Your shape is all your own. A unique mixture of your in-born genetic blueprint and lifestyle choices manifest what’s reflected in the mirror. While nobody shares your body’s specific shape, there are categories of body types most fall into.

You’ll have a chance to figure out your type below—if you don’t know it already. But there’s an important fact to cover first that’s essential no matter the shape of your body.

An endomorph, ectomorph, or mesomorph can lead a healthy, happy life. Having any morphic body type doesn’t shackle you to specific health outcomes forever. Your life and health are yours to shape.

That doesn’t mean helpful information can’t be gleaned from a discussion of body type (also more formally called somatotype). Knowing what signifies a body type and which lifestyle tips work better for different body shapes may be enlightening.

General recommendations of frequent physical activity, a balanced diet of whole foods, good sleep, and other health habits work across the board. But knowledge about your specific somatotype can help guide you in the development of goals and healthy lifestyle approaches to achieve them.

After all, the shape you’re in now is just the starting point. Your body type is as much a reflection of your recent choices—diet, exercise, sleep, and more—as anything. From that starting point, and with the additional information below, you can make changes so your goals are what’s eventually reflected in the mirror.

Your Guide to the Endomorph Body Type

You might recognize an endomorph by their stockier or rounder shape. This body type has a tendency to accumulate fat around the midsection and hips. Some of that can be attributed to a slower metabolism. Sedentary lifestyles and calorie overages exacerbate fat build up.

Fighting the natural inclination for gaining and holding onto fat guides the health choices endomorphs should consider making. Diet and exercises focused on fat loss and maintaining proper calorie balance are key.

Diet suggestions for endomorphs include:

  • Watching refined and simple carbohydrate intake (especially sugar). The propensity to store fat leads to these easily overeaten items to help pack on unwanted pounds.
  • Turning to lean proteins to fill up and fuel muscle growth.
  • Choose the right fats. Don’t shy away from beneficial omega fatty acids—like those found in cold-water fish—and plant-based fats just because fat storage is a common concern for this body type.
  • Keeping a watchful eye on calories in vs. calories out. It’s the key to weight management for any body type, but it’s even more important for endomorphs.
  • Fill up on colorful, fiber-rich plants. These fruits and vegetables are lower calorie and have the fiber to keep you feeling fuller for longer.

Exercising as an endomorph should focus on burning fat while maintaining muscle mass, stabilizing joints, and promoting cardiovascular health. That means using a mix of cardio exercises (walking, running, biking, etc.) and strength training. This helps burn extra calories while working to maintain or grow muscle. Using a combination of cardio and strength exercises has also been shown to burn more fat after your workout ends than sticking to one type of exercise.

Gaining weight around the midsection can be troublesome for long-term health. So, endomorphs need vigilance to fend off this trend. Healthy lifestyle choices can help fight off the weight-related health issues that can crop up.

Your Guide to the Ectomorph Body Type

Slender. Narrow. Petite. All these descriptors fit a typical ectomorph. A fast metabolism plays a big role in keeping this body type thin, with long, lean frames.

An ectomorph can have trouble gaining weight and building muscle, though. To some, that may sound like a good problem to have. And one that means you can eat whatever you want and not exercise. But that’s not actually true. Ectomorphs still need to focus on a healthy diet and physical activity to support their best possible life.

The dietary specifics for the ectomorph body type include:

  • Packing the menu with nutrient-rich foods, and not simply feeding on less nutritious foods to fuel a fast metabolism.
  • Shooting for a high-protein approach. This macronutrient is essential for everyone, but is especially helpful for ectomorphs to maintain or bolster muscle mass.
  • Aiming for an energy imbalance of more calories eaten than burned if weight gain is the goal. Use these extra calories on beneficial fats, lean proteins, and nutrient-rich options.
  • Pick smart carbs. Since carbohydrates can take up more of the macronutrient balance for ectomorphs, your options open up. More choices could lead to less-than-ideal selections, though. Stick to smart sources of carbs—like whole grains.

The exercises an ectomorph chooses should fit specific goals—like any body type. But that frequently means heavy weight training for those looking to bulk up. These weight-bearing exercises are also good for the bones and joints.

A tip for ectomorphs is to take more rest between sets. This leads to fewer calories burned during exercise. And that’s a good thing because ectomorphs’ fast metabolisms can quickly rack up a calorie deficit that hampers efforts to gain mass.

With a natural tendency to be thin, it can be easy to fall for the misconception of “skinny always equals healthy.” Just because you could get away with a laissezfaire approach to eating and activity doesn’t mean it’s good for your healthspan.

That’s where a balanced, varied diet and regular exercise comes in. One feeds a fiery metabolism while providing nutrients needed to help maintain overall health. The other assists in supporting cardiovascular, bone, joint, and muscular health.

Your Guide to the Mesomorph Body Type

A little bit of Latin and Greek helps crack the code of the mesomorph. You can roughly translate mesomorph to the middle shape. So, it answers the question: what’s in the middle of endo- and ectomorph?

And that’s a good place to start.

If endomorphs are stockier and ectomorphs are thinner, mesomorphs stand athletically in the middle. Broader shouldered and muscular, this body type takes more of a v-shape.

Much of this springs from the mesomorph’s place in the metabolic sweet spot. Weight goes on and comes off fairly easily. So, muscles are easier to grow, but fat isn’t as hard to burn. If this sounds perfect, that’s because many cultures have held up the mesomorphic body type as the aesthetic ideal. And the average gym is full of different body types trying their hardest to achieve a mesomorph somatotype.

That doesn’t mean people with this body type can ignore their diet. A mesomorph should target a diet that:

  • Focuses on proper calorie balance. They can turn the calories dial to add weight or lose it.
  • Promotes nutrition through a focus on fruits and vegetables. Fitness goals need to be supported by quality nutrition. It’s no different for mesomorphs, and nutritious plant foods are vital.
  • Splits the essential macronutrients basically in thirds. An efficient, but not overachieving metabolism means this body type can aim for a fairly equal split between fat, carbs, and protein.

When it comes to a workout routine, the mesomorph has definite advantages. Pick a fitness goal, and this body type makes it a bit easier to hit it. Building muscle means aiming for light cardio and more strength training. Dropping weight may look like more running or biking. The raw materials for gaining speed, power, or enhancing athleticism are on the surface for mesomorphs. It’s just a matter of matching a fitness goal to the right exercises.

Any activity that helps hit the recommended 150 minutes a week works great. Even though mesomorphs rule the gym and the pop culture spotlight, they aren’t immune from the hazards of a sedentary lifestyle or poor diet.

That’s because the way you look in the mirror is a literal reflection of your health. But it isn’t everything. A visually striking exterior still might paper over long-term health issues if proper care isn’t taken with diet, sleep, activity, and stress management.

Your Body Type is a Freeze Frame of Your Health Right Now

There’s no skirting the truth of what you see in the mirror. Where you stand with your shape today is an impression of your health—a snapshot of where you are right now.

That’s a more modern view of body type, though. The original concept of somatotypes—proposed by W.H. Sheldon in the 1940s—was more rigid. It locked people into their type, even attributing personality traits to people’s shapes.

This philosophy has been thoroughly debunked. Today, fitness and health professionals have kept the beneficial information these classifications provide. But they focus on body type as a starting point, not a trap.

Throwing away the whole theory would ignore the immutable aspect of body shape—genetics. The perfect diet and right exercises aren’t likely to make you taller, reshape the structure of your bones to widen your shoulders, or change how where you store fat.

But—as you’ve read above—lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can help each body type achieve health goals and live their best lives. It’s also possible to reshape your body.

If you’re born an ectomorph, you can build muscle to climb closer towards a mesomorphic type. Endomorphs, if they want, can sculpt a stockier starting point into the mesomorph’s characteristic v-shape. It goes both ways, too. Poor diet and inactivity can round out any body type with extra fat accumulation.

Shape Your Life, Shape Your Health

You can be an endomorph who is healthy and happy. You can be an ectomorph who is healthy and happy. You can be a mesomorph who is healthy and happy.

It’s worth repeating one more time: wherever you fall on the somatotype spectrum—and most people will be some combination of types—you can be healthy, happy, and live a fulfilling life.

Don’t be defined by your body type because that isn’t the totality of who you are. Don’t let it box you in because you can make changes if that’s what you want or need to do. And remember, people of all shapes and sizes are beautiful and valuable. It’s most important to be healthy and happy—and that’s not one-size only.

Your old, reliable meals are the easy answer to a dinner dilemma. But when you find yourself mired in menu malaise, do yourself a favor—mix up the food you buy and eat. Chowing down on a varied diet supplies the wide range of nutrients you need to live well.

Dietary variety delivers other health benefits, too. Diversifying the food you eat helps support total-body health—see more on the specifics below. It also tastes good! And eating a varied diet leaves you feeling better than the fast food and packaged snacks that can often replace a nutritious meal.

Take up the challenge and add new foods to your routine. Here’s how you can give your go-to meals a break and inject variety into your diet.

Dietary Variety Starts at the Grocery Store

By definition, a varied diet means eating foods from across all food groups. This ensures you acquire a broad-spectrum of the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals your body needs to help you feel your best. However, not everyone is great at buying and cooking the variety of foods a healthy diet requires.

A recent study paints a clearer picture of how little variety people have in their diet. In 2017, researchers compared the grocery shopping habits of four generations of adults.

Scientists wanted to learn about shopping and eating behaviors across a range of ages. This was the focus because you can tell a lot about a person’s health by the way they shop for food. And in the case of the millennial generation, it’s what they’re not buying that’s more revealing.

The study showed millennials spend less money on groceries than any of their predecessors. They prefer to dine out more and cook at home less. And the smallest portion of their money goes to buying healthy foods like whole grains, vegetables, and lean meats.

Instead, millennials are devoting the biggest chunk of their budgets to ready-to-eat food items that fall short of meeting the standard for good nutrition.

How does that impact the variety of your diet? When it comes to convenient snacks and prepackaged foods, the contents are similar. Starches, sugars, trans fats, and little fiber. Not the wide range of nutrients you can find in a diverse diet of whole foods.

The vibrant array of vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables can be largely absent in a diet of ready-to-eat foods. But you can boost the quality of your nutrition by including more food groups on your shopping list.

