What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, or “carbs” as they’re commonly referred to, are one of the three main “macronutrients” of the human diet. The other macronutrients are fats and proteins, with things like vitamins and minerals falling under the category of “micronutrients.” Carbs themselves can be thought of as simply tiny chains of sugar molecules that come in different shapes and sizes. The digestive system handles carbohydrates by attempting to break them down into individual sugar molecules, which can be transported in the blood stream and used as fuel in the body.
Carbohydrates can be simple, which means made up of one or two sugar molecules, or complex, meaning they are made up of a long string of 3 or more sugars. Simple carbohydrates include glucose (also called dextrose), fructose (fruit sugar), and lactose (milk sugar) while complex carbs are starches and fiber. In most cases, the body aims to break all carbs down into glucose (“blood sugar”) which cells use as energy. Fiber, however, is not easily broken down in the human body.
High carb foods include things like grains, vegetables, sugar and pasta. Sources of starches and fiber tend to be the natural, unrefined ones like vegetables and whole grains. Sugar and white flour are simple carbohydrates. Low carb diets are becoming an increasingly popular way to lose weight, and may even offer health benefits outside weight management.
What is protein?
Proteins are a large class of biological molecules made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids. They are an important macronutrient and the most vital to a healthy diet. They form the building blocks of our bodies and can also be used as a fuel source. Somewhat like the way carbs are broken down into their component sugars, most proteins are broken down by the body into single amino acids, which are then small enough to be absorbed in the small intestine to be put to use in growth and repair, as well as the construction of neurotransmitters which allow our brains to function.
Dietary sources of proteins and amino acids come in a wide variety. Meats, eggs and fish are the best and most complete sources of protein. Other foods that are protein-rich include dairy products, nuts, seeds and legumes. It is found in cereals, grains, fruits and vegetables but not in the quantity, quality or variety found in animal-derived products. For this reason, vegetarians have to pay extra close attention to the sources of protein in their diets.
What is fat?
Fats are the final pillar of macronutrient required for human health. Next to protein, fats are the most important nutrient and despite their nasty reputation we could not survive without them. Fats are used for energy storage, the absorption of certain vitamins, promoting healthy cell function and protecting against disease. Some fatty acids, which fats are broken down into, cannot be made by the body itself and maintaining our health depends on them.
Like proteins, the dietary sources of fat are fairly ubiquitous and quite varied. Animal products are a great source of fats. Butter, cream, meat and cheese are all excellent ways to acquire our requisite dietary fats. Plant sources, and especially oils like olive oil or canola oil, as well as nuts and seeds are the main forms of non-animal fat sources. Fat itself comes in several varieties.
“Good fats,” like “good carbs” come from natural sources. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are both widely considered beneficial to health and are found in natural plant oils, fish, nuts and seeds. Another form, called saturated fats were long considered “bad fats” and believed to contribute to heart disease, stroke and some cancers. New research has blurred the issue of saturated fats, with some claiming they’re actually beneficial, and it’s important to do your reading or speak to a medical professional before forming an opinion. Dietary sources of saturated fats include fatty animal products like lard and oils such as coconut and palm. A final type of fat almost universally considered “bad” are trans fats, which are found in packaged snack foods, margarine, deep fried foods, vegetable shortening and some candy bars.
What is sodium?
Sodium is a chemical element found on the periodic table and has the symbol Na. Sodium plays an important role in maintaining human health and is vital to processes such as maintaining blood pressure and osmolarity and is also necessary for chemical signaling in nerves, among other uses. The main source of sodium in our diets is in the form of sodium chloride, or as you may know it, salt. It’s also found in varying amounts in other foods, like meats and certain vegetables.
While sodium is vital for the proper functioning of the body, too much may be linked to things like high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke and kidney problems. If you’re concerned about your blood pressure, try to take some steps to reduce sodium intake such as avoiding things like fast foods and processed meats.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a substance made up of proteins that’s most commonly found in grains. It’s responsible for giving baked goods their characteristic feel and elasticity. Gluten can be a component of a healthy diet, however, there are many individuals that are extremely sensitive and must avoid it altogether or suffer adverse health effects such as diarrhea, fatigue, depression or a rash.
The main sources of dietary gluten are wheat, barley and rye. Gluten is also an extremely common food additive and is found in many modern food products. It’s often added to foods as a stabilizer and thickener. Gluten can be found in everything from condiments to salad dressing to deli meats, so if you’re on a gluten-free diet it is very important to carefully research the foods you buy.
What is fiber?
Fiber is a form of carbohydrate that has the unique property of not being broken down into its constituent sugars by the body’s enzymes in the course of digestion. It can take the form of soluble fiber, which dissolves completely in water, or insoluble fiber, which does not. Both forms are an important part of a healthy diet. Dietary fiber can stabilize blood sugar, lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol, and promote bowel regularity.
The main sources of fiber come from vegetables and fruits, with dark-green vegetables and legumes having some of the highest levels of fiber per serving.
What is glucose?
Glucose is a simple sugar and the body’s preferred source of energy. When found in the human blood stream, glucose is often referred to as “blood sugar.” Glucose can either be extracted from carbohydrate sources, or directly synthesized by the body from non-carbohydrate building blocks.
What are whole grains?
Just-harvested grains contain several parts, namely a germ, bran and endosperm. The endosperm is the center of the grain and contains mostly starch, used to provide sustenance to a germinating plant. The germ is the reproductive part of the grain, and the bran forms a protective outer layer.
The majority of the nutrients and fiber in a grain product are contained in the germ and bran, while the endosperm is mostly just empty calories of carbohydrate. Whole grains are unprocessed grain products that retain all their nutrition and fiber. Along with their higher vitamin content, the fiber acts to lessen their effect on the body’s blood sugar and insulin levels.
Refined grains are stripped of the germ and bran, leaving only the starchy center. These are things like white flour and white rice. Along with being less nutritious than their whole grain counterparts, they can spike blood sugar and insulin levels. Refined grains should be avoided by anyone seeking to develop a healthy diet.