Basics of Nutrition

Basics of Nutrition

Basics of Nutrition

Eating food is one of the most intuitive things human beings have been doing for millions of years. Though we now have many types of foods our improved understanding of nutrition and food science has allowed us to make this journey easier.

What is Food?

Food is something we eat using our mouth and is further processed by our body to provide us with energy or building blocks. Though the main purpose of food is to sustain us, it also serves as a joyful experience that brings people together through cultural expression across the world.

Foods contain both nutritive, structural and additive components.

Nutrition Labels

Food is something we eat using our mouth and is further processed by our body to provide us with energy or building blocks. Though the main purpose of food is to sustain us, it also serves as a joyful experience that brings people together through cultural expression across the world.

Foods contain both nutritive, structural and additive components.

1. Nutritive Components


Macronutrients are the essential building blocks and energy carriers for the body. Without them, our body can quickly wither away and are critical to our living and health. You need plenty of these to stay healthy and nourished. There are three different types of macronutrients: Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats.


Carbohydrates are molecules that can be used as fuels by turning into simple sugars that can be used as fuel for the body.

Major sources: Sugars, starches, grains, vegetables and fruits. These sources can be further refined to create sugars and syrups.

There are different types of carbohydrates and the sum of them is called 'Total carbohydrates'.

  • Simple carbohydrates: They are basic forms of carbohydrates that easily and rapidly break down into simple sugars. These may be added to candies, desserts and soda but may be found in fruits, milk and vegetables as well. These added forms are called 'Added sugars'.
  • Complex carbohydrates: Also known as starches, these are strung up simple carbohydrates that eventually are broken down by our body to simple sugars to be digested and used as fuel or for storage.
  • Dietary fiber: Fibers are part of plants and can be either soluble or insoluble. They give plants their rigid structure and can slow down or prevent nutrients from being digested in the body by binding around them. Soluble fibers dissolve in water while insoluble fiber does not and is fermented by the bacteria in our intestines. Both are tolerable and may be useful in small amounts. They can be found in nuts, fruits, vegetables, beans, grains and various plants.
  • Sugar alcohols: These are sweet substances that are added to food products to make them sweeter without the extra energy that comes with other forms of carbohydrates. They are well tolerated in low amounts. Examples include Xylitol and Erythritol.


Fats are another source of fuel for the body and are prioritized to be burnt when consumption of carbohydrates is restricted or totally removed. These fats are converted into Ketone bodies which are further used to fuel the body.

Major sources: Animal products, nuts and seeds. These sources can be further clarified to make butters, ghee, tallow and various oils.

There are different types of fats as well and the sum of all these fats is called ‘Total fat’.

  • Saturated fats: These are normally solid at room temperature and are found in foods such as milk, cheese and various meats but may be isolated from plants to create coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter and butter.
  • Trans fats: These are fats that have undergone hydrogenation which increases their shelf life and are harder at room temperature.
  • Unsaturated fats: These are usually liquids at room temperature and common in many plants:
    • Monounsaturated fats: Found in foods such as avocados, nuts and vegetable oils.
    • Polyunsaturated fats: They are found in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, sesame, corn oils and seafood:
      • Omega-3 fatty acids: They are found in soybean oil, canola, walnuts, flax seeds, salmon, herring, anchovies, herring, sardines, trout, mackerel and shellfish as eicosapentaenoic acid(EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid(DHA).
      • Omega-6 fatty acids: They are found in liquid vegetable oils such as soybean oil, corn oil and safflower oil.


They form the building blocks of the body. During the day, body takes wear and tear and needs to be repaired. Proteins help with this process while serving as raw materials for creating new muscles. Though proteins can come from plant and animal sources, plant sources normally have to be fortified or supplemented in order to make yield a complete source of essential amino acids.

Major sources: Meat, eggs, cheese, soy and nuts. These sources can be further isolated to make protein isolates and powders.

  • Essential Amino Acids: These must be obtained from the diet.
    • Phenylalanine
    • Valine
    • Tryptophan
    • Threonine
    • Isoleucine
    • Methionine
    • Histidine
    • Leucine
    • Lysine
  • Non-Essential Amino Acids: The body produces these itself.
    • Alanine
    • Arginine
    • Asparagine
    • Aspartic acid
    • Cysteine
    • Glutamic acid
    • Glutamine
    • Glycine
    • Proline
    • Serine
    • Tyrosine
  • Conditionally-Essential Amino Acids: These are ones that your body can't produce under illnesses or stressful circumstances.
    • Arginine
    • Cysteine
    • Glutamine
    • Tyrosine
    • Glycine
    • Ornithine
    • Proline
    • Serine



All macronutrients contribute towards providing our body with energy which is measured in calories(kcal), similar to how distance is measured in meters. In simplicity, pure fats, carbohydrates and proteins provide 9, 4 and 4 calories per gram, respectively. Dietary fibers and sugar alcohols usually have very low, none or negligible energy in them. Therefore, they are subtracted during calculations of total energy inside the food.

