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Food IS Fuel

A balanced diet. A raw diet. A fad diet. Avoid gluten. Avoid sugar. Go vegetarian. Don’t eat carbs and you’ll get skinny.

Remember when the big nutrition debate was as simple as whether or not butter vs. margarine was better? Today’s messaging has gotten so out of control that we seem to be more confused than ever about what foods we should or shouldn’t consume. It’s not just messaging from the media either. It’s our friends, families, and co-workers who also put ideas in our heads or influence us into changing our behaviors.

How about a new message; one that instead talks about how the body actually uses food to empower you to make the right choices for yourself? As far as our digestive process is concerned, it’s the energy and nutrients that make up the foods we eat that our bodies care about. Let’s start by discussing the energy requirements of the body, more commonly known as calories.

Calories are a unit of energy. They help us measure how much energy we’re consuming compared to how much we’re using. Everyone has a minimum number of calories they need to consume in order to just breathe and stay alive without even moving, eating, etc. This minimum requirement is called our Basal Metabolic Rate. In a perfect setting we consume a “healthy balance” of calories, meaning we put as much energy into our bodies as we use up. Foods each have their own calorie count that tells us how much energy is stored in the chemical makeup of a particular food. For example, a medium sized banana contains 105 calories. Caloric information about our food is available to us on the food label, however the label is actually indicating how much energy the food contains not how much energy we derive by consuming it.

When we put more energy (calories) into our bodies than we’re able to burn up, then our bodies will store the extra energy as fat in our cells, causing weight gain if done on a continuous basis. Likewise, if we burn up more energy than we take in then the result will be weight loss. Once food is consumed the digestive process is started. Through this process energy will be released and stored in various areas of the body for the body to use as needed. It’s this stage where what we eat becomes especially important. The breakdown of energy use is as follows:

  • 10% supports digestion

  • 20% supports physical activity

  • 70% supports basic functions of the body

Our brains use roughly 20% of our energy resources in order to function properly and stay healthy. The majority of the energy used here comes from carbohydrates, but also requires help from lipids (fats), protein, amino acids and micronutrients.


Carbohydrates come from starch, sugar and fiber and are converted into glucose during digestion. Glucose refers to sugar that is transported through the blood stream to supply energy to all the cells in our bodies. The Glycemic Index is used to associate a number from 1-100 with a particular food to indicate its effect on a person’s blood glucose level. This number represents how a person’s blood glucose will rise once the food is consumed. The higher the number the quicker it will rise.

As an example:

Sarah and Amy are coworkers in an office downtown. They go to lunch at a popular restaurant where Sarah orders a pasta dish made with cream sauce and a side of garlic bread. Amy orders grilled salmon with a side of brown rice and sweet potatoes. Back at their desks, Sarah is suddenly feeling tired and is having trouble focusing. Amy, on the other hand, is alert and plugging away at her workload.

“Here comes the afternoon lull,” Sarah yawns.

The time of day has nothing to do with how Sarah currently feels. It is what she ate at lunch that is affecting her energy level. The creamy pasta and garlic bread are both high glycemic foods that rapidly released glucose into Sarah’s blood. Her body responds to this shock by over producing insulin to compensate for all the extra sugar. The over production of insulin removes too much glucose from the blood leaving Sarah tired and unable to focus.

The foods that Amy ate have a lower glycemic index. They released glucose into her blood at a slower, steadier rate so her body did not need to over produce insulin. As a result Amy is left feeling satisfied and just as alert as she was before lunch.

Lipids (Fats)

How our brains use fat should matter, especially to Americans, because on average we tend to have diets that are high in fat. The main types of fat that the brain is looking for are Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, both of which have to come from the foods we eat. These fats help the brain create and maintain cell membranes and have also been linked to preventing brain deterioration. High sources of Omega 3 and 6 can be found in nuts and seeds and fatty fish like herring, tuna and salmon. Unfortunately, the average American consumes less of these types of fat and far more saturated and trans fats, both of which have actually been found to compromise brain health. Based on this, it is important to choose your fats wisely!

Proteins & Amino Acids

In addition to fatty acids and sugars, the proteins and amino acids we absorb through food heavily influence how we feel and behave. Amino acids contain the precursors to neurotransmitters, which carry signals between neurons and affect our mood, attentiveness and even our weight. Complex compounds within these foods stimulate our brain cells into releasing norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, all of which are mood-altering. A diet with a range of food helps maintain a balanced combination of messengers, which help keep our mood from getting skewed too far in one direction.

Our muscles also benefit from protein and amino acids. When the stress demands of the muscles are met, like picking up something heavy, the muscle undergoes microscopic damage. The damage releases cytokines that tell the immune system to repair it. The more damage present the more repair is needed. Amino acids provide the building blocks for creating new tissue, allowing protein to preserve muscle mass.


Micronutrients absorbed from food like antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, assist with long-term brain health and function. Every day our bodies are exposed to atoms and molecules called free radicals that can inflict harm on the body including the destruction of brain cells. Antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables strengthen the brain so that it can better defend itself against the affects of free radicals. For example, vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid are micronutrients that are crucial to long-term brain health, protecting it against brain disease and mental decline.

Are you wondering how many calories you should consume? The daily caloric needs are different for everyone because everyone’s ability to extract energy from food is slightly different and, depending on life factors, the amount of calories one needs could temporarily change. As an example, women who are pregnant have to consume slightly more calories per day than they would otherwise to support a growing fetus. An athlete training for a triathlon will need to consume more calories to make up for the calories burned during intense exercise. On the flip side, elderly people have lower metabolic rates so their daily caloric intake is naturally lower. When deciding what amount of calories are good for you consider what types of physical factors are in your life and whether or not you’re very active or inactive.

The most important thing to remember, above all else, is to strive for eating a balanced diet. What does it really mean to have a balanced diet? It simply means eating a wide range of nutrient-rich foods to support brain health and function and to keep your mood, attentiveness and weight all functionally balanced.

This post was written as an article by Jess Elsner for the Essential Living Maine magazine September/October issue. Essential Living Maine magazine is a free publication. Visit to view the issue this article was printed for and/or for more articles like this one about holistic living in Maine.

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