micro nutrients

There are those in the diet world who stick firmly to the “Calories In, Calories Out” (CICO) model, citing the “Law of Thermodynamics”.  This is a bit of a problem, and can be easily knocked over as an argument.  Firstly, there is no one “Law of Thermodynamics”.  If someone quotes that at you, ask them if they mean the zero-th, first, second or third law.  That will probably shut them up!  The thing is that we have been advised to eat less and exercise more to lose weight for the last 50-60 years and during that time obesity rates have soared around the world.  Clearly something is wrong.

[simpleazon-image align="left" asin="0307877523" locale="uk" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51N18MYXSuL._SL160_.jpg" width="139"]There has been much work over the last decade to show that, in human nutrition terms, a calorie is not just a calorie, and I put myself firmly in that camp.  CICO leads to weight-loss advice that says either eat less, exercise more, or both.  This is over-simplistic, and if you want chapter and verse on how to demolish this argument, read Gary Taubes’ books.  ”Why We Get Fat” is the easy book: Good Calories, Bad Calories” (Known as “The Diet Delusion” in the UK) is the “big book” (if exercise is all you need, you could lose weight simply by carrying GCBC around with you!)[simpleazon-image align="right" asin="1400033462" locale="us" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41ikBliWK8L._SL160_.jpg" width="105"][simpleazon-image align="right" asin="0091924286" locale="uk" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41zvRZLsE4L._SL160_.jpg" width="97"]

But while I am a total fan of Gary, and feel that his books have changed my life, the good old calorie can still tell us a few things:  it can show you just how easy it can be to become malnourished when you’re on a diet.

For instance, the “average” person needs around 2000 calories a day to maintain normal life.  This, of course, varies a lot.  According to the math I would need 3050 calories a day to maintain my current size, and my wife would need 1755 (she’s younger, much smaller, and more active than me).  You can see that it’s quite a range.

We know that body fat is a highly-effective energy storage medium: one pound (.45kg) of fat contains 3500 calories.  So if we just go with the basic idea of “eat less”, if we want to lose 1lb a week we need to consume 3500 calories less per week, or 3500/7=500 calories less per day.  For Susan that would mean reducing her daily calorie intake by 28%, for me I’d need to reduce by 16%.

That’s all very well, but our food is not just an energy supply.  In addition we need micro-nutrients and, although as their names implies we don’t need much of them, when we don’t have enough the results can be horrendous.  For instance, a severe deficiency of vitamin C causes a disease called scurvy, where your teeth fall out, you get suppurating sores and you get severely depressed (well, you would, wouldn’t you?)

Beri Beri victim

Pellagra sufferer

Beri beri, a disease caused by a lack of thiamin (vitamin B1) caused extreme lethargy and even death.  And pellagra, caused by a deficiency of vitamin B3 (niacin) affected more than three million people in the American south, killing 100,000 of them in the early part of the 20th century.

I got quite a shock, researching this.

I am from the UK but my wife is American and her father was a southerner.  When she grew up she was accustomed to eating grits (from the same stem as English “groats”) and still enjoys grits when we go out to breakfast if we are in the Southern states.  I have always laughed: to me grits looks like wallpaper paste, tastes not much better, and I imagined it to be completely devoid of nutrition, because grits is made from corn kernels, dried and soaked in lime (that’s the chemical, not the juice of the fruit!)  But apparently, the key nutrient in corn (maize), niacin, is biologically unavailable (it’s locked up).  However, if you treat the maize with lime it makes the niacin nutritionally available.  Traditionally, new world cultivators of maize knew this (how?!) since 1500BC and didn’t suffer from pellagra, but when maize started being shipped around the world, people who adopted it without knowing about this process of  nixtamalization developed diseases of malnutrition.

Now you may think that these were all diseases of the past, and that we no longer need to worry, but here’s the interesting (and worrying) thing … these are diseases of extreme malnutrition, but malnutrition happens on a sliding scale.  If you are bit short of micro-nutrients you might not suffer from anything as bad as pellagra, beri beri or scurvy, but your health will be negatively affected.

