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When I first heard this word, I thought it sounded like something Batman had for breakfast. Unfortunately, it's not that exciting. It refers to three types of nutrients: Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats. Each one of these nutrients is required in a balance diet. Very generally speaking, carbs are essential for energy, protein for the maintenance of muscle and fats which provide us with essential and non-essential fatty acids (see below).
In the context of nutrition, 'ratios' refer to the balance of carbs, proteins and fats in a persons diet. On average, a person is typically recommended to have 55% of their daily calories from carbohydrates, 20% from proteins and 25% from fats. 'How on earth does anyone work out their ratios?' you may wonder, simply track food using an website like MyFitnessPal which'll set ratios for you, let you tweak them and show you if you're over them or under them. Solved.
Amino acids and fatty acids
There are 22 different amino acids, found in proteins. These are required for the functioning of hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain), basically, without these, our moods, sleep patterns would be disrupted. Fatty acids are found in fats and are vital for the functioning of the nervous system as well as brain and nerve tissue development and many other very important roles. Bottom line: make sure your diet is rich in proteins and unsaturated fats.
Two other terms that come up frequently when talking about fatty acids and amino acids are 'essential' and 'non-essential'. 'Essential' refers to amino or fatty acids that can only be obtained from particular food sources. 'Non-essential' refers to those acids that can be made by the body itself. Clever thing, isn't it?
Simple and Complex Carbohydrates
Complex carbohydrates are also referred to as starches. They occur naturally in many vegetables and grains (but can also be refined). Simple carbohydrates (sugars) can also be found naturally, for example, in the form of fructose in fruit, and lactose in dairy and refined sugars, such as those found in cakes and sweets. The more complex the carb, the slower the release of energy. This basically means, simple carbs will give you a brief energy boost, followed by an energy crash. Chances are, if you're feeling tired around 3pm and find yourself napping on your desk at work, you've been eating too many simple carbs and require more complex carbs to sustain your energy.
Saturated and unsaturated fats
In short, too many saturated fats increase blood cholesterol and can lead to heart decease. Sources included cakes, fried food, full fat milk etc. Unsaturated fats (called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are the ones rich in fatty acids. These can be found in nuts, seeds and oils such as sunflower and olive. Use small amounts of these to cook with instead of frying foods in butter.
Insoluble and Soluble fibre
The human body cannot absorb fibre, meaning it is not a nutrient. So why do people keep banging on about fibre rich foods? Well, it helps your digestive system process food (read: keeps you regular!) it also makes you feel full (with no extra calories!). There are two types of fibre, 'insoluble' and 'soluble'. Insoluble fibre helps prevent constipation and can be found in beans, brown rice, wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta, wholemeal cereals and oats. Soluble fibre helps control our blood sugar and lowers cholesterol levels. You'll find this is fruits such as apples, strawberries, citrus fruits, and oats (yep, oats have both soluble and insoluble, what a great food!).
Multi-grains and Whole-grains
Be careful with these too, they do not mean the same thing, as much as the cereal and bread producers would love you to fall for that. Wholegrain, means that the grain used in the product (e.g. wheat, oat, rye, barley) has all the good fibre-rich bits thrown in rather than removed. Multi-grain however, may not necessarily mean that the product is wholegrain, it simply indicates that the product has more than one time of grain in it.
This is a not-so-scientific term and will often be found among weight loss forums. It refers to food items that contain a lot of calories but not many useful nutrients or vitamins. For example a doughnut is full of sugar and saturated fat, but whilst having similar calories to a large piece of vegetable lasagne, it has far less nutrients as the calories are coming from sugar (a carbohydrate) and saturated fat. The vegetable lasagne however, is rich in protein, likely to have unsaturated fats, rich in essential fatty acids, a multitude of vitamins from the vegetables and fibre. We have to consume a certain amount of calories a day to keep us going about our daily business, so it make good sense to derive these calories from nutrient rich sources instead of wasting them on the 'empty' ones.
So there's a few terms to help clarify the confusing science-stuff you hear in heath programs, read in magazines and see printed all over packets in the supermarket. I highly recommend the straightforward book 'Weight Loss Kit For Dummies' for further info. If you can think of any more to add then drop us a comment below!