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We humans are often funny, illogical and unpredictable, so the long neglect of the role of food and nutrition in our lives is not all too surprising. The science had already well developed many other branches - from psychology to astrophysics - before we finally decided to take a closer look of what actually keeps us alive: our food, and the crucial role of vital nutrients in maintaining our health.
Slow, sporadic progress in what was to become the science of nutrition was almost entirely result of isolated individual discoveries throughout the 19th and early 20th century.
First serious attempt to benefit the U.S. public with
what's been learned about nutrition were the 1941 RDA (Recommended Daily Allowances) by the
National Research Council. They contained specific recommendation for the caloric
as well as the intake of nine then recognized essential nutrients. The Food Guide Pyramid
was introduced by the Department of Agriculture as recent as 1992. Welcome abroad, nutrition!
The 6 basic nutrients
Somewhat simplified, what makes us and keeps us alive is the food we eat. It can be broken down to these six basic nutrient groups:
The first three nutrient categories - proteins, fats and carbohydrates - consist of large, complex bio-molecules; together with water, they represent macronutrients, which form a bulk of the human diet.
Minerals and vitamins, also called micronutrients, make only a tiny portion of the food we eat. Nevertheless, they are necessary for body functions just as much as macronutrients.
Each macronutrient comes in various chemical sub-forms - proteins as peptides (partly broken down proteins with less than ~50 amino acids) and amino acids (protein building blocks), fats as fatty acids, and carbohydrates as simple (sugars) and complex (starches). Each of this basic forms has different nutritional properties/functions, and needs to be present in a diet in proper proportion.
Unlike micronutrients and water, three basic macronutrients - proteins, fats and carbohydrates - release energy during the breakdown of their complex structures. This energy is measured in units of calories, with 1 calorie being the amount of energy needed to heat up 1 ml (milliliter) of water 1°C.
Balanced intake of the three calorie-containing macronutrients, for an average healthy adult, requires 10%-20% of the total calories coming from proteins, about 20-25% from fats and 55%-70% from carbohydrates. Those having lower caloric intake should, in general, have relatively higher intake of proteins and fats, while those with high caloric intake should stay at the moderate to low levels within given caloric ranges. That should roughly equalize the amount of actual protein and fat ingested - particularly their essential forms - among individuals on widely different levels of caloric intake.
Of course, specific proportion is also a subject to variations in individual metabolism which, for various reasons, and at any point in time, can require somewhat different optimum proportion.
Note that the official government's recommendation is different than the one given above. The DRI (Dietary Reference Intakes by the National Academy of Sciences) figures for adults are 10-35% for proteins, 20-35% for fats and 45-65% for carbohydrates. The prevailing educated opinion is that the upper range for both, proteins and carbohydrates is too high (credits to meat and dairy industry lobbying). These "acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges" are also directly contradicting, since still "acceptable" protein/fat intake of 30-35% each would result in unacceptably low intake of carbohydrates (30-40% of total calories).
It is also in wide discrepancy with the DRI's specific recommendations for protein intake, which are 46g and 56g a day for average adult female and male, respectively (which are based on the 0.8g/kg of body weight criterion, related to the FAO/WHO protein intake standard). Assuming average caloric intake for adult women of 2500 calories, and 3000 calories for adult men, it translates into 7.3% and 7.5% (@ 4cal/g) of total caloric intake, significantly below DRI's own
Average daily need for
water is estimated to
be nearly a gallon, roughly half of
which is, on average, contained in the ingested food. This nearly coincides with
the DRI for adult men (3.7L), while for adult women the DRI is lower
(2.7L, which is somewhat less than corresponding to the average
Each of the six basic nutrients - except water - is made of a large number of different molecules that can significantly differ in their properties and their role in the body. Not all are equally important. Some have major health significance, while others play relatively small role. Also, some of them can be synthesized by the body from other nutrients, and others can't. Those nutrients of major health significance that can't be synthesized by the body - thus have to be obtained preformed either from food, or some form of supplementation - are called essential nutrients.
It is critically important for the body to receive essential nutrients
in sufficient quantities.
They include 22
essential amino acids
(Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan
and Valine - for infants and children, also Histidine and Arginine),
2 groups of essential fatty acids
(Omega-6 and Omega-3) and 13
A group of nutrients that are beneficial for health, but are not considered essential, have been named accessory nutrients. They include enzymes, phytochemicals, non-essential amino acids, coenzyme Q10, lipoic acid, vitamins B8 (inositol), B10 (PABA), B11 (choline), B15 (pangamic acid) and vitamin P (bioflavonoids), boron, bismuth, lithium, strontium, and others.
There is also an unknown number of other food ingredients that don't belong neither to essential nor (recognized) accessory nutrients, but can be very beneficial to the body. For instance, there are hundreds of plant food compounds - so called phytonutrients - with some of them being recognized as essential or accessory, but the effect of most of them is still either investigated, or completely unknown.
Of course, in addition to nutrients,
we also need air (oxygen, which may be categorized as the seventh
macronutrient), sunshine, movement, sleep, love and
laughter. Your health and happiness have many ingredients, and they
are all important.
