Nutrition: What our body needs

How is a human body made?

Here’s a recipe: Gather 12 kg of bones, 33kg of muscles and 15 kg of fat. Mix in 20 kg of organs. Add lots of water. And there you have it: all the ingredients necessary to make a human body!

Laughter aside, we all know it’s not nearly as simple as just putting together organs, fat, muscles and bones. All of the intricacies and workings of such a complex system as the human body requires more than a do-it-yourself manual and a belief in the miracle of life.

So let’s ask another question: Where do the raw materials needed to form the components of the body come from? In other words, how are bones and muscles formed? Where does fat come from? What is blood made of? And where does the fuel that keeps everything functioning the way it is supposed to come from?

If you are thinking “from food,” you are absolutely right! In fact, we are what we eat, digest and absorb. Actually, to be honest, we are the elements that we eat, digest and absorb. You might be very surprised to learn that about 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of just six chemical elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus. In addition to these “big six,” another five elements – potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium – make up the last percentage point. Although required in very small amounts, 14 trace elements – boron, chromium, cobalt, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, silicon, tin, vanadium and zinc – are vital for maintaining health, as they are part of enzymes, hormones and cells in the body.

So we see that though we may not know anything about biochemistry, without realizing it, we sustain our body by eating part of the periodic table. If we eat conscientiously, our body returns the favour by keeping us in good health and allowing us to thrive.

The human body is a collective of trillions of cells (it has been estimated that a human body contains around 40 trillion cells!), the origins of which start at conception. Using these 11- plus elements, the body starts making different cells. Each cell is a self-contained, living entity. Cells of the same type normally join together, using intercellular substances to form tissues, such as muscle tissue. One or more tissues then combine in a particular way to form more complex structures, called organs. To ensure smooth functioning of all these organs we need fuel in the form of calories. The human body needs calories to survive. Without energy, the cells in the body would die and the organs would not be able to carry out the basic processes needed for living. Where do we obtain the calories that energize our body? Through the food that we eat, of course!

What we eat directly affects the working of our organs and the brain is no exception. It’s no surprise, then, that the foods we eat affect brain function and thereby mood. The brain functions at its best when it gets high quality foods packed with essential nutrients. The emerging field of nutritional psychiatry shows that how the food we eat directly impacts mental health.

Food can also influence the body’s immune status. Balanced nutrition can literally enhance resistance against infections. How? The perfect example is ascorbic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin C. Our white blood cells are an important component of our immune system. We have several different types of white blood cells, each of which helps to fight off illness-causing viruses and bacteria in a different way. Vitamin C helps to stimulate both the production and function of many of these types of white blood cells. It also helps your body to produce important antibodies: proteins that bind invading microbes to neutralise them. And Vitamin C’s powerful antioxidant properties help to protect certain white blood cells from the toxic compounds they produce in their fight against pathogens. In other words, Vitamin C is an essential nutrient for healthy immune system response.

Food is the most important yet the most misunderstood aspect of people’s lives. Food is information – it is actual instructions, like a code that can be used to upgrade or downgrade your biological software.  We can change our genes by what we put in our mouth! Yes, it’s indeed true that our genes respond to and interact with the food we eat. The study of this interaction is known as ‘nutrigenomics.’ Nutrient-gene-health processes have the potential to help prevent many diseases, and greatly affect our optimal nutrition and health.  Every bite we take can either upgrade our genes or downgrade them; every bite we take can trigger our genes into expressing either health or disease. 

So then what food should we eat for optimal nutrition? To get to that answer, let’s break down food into the nutrients it offers. Nutrients are substances that provide nourishment essential for the maintenance of life and for growth.

Macronutrients: Carbohydrates, Protein and Fats

Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are called Macronutrients because the body requires them in relatively larger amounts (many grams) daily than their counterparts. 

Glucose, the primary substance providing energy to perform our daily activities, is the byproduct of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are our body’s fuel.

Protein accelerates muscle build up and associated with it is a wide array of substances called ‘enzymes’ extremely essential for speeding up the chemical reactions in the body. 

Fats are the storage form of energy; the body stores fat as a result of excess calorie consumption. Fats insulate us, protect our vital organs and help keep our hair and skin healthy. As well, fats help the body absorb necessary fat-soluble vitamins.

Fibre is not technically considered a nutrient, but its role in the human body is quintessential. It is known to improve digestive health and a wealth of research has proven its benefits in preventing cancers as well.

Micronutrients: Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are called Micronutrients because the body requires them in very small amounts (milligrams or micrograms) daily.

Vitamins are further classified as fat soluble vitamins (Vitamin A,D,E,K) and water soluble vitamins (Vitamin B-complex and C). Each of the vitamins has a special role to play. One vitamin enables the eyes to see in dim light, another helps protect lungs from air pollution and still another helps make sex hormones. Among other things, vitamins busily help us to stop bleeding when we cut ourselves as well as help repair the skin. Almost every action in the body requires the assistance of vitamins.

Just like vitamins, minerals help our body grow, develop, and stay healthy. Some minerals are put together in orderly arrays in such structures in the body as bones and teeth. They are also found in the fluids of the body which influences fluid balance and distribution. Minerals can, however, be bound by substances called anti-nutrients that block the absorption of nutrients. One example is oxalate (oxalic acid) – found in green leafy vegetables – that can bind to calcium and prevent it from being absorbed by the body. The effects of anti-nutrients vary among individuals based on their metabolism and how the food is cooked and prepared, but for nearly all of us the health benefits of eating those foods that contain anti-nutrients far outweigh any potential negative effects.

By far the best way to obtain these nutrients is adopting a diet made from whole plant foods. A Whole-Foods Plant-Based (WFPB) diet is low in fat and high in plant foods in their whole form (meaning unprocessed or unrefined), in particular vegetables, fruits, legumes, and seeds and nuts (in smaller amounts). For maximal health benefits this diet eliminates all animal products (meat, eggs and dairy) as well as refined and highly processed foods.

Concerns about the rising cost of healthcare are being voiced nationwide, even as unhealthy lifestyles are contributing to the spread of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. For these reasons, physicians looking for cost-effective treatments to improve health outcomes are becoming more interested in helping their patients adopt healthier lifestyles, the most important element being healthy eating. The major benefits for patients who decide to take up a plant-based diet are the near certainty of reducing the number of medications they take to treat a variety of chronic conditions; a lower body weight; a decreased risk of cancer; and a reduction in their risk of coronary heart disease.

However, even if plant-based diets are becoming more popular in many areas of the world, the health benefits of this dietary pattern may depend largely on the specific foods consumed. A study suggested that people following a plant-based diet who frequently consumed less-healthful foods like sweets, refined grains, processed foods, sodas and juice showed little heart health benefit, even if their weight was low. Hence, it is important to include a wide variety of foods while on a WFPB diet, and more than anything, to enjoy our food as much as we enjoy properly nourishing our body.

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