Eat Right Now: Nutrition Essentials Made Easy
Published: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 17:10
Eating a balanced and nutritious diet is easier, and tastier, than you think. The number-one secret to good nutrition is balance. Protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats are the essential sources of energy—calories—that fuel our bodies. Vegetables and fruits round out the picture with necessary vitamins, minerals, and fiber, not to mention taste!
For adult learners pursuing a degree, the trick is often getting organized enough to plan out healthy meals.
No matter what type of food you like, understanding the basics of balanced nutrition will help you maintain your energy and health.
We need protein for energy and to build lean muscle mass. It’s also a source of vitamins B, E, iron, zinc, and magnesium—among others. Most Americans get plenty, if not too much, protein, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). What does this mean?
The average female college student needs about 5 ounces (about 142 grams) of protein a day.
Male students need about 6 ounces (170 grams).
For reference, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a young man could get all the protein he needs for the day by consuming the following:
1 cup of milk;
3 ounces of meat;
1 cup of beans; and
8 ounces of yogurt.
There are as many sources of protein as there are culinary tastes. Lean poultry, beef, fish, and pork are readily available, as are beans, legumes, and lentils. Nuts have lots of protein (they are in the legume family) and also healthy fats. Tofu and tempeh, both made from soybeans, are an excellent, versatile source, as is wheat gluten, often sold as the Asian ingredient “seitan.”
When meats and other protein sources are baked, broiled, stir-fried in little oil, or grilled, they retain their taste and texture, and don’t soak up additional fat.
Carbohydrates are another source of energy, but your body can process them more quickly than protein and use the calories right away.
Carbs get a bad rap: they are often portrayed as the dieter’s enemy. It is true that if you consume more carbohydrates than you need, they get stored as fat. However, complex, whole-grain carbohydrates are an important staple of your diet. They provide quick energy to your muscles, help you to feel full, contain fiber, and carry many essential nutrients. As the Harvard School of Public Health says, “Choose good carbs, not no carbs.”
Much of the nutrition in grains is carried in the outer hull. As a result, refined flours and grains, which have had the hull removed, have fewer nutrients than those in their whole state.
Keep in mind that some starchy vegetables—like potatoes, carrots, and lima beans—also have carbs. Fruits do, too.
Fruits & Veggies
Fruits and vegetables get the most space on your plate because they are loaded with vitamins and minerals that do everything from helping to form red blood cells and build genetic material (vitamin B12 and iron) to helping you resist infection and heal more quickly (vitamin C). Other vitamins assist your body in turning protein and carbohydrates into energy. Fruits and vegetables are also an excellent source of fiber, important for digestion and reducing blood cholesterol.
Many people think they don’t like vegetables, simply because they’ve only had them canned and don’t realize how vibrant, varied, and pleasing they can be. Add color and rich nutritional value to your diet by eating plenty of dark leafy greens. Each color family has different vitamins and minerals, so build a rainbow on your plate! You really can’t eat too many fruits
While fresh, locally grown foods are best, stocking up on frozen fruits and vegetables can be cheaper and will allow them to last longer. Colleen R. keeps a large bag of mixed frozen veggies in her freezer for quick stir-fries. Crops that are freshly picked, then flash frozen, retain their flavor, texture, and nutritional value. In fact, frozen fruits and veggies are generally as good for you as fresh.
Stick with products that contain only the vegetables or fruits you want. Many options come sauced, buttered, or have sugar or other sweeteners added. This is especially true if you opt for canned ingredients. Canned fruit can be packed in water or fruit juice, but is often immersed in a thick sugar syrup instead. Vegetables are often sealed in a salty brine. This makes them very high in sodium, and quite mushy.
On the Go
Tons of fruits and vegetables were born to travel. Bananas have their own container, apples never seem to bruise, and carrot and celery sticks (or baby carrots) will last all day. Try munching on grapes, blueberries, or grape tomatoes during class (they’re quiet!)
Fats: Not All Are Equal
Fat is actually an essential macronutrient; we need it to maintain our cell membranes, provide cushioning for our organs, and absorb vitamins such as A, D, E, and K.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats come from plant sources, like seeds and nuts, olive oil, and avocados. They are also in fish, especially salmon.
Saturated fats are considered unhealthy. Sometimes called “solid fats,” they come from animal products and contribute to high levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Examples include milk fats, butter, and excess fat on meat.
Trans-fats, which sound like they are plant-based oils, are also unhealthy. Don’t be fooled by ingredients such as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Taste the Rainbow