Fuel to perform daily activities

Every single act performed by your body – no matter how small or mundane the task may seem – requires energy.

Proteins, fats and carbohydrates all contribute to the total energy pool of the body. But for the body to be able to use and conserve this energy, it also needs certain vitamins and minerals, which can be obtained from foods and, to a lesser extent, supplements.

A diet deficient in foods that supply energy, and the necessary vitamins and minerals to make this energy available, can lead to serious health problems, not to speak of starvation.

By ensuring proper energy, vitamin and mineral intake by means of the foods you eat, you'll provide your body with the necessary fuel needed to do all the tasks required to maintain life.

These include the production and maintenance of body tissues, the electrical conduction of nerve activity, the mechanical work of muscle effort, and heat production to maintain body temperature.

Nutrients for the body's cells

The body functions by means of a very intricate set of systems that work in perfect synch to make life possible.

All these systems, for example the cardiovascular, reproductive and respiratory systems, can be broken down to cellular level where hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters are constantly interacting through complex processes to make your body function.

These processes are all made possible by the nutrients that we ingest every day. While certain nutrients can be produced by the body itself, we need to get many others through the food we eat.

A diet deficient in vital nutrients will soon lead to disease. By eating foods from a variety of different sources – both animal-based and plant-based – you will provide your body with the essential nutrients without which cells cannot function.

Growth and tissue repair

Just as builders need special materials to renovate a home, your body demands certain nutrients for its "construction zone": the growth and repair of tissue.

Good nutrition has the advantage that it ensures growth (during childhood and pregnancy), healing and the maintenance and build-up of muscle mass. For these essential processes to take place, the body needs energy, certain vitamins and minerals, but especially protein on a daily basis.

Protein (which also supplies 17 kilojoules of energy per gram) can be obtained primarily from animal products such as meat, eggs and milk. Whey protein has been shown to have superior absorption properties, meaning your body can absorb and use the protein more readily than other protein sources. Most plant foods are relatively poor in protein, with the exception of legumes and beans.

Although the western diet generally incorporates enough protein, vegetarians may be getting too little of this vital nutrient. If you're a vegetarian, it is important that you make a point of including protein-rich foods in your diet. The advantage is that, should you suffer an injury, your body will be ready and able to repair the damaged tissue. You will also be able to maintain your muscle mass and increase it when you exercise.

Magnesium, glucosamine, calcium and vitamin D are all critical for bone and muscle growth and repair, so consider taking supplements containing these ingredients if you are concerned your diet may be deficient.

Reinforcing the immune system

You can enable your body to fight disease more effectively with the foods you eat.

You probably already know that the vitamin C in oranges helps to ward off infection. This vitamin boosts immunity by increasing the production of B- and T-cells and other white blood cells, including those that destroy foreign microorganisms.

In a similar way, other foods and nutrients can play an immune-boosting role.

The key is to optimise your intake of plant-based foods, such as fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes. Including more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet by eating more fish, while cutting down on your intake of saturated fat, is also important.

Probiotics (microbial foods or supplements that can re-establish the intestinal flora in your gastrointestinal tract) also seem to kick start the immune system. Up your probiotic intake by eating more low-fat or fat-free yoghurt made with live AB cultures.

Preventing chronic diseases of lifestyle

Good nutrition can be used as a tool to combat chronic diseases of lifestyle.

Here, one of the most important steps is to achieve and maintain a healthy weight by following an energy-controlled diet. It is a well-known fact that obesity and overweight can lead to chronic diseases, like diabetes type 2, heart disease, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and some cancers.

Start by cutting out the saturated fats and added sugars. Also make a point of including more plant-based foods in your diet.

Plant-based foods generally have a lower fat content, are rich in fibre and are also excellent sources of phytochemicals. More and more research points to the protective properties of these substances that occur naturally in plants.

Phytochemicals seem to be of particular use in the prevention of cancer and heart disease via its mechanism of neutralising free radicals and thwarting enzymes that activate cancer-causing agents in the body.

Maintaining good mental health

Diet can play an important role in thwarting the blues.

The most basic principle in preventing depression and mood swings, is to eat a balanced diet that contains foods from all the different food groups – fruit and vegetables, unprocessed grains and cereals, lean meat, eggs, milk and dairy products, legumes and nuts, poly- or monounsaturated margarine and oils.

Also make a point of including fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, in your diet. People who have an omega-3 deficiency are more prone to depression than those who consume adequate quantities.

There is evidence to suggest that a good diet, and sufficient intake of the omega-3s, can also help to prevent Alzheimer's disease in later life.

Ensuring healthy teeth and bones

A nutritious diet also ensures the health of your teeth and bones.

A balanced, calcium-rich diet – especially during your childhood, teen and early adult years – has the advantage that it will ensure an adequate peak bone mass throughout life. The Australian Government's National Health and Medical Research Council recommends men aged 19-70 get 1000mg/day of calcium. Men over 70 should get 1300mg/day. Women aged between 19-50 need 1000mg/day too, but women over 50 need 1300mg/day.  Calcium intakes at these levels will greatly assist in preventing osteoporosis in later life. Given that a glass of milk contains around 300mg, it can be tough to get enough calcium from diet alone, so if you are concerned about increasing your calcium intake, a calcium supplement may be necessary. Adequate vitamin D3 levels help ensure your body can absorb any calcium you consume - your daily intake of Vitamin D3 is typically received by direct sunshine on the skin, but getting enough sun during winter months can be hard, so a vitamin D supplement may be useful to ensure bones strength.

You can also ensure the health of your teeth by keeping a close eye on what you eat: snack on foods that hold less of a cavity risk, such as cheese, nuts, popcorn, and vegetables; limit your between-meal eating and drinking of fermentable carbohydrates, like sugary cool drinks; limit sweet treats to mealtimes; and drink a glass of water after every meal.

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