Important Nutrients to Know: Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Fats
Proteins are often called the body’s building blocks. They are used to build and repair tissues. They help you fight infection. Your body uses extra protein for energy. The protein foods group includes seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Protein is also found in the dairy group. Protein from plant sources tends to be lower in saturated fat, contains no cholesterol, and provides fiber and other health-promoting nutrients.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. The fruit, vegetables, dairy, and grain food groups all contain carbohydrates. Sweeteners like sugar, honey, and syrup and foods with added sugars like candy, soft drinks, and cookies also contain carbohydrates. Try to get most of your carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, fat-free and low-fat dairy, and whole grains rather than added sugars or refined grains.
Many foods with carbohydrates also supply fiber. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that your body cannot digest. It is found in many foods that come from plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. Eating food with fiber can help prevent stomach or intestinal problems, such as constipation. It might also help lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
It’s better to get fiber from food than dietary supplements. Start adding fiber slowly. This will help avoid gas. To add fiber:
- Eat cooked dry beans, peas, and lentils.
- Leave skins on your fruit and vegetables but wash them before eating.
- Choose whole fruit over fruit juice.
- Eat whole grain breads and cereals that contain fiber.
Fats give you energy, and they help the body absorb certain vitamins. Essential fatty acids help the body function, but they aren’t made by your body—you have to consume them. Many foods naturally contain fats, including dairy products; meats, poultry, seafood, and eggs; and seeds, nuts, avocados, and coconuts.
Certain kinds of fat can be bad for your health—saturated fats and trans fats:
- Saturated fats are found in the greatest amounts in butter, beef fat, and coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils. Higher-fat meats and dairy and cakes, cookies, and some snack foods are higher in saturated fats. Dishes with many ingredients are common sources of saturated fat, including pizza, casseroles, burgers, tacos, and sandwiches.
- Trans fats, which is short for trans fatty acids, occur naturally in some foods but are also artificially produced. Because trans fats are not healthy, food manufacturers are phasing them out. But trans fats can still be found in some processed foods, such as some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarine, and coffee creamer.
Fats that contain mostly trans fats and saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Limit your intake of saturated fats to less than 10 percent of your calories each day, and keep trans fat intake as low as possible.
Replace saturated and trans fats with these two types of healthier fats while keeping total fat intake within the recommended range:
- Monounsaturated fats. These are found in the greatest amounts in canola, olive, peanut, sunflower, and safflower oils and in avocados, peanut butter, and most nuts.
- Polyunsaturated fats. These are found in the greatest amounts in sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils and in fatty fish, walnuts, and some seeds.
Oils contain mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and are liquid at room temperature. These types of fat seem to lower your chance of heart disease when they replace saturated fats. But that doesn’t mean you can eat more than the Dietary Guidelines suggests.
To lower the saturated fat in your diet:
- Choose cuts of meat with less fat and remove the skin from chicken
- Use low-fat or fat-free dairy products
- Choose oils, such as olive or canola, for cooking
- Replace ingredients higher in saturated fats with vegetables, whole grains, low-fat and fat-free dairy products, or lean cuts of meats and poultry
- Read the Nutrition Facts label and choose products lower in saturated fats
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This content is provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure that it is accurate, authoritative, and up to date.
Content reviewed: April 29, 2019