Various governments publish “Recommended Daily Allowances” (known by various names depending on the government and the day of the week) for various nutrients.  But these amounts are the amount that, if everyone in the population had that much, around 50% of them wouldn’t get ill.  How much you need, not just to avoid malnutrition, but to be in optimum health, is probably much more than the RDA, or whatever your country calls it.

So, if you are aiming to lose one pound a week on your diet, and you do it by reducing what you eat by between 15% and 30%, you’re reducing your micro-nutrients by that amount, too.

Scary, isn’t it?

Before dieting you were probably malnourished to some degree; now you’re dieting it’s got worse.  We have all heard of pregnant women getting cravings–that’s because the baby is using up the mother’s micro-nutrients.  The craving is the body’s drive to get the mother to correct the deficiency.

Irradiated food symbol

But, if we’re eating a “normal” diet, are we getting all the nutrition we need?  No.  In the Standard American Diet (SAD), which (obviously, by definition) most Americans, and large numbers of people in the rest of the world eat, our food is deficient in these micro nutrients, for a variety of reasons:

  • The soil is worn out: we keep cropping, but don’t replace what we take out
  • The time from field to fork gets longer: vitamins start to decay once a plant is picked.  In America the average distance travelled from field to fork is around 1500 miles.  And if you think it’s better in Europe, just remember that most of your “fresh” vegetables and salad stuff comes from southern Spain.  A tomato grown in a greenhouse in Malaga will have done over 1500 miles by the time it gets to a supermarket in Birmingham.
  • Vegetables, nowadays, are picked before they are ripe, so that they will last longer on supermarket shelves.
  • Food is irradiated, destroying its DNA.
  • A lot of food is so processed that it has few, if any, micro-nutrients: what we call “junk food”.

So, we are already eating a diet that is low on nutrition, and then we eat 15-30% less of it.  Less of a bad diet is a worse diet, not better.  No wonder we have cravings and get hungry.

What are we to do?

[simpleazon-image align="left" asin="098430472X" locale="uk" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/418yh6o7hML._SL160_.jpg" width="106"][simpleazon-image align="right" asin="0984755179" locale="uk" height="160" src="http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51AXQpauaLL._SL160_.jpg" width="115"]Well, I already knew a lot of this information about nutrition, but it wasn’t at the top of my consciousness until I read Naked Calories and Rich Food, Poor Food by Jason and Mira Calton. Time for a declaration of interest.  Currently I have no commercial relationship with the Caltons at all.  But I am so impressed with the books, and with their supplement, that I am hopeful that I may be able to import it into the UK.  I’ll alter this sentence if and when that happens!

By now you will understand the title of this post.  If most of the food we eat is just “naked calories”, how can we make sure that our calories are well-dressed?  The art and science of making sure that you have enough micro-nutrients is complex (one of the things I like about the Calton’s supplements is that they have made it very easy), but there are some things that we can do straight away.

Looking at the list of problems above, you can see that eating your five a day will help, especially if they come from a local, organic farm.  When we live in Florida we buy as much as we can from Lake Meadow Naturals (about 10 miles from where we live) and in the UK we use Sunnyfields Farm and Beechcroft Farm, both, I was surprised to find, exactly 9 miles away from where we live, but in opposite directions!

Next, don’t keep stuff too long.  Buying it fresh, organic and local is all very well, but if it sits in the veg drawer in the fridge until it’s floppy and unpleasant, you might have done better to buy canned or frozen!

Lastly, for now, aim for the most nutrient-dense foods that you can find.  I will be helping with that by posting about various foods.  For now, check out my recent blog post “Which Avocados are best for Paleo/Primal?

And educate yourself.  For starters, read the Calton’s books, and click the various links on this page.  And watch out for the next posts in this series.

Haas or Fuerte Avocado

REALLY dark Haas

REALLY dark Haas

This is the first of a series of post that I will be doing which are more about micro-nutrients than continuing to push the macro-nutrient wars (HFLC vs LFHC).

