What are you made of?
It’s not an abstract question. I want you to think about what it is that you are actually made of.
The answer? You are made out of food. Or rather, you are made out of the stuff that you eat.
When you eat something, it is broken down in to its constituent molecules, and those that are digestible are absorbed across your gut and into your blood stream. As we saw in the last post, much of it is burned for energy, however a proportion of the food is taken aside, and reassembled as part of you. You are, quite literally, what you eat!
Every single part of you – From your muscles, your organs, your skin, your hair, your eye balls and your brain are comprised from materials that were supplied by your food, as are the raw materials to make sweat, saliva, gastric juices and bile, and the necessary chemicals to make muscles contract, carry nerve signals and produce hormones.
The human body is very resourceful. Just as the body is able to operate on a number of different energy sources, so it is able to work with a large range of raw materials – Converting one amino acid to another, carbohydrates to fats and so on.
This said, there are certain raw materials that are classed as essential. These are vital components required for structural and functional processes in the body, that cannot be synthesised from other raw materials: they must be supplied by the diet.
There is a lot of debate in the nutrition world about what we should or shouldn’t eat. There is no debate over the following however. Essential nutrients are those that have been shown without a shadow of a doubt to be… essential.
If they are not provided by the diet, you will get sick, and if the situation continues indefinitely, die.
Essential Amino Acids
There are nine amino acids generally regarded as essential for humans:
phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine, methionine, leucine, lysine, and histidine.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
People generally associate protein with muscle building, but in reality it is used for so much more. Not only your muscles, but pretty much every structure in your body is made from proteins.
In addition to providing a structural function, proteins also play many other roles within the body. Forming enzymes which catalyse reactions within cells, hormones such as insulin and the receptors to which they bind, antibodies produced by the immune system for fighting infections, and controlling the permeability of cell walls being just a few examples.
Essential Fatty Acids
Like the essential amino acids, essential fatty acids (EFAs) are required by the body to form vital compounds and structures necessary for optimum health and function, and cannot be synthesised internally.
Essential Fatty Acids are omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which are used by the body to make the following:
- Eicosanoids – Signalling molecules that control many bodily processes including inflammation, immunity and the CNS.
- Endocannabinoins – Signalling molecules which affect mood, behaviour and again, inflammation.
- Lipoxins, Resolvins, Isofurans and many other compounds still being discovered which also appear to regulate inflammation within the body.
- There are high concentrations of EFAs in the synaptic membranes in the brain, which are important for synaptic transmission and membrane fluidity.
Strictly speaking, the only truly essential fatty acids are the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid, as from these two all other omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can theoretically be produced.
Supplying EFAs in only these two forms has its draw backs, however, as they must be converted into longer chain fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) before they can be used for most purposes. This is a very costly metabolic process, at which many people are highly inefficient. An analogy would be delivering the raw materials with which to make bricks to a building site, rather than just delivering the pre-formed bricks.
Vitamins are organic compounds required by the body for a wide range of processes, which again cannot be synthesised, but must be obtained from the diet.
Vitamins are classified by their function, rather than their structure, therefore each “vitamin” is actually a name referring to a group of compounds which all serve the same or similar function.
The currently recognised essential vitamins for humans are:
Vitamin A (Including retinol, retinal and four carotenoids)
- Gene transcription
- Immune function
- Embryonic development and reproduction
B Vitamins (Including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate)
The B Vitamins all play key roles in the metabolism of energy from proteins, fats, carbohydrates and ketone bodies. Without sufficient B Vitamins in the diet, one simply cannot extract the energy from one’s food.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)
Vitamin C is a cofactor in numerous enzymatic reactions, including the formation of collagen. A lack of vitamin can lead to scurvy – a disease which often starts with bleeding gums, but will ultimately lead to spontaneously opening wounds and death! Orange anyone?
Vitamin D (cholecalciferol and ergocalciferol)
Vitamin D is unique as although it is classed as a vitamin, the human body can also synthesise it from cholesterol, providing it gets sufficient sun exposure.
