Good nutrition and good health go hand in hand. Or, more obviously, poor health is often a result of poor nutrition.
We all know this, just as we all know that Vitamin C will help ward off a cold, or that calcium helps build strong bones, or that Omega-3 and antioxidants are good for us (even if we are not 100 percent sure why).
In short, we know that vitamins and minerals, along with some essential oils and things like that, are an important part of a healthy food intake.
We also know that these nutrients all come from things that we normally eat and drink – oranges and orange juice for Vitamin C, milk for calcium, some kinds of fish for Omega-3, and so on.
The question is: does our normal diet provide us with enough?
First of all, let’s look at what is meant by ‘enough’.
The idea of a food pyramid to illustrate the make-up of a healthy diet has been around for a long time. The pyramid first devised by the US Department of Agriculture has been improved by the Harvard University School of Public Health.
We have further adapted and simplified it here. You need to follow it from the base upwards.
Built on the base of weight control and exercise, the wider sections of the pyramid contain the foods that you should eat the most of.
(More recently, Harvard has added the idea of a 'Healthy Eating Plate' setting out more clearly the foods we ought to be eating.)
The basis of good health – or wellness – is exercise and weight control. Everything else is built on that foundation. If you are overweight and don’t get enough exercise, you are going to have health problems.
Next up come the whole grain foods. These provide the essential oils called lipids and sterols. We’ll explain these later. (In health science, “essential” means that our bodies don’t make these things so we have to get them through what we eat and drink.)
Then come vegetables and fruit, from which we obtain most of our vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Above that come the proteins – from which the building blocks of all our tissues are derived.
Finally, and in the smallest quantities of all, are the fats and carbohydrates. These mostly function as the energy source or fuel for the body, although some fats, such as Omega-3 and Omega-6, are essential for other aspects of good health.
Well, to take the example of fruit and vegetables, the Harvard School of Public Health advises that we need to eat nine servings – four and a half cups – of fruit and vegetables each day.
And these need to be the dark green, red, purple, orange and yellow vegetables – a wide variety is just as important as the quantity, but potatoes don’t count!
Then for the Omega-3 oils, which are vital for good health, the recommendation is that we should eat one good source of Omega-3 every day.
Good sources include walnuts and fatty fish, and we are advised to eat fatty fish (the dark meat kind) at least once a week, but preferably twice.
And what about the whole grains which supply lipids and sterols for healthy membranes?
Recommendations from Harvard Medical School are that we should all get 2 to 3 servings a day. These might take the form of a whole grain cereal or porridge for breakfast, whole grains breads and pastas, brown rice and beans. They certainly do not include refined flours, processed carbohydrates or white rice (and also not potatoes!).
If you look at what many people actually eat, especially if they take a lot of processed foods and fast foods, you’ll see that their pyramid is actually turned upside down – they eat lots of refined grains, sugar and unhealthy oils, and relatively little in the way of vegetables, fruits and unrefined whole grains.
OK, so a plate of hake and chips is not the answer. But if we are careful about our food choices and make sure we that our eating pyramid is the right way up, isn’t that going to provide all that we really need?
Theoretically, yes. But is it practical with our hectic lifestyles?
Are you really eating oily fish once or twice a week, and walnuts or other Omega-3-rich foods on the other days? Are you really getting four and a half cups of dark green, red, purple, orange and yellow vegetables and fruit every day – spinach, broccoli, pumpkin, beetroot, red peppers and so on?
And there’s another problem. Unless we are growing our own crops, we can’t really be sure that the foodstuffs we buy in shops and supermarkets are as fully nutritious as they ought to be.
Let’s explore this a bit.
There is plentiful evidence that modern shop-bought food is not fully nutritious. You don’t need a science laboratory to see a very basic – but rather important – example.
Take an ordinary loaf of bread. These days most supermarket loaves are pre-sliced. It’s also normal for that loaf to last for two or three days – or maybe even longer – before it goes moldy.
Not so long ago sliced bread was a complete novelty. Shop-bought bread came in whole loaves and if had to be eaten within a day or two. (If you aren’t old enough to remember this, you may want to check with a parent or grandparent.)
The reason is simple. Bread contains – or used to contain – ingredients that react to the oxygen in the air. As soon as it is exposed to the air, it starts to decay, slowly, but very surely.
If you cut the whole loaf into slices, then both sides of every slice will be exposed to the air straight away, and it will all decay much faster than if you just cut off one slice at a time.
At least, that’s what used to happen, and that’s why grandmamma bought fresh bread every day, kept it in the bread bin, and only sliced it at the meal table.
Now bread can be bought ready sliced and kept for much longer before the decay sets in. What has changed?
Answer? The ingredients. The millers and the bakers have found that if they change the ingredients, they can produce flour that is not only easier to mill but makes bread that has a much longer shelf-life – a loaf that you can slice in advance without its going moldy.
And what is this change? They remove the oils from the grain. It is the oils that gum up the mills and speed up the process of decay. Remove them, and voilà, sliced bread!
Unfortunately, it is these same oils that give bread its nutritional value, and the essential oils that are found in grains are actually the foundation of good nutrition.
In short, sliced bread may be food, but it’s not fully nutritious. To put it another way, today’s “normal” bread does not provide “normal” nutrition.
In a whole lot of different ways, this story is repeated again and again.
* With modern intensive farming methods, instead of letting fields lie fallow to recover naturally between harvests, and using organic fertilizers, new crops are planted year and year about.
The soil loses its natural fertility, and chemical fertilizers are used instead. Inevitably, the resultant crops lack some of their natural nutritional value.