Every person has a set amount of energy that they need to consume to maintain their current weight. Going underneath usually results in weight decrease while going above usually results in weight increase.

It is important to note that simple calorie calculations are estimates and can fluctuate depending on the food type. However, this method gives us a good idea on the energy contained inside such foods.


Micronutrients are essential substances that are required in trace amounts to help regulate several processes in our body and to maintain adequate health. They are equally as critical for health though their requirements are far lower. Due to their importance, there is a Recommended Daily Allowance(RDA) for these micronutrients. There are two types of micronutrients: vitamins and minerals.


Vitamins are organic compounds made by plants and animals which break down in the body to help regulate and enable many processes such as production and release of energy in the body and cell formation and brain function. They can be found in both plants and animals such as meats, fish, dairy, fruits, beans and grains. Vitamins are either water-soluble or fat-soluble. Water soluble vitamins are flushed and need to be replenished while fat soluble vitamins are taken up and used in the body for various processes.

Many nutrition labels may not have full details on vitamin content.

Vitamin RDA (Men/Women)


M: 900 mcg (3,000 IU)W: 700 mcg (2,333 IU)

THIAMIN (vitamin B1)

M: 1.2 mg, W: 1.1 mg

RIBOFLAVIN (vitamin B2)

M: 1.3 mg, W: 1.1 mg

NIACIN (vitamin B3, nicotinic acid)

M: 16 mg, W: 14 mg


M: 5 mg, W: 5 mg

PYRIDOXINE (vitamin B6)

31–50 years old: M: 1.3 mg, W: 1.3 mg; 51+ years old: M: 1.7 mg, W: 1.5 mg

COBALAMIN (vitamin B12)

M: 2.4 mcg, W: 2.4 mcg

M: 30 mcg, W: 30 mcg


M: 90 mg, W: 75 mg Smokers: Add 35 mg


M: 550 mg, W: 425 mg

CALCIFEROL (vitamin D)

31–70: 15 mcg (600 IU) 71+: 20 mcg (800 IU)


M: 15 mg, W: 15 mg (15 mg equals about 22 IU from natural sources of vitamin E and 33 IU from synthetic vitamin E)

FOLIC ACID (vitamin B9, folate, folacin)

M: 400 mcg, W: 400 mcg


M: 120 mcg, W: 90 mcg


Minerals are inorganic compounds that have several roles in the body depending on the type of mineral ranging from growth, healing, immune function, protection against oxidative damage, creation of hormones and so on.

Many nutrition labels may not have full details on mineral content.

Vitamin RDA (Men/Women)

31–50: M: 1,000 mg, W: 1,000 mg 51-70: M: 1,000 mg, W: 1,200 mg, 71+: M: 1,200 mg, W: 1,200 mg


14-50: M/W: 2.3 g, 51-70 M/W: 2.0 g, 71+: M/W: 1.8 g


14–50: M: 35 mcg, 14-18: W: 24 mcg 19-50: W: 25 mcg 51+: M: 30 mcg, W: 20 mcg


M: 900 mcg, W: 900 mcg


M: 4 mg, W: 3 mg


M: 150 mcg, W: 150 mcg


19–50: M: 8 mg, W: 18 mg 51+: M: 8 mg, W: 8 mg


18+: M: 420 mg, W: 320 mg


M: 2.3 mg, W: 1.8 mg


M: 45 mcg, W: 45 mcg


M: 700 mg, W: 700 mg

M: 4.7 g, W: 4.7 g


M: 55 mcg, W: 55 mcg

M: 2,300 mg, W: 2,300 mg


M: 11 mg, W: 8 mg

2. Structural Components


These components in food can change the way food can look or feel. Some of them can make the food become thicker, gel-like or emulsify two substances together.


Aromas are what add a blissful or repulsive smell to foods depending on what is added to the food or whether the food is in the process of decaying. Everyone wants something that smells good!


Coloring agents are naturally existing compounds or synthesized to give the food a more vibrant and attractive look.


Food flavors can be either sweet, umami, salty, sour, spicy or bitter. Each of these are mainly detected by our tongue when foods are eaten. They can make foods more joyful and palatable or can make them repulsive!

3. Additive Components


These are non-nutritive compounds that can have a stimulatory impact on the body while having an indirect impact of health and well being. This includes compounds such as caffeine in coffee which can have an excitatory and theobromine in cocoa which can have a relaxing effect. These compounds are either part of the food itself or added to foods to create the desired effect.


These are usually compounds obtained from natural sources or synthesized that increase the shelf life of products. These compounds are normally rigorously tested for their toxicology before they are allowed to be added to foods.