Understanding fats and carbs
Fats and carbohydrates are two building blocks of a healthy diet, but many people do not understand their role in proper nutrition. While the daily intake of fats and oils should be limited, these elements are still a vital part of the diet. The key is to make smart choices when it comes to fats and oils. That means substituting saturated fats with unsaturated fats, and using healthier, lighter oils in cooking.
Let’s look at the role fats and oils play in the diet. Fats are necessary for supplying energy to the body. In addition, fats supply essential fatty acids and act as carriers for fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K and the carotenoids. In addition, fats have an important role to play as building blocks for various tissues and membranes, and they also play a key role in regulating numerous bodily functions.
Dietary fat is available from a variety of plant and animal sources, and most diets do contain adequate amounts of fat. Most nutrition experts recommend keeping the intake of fat to less than 20% of calories, but studies have shown that severely limiting fat intake can be dangerous. Extreme low fat diets should only be undertaking with a doctor’s approval and oversight.
The type and amount of fat in the diet makes all the difference. A diet high in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol has been associated with a variety of ills, including heart disease, stroke and other associated diseases. In addition, many long term chronic problems, such as obesity, are associated with high levels of dietary fats.
The greatest risk of complications from excessive fat intake appears to lie with saturated fats and trans fats (fats that are solid at room temperature). One of the best ways to keep levels of saturated fat low is to limit the amount of animal fats that are consumed. These animal based fats include meats like bacon and sausage, as well as butter and ice cream. Dietary cholesterol can be limited by watching the consumption of eggs, organ meats and other foods high in cholesterol.
Food labels do make the complicated process of choosing the right fats somewhat easier. For instance, trans fats will be listed on the ingredient list of foods that contain them. In general, trans fats are found mainly in processed foods.
Some fats, such as polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, are better choices for healthy eating. Examples of these fats include canola oil and olive oil. Cooking with these lighter oils can be a big step toward a healthier diet. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, and they have been found to have heart protecting qualities.
Many types of fish have also been found to be sources of good fat. Fish are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These omega-3’s have been found to promote good health, and they may even lower cholesterol levels.
Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet as well, and carbs are necessary for providing energy and many essential nutrients. Carbohydrates are found in fruits and vegetables, in grains and in milk and dairy products. It is important to choose carbohydrates carefully, however, since not all are equally healthy.
When choosing breads and cereal, for instance, try to select those made with whole grains, while avoiding the more highly refined varieties. It is also important to limit the intake of sugars, such as soda, candy and highly processed baked goods. Consuming large amounts of such high calorie, low nutrient foods, can make it very difficult to stay on a healthy diet without gaining weight.
Most Americans tend to have too much of certain elements in their diet. Sugar is one such element and salt is the other. While a basic level of sodium in the form of salt is important to proper nutrition, most people consume too much salt in their daily diet. Excess salt consumption can lead to water retention, high blood pressure and other complications. Choosing low sodium foods, and limiting the use of the salt shaker, can go a long way toward cutting levels of excess salt in the diet.
The importance of antioxidants in the diet
Everyone has heard the news about antioxidants and their importance to good health and proper nutrition. It seems the more scientists learn about antioxidants, the more their value and potential increases. Antioxidants have shown promise in everything from preventing heart disease to slowing the degeneration of the eyes and brain.
Antioxidants work in a fairly straightforward way. What makes them so effective is their ability to neutralize a group of highly reactive, highly destructive compounds known as free radicals.
The production of free radicals is a normal bodily process, and it is part of the process of breathing and living. Free radicals are normally neutralized by the body’s natural defense system, rendering them harmless. However, anything that weakens the body’s natural defenses weakens its ability to fight off these free radicals. Those weakening agents include environmental pollution, excess UV radiation and even excessive consumption of alcohol.
When free radicals are not properly neutralized, the body is left open to damage. Free radicals can damage the structure and function of cells in the body, and recent evidence suggest that free radicals contribute to the aging process and may play a role in a great many illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.
While vitamin supplements containing antioxidants such as vitamin C can be important, there is no substitute for a healthy diet. It is estimated that foods contain more than 4,000 compounds that have antioxidant qualities. Eating a healthy diet is the only way to take advantage of these antioxidant properties. In addition to the well known antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E, healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains also contain lots of lesser antioxidants. Scientists are only now discovering the important role these lesser known antioxidants have in keeping the body healthy.
Let’s examine some of the dietary sources for the major antioxidant vitamins.
Vitamin C is probably the most studied of all the antioxidant vitamins. Also known as ascorbic acid, vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin found in all bodily fluids, and it is thought to be one of body’s first lines of defense against infection and disease. Since vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin, it is not stored and must be consumed in adequate quantities every day. Good dietary sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits, green peppers, broccoli and other green leafy vegetables, strawberries, cabbage and potatoes.
Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin that is stored in the liver and other tissues. Vitamin E has been studied for its effects on everything from delaying the aging process to healing a sunburn. While vitamin E is not a miracle worker, it is an important antioxidant, and it is important that the diet contain sufficient amounts of vitamin E. Good dietary sources of this important nutrient include wheat germ, nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetable oil, fish liver oil and green leafy veggies.
Beta-carotene is the nutrient that gives flamingos their distinctive pink color (they get it from the shrimp they eat). In the human world, beta-carotene is the most widely studied of over 600 carotenoids that have thus far been discovered. The role of beta-carotene in nature is to protect the skins of dark green, yellow and orange fruits from the damaging effects of solar radiation. Scientists believe that beta-carotene plays a similar protective role in the human body. Sources of beta-carotene in the diet include such foods as carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, collard greens, kale, cantaloupe, peaches and apricots.
SeleniumSelenium is one of the most important minerals in a healthy diet, and it has been studied for its ability to prevent cell damage. Scientists see this ability to protect cells from damage as possibly important in the prevention of cancer, and selenium is being studied for possible cancer preventative properties. It is important to get the selenium you need from your diet, since large doses of selenium supplements can be toxic. Fortunately, selenium is easily found in a healthy diet. Good sources of dietary selenium include fish and shellfish, red meat, whole grains, poultry and eggs, and garlic. Vegetables grown in selenium rich soils are also good sources of dietary selenium.