The importance of healthy nutrition becomes more evident as we look at the shocking numbers regarding severe obesity and its healthcare-related costs in the United States. Severe obesity is rising each year, and could affect 11% of the country’s adult population by 2030, which should be considered a nationwide crisis. According to a 2016 study released by the University of Washington, an U.S. American can attain a medical cost excess of $200,000 over a lifetime, and severe obesity causes an annual medical spending of around $150 billion on a national scale. There are the direct costs of treating diseases related to severe obesity, as well as indirect costs caused by an increase of additional severe obesity related illness, loss of productivity, extra fuel and infrastructure costs. The lost economic productivity, due to severe obesity, is estimated to range from $390 billion to $520 billion annually, in 2030.
Even though severe obesity can cause serious health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, heart diseases, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, arthritis and varicose veins, many people with severe obesity are not changing their way of eating. Consequences might not be clear for some, and many don’t know what healthy eating really means and why it is important.
Sure, everyone knows a thing or two about calories, essential vitamins and minerals, but the number of deficiencies shows that the relation between essential nutrients, calories and health is not clear at all. Deficiencies in vitamins B12, A, E and K2, as well as in calcium, iodine, iron and magnesium are very common. For instance, 80% of U.S. Americans have a magnesium deficiency, about one in four adults are deficient in vitamin B12, and too many inflammatory omega-6 fats are consumed, causing a series of health problems.
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A balanced diet, meaning a balanced calorie-intake and consuming the right amount of vitamins and minerals, is crucial for the prevention of health problems caused by nutrient deficiencies and excess weight. Understanding nutrients will help you become more conscious of your diet, making it easier to take control and lose weight. The following article and infographic should help you understand how essential nutrients affect your body, how and especially what you need to eat to achieve a balanced and nutrient-rich diet, and how to manage your weight.
Essential nutrients are named this way, as your body cannot synthesize them on its own to the amount needed, so you must provide them through your diet; the six classes are carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and water. Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are macronutrients, needed in bigger amounts, since they provide us with energy. This nutritional energy is measured in calories (kcal).
Severe Obesity solution #1 – Carbohydrates
Carbs are our main source of energy, primarily consisting of glucose (blood sugar), which fuels our brain. This energy is provided when saccharide/carb chains break down into glucose and two other simple sugars: fructose (fruit sugar) and galactose (sugar found in dairy products). These simple sugars are called monosaccharides. When two simple sugars are linked, they form disaccharides; three to ten linked sugars form a oligosaccharides; and more than ten linked sugars are called polysaccharides. Disaccharides are lactose (the “milk sugar” that many people are sensitive to), maltose (often found in beer) and sucrose (the sugar used in candy).
When people talk about sugar, they mostly mean sucrose, which is indeed dangerous, considering the amount of sucrose found in almost every food. The problem here is that sucrose, consisting only of two simple sugars, is broken down very fast, so it doesn’t satiate you for long and you need to eat a lot to feel full. So if you eat lots of sugar and don’t burn these calories, it will be stored in your body in the form of fat. Therefore, it is healthier to eat complex carbs, like vegetables, whole grains, oat, corn; these foods have long sugar chains, which are broken down slower, keeping you satiated for longer and storing energy. Complex carbs also contain several other nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins and minerals, which have additional health benefits. Dietary fiber enhances digestion and is important for the absorption of other nutrients. Water-soluble fiber controls blood sugar levels and can help lower blood cholesterol, while water-insoluble fiber has been linked to a reduced risk of diabetes.
Severe Obesity solution #2 Proteins
Proteins consist of amino acids which are attached to one another, forming at least one long chain. They are differentiated by the kind of amino acids in the chain, the amino acid sequence within the chain, as well as the protein structure, meaning the way the chains fold into a three-dimensional structure. Due to this complex structure, there are many variations possible, creating thousands of proteins.
There are over 20 amino acids, from which nine are essential and six are known as “conditionally essential”, as their synthesis is sometimes not possible under special conditions, like stress or illness. Essential amino acids are crucial, since the body needs them in order to synthesize non-essential amino acids and create different proteins. Since proteins are more complex than carbs, they take longer to digest and are, therefore, a longer-lasting source of energy. Besides serving as an energy source, proteins fulfill a variety of very important functions, determined by the protein folding, such as:
- serving structural functions;
- Molecules transportation;
- cell signaling, which leads basic activities and coordinates cellular actions;
- signal transduction;
- catalysis of metabolic reactions as an enzyme,
- DNA replication.
Since proteins are crucial for the functioning of every cell, they are essential for the health of all organs, being particularly important for the health of the skin, heart, hair, bones, body tissues and muscles. Proteins are abundant in meat, but if you prefer a meat-free diet, there are also many vegetables with a high protein content, like beans, lentils, nuts, mushrooms, peas, broccoli, spinach. Especially when losing weight is a goal, it is important to choose lean protein sources, like lentil, nuts or beans. Meat or dairy products contain lots of proteins, but also lots of fat, which when consumed in excess, will be stored in fat cells (adipocytes) throughout the body.
Severe Obesity Factor #3 – Fat
Fat is also a form of caloric energy, and every excess of fat will be stored in fat cells (adipocytes) all over the body. If more fat is stored than used, these adipocytes will expand and cause weight gain. Fat, which is a chemical compound of fatty acid chains, is essential, but only when consumed in small amounts. It is also important to differentiate between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, which translate into unhealthy and healthy fatty acids, respectively.