Vitamin D’s role in bone health has been known for some time – Deficiency resulting in rickets, or osteomalacia, the softening of bones due to demineralisation. More recently vitamin D’s role in the prevention or amelioration of numerous cancers, multiple sclerosis and some infectious diseases such as flu and TB are becoming better understood.
Vitamin E (including tocopherols and tocotrienols)
Vitamin E was originally thought to be beneficial due to its antioxidant properties, however more recently doubt has been cast upon the benefits of consuming antioxidants (more on this shortly).
There were high hopes for vitamin E supplements to cure all manner of ills, however, when tested, research showed that high doses of vitamin E not only failed to decrease mortality, but in some cases actually increased it, along with risk for macular degeneration, prostate cancer and osteoperosis!
These less than stellar results doesn’t mean vitamin E is not important, however, as it also plays many other roles such as enzymatic functions, gene expression and neurological function.
Vitamin K (including phylloquinone and menaquinones)
Vitamin K is essential for the coagulation of blood, and numerous metabolic pathways in bone and other tissues.
Dietary minerals are the chemical elements required by the body, other than the four common elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen found in common organic molecules such as protein, fats and carbs.
The major minerals required by the human body are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. Iron, cobalt, copper, zinc, molybdenum, iodine, and selenium are known as “trace” minerals as they are vital, but in minuscule quantities.
Like all the other essential nutrients, minerals are required for a great number of varied processes, from electrolyte signalling, structural functions, catalysing reactions, etc.
Getting the Essentials
We are told by the government to “eat our five a day”, and whenever vitamins, minerals and nutrition are talked about in the conventional wisdom, the words are accompanied by pictures of vegetables and fruits.
Now I have nothing against the eating of vegetables and fruits, I’d even go as far as to say they should probably make up the bulk of your diet, at least in terms of volume. They are not, however, the nutritional heavyweights of the food world!
When it comes to pretty much all of the above, with perhaps the exception of vitamins C and E, animal sources are by far the most efficient way of getting your essential nutrients.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to get many of your essential nutrients from plant based foods, just that it has drawbacks.
As far as protein is concerned, the plant foods that contain the most are grains and legumes. Unfortunately, unlike animal products, very few contain “complete protein” – that is, they do not contain all the essential amino acids, usually one or more are missing. This is not necessarily a major problem, however, as you can get around this by eating a variety of sources – I.e. Eating a combination of beans AND grains, rather than just beans OR grains.
The real problems are that a) the protein is much harder to digest b) you have to eat a much greater volume of food and more calories to get the same quantity of protein, and c) the plant foods highest in protein, are also the highest in anti-nutrients and toxins (the subject of the next post).
Animal products are also the winners when it comes to essential fatty acids.
While plant foods can supply the short chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA, it is very difficult for many people to convert it to the more useful longer chain omega-3 fatty acids. To compound this problem, the plant foods that do contain ALA, also tend to contain much higher quantities of the omega-6 linoleic acid, which can create an imbalance in the ratios between omega-3/6 fats in the body.
A much better option is to simply eat animals (or their milk or eggs) which have already done the job of converting the short chain omega-3 fats into longer chain omega-3 fats for us!
Animal products are also by far the best source of the fat soluble vitamins, A, D and K. Though vegetables such as carrots and broccoli are famed for their betacarotene content (a precursor to vitamin A), the truth is it can’t be absorbed unless you eat some fat at the same time, and even if it is absorbed, many people again struggle to convert it to its active form.
Many plant foods can be a good source of B vitamins, however as with protein, often those higher in vitamins are also those higher in toxins. Generally speaking, high quality animal products tend to be a better source of most B vitamins, and in particular vitamin B12 is only found in animal products.
As far as essential nutrient density and digestibility goes, the real heavyweights are:
- Organ Meats from Pasture Raised/Wild Animals
- Wild Caught Oily Fish and Seafood, or those from Well Managed Farms fed a natural diet
- Grass Fed Butter
- Pastured Eggs
More is not necessarily better
What should be made clear here, is that although all of these nutrients are essential for optimum health, this does not mean that your aim should be to eat as much of them all as possible.
