Level I. Nutrition Hacks

How interested are you in changing your eating habits to improve your health? Are you tired of having a low nutrition IQ? Maybe you're ready to level up your nutrition. You can find out by asking yourself the following simple questions:

  1. Do you feel motivated to improve your nutrition knowledge?
  2. Are you willing to work at this for a period of time each day?
  3. Are you curious about the facts about nutrition?
  4. Do you believe a boost to your nutrition IQ could improve your eating habits?
  5. Do you believe eating better will improve your health? Your thinking? Your overall well-being?

If you said yes to most or all of these questions, you are ready to begin to level up your nutrition. This program helps you get there fast with nutrition hacks, that is, easy steps to a basic foundation and shortcuts to a well-balanced diet.

We will start with an overview of the basics of nutrition.

What exactly is nutrition? Nutrition is a science. A health science that encompasses human biology and physiology. It entails the study of those nutrients the body needs for growth and good health. And what are nutrients? Nutrients are the chemical substances we obtain from foods which are essential for:

Plenty of our food choices can supply us with enough energy to get through the day. However, no single food contains all of the nutrients the body requires in amounts adequate for proper growth and health. Yet, all of the nutrients we need can be provided by our food. How? By choosing foods wisely and balancing the diet.

A well-balanced diet contains the proper array of nutrients. And since foods vary in the kinds and amounts of nutrients they provide, it is important to include a variety of foods in your everyday diet. A well-balanced diet is a healthy diet. And, it turns out, what's good for us is also good for the planet.

We will get to all that later. But for now you just need to know this: the key to healthy eating is selecting a variety of healthful foods in a well-balanced diet.

Nutrition science tells us that 50 nutrients essential for the body must be derived from our food. There are also substances in our food that are not essential but are healthful and may help prevent against certain diseases. The foods we eat contain thousands of different natural chemicals, many completely unknown and not yet measurable. The optimal diet will provide all of the required nutrients plus other healthful substances in adequate amounts.

That may seem like a lot to keep track of, but we don't have to monitor each nutrient in order to eat well. Most people don't need to supplement either. All we have to do is make sure we obtain enough of the basics. This means good daily food choices to create a varied diet that is well-balanced overall. That's a big nutrition hack.

The basic nutrients are defined according to their chemical components and fall into 6 categories:

Yes, water is a nutrient! But we'll start with protein as we move through the list of nutrient categories and introduce you to the nutrition basics.


photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

Protein Power

Protein is required for life. It is found in the cells of all plants and animals. Plants make their own protein while animals in most cases must rely on ingested sources of protein.

Next to water, protein is the most abundant substance found in the body, contributing around 20% of the average person's body weight. Protein helps to form hair, nails, skin, bones, and muscles. Protein is essential to oxygen transport in the bloodstream, blood sugar regulation, blood clotting mechanisms, and systems for protection against infection. Protein also forms the enzymes which speed up body processes, and the hormones which regulate these processes.

Protein is composed of 22 building blocks called amino acids. The amino acids are linked together in various combinations like beads on a necklace. During digestion, the amino acid chains in protein foods are broken down. The amino acids are then rearranged to form body proteins. These proteins make up your muscles, skin, hair, enzymes, and blood hemoglobin.

In order to build body protein properly, a well-balanced mix of amino acids must be present. If some amino acids are too low or missing, body protein cannot be built.

While some of the 22 amino acids can be made by the body, there are 9 amino acids that cannot. These 9 amino acids must come from our food. And since amino acids are not stored in the body, intake is needed on a daily basis.

Complete protein foods supply all 9 amino acids. Incomplete protein foods do not.

Animal foods supply complete protein:

Protein might mean meat to you, but complete protein can also be found in other animal sources. And if you combine animal foods with plant foods, this will balance the amino acid content enough to make a complete source of protein. For example:

Although the amino acid balance isn't perfect in plant foods, combining plant foods can provide a complete protein source. And you don't even need to consume the foods at the same meal as long as you balance out the day's intake of plant proteins:

So how much protein do you need? Do you need to take protein supplements? Probably not. It is most likely you're getting enough. Protein undernutrition is uncommon in well-fed countries like the US. Most Americans consume one and a half times or even twice the protein required—or more. And when more protein is consumed than the body needs, the excess will be used for energy if needed, or stored as body fat if not.

The need for protein is heightened whenever the body is building new tissue at a rapid rate. This happens during infancy and childhood, and in women during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The body also needs extra protein after tissue destruction, like after serious burns or surgery. But contrary to popular belief, most athletes require little extra protein in their diets. The protein used for muscle building during conditioning is quite small. So if you are a meat eater and already getting twice the daily requirement for protein, any need for additional protein will be covered. This is true even if you spend a lot of time at the gym.

