Basics of Nutrition

Basic Knowledge About The Food We Eat Everyday

A healthy lifestyle including sound nutrition, sound exercises, adequate rest and mental peace and happiness is the foundation of holistic or comprehensive health. You need to know the scientific basics of sound nutrition to be able to eat healthily and get and stay slim for a lifetime.

Our food is composed of the following nutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and water.

Carbohydrates: The major sources of carbohydrates are sugar, jaggery, sago, honey, ‘rava’, ‘maida’, cereals and pulses. Of these, cereals and pulses are the complex carbohydrates and the rest are simple carbohydrates. Stay away from simple carbohydrates to keep your diet healthy.

Wheat, rice, jowar, bajra, nachani (ragi), corn and oats are cereals.

Green gram, red gram, bengal gram, lentils and all kinds of beans including ‘rajma’ and ‘chole’ are pulses and legumes.

Cereals and pulses together form the major bulk of our Indian food.

Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy in our diet. They also have a ‘protein sparing’ function. Unless we eat enough carbohydrates to get adequate fuel energy, the proteins in our diet will not be ‘spared’ to carry out their primary functions and they will be used up by the body as an energy fuel. Because of this, all starvation based diets also inflict protein deficiency upon you irrespective of how much protein you consume through food or expensive protein supplements.

When consumed in excess of body requirements, carbohydrates are converted into fats and stored in the body, causing weight gain.

In a healthy diet, carbohydrates must contribute fifty to sixty per cent of the energy required by our body.


Proteins are made up of amino acids.

Of these, the body can synthesise some amino acids while it cannot synthesise some amino acids.

While we need all amino acids, the ones that the body cannot synthesise are called essential amino acids and we essentially need to get them from food.

The major sources of proteins in our diet are milk, curds, buttermilk, cheese and paneer, eggs, meat and fish, pulses and cereals.

Of these, milk, curds, buttermilk, cheese and paneer, eggs, meat and fish, all individually have all the essentials amino acids. So individually too they are complete proteins.

On the other hand, cereals and pulses do not individually have all the essential amino acids.

Cereals lack the essential amino acid lysine while pulses lack methionine, tryptophan and cysteine.

So cereals and pulses are incomplete proteins.

But cereals have methionine, tryptophan and cysteine and pulses have lysine.

So if cereals and pulses are consumed together in the same meal, they provide us with complete or good quality proteins.

Adequate milk and cereals and pulses (eaten together) meet your protein requirements handsomely. Thus you need not worry about being a lacto-vegan.

In fact, it is the best nutrition.

Another excellent addition to these three would be sea fish, which is not only an excellent source of proteins, but is a rich source of the sea source omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) which actively protect your heart from the coronary heart disease.

Proteins are the most important constituents of all the tissues of the body.

They are essential for the growth, development and repair of the daily wear and tear of the body. They are responsible for the immunity and the defence mechanism of the body. They are also essential for the formation of various enzymes and hormones in our body.

Proteins are not meant to be consumed as a source of energy under normal circumstances. But in case of people on very low carbohydrate – low calorie diets, the proteins in their food are used up as a source of energy and such people suffer from protein deficiency even if there is sufficient protein in their food.

When consumed in excess of body needs, proteins are converted into fats and stored in the body, causing weight gain.

The body cannot handle excess proteins too well.

Excess proteins increase the acid load in the body. This puts greater work load on the kidney, the bones and the liver. Calcium is drawn out of the bones. This weakens them and may cause fractures. It can also lead to formation kidney stones and kidney damage.

High protein diets are also high in saturated fats, cholesterol and calories. This can also lead to heart disease and certain cancers.

In a healthy diet, proteins should contribute ten to fifteen per cent of the energy required by our body.

Fats: The major sources of fats are vegetable oils, ghee, hydrogenated oils or ‘vanaspati’ ghee (all are 100 % fats), cream, butter, ghee, margarine, cheese, cottage cheese (paneer), coconut, ground nuts, sesame, almonds, cashew nuts, walnuts and pistachio. Meats, some fish and egg yolk are also fat rich.

Fats are the second source of energy of the body after the carbohydrates. They also serve as reserve store of energy. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are the fat soluble vitamins.

Body also requires essential fatty acids which are contributed by fats. They are a constituent of many types of cells of the body. They perform many other functions and are an essential component of our nutrition.

Thus a diet excluding fats cannot be healthy. You must have at least a moderate amount of vegetable oil in your diet. Some fatty sea fish are an excellent source of the good omega 3 fatty acids, which are cardio protective.

Fats are composed of fatty acids.

Fatty acids are of four types, namely saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fatty acids.

Monounsaturated fatty Acids: Monounsaturated fatty acids are labelled as healthy fats. They may lower your total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels but maintain your high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol level.