Millennial or not, pull your diet out of the rut that relies on prepackaged foods. Take a lesson from older generations and set aside more money for healthier, whole foods. It will make your shopping list more interesting and increase dietary variety.

Body Benefits of a Varied Diet

Plentiful evidence supports the concept that eating a variety of foods is best for your health. That’s because diversifying your diet broadens the sources of the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients that fuel your body, which is important.

Your body utilizes dozens of nutrients your diet has to provide. That’s one reason eating the same thing every day proves tiresome. A healthy body has a high demand for macro- and micronutrients. And you can’t amass them all from one place.

Supplying your body with a bounty of nutrients is important for total-body health. All of your body’s systems, organs, and cells need these essential macro- and micronutrients. But there are specific body benefits.

Dietary variety predicts a healthier heart and weight range. Those are great reasons to opt for diversity in your dining. With a goal to eat more from each food group, you’re more likely to skip the crackers and chips and choose wholesome and more sustaining foods. This leads to picking high-fiber, low-calorie, nutrient-packed foods that support a healthy heart and weight.

Another reason for a more varied diet is the strength diversity brings to your gut. So much in the body is influenced by the digestive tract. Almost all nutrient absorption takes place in the small intestine and your immunity takes root in the gut, too.

Bacteria and microbes work alongside the cells in your small intestine to digest food and extract nutrients. But your microbiome needs nourishment just like the rest of your body. Prebiotic (those with fiber) and probiotic foods (those containing good bacteria) help you maintain a beneficial microbial balance. This makes what you feed your microbiome important.

In your quest for variety, try to find ways to add foods that facilitate good digestion and microbial diversity to your diet. Legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are good sources of the prebiotics that support gut health. Fermented dairy products (yogurt and kefir) as well as sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, and other healthy, plant-based options help provide the probiotics your guts need to maintain health.

So, the case for a wide-ranging diet is pretty simple: Including items from across the food groups fills your meals with substance and variety, while supplying the spectrum of nutrition you need to be healthy.

Tips to Increase the Variety in Your Diet

If you want to infuse you diet with more diversity, here are a few ideas to help get you started:

  1. Buy In-Season

A great way to increasingly vary your food is to buy fruits and vegetables during their peak season. Not all fruits and vegetables are available year-round. But when you shop for food in its growing season, you enjoy exceptional taste and freshness. Get to know when to expect your favorites to be the ripest.

Picking seasonal produce adds a layer of variety to your diet all year because what’s in season is always changing. Instead of always grabbing an apple, choose blackberries and strawberries during the warm berry season. Pick oranges in cooler months. You’ll adopt a revolving calendar of healthy foods to eat as fruits and vegetables rotate through their seasons. 

  1. Try Perimeter Shopping

Maybe a change in the way you shop is all you need to spice up your meals. Give perimeter shopping a try.

This technique can help you shake up what you choose in the grocery store. And the principle is simple. Try to only put foods found along the perimeter of the store in your shopping cart. Here’s why. The perimeter of most grocery stores is lined with healthy foods not found on the shelves at the center of the market. On the outside edges you find fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, dairy, and whole grains.

Processed, conveniently packaged food tends to reside in the aisles lining the center of the store. Since items from the aisles in the middle are quick and easy to grab, you might forget that they’re not the best for you. Branch out from your comfort foods and try making meals with what you can find along the perimeter.

  1. Get Creative

Plan meals that use foods in new ways. Substitute spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles for your regular pasta. Try riced cauliflower in place of white rice. Swapping out food staples like these makes adding variety to your diet simple and satisfying. Not to mention the added vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients you’ll also pick up.

  1. The Brighter the Better

Noticing the colors of the food on your plate puts you on your way to creating a more varied diet. That’s because diverse foods come in a rainbow of colors, and a meal featuring several means you’re off to a good start.

The colors of your food also hint at the nutrients they bring to the table—literally. Orange and yellow foods (like carrots and peppers) are full of vitamin A to help support your vision. Green foods like broccoli and spinach have iron and calcium to maintain the health of your red blood cells. Red and purple fruits and veggies are packed with vitamins C and K to support your immunity and help with healthy mineral storage in your bones.

Imagine what you’d miss out on if you ate monochromatic meals. Instead, flood your body with the nutrition it deserves by splashing more color on your plate. And challenge yourself to eat from every color of the rainbow.

  1. Plan Ahead

A sure-fire way to diversify your cooking is by prepping healthy, assorted foods ahead of time. Busy days squeeze out any room for cooking, so it’s tempting to settle for a bowl of cereal or a trip through the drive through. Those options leave you without the healthy variety your diet desperately needs.

Pack your freezer full of mixed fruits and vegetables for days when you can’t cook. Steam frozen veggies for a quick bite. A fruit smoothie with berries, peaches, and banana is a great alternative to a lackluster fast-food sandwich—with many times the nutrient value.

Keep an assortment of healthy, fun, and flavorful foods at your fingertips so you can enjoy the dietary variety your body deserves.

Humans are 99.5 percent the same, at least genetically. The other 0.5 percent of your DNA, combined with lifestyle choices and circumstances, determines the extent to which you are physically different. Many differences are inconsequential and unrelated to health. They include hair, eye, and skin color, as well as your height. Other differences are tied to body composition—like body fat, bone density, and muscle mass—and can have a direct impact on your health and lifespan.

Too much emphasis is put on body weight in relation to health, when in reality health and lifespan are linked more closely to body composition. Does the number on the scale matter? Yes, but the composition of that body weight is most important to overall health.

In very simple terms, your body’s two major components are fat mass and lean mass (muscles, bones, organs, and water). The distribution of these two types of body mass mean so much to your health. Understanding how your body composition impacts you and learning how to optimize it will help you forget all about the number on the scale.

Defining Body Composition

There are several ways to describe the composition of the human body. For example, body composition can be expressed in terms of chemicals:

  • Water
  • Proteins
  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates (like glucose)
  • Genetic material (DNA)
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Gases (like oxygen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen)

Body composition can also be evaluated as tissues or other types of material. This includes muscle, fat, bones and teeth, nerve tissue, body fluids, connective tissue, and air in the lungs.

When the concern is health and fitness, body composition typically describes the percentages of water, fat, bone, and muscle. These are the body components over which you have the most control and can make the greatest impact on your daily health.

Body Composition vs. Other Body Measurements

A quick check of your health or fitness progress often includes stepping on a scale to get your weight. It isn’t without benefit, but the number doesn’t say much about your health.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is another way to analyze health. Your height and weight are considered, which makes it slightly more accurate in determining health status. But BMI is still comparing how heavy you are to a standard. And, that standard may not fit your individual goals.

Like the number on the scale, the BMI doesn’t distinguish between muscle and fat or tell you anything specific about your body tissues. People with the same BMI could have drastically different body types and fitness levels. But knowing the make-up of your body is helpful for understanding your current health, setting health goals, and monitoring progress.

General Composition of the Human Body

Along with giving you shape, your body tissues have different functions and roles, affecting your health in different ways. Knowing what you’re made of may explain a lot about your current health and help direct your wellness efforts.

Water is generally the largest portion of the body, accounting for about 60 percent of total weight. In an average 70 kg (about 150 pounds) person, that amounts to about 40 liters of water. Of the remaining 40 percent of body weight, the adult skeleton accounts for about 7-15 percent. The rest is muscle and fat, which vary considerably between individuals.

Let’s take a closer look at how each of the four components influence your body composition and health.

Part 1: Fluids and Total Body Water

Total body water (TBW) is all the water contained throughout your tissues, blood, bones, and various fluid compartments. TBW is a significant fraction of the body both by weight and volume.

The average adult male’s weight is approximately 60 percent water. The number for an average adult female is about 55 percent. Age, health, water intake, gender, and body fat can significantly influence total body water. The body of a newborn infant can be as much as 93 percent water and a very obese adult can have as little as 15 percent water.

This large variation is due to the difference in body fat tissue, which retains less water than lean tissue. About 75 percent of the body’s water content is found in muscles. Fat accounts for only about 10 percent. Water not contained in the muscle and fat is part of various body fluids (like blood), inside organs, gastrointestinal tract, the eyes, and elsewhere. About two thirds of the body’s water is located within cells.

Part 2: Body Fat (Adipose Tissue)

There are two major types of adipose tissue: white and brown. For the purposes of this article—and in general when discussing body fat—white adipose tissue is what’s referred to as fat. That’s because brown adipose tissue makes up only about five percent of the fat tissue in a newborn. And that number decreases significantly with age. Its primary function is to generate body heat.

The primary role of fat is to store energy. But fat also plays an important role in protecting and insulating the body and its organs. Until recently, fat was thought of as an inactive storage site for energy. Body fat is far from inert, though.

Fat cells produce hunger-related hormones (like leptin), sex hormones (like estrogen), cell signaling molecules called cytokines, and a fat-specific hormone called resistin. This hormone has been linked to insulin resistance, obesity, and diabetes. Because of these important functions, fat is now considered an endocrine organ.

And when it comes to health, there are three things to remember about fat: location, location, location. Where fat is stored makes all the difference. It is better for your health to be pear-shaped (fat stored in the hips and thighs) than apple-shaped (high percentage of abdominal fat). Take a look at the different places fat accumulates.

  1. Belly Fat or Visceral Fat

Fat that surrounds the abdomen and is packed between organs is known as visceral fat. But it’s more commonly referred to as belly or abdominal fat. An excess of visceral fat results in a protruding belly, and infiltrates the abdominal cavity and the body’s organs. This visceral fat, much of which is hidden within the abdomen, is most closely linked to obesity-related disease and health conditions. Many studies have suggested visceral fat can predict disease risk and life expectancy more accurately than BMI or waist circumference.

Sex hormones have a large influence on the storage location of body fat. That’s why males are more likely than females to store fat in the abdomen. Female sex hormones direct fat to be deposited primarily in the buttocks, hips, and thighs. When estrogen declines, excess energy is stored mostly in the belly.

  1. Subcutaneous fat

Subcutaneous fat is located just below the surface of the skin. It provides insulation, protection, and a reserve of energy. This fat is located throughout the body in the limbs, hips, and buttocks but is not significantly related to most obesity-related health conditions.

