Sometimes it seems as though eating healthy requires a master’s degree in nutrition, what with all the complicated jargon and advice. Don’t eat carbohydrates, avoid trans-fats, load up on macro-nutrients, watch out for gluten, and on and on goes the advice.
After a while, it all seems to jumble in the mind into a mishmash of partially understood information that’s impossible to decipher and put into practice. So, what do all these terms really mean, and how can we ensure that we’re really eating “right”?
In the first part of our Simple Food Terms – Explained series, we take a look at some of the most commonly used terms and see if we can figure out what they really mean in terms of a healthy, nutritious diet …
What is a calorie, really? Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. In more scientific terms, a calorie is the amount of energy in the form of heat that it takes to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Since most of us tend to think of calories in terms of food, we relate calories to food, as in 1 slice of bread = 70 calories.
But the truth is that the “calories” listed on food labels actually refer to kilocalories (kcal. for short). A kilocalorie is actually equal to 1,000 calories. For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll simply use the term, “calorie.”
Each component of food – fats, carbohydrates, protein, and alcohol in the foods we eat and drink provide food energy, aka calories to power our bodies. For example, proteins and carbohydrates provide our bodies with 4 calories, or energy units, per gram. Fats have 9 calories per gram, and alcohol has 7.
In terms of our weight, we should strive for what experts call “caloric balance.” Simply put, in order to maintain our weight, we need to take in the same amount of calories per day as we’re burning each day. If we consume more calories than we burn, we’ll gain weight, and if we burn more than we consume, we’ll lose! It’s a matter of simple math, which is the reason why so many people trying to lose weight “count” and keep track of calories, both in terms of what they’re eating and what they’re burning up through movement.
A carbohydrate is a neutral compound consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and contrary to what many people are led to believe, not all carbohydrates are “bad.” There are actually two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. The key is to include the complex variety, found in legumes such as beans or peas, and in whole-grain breads and cereals, and avoid the simple ones, found in white breads, baked goods, candy and sodas, which cause a spike in insulin which reduces your blood sugar, resulting in a lack of energy!
Your digestive system converts carbohydrates into glucose, or blood sugar, which helps make energy for cells, tissues and organs. Any excess glucose is stored in your liver and muscles and used when it’s needed. Cutting out all carbohydrates, therefore, means you’re depriving your body of an essential “building block.”
In our second part of the series, we look at scary terms such as trans-fats and gluten and figure out what they really mean.