Those are some of the emotional and physical reasons why we eat, but do we ever put much thought into why our body needs food? Not just any food, by the way, but healthy, good-for-you food? Why is good nutrition important?
Good Nutrition Provides Energy
The foods we eat provide the energy our body needsto function. Just like weneed to put fuel in our car or recharge your cell phone battery, your body needs to be fed energy-providing foods every day. The main form of energy for your body is carbohydrates.
Our body has the easiest time digesting carbohydrates like sugar and starch. Carbohydrates are broken down into individual glucose, fructose or galactose units. Glucose is your body's favorite form of energy. If we don't get enough carbohydrates, you body can make glucose from protein or fat -- and if we get too many carbohydrates, our body is very good at storing them as fat.
Good Nutrition Provides Raw Materials
Protein in the foods we eat is broken down into individual amino acids. Our body uses the amino acids to build and repair the various parts of your body. Our muscles contain lots of protein, and you need to replenish that protein through your diet. Our body also needs protein for components of our immune system, hormones, nervous system, and organs.
Another raw material our body needs is calcium. Calcium has several functions in your body, but it's best known as the mineral that is stored in our bones and teeth. We need calcium from our diet to keep your bones and teeth strong.
Our body also needs fats to be healthy. Membranes that contain fats surround all the cells of our body. Our brain has fatty acids, and fats are also needed to signal hormones.
The "Little Helpers"
Vitamins and minerals we get from our diet are just as important as carbohydrates, protein and fats; however, you only need them in small amounts. Vitamins and minerals usually function as co-enzymes, which means they help chemical reactions in the body happen a lot faster. For example, many of the B complex vitamins help our body burn carbohydrates for energy. Vitamin A is needed for vision, zinc is involved in many metabolic processes, and vitamin C helps keep connective tissue strong and our immune system functioning.
Your diet needs to provide adequate amounts of all of these "little helpers." A healthy, balanced diet will provide you with lots of vitamin and minerals. An unhealthy diet may make your body deficient in one or more of these helpers.
Above and Beyond the Basics
Good nutrition provides more than energy, structural components, vitamins and minerals. There are other substances in the foods that we eat that have become better known over the last few years.
Phytochemicals are found in the colorful parts of fruits and vegetables. Although they aren't required for body functioning, they may have a very powerful impact on our health. For example, quercetin (found in red apples) functions like an antihistamine and as an anti-inflammatory effect. Resveratrol, found in grape skins and seeds, is a powerful antioxidant.
Antioxidants help protect our body from damage that comes from the sun, pollution, smoke, and poor dietary choices. They are found in the phytochemicals of fruits and vegetables, as well as some vitamins and amino acids.
When we eat a food, we don't eat just a carbohydrate, fat or protein. Wwe eat a piece of apple pie, a steak, or a lump of mashed potatoes. Most of the foods we eat consists of varying amounts of all three of these nutrition components. Good nutrition means getting the right balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, plus the required vitamins and minerals. Great nutrition means getting a lot of the phytochemicals and antioxidants, too.
Take carbohydrates for example: What are good carbs, what are bad carbs, and what difference does it make? Since our body breaks them all down into individual units, the carbohydrates themselves aren't necessarily good or bad. The problems occur when we eat too many, or if the other ingredients in the food containing the carbohydrates aren't so good.
For example, that chocolate covered donut mentioned in the first paragraph contains lots of sugar and white flour; if we eat too many of them, we'll take in extra calories that will be stored in our body as fat. The donut also contains lots of fats, probably trans-fats, that can raise our risk of heart disease. The donut doesn't provide you with much in the way of vitamins, minerals or other substances, such as natural anti-oxidants or healthy fatty acids. When we think of it this way, that donut may not sound so good any more.
An example of a good source of carbohydrates would be almost any fruit or vegetable. These options allow you to get the carbohydrates you need for energy, plus fiber for a healthy digestive system, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. About half of our daily calories should come from carbohydrates. Those carbs should come from fruits, vegetables and 100% whole grain breads and cereals -- not from candy, sodas and pastries.
This concept works with proteins and fats, too. A healthy protein source is one that does not add extra unhealthy fats and hopefully offers some fats that are good for us, like navy beans. These beans provide protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates. An example of an unhealthy protein is bacon. Bacon, and other processed meats like it, contain lots of fats and calories which can impact our heart health, expand your waistline, and even increase our risk of cancer.
Healthy fats come from foods that contain polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, fish, walnuts, soy, flax seeds and canola oil. While these fats and oils contain a lot of calories, we do need the fatty acids they provide. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unhealthy fats to be aware of. Saturated fats, found in some stick margarines, baked goods and processed foods, are very bad for our health.
Good Nutrition Means Good Health
A healthy diet will give our body the right amount of energy, enough raw materials and all of the "little helpers" we need to stay healthy. Good nutrition will also provide phytochemicals and antioxidants that will help keep us feeling young, looking great, and perhaps even disease-free. A bad diet will give us too many or too few calories, not enough vitamins and minerals, and will actually make us need more of the antioxidants that we aren't getting.
Now that you have a better idea of why your body needs food, the next step is to learn more about nutrition and how to eat a balanced diet.