Maintaining a brain healthy diet can help prevent disease and promote health. There are six categories of nutrients that the body needs to acquire from food: protein, carbohydrates, fat, fibers, vitamins and minerals, and water.
Category 1: Proteins
Protein supplies amino acids to build and maintain healthy body tissue. There are 20 amino acids considered essential because the body must have all of them in the right amounts to function properly. Twelve of these are manufactured in the body but the other eight amino acids must be provided by the diet. Foods from animal sources such as milk or eggs often contain all these essential amino acids while a variety of plant products must be taken together to provide all these necessary protein components.
Category 2: Fat
Fat supplies energy and transports nutrients. There are two families of fatty acids considered essential for the body: the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Essential fatty acids are required by the body to function normally. They can be obtained from canola oil, flaxseed oil, cold-water fish, or fish oil, all of which contain omega-3 fatty acids, and primrose or black currant seed oil, which contains omega-6 fatty acids. The American diet often contains an excess of omega-6 fatty acids and insufficient amounts of omega-3 fats. Increased consumption of omega-3 oils is recommended to help reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancer and alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, premenstrual syndrome, dermatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Category 3: Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy and should be the major part of total daily intake. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates (such as sugar or honey) or complex carbohydrates (such as grains, beans, peas, or potatoes). Complex carbohydrates are preferred because these foods are more nutritious yet have fewer calories per gram compared to fat and cause fewer problems with overeating than fat or sugar. Complex carbohydrates also are preferred over simple carbohydrates by diabetics because they allow better blood glucose control.
Category 4: Fiber
Fiber is the material that gives plants texture and support. Although it is primarily made up of carbohydrates, it does not have a lot of calories and is usually not broken down by the body for energy. Dietary fiber is found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber, as the name implies, does not dissolve in water because it contains high amount of cellulose. Insoluble fiber can be found in the bran of grains, the pulp of fruit and the skin of vegetables. Soluble fiber is the type of fiber that dissolves in water. It can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables such as apples, oatmeal and oat bran, rye flour, and dried beans.
Although they share some common characteristics such as being partially digested in the stomach and intestines and have few calories, each type of fiber has its own specific health benefits. Insoluble fiber speeds up the transit of foods through the digestive system and adds bulk to the stools, therefore, it is the type of fiber that helps treat constipation or diarrhea and prevents colon cancer. On the other hand, only soluble fiber can lower blood cholesterol levels. This type of fiber works by attaching itself to the cholesterol so that it can be eliminated from the body. This prevents cholesterol from recirculating and being reabsorbed into the bloodstream. In 2003, the World Health Organization released a new report specifically outlining the link of a healthy diet rich in high-fiber plant foods to preventing cancer.
Category 5: Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins are organic substances present in food and required by the body in a small amount for regulation of metabolism and maintenance of normal growth and functioning. The most commonly known vitamins are A, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid), B12 (cobalamin), C (ascorbic acid), D, E, and K. The B and C vitamins are watersoluble, excess amounts of which are excreted in the urine. The A, D, E, and K vitamins are fat-soluble and will be stored in the body fat.
Minerals are vital to our existence because they are the building blocks that make up muscles, tissues, and bones. They also are important components of many life-supporting systems, such as hormones, oxygen transport, and enzyme systems.
There are two kinds of minerals: the major (or macro) minerals and the trace minerals. Major minerals are the minerals that the body needs in large amounts. The following minerals are classified as major: calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, sulfur, and chloride. They are needed to build muscles, blood, nerve cells, teeth, and bones. They also are essential electrolytes that the body requires to regulate blood volume and acid-base balance.
Unlike the major minerals, trace minerals are needed only in tiny amounts. Even though they can be found in the body in exceedingly small amounts, they are also very important to the human body. These minerals participate in most chemical reactions in the body. They also are needed to manufacture important hormones. The following are classified as trace minerals: iron, zinc, iodine, copper, manganese, fluoride, chromium, selenium, molybdenum, and boron.
Many vitamins (such as vitamins A, C, and E) and minerals (such as zinc, copper, selenium, or manganese) act as antioxidants. They protect the body against the damaging effects of free radicals. They scavenge or mop up these highly reactive radicals and change them into inactive, less harmful compounds. In so doing, these essential nutrients help prevent cancer and many other degenerative diseases, such as premature aging, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, arthritis, cataracts, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes mellitus.
Category 6: Water
Water helps to regulate body temperature, transports nutrients to cells, and rids the body of waste materials.