We hear a lot about nutrition on TV these days. Carbs, net carbs, impact carbs, trans fats, and essential fats . . . and on and on. Yet studies show that this information goes way over most people’s heads. In fact, it seems like most people have forgotten what they learned back in eighth grade nutrition class—at least those who had a nutrition class. Nowadays, most people get through school having taken no nutrition class at all. With world obesity rates at an all-time high, we’re obviously on the wrong track. After all, what good is hearing that a food contains “healthy omegas” when you don’t know what fatty acids are?
But we’ve all got to eat, so someone needs to teach us. Let’s forget about Nutrition 101. There’s no time for math. Let’s break it down even simpler than that. Maybe we’ll call it Nutrition 1. All we want to do is get you out of the supermarket with some idea of what you just bought. With society headed in its current direction, this 411 on nutrition is more of a 911, so let’s call it that—a bit more impactful than Nutrition 1 and maybe not as patronizing. It’s like traffic school but for nutrition. You don’t need to win the Indy 500. You just need to get yourself around town safely. You’ve been cited for poor eating habits. You can pay the fine and endure a chronic disease, or you can take Nutrition 911 and get your health back. Are you ready for class?
Hello, class. I’m Professor Edwards, but you can call me Steve. Forget hierarchal labels; this is no dull SAT preparedness course. We’re sticking to just the things you’ll want to know to keep you healthy—hey, you, in the back. Stop shooting spitballs at Mr. Kroc! Give me that thing. What’s your name, son? Okay, Carl, one more slipup and you’re back on the bypass waiting list. It seems like the situation is direr than I thought, so let’s get straight to it.
We’re here to talk about food. This is the stuff we eat that enables us to live. You in the clown suit with the big red wig, stop laughing. This is a lot more important than it sounds! If we understood food, we wouldn’t be here. You see, we also eat a lot of stuff that’s not food but that comes with our food. Some of it we’re supposed to eat, things like fiber in plants. But many companies also add things to food that aren’t food at all, stuff like color, flavors, and things to make the food last longer while it sits on a shelf waiting for you to buy it. These added ingredients have no nutritional value. We also eat other additives that are sort of food. These are altered from their natural state to change the way food tastes and to make food more addictive. Stuff such as HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) falls into this category. And more often than not, these things are bad for you—yes?
Why do they do this, you ask? That’s a very good question, Michael, but we can’t answer that here. This is Nutrition 911. Politics 911 is in the other room. And, please, turn off that camera. Learning to distinguish foods that have additives, or may have them (as it’s not always clear), will help you make better choices when deciding what you should and shouldn’t eat.
Nutrient values are based on the parts of food that your body can use. In packaged foods, these values can be found on the food label. They break down what you are eating into various components. These various components are vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, and carbs. Nutrients have something called calories. Most of us know what these are because we blame them for making us fat, but, in fact, they are just a measurement for the energy in food that our bodies can then turn into energy.
If you’ve ever glanced at the package of something you’re eating you know this, but you may not know how to make sense out of it. That is the goal of this class. When we’re finished, you’ll be able to understand how to decipher a food label and a supplement label, and how to navigate a grocery store and not feel overwhelmed. We’ll also cover how to eat in restaurants and how to best avoid the insidious ingredients referenced above. So let’s take a look at how this class will be structured.
Today is just an introduction to explain why we’re in this class. We’re going to look at the very basics of nutrition—the very basics, real “duh” kind of stuff that I hope most of you know. Words like food, water, vitamins, and supplements are a normal part of our language. We hear about these things every day and consume them to live, but most of us lack a big-picture understanding of how the entire process is supposed to work.
Next, we’ll take a look at the things you hear on TV and see at the market. We’ll analyze slogans like “organic,” “low carb,” “omega rich,” and so forth and discuss just why we need to know this, or whether we’d be better off ignoring it.
Then we’ll take a closer look at food labels. These are less difficult to understand than you probably think. If they seem confusing, it’s because they’re designed that way. But when we’re finished, you’ll be able to scan a label and tell whether or not you should buy something in 15 seconds or less.
We’ll follow this with a simple yet thorough analysis of just what you should eat. You’ll see that once you know how to wade through the marketing jargon, it’s not as difficult as it seems.
Subsequent classes will cover subjects such as sweeteners, desserts, alcohol, caffeine, and water; the best and worst foods in the world; how to navigate a supermarket; and how to order in restaurants. When we’re finished, you’ll have a simple yet thorough understanding of the eating process. It’s not rocket science. It is, however, science. But don’t worry. Once you learn to weed out all the fancy words, it’s not all that complicated. We’ve been eating, well, forever. Science has actually made it more difficult for us to understand. Therefore, the aim of this class is to help you wade through all that pesky science—especially the research that’s been skewed by marketers—and to get back to basics.
