Nutrition Science 101

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.

Calories

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

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.

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.  

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.”

Micronutrients

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.

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

Recommendations
We don’t recommend macronutrient ratios and or specific micronutrients – other than the general guidelines provided here.
Human nutrition (and issues such as insulin resistance) exist on a spectrum – some folks will thrive on high fat diets, others on high carb diets, etc. Some do well on plant based diets, others, on others on animal based diets. Many of the experts will haggle over which part of the spectrum is best – the debates are valid and important, but are often counterproductive and leave the average consumer confused about what to do. We think it likely that the new research will show that, depending on your genetics and biochemistry (e.g., what your level of insulin resistance is), you may thrive on one end of the spectrum or the other – so scientists, seemingly with opposing theories, could all be right! We don’t have a unified theory yet.
We simply encourage folks to reduce or eliminate all processed foods as much as possible and focus on real food…Foods high in micronutrients, rich in fiber, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, protein sources high in omega 3s, etc. We don’t encourage calorie counting – the focus belongs on real, whole, fresh food.
We support the idea of individualized nutrition – and will try to provide enough information to you so that you can determine what (real) foods are best for you. When someone is trying to sell you on a particular diet, without knowing anything about your individual needs, conditions, genetics, and biochemistry, then you be pretty sure they have an agenda that isn’t necessarily about what is best for you.
Nutrition Science Criteria

Here are a few simple tips for making sense of nutrition information:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.).