Everyone needs to know the basics.
If you are comfortable with computers and the internet, the best way to start is to go to www.MyPyramid.gov and, on the right, click on MyPramid plan. Then enter your own personal data. You will get a personalized recommendation for what kinds and how much food you should be eating everyday.
While you are on the MyPyramid home page, you can scroll down to the Spotlight area and click on "Tour MyPyramid" for a brief animated explanation of the pyramid.
You can also click on the words "Inside the Pyramid" for much more information on the different food groups and plenty of examples of each.
If you don't like using the computer or don't have easy access to a computer, we have a discussion below which will give you an idea of what kinds of foods you'll want to know about and choose.
Don't worry. Foods, like people, can be complex. Some foods can belong to more than one group. For example, corn is both a grain and a vegetable. Beans are both vegetables and many are excellent sources of protein. So be flexible. Learn that there are many interesting and delicious ways to eat a healthy diet - and be willing to try new-to-you foods and new combinations.
Here are the basics that we'll cover:
- Basic food groups - protein, carbohydrates (sugars and starches), fats
- Importance of water and fiber
- Major vitamins and minerals
- Energy: what is a calorie?
Proteins are one of the most important nutrients. They provide the "building blocks" for keeping our tissues healthy, renewed and repaired. Nearly every tissue and cell in the body contains and needs protein, from muscle to skin to blood. The bits of protein that make up the "building blocks" are amino acids: some of which our bodies can make and some of which we have to get from our diet. The ones we have to get from our food are called the essential amino acids.
The easiest way to get all the essential amino acids is from proteins which are called "perfect proteins." They have all the essential amino acids. These foods are: milk, eggs, fish, meat and poultry. Many other foods, especially grains and legumes (beans), contain some of the essential amino acids, but not all. But you can create "perfect protein" by combining these foods. Examples of such combinations include:
- cornbread and bean soup
- beans and tortillas (corn or whole wheat)
- cereal and milk
- beans and rice
If you have problems with cholesterol (or are just watching your weight and calories), you will want to choose lean rather than fatty proteins. You can:
- scramble 3 eggs using all the whites, but only one yolk (which contains all the cholesterol)
- drink 2% or, better yet, skim milk (which has all the protein, just no fat)
- trim fat off meats before cooking
- remove skin and fat from poultry before cooking
- bake, boil or broil instead of frying.
These are the foods we commonly call starches and sugars. They are very important sources of energy as well as fiber, some protein, vitamins and minerals.
Sugary foods (made with sugars like table sugar or brown sugar) give you quick energy. This can be helpful if you're haven't eaten for awhile, your blood sugar is low and you're feeling low blood sugar effects. A little sugar can give you a quick, but brief energy lift.
This is not helpful if you are a diabetic and eat too much sugary food. This can cause your blood sugar to be too high. Because keeping your blood sugars close to normal is how you avoid the complications of diabetes, this is not healthy - and will catch up with you over time.
Our bodies use sugars and starches by breaking them down into blood sugar (glucose) and with the help of insulin (made by our pancreas) getting them into our cells, where they are used as energy to fuel all the work of cells. With type 1 diabetes there is no natural insulin or in type 2 diabetes, the natural insulin isn't working right, so the blood sugar can't get into the cells. It builds up in the blood, causing high blood sugar. And it can cause fatigue and other problems, because it isn't available to the cells to use for energy..
While a little sugar occasionally is okay, the healthier way to eat carbohydrates is to choose the starchier ones, also called complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are actually a bigger chemical molecule and take more time to break down into sugar. This means that their energy is delivered more slowly, over a longer period of time. This helps keep the blood sugar from having high and low spikes. It's more likely to stay in the normal range.
You may have heard the term "glycemic index". This is a way of looking at carbohydrates to see how long it takes for them to be digested or cause the blood sugar to go up. The higher the glycemic index number, the more quickly the food is broken down into sugar - and the faster it causes your blood sugar to be high.
Examples of simple sugars are things made with lots of granulated (table) sugar: candies, cookies, cakes, etc.
Complex carbohydrates include rice, grains, whole grain breads, pastas, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn. You can see, again, that there is overlap in the food groups. Some of these starches contain protein. The more whole grain the carbohydrate, the more protein and fiber they tend to contain, such as brown rice, whole wheat flour products and rolled oats (oatmeal).
Now you knew this was too easy. Not all complex carbohydrates are created equal. Baked potatoes have the same glycemic index as a doughnut! (But they don't have the high fat that a doughnut has.)
So it helps to have a chart which shows you the glycemic index of foods. That way you can eat more of the low glycemic index foods, which are healthier for all of us, especially diabetics.
