Food smarts Part I: What am I even eating?
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
As health and fitness becomes more and more ingrained in our modern culture, we are constantly inundated with new research, opinions, and trends telling us how much to eat, what kinds of foods or diets to have, when to eat or not eat. With this constant churning out of new information, propagated by marketing in the health and wellness and even food beverage industries, it can feel like an endless game of catchup for the layman – even for myself to settle on the right diet and approach to food. In this Food Smarts series we aim empower you with the fundamental nutritional information you need to eat mindfully and discern fad from fact.
We can understand food as broken into the following categories:
Calories – how much energy does it give me?
Nutrients – what bodily functions does this food support?
Nutrients are further subdivided into two subcategories, macronutrients and micronutrients.
Calories measure the energy value of food. Even if we don't hit the gym regularly, we still need a good amount of calories.
To meet your daily needs, your caloric intake should at least meet your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). 70% of our TDEE goes into basic life-sustaining functions like breathing, fighting infections, repairing tissues, even those occurring at rest (basic metabolic rate). 10% goes into processing of food, including chewing, digesting, and absorption (thermic effect of food). Finally, the remaining 20% goes into physical activity. Non-exercise physical activity over your entire day, like walking from one place to another, standing, shaking your leg, doing chores (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) accounts for as much as 15%. Actual exercise (exercise activity thermogenesis) on the other hand accounts for about 5%. You can calculate your estimated TDEE reliably online (TDEE Calculator) with +/-100 calorie margin of error if you don't have a smartwatch with that function.
The implication? If you're looking to reduce caloric intake, know that at least 70% of your caloric intake is non-negotiable; going below that is likely to give your body some problems even if you don't notice them immediately.
Macronutrients are the nutrients we use in largest amount. They provide the calories we need everyday from carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Carbs: 45–65% of total calories. 1 gram of carbohydrates provides 4 calories.
Fat: 20–35% of total calories. 1 gram of fats provides 9 calories.
Protein: 10–35% of total calories. 1 gram of protein provides 4 calories.
Carbohydrates are sugar molecules that provide the most readily-available energy to our muscles and organs, as compared to protein and fats. Going a little deeper, simple carbs that use refined grains like white rice, beehoon, and white bread break down much faster and hence provide higher spikes in blood sugar and energy levels. Complex carbs like brown rice, wholegrain noodles and bread, take longer to break down and thus provide a steady increase in blood sugar and energy. Neither is particularly better than the other. Intention matters: if you're about to work out or do something physically intensive in an hour or so, simple carbs would be beneficial to include in your meal. If you don't need a sharp spike in energy, complex carbs are a great way to maintain a good amount of energy through your day. You can browse an array of simple and complex versions of noodles with LG Foods – both wholegrain and regular options for yellow and white noodles alike.
A small amount of fat is necessary. Fat is a source of essential fatty acids, which the body does not produce. Fat helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E. Type of fat matters – ideally we minimise saturated fat, which increase the risk of heart disease, and instead consumer more of unsaturated fat, which serves its desired function without the health risk. Saturated fat can be found in the typical suspects: meat, dairy products, palm and coconut oil, but also in processed food that use palm oil like chocolate confectionery and instant noodles. Consider replacing your instant noodles with fresh noodles – you can still use the seasoning packet!
Finally, protein consists of amino acids. Amino acids are needed to repair cells and produce new ones. Protein-rich foods include meat, seafood, soy, beans, legumes, nuts, and some grains like wheat germ and quinoa. Protein also keeps you full for longer than carbs, which is one of the reasons why people looking to lose weight by cutting calories may want to consume a higher proportion of protein than carbs.
Because our bodies strive to be energy-efficient, any unused carbohydrates, protein, and fat are converted into body fat as energy storage for future use (if any).
Micronutrients are the major nutrients we need, consisting of vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are needed for normal cell function, development, and growth. There are 13 essential vitamins (A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, C, D, E, K) that play a part in blood clotting, chemical reactions, hormone regulation, bone development, and more. Since vitamins are not stored in the body, we need to get enough of them from food. Minerals on the other hand are elements that are found in food and the earth. Essential minerals include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, iron, zinc, iodine, chromium, copper, fluoride, molybdenum, manganese, and selenium. Minerals play an important role in optimal hydration, working of muscles, bone development, DNA production, and more.
So next time you see a certain diet or food touted as "healthy", like an acai bowl, you can dig a little deeper. Consider how exactly it serves you:
Does it give me the right amount of energy for my daily needs?
What bodily functions will this support me in?
Am I getting too much or too little of a nutrient?
How long will this keep me full for?
If you're into numbers, using fitness and nutrition apps like MyFitnessPal help estimate the amount of calories, carbs, protein, fat are in the dishes you eat. MyFitnessPal in particular allows you to search for breakdowns of local and Asian dishes, from hokkien mee to biryani rice and more.
Tifanis is a yoga teacher and soon-to-be certified personal trainer. She loves all things food, wellness, and fitness. Her current obsession: finding plant-based alternatives for her favourite comfort foods.