So far in these articles, I have emphasized the huge variety of the individual situations that result in people being heavier than their optimum weight. While it is true that everybody’s situation is different, there are still certain principles that apply to us all. This is the topic of today’s article: the metabolic aspects of the human body that we all share and we all must respect if we are to be in our optimal health. This information is widely available, but if the knowledge base of most of my patients is any indication, some of the things I will discuss today will be new knowledge to many. Why is this so? I trace it directly to the huge amount of misinformation that circulates on TV, in books and magazines, and on the internet. Our kids also need better education about the human body’s nutritional needs. Most of what I will briefly summarize here is well established and not likely to change in the future.
While there are many ways a healthy diet can be arranged, it must always include certain essential nutrients. These requirements are thoroughly studied and clearly described. A few nutrients are stored very efficiently in the body, especially the fat soluble vitamins, but most nutrients must be supplied by our diet on a daily basis. We have fourteen vitamins that are essential and must be supplied in our food intake. We have seventeen minerals that are essential. A few, like calcium, are present in large amounts, but most are called trace elements since they are required in very small amounts (and are often poisonous in larger quantities). There are two fatty acids that must be supplied in our diet since we cannot form them in our metabolic machinery in our cells. Last, but by no means least, all proteins are made up of amino acids and our body has nine essential amino acids that we need to consume daily. (See this Wikipedia site for a complete list of essential nutrients: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essential_nutrient)
It is crucial to understand the importance of the statement that most of these nutrients are not stored. It is a crucial understanding since the human body, like that of all other living organisms, is in a constant state of breaking down tissues while also simultaneously rebuilding them. Every part of the body is in a constant state of remodeling that allows it to adjust very efficiently to changes in our environment and the demands placed on it. For example, a consistently maintained change in our diet will cause our liver, which is a major site of metabolic activity, to completely remodel itself to properly handle the new diet and allow for the rest of the body’s needs. Another example is our bones. A different pattern of exercise will result in an immediate restructuring of the crystalline patterns within our bones to handle the new loads more effectively. What this all means is that the nutrients necessary for forming new tissue in every part of the body must always be available, or the process will suffer.
Let’s focus a bit on proteins and amino acids to get a better feel for what this implies. We need all of the essential amino acids to build new proteins. We also need them in fairly specific proportions. Animal proteins in our food contain all of the amino acids we need to have available in approximately the right proportions. For our needs, then, animal proteins are described as relatively high quality. Many plants foods also have proteins, but the amino acid patterns of almost all plant proteins is different than the human pattern. These are described as relatively low quality for our needs. Our ability to form healthy new tissues, which we need on a daily basis, is impaired if we lack even one of the essential amino acids in adequate amounts. Even worse, we will often make defective proteins if needed amino acids are lacking, which can result in organ failure if continued long enough. Enough variety in the sources of proteins in our meals will help insure that each of the amino acids is available to meet our needs.
My main point is that we need a lot of variety in our food intake to insure that the full range of all these nutrients is constantly available to our metabolic machinery. The lack of any of these essential nutrients is what we refer to when we say someone is malnourished. Malnutrition is a type of disease we induce in ourselves if we eat a poor diet. This is a very poorly appreciated consequence of the design of many fad diets. Many of these fads limit the variety of foods dramatically, or specify certain foods to be eaten at certain times, to the exclusion of others. This goes against the natural wisdom of the body which would have us consistently consume a variety of high quality foods containing all the nutrients we need. I have treated a lot of malnourished people and I have seen the results of malnutrition many times. The longer you consume a diet that causes malnutrition, the worse you feel and the more poorly your body performs. I believe this is the major reason people quit these very unhealthy fad diets – the body’s wisdom eventually overrules the mind’s poor planning.
In the next several articles in this series, I will be discussing the impact of changing the major constituents of the human diet and what we know about how these constituents affect body weight. I will include the understanding of the body’s requirements, covered briefly in this article, as we go forward with these discussions. What I will be aiming at is to be sure you will have a good understanding of how to guide your food choices to maintain optimum nutrition while also helping you to find ways to compensate if you are dealing with an inherent tendency to be overweight.