There doesn’t seem to be much warring going on in the area of micro-nutrients, and I think it’s vital that all of us who care about our health to understand the importance of nutrition, as opposed to just where do the calories come from. Anyway, much more of that in the future, but for now I am hunting down foods that are nutrient dense and which fit right in with eating well (whether you’re eating paleo or trying to stick to the “official” food pyramid).

And my food of choice today is the avocado, which is healthy in more ways than several!  In particular, you should be eating avocado with your salads and veggies! Why?  Because a lot vitamins and antioxidants in your veg are fat-soluble.  That means, if there’s no fat in your diet those vital nutrients go in your mouth and straight out the other end, without touching the sides!  But if you have some slices of avocado in the same meal, you not only get all the incredible nutrients in the avocado, but the heart-healthy fats in the avocado (similar to those in olive oil) will carry the nutrients from the salad or veggies into your system, where they can be used.

Florida Avocado

But there are two main types of avocado (well, actually there are loads … for a complete rundown check out this post from Food Republic: “Know Your Avocado Varieties And When They’re In Season“).  The two main types that people know about are the larger, smooth-skinned “Florida” (picture courtesy of The Witchy Kitchen) and the smaller, dark and bumpy-skinned Haas or “California” avocado (what we buy looks more like the picture up right).

But which is better?

Well, each has their fans, Floridians saying that the California is oily, Californians saying that the Florida is watery.  As I live part of every year in Florida I set out hopefully to show that the Florida avocado is more nutritious, but I’m afraid I bombed on my mission.  Using the USDA Nutritional database, the Haas scores higher on just about every nutrient:

 Units

Florida

California

Difference

Water

g

78.81

72.33

-8.22%

Energy

kcal

120

167

39.17%

Protein

g

2.23

1.96

-12.11%

Total lipid (fat)

g

10.06

15.41

53.18%

Carbohydrate, by difference

g

7.82

8.64

10.49%

Fiber, total dietary

g

5.6

6.8

21.43%

Sugars, total

g

2.42

0.3

-87.60%

Calcium, Ca

mg

10

13

30.00%

Iron, Fe

mg

0.17

0.61

258.82%

Magnesium, Mg

mg

24

29

20.83%

Phosphorus, P

mg

40

54

35.00%

Potassium, K

mg

351

507

44.44%

Sodium, Na

mg

2

8

300.00%

Zinc, Zn

mg

0.4

0.68

70.00%

Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid

mg

17.4

8.8

-49.43%

Thiamin

mg

0.021

0.075

257.14%

Riboflavin

mg

0.053

0.143

169.81%

Niacin

mg

0.672

1.912

184.52%

Vitamin B-6

mg

0.078

0.287

267.95%

Folate, DFE

µg

35

89

154.29%

Vitamin A, RAE

µg

7

7

0.00%

Vitamin A, IU

IU

140

147

5.00%

Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)

mg

2.66

1.97

-25.94%

Vitamin K (phylloquinone)

21

100.00%

Fatty acids, total saturated

g

1.96

2.126

8.47%

Fatty acids, total monounsaturated

g

5.513

9.799

77.74%

Fatty acids, total polyunsaturated

g

1.676

1.816

8.35%

You can see from the numbers that  those who describe Florida avocados as watery are right (their water content is higher) and those who describe Haas as “oily” are also right: their fat content is 50% higher!

So, if all you care about is low fat and low calorie, you will choose the Florida avocado (but, be aware these figures are “per 100 grams”.  A Florida avocado is much bigger than a Haas, so you will probably end up with more calories anyway).  And notice that the Florida might be lower in calories, but it is much higher in sugars, so if carbs are your concern, rather than calories, you will choose the Haas every time.

And if you want those good, heart-healthy fats to help carry all the vitamins and minerals to where they can be used, Haas scores again, as well as the significantly higher amounts of vitamins and minerals.  So, sorry Florida!  I wish I could be promoting my home state.  Maybe some Florida farmers can start producing Haas; here’s someone whose granny has grown a Haas tree in Florida.

Personally, I turn most of my avocados into guacamole, add some of my special high-fat home-made mayo, and often add some other nutrient dense favourites.  My current batch of guac is a slightly strange colour because I added turmeric!  Tastes OK though, and turmeric is a master spice.  More on that later.

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