The nutrition our body gets depends on the food decisions we make every day at the supermarket, restaurants, and in our kitchens. Healthy eating doesn't happen by accident.
The French author and moralist, La Rochefoucald, put it very nicely when he said "To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art."
The take-away message of this entire website is that health is the result of a series of choices we make every day. The number one, most important choice we make on a daily basis is what we put in our mouth and swallow.
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I know you've heard "You are what you eat" a million times and by now it's one of those trite phrases that goes in one ear and out the other. But guess what? It's true.
Let's examine "eating intelligently" and see how simple choices we make in our food selection, preparation methods and meal timing can either extend our lives or shorten them considerably.
Before we consider what nutrition is, let me share a couple of quotes to set the stage.
Miss Piggy's philosophy is that you should, "Never eat more than you can lift", and from Fran Leibowitz, American author and now TV actress, "Food is an important part of a balanced diet".
Too many people follow Miss Piggy's advice and not enough of Ms. Leibowitz's.
Picture this. Mom comes home after a trying day at the office; the kids have been home from school for a couple of hours and dad comes in a few minutes later from a hard, stressful day at the office.
Then comes the dreaded question, "Honey, I'm home, what's for dinner?"
In this family, the usual answer is something like, "Oh darling, I just got home and there's nothing in the fridge.
Let's order a pizza or would you rather make a run for burgers and fries".
What's wrong is that this scenario is played out far too often in millions of homes across the country.
Compounding the problem is that the junk food dinner is the finale to a breakfast of sugar-coated cereal, donuts or pop tarts and a lunch of white bread bologna sandwiches, potato chips and a soft drink.
This family is building a foundation for some serious health problems.
In my very scientific way of putting things, nutrition is that stuff that's good for us that we put in our mouths and swallow.
It means things like nuts, olive oil, whole grains, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, blueberries, apples, oranges and assorted other fruits and veggies.
What it doesn't mean is white bread, white mashed potatoes and gravy, soft drinks (including diet sodas), artificial sweeteners (the pink, blue and yellow), and just about anything handed through a drive-up window.
As a rule of thumb, if it tastes good or makes you feel good, it's probably bad for you. Yes, I still love my double cheese burger with fries and a large Dr. Pepper! Just not every day, maybe once a month if I'm lucky.
Restated, nutrition is the essential ingredients that our body needs to function. If it doesn't get even one of those essentials, problems will develop.
If what we swallow is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem.
When you hear the phrase "the picture of health", what comes to mind?
Maybe one of the goddesses that model swimsuits for Sports Illustrated or lingerie for Victoria's Secret, or maybe, Mr. Universe or The Rock.
When I see hardbodies and hunks like these, somehow the first question that pops into my mind isn't "Hmm, I wonder how many servings of fruits and vegetables they ate today"? But maybe it should be!
If nothing else these people know how to feed and take care of their bodies, after all, their livelihood depends on it. As someone who promotes good health through nutrition, I am painfully aware that I have to reflect what I preach.
If I am selling the best miracle dietary supplement in the world, I had better be a product of my product. Which brings to mind another quote: "Never trust a skinny chef or a fat dietitian".
Before proceeding, enclosed is a link to Amazon.com for a look at the book "Whole" by T. Colin Campbell, PhD. It is a few years old (copyright 2013) but for anyone who is very serious about learning nutrition and the title is quite descriptive; it presents the case for whole foods versus isolated nutrients.
If we eat our four to five or even six to eight servings of fruit and vegetables a day, we should be getting all the nutrition we need, right? Well, no. Or at least, it depends.
Over the last 40 or 50 years, the nutritional value of commercially farmed produce has dropped dramatically. Our country's farms have to feed a lot of people today and they aren't making any new farm land.
People don't live near the farms anymore, they live where the jobs are. It's a long way from farm to supermarket shelf.
Most foods we buy today have gone through some type of processing. If that processing involves heat, chances are a large portion of the nutrients have been destroyed.
In addition to the heat, preservatives tend to degrade many fragile nutrients. Of course, the justification is in having a longer shelf life.
What all this means is that old farmland is depleted of trace minerals. The main fertilizers that are added back to the soil consists of NPK; that is, Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium.