They may also help improve the function of your blood vessels and may also benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids: These fatty acids are also called the essential fatty acids as they cannot be synthesised in our body. These are, therefore, needed to be consumed in moderate amounts in a healthy diet.

Polyunsaturated fats help improve your cholesterol, insulin and blood sugar levels, helping you get more heart healthy.

They include the two omega fatty acids, viz. omega 3 and omega 6.

Omega 6 is abundantly available in safflower, sunflower seed and soya oils and many other oils and foods.

While omega 6 also helps lower cholesterol, it is less valuable than omega 3 in protecting you from heart disease and strokes and other inflammatory diseases.

The principal sources of the omega 3 fats are walnuts, flaxseed, fatty fish (ravas, mackerel or bangda, surmai, pomfret, cold water salmon, tuna, trout, sardines and herring) and algae.

Of these, walnuts and flaxseeds provide us with plant source omega 3 (ALA), and the fish and algae provide us with the more effective sea source omega 3 (EPA and DHA).

The plant source omega 3 or ALA is less potent cardiac protector than the sea source omega 3 viz. DHA and EPA. Some of the ALA in our food gets converted to DHA and EPA, but at a slow speed.

The omega 3 fatty acids prevent the inflammatory process in the arteries that leads to atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, and strokes and some cancers, memory loss, depression and fatigue, reduce arthritis and joint pain and inflammatory skin diseases.

Babies need sea source omega 3 for the proper development of their brains and the retina, especially the DHA.

This DHA they get from the fats in their mothers’ milk.

A good balance in the proportion of the two omega fatty acids is essential for preventing coronary heart disease, while a bad balance may lead to coronary heart disease.

Researchers place this ratio as between 1:1 to 1:4, omega 3: omega 6.

But getting this balance right is difficult in people who are not fish eaters.

Saturated fatty acids: Saturated fats for decades were considered the bad fats. They were thought to raise cholesterol in our body and cause heart disease and strokes. Researchers advised us to shun these fats.

But the thinking is changing now.

The jury is divided on these fats.

While the American Heart Association and the American Diabetic Association still strongly recommend against the use of saturated fats, many researchers don’t rate them as bad fats any more.

Many studies have found no direct relationship of saturated fats with increased risk of heart disease.

Many studies have also found that people eating whole fat dairy products are leaner and have lower levels of body fats.

This is probably due to the better satiety conferred by whole fat dairy products, preventing people from overeating.

But if you run the risk of catching heart disease, it would be prudent to keep their consumption low, at least till more conclusive research tells us otherwise.

Saturated fats in our food are actually more responsible for raised levels of cholesterol in our body than dietary cholesterol. Animal products including whole milk, eggs and flesh and vegetable fats which are solid at room temperature (e.g. palm oil, coconut oil) are examples of saturated fats.

Trans fatty acids: Hydrogenated vegetable oils and oils in which food stuffs are fried over and over, again and again develop trans fatty acids. Many bakery products and ready to eat snacks are made using hydrogenated vegetable oils as it gives them longer shelf life. Most people who never use hydrogenated oils at home, eat these products without realising that they are consuming consuming hydrogenated oils.

Trans fatty acids also are equally to blame for raised levels of cholesterol. In fact they are rated as worse than cholesterol for the health of the heart.

Vitamins: Vitamins are group of substances those are essential for growth, development and repair of tissues, normal, healthy functioning of all cells and tissues, bones, conversion of food into energy, healthy maintenance of all senses, including vision, immunity and hundreds of other functions. They are also vital for the health of organs including the heart.

The B Complex vitamins Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pantothenic Acid (B5), Biotin (B7), Pyridoxine (B6), Cyanocobalamin (B12), Folate (B9) and Vitamin C are the water soluble vitamins.

Vitamins A, D, E and K are the fat soluble vitamins.

Our body manufactures Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight.

Minerals: Like vitamins, our body needs a wide variety of minerals in very small amounts, for growth, development and healthy functioning of our body, they are essential components of all tissues including bones and blood. They are essential for the functioning of the heart and the nerves and also for maintenance of water balance.

In short, life isn’t possible without trace amounts of various minerals.

Some of the important minerals are iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, manganese, copper, iodine, selenium, molybdenum, chromium and fluoride.

We need to get the vitamins and minerals from our food.

Calorie Count: While one gram of carbohydrates as well as proteins provides four Calories, fats supply nine Calories per gram.



Cholesterol is a waxy, sticky, fat like substance produced in the liver and it is also present in our food.

Most people only know that it causes heart disease, few know that it is an essential constituent of our body and has a vital role to play in our health.

Cholesterol provides structural support to every cell of our body as it is an essential constituent of the cell membrane and plays a significant role in deciding what goes in or out of the cell membrane. It also helps form the protective myelin sheath of our nerve cells. It is essential for the synthesis of steroid and sex hormones and for the formation of Vitamin D under the skin when exposed to sunlight. It is also essential for the formation of bile which is, in turn, essential for digestion of fats. HDL cholesterol helps remove the dangerous LDL and VLDL cholesterol from the blood stream and transports them to the liver where they are removed from the blood thus protecting the heart form coronary artery disease.

