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What is “nutritious” food?

13th May 2021 Print

Most people understand intuitively that a nutritious diet has a lot of benefits – and they know they should generally be eating more nutritious, delicious foods, rather than so-called “empty calories.” But what is it, exactly, that makes a food “nutritious?” And what criteria makes something a source of “empty calories?” 

The Complexity of Nutrition 

First, we need to understand the complexity of nutrition. Nutrition is a term that refers to the process by which a living thing acquires food to sustain itself; we have to eat food to introduce energy and certain compounds into our bodies so that they can continue running properly. But not all foods are equally nutritious. 

Some companies have dedicated themselves to finding foods that contribute to personal wellbeing, using a combination of science, entrepreneurial innovation, and new sourcing methods to find the most nutritious, delicious ingredients for a given population. But the criteria they use to make these decisions is far from straightforward. 

We have to consider: 

- The needs of the body. The human body is incredibly complex, with a multitude of organ systems and thousands of individual processes that need to be carried out. To remain healthy and minimize our risk of health complications, we need to consume a wide variety of different nutrients. 

- False binaries. Marketers and health gurus sometimes like to introduce false binaries to make it seem like some ingredients or components are “good” or “healthy,” while others are “bad” or “unhealthy,” but in nature, this is rarely the case. For example, eating too many carbohydrates in your diet may cause weight gain and lead to complications stemming from obesity; but this doesn’t mean that you should avoid carbohydrates at all costs. In line with this, eating a single nutritious food for a meal doesn’t mean you have a nutritious diet – and there aren’t any foods that can offer all your nutritional needs in one convenient package. 

- Individual differences. Different people may have different needs. If you look at the labels of multivitamins, you’ll find that supplements for men and women are often formulated differently, and there are different vitamins available for children and seniors as well. While many of our nutritional needs as individuals are similar, subtle genetic and lifestyle differences make us require different intake balances. 

- Taste and function. Just because it’s nutritious doesn’t mean that people are going to want to eat it. Different cultures and different personalities may strongly prefer certain ingredients over others, making it difficult to market certain “nutritious” foods to the general population. 

Nutrients on the Macro and Micro Scale

“Nutritious” food is, generally, food that contains ample nutrients. Nutrients are individual building blocks that we need to survive. They come in two broad categories: 

- Macronutrients. Macronutrients are common nutritional elements that we need in high quantities to keep our bodies running. There are proteins, which we use to repair and build tissue in the body, fats, which are used to foster cell growth and support a number of bodily process, and carbohydrates, which are primarily a source of energy. 

- Micronutrients. Micronutrients are less common nutritional elements that we need in small quantities for a variety of purposes. These are things like vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, zinc, and magnesium. There are dozens of essential micronutrients that we need to stay healthy. 

Accordingly, the most nutritious foods are ones that offer an appropriate balance of macronutrients, with plenty of micronutrients to sustain us. 

Empty Calories

So what is a food that contains “empty calories?” 

Calories are a unit of measurement for energy. The more calories a food contains, the more energy it will give you. Energy is a good thing, and a necessary thing, but if you consume more energy than you expend, you’ll store the excess energy as fat, leading to obesity and further health complications. 

All foods contain some calories. These calories largely stem from macronutrients; for example, 1 gram of carbohydrates contains 4 calories, while 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories. Sometimes, foods will contain high levels of calories, without offering much substantive nutrition in other areas. For example, a processed dessert cake may be 300 calories, coming mostly from sugar and fat, with little in the way of micronutrients. These are “empty calories” because they have minimal nutritional value, but a lot of calories. 

The Importance of Variety 

No matter what, to have a nutritious diet and lead a healthy lifestyle, you need to have a varied diet. Fruits and vegetables are typically nutritious and healthy choices – but no single variety offers all the nutrients you need to stay alive and fully healthy. If you want to improve your health and wellbeing, make sure you eat a balance of different foods and pay attention to the nutritional content of what you’re eating.