Week 1: Nutrients A to Z - An Introduction

We are what we eat.

There are no truer words to describe our relationship with food. Our bodies contain 14 vitamins, 7 macro-minerals and 9 micro- (or trace) minerals, as well as a number of carbohydrates (fiber, starch and sugar) amino acids (proteins) and fatty acids (saturated and unsaturated). 

The body needs every one of these nutrients to function, and as it uses each up, needs to replace it in order to support the body's living tissue - brain and body alike - as follows:

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As soon as we eat something, the body begins to break it down so that it can use its nutrients. This is called metabolism: a series of chemical reactions that transform food into components that can be used for the body's basic processes. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats move along intersecting sets of metabolic pathways that are unique to each major nutrient. Fundamentally - if all three nutrients are abundant in the diet - carbohydrates and fats will be used primarily for energy while proteins provide the raw materials for making hormones, muscle and other essential biological equipment.

Some nutrients - like carbohydrates - are used very quickly, and must be replenished accordingly. Others - like fats - can be stored by the body for later use. Fats that aren't used right away are packaged in bundles called triglycerides and stored in fat cells, which, according to Dr. Erika Gebel, PhD, have unlimited capacity. 

Vitamins fall into two basic categories: fat-soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K) and water-soluble (all B-complex vitamins, C and folate). Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in chylomicrons (fat globules), and what is not used is stored in the body's tissue, where it tends to remain. For example: in northern climates, adequate summer exposure to sun allows the body to create and store enough fat-soluble Vitamin D - used for bone health - to get you through the sun-starved winter months. Water-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, travel freely through the body and are absorbed by various tissue for immediate use. Excess amounts of these are usually excreted by the kidneys, in the form of urine. Accordingly, water-soluble vitamins - like Vitamin C - must be replenished more frequently - almost daily. Thus, from a dietary focus, we need to consume adequate fat-soluble vitamins over the long term, but replenish water-soluble vitamins continually.

Like vitamins, minerals fall into two basic categories: macro-minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium potassium, chloride and sulfur) and micro-minerals (iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, molybendum, selenium and bromine). Macro-minerals are thus named because the body needs them in larger doses than it does micro- (or trace) minerals. Food sources of these nutrients are as varied as the jobs they perform in keeping the body's bones, blood, organs and systems functioning properly. As with vitamins, the best way to ensure adequate intake of each is to adopt a very varied diet of both plant-based and animal-based foods, as some nutrients are almost exclusively found in one or the other. There is a reason we are called omnivores: it is not simply because we enjoy the act of eating food from both groups; it is because our bodies need them in order to function as we evolved to.

As we'd expect, the inadequate intake of any of these - or in the case of nutrients that the body stores, an excess - prevents the body's 'machinery' from functioning optimally. The result - very slowly or very quickly, but invariably - is illness. Moreover, there are several factors we need to consider with respect to foods: nutrient quantity (which generally declines over time, diminshes with an increase in factory processing, and is affected by preparation choices at home); nutrient quality (nutrients in fortified foods and supplements - while better than none - are not nearly as effective as those in real foods); and nutrient bio-availability (the absorption of which can either be enhanced or hindered based on the combination of the foods we eat - not just whether or not you ingested it.)

It may sound obvious, but the best source of these nutrients is food - real food, as found in Nature. We evolved because of it and with it; our genes have adapted - and continue to adapt - to use it; medically, we are uncovering bits and pieces about how it works and what it does to us; and we are just beginning to understand that the interactions between nutrients are far more complex and co-dependent than we previously understood. We also know that the human body has not evolved beyond needing any of its developmental nutrients - despite what food engineers, the multi-national agribusinesses that employ them and the shareholders who demand profit above all - would have you believe. We in 2015 are the product of a 50-year trend away from traditional modes of eating and a sprint toward consolidation and homogenization of nutrient sources, which poses a direct conflict with the body's evolutionary need for broad variety of real, high-quality foods. The good news is that nutritional science is catching up with food engineering, as is the consumer's awareness of our need for real food. Luckily, there are still myriad sources of quality produce containing everything your body needs, available at a market near you.

So what are these magical nutrients? What does each one do in detail? What happens to me if one is missing? How fast does the body consume each one, and how fast do I need to replenish it? How much of each do I need? What are the best food sources for each, and which do I avoid? What if I have a special condition or a particular sensitivity? How do I parse marketing-speak from truth amid a glut of information in books, ads and the internet?

In short, what do I need to know to eat well

These are the questions that this website proposes to answer over the next 52 weeks. Each week we will post another piece to the puzzle. In a year's time, we intend to have created a complete guide to nutrition: what you need and where to source it in the 'real world' where time, funds and access are sometimes limited. Finally, how to begin effecting change immediately.

Central to the health challenge is a daunting Goliath nicknamed Big Ag  - the agricultural monopolies whose practice of producing 'food-like substances' is anything but nourishing or varied, consisting primarily of infinite forms of the same basic cash crops that dominate the farming landscape and your supermarket: corn, soybeans and wheat. Generating over $110 Billion per year in cash sales in the United States alone, these three crops, like their parent companies, monopolize the shelves, from the obvious snack and packaged foods to the less obvious fruit and vegetables coatings - the latter made invariably from a corn starch derivative. With massive advertising budgets and even greater influence on Capitol Hill (the subject of a future blog), Big Ag have thoroughly saturated the consumer market. Their success has grown exponentially alongside an alarming human trend toward lower expenditure in both food dollars and time spent creating meals. Worst of all, Big Ag's food-like products are by most scientific accounts directly responsible for a dramatic increase the incidence of many, if not most, of modern society's chronic diseases, from cancers to diabetes to heart disease to cardiovascular disease to osteoporosis and beyond. According to a phenomenal paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, more than 280,000 people die directly from obesity each year in the United States alone; 38.5% of all US deaths are due to cardiovascular disease; and fully one-third of all US cancer deaths are due to nutritional factors.

If this sounds scary, it is. It's also the reason we have created this site. 

There are solutions. 

So here we go...