Back to the Basics

“Is butter a carb?”

Mean Girls 2004

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a neighbor about why we chose and love our careers. He’s a climate scientist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Berkeley, but his PhD is in mechanical engineering. I’m a political science major turned nutrition and diabetes researcher. How did he go from aerospace engineering to climate science? Why did we both stray so far from the path we had laid out for ourselves?

One thing we have in common is that we are extroverts, and that’s most likely what it boils down to. Nutrition and climate science are both very hot topics that make for interesting dinner conversation. The argument can be made that political science and mechanical engineering are also hot dinner topics, and they are. Just ask Bill Nye, Matthew Cameron, and anyone watching this year’s election; however, nutrition is something that most people like to think they know a little about and always want to learn more about.

With all this talk of nutrition in the public sphere, I often forget that some people don’t have the basis to understand half the things I talk about when it comes to their intake and their health. There is a lack of nutrition education in this country, and very basic concepts are often overlooked. Could this have something to do with the so-called obesity epidemic that has taken over this generation?  In this post I’ll take you back to the basics of nutrition so you’ll be able to understand some of what I discuss in other posts on this blog.


Macronutrients include three major type of nutrients (compounds that give you calories) that are essential to proper bodily function.  Our bodies require them all in large amounts, which is why they are called macronutrients.


Let’s start with the basic molecular structure. Carbohydrates are molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, hydrated carbon hence carbohydrates.  This category includes the starch, sugar, and fiber found in fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Carbohydrates are typically the body’s primary source of energy, and it’s recommended that 50% of your calories come from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates fuel the central nervous system, and provide energy for working muscles, preventing the use of protein as an energy source. Carbohydrates are also essential energy sources for the brain, influencing both mood, emotion, and focus. This is why we often reach for sweets when we’re cramming for finals and feel sluggish when we cut out carbs completely.


Proteins are large molecules made up of amino acids. Protein can be found in many food groups including meat and dairy, vegetables, grains, and legumes.

They perform a large number of functions in the body that I’ll only briefly mention including: DNA replication, transporting molecules, catalyzing reactions… and the most popular function among gym rats worldwide, protein is essential for building muscle mass.

Protein plays a role in metabolism and also helps increase satiety; however, we still shouldn’t go nuts on protein. Approximately 25% of our daily calories should come from protein.


Now for fats, arguably the most controversial of macronutrients. Fats come in different shapes and sizes, however all fats are derivatives of glycerol and long hydrogen chains called fatty acids.

The primary function of fat is energy storage, but that is not its only role in our bodies.  Fat also aids in the absorbance of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K), insulates the body, protects organs, and fills fat cells.  Fat is essential for proper bodily function, although it is commonly eaten in too high quantities. Only 20-35% of daily calories should come from fat.

There are several types of fat, and not all are well-understood by scientists today.  For the purpose of simplicity, I’ll only go into the two most widely discussed fat types.

Saturated fats are saturated with hydrogen molecules, and are solid at room temperature.  They often come from animal sources including meat and dairy, and are also present in coconut oil.  Saturated fat has been linked to high cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease and it is recommended that only 5-6% of calories come from this kind of fat.

Unsaturated fat (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat) differs from saturated fat in that it is not saturated with hydrogen molecules, because it contains one or more double bonds between carbon molecules.  Unsaturated fat tends to be liquid at room temperature, and primary sources include plant-based oils and fish.  Unsaturated fats are known to have a role in protecting your heart and help increase your good cholesterol levels (HDL).  Most of your calories from fat should come from unsaturated fat.  You may have heard of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.  Both are essential types of unsaturated fat that play a role in inflammation and blood clotting.  People should aim for a 1:3 omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio.


Micronutrients are also essential to proper bodily function, but are not required in large amounts.  They include two major groups Vitamins and Minerals.


Vitamins like other micronutrients are essential in limited amounts, and play many diverse roles in bodily function.  Vitamins are often coenzymes or cofactors, meaning they play a large role in facilitating reactions in the body and are essential to most processes from metabolism to DNA replication.

Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble vitamins meaning they are soluble in lipids (fats).  They are usually absorbed into fat globules, travel through the lymphatic system and are stored in body tissues.  Taking in too many fat-soluble vitamins can actually be quite dangerous and lead to something called hypervitaminosis, so be careful not to overdue it with these supplements.

B-complex vitamins (B1 thiamine, B2 riboflavin, B3 niacin, B5 pantothenic acid, B6 pyridoxine, B7 biotin, B9 folate, B12 cobalamin) and vitamin C are water-soluble vitamins.  Because they are water-soluble, your body cannot store excess water soluble vitamins, so we must replenish these through our intake.


Essential minerals are inorganic compounds, inorganic in the chemistry sense, meaning not carbon based, and are critical to growth and production among other basic processes.

There are essential macrominerals, such as Calcium, measured in milligrams, and essential trace minerals such as selenium, typically measured in micrograms.

Macrominerals or minerals required in greater amounts include: calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and zinc.

 Essential trace minerals or minerals required on the order of micrograms include: chromium, copper, iodine, manganese, selenium, molybdenum, and fluoride.  I bet you never thought that we need molybdenum or copper, but each of these plays an essential role in our bodies.

Vitamin and mineral deficiency is not common in most people who have a balanced diet and eat a variety of produce.  Supplementation is not usually necessary, but can be helpful with certain conditions.  Consult a physician or dietitian if you are concerned.

When it comes to nutrition, I get asked every kind of question imaginable.  The best advice I can give is to simply start taking a look at what you eat.  Stop cutting out entire food groups.  Instead, download one of those nutrition apps (Fitbit, Lose It, MyFitnessPal) and spend a couple of days tracking everything you eat.  Who knows, you may learn something new.  I know I did.

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