Good nutrition, in practice, actually has very little to do with nutrients in and of themselves. Rather, healthy eating habits are cumulative; the influence of diet on the human body is the result of complex interactions between functional components of food; fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals all work together. This concept is really important.
By now, most of us have realized that to say ‘a calorie, is a calorie, is a calorie’ is wrong. We know that our diets need to consist of more than just chemical energy. But in the same right, a carb is not a carb, is not a carb, either. Our bodies deal with table sugar differently than they deal with bread, and there is even a dramatic difference in the way our bodies process sucrose (white sugar) from the way they process fructose (i.e. high-fructose corn syrup).
To keep this post short and concise (details will come later), I’ve outlined a few concepts below to help explain nutrition from a functional perspective.
1. There are quite a few nutrients our bodies need.
Without them, we will die faster than we would otherwise. The vast majority of the chronic diseases we are facing today result from insufficient nutrition, meaning that the diet is lacking adequate sources of vitamins, minerals, or bacteria. For example, nutrients like folic acid and vitamin C serve as antioxidants, which help prevent chemical breakdown of cells. They also serve as adjuncts in metabolic processes, which are then restricted if the diet is lacking.
2. Unbalanced eating habits negatively affect metabolism.
Too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. Centuries of research have demonstrated the ways in which macro-nutrient excesses (such as a high carbohydrate diet) lead to inflammation and metabolic fallout. This could look like weight gain, impaired immunity, fatigue, depression, or heart disease, to name a few.
3. With a solid foundation, the human body is pretty resilient.
As a human population, there are a few general parameters for nutrient balance that can be observed to optimize health. Though, at the same time, each person has a unique genetic code which can account for variations in these broad-scope recommendations. However, when a person’s habits generally support their individual biological needs, the body can accommodate dietary fluctuations. In other words, everyone should be able to eat a cupcake without having to run to the bathroom.
4. A sound nutritional foundation depends on beliefs and behavior.
Aside from the interpersonal variations in what constitutes an ideal diet, the nutritional practices that promote health have less to do with what is on a person’s plate and much more to do with why it is there. Changing a person’s diet always necessitates a change in behavioral patterns, the latter of which is impossible to accomplish without also changing that person’s beliefs about food.
Disordered eating refers to using food for reasons other than those is should be, of which there are three: fuel, satisfaction, and social or spiritual engagement. Improper use of food has cultural and psychological influences, is never the fault of the individual, and is epidemic across the developed world. It’s currently estimated that 1 in 10 individuals suffers from an eating disorder (1). In my own clinical experience, the number is more like 1 of 3, maybe greater.
5. Sometimes, it’s the food’s fault.
Sometimes factory farming of animals makes sick animals, which in turn make sick humans. Sometimes soil is exploited, leading to produce of inferior nutritional quality. Sometimes agricultural companies manipulate farmers into dousing food with harmful chemicals, which make people sick. Sometimes food additives can trigger inflammatory responses. Sometimes scientists manipulate the chemical structure of foods, causing them to interact with the human body differently than the original design. Episodically, these events might be harmless (see principle 3) but the cumulative effect of these interventions together over a person’s lifespan can be, and often is, problematic. This is where the importance of informed consumers comes into play.
Good nutrition is an integral part of preventative medicine, but it really has nothing to do with the facts and figures we find on food labels. In many regards, those labels actually contribute to the problem of poor health. A high-quality nutritional foundation is built from a balanced belief and behavior system, combined with foods that don’t actually have labels. The margin allotted to the others items on grocery store shelves is sized to where it doesn’t require arbitrary numbers and percentages. In that flexible space, everything fits into its proper place.
(1) ANAD. (2018). Eating Disorder Statistics. [Online] Retrieved from: https://anad.org/education-and-awareness/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/