Have you ever wondered , what exactly are fats? Would it be best for us to avoid fats altogether? What about carbohydrates, or “carbs” as some people call them? Some people say to avoid carbohydrates, and others say to eat lots of carbohydrates. Then there is protein – what is it? And do we really need it?
Fats, carbohydrates, and proteins are the 3 nutrients in foods that contain calories and thus provide fuel (energy) to the body. Calories are a measurement of the amount of energy they contain. These calorie containing nutrients are different from water, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, each of which has no calories at all, but each of which is also very important for good health.
Each of the energy containing nutrients – fats, carbohydrates, and proteins – plays an important role in our health.
The main role of fats is to transport fat-soluble vitamins and provide structure to cell membranes. Fat cushions body organs and contributes to nerve and brain development. Fat is an essential part of hormones that regulate body functions.
Fat is very concentrated in calories – there are 9 calories in 1 gram of fat.
The body needs fats, but some fats are healthier than others, and some fats are actually harmful to the body. Choose healthy fats such as monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados, or omega-3 fats found in walnuts, salmon, flaxseed, and chia seeds. Saturated fats (those typically solid at room temperature) are not harmful or bad fats, unless consumed in larger quantities. Though they are not harmful in themselves, it is very easy to consume larger amounts in the American diet.
Saturated fats are found mainly in solid fats, such as those from animal foods like beef, pork, processed meats, butter, and cream. A bad type of fat that should be avoided altogether are man-made trans fats. Trans fats are found in hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. These are found in many processed foods, so be sure to read the ingredient list.
The main role of protein is to build and maintain muscles, tissues and blood cells. It is an essential part of enzymes and hormones that regulate body functions. Protein also enhances the immune system and protein helps keep us feeling fuller.
All proteins provide 4 calories per gram.
The best source of proteins is from unprocessed plant foods such as nuts, seeds, and legumes (cooked dried beans). If choosing high protein foods from animal sources, go for the lower fat versions. For example, choose lean or low-fat meats and poultry. Trim extra fats to limit empty calories and saturated fats. Processed meats such as ham, sausage, hot dogs and luncheon meat have added sodium and nitrates and often added fats. Milk, cheese and yogurt are rich sources of both protein and calcium, but are higher in saturated fats unless lower fat versions are used.
Carbohydrates are the main energy source of the body and an important source of energy for the brain and central nervous system.
All carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram.
The most highly processed carbohydrate rich foods are refined sugar, refined starch, white flour, and the foods that contain these. They are white because they have been stripped of valuable nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and colorful phytochemicals.
Choose carbohydrate rich foods that are rich in fiber and minimally processed such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes (cooked dried beans). Also rich in carbohydrates are grains, but be sure to choose the 100% whole grain versions of breads, cereals, crackers, noodles, and tortillas, instead of their white, processed versions, and choose brown rice instead of white rice.
Most natural foods have combinations of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each of these three energy providing nutrients plays a critically important role in the body.
Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats in the Five Food Groups
|Fruits-||Rich in carbohydrates, usually no fat and no protein|
|Vegetables-||Starchy vegetables are rich in carbohydrates, non-starchy vegetables have one third the carbohydrates of starchy vegetables, all vegetables have some protein, and little or no fat|
|Whole Grains-||Rich in carbohydrates, some protein, very little fat|
|Protein-Rich Foods-||Rich in protein, varying amounts of fat, some are rich in carbohydrates, too|
|Milk Products-||Rich in protein, varying amounts of fat, some are rich in carbohydrates, too|