipes idea, check for a savory option my lentil soup and for a sweet treat my almond whoopies.
Fats are central to nutrition and very important part of a good, balanced diet. The functions of fat include providing an energy supply for cells (9Kcals/g (38KJs), essential fatty acids to act as a carrier for fat soluble vitamins (A,D, E, K) and antioxidants. It also insulates the body and provides a reserve of energy to protect the organs, to form brain tissues, cell membranes, required for making hormones and prostaglandins.
The WHO recommends a daily fat intake of 20-30% dietary energy. Healthy sources of fat include: vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and avocados. I personally love avocadoes toast, they are so easy to put together and so delicious!
Carbohydrates are a primary source of energy especially for the brain and nervous system. They also prevent ketosis- a situation where your body does not have enough glucose for energy. Ittherefore helps in maintaining a good blood sugar (glucose) level. When you have diabetes, your glucose level may be consistently high. Over time, this can damage your body and lead to many other problems. WHO recommends a daily intake of 30-50% of dietary energy.
Carbohydrates can be simple or complex in nature. Simple are sugars: they are found in fruit, jam, sweets, confectionary… to name a few examples. Complex carbohydrates can be separated in two groups: starch and cellulose. Starch is found in breads and cereals, rice, pasta, potatoes, root vegetables and unripe fruits, nuts and seeds. Cellulose also known as fiber is found in wheat bran, edible skins, whole bread, cereals, lentils, green leafy vegetables and oath.
You should also note that fiber could be soluble and insoluble; and that you need them both in roughly equal parts. Insoluble fibers found skin of cucumbers, grapes and peas as well as grains (whole-wheat flour, whole grains and wheat bran) are great if you are constipated as they passes through the body undigested and prevent constipation. Soluble fibre found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables helps to lower bad cholestherol which in turn can help with lower risk of heart diseases.
I personally try to get my fibers in my breakfast with my homemade muesli recipe that is available in the blog, as a bowl can get you as much as 11 gram of fiber. Other source are: porridge (3g for a bowl), milled seeds (3-4g for a spoon), sunflower seeds (3g), a bowl of baked beans (up to 10g) etc.
II- Micronutrients: Vitamins and Mineral
There are two types of vitamins: fat soluble (A,D,E and K) and water soluble (B&C). A word of caution about Vitamins, as overconsuming them can be toxic. For example, an excess of Vitamin A can cause liver damage that can prove fatal. Vitamin D can also be toxic to your renal and cardiovascular systems. But it is highly unlikely that this would ever happen with simple, healthy diet, but rather with absorbing inconsiderate amount of supplements.
a/Fat Soluble Vitamins
Vitamin A is essential to the development of good eyesight, development and growth of embryo as well as development of tissues. Some good sources are: margarine, carrots, red pepper tomatoes, peaches and apricots, dark leafy greens such as spinach. If you don't like spinach, I promise you that my gingery green smoothie will make you change your mind!
Vitamin D helps to keep strong bones and teeth. The main source is sunlight- 10 to 15 minutes of exposure a day is great. However, in Europe or North America it might be complicated to get enough sunlight, it is difficult to get a decent amount of sunlight, and you may not get enough Vitamin D. You should then consult your GP and get as I often get from my general practitioner a prescription for Vitamin D supplements during the colder months. Otherwise, some good sources are: portabello mushrooms, tofu and plain soy yoghurt. I take daily the later for breakfast along with my homemade müsli.
Vitamin E is the antioxidant par excellence. It is found in vegetable oil, fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts (almonds and hazelnuts), seeds (sunflowers) and cereals.
Vitamin K is best known as helping with blood clotting. I remember last year, after injuring myself in sports and that my Doctor was afraid that I may have as a result a blood clot in my calf, I had to do myself daily injection of blood thinner for several days to inhibit my Vitamin K production. I am glad that I did not hurt myself, as stopping the bleeding would have been really difficult if I did! Vitamin K promotes bone health and helps to produce protein for blood, bones and kidneys. It is made by gut bacteria. You also find it in green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, cabbage, kale) and certain vegetable oils including rapeseed, soybeen and olive oil. Animal food in general contain very limited amount of Vitamin K.
b/Water Soluble Vitamins
Thiamin (B1) helps the body release energy from carbohydrates during metabolism; growth and muscle tone. Best sources are fortified cereal and oatmeal, rice and pasta as well as whole grains.
