We’ve all heard or read in the media that we should focus our diets on more unprocessed, natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and lean meats. Likewise, we are urged to eat low-fat dairy, “healthy” fats, and natural sweeteners and top it all off with generous amounts of plain water. While all of the above is sound dietary advice, we are not always aware of exactly why we should be following it. What, then, do the above foods provide our bodies that some other type of food would not? What do our bodies need to function at peak performance? Is it possible to get peak performance from healthy foods alone, or are supplements really needed?
To answer the above questions, we should look first at what our bodies require, and then examine what the above listed food groups can contribute to our well-being.
Our bodies require water, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (the “macro” nutrients), as well as vitamins and minerals (”micro” nutrients), and other less well- known micronutrients in order to survive. Optimal levels of these “macro” and “micro” nutrients can mean the difference between just surviving and living life to its fullest potential (and length) as is presently known to mankind.
Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provide carbohydrates, certain vitamins and minerals, fiber (a type of carbohydrate resistant to the body’s digestive enzymes), and phytonutrients (also known as phytochemicals) that are key components to preventing cancer and other physical maladies. (Small amounts of other nutrients, such as protein, may also be present.)
Meats (including fish), dairy products, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes (beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts), and the various soy products provide proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fats. (Again, small amounts of other nutrients, such as carbohydrates, may be present.)
By consuming foods from all of these categories, we improve our nutritional balance and spectrum considerably and give our bodies what they need to survive.
Eating the above types of food in a “processed” form, that is to say in any way that has been significantly “added to” or “taken away from” the food’s naturally occurring state results in poorer nutrition for the individual. For example, processed grains have had their naturally occurring outer layers removed, taking away much needed vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Bleached flour has had virtually all nutrition removed, leaving only the basic, most sugar-like, simple carbohydrates intact. Processed meats have had significant amounts of salt, sugar, and worse yet, cancer-causing preservatives added to them. Processed fruits and vegetables have often lost nutrients through high heat processing and gained unneeded salt or sugar to improve flavor, which was lost through processing.
To preserve nutrition, always opt for fresh or frozen choices with simple preparation techniques.
In summary of the above, we can give our bodies excellent “survival gear” by eating a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and lots of plain water, and by obtaining these food types in their most naturally occurring, unprocessed state, we give our bodies another nutritional advantage.
Are all of the above going to enable us to live our lives to full physical potential? Evidence shows that it is unlikely, especially given our busy, stressful lives, and our modern food supply that is no longer as “micro” nutrient dense as it once was years ago. To maximize our physical potential, we will, in most cases, need supplements for the “micro” nutrients.
Even with adherence to superior dietary standards, we simply can’t get optimal “micro” nutrition through diet alone. Several scientific studies have shown that modern fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes aren’t as “micro” nutritious now as they used to be, even 50 to 100 years ago before recent farming practices were put into widespread use, and the herbivores (such as cattle, poultry, pigs) that we also consume are not as nutritious for us now either because they consume plant-based feed that isn’t as nutrient packed as it once was.
To make humans’ nutritional outlook even more precarious is our present state of always being “on-the-go”, too busy, and stressed. Adherence to excellent dietary standards often falls by the wayside, even among the most well-intentioned, positively focused individuals. To complicate matters further, our stressful lifestyles put additional demands on our bodies, causing them to need more micronutrients to handle the extra performance we ask of our physical and emotional selves.
To help ensure optimal “micro” nutritional intake, supplements are needed. With the wide array of options available, what are the basics desired, and how best do we get them?
If time or budget constraints are severe, then an individual’s only option may be to take a well-known national brand multivitamin/mineral or a store brand equivalent. Supplements of this type are quick, fairly inexpensive, and contain a small amount of several different nutrients. However, the nutrient concentrations are not optimal in amount, nor are all needed nutrients included in the formulation. Still, if money or time is a concern, taking one of these supplements is better than not taking supplements at all.