It does increase the burden on the circulatory system, as each pound of fat requires approximately a mile of new blood vessels. In addition, subcutaneous fat is metabolically active (less so than visceral fat) and secretes hormones, like leptin and resistin. The release of these hormones increases with the level of body fat. And since they influence appetite and insulin resistance, these hormones can certainly complicate your intention to lose weight or get into better shape.

  1. Intramuscular Fat

The majority of body fat is located in the abdomen and under the skin, but there is another location that can impact your health. Fat stored within muscle itself is known as intramuscular fat. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an important source of energy that can be used during exercise. But like most things, a little is good and a lot is bad. Too much intramuscular fat can lead to increased insulin resistance and obesity-related health conditions.

Part 3: Muscle

Your body has three different types of muscle: skeletal, smooth, and cardiac. But skeletal muscle is the only type significantly influenced by exercise and diet. Unless otherwise stated, discussion of muscle refers to skeletal muscle.

Skeletal muscles work the skeletal system, support movement, posture, balance, and actions like chewing and swallowing. Skeletal muscle gives you broad shoulders, strong arms, or toned legs. But skeletal muscle isn’t all about physical size and strength.

Muscle holds a valuable source of energy stored in the form of carbohydrate (glycogen), which is made available when the body needs sugar (glucose) for energy. It’s also an important source of amino acids that support protein synthesis and energy production when dietary and other resources are depleted or unavailable. This storage role is increasingly important in times of high stress and when supplies are too low (during starvation). Age-related muscle loss greater than normal can decrease the quality of life in many ways and leave the elderly at a higher risk of poor health and disease.

The other two muscle types are under involuntary control. Smooth muscle lines the walls of blood vessels and digestive organs. Cardiac muscle makes up the bulk of the heart, and is responsible for the life-long rhythmic contractions of one of the body’s most vital organs. You may not have as much direct influence on smooth and cardiac muscle, but your diet and lifestyle do influence the function and health of these vital and unseen muscles.

Part 4: Bone

Bones are more than a structural framework that also protect vital organs. They’re living tissue that play many roles in health.

Bones contain nerves and blood vessels, and marrow is the site of red-blood-cell creation. Perhaps bones’ most important function—as it relates to body composition—is as storage for minerals. That’s mainly calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. When needed, these minerals can be released from bone to help buffer the pH of the body and maintain acid-base balance.

About 80 percent of adult bone mass is the hard, durable outer layer known as cortical, or compact bone. The interior is filled with a spongy network of tissue called cancellous bone, but is also referred to as spongy or trabecular bone. It’s less dense and more flexible than cortical bone, and contains blood vessels, fat, and marrow.

Since bones are living tissue, they need constant nourishment and maintenance. Bone anatomy and function is complex, but the thing you need to know is your diet and lifestyle directly impact the density, strength, and function of your bone.

Why Body Composition Matters

Obesity rates around the world have been rising for years. And there is near universal agreement that excessive body fat is a serious risk to health and lifespan. That’s because numerous health problems are related to excess body fat and obesity.

The current obesity epidemic highlights the importance of knowing and understanding your body composition. Whether it’s too much body fat, too little muscle, low bone density, or a combination of each, body composition can significantly impact your short- and long-term health.

Health complications related to excess body fat are well established and commonly understood. That makes it tempting to assume that it’s healthiest to have as little body fat as possible. However, having too little body fat, has its own complications. It’s also possible to be overfat and underweight. Being lean, on the other hand, represents a healthier ratio of muscle to fat and better illustrates a healthy body type.

When it comes to health and nutrition, the importance of balance cannot be overstated. The same principle applies to body composition. Variations within and between individuals are of little consequence to health when they are within normal ranges, but extremes on either end of the spectrum can significantly increase the risk of health problems.

Some complications associated with unbalanced body composition include:

Excess Body Fat/Obesity

  • Shorter lifespan
  • Cardiovascular disease and impaired heart function
  • High blood pressure
  • Glucose dysregulation and Diabetes
  • Gallbladder disorders
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Increased risk of various types of cancer
  • Osteoarthritis and back pain
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Various complications in pregnancy
  • Menstrual abnormalities
  • Shortness of breath and other respiratory disorders
  • Compromised immune function
  • Increased stress levels

Low/Insufficient Body Fat

  • Low body insulation
  • Minimal energy reserves
  • Inadequate cushioning for organs
  • Decreased cardiovascular function
  • Depressed immune health
  • Impaired ability to recover from exercise and illness
  • Diminished testosterone levels
  • Menstrual abnormalities, amenorrhea

Low Muscle Mass

  • Increased risk of frailty and poor balance
  • Insulin resistance and poor glycemic control
  • Increased risk of metabolic disorders
  • Poor bone health
  • Disruption in normal hormone functions
  • Decrease in strength
  • Increased susceptibility to hospitalization

What is a Healthy Body Composition?

The best body composition for you depends on several things. But body fat percentage usually takes center stage. That’s because it’s the easiest to manipulate and has the greatest influence on health. Aside from feeling healthy and vital, a minimal level of body fat is necessary to maintain life and reproductive functions.

Your ideal body fat percentage depends on your gender and your fitness level and goals. For example, females require a slightly higher percentage of body fat than men, mostly for reasons of childbearing and maintenance of reproductive hormones. Based on guidelines from the American Council on Exercise, the table below provides the ranges of body fat that best represent fitness level and gender.

Percent Body Fat Definitions for Men and Women
Description Men Women
Minimum Essential Fat 2-5% 10-13%
Elite Athletes 6-13% 14-20%
Healthy and Fit 14-17% 21-24%
Acceptable 18-24% 25-31%
Obese >25% >32%

How to Analyze Body Composition

Body composition analysis gives you a snapshot of your health. A variety of methods describe the make-up of the body, differentiating between fat, protein, bone and minerals, and body water. Approaches vary from quick and simple estimates to complex and highly accurate results. Some methods require a health professional or experienced practitioner to perform the analysis and interpret the results.

Here is a short summary of the most common methods of body composition analysis to help you decide the best fit for you.

  • Skinfold Thickness (Calipers): The most commonly used method measures subcutaneous fat by pinching the skin and using a caliper device to measure the thickness of the skin fold in several sites on the body. The chest, arms, abdominals, and thighs are usually measured, although some protocols may include as many as seven different parts of the body. The caliper measurements are then plugged into a formula used to estimate body composition. This method is quick, accessible, and inexpensive. But it’s limited in its ability to accurately portray total body composition since it only measures subcutaneous fat.
  • Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA): This method uses electrical impulses to determine the level of lean body mass. Machines used for BIA range from simple home scales with electrodes under each foot, to more complex, elaborate devices with electrodes for hands, feet, and other parts of the body. BIA works on the principle that water is a good conductor of electricity. The devices send tiny electrical impulses through the body and measure how quickly they return. Since lean tissue has a much higher water content than fatty tissue, lean body mass can be estimated based on the speed of the electrical impulses throughout the body. BIA is quick, safe, and doesn’t require any expertise. It does, however, rely on certain assumptions (ie. percent of body water) that limit its accuracy.
  • Hydrodensitometry (Underwater weighing): First, your weight is taken outside the water on a scale. Then, your weight is determined while fully submerged underwater. Because lean tissue is denser than fatty tissue, the difference in the two weights can be used to determine the density of your body. That measurement can then be used to estimate your body composition. The accuracy and reliability of this method is good, but accessibility and convenience can be a negative.
  • Air Displacement Plethysmograph (ADP): The method of using air displacement to assess body composition is a more recent advancement. Using a similar principle to underwater weighing, a machine called the Bod Pod measures body weight and air displacement to determine body density. Body composition is then calculated and stated as a percentage of lean body mass and fat mass. It’s quick, safe, and accurate, but requires access to a machine and an experienced clinician.
  • DEXA (Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry): If you’ve had a bone density test in the past several years, you may already be familiar with a DEXA machine. But they can be used for more than bone density scans. Using X-ray beams, DEXA machines can determine bone mineral density, lean body mass, and fat mass. It’s the gold standard for measuring bone density, but it is also very accurate in determining the composition of other body tissues. It can also measure the status and change in specific parts of the body. But it does require expensive equipment and results in exposure to small amounts of radiation.
  • Ultrasound: This method has been used to accurately assess body fat and tissue composition for over 50 years. The portable machine is capable of making fast regional estimates of body composition. It is used most often in research situations because it is reliable, accurate, and reproducible.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Strong magnetic fields and radio waves are used, in concert with your body’s own natural magnetic properties, to produce detailed images of the inside of the body. MRIs can analyze a range of different fat and muscle tissues with high precision, including individual muscles. This method can differentiate different types of fat and muscle, and determine the volume of fat within organs and muscles. MRIs are highly accurate, but for the purposes of body composition analysis would only be used in clinical or research settings.

No single method is best for everyone. They all have advantages and limitations. Working with your health professional, trainer, or clinician will help you determine which method is best for you based on your health status, fitness goals, and the practicality of the method. But the following table recaps the characteristics of selected body composition assessment methods.

Measurement Methods Table

Method What is Measured Pros Cons
Skinfold thickness Thickness of subcutaneous fat in various sites of the body Inexpensive, non-invasive. Reliable and useful for measuring body fats in specific regions of the body. Use is limited to moderately overweight and thin subjects.

Accuracy and reliability can vary, depending on the skill of the technician and the brand of caliper.

Estimate regional fatness, but doesn’t give an accurate representation of body composition.

Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis (BIA) Total body water (TBW) which is converted to fat free mass (FFM) Inexpensive, safe, quick, and require little-to-no technical expertise.

Good for monitoring changes within individuals over time.

Because it assumes a typical body water content, validity is best in young, healthy, and normally hydrated adults.

Accuracy can be influence by disease states and tends to overestimate lean mass in obese individuals.

Hydrodensitometry (also called hydrostatic weighing or underwater weighing) Body weight on land and under water, body volume, body density, and residual lung volume Reliable and consistent in determining body density with long history of use in clinical settings and sports. Not easily accessible. Residual lung volume can influence its accuracy. The density of lean mass is an assumed constant, but varies with age, sex, and fitness level.
Air Displacement Plethysmography (ADP), BOD POD Total body volume, lean mass, and fat mass Accuracy similar to underwater weighing, but easier to perform.

Reliable for assessing body fat and body density.

Expensive machine and not easily accessible.

Can overestimate fat mass. Health conditions and disease states can reduce accuracy.

