Tag Archives: phytonutrients

Nutrient Basics

Nutrient Basics

Nutrition is about getting essential elements and compounds from our environment and transforming them into the metabolic building blocks of optimal health.

Moving from Staying Alive to Optimal Nutrition

Nutritional status exists on a continuum from simply staying alive to optimal health. Humans can stay alive with a few dozen essential nutrients. Optimal health involves thousands of compounds, many lumped into the category of “phytonutrients”, where “phyto” refers to plants. Phytonutrients are often referred to in terms of their antioxidant properties, which play a key role in a whole host of metabolic processes. This is the central reason for the importance of a plant based diet in optimal health.

In the short term, oxygen is the most essential element. Without oxygen, we would die within minutes. Breathe! The most fundamental metabolic process is oxidation, coupled with reduction. Oxidation is the chemical process where atoms and molecules gain electrons, whereas reduction is the loss of electrons. This oxidation-reduction process is how energy is transferred to power the thousands of different chemical reactions in your body. Maintaining the balance of oxidation and reduction is the most fundamental metabolic balance in your body. This is why antioxidants (reductants) are so important and play a central role in overall nutrition and health.

Without water, we would die within days. Water is a miraculous molecule with unique physical and chemical characteristics which make human life possible. Water comprises the majority of our body weight (in a healthy body). Not surprisingly, hydration is important for our health. Drink up!

Provided we have oxygen and water, it is possible to live for months on foods of very poor nutritional quality, that provide mostly energy/calories. The caloric nutrients are carbohydrates (starches and sugars), fat, protein, and alcohol. Carbohydrates are the most easily converted to energy in the body, and produce water right along with their metabolism (that’s why they are called carbo-hydrates). Fats are the most energy dense of the caloric nutrients and the primary way we store energy over the long haul. Protein functions primarily as a building block for muscle and enzymes in the body, but excess protein is converted to energy or stored as fat. During caloric restriction, protein may be broken down for energy. Alcohol is calorie dense, may impair the metabolism of other nutrients, and can dehydrate the body. Fats have 9 calories per gram; carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram; and alcohol has 7 calories per gram.

To survive over the years, your body requires vitamins and minerals. Most vitamins are essential enzymes that cannot be manufactured by the body, so you must get them from your diet. Most minerals are involved as cofactors of enzymes, hundreds of enzymes! Enzymes make complex chemical reactions work in your body. Think of enzymes as workers on an assembly line. You need many workers to work together to produce a complex product. With so many enzymes in action, this is why supplementing or fortifying with a small number of vitamins and minerals often doesn’t promote balanced nutrition. It’s like having one, or a few, kick-ass assembly line workers, but instead of assisting the assembly process, they just end up diverting energy elsewhere. An assembly line is only as fast as it’s slowest worker! So, vitamin and mineral supplementation/fortification is good for preventing a limited number of deficiency states, but it cannot address the whole range of metabolic processes that need to be coordinated and boosted across the board for optimal health. This is why a good diet must be based on whole foods. We need foods that will infuse our bodies with a robust range of nutrients — that, like a tide, will rise the boats of all of the assembly workers (to mix in another generous portion of metaphor).

To live a long, healthy life, we need thousands of nutrients — not merely the few dozen “essential” nutrients identified in the last century. There are estimated to be tens of thousands of different phytochemicals. Only a few percent of these have been isolated; and only a small fraction of these have been analyzed and tested. Nonetheless, while the nutritional science of phytochemicals is young, phytonutrients are not some mystical concept. Research thus far shows that:

• Most phytochemicals have antioxidant activity that protect our cells against oxidative damage; this antioxidant activity reduces inflammation, the root cause of much degenerative/chronic diseases
• Some phytochemicals stimulate enzymes, promoting healthy metabolism and detoxification
• Some phytochemicals help regulate healthy hormonal action
• Some phytochemicals regulate and protect DNA, affecting cancer prevention and healthy aging
• Some phytochemicals have anti-microbial properties, fighting against pathogenic infections and stimulating a health gut flora

One common nutrient is found only in plants: fiber. Fiber is often considered “non-nutritive”, but this is a big mistake. There are two basic types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Most fiber is insoluble and provides the bulk or roughage in our diets. Soluble fiber is particularly adept at binding with cholesterol and toxins to carry them out of your system. Fiber slows the digestion of nutrients, spreading out the intake of caloric nutrients, allowing for a more balanced and healthy metabolism. Fiber is the single most important factor in satiety, feeling full. Fiber may not be digested by human enzymes but it is partially digested by the gut bacteria living in the most concentrated, biodiverse place on the planet. This promotes healthy gut bacteria, which are essential to optimal human nutrition. Fiber is the most basic pro-biotic.

In short, a diet rich in whole plant foods is the foundation for optimal nutrition and health.