A better (and more expensive) choice is to supplement most vitamins and minerals individually or in small, related groups; less popularly discussed micronutrients, such as bioflavonoids or grape seed extract, can also be added to a person’s daily routine with relative ease if individual supplementation is his/ her norm. Individual nutrient supplementation leads to much more precise nutritional enhancement and allows each person to customize his/her supplement regimen to meet personal needs. If taking advantage of this method of supplementation, it is very important to know what dosage levels will help prevent a person from taking too much or too little of a given nutrient and suffering symptoms of overdose or deficiency. Even if an individual person chooses to take a single multivitamin/mineral, awareness of optimal dosing is still a benefit in that it allows the person to gauge the desirability of a particular product and also gives the individual an idea of where his/her nutritional regimen is weak.
The subsequent list of vitamin, mineral, and other micronutrient recommendations (detailed below) is taken from the popular and comprehensive nutrition book, Prescription for Natural Healing, by Phyllis A. Balch. Other nutritional guides echo similar “Optimum Daily Intakes”, as they are termed in Balch’s book, for superior health.
Please note that dosages listed are intended as a general guide for normal, healthy adults without pre-existing conditions, such as severe illness, pregnancy, smoking, alcoholism, recovery from surgery, etc. Special conditions may call for more or less of certain nutrients, and special needs should be investigated thoroughly before proceeding with a supplement plan. Always consult with your physician before proceeding with a supplement plan.
Also, please note that the dosages listed are often greater for many nutrients than are commonly found among government DVs (Daily Values) or RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances). The reason for this seeming disparity is that the focus of this article is on attaining optimal nutrition, not on merely getting enough of each nutrient to avoid deficiency diseases and providing a basic level of health, as is the case with government issued standards.
The optimal micronutrient dosing list is as follows: Vitamin A – 5,000 to 10,000 I.U.; Carotenoid complex – 5,000 to 25,000 I.U.; Vitamin B-complex – 50mg., except for the following six “B” family members, whose dosages should be as indicated, B12 (200-400 mcg.), Biotin (400-800 mcg.), Folic acid (400-800 mcg.), Choline and Inositol (50-200 mg. each), and PABA (10-50mg.); Vitamin C – 1,000 to 3,000 mg. in divided doses; Bioflavonoids (mixed) – 200 to 500 mg.; Hesperidin – 50 to 100 mg.; Rutin – 25 mg.; Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) – at least 400 I.U., 2,000 to 6,000 I.U. is preferable according to many current sources; Vitamin E – 200 to 400 I.U.; Calcium (citrate, ascorbate, malate) 1,500 to 2,000 mg.; Magnesium – 750 to 1,000 mg.; Iron – 18 to 30 mg.; Zinc – 30 to 50 mg.
A number of other minerals are required for excellent health. Many of these minerals, including boron, chromium, copper, germanium, iodine, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, silicon, sulfur, and vanadium, are considered trace minerals because they are needed by the body in such small amounts. Consider supplementing these minerals with a trace mineral combination supplement from a health food store. Supplementation of these minerals is especially important if dietary intake of healthy foods is low.
Numerous other micronutrients can improve health additionally and should be supplemented individually as personal needs and budgets permit. “Optional” supplements include (but are by no means limited to) the following: Coenzyme Q10, garlic extract, lecithin, grape seed extract, lutein/lycopene, ginkgo biloba, octacosanol, spirulina, quercetin, and glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. Follow product label directions for proper dosing.
A few final thoughts for improving dietary nutrition are in order. To preserve nutritional content of foods when cooking, consider using low to medium heat and generous quantities of plain water. Season the cooking water generously; add small amounts of fat if desired. Simmer gently for a longer time than would be needed with high heat. Then serve part or all of the seasoned cooking fluid as part of the meal. It is tasty, filling, and contains important nutrients that cook out of the food. The low to medium cooking temps help prevent destruction of nutrients and also help prevent the formation of cancer causing substances known to occur when foods, especially meats, are cooked at high temperatures. However, be careful to cook foods, especially meats, at 165 degrees for at least ten minutes to kill harmful bacteria.
Eat healthily, cook gently, supplement wisely, and most of all, live long and well!
Darra McMullen is a Women’s Health Network Writer and Researcher.