Clothing and facial/body hair can alter results.

Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) Total and regional body fat, lean mass, and bone mineral density Highly accurate and reproducible. Can determine body composition in specific body regions. Gold standard for analyzing bone density. Expensive equipment required. Small amount of radiation exposure.

Changing Your Body Composition in a Positive Way

Nothing has greater influence on your body composition than your diet. This is especially true of body fat because it’s a matter of energy balance. You’re either storing fat or using it for energy to perform activities. Understanding your energy needs and knowing the appropriate range of calories you need to consume for your ideal weight is a good place to start.

In addition to consuming an appropriate amount of food, what you eat is also important. Acquiring adequate amounts of quality protein, and a wide variety of colorful and fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will also impact your body composition and health.

Focusing solely on diet or exercise to lose weight or stay healthy might not be the answer. Combining consistent exercise with a healthy diet can help propel you to a healthy weight and achieve a body composition right for you.

Ideal body composition is not just about weight or the level of body fat. Training to improve muscle size and strength is another way to improve body composition and positively alter the ratio of lean body mass to body fat. Whether you choose to focus on cardio-type exercises, emphasize strength training, or combined both, it’s most important to find a routine that you enjoy and promotes consistency.

There’s no doubt diet and exercise have the greatest impact on body composition, but there are other factors to consider. Genetics, current or past health conditions, quality of sleep, and stress management can all influence body composition.

Start Changing Your Body Composition Today

Lifelong health and wellness is most often a matter of balance. This is also the case with your diet, exercise, and physical body itself. Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that a healthy body composition represents a balance between fat and muscle, as well as sturdy bones and good hydration.

Instead of focusing solely on weight, challenge yourself to make improvements to your body composition. Even small changes for the better can improve many aspects of your health. Chances are good you will move easier, sleep better, and be in a better mood.

If you’re not sure where to start, check with your health or fitness professional about the healthiest ways for you to eat better and incorporate physical activity. This is especially important if you haven’t been active for a while.

From now on, when you think about fitness, focus on “shape” rather than weight. It provides a better picture of your actual health. And it’s more likely to increase your “healthspan” as well as your lifespan. 

If you’re alarmed by the number on the bathroom scale, you probably want to find a way to lose weight fast. But healthy weight loss takes place over time, not over the weekend.

Small, manageable changes to your diet and exercise will yield lasting results—even if it feels too slow. It’s important to think about weight loss as a sustainable solution, not a quick fix. This kind of thinking isn’t your fault.

The idea that you can lose a lot of weight quickly and maintain it long-term is a classic weight-loss trap. Avoid it by sidestepping the well-trod path of rigid diets that leave you feeling hungry. These diet plans produce results that may not last long. You could quickly tire of the restrictions and find yourself rebounding into old habits. And it’s more likely you gain the weight back than see lasting changes.

That’s because quick weight loss isn’t the best way to settle at a healthy weight. In other words, it simply isn’t sustainable.

Incremental changes over a longer period of time aren’t flashy or cool, but they are the best path to a healthy weight. This includes lifestyle modifications and shifts in the way you think about food, rather than just how much you eat.

Eat up these facts about how this measured approach is the right one for healthy weight loss that will last.

Why Healthy Weight Loss is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Here’s a fun fact: It takes a deficit of 3,500 calories to lose one pound (equal to about 0.5 kilograms) of fat. If that seems like a lot of calories, that’s because it is. The average recommended daily calorie intake for adults is 2,000 calories. So, one pound of fat represents almost as many calories as two full days of eating.

This is one reason why healthy weight loss is a gradual process. If you want to lose weight, you have to start by reducing the number of calories you consume. If you eat 500 fewer calories each day than you burn, you can expect to lose one pound over the course of a week.

You can achieve this calorie deficit with diet alone. Or you can mix in exercise to burn more calories in a day. Thirty minutes, five times a week is a great place to start. Focus on any type of exercise or activity that increases your heart rate and moves your body.

By incrementally altering your diet and exercise habits, you can safely lose one to two pounds a week. At the same time, you’re creating manageable lifestyle habits that can stick.

The Open Secret to Weight Loss: Calorie Deficit

No matter what new diets promise, the proven way to lose weight is by creating a calorie deficit. Calories are converted from food into cellular energy by your body during metabolism. They power muscle contractions, breath, brain activity, and so much more. But when you consume more calories that your body needs to operate, they are stored as fat (including visceral fat) for later use.

Learn more about calories in this helpful overview.

Typical Changes in Your Weekly Weight-Loss Rate

Even a gentle, incremental start to losing weight can provide you with an encouraging beginning. That’s because it’s possible to lose more in the first few weeks of your weight loss journey.

Build on the momentum, but understand what’s going on biologically. This quick start is the result of your body ridding itself of extra water weight. But staying the course means your weekly weight-loss rate could eventually settle around a pound or two per week—the incremental, sustainable rate you want.

Be cautious of diets and exercise programs that promise faster results. And remember that it’s typical to experience a weight-loss plateau a few weeks after you start. This is your body’s natural response to a sudden drop in weight. Along with the fat loss you’re aiming for, it’s possible to lose a bit of muscle mass, too.

Since muscles are the calorie-burning machines of the body, decreasing their mass can hurt your rate of calories burned. You can minimize muscle loss by ramping up your exercise and keeping your protein intake high. That way you’ll bust through the plateau in no time.

One way to break through periods of changing weight-loss rate is to focus on why you’re doing it. People lose weight for many different reasons. But the fact is, living at a healthy weight benefits your overall well-being.

The heart is one of the first organs to see lasting benefits. Maintaining a healthy weight supports your cardiovascular function, circulation, and reduces the workload on your heart.

Sleep issues are often linked to being overweight. So, one added benefit of your healthy weight loss could be improved sleep. Healthy weight loss can also be good for your mood and help support healthy energy levels. You may find you have more strength and endurance than before, along with a boost in self-esteem that often comes with weight loss.

Designing a Sustainable Weight-Loss Diet: Quality of Calories vs. Quantity of Calories

Diet is one of two main ways to control your calorie balance sheet. So, what you eat obviously plays a key role in the success of your weight loss journey.

While the numbers vary individually and by gender, adults need between 1,600 and 3,000 calories each day to thrive. As you’ve read above, a moderate, consistent calorie deficit will be enough to trigger weight loss.

But you should think beyond simple calorie counts.

It’s important to know all foods are not created equal. Some are high or low calorie. Some foods are filling, while others are not. Look at what you’re eating to determine if the calories in your food are being put to good use.

High-calorie, low-quality foods eat up a large piece of your daily intake, but don’t fill you up. Take soda for example. A 12-ounce serving of the sugary drink represents about 150 calories. These empty calories are all liquid, without fiber or other nutrients, and leave you hungry. Eating 150 calories of filling, fibrous vegetables have a different outcome.

Cutting out empty calories will bring you closer to your weight loss goals. Aim to make high quality, whole foods—like vegetables and lean protein—the center of your diet. Poultry, lean beef, and fatty fish provide quality nutrition and ample energy without the extra calories, starches, or sugars typically found in processed foods. Green vegetables are naturally low-calorie and packed with fiber that leaves you feeling full long after you eat.

On a daily basis, that means limiting high-calorie, low-fiber foods—like sugary drinks, fruit juice, and candy. Replace the drinks with water and snack on an apple instead. Always remaining mindful of where your calories are coming from can help you take control of your diet and create lasting, healthy weight loss.

Up the Ante on Exercise

It often takes healthy eating and exercise to create lasting weight loss. Experts recommend 150 minutes of exercise each week to achieve healthy weight loss. That can look like 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week, or three 50-minute workouts.

One of the best tips for your meeting long-term weight loss goals is to find a physical activity that suits you. Exercise isn’t limited to grueling days at the gym. It can look like a walk or jog with a friend, a hike in the woods, playing a sport, or a group fitness class in your neighborhood.

Don’t beat yourself up if your exercise routine is at a beginner level. Everyone starts somewhere. You will gain strength over time. Your endurance will improve. Soon you’ll find you can do more, have more fun, and feel better.

Celebrating Non-Scale Victories Helps with Long-Term Weight Loss

Over the course of your weight-loss journey, there will be hiccups that slow or halt your progress. You might indulge in too many sweet treats, catch a cold, or suffer an injury. When these obstacles pop up, don’t fret.

Trust the process. Continue to eat well. Also keep incorporating regular exercise to help break out of your slump. No matter whether your weight loss is flourishing or has plateaued, celebrate achievements other than the number on the scale.

Here are some examples of non-scale victories worthy of revelry:

  • Fitting into old clothes
  • Keeping up with your kids
  • Increasing endurance during exercise
  • Experiencing better sleep
  • Developing a new love for healthy food
  • Feeling more energized
  • Gaining self-confidence
  • Noticing an improved sense of overall health and wellbeing

These non-scale victories will make the excitement of reaching your goal weight even sweeter. You’ll feel better in your body and see all the fruits of your hard work.

Remember that a slow, steady pace is the key to long-term weight-loss success. When you focus on the whole-body benefits of weight loss, you’ll summon the willpower to keep going. If you need more motivation, think of your heart, mental health, sleep, and endurance improving each day. Reaching a healthy weight has added benefits that set you up for a happy and full life ahead.

It’s easy to recognize how great you feel when you eat well. When you make healthy eating a habit, this sense of wellbeing can become your new normal. That’s because you’re laying a foundation of broad-spectrum nutrition that’s essential for encouraging your body to thrive.

To maximize your health you need consistent, high-quality nourishment. Use your diet and supplements to stockpile the solid foundational nutrition your body can draw from always.

Build Health Brick by Brick

Consider the idea of foundational nutrition. Just like a home stands atop a strong foundation, your body builds its health on a base of broad-spectrum nutrition.

A healthy, complete diet is full of micro- and macronutrients—vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and it even includes water. Like bricks, these pieces of your diet fit together to support your body in all it does to keep you feeling your best. Whole foods and essential nutrition give you a firm footing and solid start toward the goal of overall wellness, and cells need water to support healthy, proper function.

