Why we eat

Food is one of our most essential needs in life. We are born with a sure instinct to feed. Access to food is a basic human right, vital for good health and ultimately to sustain life itself.

To this extent, what happens to the food we eat?

After eating food, our bodies digest this by mixing it with acids and enzymes in the stomach. During digestion, our body breaks down the carbohydrates into a type of sugar called glucose. The stomach and small intestine absorbs glucose directly into the bloodstream and uses it as energy. However, our bodies require insulin to store or use glucose in the bloodstream. Without insulin, the glucose stays in the bloodstream keeping blood sugar levels high.

The human body is undoubtedly very complex. Science has proven that the human body needs certain nutrients from the food we consume to function properly. Our diet needs to consist of six essential nutrients, including carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, minerals and water. There has been a lot of misconception on whether cutting out certain elements of these essential nutrients provides for a healthier diet. Thus, an increase in diets such as carb-free, fat-free etc. The truth is that all these nutrients are necessary, and not having access to them can be detrimental to the body, leading to malnutrition and a wide array of other diseases. The same goes for having them in excess.

Essential Nutrients and their Functions

The food nutrients from carbohydrates are the building blocks that provide energy. The simplest carbohydrates group is sugars. Of the sugars, glucose is a common form of fuel circulating in the blood and used by our cells for energy. Fructose is another form of sugar mainly found in fruits and honey. When different sugars are combined, they create a wide array of sugars, for example, maltose in germinating seeds and lactose in milk. Starches derived from rice, potatoes and wheat are important sources of energy and building blocks for cells. Fibre is a carbohydrate that is indigestible but travels through the digestive tract and aids in speeding up food passing through the food tube and helps to absorb unhealthy substances such as cholesterol, therefore lowering the chance of colon cancer.

Protein is essential for good health, providing building blocks for the muscles and every cell, including hair and bones. All our hormones, antibodies and other vital enzymes are composed of protein. However, a fun fact is that protein is not used to fuel the body unless needed since the body can create amino acids. Proteins are made up of different amino acids categorised into three groups; essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids and conditional amino acids. The protein we eat is broken down into amino acids, which are then used by the body to make proteins. Proteins help the body:

• Break down food

• Grow

• Repair body tissue

Fats support many body functions such as vitamin and mineral absorption, blood clotting, building cells and muscle movement. Healthy fats can balance blood sugar, decrease the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes and improve brain function. Fats also have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and can lower the risk of arthritis, cancer and Alzheimer's disease. Cutting fats from a diet is futile, as fat is essentially good for us, however like everything else, it needs to be consumed in moderation to be genuinely beneficial.

Vitamins are vital for warding off diseases. There are 13 essential vitamins that the body needs to function properly, including vitamins A, C, B6 and D. Vitamins have a range of health benefits, including:

• Boosting immune system

• Preventing and delaying cancers such as prostate cancer

• Strengthening teeth and bones

• Aiding calcium absorption

• Maintaining healthy skin

• Helping the body metabolise proteins and carbs

• Aiding brain and nervous system functions

Minerals

The body needs a balance of minerals from both major and trace groups for optimal health. Major minerals are magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, sulfur, sodium, potassium and chloride. These help the body balance water levels, maintain healthy skin, hair and nails, improve bone health.

Trace minerals such as zinc and iron help strengthen bones, prevent tooth decay, aid blood clotting, help to carry oxygen, support the immune system and support healthy blood pressure.

Nevertheless, why do we eat?

Essentially, we eat because we get hungry and need energy. Food psychologist Dr Brian Wansik has found that we make more than 200 food decisions each day but are unaware of 90% of them.

Food plays an essential role in how we feel. About 95% of serotonin is produced in our gastrointestinal tract. Our gastrointestinal tract is lined with millions of nerves; therefore, it affects sleep regulation, appetite, mediates moods, and inhibits pain. Studies have shown a correlation between depression and the food we eat. Scientists account that traditional diets, including vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grain, fish, and seafood, can help reduce depression. In another research, good gut bacteria help reduce inflammation throughout the body and elevate mood and energy levels.

Food has always been a crucial part of humanity. It is key to know that eating certain foods, especially in excess, can produce the opposite effect of sustenance as much as food is part of human survival. Eating can be reinforcing even when a caloric deficit does not drive it. Hence many continue eating past the point of satisfaction.