It makes the produce look pretty but it is severely lacking in the trace minerals; all vital micronutrients.
Produce has to be picked before it is fully ripened so it doesn't spoil on its journey to the store. Nutritional development in fruit and vegetables cease the moment they are separated from the plant.
Thus, a "green harvested" food doesn't have the same nutrient value as a fully ripened one.
Commercially grown produce is generally sprayed with pesticides and fertilized with the basic three chemicals, NPK.
After the produce is picked before it's ready (green harvested), transported, and gassed to make it look appetizing, we end up with fruit and vegetables that are full of water, short on fiber, short on taste, and very depleted in nutrients. Remember the term, "empty calories"? This is it!
Go to your local farmer's market or stop at a farmer's roadside stand and buy a tomato. Compare the taste of that one to the one you bought at your supermarket. I guarantee there will be no comparison.
One really tastes like a tomato; the other has no taste. That's because it has very little lycopene (a carotenoid phytochemical), the stuff that makes the tomato red and carries the nutritional value.
You can do this experiment with just about any fruit or vegetable and the results will be very similar. Nutrients are vastly reduced or missing entirely in most of our high-volume, commercially grown produce.
The topics covered so far have all dealt with produce; fruit and vegetables. When we consider the nutritional value of meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs and even fish from the typical supermarket, a very disturbing picture emerges.
The norm is extreme crowding, limited movement, small cages or pens, fouled air, extreme buildup of animal manure, disease, and unnatural diets of corn, soybeans and animal waste.
The use of growth hormones is to accelerate weight gain is typical and extreme overuse of antibiotics is rampant, without which most of the animals would not live long enough to be slaughtered. This is supposed to pass as healthy food? You be the judge.
There is a another very special class of missing nutrient; in fact it wasn't even recognized as a nutrient until the development of the fairly new science of glycobiology.
This is the study of sugars (glyco) and their role in bodily functions, especially the immune function.
The short answer is that, if we get our produce in the typical supermarket, there is no way we can eat enough to give us the plant nutrients we need.
There was a conference several years ago where that same question was addressed from the stage. The host opened a curtain and brought out a big wheelbarrow full of various fruits and vegetables. The answer was "about this much".
Although the host on stage was indulging in a bit of showmanship, there are enough unbiased studies that support the hypothesis that our foods aren't as nutritious as they used to be.
Let's consider how much of some specific items we would have to eat today to get the same nutritional value compared to 40 or 50 years ago. Comparisons over time only have meaning if we look at the nutritional content of a specific item of produce in terms of a specific nutrient such as vitamin A, C, E or a trace mineral.
A commonly cited study is that of Paul Bergner who used data from various sources, including the USDA, and tabulated the loss of vitamins and minerals in several fruits and vegetables over several decades.
One of his often referenced findings covers the 30 year period from 1963 to 1992 wherein he documented the mineral losses of a dozen fruits and vegetables: He found an almost 30% loss in calcium; a 32% loss in Iron; a 21% loss in Magnesium; an 11% loss in Phosphorus and a 6.5% loss in Potassium.
The implications are that we must eat many more servings of a particular vegetable today to get the same value as we would have gotten 30 years ago.
One of the vegetables that were included in Bergner's study is Broccoli. Broccoli is rich in calcium but if there is truly a 30% reduction in the calcium content of broccoli, we would have to eat a little over three servings to get the same calcium benefit as one serving in 1963.
One incredible finding from a different study concludes that it would take 53 peaches to get the same vitamin A content as from one peach several decades ago.
An apparent conflict is found in data from the USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS). Their data attempts to report the nutritional content of food available for consumption by the entire U.S. population. It examines 10 vitamins, 9 minerals, protein, fat, carbs, cholesterol and fiber; focusing on meat, diary, fruit, vegetables, and grain among others. It generally shows increasing levels of nutrients over the last few decades; not decreasing levels.
The problem I see is that it does not look at individual items of produce such as broccoli or peaches and it does include nutrients added through commercial fortification and enrichment.