There are two essential unsaturated fatty acids, which the body cannot synthesize on its own: alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6). Omega-3 and omega-6 are a very important part of your diet, since they synthesize other fats in the human body. Omega-6 fatty acids are vital, especially when being physically active, since they promote growth and cell repair and stop cell damage. Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to lower blood pressure, and may have a beneficial effect on people with varicose veins, as they stimulate blood circulation. They have anti-inflammatory properties and increase the breakdown of fibrin, a protein necessary for blood clotting and scar formation. Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to increased levels of “good cholesterol” (HDL – high-density lipoprotein) and decreased levels of “bad cholesterol” (LDL – low-density lipoprotein). Saturated fats, on the other hand, are shown to increase bad cholesterol and, therefore, the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Fats are essential for the absorption and usage of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Severe obesity – Vitamins
Vitamins are grouped under an alphabetized vitamin title, and are classified by their biological and chemical activities – therefore, each vitamin group has similar functions. B vitamins, for instance, are water-soluble (so the body cannot store them), and are needed in metabolic processes that convert either carbohydrates, fats or proteins into energy. In this process, they either work as a co-factor or are needed to create one. Vitamin B9 (folic acid) is especially important during pregnancy and infancy, since it is important for DNA processes and helps rapid growth and cell division. Vitamin B12 is involved in the metabolism of every cell, also affecting DNA processes.
The biochemical functions of vitamins are very diverse, especially across groups. Vitamin E – and in some cases, vitamin C – acts as an important antioxidant. Vitamin E also regulates enzymatic activity, protects fatty acids and affects the ways genes are read during synthesises. It is especially important for eye and neurological health. Vitamin D is created in the skin with the help of UVB radiation (sunlight); it has hormone-like functions and increases the absorption of essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, phosphate and zinc, therefore being important for the immune system. As for vitamin C, it is abundant in immune cells, and is the most important vitamin for our immune system. It is also needed to create at least eight different enzymes, essential for further body processes. Vitamin A is required for various body functions, including vision, immune function, gene transcription, skin, bone, teeth and cellular health. Vitamin K is mainly needed to create proteins that are essential for blood coagulation, and to control binding of calcium in bones and other tissues. A lack of vitamin K can lead to heavy bleeding and unstable bones.
Severe obesity – The role of Minerals
Minerals are essential nutrients, as they are naturally occurring chemical elements that cannot be created by living organisms. There are around twenty essential minerals, acting as electrolytes or serving structural and functional roles. The most important minerals for a proper functioning of the body are magnesium, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and sodium.
Other examples of minerals are iron, zinc, copper and selenium. These compounds are found in very low concentrations in the body, and are thus called “trace elements”. They are essential, playing key roles in growth and development, but are toxic in high amounts (a classic example would be arsenic, made famous as a poison by Madame Bovary).
Calcium is crucial for bone formation, stabilizing blood pressure and assuring blood coagulation, and is vital for the health of the cardiovascular and digestive systems. Magnesium is mainly important for the body’s detoxification processes, protecting your body from damaging environmental heavy metals and chemicals, and iodine is important for your skin, brain and muscle health.
Severe obesity and Water
Often forgotten as an essential nutrient – but crucial for the human body – is water, which is required in large amounts (much more than the body can produce on its own). Water represents between 50-80% of the body weight, playing a key role in all biochemical reactions that happen in the body. It transports nutrients to cells, assists in removing waste products from the body, regulates body temperature and protects joints, tissues and the spinal cord.
Water is found in all foods, especially in fruits and vegetables, helping us stay hydrated, but the most important is to drink enough fluids throughout the day. The daily required dosage is 2-3 liters for an adult, and even more when being physically active. The foods with the highest water content are watermelons, oranges and strawberries. If you like salads, make sure to add some cucumbers and tomatoes, as these are the vegetables that contain the most water.
Calories and weight management
As we’ve learned before, calories are the units that measure the nutritional energy provided by carbs, fats and proteins.
There are two important rules when considering the right calorie intake:
- Consume as many calories a day as your body burns, otherwise the excess of caloric energy will be stored in your body, increasing your weight.
- Calories should be provided through healthy food and a balanced diet, meaning they should be distributed among fats, carbs and proteins. Fats should be mostly unsaturated and proteins should be lean proteins – like fish, nuts, beans, lentils and seeds -, while carbs should be mostly complex carbs.
An adult usually needs 2000 cal or 2 kcal per day, which can also vary depending on
your activity level or age. A balanced calorie intake in percentage can be found in the
If your goal is to lose weight, there are a few things you should consider for a proper weight management:
- Eating and drinking less sugar. A high sugar intake is often one of the major reasons for severe obesity. Drinking more water instead of sugary drinks and eating fruits instead of candy will have a big effect on losing weight.
- Eating smaller portions in general will help decrease your stomach volume. Eating slowly can help you keep portions smaller, otherwise you may eat too much before allowing your body to feel satiated. A small portion or snack every 3-4 hours will keep your energy level up and you won’t feel too hungry.
- Be physically active and burn what you eat! Sports not only help preventing many diseases, but also provide you with energy and even make you happier, due to the release of endorphins and social interactions.
The internet is full of diet programs that promise weight loss, but a proven fact is that hardcore diets often lead to a yo-yo effect, and can also lead to an increased risk of essential nutrients’ deprivation. Following the three abovementioned rules in the long run will lead to a weight loss, since a steady ideal weight is only possible with a lifestyle change that needs to be guided by rules.
A famous and interesting way to check whether you have a healthy weight for your height is calculating your BMI (Body Mass Index). You can find the formula in the infographic below. It’s important to keep in mind that the BMI is only an indicator, not an actual statement about the right proportion between your weight and height, since many parameters are not calculated, like muscle mass and age.
More from the infographic below