Foods can be classified by the way they affect the body and/or by their food group. It is important to understand both in order to balance your meals and achieve optimal health.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines macronutrients as substances essential in large amounts for the growth and health of an animal. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. All foods fall into one of these three categories.
Carbohydrates provide energy for the body, especially for the brain and nervous system. Many of these foods are rich in certain vitamins, minerals, and fiber that might not be found in other macronutrients. For the average person, carbohydrates should make up approximately 50-60% of total daily calories.
Proteins are required for the function, regulation, and structure of the body's tissues and organs. Protein intake should make up about 20% of total daily calories.
Fats are important for blood clotting, brain development, insulation, energy storage, and absorbing and moving fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) through the bloodstream. Fat should make up less than 30% of total calories.
Foods are grouped based on similar nutritional properties, but may function differently in the body.
Starches / Grains
This group is composed of breads, cereals, rice, tortillas, pasta, popcorn, crackers, chips, and things like waffles and pancakes. For optimal health, it is best to choose whole grain, high-fiber varieties of these foods.
Starchy vegetables are also found in this group. Examples include peas, corn, beans, lentils, potatoes, acorn squash, butternut squash, and plantains. All of these foods will function as carbohydrates, but beans, peas, and lentils will function as both carbohydrates and proteins.
This group includes apples, oranges, melons, berries, peaches, bananas, grapes, etc. All of these will function as carbohydrates. Fruits are a very important part of a balanced diet; they provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
This food group is mainly made up of milk (cow, soy, etc), cheese, and yogurt. These foods provide calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D. Adequate intake (about 3 cups a day) of dairy is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and lower blood pressure.
Milk and yogurt function as carbohydrates. Cheese and cottage cheese function more as proteins, while sour cream, cream cheese, and half-and-half function as fats. It is important that you check the labels when purchasing dairy - it is best to choose low-fat or fat-free dairy. The high-fat varieties can be detrimental to your health. If you don't know how to read a label, learn how here.
Sweets / Desserts
Foods in this group, like cookies, pies, cakes, ice cream, and candy bars, do not have many vitamins, minerals, or fiber. In fact, their nutrition quality is very poor; they are high in calories, sugar, and fat. Try to eat these foods at special occasions only. These foods function as carbohydrates and fats.
These vegetables are classified as carbohydrates, but very little of it is digestible. Because of this, along with high nutritional value and low calories, they are often referred to as "Free Foods." Examples of non-starchy vegetables include: asparagus, green beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, eggplant, mushrooms, okra, onions, peppers, spinach, and tomatoes.
Proteins / Meats / Meat Substitutes
Proteins are typically made up of all animal meats (poultry, beef, fish, pork, wild game), eggs, and tofu. Healthy choices include lean meats labeled as "loin," egg whites, Canadian bacon, tuna, trout, salmon, skinless poultry, and sandwich meats or tofu varieties with less than 5g of fat per serving.
Fats are important parts of proper body functioning; however, they typically pack a lot of calories and fat in a small serving. As an example, most cooking oils, mayonnaise, butter, and some salad dressings and margarines provide 45 calories and 5 grams of fat in just 1 teaspoon!
Other foods in this group include avocados, nuts, nut butters, olives, bacon, etc. When choosing fats eat more mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, and avoid saturated and trans fats.
Mandy Seay is a bilingual registered and licensed dietitian who holds both a bachelor's degree in nutrition and in journalism. After gaining 30 pounds while living abroad, Mandy worked to lose the weight and regain her health. It was here that she discovered her passion for nutrition and went on to pursue a career as a dietitian. Mandy currently works as a nutrition consultant and freelance writer in Austin, Texas, where she specializes in diabetes, weight management and general and preventive nutrition. She recently published her first book, Your Best Health, a personalized program to losing weight and gaining a healthy lifestyle. Please visit Mandy's website at Nutritionistics.com.