That is the million dollar question. If more people had even a rudimentary understanding of how food is used by the body, our national health crisis would shrink dramatically. Two quotes come to mind:
"Those who think they have no time for healthy eating will sooner or later have to find time for illness"... Edward Stanley (1826-1893) from The Conduct of Life, and,
"The wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings. Let food be your medicine"...Hippocrates
From the quotations, it is apparent that healthy eating bestows healthy living and improper diet yields sickness. One question that is often raised is which nutrient is the most important? The answer is obvious, it's the one that's missing.
Maybe the answer is in the Superfoods. It's been hard lately to pick up one of the popular magazines and not find some article about superfoods.
"Superfood" isn't a scientific or nutritionist's word, it is one of those invented words that marketers and people that write blogs and magazine articles like to use. The generally accepted meaning of the term is a food that has benefits beyond mere nutrition; it has healing properties.
In dietary supplements, the term "nutraceutical" was coined in 1989 by Dr. Stephen L. DeFelice to describe a supplement that has pharmaceutical benefits only without the Rx. So I will say that a superfood is the nutraceutical of natural foods.
Most articles on superfoods are in agreement as to what foods are in this class and the top ten always include:
The ranking may be different depending on who writes the article and may include an oil such as olive (extra virgin, cold pressed) or canola.
The common factors or benefits of the superfoods include
the presence of plant-derived chemicals known as phytonutrients; the ability to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol; and providing large amounts of antioxidants that protect us from the effects of free radical damage, stress and toxins.
In addition, they bestow anti-inflammatory benefits thus warding off many chronic disease conditions that are characterized by inflammation and some even have mood-altering benefits.
Even with the superfoods, we must shop wisely and prepare them in such as way as to protect their beneficial properties. Commercial food processing, heat treating, over-cooking, preservative chemicals and the presence of heavy metals (salmon and other seafood) all degrade the goodness of the superfoods.
It's not just what we chew up and swallow that matters, it's what gets taken into our bodies and used, that is, absorbed.
The kicker is that certain nutrients must be present in order for other nutrients to be absorbed. To complicate things even further, some nutrients can block absorption of other nutrients.
Consider calcium. We reach our peak bone density in our early thirties. After that the body stops storing excess calcium and very few of us eat enough calcium rich foods to get the recommended daily allowance.
Thus, supplementation is highly encouraged. Vitamin D facilitates absorption of calcium, so without vitamin D the depleted calcium doesn't get replaced and bones become weak.
On the other hand, iron blocks calcium absorption. It is also good to know that caffeine in soft drinks or coffee depletes calcium as well as sweating, as from exercise. Gets complicated, doesn't it!
Instead of trying to remember all the absorption rules, it's so much easier just to eat a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables (fresh and raw where possible), fiber, whole grains, meat and fish, and yes, even a little fat at the beginning of the meal.
That would be the monosaturated type found in things like butter, peanut butter, apple butter, walnuts and cashews. A little fat before a meal keeps food in the stomach longer and keeps the hunger pangs at bay for a few hours. And don't forget the supplements and adequate water.
Before any absorption can take place, nutrients must be broken down into smaller and smaller molecules. It all starts in the mouth.
Your mother was right about chewing your food. Digestion starts in the mouth where certain enzymes start breaking down fats and carbohydrates. Before shoveling it in and swallowing, slow down, chew, enjoy the taste and think "absorption".
Most absorption takes place in the 26 feet or so of small intestine. Very little nutrient absorption takes place in the colon; its function is mainly to absorb water but whether it's water or nutrients, it's still absorption.
Before leaving, here are a few more recommended books for nutrition professionals as well as interested laymen, all available from Amazon.com.
Return to Healthy by Nature home page
Link to Essential Nutrients; the Building Blocks of Health
Link to all you ever wanted to know about Food Pyramids.
Link to a discussion of Essential Sugars and why we need them.
Link to Probiotics; Intestinal flora vital to life
Link to Required Dietary Allowances; now known as DRIs
Link to Essential Vitamins
Link to Essential Minerals
Link to Dietary Fats and Essential Fatty Acids
Link to Essential Amino Acids and Proteins
Link to Phytonutrients and Phytosterols
Navigate to Antioxidants
Link to Dietary Fiber