One of the most important fitness fundamentals is developing a good understanding of basic nutrition.  After all how can we eat better if we don’t really know what that means?  Just what is a healthy diet?  We all agree nutrition and a good diet are the most important factors in developing a healthier lifestyle, but what does that mean?  Before we start making changes we need some basic information to make sure we can make good choices.  In this article I’ll try and layout the very basics of nutrition, to help establish a foundation for making good choices in the future.This is the icon for MyPlate which replaced MyPyramid in June 2011. The new MyPlate icon is composed of a plate divided into 4 sections: fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein. A dairy section is off the plate to the side. The MyPlate graphic is positioned on a placemat with the website written underneath.

     First the body gets three basic things it needs out of what we eat and drink: water, energy, protein. 

    Water is by far our biggest need, without water we will die within days (while we can survive for months without the other basics).  Water is used to carry oxygen and nutrients to the cells of the body, to cool our bodies, to cushion our joints, to convert food into energy and to flush waste from our system.  On average we need about at a quart of water for every 1000 calories our body consumes, every day.  We get water from both what we drink and from the foods we eat, so do make sure you drink plenty of water (but don’t worry if you’re not drinking two or three quarts a day….).

     Next is energy, which comes from three sources – carbohydrates, fat, and protein.  Energy is measured as calories.  The average person needs somewhere around 2000 to 2500 calories a day (depending on their sex, size, and body composition).  Energy we take in as food each day is either consumed daily, by things like keeping our heart beating, replacing cells, moving us around and breathing; or it is stored in the body as fat (the bodies form of “rollover minutes” – “rollover calories” if you like).  If we expend more energy than we consume our body uses our “rollover calories” to keep us going.  Every  3500 calories (give or take) extra we “rollover” equals a pound of fat stored for later use. 

     Carbohydrates are by far the easiest energy for your body to convert to energy, and contain four calories per gram.  Carbohydrates come in two broad categories – simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.  Simple carbohydrates are things like table sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and are structured in a way that they are quickly absorbed in the blood stream.  Complex carbohydrates are things like foods made with whole grain, legumes, vegetables, and they take longer to digest and are absorbed into the bloodstream more gradually.  Understanding the difference is important because sudden changes in your blood sugar, can drive overeating and cravings.  Most of the carbohydrates you consume should be complex carbohydrates.

     Fats are the next most preferred energy source for our bodies, and are essential for many body functions.  It helps keep your body warm, it carries certain vitamins to your cells, it cushions your organs, it helps regulate our metabolism and it provides energy to your body.  Fat is consumed by the body when we eat it, so long as the number of calories we consume does not exceed what our body needs.  Eating fats does not lead to you storing more fat – this is a function of the total calories you consume.  Fat has nine calories per gram.  Fats come in two main categories – saturated fats (solid at room temperature and are from animal products) and unsaturated fats (not solid at room temperature, such as olive oil).  Generally unsaturated fats are better for you than saturated fats. 

     Proteins are the building blocks for our cells, but are also a source of energy for our bodies if it has no other fuel source.  Protein is your bodies least favorite choice for energy production, as it is needed in the process of constantly replacing cells in your body, but your body can use protein as fuel when required.  Protein has four calories per gram.  The primary function of protein in our body is regeneration.  Every day your body rebuilds itself, repairing damage and re-growing parts (like hair or fingernails).  Protein is composed of amino acids, and your body breaks it down into these parts and then uses them to grow and maintain itself.

     Understanding these fitness fundamentals will allow us to decipher good advice from bad advice when it comes to nutrition.  It enables us to make better decisions when we are at the grocery store and make choices that will help build that healthy lifestyle we know we need.  Good nutrition is the first step to making a healthier lifestyle.