By: Obinna Esomchukwu

A significant aspect of living healthy is eating healthy. Nothing says it better than the popular axiom — you are what you eat. Our bodies are made of trillions of cells — in order words, we are a giant masses of (specialized) cells. Cells require nutrients in order to grow and function properly, and food is the primary source of these nutrients.

Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are “energy nutrients”– that is, they contain calories. A calorie is not a food component, rather, it is a unit of measurement for the amount of energy that can be obtained from consuming a particular food.

Water, for instance, has zero calories. So, if you are in dire need of energy and you drink a jug of water, you will not obtain any energy from it. Instead, the little you have left will be expended on bathroom trips.

The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) recommends 2000 kcalories a day for adults who are not ill, pregnant, or lactating. The easiest ways to get information on the calorie content of a food item is to either look it up online or read the label.

As an example, the label on a 12 oz (355 mL) bottle of Pepsi shows it contains 150 calories. What this really means is that this bottle of Pepsi contains 150 kcal. Always remember, 1 Calorie = 1 kcalorie. Manufacturers conveniently omit the ‘k’ to de-emphasize the caloric content of food items.  

The primary function of food is not to provide comfort or pleasure, but to provide nourishment. With that said, good food doesn’t always have to be green or taste like tree bark. In fact, there isn’t such a thing as “good” or “bad” food.

As long as the calorie and nutrient requirements of the cells are met, the body will be in great shape. But, to understand the calorie-nutrient-cell interaction we must know which nutrients are available to us and where they can be obtained.

As I mentioned earlier, food is the major source of nutrients for the cells. However, some nutrients are manufactured by the cells from other dietary components. These nutrients that are produced by the cells endogenously are non-essential nutrients. The group required in a meal are called essential nutrients. Essential nutrients include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, K, Biotin, Folate, and Pantothenic acid are also essential nutrients. In addition, water and minerals like calcium chloride, sodium, zinc, potassium, and Iodine are also examples of essential nutrients. Non-essential nutrients include cholesterol, fibers, and some amino acids.

Now that we have the science in a bag. What exact food groups should we pay attention to? Carbohydrates from bread, rice, pasta, and noodles are staple in our diet. Therefore, we should focus on the food classes that are less represented in our diets.

The ideal is to have 3-4 meals every day and fruits and vegetables should be a part of every meal. This is because our bodies are incapable of producing and storing essential vitamins like vitamin C.

Fruits and vegetables are also great sources of bioactive molecules called antioxidants which protect our cells from the harmful effects of harmful molecules. Studies suggest that antioxidants from fruits and vegetables can prevent hypertension, cancer, and aging.

Proteins are the building blocks of life. Every cell in the body contains proteins; muscles are an example of cells that require adequate protein levels to grow and function properly.

Chicken breast, shrimp, egg white (yolk contains cholesterol, which is already manufactured by the liver) are excellent sources of protein. Whey and casein protein shakes are also great.

Most of our current fats come from meat, butter, cheese, and other chemically processed forms (e.g pastries). These foods provide cells with saturated fat which increase the blood cholesterol levels.

High cholesterol levels are strongly correlated with cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. A healthier alternative is to replace this group with unsaturated fats from olive oil, fish oil (capsule), avocado, walnuts, and almonds.

Finally, the drink for champions, water. The recommended daily consumption is 64 oz or 2 L (8 cups x 8 oz). While there isn’t a lot of data to support this claim, there is a general consensus that 2 L is a healthy amount per day.

Also, we rarely hear of someone suffer from excessive water consumption — the most probable occurrence is dehydration, which can lead to weakness, fatigue, confusion, and lightheadedness.
The benefits of eating healthy are innumerable, but longevity of life and sharpness of the mind are the most appealing. I hope we can start to make small changes to our grocery lists and diets today, to better promote mental and physical health.     

photo credit: Kate’s apartmentsteading