Intuitively we all understand that what we eat has an influence on our well-being, that the cliché we are what we eat has a basis of truth. Except for the immediate reactions like the jitters from too much coffee or the headache the morning after having one too many, nutrition seems a vague and confusing territory. I will try to give you a general, basic understanding of the role of nutrition for your life and health.
The analogy we hear is that food for us is like gas for our cars. This analogy is correct as far as it goes. The bulk of what we eat, the reason we get hungry, is to provide us fuel. Fuel to keep our systems working, give us energy to move, think and keep warm. But nutrition is really much more than this. I use a slightly different analogyinstead of a car, think of your body as a cruise ship and instead of just fuel, nutrition is everything that is taken on the ship to provide for a cruise. This would include the fuel but also the food for the passengers and crew, the dishes and utensils, all the towels and room amenities, all the cleaning supplies, the paint and varnish, the spare parts, all the maintenance items, and on and on. Now the fuel is very important and it's regular replenishment is essential, but without constant and diligent upkeep, the ship will slowly and generally deteriorate similarly to the way chronic conditions afflict most of us in later life. This describes nutrition in a much better way. It highlights the need for a wide range of nutrients to maintain the body in optimum health and help fight against disease.
Unfortunately, most of what we read about nutrition dwells on what we shouldnt eaton the links between certain foods and illness. Every day some new food or food group (e.g. saturated fat, cholesterol) is implicated as a cause of some chronic condition. Almost as often, new reports contradict old ones and foods we thought should be avoided now seem to be OK. The larger problem with the modern diet is the significant lack of the nutrients our bodies need for optimum health. Here's another analogy: think of your body as a large construction project. Loads of materials are delivered every day that are required for the portion of the project currently underway. To some extent the project would be much better off if some materials arrive in surplus rather than deficiency. You can probably find someplace to store extra, but if you are out of something you need, the crew sits on their hands. Similarly, your body can better deal with an excess of nutrients far more easily than not getting enough.
Rather than continuing this endless search for links between certain foods and disease, we should look at nutrition from a more basic standpoint. We should look to our evolutionary past to ascertain a diet that our bodies have evolved to survive on, an "evolutionarily appropriate diet". I refer you to two excellent Web sites that discuss this:
Ninety-five percent of our evolutionary past was spent as hunter-gatherers. Our enzyme systems developed over those thousands of generations in accordance with the foods available. For much of the world's population huge changes to the average diet have occurred in the twentieth century alone. Our bodies systems are not prepared to deal with these changes.
In his book Mega-Nutrients A Prescription for Total Health H.L. Newbold, a leading nutritional researcher, discusses old foods and new foods. Old refers to the foods available during our evolutionary development and new refers to the modern foods that our bodies are not accustomed to that are, all too often, low in nutritive value and high in toxicity. The hunter-gatherer old food diet contained small amounts of simple carbohydrates, a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and a relatively high proportion of animal products, including fat (research has shown that the Neanderthal diet consisted of 85% meat). New foods would include refined sugar, white flour, additives, preservatives and most anything that comes in a box!
If we look at our diets from this old food/new food perspective, what to eat or not eat becomes much simpler. Lets take a closer look at a couple old food/new food problems in the modern western diet. One of the worst new foods is refined sugar. Sugar belongs to the macro-nutrient group carbohydratesthe class of foods that provide us the energy we need to survive, breathe, maintain our body temperature and move. Our bodies have complex systems to process the foods we eat and maintain the proper blood-glucose levels. These systems are used to process protein, fat and, primarily complex, carbohydrates. When our diet includes a high level of simple carbohydrates, especially sugar, it is an insult to our blood-glucose system that can produce problems. The long-term chronic problems include hypoglycemia and diabetes mellitus; the short-term acute problems include mood swings and lethargy and can include symptoms that cause our children to be diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder. In addition to some of the new foods causing problems, eating them also means that we are not getting enough of the nutrients we do need.
On the other side of the equation are the old foods that we arent getting enough of to promote optimum health and fight disease. Chief among these is vitamin C. Vitamin C is produced in large quantities in the bodies of most animals on earth. Due to a genetic mutation 50-75 million years ago, man is among a handful of species that has lost this ability. Our requirement for this nutrient has not changed. The most serious condition long-term vitamin C deficiency leads to is heart disease. Our bodies have developed atherosclerosis as a repair process to prevent blood seepage through an arterial system compromised by a chronic lack of vitamin C. More about this in another article.
Overall, our nutritional problems are two-foldwe eat things that cause us difficulties (acute and chronic, physical and "mental") and don't get enough of what we do need. Given all the nutrients our bodies need, at the levels specifically required for each individual, our bodies will maintain health, resist disease, and provide for a long life free of chronic difficulties to the best of our individual, genetic ability. Or, stated another way from the website An Overview of Orthomolecular Nutrition: "...disease results from excesses and deficiencies of the natural substances our bodies need so that they can grow and replace tissue." A diet containing the foods that our systems have evolved for and supplementing where our diet is inadequate will eliminate many of the chronic disorders and conditions that are the bane of modern medicine.