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Making salad
February 8, 2021
5 mins read

The nutrients you need—demystified

Ever wondered why fish is said to be good for your eyes? Why unsaturated fats are better for you than saturated fats? Or what an “antioxidant” is?

Here, you’ll get answers to these—and other—questions you might’ve had for some time. Also included are 6 neat hacks to get more nutrients in each day!

First, let’s run through the basics:

What nutrients do our bodies need?

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are made up of sugar molecules that break down to generate the energy we require for survival. The brain especially needs the sugar molecule glucose, as it’s one of the few molecules the brain can access for energy. 

Getting too much glucose, however, can lead to health complications like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases—so keep an eye on the nutrition label when you’re buying groceries. This label shows the amount of carbs you’re getting, which can hint at the glucose content, too.

On the nutrition label, carbs can show up as “Sugars” and “Fibre.” Here’s a rundown on those:

Sugars

These can be divided into naturally occurring sugars (sugars that are naturally present in food) and added sugars (sugars added to food during manufacturing). Although both these types of sugars have, in many cases, the same chemical structure, naturally occurring sugars are ultimately better for you because you’re likely to get them in smaller quantities, alongside a range of nutrients, from eating fruits and vegetables.

Added sugars, on the other hand, are absorbed more quickly by the body—so they’re more likely to cause blood glucose and insulin levels to spike. Over time, these spikes can worsen the body’s ability to lower blood glucose—which puts the body at higher risk of Type II diabetes. So the next time you’re craving something sweet, try to choose foods with naturally occurring sugar where possible!

Fibre

Fibre doesn’t contribute to your overall carbohydrate intake as it can’t get digested—it just passes through the body. Legumes like lentils are good sources of fibre, which can help increase bowel movement—and lower blood cholesterol levels. This reduction is important because the body can’t break down cholesterol (more on cholesterol later!). 

One of the only ways the body can control cholesterol levels is by turning cholesterol into—then expelling it as—bile salts. And since fibre can bind to bile salts, more cholesterol can be expelled. So, definitely try getting lots of fibre in.

Also, did you know...

When looking at a nutrition label, you might be wondering why the amounts listed for sugars and fibre don’t add up to the total amount of carbs listed. That’s because the remainder, starches (a.k.a. complex sugars), isn’t itemized. As with other carbs, starches are broken down into glucose—which can end up getting transformed into fats for storage. And on that note:

Fats

The body needs fats because they’re used to store energy. Think of fats as chains of carbon atoms linked to one another.

Fats come in these forms:

  1. Saturated fats
  2. Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated)

  3. Trans fats

You might’ve heard that unsaturated fats are better for you than saturated and trans fats. The reason is linked to low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) and high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), which are particles of fat and protein that carry cholesterol within the body.

LDLs bring cholesterol from the liver to different cells in the body, whereas HDLs collect cholesterol from the bloodstream and return it to the liver—which then expels it from the body. 

However, when there are excess LDLs carrying cholesterol from the liver to the bloodstream, the surplus LDLs can amass in your blood vessels, forming plaque. Plaque buildup gradually narrows the insides of blood vessels, creating conditions that can lead to cardiovascular diseases.

Since trans and saturated fats can both increase LDL levels, it’s best to steer clear of trans fats—the most harmful type of fat—and keep your intake of saturated fats low. Instead, eat more fibre to keep your HDL levels high, and make sure you’re getting unsaturated fats in your diet, as these can help decrease LDL levels

Unsaturated fats include 2 types: omega-3 and omega-6 fats. These are essential to the human diet, meaning that the body cannot make these on its own. We need both to maintain a balanced, healthy diet.

Omega-3 fats (a.k.a. omega-3 fatty acids)

Omega-3 fats include alpha-linolenic acids (ALAs), eicosapentaenoic acids (EPAs) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHAs). ALAs are used for energy, and can be found in flaxseed oil and walnuts. EPAs and DHAs, which are commonly found in fish, both help protect the cells in your retinas—hence the saying that eating fish is good for your eyes.

Fish
Omega-6 fats (a.k.a. omega-6 fatty acids)

Like omega-3 fats, omega-6 fats are also linked to reduced risk of heart disease—and it’s important to have a balance of both omega-3 and omega-6 fats for optimal cardiovascular health. Seeds and seed oil are rich sources of omega-6 fats.

Proteins

The body uses proteins—which are made up of compounds called amino acids—to get energy, build muscles, and repair tissues. To healthily get the protein you need, you can try this approach:

  • Include more plant-based proteins in your diet

  • Choose white meat and seafood over red meat when possible, if you eat meat

  • Avoid consuming processed meats like bacon

Whole grains and dairy products can be good sources of protein—a great example of the former is quinoa, which contains 9 essential amino acids!

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals help break down food, convert food to energy, and strengthen the immune system. Certain vitamins, such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E, are antioxidants, which means they help protect cells from “free radicals”—harmful chemicals in the body that ruin cells and even DNA.

If you’d like more info on vitamins and minerals (like their suggested daily consumption amounts), check this listing from Harvard Medical School.

And, as promised:

6 niche nutrition hacks you should know

1. If you’re a regular coffee-drinker, go for light-roasted coffee—which contains more antioxidant properties than dark-roasted coffee does. And if you want to maximize your alertness, consider taking a "coffee nap” (a 20-minute shut-eye right after you drink a cup of coffee)!

2. Oranges aren’t the only fruits loaded with Vitamin C. In fact, some fruits and vegetables—including strawberries, kiwis, and broccoli—have even more Vitamin C than oranges do. So, the next time you’re grocery shopping, try looking for a variety of fruits and vegetables high in Vitamin C!

3. The way you cook and wash your food impacts how nutritious your food can be. For example, cooking tomatoes can greatly elevate lycopene content (lycopene is a powerful antioxidant!). Also, rinsing (rather than soaking) fruits and vegetables can help preserve their nutrients.

4. Many spices offer benefits you might not expect. Parsley and rosemary are shown to be anti-inflammatory and anticancer (wow!).

5. The way you combine foods can increase or decrease your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Check out this quick deck for food pairings that can enhance nutrient absorption—and food pairings to avoid!

6. The time of day you eat certain foods can matter, too! Did you know that eating cherries (which contain melatonin) just 1 hour before bedtime can help you sleep better

For more tips on maintaining a healthy diet, head to the UBC Foodie Blog!