Monday, March 31, 2014

A Crash Course on College-Level Nutrition in Humans - Introduction (Nutrient Groupings)

Tools of the Trade!
Of late, I have come more and more to think of the human body as a machine. In many ways I'm something of an optimizationalist - while I don't always take the most utilitarian path to a goal, I tend to get the most utility out of whatever I can.

Ironically, this has never extended so far as my body (unless you count the brain, which I am fond of hacking as often as humanly possible and in every way I can).

The primary ways to optimize the performance of the human body is, as everyone knows, diet and exercise, and since I happen to be somewhere between apprentice and journeyman in the former, I thought it might be helpful if I sat down with you all and put together a few short primers on the human body's nutritional requirements.

Now, a few disclaimers are in order - first of all I'm not a medical professional in any regard. I have a 2-year diploma in Hospitality and Tourism Management in which Nutrition was a component. Secondly, there are no one-size-fits-all answers in nutrition. Due to factors of genetics, current body condition, desired body condition, allergies and sensitivities, metabolic rates, and probably some other things I haven't even thought of yet, there is no ideal diet.

With that in mind, let's begin by separating the subject of nutrition into a few general fields.

The way we measure food energy is in the Calorie. Now, there's a difference between the dietary Calories listed on your food's packaging (or in an ingredient directory) and the actual calories used in chemistry to determine the chemical energy of a substance, but the long and short of it is that big-C calories are what you're tracking, and that your body is going to need a number of them. Going under your daily calorie balance is a way to lose weight, though you will eventually kill yourself this way. Calories are the fuel your organs need to function. Keep that in mind. Depending on various factors, the number you need will vary. Calculators exist for this function. Using the math, I've worked out that to maintain my current body weight at my current activity level I need about 2200 calories per day - this is actually a bit of a high number but based on experience it's rather accurate. Also in my experience, going more than 20% below your maintenance caloric intake leads to immediate and readily-felt energy problems.

The first group of actual nutrients worth discussing is what people commonly refer to as protein - protein is actually absorbed into the body as amino acids, some of which the body can produce naturally from other materials and some of which you must obtain from a dietary or supplementary source. Amino acids can be found in anything that was once alive - animal or plant - and their general composition and balance is just as important as the gross protein intake, which should be at about .5 grams per pound of body weight (I know, I hate that formula too), assuming you are reasonably fit and active. The more active you are (which is to say, the harder you train), the more you will need, and it's best to get them from a variety of sources. The next article will go into proteins in detail.

After that, one supposes, come your carbohydrates, of which there are simple and complex varieties. The main use of carbohydrates is bumping up the caloric intake of a given meal. Accordingly, the main carbohydrate source in any meal or snack is going to be the "starchy" component - the bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, or what have you, though I throw a gigantic asterisk after this because all foods contain them to one degree or another.

What follows of course are the Vitamins and Minerals that are ultimately trace elements in your diet, typically measured in mg doses or smaller, which your body uses for various functions.

Expect to see the next article, protein, very soon, and remember  - potatoes are dietary grains!

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