The benefits of selecting the nutrient dense foods listed above, is not that you can consume as much protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals as possible, rather than you can get them in sufficient quantities without having to consume excess volumes of food, calories or toxins and anti-nutrients.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Quite possibly a lot less than you think. Although many diet and fitness gurus advise eating huge quantities of protein, there is actually little to no evidence to back this up.
In one of his great ebooks “How Much Protein“, Brad Pilon does a fantastic job of reviewing the available science on protein consumption and it’s affects on the bodies ability to maintain or build muscle.
In it he finds there is no evidence to show any benefit to eating levels of protein higher than 70-120g per day, regardless of bodyweight or training volume!
Further to this, there is a growing body of research that reducing your protein consumption, or at least frequency of protein consumption, can have significant benefits for your health and longevity.
By abstaining from protein during a period of intermittent fasting, or eating only carbs and fat, you trigger your body to begin a phase of autophagy, where old cells are broken down and recycled.
Although eating enough protein is vital for health and longevity, it also seems that abstaining from eating it for 24 hours once or twice per week could be one of the most significant things you could do to increase your chance of a long and healthy life!
Keeping a Balance
Though they are all essential, EFAs, vitamins and minerals are actually only required in very tiny amounts.
Too much of any can cause more harm than good.
Polyunsaturated fats, for example are very delicate, and can easily oxidise. Eating large quantities can lead to increased oxidative stress on the body. Vitamins and minerals can be highly toxic in larger doses, leading to horrible side effects and even death.
As an analogy, it is pretty essential to have a cooker and a fridge in your house. This does not mean that having 8 cookers and 8 fridges is a good thing!
When it comes to essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, it is keeping a balance that is the important thing.
Many people advocate supplementing with omega 3 capsules to try and redress the omega-3/6 ratio in the body. To me, however, this makes about as much sense as trying to rectify the problem of having too many fridges, by buying more ovens.
What about Antioxidants?
I’m sure that everyone reading this is familiar with the concept of antioxidants.
We know that one of the major contributing factors to ageing, and the formation of cancers, is the process of oxidation, caused by free radicals.
The theory goes, therefore, that eating lots of antioxidants should gobble up the free radicals, and thereby reduce the oxidative stress on the body and thereby minimise the effects of ageing and cancer risk.
It is for this reason that we have the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) scale, and also why we hear of a new “super-food” discovered at the other side of the world almost every week.
Unfortunately, this theory has never been proven. On the contrary, as mentioned above when talking about vitamin E, studies where large doses of antioxidants have been administered have actually shown increased mortality and cancer rates!
This certainly does not mean that you should avoid foods high in antioxidants! Blueberries, kale, broccoli, and prunes are all great foods, that have been linked to good health. This is more likely due to the fact they are high in essential vitamins and minerals however. Perhaps the antioxidants protect the food before it is eaten, perhaps when taken in the context of a whole food they do have positive benefits, the truth is we just don’t really know.
Unknown Unknowns, AKA Why Supplements Suck
I have talked before about the naturalistic fallacy – That is, the argument or belief that just because something is natural or unprocessed it is necessarily better for you than a product which is in some way artificial or has been synthesised. This is certainly not the case. Many “natural” products are highly toxic, and processing and manufacturing can potentially produce products that are less toxic or more nutritious than they are in their natural state.
It is quite possible, that at some point science will understand everything about nutrition, and we will be able to take a pill that contains all the essential nutrients that we need in precisely the correct amounts.
Currently, however, I think that we are still a long way off that point.
The effect of real food seems to be considerably greater than the sum of its parts, or at least the parts we’ve been able to identify and understand.
You can take some fish oil capsules, a multi-vitamin, some mineral supplements and wash it all down with a protein shake, but time and again the science shows that they either fail to confer the same benefit as simply eating real food, or worse yet actually diminish health and longevity.
What really baffles me is why you’d want to take some pills in place of a tender grass fed steak, some grilled sardines fresh off the barbecue or some tasty veg smothered in grass fed butter…
That’s it for part III. In the next instalment we’ll be looking at potential toxins and antinutrients in foods. Where they’re found, why they’re there, and how, if and why you should avoid them!