Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What do Potatoes have to do with Wheat?

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Nutrition was required learning when I was studying the culinary arts, and it was actually a course I did fairly well in, and had a bit of an interest in. I'm a big proponent of the idea of nutritious food being more than the steam from the carrots and a lick of the salt-cube. (Undergrads Reference, for those who haven't seen the show).

There was one thing, though, that always bugged me about nutrition, and for a while I was starting to wonder how a bunch of comparatively uneducated tradespeople had bested governmental nutrition panels... and then I remembered that government committees have no place in science.

Below the jump, I'm going to go on for a bit about nutrients, and then I'm going to explain why I have it in for potatoes.

5 Key Nutritional Groups
Essentially, any food has one of 5 key nutrient types to contribute to your body when you digest it: carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Those categories contain virtually all of the nutrients your body handles (with a few highly esoteric exceptions, like anti-oxidants, phenols, tanins, etc), and your body is comprised entirely of components from those five groups, plus a rather generous helping of water.

Different types of foods have these five categories in different balances, and most developed countries that have their own food guide use types of foods as a way to categorize food choices and set consumption goals. Different kinds of foods have predictably different types of nutrients in them, so eating a staple diet of whatever the Canada Food Guide says should do the trick, right?

Maybe. As every good person knows, hardly anything is ever what it seems.

Actual Scan of the Canada Food Guide. Can you spot the error?
I can. And it's the answer to the question posed in the title of this article.

When I was a cook, we used to talk about plating (that is, what goes onto a plate) in terms of: protein, vegetable, starch, sauce, garnish. And when we were talking about starch, we almost always meant some variation of rice, pasta, or, you guessed it, potato.

You see, from a nutritional stand-point, potatoes have more in common with wheat than they do with a carrot, apple, or even a sweet potato. They're a fantastic source of a few vitamins, but mostly, they're carbohydrate. Carbs are fantastic. Your body wouldn't get enough Calories to function without them.

What About Food Groups?
Here's the thing. if you follow the guide as written, you'll be fine. The only time you really, desperately need to go much further is when you're training for fitness or athletics reasons (in which case, you probably have at least consulted an actual nutritionist), or you're following a doctor-proscribed diet as a response to some form of medical concern.

If you're like me, though, and you're trying to nip a decelerating metabolism in the bud before it really becomes problematic, you might pay more attention to it. What are you to do then? I could launch into a technical explanation of specific nutrients and the quantities needed, or I could offer you this advice: use the labels.

In Canada, companies are required to post Nutrition Facts/Valuer Nutritive labels on the packaging, and for fresh foods, this information is readily available online. Your goal is to make all the numbers hit 100% of their respective Recommended Daily Intake, without exceeding. Now, that's assuming you're perfectly average in every way, but it's a good place to start. Trying to add muscle mass? Up the protein.

Oh, and with regards to protein, the rules for vegetables apply: Variety. I can't stress enough that there is more than one kind of protein (actually, your body is after the amino acids that make up protein), and that not every food will contain all of them.

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