Ten Commandments of Eating for Life

10 Commandments of Eating for Life

1. Eat whole, minimally processed foods whenever possible

Nature knows best. Eating foods in a form that resembles the state in which they were harvested is a good bet for optimizing a food’s nutritional value. “Whole” means that the food’s original nutritional potential is substantially present by the time they get in your mouth. “Whole” refers to the basic foodstuffs from nature. The nutritional value and quality of basic foodstuffs depends upon many things, including:

1) the genetics of the foodstuff (plant, animal, fungus, or variety thereof);
2) the inputs which make food grow, such as soil, water, air, sun, and fertilizer (and feed for animal foods); and
3) the larger ecology, including weather, symbiotic organisms, weeds, or pests.

“Minimally processed” means that the food is processed only as much as is necessary to:

1) enhance nutritional availability;
2) prevent the loss of nutritional value;
3) assure that the food is safe; and
4) make the food palatable.

Food processing generally encompasses:

1) removing, refining, altering food components;
2) food storage or preservation methods;
3) adding/combining ingredients; and
4) cooking methods.

2. Eat a wide variety of wholesome foods.

Your body requires a wide variety of nutrients. Meeting your body’s nutrient requirements is best achieved by eating a wide variety of wholesome foods. Mix it up! Many compounds in our diets interact with one another, often with great synergy. Mixing it up can make the sum greater than the parts. Be wary of fad diets that greatly restrict your food variety or focus on a small number of foods or nutrients. Your body is awesome at maintaining “homeostasis” — a fancy word for balance — it just needs a sensible input of wholesome foods.

3. Eat mostly plant foods.

Plant foods offer a wider variety and better mix of health-forming nutrients than animal foods. Much of this is due to a large number and quantity of positively bioactive phytonutrients present in plants. However, animal foods also contain substantial components which are disease-forming. Also, foods higher up the food chain, i.e., all animal foods, tend to bioaccumulate toxins such as heavy metals and fat-soluble chemicals. In modern, industrialized diets, higher animal food consumption is associated with poorer health.

4. Eat and drink in moderation.

Moderation is a close relative of variety. Moderation and variety are practices that support balance. For most people, balance means eating more good foods and less “bad” foods. If indulging in “bad” foods, do so in moderation. Eliminating your favorite foods may do more harm than good, if it does not allow you to make sustainable changes to your diet. Small changes over time add up! And, even with the best foods, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. As they say, “The dose makes the poison.”

5. Eat regular meals.

Your body functions better when your food intake is spread out across three meals a day. Breakfast is key to priming your metabolism and getting an energetic start to your day. Snacking between meals probably adds little additional benefit, and may be detrimental to oral health. Drinking water between meals may be a good habit to stay hydrated (unsweetened, plain coffee/tea can be a healthy source of antioxidants — though you may want to avoid caffeine 10 hours before bedtime).

6. Eat ecologically-sustainable foods.

All life is interdependent. What we eat not only affects our nutritional status, it affects our planet and all life that depends on it. Ecologically-sustainable foods are part of a healthy, sustainable food system. A healthy, sustainable food system emphasizes, strengthens, and makes visible the interdependent and inseparable relationships between individual sectors (from production to waste disposal) and system characteristics (health-promoting, sustainable, resilient, diverse, fair, economically balanced, and transparent). This benefits all farmers, workers and eaters involved, as well as the planet and its other inhabitants.  Explore more at Eating Ecologically.

7. Pay attention to what you eat.

Paying attention, or mindfulness, is key to actively participating as a just eater on an interdependent planet. Mindfulness is the foundation for accurately assessing what you actually eat. Once you know what you are eating, then you can properly evaluate what impact your food has on you and your planet.

8. Pay attention to your eating habits.

Just eating is way more than just knowing the nutritional value of what you are eating. Where does your food come from? How does it get to you? Where did you buy it? How much does it cost? Where do you eat it? How was it prepared? What are your regular eating habits? Why do you eat the way you do? Being mindful of your eating habits can give you important clues to what improvements may be made.

9. Pay attention to the feedback of your body (and mind).

Your body is amazing! Whether you are paying attention or not, your body is busy processing the food you eat and the nutrients it absorbs. Your body is orchestrating gazillions of chemical reactions every second to keep in you balance. Return the favor and pay attention to your body (and mind)! This can help you decipher signals and cues related to taste, hunger, thirst, alertness, fatigue, and emotional state that can impact your food choices. Teaming up with your body can be the beginning of a long and healthy relationship.

10. Enjoy your food!

Food is one of the great pleasures in life! If food and nutrition become a chore, then you may be missing the point. Health is for life. Life is for enjoying! Becoming enlightened about food and nutrition may “ruin” some eating habits for you. There is a certain amount effort and even distress involved in disciplines leading to enlightenment. Nonetheless, the payoff can be greater harmony within yourself and your environment. This is a cause for joy!