Also, since protein contributes to growth, it makes sense that too much animal protein can lead to undesirable growth, that is, cancer. Frying and grilling meats may be associated with increased risks for certain cancers as well.

Here is a chart to show you the approximate amount of protein needed daily at different ages. You can see that that protein requirements generally decline with age until around 65. At that point, additional protein helps to prevent the loss of muscle mass that occurs with aging.

Note: To convert your body weight to kilograms (kg), divide pounds by 2.2.

If you are body building, you may be tempted to select a high protein diet that emphasizes extra-large portions of meat and dairy. This is not a well-balanced approach. You probably don't need to supplement with protein powders either, and long term use might be unhealthy. It's so much better to choose natural food sources of protein in reasonable amounts. This is a healthier choice for you—and the planet.

We will cover the impact of animal foods on the earth's resources in Level Up III, but for now you may want to simply pay attention to how much meat you are consuming. First figure out how many grams of protein you actually need (typically, 7 grams per 20 pounds of body weight for the average adult), then add up how much you typically consume using the chart below. Now think about it: do you really need all that meat?

On the other hand, if you are vegan be sure you're eating enough protein from plant sources. It's a little more challenging to get enough complete protein without consuming animal foods, but you are certainly doing the earth a favor with your all-plant diet. More on that later in the program.

*Protein content (in grams) for typical servings:

*Note that 3 oz of meat is approximately the size of a deck of playing cards, a smallish serving.

Good Carbs, Not So Good Carbs

Most of the world's peoples obtain the bulk of their daily calories in the form of carbohydrates. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Despite the prevailing wisdom about how "bad" all carbs are, there are many foods high in carbohydrate that are healthy and nutritious. Carbs can be an economical food source as well. The key with carbs is to choose the ones with the most nutrition and avoid the ones with little or none.

Carbs come in three main forms: sugars, starches, and fiber. Simple sugars (monosaccharides) are the building blocks for most common carbohydrates. They double up to form disaccharides, and connect in chains to form the complex molecules called starches (polysaccharides). But in order for the body to use the energy in the complex carbs, these molecule chains need to be broken down into simple sugars. Whatever cannot be fully broken down during digestion is called fiber.

Simple sugars include glucose (or dextrose), fructose, and galactose. Disaccharides include sucrose (white sugar), lactose (milk sugar), and maltose. Polysaccharides, the complex carbs, include starches and fiber.

An awful lot of sugar is added to processed foods in the form of refined sugars (e.g., white sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup). These sugars are the least nutritious form of carbohydrate. Your body needs carbs but does not need ANY refined sugars. You can obtain all the energy you need from the natural sugars and starches in nutritious carbohydrate foods—which also tend to provide healthy doses of fiber.

In the US, the average person consumes more than 20 teaspoons of added sugar daily. That means we average 100 pounds of refined sugar every year. That's crazy! It may seem unlikely that you are consuming so much refined sugar, but it's probably true for you too. How? Easy: refined sugar is included, often hidden, in many processed foods—from drinks and desserts to cereals and breads, soups and snack foods, even condiments like catsup. Corn sweeteners are cheaper than white sugar so are also in many processed foods. Most of our sugar intake comes from ultra-processed foods: fast foods, prepared foods, boxed cereals, and soft drinks.

What's so bad about refined sugars? In addition to causing dental cavities and weight gain, a diet high in sugar-rich foods can contribute to obesity, heart disease, and other serious ailments. Sugars and refined carbohydrates are rapidly converted to blood sugar, causing a rapid release of insulin in the body. In some people, especially those who are overweight and inactive or on unbalanced diets, insulin resistance occurs. This can lead to diabetes, and may be linked to heart disease and some cancers.

Many high sugar foods are also highly processed, lacking in nutritional value, and low in fiber. They may be high in unhealthy fats as well, which we will discuss in the next section.

How can you avoid high sugar items? Simple: choose foods that are not processed or minimally processed. Select basic foods in their natural state like fresh produce, fresh fruits and vegetables, plus poultry, fish, and eggs, beans and nuts. Be sure to read labels before you opt for any processed food. Avoid soft drinks of all kinds and those flavored (sweetened) coffee drinks. Skip the fast foods too. No frozen dinners or cheap snack items in big plastic sacks. Be careful with bottled salad dressings and other condiments.

The following chart illustrates the refined sugar content of some common foods. Note that most of the items in this list contribute zero fiber to the diet. These items are just samples from the many food choices you make daily. Did you know that the average American drinks 500 12-oz servings of soft drinks every year? Keep that in mind while you look over the chart.

