Most people simply go through life enjoying their food, without thinking too much how the nutrients in food keeps them fuelled and sustains life. To a certain degree, that is how it should be, because people do not want to be obsessed with vitamin, mineral, nutrient or calorie intake. After all, life is too short and meant to be enjoyed.
However, there should be a balance, and it is worth having at least some awareness of what your body needs on a daily basis, to function efficiently and to keep you fit and healthy, and your immune system strong. Unfortunately, it is only when something goes wrong in the body that the vast majority of people start to think about optimum nutrition.
You may be surprised to learn that your health and vitality actually depends on a careful balance of approximately 50 different nutrients. So if you are not giving at least some thought to your diet, you are leaving quite a lot left up to chance.
These essential nutrients include:
- sources of energy (measured in calories), which may come from carbohydrates, fats or proteins
- 13 known vitamins
- 15 minerals
- 24 amino acids (which we get when proteins are digested)
- and 2 essential fatty acids.
Although our bodies’ requirements for certain nutrients might be very low; for example in the case of trace minerals, they are still as vital to health as those nutrients, called macronutrients, that are required in much higher quantities. As an example, the body only requires selenium at less than a millionth of our protein requirement, but it is essential for antioxidant protection, immunity and thyroid function for example.
33 per cent of all chemical reactions in the body depend on tiny amounts of specific vitamins and minerals, and without just one of these, all aspects of health can be affected. Taking this into consideration, here is a brief look at some of the maybe surprising nutrients that are most commonly missing from the average Western diet or if not missing, found in levels that are lower than requirements.
There are two types of vitamin A: retinol found in meat products and carotenoids, like beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a carotenoid found in many red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables (like sweet potatoes, carrots and squash). Vitamin A is an antioxidant, as well as a nutrient that is key in supporting good vision, strong immunity and tissue growth.
Whilst it is found in a wide range of fruits and vegetables; most notably bell peppers, dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, broccoli, berries, tomatoes, peas and papayas, today’s junk food consumption is largely responsible for a common deficiency in this important nutrient. Other lifestyle factors, such as smoking and high levels of stress, can also drain our reserves of vitamin C. However, as this vitamin is vital for turning food into both mental and physical energy, as well as supporting the growth of bone and tissue, it is essential to ensure a daily intake. Vitamin C is one of nature’s most potent antioxidants, and can also help to protect cells from damage and support the immune system.
Vitamin D, often called the ‘sunshine vitamin’, because our bodies can make it through exposure to sunlight. However, it is commonly deficient in people who live in colder countries, and because of it’s importance in the development of healthy bones, muscles and nerve fibres, as well as a strong immune system and calcium balance, it is therefore recommended to try to access vitamin D through the diet. A few foods naturally contain vitamin D, such as fatty fish (like salmon and mackerel), mushrooms, liver, cheese and egg yolks.
Almost 3lb of your body weight is calcium, and 99% of this is in your bones and teeth. Calcium, together with magnesium and phosphorus, supports the growth and strength of both teeth and bones and is needed to provide the rigid structure of the skeleton. Nerve signals which are vital for the brain and muscles, heart rhythm, blood pressure and the acid-alkaline balance of the blood also depend on calcium. Milk and other dairy products are a mainstay of the British diet, and with the U.K. consuming a massive 40% of what was the total EU intake, how can it be possible for us to be deficient in this important mineral? Firstly, the ability to absorb calcium becomes impaired with age and, additionally, without sufficient levels of vitamin D and magnesium, your body can’t efficiently absorb or use the calcium you take in.
Interestingly, the countries that consume the most dairy also have the most cases of osteoporosis. This is because we absorb a very low level of the calcium in cow’s milk, especially if pasteurised, because of its calcium to magnesium ratio. Without enough magnesium, calcium can also collect in the body’s soft tissues and can actually cause a certain type of arthritis.
To make matters worse, dairy can actually result in calcium loss from bones, because like all animal protein, dairy results in acid by-products when broken down by the body. This results in a higher acidic blood pH, which requires a biological correction to revert to the body’s ideal alkaline pH. As calcium is an excellent acid neutraliser (so are sodium, potassium and magnesium), and the largest reserve of calcium in the body is in the bones, it is very same calcium that our bones need to stay strong, that is leached from them to neutralise the acidity caused by the consumption of dairy. Once the calcium is pulled out of the bones, it leaves the body via the urine, so that the net result is a calcium deficit.
This is one of the many reasons that people suffering with arthritis are encouraged to seek out plant-based sources of calcium such as wheatgrass, tofu, collards and kale. Although the levels of this important bone mineral in plant foods may not be quite as high as those found in traditional sources like dairy, the body is able to absorb and use the calcium more efficiently because of their magnesium content and ratio to calcium. What’s more, plant-based sources of calcium tend to be alkalising in the body and also contain good levels of dietary fibre.
People in rural Africa eat around 55g of dietary fibre per day, compared with the UK average of just 22g. It is interesting to note that Africa also has the lowest incidence of bowel disease. It is suggested that the ideal daily intake of fibre is around 35g, to support everything from digestive health and a lower toxic load in the body, to stable blood sugar levels and higher energy levels. This is relatively easy to achieve through a well-balanced diet, by eating plenty of whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes on a daily basis. When it comes to fibre, quality is just as important as quantity – make sure to opt for high quality, unprocessed sources wherever possible, where the whole grain is intact. Extracted, refined sources of fibre (as are often found in breakfast cereals, particularly those containing bran) can be highly irritating to the gut, causing more harm than good.
Potassium (along with calcium, sodium, phosphorus and magnesium) is a macro-mineral, so-called because we need relatively large amounts each day (300 – 3,000mg). It works in conjunction with sodium to maintain healthy water balance in the body, along with proper nerve and muscle impulses. Most of the potassium in the body is found in the cells. Once of the main reasons that this nutrient is often lacking in the average person’s body is down to the high-salt content of the modern diet – the more salt that is eaten, the more potassium is required. An equal intake of both these minerals is most conducive to good health. Fruit (such as bananas), vegetables (such as spinach) and whole grains are rich in potassium.
Magnesium is essential for many enzymes in the body, working together with vitamins B1 and B6. It is also involved in protein synthesis and is therefore essential for the production of hormones. A lack of magnesium is strongly linked to heart disease. As mentioned above, the average diet is deficient in magnesium because the traditional source of calcium (milk), is not a very good source of magnesium. However, it is actually pretty easy to access this important mineral by simply upping your intake of green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. Magnesium is a component of chlorophyll, the pigment (and potent phyto-chemical) which gives plants their green colour. Wheatgrass is a particularly good source, containing up to 70% chlorophyll.
Research is an ongoing and continuous process, and nutritional science is progressing all the time, so that many more vitamins, minerals and other nutrients will probably be found which have an important role to play in various aspects of our health. Meanwhile, you can give your body the best possible chance of keeping well-fuelled and functioning optimally by eating a varied, seasonal and, preferably an organic diet of natural whole foods.