Nutrition Science 101
If you feel overwhelmed by the terminology thrown around in health and nutrition circles, we don’t blame you. Nutritional science can be complicated, but you don’t need a specialized degree to understand the basics. With the resources and information below anyone can grasp nutritional science to the degree necessary to make healthy choices for themselves and their families.
There is perhaps no other term quite as loaded as “calorie” in the realm of nutrition. A calorie is not something you eat – it’s a measurement of energy. Specifically, a calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 °Centigrade.
However precise the definition is, calories aren’t necessarily an adequate portrayal of what happens to energy from foods once they enter our bodies. The IRN’s infographic on why calories aren’t all the same clarifies that calories from different sources have different metabolic effects.
Macronutrients are the principle types of nutrients that we need large, continuous amounts of to survive. There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
The term carbohydrate encompasses a lot of other nutrients you may have heard of: sugar, starch, and fiber.
- Sugars are simple carbohydrates – but metabolically and even politically, they’re very complex.
- A simple question with a complex answer: What Is Sugar?
- How much daily sugar is enough?
- The difference between added sugar and free sugar, and why the difference matters. Spoiler – added sugars drive diabetes and obesity.
- Sugarscience.org is an excellent resource for all sugar-related inquiries.
- In Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food, IRN founder Dr. Lustig addresses the national health problems associated with processed foods, and in particular, sugar.
- At the IRN, we recommend limiting your free sugar intake to as close as zero grams as possible.
- Starches are long chains of sugar molecules. Whole foods that contain a lot of starch include grains (like rice), corn, and potatoes.
- Fiber is an important type of carbohydrate found in fruits, vegetables, and grains, so diets high in naturally-occurring fiber are almost inherently healthy. Sometimes referred to as “roughage,” fiber gives plants their structure, and helps push food through our digestive tracks.
- For a complete run-down of each all types of fiber, and why they’re our friends, the IRN’s Online Education Manager Shannon Burke is here to explain.
- You may have heard that many Americans aren’t getting their daily recommended amount of fiber, perhaps from a commercial advertising a fiber supplement. While it’s true that many aren’t eating enough fiber, supplements aren’t necessarily as good as the real thing. This is especially true if one uses supplements as a way to excuse not eating real, nutrient-rich foods. In short – eat foods that naturally have fiber.
Proteins are are polymers of amino acids. They’re stored in our bodies as functional tissue, like muscles and organs, and are not burned as energy except for during starvation.
- Kris Gunnars, BSc from Authority Nutrition explains nearly everything there is to know about dietary proteins.
Fats, also referred to as lipids, are an essential part of a healthy diet. We eat fat, and our bodies also produce fat and use it to store excess energy from the foods we eat. Fats have been vilified for years; accused of being solely responsible for body fat and heart disease. Though processed food manufacturers and marketers would love for you to believe otherwise, “You don’t get fat from eating fatty foods.”
- On this page, you’ll find an explanation of the many different kinds of lipids and their effects on the body.
- For a deeper dive into the world of fat and the new paradigm, read Fat: The New Health Paradigm, a report by Credit Suisse.
- The Fat/Lipid Hypothesis: For an excellent overview of nutritional advice surrounding fats in recent history, read The Soft Science of Dietary Fats by Dr. Gary Taubes.
- Dr. Aseem Malhotra explains why you should consider fat your friend.
Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals fall under the term micronutrients – molecules essential in minute amounts for normal growth and health.
- While it is important to consume adequate amounts of all micronutrients, be wary not to fall into the trap of nutritionism, or reductionist nutrition – the idea that each component of a food can be deconstructed and then reassembled, or that that nutrients alone, and not whole foods, are what confer health.
“The assumption gives industry a purpose and allows them to substitute cheap, shelf life-prolonging ingredients which in turn allow them to control costs and maximize profits.”
Food marketers have exploited the general population’s tendency to reduce foods to the sum of their nutrients.
- Both author Michael Pollan and Dr. Colin Campbell have written extensively on the consequences of reductionist attitudes towards food and medicine.
- Remember that milk is more than calcium; oranges are more than vitamin C. Real food is more than the sum of its parts.
When learning about micronutrients, it’s understandable to feel like the only possible way to meet all recommended daily amounts is through supplementation. Truth is, if you’re eating whole foods and getting enough calories, you likely needn’t fret over micronutrients.
An excellent resource from Harvard Health Publications on getting your vitamins and minerals through diet
Nutrition Science Criteria
Here are a few simple tips for making sense of nutrition information:
- Consider the source. Is it coming from an individual or organization that has credibility in the nutrition science space? Does this individual or organization have any special interests (e.g., the Gatorade Sports Science Institute), and are they declared? Does this source have an established track record and position in the nutrition science field? Are they trying to sell you a product, service, diet plan, philosophy, etc.? Are they making their point at the expense of others in the field?
- Content is king. What is the nature of the content? Does it start with a sensational headline, a list of the top ten things you should or shouldn’t eat, or use hyperbole to make its point? Are there any references to real data, peer reviewed science, or an established field of study? Are scientific elements referenced, or is it entirely opinion? Is there reference to a “study” but no original sources provided?
- Establish reliable relationships with sources you can trust and pay attention to what they are saying. Establish the context of their work (medicine, nutrition, diet, policy, etc.). Truly effective food system change is about establishing and reestablishing relationships with primary sources of real-whole-natural food and those who have knowledge about food (farmers, chefs, nutrition scientists, doctors, public health advocates, etc.).