*Sugar in Carbs

Coca-Cola, 12 oz, 7 tsp
Sprite, 12 oz, 7-8 tsp
Red Bull, 1 can, 5 tsp

flavored coffee drink, "tall", 11 tsp
sports drink, 20 oz bottle, 9-10 tsp
iced tea, sweetened, 12 oz, 8-9 tsp
fast food shake, 4-5 tsp
chocolate milk, 8 oz, 3 tsp

3 Musketeers, 8 tsp
Milky Way Bar, 7 tsp
Snickers Bar, 5-6 tsp
Twix, 5-6 tsp
M&Ms package, 5-6 tsp

Raisin Bran, 1 serving, 4-5 tsp
Cocoa Krispies, 1 serving, 4 tsp
Special K, I serving, 2 tsp
Twinkies, 2, 9 tsp
chocolate chip cookies, 2, 3 tsp
Oreos, 2, 3 tsp
Fig Newtons, 3, 3 tsp
Wheat Thins, 16, 1-2 tsp

flavored yogurt, 1 cup, 5 tsp
spaghetti sauce, 1/2 cup, 2-3 tsp
catsup, 2 tbsp, 2 tsp
barbecue sauce, 2 tbsp, 2 tsp

Five Guys cheeseburger, 2-3 tsp
Burger King Whopper, 2-3 tsp
Chipotle sofritas salad with dressing, 6-7 tsp
Wendy's chicken salad with dressing, 10 tsp

*Note that food manufacturers' recipes change so these numbers are estimates.


photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

Americans obtain around 80% of their carbs from sugar and refined starch or potatoes: soft drinks, but also beer, pastries and packaged bakery items, boxed cereals, chips, and french fries make up the bulk of our carbohydrate intake. Yet, these are the carb choices that provide little nutritional value and, in excess, lead to ill health. All are low or without fiber.

Fiber doesn't provide the body with energy but is essential to health. Pectin and gums are composed of soluble fiber, cellulose and hemicellulose of insoluble fiber, all of which are helpful in digestion and the prevention of chronic disease. Thus, good carbs high in fiber make better choices than the sugary and refined carb foods.

So how can you obtain the carbs you need for energy and meal satisfaction? The best hack is to rely on the complex carbohydrate foods—which are usually high in fiber too. Here is a list of the most nutritious and fiber-rich complex carbs.

Good Carbs

*Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, winter squash, turnip

Legumes: lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, navy beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, hummus

Grains: brown rice, quinoa, whole oats, bulgur, whole wheat/whole rye/whole oat breads and cereals

Fruits: whole fresh fruits like pineapple, banana, mango, grapes, kiwi, apples, pears, berries (ones with edible skins and seeds are best)

Nuts and seeds: almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds

*Note that potatoes and corn, long regarded as starchy vegetables, do not appear on the good carbs list. This is because they act like sugar in the body, boosting blood sugar and leading to rapid insulin response. It is best to choose other starchy vegetables and whole grains instead.

A popular diet trend is to avoid foods containing gluten, which is a protein found mainly in wheat, rye, and barley that helps dough to rise and keep its shape. Some people are sensitive to the gluten in foods, others think they might be. If you eliminate all foods containing gluten, be careful to obtain adequate amounts of B vitamins elsewhere.

If you opt for the good carb foods, you should find your digestion much improved. Fiber adds bulk to your diet, speeding the process of moving food through the digestive tract. The indigestible complex carbohydrates also help you to feel full while assisting your body to control blood sugar levels and remove toxins.

There are so many benefits to choosing good carbs! Usually you can find what you need in fresh, unprocessed forms. But if you are considering a packaged, processed product like cereal, pasta, or bread, be sure to examine the ingredient list. Select the products with the fewest ingredients, ones you recognize. Avoid products with additives and preservatives. And be wary of nutrition claims on processed food labels. Alluring but meaningless claims are used quite loosely, including "natural" and "healthy."

Also, be aware that commonly used no-calorie sugar substitutes are highly processed. The following products are used in place of table sugar: aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), avantame, acesulfame (Sunett, Sweet One), neotame (Newtame), saccharin (Sweet'N Low), sucralose (Splenda), stevia (Pure Via, Truvia), and monk fruit (PureLo). These products do not provide any health benefits. Another drawback is that users remain in thrall to the taste of excessive sweetness. Whole fruits are a much better choice for a rush of sweetness.

Fat Facts

Like with carbs, there are good fats and not so good fats. And there are complexities, but it can be simple to choose your fats wisely.

Fats in general provide more energy than protein or carbohydrate. In food science, energy is measured in calories. (Actually kilocalories, but we refer to them as calories.) Fat provides more than twice the calories of protein or carbohydrate. Protein and carbs each provide 4 calories per gram, while fat provides 9. (Alcohol provides 7, so this is something to consider too. More later about that.) Vegetable oils provide around 125 calories per tablespoon, which makes them the most concentrated form of food energy in your kitchen.

Calories are neither good nor bad, and basically not worth counting. This is because our estimates for the caloric content of various foods are typically inaccurate. Hyper-focus on calories rather than nutrition can be a misleading guide to food choices. Avoiding calorie counting is a super nutrition hack.

