Your body is constructed, operated and maintained by nutrients, water and energy. The food and drink you consume are mechanisms for delivering them to your body.
The health of the body you see in the mirror is largely a reflection of the quality of your diet (diet meaning the aggregate consumption of food and fluids).
Understanding the relationship between your body's appearance and performance capability and the nutrients, fluids and calories you provide it with is necessary to pursue and attain anything close to an optimum physical state.
To that end, your body is asking for enough nutritionally complete food to meet its caloric needs.
Here's a brief overview of how to eat for optimum physical condition:
1. A nutritionally complete diet includes protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals and hydrating fluids.
If you eat a broad variety of whole foods (those that are minimally processed) and you don't have any sweeping dietary exclusions like omitting animal products, you will likely consume all the nutrients your body requires. However, if you eat a narrow range of food you may need supplementation in the form of a multi-vitamin and/or a meal replacement shake to fill in your nutrition gaps. Unusual and persistent physical conditions or health problems that appeared around the time your diet changed can be signs of nutritional deficiency that may warrant a doctor's visit.
Refer to the Healthy Eating Plate from the Harvard University School of Public Health for a visual representation of a nutritionally complete diet.
2. Not all food sources within each of these categories have equivalent nutritional value.
Imagine a spectrum representing nutrition. At one end lies "super foods" and at the other is empty calories. While some foods are naturally more nutrient dense than others, how foods are produced can alter their nutrient content. Words you will find on an ingredient list that indicate processing that has depleted some nutrients include "bleached", "modified" and "refined." Conversely, "whole", "unrefined" and "raw" are generally associated with foods that remain nutritionally intact.
The ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) is a resource that lists the nutrient density of some common foods.
You can also refer to the section on nutrient dense foods in the US Department of Health & Human Services' Dietary Guidelines for Americans for additional information.
As you can see, vegetables lead the list. But we must eat from the other food groups, too. So notice which foods are tops in each nutritional category.
- The darker the color of the vegetable, the more nutrient dense it is. Think spinach versus celery.
- The color of produce roughly corresponds to the nutrients contained within them. Eat the rainbow.
- All animal protein is nutritionally complete protein on its own, whereas most plant protein is not, unless it's combined with other plant protein. Think rice and beans.
- If it looks like it grew from the ground it's more nutritious than if it came from a factory.
- If it grew locally it was picked nearer to a ripe state and therefore (among other reasons) it's more nutritious than if it was shipped from afar.
- Products that are heavily advertised, especially to children, are less nutritious than anonymous alternatives. Think Mountain Dew versus spring water.
- Organic doesn't correlate to nutrient density, only the absence of some artificial and potentially harmful chemicals. Also note that "natural" is a completely meaningless word in food advertising.
3. Make informed decisions about what foods to eat.
A nutrient database is extremely helpful for making informed food choices. As the name implies, you can look up the nutrient content of nearly every whole food, as well as most processed and packaged foods.
Here's the link to the US Department of Agriculture's nutrient database: click
There are many other nutrient databases available on the internet. Click here for a Google search result. But beware there may be a diminished standard, so I suggest verifying the results with the Department of Agriculture's database.
4. Ignore the front of the food package and instead focus on the back.
The front of food packaging is advertising space. The back side is for nutritional information.
The US Department of Health & Human Services produced the guide to the right to help consumers interpret the standard Nutrition Facts food label.
It's often necessary to adjust the serving size upwards. Portion sizes are arbitrary quantities that often don't correspond to what a person will realistically consume.
Likewise, the percentages listing on Nutrition Facts labels are based on a 2,000 calorie dietary need. Read the fine print near the bottom. Your caloric needs may be considerably different – mine are about 50% higher or 3,000 calories.
Lastly, ingredients, which usually appear near the Nutrition Facts label, are listed in order of predominance by weight according to their common name.
5. Consume the right amount of calories to achieve your body weight goals.
A calorie calculator is helpful for learning your daily requirement, which is a function of your gender, age, height, weight and activity level.
Here's the one from the Mayo Clinic: click
Alternatively, you can rely on your internal calorie calculator: hunger. However, you have to be able to distinguish hunger from appetite. Hunger is the body signaling a need for food and it's felt most strongly in the abdomen. Conversely, appetite is a desire for the pleasure of food and it's felt most strongly in the mouth and in the mind.
Once you know the approximate number of calories your body uses daily, you can adjust your calorie consumption to achieve the body weight you want. Assuming your activity level remains constant, simply eat more calories than you require to gain weight, eat fewer to lose weight or consume the amount required to sustain your current weight. The body is very tolerant, so slight variances in caloric intake will probably not result in a noticeable change. And, of course, there are nuances beyond the scope of this topic.
6. Drink water when you're thirsty to keep your cells hydrated.
Water remains the best source of hydrating fluid. Coconut water is great, but it's not available everywhere and it's vastly more expensive. Gatorade and other sports drinks are useful to replace lost minerals, but they are only necessary if you've been exercising for more than an hour. They also contain relatively large amounts of sugar, which equates to calories that you may not need.
Unless you're in an extremely hot environment or exercising intensely you don't need to drink more than what's required to quench your thirst. It's that simple.
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These six guidelines and the additional resources noted in them can help you achieve a healthy looking, healthy feeling body. This knowledge can be powerful if you use it to expand your awareness of the vital relationship between your physical body and food and to inform the choices you make about what to consume. Cheers to your health!
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BODY – MIND – SPIRIT