Our liver is capable of providing us all the cholesterol we need. We don’t need to consume it in food.

Only animal sources of foods such as flesh, eggs, shell fish, whole milk, cream, ghee, butter, cheese and margarine have cholesterol. No food of vegetable source has cholesterol.

The safe upper limit for the consumption of cholesterol prescribed by researchers is 300 mg a day and 200 mg a day, if you have added risk of heart disease.

A whole egg provides 210 mg cholesterol, goat meat provides 75 mg per 100 gm, chicken 85 mg, lamb, pork and beef between 85 to 105 mg, sea food provides between 50 to 100 mg cholesterol per 100 gm. Liver of the above animals provides the highest levels, between 350 to 650 mg per 100gm!

Excess cholesterol in the blood is bad for the heart. The HDL cholesterol is the healthy cholesterol, while the LDL and the VLDL cholesterol are bad for the health of the heart. HDL cleanses our arteries by transporting cholesterol from the arteries to liver and cleansing the arteries, thus protecting us from coronary heart disease. The latter two transport cholesterol from liver to the arteries, where it sticks the walls of the arteries, which become hardened and lose their elasticity, causing atherosclerosis and clogging of the arteries leading to coronary heart disease.

Ideal levels of cholesterol and it’s components are:

Cholesterol below 200 mg/dL

HDL cholesterol above 60 mg/dL

LDL Cholesterol below 100mg/dL.

Some physicians want it below 70mg/dL

VLDL Cholesterol below 30 mg/ dL

Triglycerides below 150 mg/dL

Normal range is always provided by every laboratory in it’s report.

To keep your cholesterol levels healthy, you need to take following steps:

Lead a healthy lifestyle.

Eat healthy, focussing on skimmed milk and dairy products, whole grain cereals and pulses, ample vegetables and fresh fruits on daily basis and have fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids twice a week.

Most Indians have no problems consuming whole grain cereals, pulses and vegetables as that is what our food basically consists of. What we most often may not consume adequately are milk and fruits. Ideally we should have three helpings of both!

Keep consumption of saturated fats to the minimum and trans fats out of your food. Eat only lean meat. Have a whole egg no more than four days week, if your cholesterol is fully normal.

Exercise regularly and be physically active. Even a half hour brisk walk, spread over the whole day, will be invaluable, half an hour twice a day will be wonderful even for losing weight!

Be mentally happy and peaceful.

In short to keep your cholesterol levels healthy, you do exactly what is needed to be done to be slim and heart healthy!


Balanced Nutrition: You need to eat from four basic food groups for your diet to be balanced.

1. A combination of cereals and pulses.

2. Fresh vegetables and fruits.

3. Skimmed milk, fish and poultry.

4. Vegetable oil.

Eat the above mentioned foods, eat four meals a day and eat a variety of foods. You will automatically get enough of vitamins and minerals on such a diet. Drink plenty of water and your nutrition is complete.

All fast-food, non-vegetarian or vegetarian is rich in saturated fat. So all fast food is bad for health.

Most sweets are also dangerous for health as they are rich in fats, sugar and calories.


So, which is the best cooking oil?

There is no easy answer to this question. You will read varied expert opinions on this subject, making it an extremely confusing issue.

Industry manufactured oils like soya oil, rice bran oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower seed oil (kardai), Canola oil, cotton seed oil are considered bad fats by many nutritionists. The use of heat and chemicals in extracting and refining these oils turns them unhealthy.

Today many researchers are asking us to shun all industrially produced oils.

So it makes sense to use groundnut oil, sesame oil for us in India and groundnut and virgin olive oil for Indians in the west. All three are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and all three are cold pressed.

Many experts advocate different combinations of oils as there could be different permutations and combinations achieving the same goal, viz. a good balance of all kinds of fatty acids as advocated by researchers. For instance, in the north Indian states mustard oil is the common cooking medium, but most people in Maharashtra wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole! So it is not as if one advice is correct and the other isn’t. What is important is to prescribe what suits you best.

Eating at least two fish meals a week is excellent for the heart. If you do, you can leave alone walnuts and ‘jawas’. And if you eat sea fish and use monounsaturated fatty acid rich oils like groundnut, sesame or olive oil, you don’t have to worry about the balance of fats in your food, it is already good!

The above plan appears to be suitable for Maharashtrian people.

In a healthy diet, fats should contribute twenty five to thirty per cent of the energy required by our body, of these saturated fats mustn’t contribute more than seven percent.

Also read the articles ‘Dangers Of Unscientific Treatments‘ and the ‘The Good And The Bad Fats‘ on this website. Get in touch with us through the ‘Contact Us‘ page on this website.