Riboflavin help the body release energy from protein, fat and carbohydrates during metabolism.
Niacin involved in carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism is found in enriched cereals, peanuts and potatoes.
Pantothenic acid help release energy from fats and vegetables. It is found in whole grains and vegetables.
Folate aids in genetic material development; involved in red blood cell production. It’s found in green leafy vegetables, dried peas, beans and lentils.
B12 aids in cell development, functioning of the nervous system, and the metabolism of protein and fat. You could find it in fortified brewer’s and nutritional yeast.
Biotin is involved in metabolism of protein, fat and carbohydrates is found in cereal and grain products, as well as yeast and liver.
Vitamin C, essential for structure of bones, cartilage, muscles, and blood vessels; helps maintain capillaries and gums and aids in absorption of iron.
Calcium builds and maintains bone and tooth structure. It also heal wounds, adds vitality and endurance. Excellent sources include apricots, dates (a personal favorite!), figs, prunes, cranberries, cabbage, lettuce, onions, parnships, spinach, bran.
Chlorine is found in digestive system and secretions. It is a body cleanser that expel waste, freshens, purifies and disinfect your body. Aren’t our bodies just plain wonderful? The best sources for chlorine are salt, coconut, beets and radishes.
Fluorine structure and preserve bone and tooth structure, strengthens tendons. It is found in carrots, garlic, onions, potato skins, tomatoes, watercress, pears and pineapple.
Iron oxygen metabolism by carrying oxygen in the blood. It also prevent anemia and promotes vitality. Some sources include you guessed it, green leafy vegetables, potatoes, whole wheat, blackberries and black cherries.
Magnesium helps nerve and muscle to function properly and to relax. You will find it in corn, whole wheat, coconut, figs, grapefruit and oranges.
Manganese is key to the nervous system. It energizes the metabolism, helps with memory, thought and action. Almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, endive, mint, parsley and wintergreen are packed with this fantastic mineral.
Phosphorus nourishes your nervous system and brain. It aids in bone and hair growth. It is found in dairy, corn, whole wheat, nuts, beans, lentils, peas and parnships.
Potassium is a body alkalizer. It helps with tissue, muscle elasticity, nerve function and maintains cardiac rhythm. Excellent sources are cabbage, dandelion, dill, olives, parsley, potato skin, sage, watercress, almonds, blueberries, coconut, figs, peaches and prunes.
Silicon, which I also call the beauty mineral, is great for hair, skin, nails, teeth structure and tone. It is found in asparagus, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, figs, strawberries, barley and oats.
Sodium, just like potassium is an alkalizer and along with it, maintains cellular balance and function. It also helps with digestion and with building blood. It is found in asparagus, beans, beets, carrots, celery, cucumbers, okra, turnips, oatmeal, coconut and figs.
Sulphur purifies and tones nervous system. It is found in asparagus, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, horseradish, mustard, greens, onions and chesnuts.
Zinc helps with carbohydrate and protein metabolism. It also promotes prostate health, wound healing and helps maintain a healthy skin. Good sources are: whole grains, wheat bran and germ, pumpkin seeds.
And voilà! Now you know everything about what the different types of nutrients you have out there and their function. You also know where to get them in a plant-based diet.
I would recommend that you get blood work done by your Doctor to see where you stand in your micronutrients and vitamins. Then you would know where you are lacking and supplement it primarily through your diet. Supplements are good, but as their name, they are just that: supplements. With the exception of Vitamin D for those of us living in temperate climates with little sunshine and Iron for menstruating women, supplements could be unavoidable, it is definitely better to get all your needs covered with your nutrition. Remember, food could be your best (or worst) form of medicine!
So, what are your thoughts about knowing what type of elements go into your nutrition? Watch this place, my next article is about healthy eating guidelines. Do not forget to subscribe, so you will be the first one to know!