Lesson #1: What we consume
If you ask someone what they eat, they’ll probably answer, “Food.” As we discussed above, that answer would be incomplete. We also eat water—okay, drink, but whatever. In fact, let’s use the word consume because we don’t have a preconceived notion about it. Everything we put into our mouths makes up who we are, whether it’s food, water, beer, drugs, vitamins, dirt, or whatever. Don’t discount dirt because it’s actually healthier than a lot of things we eat. It’s even healthier than many things we call food. In fact, a recent study concluded that kids who ate dirt were healthier than those who weren’t allowed to eat dirt.* Soil is organic, meaning it contains living matter (or once-living matter). In the study, kids eating dirt developed stronger immune systems. While this makes sense, I think this study shows more than anything else just how bad our diets have become. But hey, look at me, I’m rambling. The point of this lesson isn’t to discuss eating dirt. It’s to discuss food. So let’s get back on track.
We’ve briefly discussed food, so let’s touch on water. It’s the most important thing we consume, yet all that most of us think about it is whether or not it’s polluted. We need to drink a lot of it, as it makes up around 70 percent of our body weight. But we also get water from things that aren’t water, like foods, beer, wine, sodas, coffee, and tea, so it’s hard to know how much we need. “They” ubiquitously tout that we need 6 to 8 glasses a day, but that varies depending on what we are doing and what else we’ve consumed. When we don’t drink enough water we can become dehydrated, which is a serious condition in its latter stages, but even in its early stages, it inhibits bodily functions and can make us hungrier than we should be. We need to drink some amount of plain water because drinking our calories can become a dangerous habit, which we’ll cover in depth at a later date.
Our society has become increasingly dependent on something else we consume: drugs. These also need to be considered as a part of our diets. Some drugs are helpful, some are necessary, and some can be lifesaving. But drugs alter our bodily processes and should only be taken when absolutely necessary. Ah, apparently the little butterfly hovering over Jack is arguing that drugs are good because they help us sleep, wake up, feel good all the time, and have fun. True, we like our drugs; I’m just saying that we should be careful about how we use them. It’s possible we’re not supposed to feel that good all of the time, but that should be discussed in sociology class. Here, we’re only interested in how they affect your diet. And wake Jack up, would you? I don’t think he needed your help after eating that Big Cheeseburger for lunch, which is the point I was trying to make in the first place.
I mentioned drugs because people often confuse them with supplements. This is probably because they both come in pill form. But they are very different. Supplements are technically called food supplements, meaning that they are made from food (or at least come from something that naturally occurs in food). Supplements are, essentially, condensed nutrients. So a supplement will only work in your body’s natural pathways the same way foods work. The upside to this is that it means that supplements are very safe. The downside is that a supplement cannot work the same way as a drug, no matter what it claims.
Does that mean supplements are worthless? Not at all. By supplementing your diet with the proper nutrients, you can enhance your health. But there should always be some reason behind your supplement regimentation. A good example of this rationale is taking a vitamin supplement when you’re dieting. Less calories means less nutrients, so adding basic nutrition in this case makes a lot of sense. There are many examples, which we’ll cover later.
Then there’s alcohol. Is alcohol a drug or is it a food? It’s sort of both, so we’ll look at it in depth later. Alcohol comes from a reaction of food when it’s rotting. This natural process creates something that behaves as a drug. The difference between alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs is that alcohol has calories—a lot of them. And other than its drug effect, it has no nutrient value. So it’s easy to see how it could interfere with you keeping your diet balanced (whatever that means—again, you’ll learn it later). Alcohol often comes in food products, such as wine and beer, and food products do have a nutrient value. But because of its high caloric value and low nutrient value, the amount of alcohol in your diet should be limited.
I hope most of you know everything we’ve gone over today. With the obesity epidemic like it is, one can never be too sure of anything. We have become a nation of terrible eaters, and we’re paying the price. To recap, everything we put in our mouths counts toward our diets, whether it’s food, beer, mouthwash, a One A Day vitamin, Paxil, or a Twinkie. If we want to be healthy, most of what we consume should be water. Next should be foods that consist of mainly carbohydrates, proteins, and fats from as close to nature as we can get them. We should limit the number of calories that we drink. We should take supplements to make up for nutrient deficiencies, which can be caused by dieting, exercising, or eating bad foods. We should limit our drug intake, as these, too, are part of our diets. This is the “duh” stuff, which I hope you all understand. I know it’s too basic to help you change your diet much, but trust me, we’ll get there. Things should be more interesting as we build on this foundation.
There’s the bell. That’s all the time we have today. Next time, we’ll get the 911 on how marketers can trick us into eating the wrong things.