By the way, vitamins and minerals have no calories at all. Water, of course, is calorie free. In case you were wondering.

As for fats, the kind we consume is what's most important. Fats are important in the diet as they serve as an energy source and a form for energy storage. Fats help to build cell membranes, protect nerves, and make hormones and other important chemicals in the body. The essential fats, the ones that must come from food intake, are the healthy unsaturated fats. These good fats provide energy, palatability to enhance flavor, and satiety value for feeling full after eating. Fats contain fatty acids important for growth and health. Fats also help with the absorption and utilization of other nutrients. Some fats, however, contribute to heart disease and other ills. These are the not so good fats.

The best plan is to emphasize the good fats and avoid or minimize the other fats.

Let's start with the good fats. Unsaturated fats can be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Both are healthy choices. Monounsaturated fats are found in plant oils like olive and peanut oil, as well as in avocados and most nuts. Polyunsaturated fats are found in corn oil, seeds, whole grains, and fatty fish (like sardines, salmon, and tuna). These fats help boost immunity and keep heart rhythm and brain function healthy.

Saturated fats are not healthy choices as they contribute to heart disease. Foods high in saturated fats include red meats, dairy foods, and tropical oils—palm and coconut.

Another form of saturated fat are the trans fats produced by the process of partial hydrogenation. This process is used to make shelf-stable, long-lasting products like margarine, vegetable shortening, deep-fried foods, doughnuts, powdered creamers, and commercial baked goods like cookies. Consumption of trans fats has been linked to heart disease, inflammation, insulin resistance, gallstones, and dementia. What's good for extending shelf life is not good for extending your life! The Food and Drug Administration gave processed food companies until 2018 to get these fats out of their products, but some foods still have trans fats: deep-fat fried foods, non-dairy creamers, red meats, and dairy products.

The good fats are high in omega fatty acids, which have important functions in the body including in brain cell integrity, hormone manufacture, and blood clotting. The omegas have been linked to the prevention of heart disease and stroke, possibly other chronic conditions. Omega-3s include: ALA, EPA, and DHA. Omega-6 fatty acids are also healthful.

ALA is found in vegetable oils, walnuts, leafy greens, and grass-fed animal meat. (Meat from industrial, factory farm cows and chickens is low in omega fatty acids due to their grain-fed diets. Grass-fed pasture animals have a higher intake from foraging.) EPA and DHA are found in rich quantities in fish.

Foods rich in omega-3 fats include cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout), flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and dark green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, mustard greens, and collards. You can also find omega-3 enhanced eggs.

Foods rich in omega-6 fats include safflower, sunflower, and corn oils, as well as sunflower seeds, walnuts, and pine nuts.

Take a look at the following charts to see how much fat is in some common foods. Quite a few of the items on this list obtain around half the caloric content from fat—or more. And the fat is mostly saturated.

*Fat Calories in Foods

bologna, 1 oz: 60/80 (60 calories out of 80 total)
bacon, 2 slices: 70/90
hot dog, 1 small: 100/130
sausage, 1 link: 140/170
steak, sirloin, 6 oz: 490/660
steak, T-bone, 10 oz: 1150/1400
chicken, 3 oz: 50/120

cheddar cheese, 1 oz: 80/110
cottage cheese, 1/2 cup: 40/110
milk, whole, 1 cup: 80/160
milk, skim: 2/90
butter, 1 tbsp: 100/100
ice cream, 1 cup: 180/260

*High Fat Foods

Porterhouse steak, 4 oz: 37 grams of fat
roast beef, 3 oz: 33 grams
lamb chops, 3 oz: 32 grams
hamburger, 3 oz: 26 grams
spareribs, 3 oz: 21 grams
sausage, 1 link: 18 grams
bacon, 2 slices: 16 grams
ham, 3 oz: 15 grams
hot dog: 12 grams
movie theatre popcorn butter, 1 blast: 12 grams
french fries, large serving: 20 grams
pizza, 2 slices: 20 grams
potato chips, 2 oz: 20 grams

*Note that the exact number of calories and grams of fat may vary depending on the food source; these figures are for comparison purposes.

The hack for a balanced intake of fats is this: when shopping or dining out, choose the less processed foods with an emphasis on fresh produce, whole grains, fish and seafood, low or no-fat dairy. Be sure to opt for olive oil and other vegetable oils, avocados, nuts and seeds in your menus. Avoid the ultra-processed foods, or save them for those rare special occasions.

Vitamin Smart

People spend a lot of money each year on self-prescribed vitamins, hoping supplementation might fix what ails them or prevent illness. Many of us pop vitamins instead of eating well, thinking supplements can take the place of balanced meals. Unfortunately, this is not how biology works.