These bricks in your dietary foundation need mortar to hold them together. A high-quality dietary supplement acts a lot like that glue. Supplements can provide a variety of nutrients that might not be prevalent in your real-world diet. These fill the nutrient gaps that exist when eating perfect isn’t possible. And they can help strengthen your nutritional foundation when your body needs extra support.*

How does foundational nutrition benefit your body? Basically, in every way:

  • Ensures basic dietary requirements are met
  • Builds up stores of important vitamins and minerals
  • Supports the immune system*
  • Maintains brain health and cognitive function*
  • Helps preserve heart and lung health*
  • Supports the body’s defenses from free radicals and oxidative stress*

Your body does its best when your diet provides more than the bare minimum you need to survive. A wealth of resources from a nutritious diet amplifies your health and your body’s ability to maintain that feeling of well-being—no matter what life throws at you.*

Essential Nutrition and Your Health

The word “essential” comes up a lot when talking about nutrition. Nutrients are considered “essential” when they cannot be made by your body, so they have to come from your diet. Vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fatty-acids, and amino acids are all essential nutrients.

These nutrient bricks are used by your body for everything you do. You secure that foundation by laying new bricks of essential nutrition every day. Since carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals are all important, make sure you supply your body with plenty of each from your daily diet.

When your eating isn’t as healthy as it should be, you start to miss out on the nutrients that keep you in tip-top shape. So, secure your nutritional foundation with a wide variety of healthy foods and help reinforce it with supplementation.

Weather Life’s Storms with Foundational Nutrition

Broad-spectrum nutrition is necessary to maintain your health during physically trying times. Busy lives bring a host of issues that can send your body into survival mode. Stress, poor sleep, and fatigue are just a few of the ways your body is challenged.*

One example comes from your immune system during busy times. When germs are everywhere one of your best defenses is a nutritious diet. Bacteria and viruses thrive in bodies unprepared for battle. They pick on cells and systems that don’t have the support to fight back.*

That’s why it’s important to lay a strong foundation of essential nutrition. Your body can make better use of dietary resources when there’s plenty available—instead of scrounging for vitamin, mineral, or macronutrient morsels.

Another area supported by foundational nutrition is your body’s response to stress. Work (whether in or outside the home) really takes a toll on your body. A nutritious diet can help alleviate some of that stress. A body flush with vitamins and essential nutrients can dedicate more energy to help balance stress levels.*

Focusing on broad-spectrum nutrition may even help provide more restful sleep. Healthy eating supports healthy sleeping, especially when your diet is full of the B vitamins that regulate melatonin, the sleep hormone. And a good night’s sleep is one of the most effective ways to combat stress and support your immunity.*

You can be prepared to handle the curveballs life throws at you by maintaining that foundation of good nutrition. Combat germs with a great diet. Sleep better and stress less by acquiring broad-spectrum nutrition. A carefully laid base of essential nutrition makes all of this possible.*

Broad-Spectrum Nutrition Helps Create Opportunities for Your Body

Foundational nutrition has benefits beyond fulfilling your body’s basic needs. That’s because the roles of vitamins and minerals are magnified in the body as you build your nutritional foundation. Everything from nutrient storage to additional benefits at advanced levels are possible when you have a strong nutrient foundation.

When you cultivate broad-spectrum nutrition, you store up certain essential nutrients for later use. Vitamin B12 is an example of an essential nutrient that can be stockpiled for future use—if your body has all it needs. Your liver can save extra B12 from your diet for up to four years.

Red blood cells need B12 to work properly and transport oxygen throughout your body. In times when your diet doesn’t supply ideal levels of vitamin B12, the liver springs into action. It taps into the stock to help restore normal levels and maintain red-blood-cell health.*

Antioxidants keep working in your body long after your diet has met your daily requirements. Two examples: Lutein and lycopene. These two powerful antioxidants work tirelessly to help support the health of your eyes.*

When reserves of vitamin A, another natural antioxidant, are built up, it takes on other important tasks. This includes fighting harmful free radicals and helping clean up oxidative damage. Vitamins C and E work in much the same way. Extra vitamins C and E help support your cardiovascular system and immunity.*

Your bones also thrive when your diet includes broad-spectrum nutrition. Vitamin D’s primary role is helping your bones absorb calcium. Once your daily threshold levels of vitamin D are met by your diet, it can work on other important jobs. Vitamin D works on supporting healthy brain function and helping to protect your heart and immune system.*

A strong nutrient foundation helps your body to thrive—not just survive. Powered by the extras in your diet, essential vitamins and minerals help your health and maintain your wellbeing.*

Be Consistent For Lifelong Health

Like any structure, a nutritional foundation requires consistent upkeep. That’s where supplements can take center stage. A broad-spectrum multivitamin and multi-mineral—and other quality nutritional supplements—can help fill dietary gaps to assist in maintaining the constant level of nutrition necessary for healthy living.*

Supplements can be taken daily as a source of essential vitamins, minerals, and other important—but not essential—micronutrients. To maximize their benefit, be consistent with your supplementation. Take your supplements every day, as directed—which may mean with meals for ideal absorption.

Consistency with your healthy diet and supplements means your body can rely on them as solid sources of great nutrition. Creating this base of nutritious foods puts your body on the path to wellness every day. And you’ll be on your way to setting a stable footing for living your best life.


*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

A meal can make your day. Or the wrong one can sink your plans—and your digestive system—like a stone. That’s because all foods don’t digest the same way. Digestibility can even change from person to person. This depends on factors like digestive juices and enzyme activity, microbiome makeup, and anatomical differences. But there are some hard to digest foods that are largely troublesome.

These problems are broadly categorized as digestive issues. And it might be best to leave it at that. To describe them in detail would probably end your reading experience right here. You’re likely familiar with the variety of feelings that result from eating the worst digestion foods out there. It isn’t pretty or comfortable.

And that’s good enough reason to figure out how to swap out these six potentially day-derailing foods.

Fried Foods Burn Your Day to a Crisp

A diet full of fried foods provides a variety of issues. They are a main culprit in the modern, Western dietary descent into the unhealthy. Eating fried foods has many links to unhealthy weight gain and all the associated issues.

While your waistline might be the first thing that jumps to mind, don’t forget the impact fried foods have on your digestive system. Frying any food adds fat. No surprise, since you’re literally immersing food into liquid lipids.

This abundance of fat can trigger a variety of gastric issues for some. It also has been found to have adverse effects on the healthy diversity of the gut microbiome. And that community of microbes play a big role in digestion. That makes fried foods a double-whammy of digestive difficulties.

Eat This Instead: Baking or roasting foods instead of frying will cut down on added fat without sacrificing some of the crunch and crisp of fried foods.

Sugar Substitutes Aren’t Sweet on Your Digestive System

You or someone you know is cutting back on sugar consumption. This is a good goal. But turning to highly processed sugar substitutes may create digestive issues.

Some alternative sweeteners—especially sugar alcohols—have been tied to gastrointestinal unpleasantness. That’s because these substitutes aren’t fully digestible. And consuming too many of various sugar alcohols—frequently found in chewing gum and other sugar-free foods—can sour your day.

Eat This Instead: Cutting out sugar is tough, but there are natural, plant-based substitutes that aren’t linked to substantial digestive issues.

Fatty Meats Make Hard to Digest Foods

Just because the fat is present before cooking doesn’t make fatty meats easier to digest than fried foods. Once again, you need to trim the excessive, unhealthy fat.

The same concerns about your microbiome exist with fatty meats. But your anatomical digestive processes can be upset by eating too much fat, as well. That’s because fat impacts the speed of stomach emptying. Altering the timing of movement and the flow of food through your digestive tract could wreak havoc.

Whether it slows down emptying or speeds up the process, you will feel it.

Eat This Instead: Protein is a key component of a healthy diet. You absolutely need it. But that well-marbled steak isn’t essential. So, replace fatty meats with leaner—or plant-based—protein sources.

Processed Foods Interrupt Your Digestive Processes

Your body has developed to eat what’s around you. For a long time, that meant whole foods from plant and animal sources. Now food scientists and manufacturers can develop foods that take parts and pieces from many sources to make a new whole.

This processing often strips fiber, which is great for digestive health. It also adds fat, sugar, and salt—all of which aren’t good for digestion in excess. More digestive issues could come from the prevalence of artificial ingredients and preservatives that may be hard for your body to handle.

Eat This Instead: Stick, as much as you can, to whole or minimally processed foods—fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, legumes, nuts, and whole grains.

Dairy can be Disastrous for Digestion

If you’re lactose intolerant, the dairy aisle has many hard to digest foods. That’s obvious. Many lack the enzymes necessary to process lactose (or milk sugar). There are remedies, but dairy digestion could remain hard no matter what, especially soft cheeses and milk.

Eat This Instead: Fermented dairy products like yogurt. Also lactose-free milk and harder cheeses are easier because lactose isn’t present or is limited. That’s because it has already been taken care of. So, turn to these easier options to get your dairy fix.

Carbonated Drinks Don’t Do You Any Favors

Many carbonated drinks have alternative sweeteners or are loaded with sugar. Both can be bothersome. But the bubbles are the real problem.

Some people deal with carbonation better than others. But filling your stomach with gas can easily lead to bloating for anyone. And when those bubble pop, the air has to escape somewhere.

Drink This Instead: Plain water is always your best bet for hydration. If you need something a bit more interesting, try adding fruit or switching to green tea.

Aren’t Fiber-Rich Grains, Fruits, and Vegetables Hard to Digest Foods?


You’ll see fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains on lists of foods that may menace your digestive system. You can blame fiber.

It’s true that fiber—both soluble and insoluble varieties—aren’t fully digested. Given what you know, that seems bad. And packing yourself with a bunch of fiber-rich foods does generate a gastrointestinal reaction.

But the reason fiber-rich plant-based foods aren’t on the list above is because these foods have so many positives. And there are easy ways around the digestive dysfunction they could cause.

First of all, fiber also aids in digestion, adding bulk and helping the movement of waste products. It also acts as food for your microbiome (prebiotics). And finally, fiber has ties to multiple health benefits and weight management success.

Vegetables and fruits are packed with vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients. So, you don’t want to skip them because they were on a list of hard to digest foods. You just have to be smart about how they are prepared and how much you eat.

Gradually increase your consumption of raw vegetables—especially cruciferous types, like cabbage and broccoli. That way your body and microbiome have time to adjust to the incremental increase in fiber and other plant material. Cooking vegetables will also help with their digestibility, and, in some cases, improve the bioavailability of certain nutrients.

