Based on a conversation with Michelle Valentino, FNP
If one thing’s for sure about nutrition, it’s that there’s no one-size-fits-all eating plan for everybody. Despite all the books, magazine articles, advertisements, and more created to convince consumers that one particular diet is superior to all others, the reality is that every individual has unique nutritional needs and it can sometimes take a lot of trial and error to figure out which eating plan works best.
That said, it’s much easier to make smart nutritional choices when you’re informed and educated on the basics. So what is “nutrition” anyway, and why is it so difficult to make sense of the facts amid the onslaught of noise from the outside world?
To put it simply, “nutrition” encompasses the process of providing or obtaining the food that’s necessary for health and growth. “It includes six major categories of nutrients which are needed to sustain life,” explains Michelle Valentino, FNP. “Carbohydrates (CHO), lipids (also known as fats), proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water. Together, these six nutrients help build parts of the body, produce energy, and keep the body in good working order.”
While there’s a lot more to dive into in each one of these major categories, the one type of nutrient that seems to have gotten a particularly bad rap in recent years is carbohydrates. From low-carb to Atkins to keto, so many eating plans have villainized carbohydrates and made people question whether they should be eating them at all.
First, of all: yes. Carbs are essential for optimal health. According to The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should get about 45 to 65 percent of their total daily calories from carbs. So if you’re consuming 2,000 calories a day, you should be getting between 900 and 1,300 calories from carbohydrates (but of course, these numbers can vary greatly depending on individual needs). But there are different types of carbs, and understanding the differences between them can help you make more informed choices.
“Carbohydrates are divided into four types: simple natural, simple refined, complex natural, and complex refined,” explains Valentino.
Here are some examples of each:
- Simple natural: lactose in milk and fructose in fruit
- Simple refined: table sugar
- Complex natural: whole grains or beans
- Complex refined: white flour
Despite popular belief, carbs aren’t only found in bagels, pastas, crackers, and other bready options —naturally-occurring carbohydrates are found in fruits, grains, milks, and nuts too. So how do you know which carbs to load up on and which to choose in moderation? “Generally, complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly, have less effect on blood sugar than do refined carbohydrates, and contain fiber,” Valentino says. “For these reasons, complex carbohydrates are recommended over simple carbohydrates.”
Food processing and nutrition
You’ve probably heard that it’s generally considered a good idea to consume plenty of “whole” foods, like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. But the majority of foods many people eat are processed, prepared, or packaged. But not all processed foods are necessarily considered equal: the specific process matters, as some have a much greater negative impact on food’s nutritional value and healthfulness.
“Minimally processed items include items such as bagged salad mix, dried beans, frozen fruits or vegetables, and roasted nuts,” Valentino says. “Highly or ultra-processed foods include items such as ready-to-eat meals and snack foods. The latter category tends to be very high in sodium (which is used as a natural preservative) and sugar; therefore, it is important to read processed foods’ labels to understand how they have been processed.”
Ideally, most of us would be cooking our own meals to avoid eating processed foods whenever possible and to have full control over the ingredients and additives we consume. But the reality is, most people rely on processed foods at least occasionally to save time, money, and effort. With that truth in mind, you can still make simple swaps in your everyday life to minimize the negative impact of any processed foods you do eat. “Trying to swap out highly-processed foods, making vinaigrettes and sauces to avoid sugar-laden packaged options, and choosing produce without salty sauces or sugary syrups are all healthy choices,” Valentino says.
And if you do have to rely on packaged or processed foods, be on the lookout for particularly unhealthy additives and try to choose other options whenever you can. “When reading food labels, keep an eye out for salt, sugars, unhealthy fats such as saturated and trans fats, and cholesterol (which will indicate whether an animal source has been used),” Valentino says.
Eating local and seasonal
It’s not always possible to do so, but Valentino says it’s always a great idea to buy local, seasonal produce from farmer’s markets any time that’s an option. “Eating seasonally and locally allows one to buy fresher produce with a smaller environmental footprint,” she says. “By eating what’s grown close to you, you’re doing better by both your body and the planet.”
While there’s an endless amount of nutrition info in the world, Valentino says it’s best to focus on the basics and to build a healthy understanding of the main takeaways. “To live a healthy life, individuals should understand the types and amounts of nutrients they need,” she says. “It is also helpful to know why they need these nutrients. This knowledge helps determine the correct nutritional goals for and how to establish a healthy lifestyle.”