Nutrition: It's NOT Just About Food, Part 1
by Dr. Graham
Published: Fri, 20 Aug 2010
Nutrition Is an Inside and an Outside Job
Nutrition is a perennial hot topic, no matter what your diet. And, it seems, almost everyone considers themselves to be experts on the subject. Just ask anyone if they think they eat well, or tell them that you are considering eating a diet made up solely of raw fruits and vegetables, and see what kind of response you get.
Oddly enough, the more attention we put upon the quality of the food we eat, the more concerned about nutrition we become. This is obviously backwards thinking, yet it may be well founded, considering what most people call "nutritious eating." Focusing extra attention on nutrition typically leads people to (rightly) conclude that the most nutritious foods are raw fruits and vegetables. When you eat the 80/10/10 diet, you can stop worrying about nutrition, as far as food is concerned. Nutrition, however, reaches far beyond food.
We can view the issue of nutrition in a variety of ways. Do we look at the food we eat, or would that be diet and not nutrition? Certainly many dietitians fancy themselves experts in nutrition. Do we look at the way we prepare our food, or would that be culinary skill rather than nutrition? Can you think of many raw food chefs who do not dispense copious nutrition advice along with their culinary wisdom? Do we evaluate our nutrition by analyzing the individual nutrients in our foods, or with almost a million nutrients to consider, and given their complex interactions, is that not an attempt to micromanage a situation so complex as to be completely beyond our comprehension or control? It really is not clear whether we are better off looking at nutrition from the standpoint of food (thus analyzing its nutrients), or from the standpoint of nutrients, (thus determining which foods to choose).
What has become clear to me, however, is that the great majority of factors that critically affect our nutrition have nothing whatever to do with the food we eat.
What are some of these "outside" (nonfood) factors that are so important to our nutrition? Let's take a brief look at just a few of them.
Sunshine and Daylight
It is interesting to note that two nutrients making the nutrition headlines these days don't even come from food-vitamin D and vitamin B12. Yet when we think of nutrition, we invariably think of our food as the primary source. Apparently, at least in the case of vitamin D and vitamin B12, this is not the case. Perhaps it is time to broaden our thinking, and realize that your nutrition, like your overall health, is only as strong as its weakest link. While most of us are more comfortable to simply hear confirmation of what we think we already know, an open mind is required if we truly wish to learn anything new.
Not only is sunshine directly responsible for almost all of our production of vitamin D, an essential nutrient that affects calcium metabolism in every cell of the body, it is also our sole source of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV is known as a sanitizing agent; it disinfects whatever it comes into contact with. Our skin is cleansed of fungi, molds, and many other undesirable microbial life forms when it is exposed to sunlight. The UV rays penetrate the skin for almost an inch, cleaning blood, lymph, intracellular fluids, and extracellular fluids along the way. Without UV exposure, our blood can become so toxic that our kidneys eventually fail to handle the load.
Many organs and glands depend upon sunlight as a regulatory factor. A variety of hormones affecting calcium metabolism, normalized cell growth, sexuality, and many other important functions are dependent upon moderate exposure to sunlight. Don't fall prey to the false and ubiquitous mythology that regular doses of direct, moderate sunlight causes cancer; it does not. Our nutrition would be critically compromised without such exposure.
Without sunlight, none of the fruits and vegetables that we call food could grow or even survive. In darkness, it would be almost impossible for us to find our food. Sure, we now can create artificial lights, and even artificial sunlight, but no man-made light source provides an acceptable substitute for the real thing.
Daylight is as important to our mental health as it is to our overall nutrition. Sunlight affects our mood, for the better, an issue that I discuss below, under "Emotional Poise."
We get redundant exposure to vitamin B12, which is produced by bacteria, on the surfaces of almost all of the garden-fresh organic fruits and vegetables we consume. However, a great many us (including a proportionally equal number of meat eaters) experience deficiencies as a result of a reduced ability to absorb this valuable nutrient. Intrinsic factor, produced by the parietal cells of the stomach, is necessary for the absorption of B12 in the intestines. If you are not producing a sufficient quantity of intrinsic factor, you will eventually become deficient in B12, which is a common cause of B12 deficiency. There are many reasons for producing or absorbing insufficient intrinsic factor. A few of the most common are death of the cells that produce intrinsic factor (sometimes caused by specific antibodies), stomach cancer, ulcers, specific diseases of the small intestine, fish tapeworm, stomach surgery, and bowel surgery.
When it comes to specific nutrients, the majority of people are concerned with "getting enough," rather than actually consuming quantities that are in the recommended range. This is fair enough, since actually hitting those ranges is nearly impossible if one eats a relatively standard western diet, does not eat a sufficient number of calories to maintain weight, or is on a raw diet that is too high in fats.
Let's compare a hypothetical set of identical twins who eat identical foods. One is completely sedentary, a lover of music and the arts. The other is quite athletic, enjoying triathlon and weight training. The first meets her calorie requirements, and holds her weight, eating 1,800 calories per day. The latter, being more active, does the same by consuming 3,600 calories per day. Obviously, if they are eating the same foods, the athletic twin consumes double the calories, and twice the nutrients, of her sister.
The greater quantity of food makes it far easier for her to get enough of key nutrients, which can be difficult to consume in sufficient quantities. When it comes to excellent nutrition, being physically active is an essential ingredient. Not only do we eat more food when we are active, compared to when we are sedentary, but physical activity also enhances our digestion, and our ability to uptake and utilize the nutrients we consume. And the nutritional benefits of being fit do not end there. Muscles use more fuel than most other tissues, even when they are at rest. This means that a well-muscled person will require more fuel than an equally active but undermuscled person, hence taking in more nutrients of all types.
Ever heard of antivitamins and antinutrients? The concepts have been taught in nutrition school for 50 years and longer. We know, for instance, that carbon monoxide in the air effectively competes for space with oxygen on our red blood cells. The carbon monoxide functions as an antinutrient. Strontium 90, an aggressive carcinogen, is present worldwide in our air from radioactive fallout, a result of nuclear explosions. Strontium 90 is an antinutrient that successfully competes with calcium in our bones, and elsewhere in the human body. Milk from cows as well as human mother's milk has been shown to contain levels of strontium 90 that are far beyond those considered safe. As another example, factors in cigarette smoke cause us to blow through our vitamin C at an amazingly high rate. Besides being a carcinogen, cigarette smoke functions, in part, as an antivitamin. A whole host of such antivitamins and antinutrients exist in the air we breathe. Powerful airborne carcinogens in deep-fry oil are part of the reason that cooking with trans fats has been outlawed in many parts of the world.
Without an abundant supply of clean fresh air, the chances for optimum nutrition are reduced to almost zero. Oxygen, considered by some to be a nutrient in its own right, is present in fresh air at about 20%. In city air, oxygen levels tend to range from about 18 to 15%, and in highly polluted areas it can drop to 13% or less. The expression "a breath of fresh air" has never been more accurate than when referring to fresh air itself.