We all talk about nutrition, almost everyday, but what do we understand by nutrition and what is balanced nutrition. Is it important for our body to have a balanced nutrition, if so why? I get these questions asked by many. These questions sort of inspired me to write this blog which talks all about nutrition and its significance in our daily diet.
What exactly is Nutrition?
Nutrition is how food affects the health of the body. Food provides nutrients for survival and helps the body function efficiently and stay healthy.
Food comprises of two basic categories of nutrients:
Macronutrients-which include protein, carbohydrate, and fats. Macro means large, so these are the nutrients that we need to eat in relatively large amounts in the diet. They provide energy to fuel the body and play specific roles in maintaining health such as building muscles and maintenance of the body.
Micronutrients-Vitamins and minerals are considered as micronutrients as they are required in smaller quantities. They do not provide calories but serve a variety of critical functions to ensure that the body operates optimally. They help support overall health and play important roles in cell metabolism and neurological functions too.
So, what is a Balanced Nutrition?
A balanced nutrition is one which provides all the nutrients in required amounts and proper proportions.
Nutrition is best balanced by eating the right amounts of a large variety of foods. These provide the proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins needed for a healthy body. The right amounts of water and exercise are also critical to good health.
The quantities of foods needed to meet the nutrient requirements vary with age, gender, physical activity, and physiological status.
A balanced diet should provide around 60-70% of total calories from carbohydrates, about 10-12% from proteins and 20-25% from fat. It should also provide non-nutrients (Dietary fibre), antioxidants and phytochemicals.
The Food Groups
Foods are grouped together because they provide similar amounts of the key nutrients of that food group. A food group is a collection of foods that have similar nutritional or biological properties. To meet the nutrient requirements essential for good health, you need to eat a variety from each of these groups daily, in a recommended amount. The five food groups include:
Cereals Grains and Products
Pulses and Legumes
Milk, Fish and Meat
Fruits and Vegetables
Fats and sugars
The five-food group system can be used for planning balanced menu to achieve nutritional adequacy.
A balanced diet is often represented by different symbols-
A wheel, plate, or circle symbol suggests a balance of foods is desirable. The circle, plate or wheel has sections with different food groups. This helps to choose variety at a glance. The best meal plan is one that includes a balance of items from different food groups.
The rainbow symbol emphasizes variety. It is a representation that includes foods of different colours by adding different kinds of fruits and vegetables into the diet. The colour pigments of our foods are phytochemicals that possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, immune boosting properties that promote good health and better quality of life. Yellow red fruits and vegetables like mangoes, carrot etc are rich in β- carotene that is converted into Vitamin A in the body and essential to keep our skin, eyes, and hair healthy. Fisetin, found in apples, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, onion etc have anti-ageing effects. Green coloured veggies and leaves are rich in iron, potassium and magnesium and so should be consumed by adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women or people who are suffering from iron deficiency. Red fruits like watermelon, peach, tomatoes, watermelon contain lycopene that has cardioprotective properties and important in fighting against different types of cancer.
Fig. The rainbow emphasizes inclusion of different, naturally coloured foods in our daily menu
A pyramid symbol recommends the number of servings from various food groups. It decreases from a solid foundation at the bottom (or the base) to the top in the shape of a pyramid. A food pyramid serves as a tool for people to design a healthy diet and it delivers an overview of different kinds of foods our body needs to maintain health and keep diseases at bay. It is a representation of well-balanced healthy diet plan which when consumed, provides the body with all essential macro and micronutrients.
Fig. Food pyramid: Cereals, legumes and products are at the base which should be eaten in adequate amounts to meet one’s daily needs of energy and protein. Colourful vegetables and fruits are in the next level which should be included in ample amounts to meet the daily requirement of vitamins and minerals. Animal foods and milk products are in the next level up the hierarchy that should be included in moderate amounts. At the top comes the highly processed foods, sugars, fats, and oils that should be consumed sparingly.
Cereals and grains account for the major share of energy in a normal diet. They provide mostly carbohydrates as starches. In view of the intake, cereals also provide other nutrient such as protein, calcium, iron, and B complex vitamins. Cereals contain 6-12% protein which is generally deficient in amino acid lysine, hence, to improve its protein quality they should be combined with legumes (beans), nuts, seeds, dairy, or meat. Half of the grain category should be from whole grains for fibre and vitamins.
Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Certain vegetables such as potatoes also provide carbohydrates and some vegetable protein, which needs to be eaten with another protein food to be complete.
Fruits provide different vitamins, minerals, and fibre. They also provide sugars for quick energy. ½ to ¾ cup or 120 to 180 mL of fruit juice is the same as one serving of fruit. It is not wise to drink much more than this because the high sugar tends to replace other needed foods.
Milk and milk products provide complete proteins and major minerals, particularly calcium. They are commonly supplemented with vitamin D and vitamin A. If dairy products are not consumed in the recommended amounts, special efforts should be made to eat other calcium-rich foods or take a calcium supplement. This is particularly important for women.
Meat, chicken, eggs, and fish can provide complete protein. Legumes (e.g., soybeans) can also provide complete protein if nuts/seeds or grains such as rice or corn are eaten at the same meal to provide limiting amino acids. This is known as mutual supplementation of foods. Legumes are low in amino acid methionine, while rice, wheat and other cereals are limiting in lysine. So, when we eat a combination meal of pulses and cereals, we get a more complete protein.
Vegetable oils can provide a balance of essential fatty acids. Use them in food preparation (frying, salad dressings, spreads, etc.). Canola and soy oils are preferred. Mustard and hemp seed oils are similar but less common. Olive oil is high in healthy monounsaturated fat and has a good ratio (although relatively low amounts) of essential fatty acids. Peanut, corn, sesame, sunflower, and safflower oils are relatively low in essential omega-3 fatty acids. Half of servings in the oil category should be one of the vegetable oils providing essential fatty acids each day. Tropical oils (e.g., coconut and palm) are extremely low in essential fatty acids.
In addition to all these food groups, it is essential to take adequate amount of water as it is one of the key nutrients that keep one hydrated and hence is of paramount importance in good health maintenance. Human body is essentially 80% water. Therefore, we must keep that balance to survive and stay healthy.