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Back to the Basics of Nutrition

Proper nutrition is a vital part of a person’s health and well-being. In their daily work, caregivers often prepare food for their clients or even help feed them.

With our fast-paced lives, an abundance of ready-made meals, and stores packed full of unhealthy, highly processed foods, it is easy to forget what constitutes a healthy meal. Healthy meals don’t have to be time-consuming and they can be quite delicious.

The Basics of Eating

Nutrition includes the processes of eating, digesting, absorbing, using, and storing food and fluids for body growth, healing, and body functions. All of these terms refer to a different aspect of nutrition.

Eating occurs in the digestive system. It begins in the mouth, which chews food into portions to swallow. Food passes from there through the esophagus to the stomach. The stomach contains acid which helps further break down food, then it passes into the small intestine, where the nutrients are absorbed into the body.

The liver, pancreas, and gall bladder are also involved in this process and help break down food using specific hormones. The large intestine absorbs liquid and hydrates the rest of the body. All of these steps are important so the body’s cells can consume and use the nutrients

Absorption of food occurs in the small intestine. Absorption of fluid occurs in the large intestine. The usage occurs as nutrients are consumed by the cells of the body. The intestine walls then spread the useful nutrients, vitamins, and minerals

Essential Nutrients

There’s so much talk nowadays about superfoods, vitamins, macro and micronutrients, that it’s easy to get confused. But it all comes down to balance between a few key types of foods.

Many people consume more calories than they need, by eating processed foods that are high in calories but low in actual nutrients. This often leads to obesity, which can increase the risk of many diseases and even premature death.

A healthy diet should be made up of a variety of nutrient-dense foods from various food groups. Nutrient-dense foods are those that provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals without excessive calories.


Water makes up about two-thirds of the body's weight. Water is the most essential nutrient for life. Without it, a person can only live a few days. Water helps in the digestion, absorption and elimination of food and waste. Through perspiration, water also helps maintain normal body temperature by cooling the skin. Water is lost through vomitus, urine, feces, perspiration, and respiration.

Four to six cups a day is the usual minimum recommendation, but most people need more than that,


Protein is necessary for growth, the healing and repair of body tissue, and combating diseases. Proteins also supply energy to the body. Every body cell is made up of protein. Excess proteins are excreted by the kidneys or stored as body fat.


Carbohydrates are necessary for energy and most offer fiber for bowel elimination. Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars during digestion and absorbed into the blood. Excess is stored in the liver and body fat.


Fats are also sources of body energy, and they assist in the body's use of vitamins and in conserving body heat. Fats also protect organs from injury. In addition, fats add flavor to food.


Vitamins each have a specific role in the body's ability to function. For instance, vitamin A improves vision, skin, and hair. Vitamins from the B complex (B6, B12) help with muscle tone, nerve function, digestion, and the formation of red blood cells.

Vitamin C promotes healing and boosts the immune system. Vitamin D is great for healthy bones and teeth.

Minerals too all help the body in their own way. Calcium is good for healthy teeth and bones. Iron is used to build red blood cells which carry oxygen to every cell of the body. Iodine is necessary for optimal thyroid function.

There are many other vitamins and minerals which all help the body work properly.

Food Groups to Encourage

Most people would benefit from an increase in their intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. While protein is also important, most people get enough protein in their daily diet.

Fruits and Vegetables

Many people eat only small amounts of fruits and vegetables. Those who eat more may have reduced risk of chronic diseases, including stroke and other cardio vascular diseases, diabetes, and certain cancers.

A healthy diet should include a sufficient amount of fruits and vegetables without too many calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, 2 cups of fruit and 2-1/2 cups of vegetables per day are recommended.

As different vegetables are rich in different nutrients, choose foods from each of the vegetable sub-groups several times each week.

Fruit eaten whole or cut into pieces is better than fruit juice, because the fruit itself contains fiber which helps slow digestion and allows the body to fully absorb nutrients during digestion. Fruit juices have high sugar and calorie levels but do not have the fiber or as many nutrients as whole fruits because of how juice is processed.

Whole Grains

Whole grains are another good source of fiber. At least half of the grains eaten daily should be whole grains. Whole grains and foods made from whole grains contain the entire grain kernel. Refined grains have been processed to remove the outer parts of the grain, called the bran and germ.

When grains are refined, they have a finer texture and longer shelf life, but with lower levels of dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. At least three ounces of whole grains should be consumed per day.

Low-Fat Dairy

Consumption of milk and milk products can improve bone health and provide many important nutrients. For those who must or choose to avoid all milk products, good sources of calcium include fortified cereals, tofu, white beans, spinach, almonds, and almond milk.

Healthy Fats

When it comes to fats, the recommended total fat intake is between 20% and 35% of calories for adults. Most of the fats you eat should be polyunsaturated (PUFA) or monounsaturated (MUFA) fats. These are found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.

Foods to Avoid or Limit

There are some foods that are consumed more than is useful in the modern diet, which can cause health problems. These foods either have low nutritional value or can be harmful in high quantities.

Simple Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be divided into two basic types: complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates are found in bread, cereal, potatoes, rice, pasta, vegetables, and fruits. Simple carbohydrates are found in foods such as sugars, sweets, syrups, and jellies.

Simple carbohydrates do not have the same nutritional value as complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are only useful to create quick energy and are best used for people who eat very little or are malnourished.

For other people, simple carbohydrates are stored as fat and cause strain on the digestive system. Sugars and starches also contribute to tooth decay.


Table salt contains sodium and chloride; both are essential in the diet. However, most Americans eat more salt than they need.

Reducing salt in the diet can prevent or delay the onset of high blood pressure and can lower elevated blood pressure.

Since most sodium is added during processing and manufacturing, reading and comparing labels is a good strategy for decreasing salt in the diet. Nutrition labels list this as sodium content instead of salt.

Most people should consume less than 2300 mg, or about one teaspoon, of sodium per day. Middle-aged and older adults are more sensitive to salt than others, and should consume no more than 1500 mg of sodium per day.

Alcoholic Beverages

Alcoholic beverages supply calories but few or no nutrients. Drinking them is linked with many health problems, including liver cirrhosis, high blood pressure, and some cancers. Alcohol is also the cause of many accidents and can lead to addiction.

There may be some health benefits to drinking alcohol in moderation. Moderate drinking means no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. Twelve ounces of regular beer, five ounces of wine, or one and one-half ounces of distilled spirits each count as one drink.

Food Safety

Avoiding contaminated food is very important for health.

Every year about 76 million Americans get sick from pathogens in food. Approximately 5,000 of these illnesses are fatal.

The biggest food safety issue is a microbial foodborne illness. Foodborne illness is an even greater risk for older adults, who may have a decreased sense of taste and smell and may not be able to tell if food has spoiled.

To keep food safe, people who prepare it should always wash their hands and any surfaces that the food comes into contact with during preparation.

Fruits and vegetables should be washed, but do not rinse or wash meat and poultry. Raw foods should be separated from cooked food during storage and preparation, and raw meats should be cooked within 5 to 7 days to reduce the risk of illness.

Try to include a variety of foods and food groups into your everyday diet. Be mindful of whole foods and processed foods and try to balance meals. You don’t want one food group taking over the whole plate because your body needs all of them in some quantity.

Learn more at our course: CE305 | Back to the Basics of Nutrition.


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