If it makes things simpler for you, you can think of the simple sugar foods as "bad carbs" which we should only eat sparingly. And you can think of the complex carbohydrates as the "good carbs" which are digested slowly, help maintain normal blood sugars and have added protein and fiber. But it helps to know the couple of exceptions, like potatoes.
To get the best idea of which and how much carbohydrate you should be eating everyday, go to www.MyPyramid.gov and enter your personal data to see your own food pyramid with your recommended carbohydrate portions.
Fat is an important, if small, part of our diet. We don't need much, but it performs critical functions. Fat is required to make the myelin sheath, which insulates our nerves, so they can conduct impulses to our muscles properly. Another important role for fats is as the building blocks of important hormones, such as the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone.
Our bodies do make some fats, such as cholesterol (and some people make too much). But other fats have to come from our diets. These fats are known as the essential fatty acids.
The essential fatty acids (called omega-3's and omega-6's) are found in such foods as: canola oil, soybean oil, fish and nuts.
There are a couple reason why we should eat limited amounts of fat. One is, as you know, that it can turn into too much fat in the blood, which makes it more likely that we will develop heart disease. Too much fat in the blood can become high cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which are linked to heart disease, especially the type of cholesterol called LDL or "bad" cholesterol. The other reason we have to watch our fat intake is because fats have more than twice as much energy as protein and carbohydrate, ounce for ounce. So if we need to watch our weight, we have to cut back on fats as well as simple sugars.
Not all fats are created equal in terms of our health. Those fats which come from animals tend to be the least healthy for us, for example, butter and lard (even though it makes the best fry bread!). In contrast the fat sources which are linked to better heart health - and maybe all-around health - are fats from plants, such as soybeans, canola (rapeseed), safflower and olives. Oils from these plants are better for us to use in cooking and for salad dressings.
Especially bad fats for us are called saturated, hydrogenated or transfats. These names refer to chemical processes that manufacturers use to make oils seem like butter, so they spread instead of pour. So when you're in the grocery store, look at the nutrition label for "saturadated fat" and "transfat" content. Zero grams of those is best.
(Ed. Note: a picture of a nutrition label would be good here. Maybe from a skim milk carton, since it's a good illustration of zero grams of both the above fats. )
Other important kinds of nutrition
There are a few other important things to know about nutrition. These include fiber, vitamins, minerals, water and calories.
Fiber is the part of foods that we don't digest. You'd think that would make it unimportant. But fiber is very important, especially for the functioning of our intestines. Because we eat so much refined sugar and flour and too few vegetables and fruit, we in the US eat less fiber than we used to and than people in the rest of the world do. Fiber is important in maintaining normal bowel habits. It may be helpful in preventing colon cancer, but that's still being studied. In countries where they eat lots of high fiber foods there is less appendicitis and other colon problems. Finally, eating rolled oats (oat-meal) often is known to help lower cholesterol levels in people who have high cholesterol.
Where do you get fiber? One of the best sources of fiber is wheat bran. It is available in many different healthy cereals in the grocery store. Again, look at the nutrition label on the package. If the cereal has 5 or more grams of fiber per cup or bowl, that's a good start to your fiber for the day. Other ways to get fiber are from oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat, corn, beans and fruits, including dried fruits.
If you want to count your grams of fiber per day, your goal should be to gradually get to about 25g if you don't have any intestinal problems.
We all know the importance of water. We can't live very long without it. When we're born, our bodies are 70% water. By the time we're older adults we're only 50% water. But every part of our body needs to have water. Most of us are not used to thinking about the quality of our water. Especially if we live in a town or city with a water system, we turn on the faucet and use the water without thinking. Most of the time in most of our cities the tap water is safe. But there are thousands of chemicals which have been introduced into our environment and lives in the past 50-60 years, not all of which have been tested for their health or disease-causing capacity. So if you want to improve upon your city water, there are different filtering systems you can use in your kitchen to further purify your water. Most bottled water, which is very expensive compared to tap water, is just another city's tap water. If, however, you live where you're drinking well water, you need to get your water checked on whatever schedule is recommended for your area, to be sure that you and your family are drinking safe water.
There still is much discussion on how much water people need and whether caffeinated drinks count. The US Department of Agriculture says that adults should have at least 6 glasses a day, but that the larger and more active people are, the more water they should drink. And they have found that very active older adults sometimes drink as much as 12-13 glasses a day.
Some people have medical conditions that require less or more water, so you should check with your health care provider, if you're one of those.
What are vitamins? Vitamins are naturally-occurring chemicals which our body's organs need in order to perform different functions.