As you know, more than 50 different nutrients are required for proper body function and optimal health. The chemicals known as vitamins are only necessary in minute amounts compared to protein, carbohydrates, and fats. But like all essential nutrients, vitamins must be supplied by the diet as they are not manufactured in adequate amounts by the body. Natural, minimally processed foods can supply you with the vitamins your body needs, but supplementation cannot make up for a crummy diet. You have to eat well to be well.

Vitamin intake is one reason why it's important to include a wide selection of foods in your diet. Variety in food selection can ensure the intake of all the vitamins your body needs. Shopping wisely with this in mind is important. Storing foods and cooking food properly will maintain vitamin quality. Vitamins are at their peak when fruits and vegetables have just been harvested. Growing your own produce can ensure that you consume them at their most nutritious. Locally grown fruits and vegetables in season can also be high in nutrient value as they are fresh off the farm.

Here's a vitamin hack: the richer the color of fruits and vegetables, the higher the nutrient content tends to be. Choose brightly colored produce for this reason. Leave fruits and veggies in their skins or husks until use as this will help to preserve the vitamins. Store properly and don't overcook.

Do vitamins give you energy? No, not really. Vitamins have no calories so they are not a source of energy—unlike protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Some vitamins are involved in the body's processes to convert food to energy, but vitamins do not supply energy in and of themselves.

Large doses of some vitamins may be stored in the body and can build up to a toxic degree. Be careful not to become overly enthusiastic about supplements as overdoses of vitamins can have health consequences. A disproportionate amount of one nutrient in the body can cause nutrient imbalance and metabolic dysfunction. With vitamins, just because a little is good doesn't mean that a lot will be terrific.

Each vitamin has multiple jobs in the body. It's a challenge to keep them all straight, and to remember the best food sources for each one. The hack is to eat a variety of nutritious foods to be sure you obtain all of the vitamins your body needs.

The following list might help you improve your vitamin smarts as it includes all of the essential vitamins, their roles in the body and the best food sources. Note that antioxidants are generated by the body and found in foods; they help maintain cells in the face of stress and may play a role in the prevention of heart disease and cancer. More on this in Level II.

*1. Fat-soluble Vitamins:

Vitamin A:

Increases resistance to infection, maintains normal skin, promotes healthy eyes, aids growth; fish liver oils, liver, butter, milk, cheese, cream, egg yolk, dark green leafy vegetables, bright yellow fruits and vegetables

Vitamin D:

Promotes bone development; is converted to a hormone in the body; helps prevent heart disease, bone loss, possibly cancer and multiple sclerosis, and helps improve immunity; fish liver oils, fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, bluefish), milk and milk products, fortified foods

Vitamin E:

Protects cells and acts as an antioxidant; vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, legumes, green leafy vegetables

Vitamin K:

Involved in energy creation, promotes proper blood clotting, helps maintain bone health; dark green leafy vegetables, vegetable oils

*Note that since these 4 vitamins are fat-soluble, any excess will be stored in body fat. Too much of these vitamins can prove toxic so it is best not to overdo it with supplements.

*2. Water-soluble Vitamins

Vitamin C:

Strengthens blood vessels, speeds wound healing, increases resistance to infection, aids in the body's use of iron, acts as an antioxidant; citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, cantaloupe, cabbage, broccoli, green and red peppers

B Vitamins:

Vitamin B1 (thiamin): Aids in the production of energy; promotes healthy skin, eyes, nerves, appetite and digestion; lean pork, organ meats, whole grains, legumes, milk, peanuts

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): Aids in the production of energy; promotes proper cell growth and facilitates digestion; milk, organ meats, lean meats, eggs, dark green leafy vegetables

Niacin: Aids in the production of energy; promotes proper cell function; lean meats, poultry, fish, whole grains, dark green leafy vegetables, peanuts, milk

Vitamin B6: Involved in protein use and prevention of heart disease, stroke; wheat germ, lean meats, organ meats, milk, whole grains, legumes

Folate or folic acid (vitamin B9): Forms red blood cells, prevents anemia and heart disease and stroke, possibly some cancers; organ meats, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, whole grains, oranges

Vitamin B12: Involved in blood formation, aids in health of the nervous system, prevents anemia and heart disease, stroke; liver, other meats, milk, yogurt, eggs, fish and seafood

Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5): Important in the synthesis of fatty acids in the body; meats, chicken, organ meats, tuna, avocado, milk, mushrooms, eggs

Biotin: Involved in energy production and important for healthy hair and nails; organ meats, eggs, fish, lean meats, seeds and nuts, sweet potatoes

*Note that the 9 water-soluble vitamins are not stored in the body so need to be consumed regularly to avoid deficiencies.

