Nutrition Series Part 4: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Food – What does that even mean?

To recap, food is made up of two major categories: micronutrients and macronutrients. The goal of eating is to fulfill the demands of each category. Your body needs micronutrients and macronutrients, and thus the worth of a food is determined by how it fulfills the demands of either or both categories. The problem with the modern paradigm for deciding if a food is healthy or unhealthy is that it has no definite basis. It’s usually left up to an intuitive basis. While intuition is generally correct, like knowing that fruits and vegetables are good for you, it can sometime be persuaded to thinking that carbs or fats are bad for you. I have even heard of people avoiding fruit because they think the sugar is “poisonous” and will make you fat. Just like ingesting too much water results in drowning, ingesting too much of anything else generally has negative consequences. So the real problem with the “healthy vs. unhealthy” dilemma is that there is not set criteria to determine one or the other. It’s left to urban health legends. If we change the paradigm to something definite, like how well a good satisfies macronutrient and micronutrient requirements, we can begin to make more meaningful choices.

The first category, and the most often talked about, is the macronutrient category. This is the simplest to account for but typically the hardest to execute. Thinking about macronutrients is simply figuring out how many calories you are aiming for and then thinking about how you want to divide those calories up into the three major macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

The second category is micronutrients. It is generally overlooked, but is important to choosing well balanced foods. Vegetables and fruits generally are high in micronutrients. Fish is a great example of a highly nutritious meat. These foods all have varying types and amounts of vitamins and minerals, which all contribute to keeping the body healthy and functioning.

When considering whether a food is healthy or not, ask yourself what functions it can fill given its makeup. Let’s take a Kit-Kat bar for example. One Kit-Kat bar is 210 calories, consisting of primarily fat and chocolate. While the food does have a substantial amount of macronutrients, mostly carbs and fat, it does not have a large amount of micronutrients. So while a Kit-Kat may be sufficient for a quick burst of energy before doing something, it should not be used as a major nutritional source. It is tasty, and it can be helpful for short bursts of energy, but it only fulfills one category meagerly, and the other not at all.

On the other hand, we have things like potatoes. A potato has a relatively high amount of carbs, little protein and almost no fat, yet is absolutely packed with micronutrients. Thus potatoes can be consumed as a great side to a meal, fulfilling the macronutrient category decently, but fulfilling the macronutrient category phenomenally. This makes it a bit more of a complete food because it fulfills roles in both categories.

A consideration for athletes would be that sometimes, in order to achieve certain goals, you will have to eat food that only fills one category well. Examples of this would be for the athlete that is trying to get bigger or maintain their current weight, but is having a hard time eating enough food. This athlete might benefit from eating large quantities of rice, beef, or other fatty cuts of meat. While some rice has a large amount of macronutrients, specifically carbohydrates, it generally does not have much in the way of micronutrients. This makes the food great for just adding calories into one’s diet for the sake of adding calories.

A person looking for general health and fitness, with no focus towards athleticism, is probably better off on just eating foods that fulfill both categories. This includes lean and fatty fish cuts, vegetables, fruits, whole wheat breads. I’m sure there’s many other foods that fit the category, but these are a good place to start.

Let’s recap. Food is composed to two primary categories: Macronutrients and Micronutrients. Macronutrients are the nutrients that our body needs a lot of, and Micronutrients are the nutrients our body does not need a lot of. These nutrients are measure in variants of grams – Macronutrients will be labeled as X grams, whereas Micronutrients will be measured either in % daily value or milligrams (1000 milligrams = 1 gram, thus why they are called micronutrients).  The quality of a food can be determined by how it accomplishes a particular goal. The difficulty here is that there are usually so many potential goals that we are not actually aware of all of them. A large pizza may not be ideal if I only eat 1,500 calories a day and am only going to eat that pizza. While the pizza fills my macronutrient needs fairly well (fats, proteins and carbs), it fails to 1) stay within my caloric needs and 2) is not very heavy on micronutrients, thus making it an unwise decision. However, if I’m a hardcore athlete who needs to eat upwards of 4,000 calories a day, I can eat an entire pizza myself with quite a bit of calories left to spare. In this case, it doesn’t matter if the pizza meets my micronutrient needs, because I know I’ll be getting them from somewhere else later.

Similarly, let’s look at what it looks like to get a good amount of micronutrients but not enough macronutrients. Suppose, once again, that there is a hardcore male athlete who needs 4,000 calories per day to not lose weight, and whose goal is to maintain his current weight or even gain weight. After a heavy practice, the athlete goes home and begins to cook. If the athlete was to only eat carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, would that adequately help him achieve his goal of a high calorie meal? Absolutely not! While our friend would get his micronutrients taken care of, he would most likely barely manage to even consume 300 calories. In order to achieve his goal, he must add something else to the meal. If he added in potatoes, rice, and some sort of meat, then he would have a meal that is both nutritious and calorically satisfying.

It is important to think about what your particular goals are. Once you have those locked into your mind, choosing food becomes significantly easier. Try writing down your goals before you go shopping next time and think about what you would buy to fulfill those goals. If your goal is to lose weight, and thus eat less calories, then your shopping list should reflect that. Be sure to keep in mind which macronutrients are most important when you go shopping! Protein and fat should be at the top of your list, and whatever leftover calories you need can go to carbohydrates. It’s worth noting that people generally feel more full for longer when eating protein due to the difficulty for our bodies to break it down. Take advantage of that. Otherwise, if protein is not a focus, then just make sure you have enough fat in your diet for hormonal purposes.

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