Which Nutrients are the Best Fuel for Our Bodies?

Choosing the Optimal Fuel for Your Body

By Michael Ormsbee, Ph.D.Florida State University
Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily

Have you ever wondered why you eat “healthy” foods, but still struggle with your health? Michael Ormsbee, Ph.D., describes the science of nutritional genomics, which links diet to genetics. He also explains which micronutrients are best for optimal energy.

Family of women preparing healthy food
Nutritional genomics has proven a DNA link between how particular nutrients enhance the health of one person but not another due to genetics. Photo by Yuganov Konstantin

What Is Nutritional Genomics?

When it comes to the link between nutrition and cellular health, there is a fairly new scientific research area called nutritional genomics. Nutritional genomics is the study of how our genes interact with environmental factors, and, most specifically, the bioactive compounds of food.

Your DNA holds all the information necessary for the development and function of your body. The genes within your DNA are responsible for coding all of the proteins that carry out your cellular functions. 

As the study of nutritional genomics evolves, scientists may one day be able to help individualize your nutritional needs more efficiently than ever before. With this knowledge, you could one day even choose foods that have medicinal and health benefits specific to you.

For example, it is well known through nutritional genomics research that cocoa and red wine both contain bioactive substances that can help reduce the risk of heart disease. 

“However, the components of cocoa may not be beneficial for lowering your risk of heart disease, but they may lower mine,” Professor Ormsbee said. “Conversely, the effects of red wine may not be advantageous to my health, but they may be for yours, all because of the differences in our genetic makeup.”

The same things could be said for why certain compounds like caffeine, or even certain medications, work better for some people than for others. More information will come from nutritional genomics research in years to come, but currently we know that the foods we eat serve as the building blocks for our cells.

Micronutrients and Energy Production

Food keeps our cellular energy production working well. The mitochondria can use the nutrients we eat to turn them into energy for everything we do. 

However, not all foods are created equal when it comes to efficient energy production. Most of the energy that the mitochondria produce comes from fats and glucose, or carbohydrate, that’s either stored in your body or comes in from your diet. This energy ultimately ends up as adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

The process of making ATP from our foods is very complex. The obvious nutrients that are needed for these processes to occur are the energy-yielding macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. 

However, essential nutrients often overlooked are the B-vitamins, iron, and sulfur. The B-vitamins work to transfer electrons through the electron transport chain, which ultimately produces a massive amount of ATP in your mitochondria. Iron and sulfur are important components of the protein structures within the major energy-producing systems of your cells and are used to transport oxygen around your body.

If iron and sulfur are not available from the diet for the mitochondria, energy production will suffer. Nutritional support for healthy mitochondrial function comes from eating foods with a lot of nutrients that are minimally processed such as leafy green vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and lean proteins.

Fueling Your Body

Simply put, your body is only as healthy as the foods you eat. Analogously, if you put low-grade fuel into your car, your gas mileage would not be as high as it could be. Once you start filling your gas tank with premium-grade fuel, over time your gas mileage will soar, the engine will run clean, and you will get a lot more life out of your car. 

Just like your car, your body needs premium-grade fuel to run as efficiently as possible. It can run on poor food choices, but not optimally or efficiently.

Our bodies work to replace billions of cells each day, and the nutrients we eat are the building blocks for these new cells. If the cells are built with errors or with low-grade materials, our body is at risk for developing disease and ending life early. 

If the cells are built correctly, though, our bodies will have no issue growing, developing, and flourishing. A healthy diet, accompanied by physical activity, is the recipe for healthy genes, healthy cells, and ultimately your best body composition and health possible. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Dr. Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his Ph.D. in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.

About Kate Findley 104 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.