Why Nutrition is Essential for Our Wellbeing
You are what you eat as the saying goes. This is a great saying but is only partially true. Conventional wisdom used to say that if we ate a lot of fat we would become fat and if we ate a lot of cholesterol our arteries would become clogged for example. Recent studies have demonstrated that the truth is more complicated than that.
As omnivores, we are able to survive on a very broad variety of foods. Our ancestors may have survived on one or two staple foods for long periods of time depending on what was available. Contrast this to the modern world where almost every type of food we can imagine is available year-round in unlimited quantities. We live in a time of abundance with multiple food sources. Our job now is not to use all of our resources simply to survive like our ancestors, but instead use them to thrive and be as healthy as possible for the benefit of ourselves and those around us.
How important is diet in your health? Maybe we should ask ourselves “How important is something you do at least 3 times a day?” If you have read any of my other articles or if I have helped you with an injury, I talk about how small changes in daily behavior like exercise and positive thinking can add up to huge results after a period of months or years. Imagine if you could make a few tweaks in something you do three or four times a day and add those up over weeks, months or years. Do you think that would make a difference to your health?
The simple answer is yes, but it’s one of the least talked about areas of health and wellness other than the weight loss industry which really only addresses our desire to look better in the mirror and not so much how to avoid or manage diseases, or even to feel better.
Food is key in attaining good health and it’s the one thing that we all do already that we can change for the better. People for whom physical performance is their living (think athletes or performers) already know this and employ nutritionists and coaches to help them make the best possible choices daily.
So let’s talk about some of the things food gives us that we should be more aware of:
Calories: Calories in and calories out equals weight gain or weight loss according to some. On the face of it this is true but it’s a very crude measure. In the real world, our bodies deal with calories in different ways from different sources. So whether you gain or lose weight, remain sick or become healthy may depend on the type of food you rely on for most of your calories.
Protein: The building block of life, protein helps us repair damage, build muscle and recover from injuries. As with calories, all proteins are not equal or even sufficient for our needs. Careful selection and variety is essential to ensure we get the most from our dietary proteins.
Fat: Nobody likes to talk about it but dietary fat, far from being bad for you (or even making you fat) is an important source of energy, cell growth and synthesis of some hormones.
Vitamins and minerals: Vitamins and minerals are the catalysts and buffers of many of the bodys processes. Without the proper mix of vitamins and minerals, our bodies become sick or depleted.
Micronutrients: These are compounds or elements that are needed in trace amounts for our bodies to be healthy. Iodine is one example. Without iodine people develop thyroid problems and brain damage.
Genetics: Since the human genome was completely mapped in 2003, scientist have found more and more ways to extract useful information that can help us improve our health. As unique individuals, we all carry genes that can be helpful or harmful in our daily lives depending on what we ask our bodies to do. These genes can give us clues how we process food and how our bodies react to exercise among other things. Knowing this information is extremely useful when designing a diet for an individual instead of a group of people. The ketosis diet, for example, may be very beneficial for one person but may not yield the same results in another. The reason for the difference in results may lie partially in their genetic makeup. We all know people who frustratedly declare they have “tried all the diets” to no avail. Dietitians, coaches and doctors have always been perplexed by their inability to get the same results in different people using the exact same approach. Now, with the ability to look into someone’s genetic code, we can find out what’s holding them back. As testing becomes more popular and widely used, having this information at your fingertips becomes more affordable and easier to obtain.
In a similar way, we do not all react to exercise in the same way. We all have that friend who sheds weight in the double digits when they exercise and yet when we do the exact same thing, nothing happens. As with food, genetics are crucial to understanding how each individual reacts to exercise. Some bodies respond better to lifting heavy weights or more intense exercise and others do better with more aerobic activities such as running or walking.
Food sensitivities: Gluten intolerance is in the news a lot today. Many people say they have it others claim that it’s not gluten but some other component of wheat that causes people to feel bad and many other people including researchers claim that it is just a fad and does not really exist. Still. So who is right? Maybe all of them. From the sufferers point of view, they feel better when they eliminate wheat from the diet so they attribute their symptoms to gluten. Of course, that eliminates anything else that comes with wheat so in that case the second group may be correct. When it comes to research it is hard to validate or disqualify a single persons experience when you are trying to measure a statistically significant group of people maybe in the thousands. So, where your 1000 carefully selected people may not prove the existence of gluten sensitivity, it does not mean that the problem does not exist anywhere. Just because something is statistically significant or insignificant, proven by research or not proven by research, it does not mean it’s not a problem for someone somewhere. Ultimately we are all unique so we must find out how each of our bodies react to the things we come in contact with.
The facts are that there are so many different compounds in food that it may be difficult to tell which one is responsible for symptoms like bloating, gas, discomfort, rashes, fatigue etc. So how do we find useful information that an individual can use to improve their own health? You may have been to the allergist and had that scratch test that reveals that you are allergic to some tree you have never heard of or every type of mold in the dictionary and then told to avoid those things by tearing out carpet wet mopping the floors, installing airs filters, wearing masks in the yard etc. essentially avoiding contact with the things that make you itch and sneeze. But what if something you are eating is making you feel bad? Some component of an ingredient of something you eat every day or once a week might be making you feel bad or break out in a rash. Food is something cannot avoid like tree pollen or pet dander, you have to consume food every day to live so to find out if food is holding you back from a healthy life you have to do a food sensitivity test.
Food sensitivity tests are easy to do, it’s a blood draw followed by a series of lab tests that will determine what food groups your body reacts to. It’s helpful because it allows you to fine tune your diet by eliminating or replacing things that are causing you to feel bad. I recommend this test to anybody who suspects they may have a food insensitivity, anyone who is following a health regimen but not getting the expected results or anyone who is embarking on a journey to better health.
Conclusion: Upon reading this blog you may think that designing a diet seems complicated and hard to sustain over months or years. Nothing could be further from the truth. The science of nutrition and exercise is very complex but once you have all the information you need, its actually very easy to customize your diet to your specific needs and goals. I do not recommend diets that include a lot of supplements, shakes or pre-made meals because this does tend to prevent people from sustaining healthy habits over time. For example; what are you going to do if you go on vacation for two weeks? Or if you travel a lot for work? It’s impractical to haul all your shakes and frozen meals around with you. A better strategy and indeed a much more sustainable approach is to learn to prepare and eat foods you truly enjoy in a manner that is healthy for you. This is a habit that can be maintained for months, years or even decades with very little effort. In fact, if you eat according to the plan most of the time, you can afford to have the odd “cheat meal” and it won’t affect your results. I also recommend getting a scale and an app on your phone to track your eating to make sure you are staying on course. Its very hard to estimate food quantities and proportions without measuring them and especially difficult if you are hungry (same reason you should not be grocery shopping when hungry). Food is an extraordinarily difficult thing to be objective about unless you record what you are eating.
This blog is an excerpt from Paul’s internationally published book Five Ways to Wellness available on Amazon.