We’ve all been told endlessly “we need to eat low-calorie, high-nutrient-dense foods to optimize our health!” Yeah, yeah, blah, blah- but what does that really mean? How often do you look at food and think the chicken has fewer calories than the beef, so I’ll choose the chicken. The salad has fewer calories than the sweet potato, so I’m choosing the salad. We make choices like this each day at home, in the grocery store, and at restaurants. All of these foods, properly prepared (unbreaded chicken, beef that’s not part of a cheeseburger, and a salad isn’t swimming in dressing and croutons) are healthy options. They all have good nutrients, so that means I’m getting all my vitamins and nutrients, right?
Well, maybe. Humans are what’s known as opportunistic omnivores, which is biospeak for “they eat whatever they find.” When our Paleolithic ancestors were out on the plains and they came across a blackberry thicket full of berries, berries were on the menu for that night (and for however long the blackberries held out before being all eaten). When someone killed an antelope, there was meat on the menu, or if they were near a river when the salmon were running, it was fish for dinner. This means that humans ate a complex variety of different fruits, vegetables and proteins. (Personally, I think this is one of the problems with eating a lot of processed grain-based foods: too much of one thing and not enough of anything else.) Our bodies are used to getting nutrients from a variety of sources: whether we developed this way because of how we were foraging or we learned to forage because the ones that didn’t forage didn’t survive to have offspring is beside the point- this is how we are! When we stick too much to a limited number of foods, whether whole foods or processed, we run into trouble.
“Eat across the rainbow”: you have probably heard the advice from nutritionists and dieticians and seen it in a lot of blogs. It’s a little cheesy and cutesy, but it’s correct. Mostly people apply it to fruits and vegetables, eating all the different colors. Different colors in fruits & veggies pretty much mean different nutrients but it should also apply to the proteins, which usually get left out since people don’t think of them as “color.” Most people when they think “eating healthy” usually limit themselves to the leaner “naked” proteins (such as grilled chicken breast) instead of fattier proteins like beef, pork, eggs or even just chicken thighs but they make an effort to eat a variety of the fruits and veggies. Most people think of those when it comes to “vitamins” and tend to think of meats only in terms of “protein.” This is one of the biggest reasons I advise people to get a good basic nutrition book when they start to eat healthy. Whatever diet or lifestyle book/ program you choose, make sure it has a comprehensive section covering the basics of nutrition. I always recommend Nutrition for Dummies because it’s easy to understand and has lots of charts in it. It doesn’t assume you know the definition of something or that you will look it up: it gives it to you, usually with an example!
Most vegetarians and vegans will tell you that you can get enough protein from plants, and most people know that some plants have more protein than others, but the vitamins and nutrients that are in the animal proteins tend to be glossed over. If people think of any “protein” having vitamins, it’s usually ‘fish and Omega-3,’ but meat has more than just protein in it! If any of you have ever tried being vegetarian or vegan, you may already know that one of the difficult vitamins to get on a plant based diet is B12. B12 (cyanocobalamin) is a vital nutrient and not having enough can cause major health problems, like dying! Not getting enough B12 can cause fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, heart problems and cognitive/ memory problems. It can eventually kill you! Many years ago, my friend and I tried vegetarianism, so of course, I bought the Dummies book and one of the things it discussed was the importance of B12 because this vitamin is found mostly in animal protein aka MEAT! You can get it in some animal products, like grass-fed dairy and cage-free eggs if you are vegetarian, but if you are vegan, it’s a lot harder. The Dummies book just recommended a supplement if you go vegan. Recently, on yet another TLC show (Untold Stories of the ER), there was college girl who came in with jaundice, fatigue, and shortness of breath and when the doctor found out she was a strict vegan, she checked her B12 levels and you guessed it- dangerously low! You need the B12 for hemoglobin to function properly: no hemoglobin, no oxygen to your brain and body, ergo no YOU. One little vitamin shot and the little college student was pretty much good to go! But not getting enough vitamin B12 nearly killed her.
As for that Omega-3 mentioned above, most people who are not fish eaters usually end up going with the football shaped fish oil supplement. Lately, these supplements have been catching a lot of heat over quality control. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for your triglyceride levels, brain function (especially for Alzheimer’s and depression) and they’re good for rheumatoid arthritis. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know that I’ve got arthritis in both knees (osteoarthritis) and I used to take fish oil on a regular basis, until I realized it was actually causing pain in my knees. This is because of poor quality control in the industry in general: oils can go rancid and when they do, they cause inflammation instead of relieving it, so my fish oil supplement went out with the trash. Instead, I eat more fish now. I like fish, so it’s not a problem for me, but for some people, eating fish is really unpleasant (I like it and sometimes I get sick of it, too!) For non-fish eaters, grass-fed beef, cage-free/ enriched eggs, edamame and walnuts are all good alternatives to boost your Omega-3 intake. (In general, grass-fed meats have more Omega-3 because the animals get it from the grass they eat. Grain-fed animals get less in their diet so there is less in the meat.) One alternative to improve your Omega-3 absorption is to decrease your intake of Omega-6. Omega-6 fatty acid can have some benefits (again brain function, cardiovascular disease and nerve function) but it is also pro-inflammatory (which is not good for arthritis) It also interferes with absorption of Omega-3. Both require the same receptors to be absorbed and used by the body. Decades ago, this was not much of a problem because people consumed Omega-3 and Omega-6 pretty much at a one to one ratio: they were consuming the same amounts of each. Now, however, much of what we consume in processed foods contains polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) usually in things like vegetable oils, which are high in Omega-6. Now we are consuming ten times as much Omega-6 as we do Omega-3, and the Omega-3 is getting short-changed. If we eat a salad with grilled tuna or sardines (Omega-3) but we also top it with sunflower seeds, croutons toasted in safflower oil and a dressing made with mayonnaise or soybean oil, we just pretty much cancelled out whatever Omega-3 we might have had a chance to absorb. Even if we avoid things like crop oils (corn, safflower, soybean, canola, etc), these oils are in a lot of processed foods like potato chips, bakery goods, fast foods, salad dressings, condiments, in addition to natural whole foods like nuts, seeds and some conventional grain fed meats. Since these PUFAs are a man-made invention, they tend to be unstable to start with, and now that we know they are interfering with Omega-3 absorption, this is one more reason I choose to limit processed foods in my diet.