When it comes to fruits, moderation still matters. But selection is important, as well. Berries and bananas—and other low-fructose fruits—are easier on your digestive system than choices like pears or apples. Also, don’t overdo it with acidic fruits.

Obviously, avoid grains if you’re allergic to them. And legumes (beans, lentils, and peas) are tough because they’re full of fiber and you may not have the enzymes needed to break them down. Soaking beans before cooking is a step towards mitigate beans’ impact on your guts.

Do a Favor for Your Digestive System

There are so many factors to consider when planning your meals. You can focus on macronutrients, micronutrients, calories, and on and on. Just don’t forget about what happens after the food leaves your fork.

Cut the food that you eat into small pieces and chew each bite completely before swallowing, as this can aid in digestibility. Swap out or limit the hard to digest foods you eat for ingredients easier on your gastrointestinal tract. That way eating will be energizing, filling, and satisfying instead of a form of culinary sabotage for your day.

hand planting corn seed

hand planting corn seed

You’re a gardener—even if you don’t have the green thumb to prove it. You may never have planted a seed and cared for it until it sprouts from the earth. But you’re still a gardener of sorts. That’s because your gut is like a garden and your diet acts as the soil and fertilizer.

What you put into your garden influences your microbiota (the microbes that grow there). Specifically, the mix of fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fat, and micronutrients in your diet determines whether your microbiome will flourish.

The microscopic residents of your gut include fungi, viruses, yeast, and other microorganisms. But bacteria are the most notable gut flora. Because their lifespan is short, bacteria can adapt to environmental changes rapidly. They can also take genetic material from neighboring gut flora, which can benefit both bacteria and the host they live in (you!).

These characteristics are what make bacteria so impactful on human health. And that’s why it’s important to understand how your diet cultivates the health and diversity of bacteria and other gut flora.

How Your Gut Garden Started

Last Months of Pregnancy

You weren’t born with the bacteria you now have in your gut. This profile was built over the initial years of your life, starting with the way you were born. Cesarean versus vaginal delivery dictated the initial dominant bacteria in your gut. Then, what you were fed rounded out your gut’s early bacterial profile.

Studies on mother’s milk really illustrated the role and importance of gut microbiota. Researchers initially were unsure why the milk contained such complex carbohydrates. These molecules were known to be indigestible for infants. The babies lacked the necessary enzymes. However, early research revealed the complex carbohydrates are actually present in mother’s milk to nourish the infant’s gut microbiota, and not the infant.

So, your gut garden began at this early stage in life. Mother’s milk acted as the rich soil that nourishes bacteria within. The result was symbiotic for the bacteria and baby. The bacteria flourished, and in doing so, protected the baby’s gut lining. This was important for healthy immunity and nutrient absorption—and remains important as an adult. Proliferation of good bacteria meant they can crowd out possible pathogens and break down the complex carbohydrates into digestible parts.

After your first two years of life, your microbiome’s profile was nearly set. And even with all the variety in flora, lifestyle, genetics, and anatomy, there are some bacteria typically found in the gut microflora.

The most common types of bacteria found in the human gut belong to the phyla firmicutes and bacteroidetes, actinobacteria, and proteobacteria. These phyla (a biological classification) contain bacterial species you may have heard of before, like Lactobacillus, Prevotella, Bifidobacteria, and H. pylori.

There has been a concerted effort to extensively analyze the human microbiome. More research needs to be done before one profile is proclaimed the healthiest. But even with a lack of definitive answers, an educated conclusion can still be made.

One confirmed characteristic of a healthy gut is a diversity of microflora. Diverse bacterial communities tend to be more resilient. This means they’re better at fending off potential pathogens that might invade and try to take over space. When the gut microbiota is filled with a plethora of various good bacteria, the bad kind don’t have empty space to take up residence.

This is a constant battle for space and resources. And you play a big role. As the gardener, you control the soil and fertilizer, which determines what grows best. That’s where what you choose to eat comes into play.

How Your Diet Affects Your Gut Microbiome


Research shows differences in microbial profile exist based on the content of your current diet—just like the differences explained by feeding mother’s milk versus formula. That means a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (which contains more fiber) will produce a different bacterial profile than one rich in animal protein and fat, or another full of simple and processed carbohydrates.

But what kind of dietary soil grows the most diverse and robust gut-flora garden? And which diets fail to yield advantageous bacterial profiles?

The table below will give you an idea of how gut microbiota shifts with different diets. You don’t need to be an expert on the different bacteria listed below to get an idea of that key characteristic of a healthy gut—diversity.

Increasing Species Decreasing Species Diversity
Western diet Bacteroides Bifidobacteria Less

Mediterranean diet







Vegetarian diet








 Western Diet

This type of diet is high in saturated fat and sugar, and it features processed foods. Because it lacks a variety of fruits and vegetables, the modern Western diet lacks fiber. If you remember from earlier, fiber is what feeds your gut microbiota. That’s why fiber is often called a “prebiotic.” That’s because it feeds the bacteria that ultimately help nourish you.

Without that fiber, there are fewer species of flora in your gut that can thrive. This means microbial diversity is less than with other diets rich in fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Decreased microbial diversity leads to decreased gut resilience, which can spell problems for your health.

Mediterranean Diet

On the other hand, the Mediterranean diet is known for healthy variety. That includes:

  • Various fruits and vegetables
  • The inclusion of legumes and whole grains
  • A generous use of healthy fats—like olive oil
  • Minimal intake of animal-based proteins

This mix creates a diet rich in fiber—or prebiotic material—that your gut microbiota literally lives for. And, as you might have guessed, the Mediterranean diet promotes microbial diversity. One review of diet-induced microbial changes noted no decreasing species in those who consumed a Mediterranean diet. On the other hand, researchers noticed an uptick in at least three species.

Not convinced? One study focused on a group of Italian participants who ate a Mediterranean diet. Over the course of three weeks, the participants provided three samples that were pooled and analyzed for gut microbial content. The researchers found those who best adhered to the diet had more diverse flora in their guts. More specifically, in plant-based eaters (no animal-based protein), they found an increase in Prevotella bacteria.


Eating vegetarian yields increases in similar bacteria found in adherents of the Mediterranean diet. Additionally, vegetarian diets also cause an uptick in diversity of microbiota, thanks to all that vegetable-based fiber.

Another notable shift is the decrease in Bacteroides species—the opposite trend seen in Western diets. The main difference is the consumption of animal-based protein. Bacteroides are not inherently bad, and can have a beneficial relationship with the gut. But, should they escape that environment through the gut lining, they can cause issues.

You (And Your Gut Microbiota) Are What You Eat

There’s still much research to be done on the gut microbiome and all of its intricacies. But some things are very clear.

First, you gut microbiota’s health is inherently tied to your overall health. One of the main reasons? Your gut flora help digest food and nourish your body. They also play a role in signaling the brain with various messages, like when we’re hungry or adequately satiated. And flora also play a role in maintaining healthy immunity.

Second, it’s established that you should strive for diversity of microbiota in your gut. And before you worry, there’s no need to completely overhaul your diet to achieve this goal. Instead, start by thinking about ways you can incorporate more fiber into your diet.

Luckily, you have a lot of options for doing so. Try a few of these easy options:

  1. Make small, easily applied changes. Like swapping out rolled oats for steel-cut oatmeal. Or eating whole-wheat pasta al dente versus cooked soft. Feeding yourself whole grains that take a little more effort to digest means you’re giving your microbiota more fiber to chew through.
  2. Consider replacing a processed snack with fruits or vegetables. And you can make it fun! Apples or carrots can be more exciting when paired with your favorite nut butter. A salad also tastes brighter with fresh strawberries.
  3. Skip the peeler when you can. Vegetable and fruit skin (or peels) can have a lot of healthy fiber and nutrients. When you peel them away, you miss the nourishment they provide you and your microbiota.
  4. Take a wholly different approach to grains. Love white bread and other grains? You’re not alone. But substituting a serving here or there for a whole-grain option is a good start. Try a multigrain bread, whole-grain pasta, or a new grain altogether (bulgur, quinoa, farro, or brown rice). It can spice up your cooking routine and help your gut.

Woman using antibacterial hand sanitizer

Lastly, consider easing up on antibacterial soaps and ideology. You want to keep pathogens away from your homes and bodies. But it’s easy to go overboard when it comes to cleanliness. This might mean not washing your hands after petting your dog, or making sure you really need antibiotics before taking them. The common cold is caused by a virus, so you won’t benefit from antibiotics.

The state (and diversity) of your gut microbiota is fairly stable in adulthood, but that’s not the case when you take antibiotics. They can wipe out bad and good bacteria. That’s like depleting a garden of all its organic material, richness, and nutrients at once. And that wonderful, fertile microbial soil will need to be rebuilt. One study found that it can take up to four weeks for your gut microbiota to return to its normal diversity.

Now that you’re in the know when it comes to your microbiota, you can trust yourself to be a master gut gardener. Whether your soil isn’t where you want it to be or not, you have the knowledge and tools to make changes and grow a healthy gut microbiota garden that can benefit your health.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.

If your diet is perfect, you can stop reading right now. This story is for people who occasionally hang out with foods best described as bad nutritional influences. That’s because even dietary troublemakers have redeeming qualities and you can find surprising sources of nutrients everywhere.

That doesn’t mean your whole diet should—or even can—be filled with foods that lean so heavily into the unhealthy. You need to limit the foods mentioned below. And for good health and weight maintenance, fill up on nutritious whole foods and plenty of plants.

But for the sake of your happiness or sanity, sometimes you need to stray—even momentarily. So, the following list of surprising sources of nutrients isn’t meant to absolve your dietary indiscretions. Instead, use it to help you pick a pleasure with at least a sliver of a nutritional silver lining.

Dark Chocolate Could be Your Choice for Unexpected Nutrition

This is probably the most well-known example of important nutrients in a delicious disguise. But let’s get something straight—this isn’t a blanket statement about all chocolate. Only the dark variety (cocoa—the unsweetened powder, not the drink—content at 50 percent or above) brings the hidden nutrient payload.

White chocolate is basically sugar and fat—without any actual cocoa in it. Milk chocolate is ubiquitous, creamy, delicious, and lacking many cocoa solids, which almost eliminates any nutritional upside whatsoever.