The only healthy diet is balanced diet
Practically all nutrients are interactive, either competing with or assisting absorption and use of several other nutrients. This means that you not only need to get them in sufficient amounts, but also that each needs to be in balance with the nutrients it affects. Health-wise,
longer-term excess can be as bad as deficiency,
not only due to possible toxicity of the excess, but also due to likely suppression of some other important nutrient, or nutrients. Adding to the complexity is that the body can, under certain circumstances (health conditions, intake of medications, nutritional deficiency or imbalance, effect of herbal and other preparations, genetic deviation) either accumulate excessive amounts of a nutrient, or not be able to utilize it properly, despite its proper nominal intake.
In order to maintain health, your body's nutritional demand needs to be met with the adequate supply coming from the food. We often tend to assume that satisfying hunger equals meeting body's nutritional demand, but it may be far from the truth. No single food comes even close to containing all the nutrients that your body needs for health, in needed quantities. Thus
a healthy diet requires variety of foods.
Also, food nutrient content varies not only from one type of food to another, but also for the same food types with the climate and mineral contents of soil, as well as the degree of processing.
The last two factors - soil depletion and food processing - have increasingly detrimental impact on our nutrient supply. On the other hand, our nutrient demand is up, mainly due to increasingly polluted environment.
This global mismatch has global health consequences, heavily contributing to an
epidemic of degenerative diseases in developed countries,
and particularly in the U.S. Let's take a look at the big picture of the basic
nutrient supply, on one side, and our needs for them on the other.
Food processing and soil depletion have caused major reduction in our nutrient supply. Growers are putting back into the soil only a handful of minerals needed for plant growth, like potash (potassium), nitrogen, sulfur and phosphate (phosphorus). Most trace minerals like magnesium, zinc, selenium and manganese - key enzyme cofactors and important antioxidants - don't have to be, and are not being replenished (one exception is copper, which is needed for optimum plant growth).
Increasingly tasteless grocery store produce is the testimony that this growing practice has lead to a significant soil depletion. In addition, acid rains (which become acid when sulfur and nitrogen gases from auto and industrial emission combine with water into sulfuric and nitric acids) mobilize and drain minerals from the soil, taking them to rivers, lakes and and seas.
These already nutrient depleted grains and produce are then subjected to extensive food processing during commercial and industrial food production, regularly removing 50%-90% - sometimes even more - of their natural minerals, essential fatty acids and vitamins, including major antioxidants like vitamin C, A, E, and beta carotene.
Partly approved food irradiation, takes another bite from the food nutrient content in recent years, while at the same time increasing body's nutritional needs by making food unhealthy altering its molecular structure.
Half-hearted attempt of the food processing industry to put some of the lost nutrients back into our foods by "enhancing" processed foods, mainly limits to the available low quality (cheap, less potent, sometimes potentially unhealthy) nutrients and their synthetic substitutes.
Government surveys have found out that between 10% and 95% (varying with the specific nutrient) of Americans obtain from their diet less than the DRI (Dietary Reference Intakes, the most recent set of dietary recommendations set by the U.S. government) of the essential nutrients5. Considering current educated opinion that DRI values for most essential nutrients are moderately to grossly underrated,
the situation is even more alarming.
Also, this only gives a big picture of the average
level of nutrients that are ingested. What your body actually
manages to put its hot little hands
on depends on how well the nutrients are absorbed from the food, and utilized
at the cellular level. Many people have their nutrient absorption compromised
by chronically poor digestion, due to food allergies, sub-optimal production of enzymes, bile and/or
hydrochloric acid, inflamed, dysfunctional
deficiencies or a genetic glitch.
This significant reduction in our nutrient supply comes right at the time when
we need more nutrients than ever before!
Why? In part due to those very processed foods, denatured, deprived of nutrients, often laden with substances producing free radicals (food additives, pesticides, herbicides, solvents, non-ionizing radiation, toxic metals, etc.), damaging your cells and tissues, and burdening your detox system.
And so does over-consumption of "healthy" polyunsaturated oils like corn, sunflower or safflower, more so when they come, as they usually do, heavily refined. The increased level of ultraviolet radiation due to thinning ozone layer adds to your free-radical exposure around a clock.
We also need more nutrients in order to neutralize harmful effects of the wide array of industrial toxins and pollutants we've become literally soaked with.
In this era of pharmaceuticals, yet another potent factor wiping out much needed nutrients for many are toxic effects of prescription and non-prescription drugs.
Adding it all up, our overall nutritional score is negative. In order to keep functioning, our bodies need to do more with less. That is physically impossible. The only possible outcome is that your body straggles for some time trying to adapt and adjust, stretching it out to the limits, and then breaks down and becomes diseased.
At best, you will "get away" with accelerated aging. That is, unless you are doing what most folks still aren't:
} have raised quality of your nutrient intake with balanced,
natural food diet,
} supplement the nutrients you can't obtain in sufficient amounts
from the diet,
} control your stress level and negative emotions, and
} protect yourself from many toxins around you as much as you can, by minimizing your toxic exposure and helping your body detox.
These are the major components of the recipe for health, a highly individual set of factors you depend on for preserving or regaining your health.