Minerals are another nutrient that tends to get overlooked. Our bodies usually only require trace amounts of the necessary minerals like selenium, magnesium, iron and calcium but not having enough of those trace amounts can be really harmful. Anyone who has suffered from post-workout muscle cramps knows they need to boos their electrolytes, which were probably lost in perspiration. These include some of these minerals, like calcium, magnesium and potassium. Muscles need these to function properly, and the heart is probably the most important muscle in our body. Again, no minerals, no heart, no YOU. We don’t need a lot, but if you aren’t getting enough, you will have problems. Anemia is a common problem with vegetarians and vegans, because a primary source of iron is red meat, which they avoid. Anemia is low blood hemoglobin (see the vegan college student example above) which can cause tiredness and low energy. Again, eating whole foods, especially things like grass-fed beef & other meats, cage-free eggs, fish & shellfish, legumes, nuts, seeds and leafy greens are good sources for most of the minerals our bodies need.
Obviously our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t look at food and calculate vitamins and minerals in each thing they ate, but because they managed to eat a wide variety of foods and they ate seasonally, they were able to stay healthy and flourish. Eating seasonally is something that also gets overlooked because now fruits and vegetables are usually available all year round. This doesn’t mean that we need to avoid apples in the middle of winter or citrus during the summertime; it just means to get as much variety in your diet as possible. When berries are in season, eat them! When squash is in season, eat it! When you are doing your shopping, don’t just stick to the easy stuff or the routine: make a habit of changing up the menu as much as you can. Not only will it keep you from getting bored of the same old chicken-and-broccoli dinner, it’ll keep you healthier by getting more vitamins and minerals in your diet. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that ‘skinny’ does not equal ‘healthy’ (no matter what the name of this blog is!)
I don’t mean to be an alarmist or scare you away from trying veganism or even vegetarianism. (Processed foods are scary all by themselves!) I am telling you that whatever eating plan you decide on should include enough vitamins and nutrients to keep you healthy, even if it means just taking a supplement or a multivitamin. The goal is not to consume a handfuls of pills every day; most nutrients and minerals are best consumed in the foods themselves, since nutrients work best in conjunction with each other. This is why you most often find calcium together with vitamin D- you need the D to absorb the calcium.
Getting your nutrients through food also helps avoid over-consumption. TOO MUCH IS NOT A GOOD THING!! Some vitamins and minerals can be FATAL in high doses. Vitamin D is one of them: it can lead to irreversible heart damage. Minerals like sodium and selenium can also be fatal in high dosages. Consuming handfuls of supplements and vitamins without paying attention to the dosage can be harmful to your health. A few years ago, I was taking a calcium supplement along with a multivitamin, but I was upping the dosage of the calcium (which of course came with the vitamin D booster) and I started feeling like I was having heart palpitations. Once I backed off the calcium and D combo, they went away. It turns out that on top of the multivitamin (which also had D), I was just getting too much of it for my system. Whatever supplements and vitamins you take, please check the dosages and the ingredients to make sure you aren’t getting more than you need. It’s also a good idea to make sure your doctor(s) have complete lists of all the medications, vitamins, supplements and herbal compounds you take. Some years ago, the herb St. John’s Wort was very popular, but it was causing problems for some people because it was reacting with medications they were taking and some were simply taking too much. If you are prescribed medications, please read the little pamphlet that comes with it. This also goes for the vitamins you take. It sounds silly, but a friend of mine was advised by her doctor to take a vitamin D supplement and after 3 months, she went back for a blood test and found her levels had risen only a fraction and she didn’t know why it was so low. I asked her if she was eating when she took the pill; no, it was on an empty stomach like all her meds. Vitamin D is fat-soluble: no fat, no absorption. All those pills she took for 3 months weren’t absorbed because she hadn’t read the label that says “take with food.”
I’m definitely not a health or nutrition expert by any stretch of the imagination, which is why I always recommend you do your research before you take action. Even if you aren’t starting a new healthy eating plan or looking into vegetarianism/ veganism, you need to have a good basic nutrition book. I can personally recommend Nutrition for Dummies: easy to read, great explanations and charts, but what matters is what you are comfortable with. I know most of us focus on weight loss and I’m really not any different; I often have to push myself out of the chicken-and-broccoli rut. Despite what it may look like from this post, I am really not a fan of beef or eggs! Sometimes eating for nutrition means eating something with a little more calories rather than eating for weight loss. Yes, I really want to be skinny, but being skinny doesn’t count for much if I’m too sick to enjoy it.