Any other so-called vitamins you may hear about have not been deemed essential to human health. Only these 13 vitamins are known to be essential to the human body. Excesses of these vitamins will not turn you into a superhero, despite the claims of vitamin salespeople, and can prove toxic. It is best to consume healthy balanced meals that include a wide variety of fresh foods in order to obtain the vitamins you need—and skip the supplements.

If you avoid eating meat but include dairy products and/or fish, you should be able to obtain the vitamins your body needs. If you are vegan, however, supplementation may be required.

Mineral Sharp

Minerals are similar to vitamins in that they are required by the body in very small amounts that must be obtained through dietary intake. There are 17 minerals known to be essential to proper growth and health. Other minerals that are not essential for health can also be found in the body in tiny amounts.

The essential minerals help build the skeleton and all soft body tissues, and they work to regulate body systems including heartbeat, blood clotting, oxygen transport, and nerve conduction. Scientists separate the essential minerals into two categories based on size.

Macrominerals are needed by the body in amounts greater than 100 milligrams per day. These include calcium, sodium, potassium, sulfur, phosphorus, chloride, and magnesium.

Microminerals are needed in smaller amounts, usually no more than a few milligrams a day. Also called trace minerals, the microminerals include: iron, copper, zinc, chromium, selenium, manganese, iodine, cobalt, fluorine, and molybdenum.

These two lists might seem impossible to fulfill just by eating right, but the truth is your body should be able to obtain adequate minerals from a diet of well-balanced meals. However, there are a few caveats. One is your overall health. If you develop iron-deficiency anemia, for example, you may need to supplement. Or if you live in an area with low iodine in the water and soil, you can develop a goiter—so you'll need to supplement. But in most cases, your mineral health will depend on making good food choices.

Here's what you need to know to make a mineral hack:

1. Whenever possible, select fresh food that is organically grown. That way you will obtain the minerals found in rich soils. Many minerals are low or absent in the foods grown in depleted and over-fertilized soils.

2. Eat a variety of foods each day. This means animal foods like meat and poultry or fish and seafood, as well as eggs and dairy foods, plus plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Both of the above menu practices are important for making sure your mineral intake is adequate.

The following list shows you what the essential minerals do for you and where to find the best sources. Note that this is a simplified explanation of the complex work minerals do in your body—which is pretty amazing, actually.

1. Macrominerals:

Calcium: 99% is present in bones and teeth, providing structure; 1% is vital to nerves, muscles, and blood; milk and milk products, sardines, canned salmon, tofu, green leafy vegetables

Sodium: Helps to maintain fluid balance; table salt, meats, poultry, fish and seafood, milk, eggs

Potassium: Helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure; important for healthy nerves and muscles; bananas, citrus fruits, melon, strawberries, dates, apricots, avocados, tomatoes, nuts, seeds, whole grains

Sulfur: Important for protein utilization; an essential component of certain vitamins; eggs, meats, milk, cheese, nuts, legumes

Phosphorus: Present with calcium in bones and teeth; important for body energy production; meat, fish, eggs, whole grains

Chloride: Present in gastric juice for proper digestion; table salt, meats

Magnesium: Essential to nerve and muscle function, energy production; legumes, nuts, green leafy vegetables, whole grains

2. Microminerals:

Iron: Important in oxygen transport, needed for proper growth; losses from bleeding have to be replaced or will result in anemia; liver, meats, seafood, nuts, beans, leafy greens, dried fruits

Copper: Involved in red blood cell formation; organ meats, shellfish, nuts, legumes

Zinc: Antioxidant, keeps immune system healthy; important for proper growth, blood clotting, and wound healing; oysters, other seafood, poultry, beans, nuts, whole grains

Chromium: Assists in blood sugar regulation; liver, whole grains

Selenium: Antioxidant, helps to protect cellular integrity; Brazil nuts, seafood, eggs, whole grains, fresh organic produce

Manganese: Necessary for proper bone and tendon structure; bran, coffee, tea, nuts, legumes

Iodine: Essential for proper thyroid function; iodized table salt, seafood

Cobalt: Component of vitamin B12 necessary for the prevention of anemia; meats, eggs, dairy products

Fluorine: Contributes to formation of teeth and bones; fish, tea

Molybdenum: Plays a role in protein metabolism; meat, whole grains, legumes

If you do opt for supplementation, be very careful as it is easy to overdose on minerals. Take a look at the symptoms of mineral toxicity below and keep this in mind when you shop. Better to choose food, not pills.

Mineral Toxicity

Calcium: kidney stones, deposits in soft tissue
Potassium: muscle weakness, irregular heartbeat
Iron: deposits in liver, lungs, heart
Copper: deposits in liver, brain, kidneys, eyes
Zinc: iron losses from liver stores
Selenium: gastrointestinal disorders, lung irritation
Manganese: tremor, loss of coordination
Molybdenum: diarrhea, anemia, depressed growth

Mineral nutrition might look complicated but the simple reality is this: if you are eating a well-balanced diet with fresh organic foods, you will probably get all the minerals you need for good health. Why organic? Because organicaly grown and raised foods have higher mineral contents. Since organics can be more expensive, it may be a challenge to include these foods in your diet. Do so whenever possible. More on organic foods in Level III.