* Often crops are harvested before they are fully ripe, and ripened under artificial conditions. The effect is the same.
* Often, too, produce is frozen and kept in cold storage for long periods, and again some of the nutritional value is lost.
* Many foodstuffs are processed in one way or another before they reach our meal tables, and often – as with bread – the effect is to reduce their nutritional value.
The upshot is that although we have food on the menu that ought to be nutritious (and probably would have been fully nutritious a generation or two back), we may not actually be taking in the nutrients that we need for optimum health.
This is backed up time and again by research findings. For example:
* On any given day only 9 % of Americans actually eat the minimum recommended amount of fruits and vegetables!
* On any given day 70 % of Americans consume no fruit that is rich in Vitamin C.
* On any given day 25 % of Americans eat no vegetables at all, and 50 % eat no fruit, and 80 % fail to eat carotenoid-rich foods.
There is another side to this issue of health and nutrition. Our modern lifestyle subjects us to far greater pressures and stresses than our great grandparents ever knew.
The result is that at the very time when the nutritional value of our food is dropping, our need for good nutrition to keep healthy is increasing.
We know that stress leads to ill-health. Many of the things that stress us are beyond our control, such as the pollutants in our water and atmosphere.
Then there are the pressures of modern life, traffic on the roads, and the barrage of bad news from the media that we can never completely shut out.
The fact is that life is far more stressful today than it was a generation ago, and the increasing incidence of stress-related problems – such as heart attacks – is a sure sign that our bodies are being pushed beyond their natural ability to cope.
We actually do have a natural ability to cope, especially if we look after ourselves by
* getting enough exercise and enough sleep
* cutting back on the things that are bad for us: tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, sugar, refined grains and trans fats like margarine
* ensuring that we are taking in all the essential nutrients in adequate amounts.
What we need most of all, however, is to be realistic about the situation and take positive action to remedy it.
If our normal diet does not provide enough of the nutrients that we need, we have to supplement that diet.
In fact, the health scientists who devised the Harvard healthy eating pyramid recommend that even when we follow its guidelines, we should still add a daily multivitamin supplement.
Some people resist the idea of taking supplements. When you think about it, however, it’s a perfectly sensible thing to do.
* We know that our bodies need nutrition.
* We know that the pressures of modern life have increased this need, and make it more difficult to satisfy the demands.
* And we know that the foodstuffs that we normally buy in our shops do not provide all that we need.
The logical thing to do is to boost our intake of nutrients, and we can do that with supplements.
There is really nothing strange or sinister about nutritional supplements – not if they are good quality products.
They are not drugs or medications. They are simply nutrients extracted from the foods that we normally eat, so that when our normal meals don’t provide quite enough, we can be sure of getting the extra bit that we need.
Really, supplementation can be viewed as a kind of insurance policy.
Here’s a simple illustration.
We have looked at the quantities we need before. Here’s another example.
The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University in the USA has made a special study of Vitamin C, and estimates that for optimal health we should be getting about 400 grams of Vitamin C each day.
They also reckon that five servings of fruits and vegetables that are rich in Vitamin C – such as oranges, strawberries, broccoli and raw sweet red peppers – would provide about 200 grams.
That’s a shortfall of 200 grams, or half of your daily needs!
The solution? Well, you could up your daily intake to ten servings of these things. Or you could carry on with your normal meals and just add a supplement.
Just like most other things, supplements vary in quality. Also, because ingredients differ, it is very difficult to compare one product with another. To find good quality supplements, look for...
Often there are synthetic alternatives, made in laboratories by scientists, that claim to be just as good as the natural version (Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is one example).
Remember, though, that laboratories can only put in the ingredients that they know about, and scientists are constantly discovering that they don’t know everything.
Ascorbic acid is an essential nutrient, but in nature it comes along with other substances that enhance its effect, such as bioflavonoids.
When you take a supplement with made from natural ingredients, you know you are getting all the nutrients that nature provides as a package, not just the single one that scientists have discovered and industry has manufactured.
Wheat is natural, but so too is cannabis. Not everything that grows naturally is good for us. Every so often amazing claims are made for naturally occurring substances that we don’t normally eat – pine bark, coral and so on.
Rather stick to supplements extracted from foodstuffs in the normal human diet.
We not only need nutrients from natural ingredients in the normal human food chain, but we need them in the right proportions.
Nutrients work synergistically, that is, they work together, a bit like the notes that make up a harmonious melody. If something is missing from the mix, the nutrients that are there are less effective. For example, calcium works best if it is taken together with magnesium.
Some people say that taking nutritional supplements amounts to nothing more than buying expensive urine, because any goodness in them simply passes straight through the system.
In some cases that can be true, but not if the supplement is properly formulated so that it will be absorbed at the right point in our digestive tract to provide the nutrition we need.
So then: when you are choosing supplements, look for products that ...
* have natural ingredients,
* are from the normal human food chain,
* are properly balanced,
* are formulated so that they really get to work in our bodies,
* have been properly tested and shown to deliver on their promises.
These will not always be the cheapest, but you can be sure that they will work to protect and improve your health. Cheaper alternatives can in fact be a waste of money. Worse still, they leave you vulnerable to the illnesses that you want protection from.
In this stressful and polluted world, even with a balanced diet, the refined and processed foods that we eat do not provide enough nutrition to protect and improve our health.
There is convincing evidence that inadequate nutrition is a factor in the increasing incidence of disease.
We can boost the body’s natural immunity by adding good quality food-based supplements to our normal diets.