Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Avoiding the Micronutrient Madness

By Christian Wernstedt

Nutrient X has been found good for Y, therefore eat foods that have X!


We all know the drill. Another article such as this is published that discusses some study linking certain micronutrients (minerals, vitamins etc) with protection from certain diseases. The enthusiastic reporter writing the piece invariably includes a list of foods (usually skewed towards politically correct foods) that have significant amounts of the wonder-nutritent under discussion.

Sure, it's great that the link beteween diet and health outcomes are made visible to the general public. Food is medicine. This message is important.

However, the big elephant in the room is never acknowledged:

The question that is always evaded is how a person could possibly access all of these super-important nutrients without having to make skewed or unhealthy trade-offs, or without having to hedge by stacking up 10000 calories per day of various food items listed in the reports, plus an array of supplements.

It is an optimization problem of potentially mindboggling complexity.

However in reality the answer is staring us in the face, and it is very easy:

Eat a diverse and as nutrient dense diet on a per calorie basis as possible, based on whole foods.

Let's look a bit on what this statement implies.

First we must add the qualification that since some foods contain anti-nutrients or toxins (gluten, lectins, saponins, etc) or other stuff that we want to avoid such as excess sugars or omega 6 fats, we must also make sure that we get as much of valuable nutrients per unit of undesireable content in our foods as possible.

To stay on a desired level of caloric intake and to otherwise preserve health, this means not eating foods that have a scarcity of micronutrients per calorie and/or mess with our health in other ways, and instead eat a variety of foods that have a maximum amount of nutrients per calorie, and a minimum of the stuff that we want to avoid.

Also, it must be a whole foods diet, and not a bunch of supplements (though I'm not against well considered supplementation) and not franken-foods like Atkins bars. The reason for this is that without a whole foods approach one will add another layer (if not several layers) of complexity in regard to how various nutrients interact when eaten together (or when not eaten together). There are also factors such as bio-availability and absorption that impact what actually happens when we ingest a nutrient in a processed form versus what happens when we eat it as a part of a whole food. (A great paper on food synergies here.) As evolved animals we are undeniably adapted to nutrient clusters delivered in the form of whole chunks of plant matter or whole chunks of animal tissue, not to nutrient molecules as such. (Each individual cell might not care if we ate a bunch of molecules or a steak, but each separate cell has no clue about our overall health, and doesn't care either.)

In practice things actually get quite simple: Eat a diet consisting of primarily meats (yes, meats including seafoods, and organ meats are the most nutrient dense foods that one can find) accompanied by a somewhat smaller amount (calorically speaking) of eggs and a variety of vegetables and perhaps some nuts and fruits thrown in occasionally.

In other words, the rational way to be nutritionally aligned in real life with the advice coming in from all of these micronutrient studies without going either crazy or become sick (or both) is to eat according to [drum roll] a paleo diet!

Who would have known?

PS. Great paper by Cordain showing more details on the supreme nutrient density of a contemporary paleo diet here.

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