Note: If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you might need a special supplement because the body's requirements for certain minerals (and vitamins) surges. If you are vegan, you will need to pay keen attention to your food choices as it's more challenging to obtain the minerals that are mostly found in animal foods. Some vegans rely on supplements.

Drinking Well

You were probably aware of how important it is to obtain enough water on a daily basis, especially in hot weather. Now you also know that water is an essential nutrient. The human body is around 60% water, making it perhaps our most essential nutrient. A person can go weeks without food but only a few days without water.

Water is present in and around all of the body's cells and comprises the fluid portion of the blood. All of the body's chemical reactions to produce energy or build tissue require water. Water serves as the body's transport system, lubricates joints, and carries hormones, nutrients, and digestive juices. Water evaporation is the body's best technique for cooling off. Flushing away body wastes would not be possible without water.

Obviously, water keeps us alive and well. So how much water should you drink? Most medical experts advise us to drink 1 to 2 quarts of liquid daily. But this doesn't have to consist entirely of plain water. You can get adequate intakes with the inclusion of other sources of fluid including coffee, tea, juices, and other drinks. Fruits and vegetables contain a lot of water so if your diet is plant-based, you won't need to drink as much water.

In general, the brain tells us when we need more water and when we have had enough via a thirst regulation mechanism. However, the body can become dehydrated without us realizing it. This can happen in hot weather, with excessive exercise, or due to illness with fever, the use of dehydrating medication, a high protein diet, or alcohol overindulgence.

When you are ill, on medication, in extreme heat and/or exercising, it is best to significantly increase your water intake. A long run or a solid workout can use up a quart of fluid an hour.

High protein diets require more fluids to dilute the protein and the sodium.

Drinking booze boosts the body's need for water to help metabolize the alcohol. For every ounce of alcohol, the body needs around 8 extra ounces of water. Good thing to keep in mind when you want to avoid a hangover.


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Fortunately, it's not that difficult to obtain enough water. Try to drink a glass when you arise, at each meal, and before bed, with several glasses after exercise. You may also opt for juices, sports drinks, lemonade, and kombucha. If you drink coffee or tea, beware of too much caffeine. It bothers some people, causing side effects ranging from nervousness and irritability to heart palpitations, insomnia, and shakiness.

If you aren't sensitive to caffeine, you may be happy to learn that coffee and tea contain chemical properties that can boost health and wellness, possibly enhancing immunity and adding to longevity. A regular coffee intake has been linked to a reduced risk for kidney stones, gallstones, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and liver cancer. Tea drinking also appears to prevent kidney and gallstones. This is due to chemical properties in coffee and tea, possibly the action of antioxidants.

Note: Because antioxidants are not essential nutrients, we did not discuss them in Level Up I. However, these chemical compounds contribute to optimal cell function and are abundant in fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as coffee and tea.

Caffeine Content
(in milligrams)

coffee, home brewed, 8 oz: 95
coffee, instant, 8 oz: 60
coffee, decaffeinated, 8 oz: 4

K-cup, 1 pod: 75-150
Nespresso, 1 capsule: 75-125

Starbucks, light roast, vente: 410
Starbucks, dark roast, grande, 260
espresso, 1 shot: 150
cappuccino, 16 oz: 150
Frappucino, 9.5 oz: 75

tea, black, 8 oz: 47
tea, green, 8 oz: 28
tea, herbal, 8 oz: 0

dark colas, diet or regular, 1 can: 35-70
Mountain Dew, 1 can: 55
7-Up, Sprite, ginger ale: 0

Yerba Mate, 16 oz: 150
cold brew, 8 oz: 300
energy shot, 2 oz: 200
Monster, 16 oz: 160
Red Bull, 8.4 oz: 80

The best hack for meeting your body's fluid needs is to simply drink water. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area with a delicious and clean water supply, you can drink it out of the tap. Many people find their local water supply to be undrinkable, however. Best choice then is the use of a water filter of some type. If you have your water delivered, be sure to recycle the big plastic bottles. Using single use plastic is not a good idea and creates much waste, so avoid toss-out water bottles whenever possible.

Level Up I Summary

The science of nutrition can seem off-putting in its complexity. Level Up I has simplified much of the complicated science for you. In understanding the simple nutrition hacks offered here, you should have increased your nutrition IQ significantly.

Just over 12% of adults in the United States have a normal waist circumference, normal blood pressure, blood sugar, blood fats and cholesterol, and do not take any medication. But 6 in 10 adults have at least one chronic disease, while 4 in 10 have two or more chronic diseases. Poor eating habits play a significant role in this kind of poor health data for American adults—and kids aren't in the best shape either.

