How many times in your life have you heard that you should ear more nutritious foods? The information is everywhere; but how often do you actually think about nutrient dense foods and how they contribute to your health?
When I was teaching my group weight loss program, I always included a class about nutrient dense foods. I remember being taught about the food pyramid when I was in school. The food pyramid has since been replaced by MyPlate, which is a really good graphic for helping people choose which foods and portion sizes should be on their plate.
However, I don’t necessarily remember being taught how these food groups benefit my health. I believe it’s equally important to understand why we need fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein and dairy. One class participant in my group made the comment one time, “Why weren’t we taught why we needed these nutrients?” Simply telling someone to eat more of something isn’t as helpful as understanding how the nutrients contribute to their health. So, today I want to tell you how some key nutrients contribute to your health.
Fiber and Omega-3 Fatty Acid
The American Heart Association recommends adults consume 25-30 g of fiber a day (mostly from food sources, not supplements). Unfortunately, most Americans only consume around 15 g per day. Eating high-fiber foods increases feelings of fullness, which can help promote weight loss. High-fiber foods also promote normal bowel function, and may help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Good sources of fiber include beans, peas, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts.
Omega-3 fatty acid can be found in plant oils, egg yolk, tuna, salmon, mackerel, cod, crab, shrimp, and oysters. This nutrient reduces blood clotting, dilates blood vessels, reduces inflammation, and reduces cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Omega-3 fatty acid may also help preserve brain function and reduce risk of mental illness and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The recommendation is to eat oily fish at least once a week.
Water-soluble vitamins simply mean they are able to be dissolved in water. Therefore, drinking plenty of water is crucial when consuming these vitamins to help the body absorb them better. The “B” vitamins are water soluble and include B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, and B12. The “B” vitamins assist carbohydrate, amino acid and fat metabolism (the process of using food and drink as energy for the body). Vitamin B6 may contribute to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Vitamin B9 is important for red and white blood cell formation; it’s also important during pregnancy to help prevent birth defects such as spina bifida. B12 is important for the gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow, and nervous system.
The “B” vitamins can be found in various food sources that include whole grain products, milk products, green leafy vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, breads, cereals, mushrooms, avocados, broccoli, egg yolk, sweet potatoes, liver, soybeans, oranges, fish, and cheese. As you can see, eating a large variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats is vital to receiving all of the needed “B” vitamins.
Another water-soluble vitamin that is important is Vitamin C. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help promote resistance to infection. Sources of Vitamin C include citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, cantaloupe, peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and organ meats.
Fat-soluble vitamins are best absorbed with the good fats consumed in your diet; they are also stored in the body’s fatty tissues. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins. The functions of Vitamin A include vision, growth, immune function, reproduction, and skin health; sources include liver, milk, eggs, cod, halibut, carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe. Consuming Vitamin D helps reduce the risk of bone fractures. Direct sunlight is a source of Vitamin D as well as fortified foods and natural sources such as certain fish and egg yolks. Vitamin E is an antioxidant found in oils, nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables. Finally, Vitamin K assists in blood clotting and is found in green leafy vegetables, especially broccoli, cabbage, turnip greens and dark lettuces.
When you eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, dairy products, whole grains, and lean meats, you’re also going to get the minerals your body needs. Key minerals that contribute to your health include calcium, chromium, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, phophorus, potassium, selenium and zinc.
Various functions of the key minerals include:
- Bone health and growth, bone loss (calcium, fluoride, phosphorus, potassium)
- Nerve function (calcium)
- Blood vessel constriction and dilation (calcium)
- Muscle contractions, acid/base balance (calcium, magnesium)
- Increase effects of insulin (chromium)
- Restore glucose tolerance (chromium)
- Increase resistance to stress and disease, aids in healing (iron, zinc)
- Lower blood pressure, decrease kidney disease (potassium)
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the functions of these important nutrients. Most of these nutrients are also found in the foods listed above. Therefore, eating a variety of foods is adequate for supplying your body with all of these key minerals.
I believe that knowing why you need to eat more fruits, vegetables, lean meats, poultry, fish, whole grains, and dairy products can help you make the choice to add them to your diet. It’s not necessary to track every single vitamin and mineral; all you need to do is choose to eat a large variety of foods each week.
In helping clients see what they’re consuming, I do recommend keeping a food diary for at least 3 days (2 weekdays and 1 weekend day). With keeping a food diary, you can give the list a quick glance to see whether or not you eat a variety (or any) fruits and vegetables.
If you find that you’re not consuming enough (or any) fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, I recommend starting where you are able. It can be overwhelming to completely change your eating habits all at once. However, you can make a new behavior a life-long behavior by starting with one new choice at a time. Try to make a commitment to add one piece of fruit and one vegetable per day to your diet. It’s up to you where to begin; the important thing is to begin somewhere especially if you’re not receiving the proper nutrients that contribute to your health.
If you have questions or need help, please contact me. Happy eating. – Jennifer