The Basics of a Healthy Meal Plan

Quite awhile ago, I wrote an article about the importance of a balanced meal. I don’t think it’s healthy to eliminate a food group…i.e., “Low Carb,” “Low Fat,” etc. We need a balanced amount of carbs, protein, and fat in our daily meals. (There are more complications in sports nutrition, as there are different things you should eat before/after working out, for muscle soreness and recovery, etc. But, I will discuss this in a later article.) For the most part, to have a steady stream of energy throughout the day, you need a balanced combination of all the macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat).
In the video, I also discuss what a protein really is. There is the common misconception that a complete protein only comes from animal sources. (If this were true, vegans would die very quickly.) For an in-depth look at protein, you can also check my older article on the basics of protein.
For true health and vibrance, many people forget about the importance of micronutrients. These are all the vitamin and mineral buzzwords you’ll see on a food package. Vitamin D, electrolytes, Vitamin C, potassium, B-Vitamins, etc. You get the idea. These can be found in whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables, but also in nuts, seeds, and legumes. People tend to concentrate on the macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat.) But, we would be able to just manufacture a fake, perfect food source if these elements were the only important aspect of a healthy diet. The micronutrients, fiber, and clean water that fruits and vegetables provide are essential for good health.

So here is my video discussion of a balanced meal.

The Proteins

Perhaps more than any other macronutrient, protein is the most consistently mentioned. In fact, it means literally โ€œof first importance/quality.โ€ When we think of protein, we think mostly of what we are eating, and while that will be mostly the focus of this article, proteins extend far beyond what’s on the end of your fork. Proteins are building blocks of all living organisms, creating the structures that support their cells, functioning as hormones to organize our life processes, creating antibodies to safe-guard our being, acting as catalysts in the form of enzymes, as well as having thousands of other functions. Protein is the most abundant molecule in the human body, with the exception of water. Because of proteins’ vast array of functions, it is the nutrient primarily used to build and rebuild tissues within our body, such as your muscles.

Protein as a macronutrient differs from the others in that it is a large molecule composed of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. The are 22 amino acids important to our health, as they serve important functions in our body, and are divided into three categories: essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids, and conditionally essential amino acids. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by our body, and as such must be acquired from the foods that we eat. Non-essential amino acids on the other hand can be created by the human body through the breakdown of proteins during digestion, provided enough protein is ingested. Conditionally essential amino acids are usually non-essential, except in times of stress, such as illness.

There are nine essential amino acids including leucine, isoleucine, valine, lysine, threonine, methionine, phenylalinine, tryptophan, and histidine. Non-essential amino acids include alinine, asparagine, aspartic acid, and glutamic acid. Conditionally essential amino acids include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.

All food contains some protein, as it must in order for whatever organism it came from to survive โ€“ the only exception is if a food is processed from its natural form. Primarily we think of protein deriving from animal sources, such as beef, chicken, fish, milk products, and eggs. It can also be found in plant sources, such as legumes, grains, roots and tubers, seeds, nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Foods are classified into two groups when it comes to proteins: sources of complete protein and sources of incomplete proteins.

Sources of complete protein are foods that contain the full array of amino acids as required by the human body. Most frequently this includes sources of animal protein, but can also include exceptional plant foods such as quinoa and chia seeds. Sources of incomplete protein are foods that do not contain all amino acids in significant amounts as required by the human body, which primarily includes plant based foods.

There are some important caveats to this that will be touched on in future articles, but especially includes the source from which meat derives. For example, a cow fed a diet that is unnatural or atypical from what it would normally eat (ie. consisting primarily of corn and other grains), may lack specific amino acids required by its own body, as well as the human body, as opposed to a cow fed its natural diet of only grass.

The human body is a magnificent engine, and as such, it is not necessary to eat food containing only complete proteins. So long as our food is not derived from a single source of calories, our bodies are able to break down proteins from a vast array of foods and obtain whatever it may require to function. While it is important to eat a wide variety of foods to obtain the nutrients (not only protein) your body requires, it is even more important to eat a wide variety of foods if your diet does not contain sources of complete proteins. A way of thinking about this is to imagine a ‘pool.’ When your body breaks down proteins, it takes amino acids and adds them to the pool. As you continue to ingest and break down more proteins, it takes the amino acids and again adds them to the pool. When your body requires specific amino acids, it is able to gather what it requires from the pool, and assimilate them into the specific proteins it requires.