There are 13 different vitamins. We will list each one, what it does for the body and common food sources.
|Vitamin||Effects on the Body||Food Groups|
|Vitamin A||eye and skin health||green vegetables and dairy products|
|helps body remove CO2||whole grains, beans, pork|
|cell energy metabolism||many different, common foods|
|cell metabolism||meat, grains, beans, liver|
|cell energy metabolism||many different, common foods|
|protein & starch metabolism||whole grains, meats, vegetables|
|protein, starch & fat making||beans, vegetables, meats|
|cell and protein metabolism||beans, vegetables, whole wheat foods|
|Vitamin B12||cell nucleus metabolism||whole grains, meats, vegetables|
|Vitamin C||cartilage/bone/teeth structure||citrus fruits, green peppers, tomatoes|
|Vitamin D||bone health||eggs, dairy foods, "vitamin-D milk"|
|Vitamin E||cell wall health||nuts, seeds, vegetable oils|
|Vitamin K||blood clotting||cabbage family, spinach, romaine lettuce|
One question we often ask is: do I need a multiple vitamin? There are some special health situations in which we definitely should, for example, pregnancy - when we really need vitamins for two. But for the average person it depends on three major points:
- How many of your foods are already enriched with vitamins and minerals?
- How varied is your diet?
- How many calories do you eat every day?
If you are a small person or are aging and noticing that your food intake has really decreased, then it's less likely that you eat enough food to get a good sampling of vitamins and minerals in your diet. In this case you probably should take a multiple vitamin.
It is possible to get too much of some vitamins, so only take one vitamin a day. More is not better!
Minerals are basic chemical elements found in the environment which have been found to be important to our health. There are 7 major minerals and 9 trace minerals. Some of the required minerals are so plentiful that we don't even think about them: sodium and chlorine, for example. Together they're common table salt and are everywhere.
Calcium and phosporus are another pair that work together and often occur together in foods. They are important in the structure of bones and teeth. And they are present in dairy products and a variety of other foods.
Potassium is a critically important mineral, like sodium. It is important in muscle, nerve and the body's chemical balance between being acid and base. Potassium-rich foods are abundant. For example, bananas, tomatoes, other fresh and dried fruits, and fresh and canned juices.
Magnesium is not as well know to most people. Magnesium is important for making protein. Good sources of magnesium are whole grains and leafy vegetables.
The seventh major mineral is sulfur. Sulfur helps maintain the acid-base balance in the body. It is easy to get plenty of sulfur, since it is present is most protein foods.
|Important trace minerals are:|
|Iron - needed for hemoglobin||meat, eggs, leafy vegetables, some beans|
|Iodine - needed for thyroid function||fish from the sea, kelp, iodized salt|
|Others are: fluorine, zinc, copper, selenium, chromium, manganese, molybdenum.|
Like the vitamins, major and some trace minerals are included in most multiple vitamin tablets, so if you are not able to eat a substantial amount of food or a good variety of food, then you could consider taking a multiple vitamin to be sure you get a good variety of vitamins and minerals.
As with everything, it is possible to take too much of some vitamins and minerals. They can be toxic, so moderation is the key.
Maybe you've asked yourself some time, what is a calorie? A calorie is a little packet of energy. When we eat, everything (except water and fiber) contains energy. When we eat it, the food gets broken down in our digestive tract and the energy gets released.
Each of our bodies, depending on its size, its metabolism and how much activity we get everyday, has a certain energy need. You can find out your approximate energy need by going to www.MyPyramid.gov
If we eat less energy (number of calories per day) than our body needs, we'll lose weight. However, if we eat more energy (number of calories) than our body needs, we'll gain weight.
Some interesting things about calories:
One gram ( 1/30 of an ounce) of sugar contains 4 calories
One gram of protein contains 4 calories
One gram of fat contains 9 calories
One ounce of sugar contains 120 calories
One ounce of protein contains 120 calories
One ounce of fat contains 270 calories!
One pound of fat is approximately 3,500 calories. Therefore to lose one pound, we need to not eat 3,500 calories or we need to exercise 3,500 calories worth.
Likewise, to gain a pound we have to eat 3,500 calories extra for each pound we need to gain.
Where do I get healthy foods, vitamins and minerals?
As we discuss the different types of foods, be thinking about the traditional Indian foods from your area. Many of them are very healthy for you: wild game, fish, nuts, berries, corn, beans and squash, to name a few. When most of these foods are available free of pesticides and insecticides, they contain wholesome protein, low-sugar carbohydrates (starches) and generally less fat than corporate-raised meats.