This morning over breakfast, a discussion about nutrition arose. My girlfriend asked, how could this small serving of maple syrup have as many calories as two large cookies? And, why do I feel tired two minutes after eating it?
This led to a larger discussion about nutrition and Chinese dietary therapy. I have written on my website about Chinese dietary therapy, and you can read more articles there. Many years ago, I would routinely speak to my patients about the topic of nutritional biochemistry, but I have slowly moved away from that in recent years. In my attempt to again provide this important information, this is the first article in a series intended to simplify the basics of nutrition, and place them in the context of the Chinese understanding of food, diet, and nutrition.
Many of my patients share with me that they follow a diet that encourages a restriction of calories, an avoidance of carbohydrates, or one intended to put the body into ketosis. Typically, the main goal of this diet is weight loss. Of course, I understand that dietary choices for an individual may include a range of factors, from weight loss to food sensitivity to insulin sensitivity to hormonal imbalance. I also understand the general stress of everyday life can make food planning challenging. We can always speak at your next appointment about your unique situation and concerns.
Now on to Nutrition Basics….
While there are various systems for categorizing the components of food, this basic schema is the most useful:
1) Macronutrients – Macronutrients form the basis of the organs and tissues of the body and are essential. Macro refers both to the relatively large size of the compound, as well as the body’s requirement for relatively large amounts of them. The three macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
2) Micronutrients – Micronutrients form the basis of our physiology and skeletal system and also are essential. Micro refers both to the relatively small size of the compound as well as the body’s requirement for relatively small amounts of them. The two micronutrients are vitamins and minerals.
3) Non-nutrients – Non refers to the fact that these compounds are not essential to our body’s structure or physiological function, but still provide benefit to our health and protection from disease. Non-nutrient compounds include phytonutrients (from plants) and fibers. Common examples are B-carotene, green tea polyphenols and soluble fiber.
Macronutrients provide the raw materials for building and maintaining our bodies. Our tissue is largely made of these compounds. In addition, they provide the raw material from which we manufacture energy. The amount of energy that is provided by food is measured in calories. A calorie is the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water by one degree Celsius.
Protein and carbohydrates each have four calories per gram. Fat has nine calories per gram. This means that one gram of protein or carbohydrate, when burned, will raise the temperature of one gram of water by four degrees, and fat will raise the temperature by nine degrees. Fat contains more than twice as many calories per weight than protein and carbohydrates.
It is simple to calculate the number of calories in a serving of food. Reading a nutritional label, multiply grams of protein by four, grams of carbohydrates by four, and grams of fat by nine. Add these numbers together and the sum gives the total calories in a serving of food.
Going back to this morning’s conversation about maple syrup: A small serving of maple syrup has the same amount of calories as two larger cookies simply because the weight is approximately the same despite the size difference, and because the two cookies have a greater amount of protein and fat components than the maple syrup serving.
Maple syrup is composed primarily of the simple carbohydrate called sucrose. I will write more about simple and complex carbohydrates at a later time. In Chinese medicine, each flavor is associated with a particular organ. Sweet is associated with the Spleen. A small amount of sweet flavor benefits the Spleen. Too much sweet flavor injures the Spleen. Overconsumption of carbohydrates, or of any one of the macronutrients, can lead to imbalance and eventually disease. In the case of the fatigue after eating the cookie, too much sugar/sweet flavor temporarily weakened the Spleen’s ability to extract Qi, or energy, from the meal. From a biological perspective, the body responded to the extra sugar by secreting insulin so the cells could absorb it. A brief drop in blood sugar then resulted in tiredness. Similarly, too much protein will damage the Kidneys. Too much fat will damage the Liver. Eating a balanced diet is a sustainable long-term approach and leads to better health.