There has a been a wide debate for many, many years, nearly since the discovery of protein on a molecular level, about how much protein we actually need in order to survive. The requirement for protein varies on an individual level, determined primarily on an individual’s activity level. For example, a sedentary individual requires much less protein than an athlete, as the athlete is more frequently breaking down tissue in need of repair. Largely, trial and error are required to determine how much protein you need, and from what sources your body best derives and assimilates them from.

Macronutrients! (A bird’s eye view)

Everything we eat can be broken down into two nutritional groups: Macronutrients and Micronutrients. Today’s feature is the macronutrients!

Macronutrients compose the majority the foods we take in for energy, classified as calories. Macronutrients are further broken down into three groups: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Each macronutrient provides a different amount of calories that can be utilized as energy: proteins and carbohydrates provide approximately 4 calories per gram, while fats provide approximately 9 per gram.

Proteins are large molecules formed of amino acids linked together by bonds called peptides. When a protein is digested, it is broken down into its amino acid parts. Humans require 20 amino acids to live. As long as we have an adequate intake of proteins in our diet, our cells are able to manufacture 11 amino acids from other amino acids โ€“ these amino acids are called non-essential amino acids. However, 9 of those amino acids must be obtained from diet alone, these are called essential amino acids. Like the other Macronutrients, proteins are essential to our health. Most people recognize proteins as being able to repair our tissues, but they’re utilized in almost every process in the body! Examples of foods most people associate with protein are: eggs, dairy, meat, legumes and beans.

Protein!

Protein!

Carbohydrates are molecules composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and are frequently referred to as saccharides. There are four groups of carbohydrates: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. Monosaccharides are the simplest of carbohydrates, they are simple sugars such as fructose, the common sugar found in most fruits. Disaccharides are groups of two monosaccharides, a more complex sugar, and include lactose, the sugar found in milk. Oligosaccharides are more complex sugars, and not typically fully digested by humans. An example is fructo-oligiosaccharides, which is found in a large variety of plants. When fructo-oligosaccharides enter our intestines, any undigested bits will be further digested by our gut-bacteria. Whenever the term ‘pre-biotic’ is used, it is because the fructo-oligosaccharides are feeding these bacteria. The last group, polysaccharides, are the largest molecules in the carbohydrate group. Two good examples of polysaccharides are starch, such as that found in grains and potatoes, and cellulose, the fiber found in plants.

Fructose!

Fructose!

Fats round out the Macronutrients, and are very large group of molecules. They are also classified as a group of lipids (an even larger group of molecules). There are three main groups of fats we’ll focus on: saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats. Saturated fats are fats with all available molecular bonds being filled by hydrogen, and thus ‘saturated’ by hydrogen. There are a large variety of saturated fats, but they are primarily found in our diet from animal fats, such as butter or lard, or from tropical fruit oils, such as coconut and palm. Unsaturated fats are broken down into two major groups: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats have a similar molecular makeup as saturated, but have only one molecular bond unfilled by hydrogen. Monounsaturated fats are found primarily in animal fats and plants; they compose the primary fat of avocados. Polyunsaturated fats are fats with multiple molecular bonds being unfilled by hydrogen. This group also includes the all important Omega fats (such as Omega 3 and 6). Trans-fats are a group of fats that are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, and are unique in that they contain two sets of double carbon atoms bonded together. Trans-fats very rarely occur in nature, but can occur frequently in the processing of food, especially when high levels of heat are utilized. Processed trans-fats are regarded as a dangerous substance when it comes to health, and are heavily linked to coronary heart disease and unhealthy levels of cholesterol – processed trans-fats are best avoided entirely.

Fats!

Fats!

In our next articles we’ll be focusing in more detail the specifics of each macronutrient. We’ll also begin to cover the micronutrients, the group of nutrients that don’t contribute the calories for you to live, but are still essential for optimal health!