Nutrients Big and Small

When I was about 9 years old, someone in our small country church began selling vitamins. I don't know how long they stayed in the business before they gave up to move on to join a pyramid scheme where they sold super-concentrated laundry detergents, glass cleaner and toothpaste that had ground egg shells in it. When they finally figured out everyone was avoiding their constant barrage of high pressure interactions, they began selling overpriced water filtration systems and 5-gallon jugs of ionized water. If you think hard enough, I'm sure you know them.

Anyway, the vitamin pushers somehow convinced my parents that their products would make our family healthy. By the way, none of us were sick. Aside from my dad's penchant for ice cream (he still believes it can cure a number of physical and psychological ailments) we all ate pretty well. Since my dad was the pastor of the church, I'm sure we got a good deal on the vitamins. After all, if 15 different vitamins a day are good for the preacher, they are good for the deacons and the elders and Mrs. Granger who sat on the end of the third pew. I still remember the brand of vitamins, mainly because my brother turned the name of the company into a fairly accurate slur that described the flavor of the products with the four-letter "s" word. Aren't preacher's kids great?   

One day in response to my mom's sort-of convincing argument that the vitamins were good for me, I asked her what would happen if I simply consumed these mammoth-sized chewable vitamins and drank water, instead of eating food. Remember, I was 9, so that was a good question. An early sign of brilliance, wouldn't you say? I have no idea what Mom said in response. But after tens of thousands of dollars worth of education, I know the answer. I would have starved to death. What I didn't know about nutrition at the age of 9 was the difference between micronutrients and macronutrients.

Healthy eating is about getting enough, but not too much, of both of these. Macronutrients are generally considered substances that provide energy. They include protein, carbohydrate and fat. Each supplies energy (calories) to be used to help build muscle (protein), cell membranes (fat) and fuel our brain and working muscles (carbohydrate). Macro means we need these in relatively large amounts compared to the micronutrients. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals and don't provide energy. It would easier to think of them as matches that start a fire, or duct work that allows warm air to flow through your house. The micronutrients don't provide energy, they help us use it in a productive way.  

If we don't eat enough calories we can become malnourished. On the other hand, we can have plenty of calories yet too few micronutrients and be malnourished as well. A diet of Mountain Dew and Skittles can supply you with all of the calories you need. But without essential vitamins and minerals, you will eventually develop a host of nutrient deficiencies and health conditions, even at a normal weight. 

You don't have to look far to find the demonization of fats, carbohydrates or animal proteins. It's a dieters nightmare trying to figure out the advice to follow to be healthy and lose weight. Low carb or low fat? Is gluten bad? Include wine? Is diet soda really as bad as regular soda? What about nuts? This is nuts! I think it's important to keep it as simple as possible. We need energy and we need vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (plant chemicals that are not deemed essential but are probably beneficial). Too many calories, bad. Lots of highly processed foods, that's not good either. So what should we eat for good health? This isn't sexy, but a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and whole grains (check out www.choosemyplate.gov).

The importance of the periphery of healthy eating--organic vs. conventional, artificial sweeteners, coffee, alcohol, glycemic index--pales in comparison to the old adage of variety and moderation. Variety doesn't mean a rotating breakfast of Lucky Charms, doughnuts and Pop Tarts. We want to eat a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains (for a complete list and ideas visit wholegrainscouncil.org) and protein sources--beans, fish, soy, poultry. Moderation means not eating too much of the things that will harm us. Eating a lot of added sugar, constantly grazing on refined grains, and over-consuming fatty red meats leads us down the path of healthcare regret. But moderation also refers to overall calories, no matter what the source. Olive oil is good for your heart unless it puts you in positive calorie balance leading to weight gain. If it does, we could say that olive oil is bad for your heart...and knees, blood sugar (if you develop diabetes) and sleep (if excess weight leads to sleep apnea).

Lastly, remember that food is fuel. Fuel to move. If health is the goal, it is helpful to look at nutrition as a part of an active lifestyle. If we are physically active, these core nutrition concepts are still important, but the periphery may be less so. For example, experts debate the health risks associated with consuming trace amounts of pesticides used in conventionally grown foods. They also debate the role of saturated fat in heart disease. For the sake of argument, let's say that pesticide residue on conventionally grown foods slightly increase the risk of cancer, and saturated fat plays a significant role in heart disease. If we are consuming some pesticides and saturated fat in the context of a physically active lifestyle, our risk for cancer and heart disease is greatly reduced compared to doing so as part of a sedentary lifestyle. Exercise is a significant, although not complete, neutralizer when it comes to negative health consequences of an imperfect diet.