Eating well is the hack most Americans are missing out on. Better food choices could change disease data and improve overall health and longevity.

As you are now aware, the key to eating well is choosing a variety of fresh healthy foods. Your daily choices should include healthy protein foods, good carbs, and good fats. Try to emphasize food choices that are rich in vitamins and minerals, and be sure to drink enough water. If you are able to balance your diet in these simple ways, you will not need to rely on supplementation. And you will be following a diet plan that is good for your body, your brain, and your overall well-being.

Note that there are exceptions to this when supplementation and/or special diets are necessary. More on that later. Note also that there are substances in food that are not nutrients per se, but may be important for your health. More on that later too.

But for now, you're almost finished with the most difficult and science-heavy section in this certification program. As you level up from here, you will find the concepts discussed to be less science oriented and more practical in nature and application. It is important, however, for you to have a solid foundation in the basic science of nutrition. This will help you to avoid nutrition hype and make better, more informed food choices.

Next up: your first Level Up Your Nutrition test. Before you take the test, you might want to read over Level I again and study the information carefully.

As you take the test below, the site will evaluate and record your scores. When you are done with all 5 Level Up Your Nutrition tests, your final score will be provided. Feel free to retake the tests to improve your final score. Be sure to reread the sections before retaking the tests.

Sign up to begin test

All of the following questions are multiple choice. Select the best answer for each question by clicking on it.

1. Nutrients are important in the body because they:
a) help with digestion
b) assist with brain function
c) build bones and teeth
d) allow for desired growth and proper body function
e) all of the above

2. Which of the following is an essential nutrient:
a) all amino acids
b) table sugar
c) all fats
d) vitamin Q
e) water

3. Which food choice provides the most protein:
a) chicken, 1 oz
b) kidney beans, 1 cup
c) crabmeat, 2 oz
d) cottage cheese, 1/2 cup
e) spinach salad, 2 cups

4. Which food choice provides complete protein:
a) chicken
b) kidney beans
c) hummus
d) spinach salad
e) peanuts

5. Which of the following food choices provide carbohydrates:
a) donut
b) wheat crackers and cheese
c) sliced roast beef
d) french fries
e) all except c
f) all except c and d

6. Which food choice is the best source of fiber:
a) oysters
b) oatmeal
c) chocolate bar
d) potato chips
e) yogurt

7. Which food choice has a high sugar content:
a) iced coffee
b) french fries
c) milkshake
d) hamburger
e) diet soft drink

8. Which nutrient has the most calories per gram:
a) fiber
b) alcohol
c) fat
d) protein
e) carbohydrate

9. What important role does fat play in the body:
a) provides energy
b) provides satiety
c) provides palatability
d) provides essential fatty acids
e) helps with the absorption of other nutrients
f) helps with the utilization of other nutrients
g) all of the above

10. Which vitamin helps prevent anemia:
a) vitamin E
b) vitamin A
c) iron
d) vitamin B12
e) DHA

11. Which food choice is the best source of vitamin C:
a) peanuts
b) sliced ham
c) sesame seeds
d) melon
e) whole wheat toast

12. Which mineral helps prevent anemia:
a) iron
b) ALA
c) oleic acid
d) biotin
e) calcium

13. What is the best choice for obtaining most of your daily fluid requirements:
a) beer
b) diet soft drinks
c) lemonade
d) sports drinks
e) smoothies
f) water

14. Which item provides the most caffeine per cup:
a) green tea
b) cola
c) black tea
d) wine
e) home brewed coffee
f) cold brew

15. Which of the following can cause dehydration:
a) exercise
b) hot weather
c) drinking alcohol
d) drinking alcohol after exercising in hot weather
e) all of the above but especially d

16. How many essential nutrients have been identified?
a) 50
b) 3
c) 11
d) none

17. Which of the following are essential for the body?
a) ALA
b) 22 amino acids
c) dextrose
d) a and b
e) none of the above

18. What will help to ensure a well-balanced diet?
a) eat big servings at each meal
b) pick brightly colored fruits and vegetables
c) include healthy protein foods
d) use olive oil in cooking
e) take supplements
f) all of the above
g) b, c, and d

19. When might a person need to take vitamin and/or mineral supplements?
a) during stressful life periods
b) during illness
c) during pregnancy
d) during lactation
e) when working out
f) all of the above
g) b, c, and d

20. Which meal has the best balance of nutrients and the most nutritional value?
a) lean beef patty, bun, tomato, lettuce, water
b) meatless chili, cornbread, steamed asparagus, coffee
c) fruit salad, cottage cheese, orange juice
d) granola with dates, blueberries, almonds
e) vegetable soup, french fries, pecan pie, tea

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