Dark chocolate contains more of the actual source material—the pods of the cacoa plant—which makes it more bitter and nutritious. That’s because this dark delight retains some soluble fiber, beneficial fatty acids, minerals, and small amounts of caffeine.

The phytonutrients in dark chocolate are also a big part of the surprising nutritional profile. Chocolate’s bio-active plant compounds have the ability to provide antioxidant support. And cocoa’s profile of phytonutrients—in this case, flavonols, catechins, and polyphenols—compares favorably to some berries.

That doesn’t mean you should permanently replace your afternoon handful of blueberries with a bar of dark chocolate. Even though it’s a surprising source of nutrients, dark chocolate is an unsurprising source of calories and fat. Any nutrient density is unfortunately balanced with the density of calories. So, eat dark chocolate in moderation—an ounce (28 grams) here and there won’t hurt. And you now have the information to back up your decadent decision.

What Nutrients are Hiding in Dark Chocolate?

  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Magnesium
  • Zinc
  • Phosphorus
  • Manganese
  • Potassium
  • Selenium
  • Flavonols
  • Fiber

The Shocking Nutritional Power of Potatoes

These tubers get a bad reputation. But why do potatoes have to be so delicious when fried and salted? Without the unhealthy preparation, potatoes absolutely qualify as a surprising source of nutrients.

Potatoes are just plants, after all—starchy nightshades grown underground to be exact. That’s the same family as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. And potatoes share vitamin and mineral content with their conventionally healthy cousins.

The white or gold varieties of potato—sweet potatoes are different and often considered healthier anyway—have vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6, and certain polyphenols. Since they’re mostly carbohydrates, potatoes also contain a small amount fiber. What is there mostly takes the form of resistant starch and insoluble fiber.

A majority of potatoes’ helpful nutrients aren’t hiding deep inside. They’re right on the surface, in the skin. So, when you cook potatoes, wash them thoroughly to remove dirt, but don’t peel them. You’re throwing a significant percentage of the nutrition in the garbage or compost.

There are plenty of nutrients to make potatoes worthwhile parts of your plate. And they are a staple food around the world. But overeating these starchy vegetables can be detrimental to weight management. That’s partly because plain potatoes are high glycemic and fairly calorie dense.

So, when potatoes are on the menu, make sure to pay attention to preparation (leave the peel) and cooking method (baked or boiled—not fried or cooked without excess fat). To lower the glycemic impact of potatoes, eat them as part of an entire meal (with protein, added fiber, and fats) to help slow the rate of digestion. And know when you dig in, you’re doing something surprisingly good for your health.

What Nutrients are Hiding in Potatoes?

  • Insoluble fiber
  • Resistant starch
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B9 (folate)
  • Choline
  • Antioxidants from various polyphenols (including catechin and lutein)

Looking for a Surprising Source of Nutrients? Say Cheese!

Cheese can be gooey, melty, creamy, or delightfully funky. It’s also full of saturated fat, calories, and quite a bit of salt. That’s not all that awaits cheese lovers, though.

The delectable dairy treat sports a bevy of beneficial nutrients to help balance some of the negatives. It has protein, a variety of essential minerals (calcium, zinc, and phosphorous), and vitamins A, B2, and B12. Depending on the milk source, cheeses can even contain conjugated linoleic acid, vitamin K2, good bacteria, omega-3s, and other fatty acids.

And you have your choice of different cheeses. If you’ve visited any grocery store lately, you know the variety of cheeses is staggering. Each type of cheese offers a different level of healthfulness, too.

It’s time to slice up the nutritional goodness for a few common varieties of cheese:

  • Cheddar: A popular addition to a variety of dishes—or simply delicious on top of crackers—this cheese, per ounce (28 grams), has: 115 calories, seven grams of protein, 20 percent of your recommended daily intake (RDI) of calcium, and some vitamin K2.
  • Blue Cheese: A rich cheese with veins of mold that has about 100 calories per ounce, six grams of protein, and a third of your RDI of calcium.
  • Feta: Crumbles of this salty cheese can give your salad a big boost of flavor, protein, and calcium without too many calories—80 per ounce, six grams of protein, and 10 percent of your daily calcium.
  • Mozzarella: This lower fat, lower sodium cheese is also lower calorie—about 85 per ounce—but still has plenty of protein (six grams) and calcium (14 percent of your daily recommendation in just an ounce).
  • Parmesan: A hard cheese that’s great as a topping contains about 110 calories per ounce, 10 grams of protein, 34 percent of your RDI of calcium, and about 30 percent of your recommended intake of phosphorous.
  • Swiss: Don’t let the holes fool you, there’s still plenty of protein (eight grams), not a lot of sodium, and very few carb (less than a gram) in this popular cheese—which also has about 111 calories and a quarter of daily calcium intake in an ounce.

All the fat, calories, and sodium necessitates a moderate approach to cheese consumption. And it’s obviously a no-no for those avoiding dairy for any reason. But if cheese melts your willpower, don’t fear too much. It’s still a surprising source of nutrients you need.

What Nutrients are Hiding in Cheese?

  • Protein
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B2
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin K
  • Calcium
  • Zinc
  • Phosphorous
  • Fatty acids—like palmitoleate, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and omega 3s
  • Good bacteria

Crack Open the Cold, Hard Facts About Hidden Nutrients in Beer

Moderation is the best mode when considering alcohol as part of your lifestyle. And avoiding it altogether is the only path that works for some. But if you’re going to pour yourself something stronger than water, beer is an unexpectedly good option.

Imbibing moderate amount of any alcohol has been found to have health benefits. Wine usually drinks up a lot of the publicity about healthy alcoholic beverages. But don’t sleep on the surprising nutrients lurking just below the foam of your sudsy lager or ale (especially those that haven’t filtered out all the grain proteins, hop material, and yeast from solution).

The B vitamins, soluble fiber, and very small amounts of various essential minerals help balance out some of the negatives brought on by beer’s high calories and carb count. You couldn’t, and shouldn’t, turn to beer for any significant portion of your nutritional needs, though.

There is one interesting and beneficial organic compound that is hard to find in other sources—xanthohumol. This bioflavonoid (a special kind of polyphenol and phytonutrient) comes from the hops used to bitter and flavor beer.

Research on this emerging compound isn’t robust, yet. But early results are promising. It’s found that your body may like xanthohumol because of its antioxidant properties, which means it helps fight free radicals. The most effective doses of this bioflavonoid are much higher than what you’d get in even the hoppiest beer, though.

So, if you don’t drink alcohol, that’s probably a good decision for your overall health. Those that do choose to tip one back every once in a while—always responsibly, moderately, and legally—can find surprising nutritional content in their favorite pint.

What Nutrients are Hiding in Beer?

  • Soluble fiber
  • B vitamins
  • Silicon
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorous
  • Fluoride
  • Copper
  • Selenium
  • Manganese
  • Zinc
  • Antioxidants from phytonutrients in the ingredients (barley and hops)
  • Xanthohumol

Surprises are Good—Sometimes

Knowing where to find surprising sources of nutrients is a good way to pick and explain away your guilty pleasures. You might even impress your friends with these fun facts. Again, though, these foods shouldn’t make up the bulk of your diet.

You can feel good about finding buried nutritional treasure in seemingly irredeemable foods and beverages. But remember there are more obvious sources of important nutrients that should be the focus of your meal planning.

Vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, lean protein, and whole grains might not offer the rush of the foods above. But they’re the foundation of the healthy diet that allows you to occasionally opt for something a little more fun—with a few hidden nutrient surprises, too.

women eating

women eating

You aren’t what you eat. But you are what your body absorbs. That’s because all of your food isn’t used by your body. And if you don’t absorb the nutrients in your food, they do no good for your cells, muscles, brain, and more.

But how are nutrients absorbed by the body? The simple version of this process has five components:

  1. Chewing and the introduction of enzymes in your mouth
  2. Churning and mixing with acid (gastric juice) in your stomach
  3. Contact and absorption in your small intestine—your nutrient absorption center
  4. Entrance into the bloodstream
  5. Carrier proteins bringing nutrients into your cells

Click to expand

But the journey is much more interesting and complex. A lot goes on behind the scenes to get the good stuff in your meal to enter the bloodstream.

So, follow along as the vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in your food make their way into your cells. And learn how you can help your body continue healthy nutrient absorption.

Your Digestive Systems Prepares Food for the Small Intestine

To sustain your body, your food needs to be broken down into usable pieces. Carbs, proteins, and fats become glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids, respectively. The vitamins and minerals in food need to be extracted, too.

That’s what your digestive system does. And digestion starts right after the first bite. Teeth tear up food into manageable chunks. The enzymes in your saliva (called salivary amylase) break down the food’s chemical structure.

Digestion continues in the stomach, where powerful acid disassembles food even further. With the help of peristaltic motion (rhythmic digestive movement) the food you consume is stirred and mixed as it prepares to enter the small intestine.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive into digestion, take a trip through your digestive tract.

Small Intestine: Headquarters of Nutrient Absorption

The workings of the small intestine can be complex. But its role can be simply summed up in two words: nutrient absorption. That’s because your small intestine is in charge of pulling glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals out of food to be used by the cells.

This is accomplished by tiny projections called villi. The microscopic, brush-like lining of the small intestine acts like a comb that grabs important nutrients out of the digested food that leaves your stomach.

Villi are great at absorbing nutrients because they increase the surface area of the inside of small intestine. With hundreds of thousands of villi lining your gut, that’s a lot of surface area for nutrient absorption.

Each villus (a single protrusion of the villi) is composed of a meshwork of capillaries and lymphatic vessels (called lacteals) underneath an ultra-thin layer of tissue. This special structure makes it possible to pull macro- and micronutrients out of your meals and send them to the bloodstream.

Water is also essential to this process. The small intestine uses a chemical process called diffusion to extract nutrients. Diffusion moves water and water-soluble compounds across barriers, like the villi in the small intestine. These compounds include:

  • Glucose (simple sugars)
  • Amino acids (parts of proteins)
  • Water-soluble vitamins (B vitamins and vitamin C)
  • Minerals

Once these nutrients are diffused into the villi, it’s a straight shot to the bloodstream. That’s where these nutrients can work in cells to make proteins and create energy.

Fats and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) require a few extra steps to enter the bloodstream.

First, bile acids from the liver mix with fats in the small intestine. This breaks the fats down into their component fatty acids. Then, the fatty acids and other fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed by the villi into lacteals. These lymphatic vessels transport the fat-soluble compounds to the liver. That’s where they are stored and released in the body as needed.

And there’s a lot of use for fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. Cells use the fatty acids to build cell membranes. And vitamins A, D, E, and K are useful in the body to support the health of your eyes, brain, heart, and bones.

Nutrient Distribution into Your Cells

Absorbing nutrients into the bloodstream isn’t the end of the journey. To make energy, move muscles, sense touch, and generally propel your life, the nutrients you eat need to enter your cells.

This is easier said than done.

Surrounding each of your cells—no matter the type—is a cellular membrane made of fatty acids. It protects the cell, and controls what can enter and exit. Some materials, like water, can pass into the cell easily. Others need assistance.

Proteins embedded in the cellular membrane act as ushers. They help carry nutrients from the bloodstream into the cell. Glucose, amino acids, fats, and vitamins use carrier proteins to get inside cells.

Once through the membrane, nutrients play many important roles. Some cells, like muscle fibers, need minerals like calcium to flood the cell in order to move your arms and legs. Others, like nerve cells, need sodium and potassium to be pumped in and out so your brain can pick up sensory information.

Cells use the glucose in your bloodstream to create energy by making ATP, the cellular energy currency. And amino acids are the building blocks for all DNA. When they’re brought into the cell, amino acids help transfer genetic information so cells can replicate.

Nutrients and the Blood Brain Barrier

While the small intestine readily absorbs and distributes nutrients to cells, the brain is more guarded. As a precaution, your brain is selective about the compounds it allows to enter through the bloodstream. This transport of nutrients is managed by a mechanism called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The BBB consists of the vessels and capillaries that deliver blood to the brain and surrounding tissue. These vessels are made of tightly packed cells that only allow the smallest molecules to pass through to the brain. Larger molecules can only enter with the help of specialized transport proteins.

Glucose is one of the nutrients that has the easiest time crossing the blood-brain barrier. And with good reason. Glucose is the fuel your brain thrives on, so it’s important that it can freely enter the brain.

Fatty acids also travel across the BBB easily. That’s because your brain’s health relies on them. Omega-3s are especially important for supporting growing brains.

It’s not so easy for amino acids. Carrier molecules attach themselves to amino acids to guide them to the brain. Without the carriers, these protein components wouldn’t be able to do their job in the brain. That includes manufacturing neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood and nervous system.

Other nutrients can enter the brain through the blood-brain barrier. Vitamins B6 and B12 also rely on carrier molecules. But vitamin C can cross the BBB on its own and has been shown to help other helpful compounds make their way to the brain.

3 Tips to Maintain Healthy Nutrient Absorption

Now you understand how nutrients are absorbed by the body. And have a good idea of the importance of this process. But how much of nutrient absorption is within your control?

Quite a bit, actually. Maintaining your digestive health and making smart dietary decisions are two major factors under your control. Here are three simple suggestions to support nutrient absorption. Pick one to work on and see how it makes you feel.

  1. Focus on your good bacteria ratio with a probiotic

Your digestive system is helped by the members of your gut microbiome. That’s why probiotics are great for supporting healthy digestion. They help maintain healthy bacterial diversity, which assists your gut in breaking down some types of food so they can be properly absorbed.

  1. Make healthy fat choices

Remember those fat-soluble vitamins? They rely on fat to get from the small intestine to the rest of your body. Healthy fats are necessary for storing up vitamins A, D, E, and K. Choose healthy fats (plant sources) over saturated or trans fats to help your body absorb these important nutrients. Just another reason to take your supplements with food.

  1. Give your body plenty of nutrients to absorb

This sounds like the most obvious advice, but it’s important to remember. Make a goal to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to optimize the vitamins you’re getting on a daily basis. Start by eating different colored foods. This can help you meet your nutrient goals. Red and orange foods have lots of vitamin A, while green veggies are packed with B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Colorful foods also contain phytonutrients that support good health. So, try to fill your plate with different colors to meet your daily needs.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

washing face

washing face

As you go about your everyday life, you are not alone. No need to be paranoid. You aren’t being haunted by ghosts or followed by anyone. But there is a community of nearly 1,000 different species of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and mites you constantly tote around with you—on your skin. It’s known as the skin microbiome, and it’s important for the health of your largest organ.

That’s right—what you can’t see in the mirror might be having a huge impact on your skin.

What is the Skin Microbiome?

woman washing face

The billions of microbes living on you are called your skin microbiome. These microorganisms (sometimes called skin flora) are harmless or even beneficial—playing a vital role in your immune system and skin appearance. Evolved over thousands of years, the human microbiome consists of many distinct types of colonies, depending on the location and condition of the microenvironment.

The microbiota survive off of the salt, water, and oil (sebum) your skin releases to keep itself cool and lubricated. And several factors determine the habitat of the various microbiota, like:

  • body temperature
  • skin thickness
  • amount and size of folds
  • skin pH
  • the density of hair follicles and glands

In other words—and not all too surprisingly—the microbiota on your face looks different from the microbiota on your armpits. Areas with higher density of oil glands, like your face, back, and chest, thrive off of the lipids (fats) in your sebum. Warm, humid areas, such as the groin and between the toes, host microorganisms that love a danker environment. Meanwhile, dry, cool patches—like your arms and legs—have far fewer micro-colonies than the rest of your body. In all, the average person carries around two pounds of microbes on their body at all times.

The sheer amount and diversity of skin flora may sound scary. But it’s actually a good and healthy thing. Having a bountiful, well-balanced microbiome plays an important role in your overall health, and the appearance of your skin. The microorganisms help produce vitamins, hormones, and chemicals that affect everything from your mood to metabolism to immune system.

What Skin Flora Do for You

skin microbiome

Most people know the skin is the body’s first line of defense against injury or potential pathogens. But it’s not actually your skin’s cells that act as the front lines of the cavalry. It’s the skin’s microbiome.

Your skin’s inherent environment is rather unfriendly to bad bacteria. It’s cool and dry. The pH is acidic. Even sebum, your skin’s lubricant, is antimicrobial. And, ideally, your skin has a bountiful amount of microbiota to combat all the bad bacteria you come into contact with.

A healthy skin microbiome, which prefers the acidic environment your skin provides, helps your immune system out. This likely starts by skin flora overcrowding pathogen overgrowth. Also, your skin’s immune system and microbiome communicate and respond to one another’s needs.

But your skin could be left vulnerable if your skin’s microbiome has been damaged in one of many ways:

  • soaps
  • incorrect or overuse of antibiotics
  • harsh skincare products
  • environmental factors

Unfortunately, the diversity in many modern societies’ microbiomes is as much as half as diverse as it once was. The culprits of the dwindling number of microbiota? Modern hygiene practices—such as daily showers or baths and the use of aggressive soaps and detergents—along with less healthful diets. Also a lack of interactions with plants, soil, and the microbiomes of livestock and other wildlife, may have an impact.

On the individual level, many factors can shape the diversity of your skin flora. Your job, age, lifestyle, clothing, hygiene habits, and even how much time you spend in the sunlight can all affect the types and amount of microorganisms inhabiting your microbiome.

The lack of diversity can become obvious, even to the naked eye. It can lead to dryness, overproduction of sebum, breakouts, redness, or other afflictions. Therefore, keeping the proper balance of microbiota, and maintaining proper pH, can help protect your skin and microbiota from undesirable conditions.

The relationship between your skin’s appearance and microbiome isn’t completely clear. That’s partially because the vast majority of skin flora haven’t been cultured or extensively studied yet. But more research and information is likely coming. That’s because the subject of the skin microbiome has caught the attention of many large beauty and skincare brands. It has even inspired the creation of some startup cosmetic brands who are experimenting with adding microbes to their products.

5 Tips for a Flourishing, Healthy Skin Microbiome

drinking water

Many of the factors that control the makeup of your skin microbiome are out of your control. But there are some things you can do to protect the delicate communities of skin flora. To keep your skin’s microbiome happy, healthy, and thriving, implement these five tips:

Cleanse—and dry—correctly.

There’s a fine balance between having good hygiene and overdoing it. Avoid over-washing or using harsh cleansers. And don’t go crazy with the scrubbing. Too much friction can strip your skin of its healthy microbes, and create micro-tears in the skin at the same time. These tiny tears can be a breeding ground for unhealthy pathogens. When it comes time to dry off, gently pat your skin dry instead of vigorously rubbing yourself with the towel.

Eat well and hydrate.

As with most aspects of your health, your diet plays a vital role in keeping your skin healthy. Eating a diet rich in healthy fats, vegetables, protein, and fiber helps your gut bacteria, which may in turn help your skin microbiome. Also, be sure to drink at least 64 ounces of water per day. Being chronically dehydrated can negatively impact your microbiome. Finally, try to work up a sweat regularly to help feed your skin’s microbiome.

Avoid synthetic fabrics.

Choose natural fibers like cotton over synthetics whenever possible. Man-made fabrics, especially those that are tight or worn closely to the skin, can cause an imbalance in your microbiome. Remember that microbiota thrive on different areas of the body because of their unique environments. If you often wear items that cause your temperature, sebum or sweat  production, or otherwise affect the normal skin conditions, you could create an environment in which good skin flora cannot thrive.

Choose products wisely.

Avoid antibacterial soaps and step away from hand sanitizer. In many cases, they kill the beneficial microbes along with the bad ones. Beyond the antibacterial type, soaps in general are alkaline, which can upset the balance of your acidic skin and actually make you more vulnerable to alkaline-loving potential pathogens. If you want to go the extra mile to ensure your hygiene isn’t damaging your microbiota, try one of the microbiome soaps that are now on the market. When it comes time to moisturize, be aware that many lotions have ingredients that are not microbiome-friendly. Use gentle, water-attracting moisturizers with ingredients like hyaluronic acid.

Embrace Your Skin Microbiome.

While it may go against everything you’ve been taught for decades, not all bacteria or other microbes should be killed or avoided. And, in reality, it would be a futile endeavor. So, instead of being grossed out by the billions of life forms with which you share your body, embrace the little guys that make up your skin microbiome and do your best to protect them as well as they try to protect you.