In the first post of this three part series, I introduced the concepts of thinking of nutrition and health from a reductionist point of view versus a holistic point of view. In today’s post I am going to focus on nutrition and health from a reductionist view, and the pros and cons of this.
Food is often presented as being broken down into calories, and then further down into individual components: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and then vitamins and minerals.
There are benefits in thinking of food in a reductionistic way. I think that it is important for us to have an idea of our caloric intake in general terms, especially if undertaking weight loss or gain for health reasons. Caloric intake depends on sex, age, weight, height and level of activity. It is useful to know how many calories it takes to maintain your current weight at your activity level. For example, a person trying to lose weight needs to take in fewer calories than they expend. Conversely, an athlete trying to build muscle mass will need to take in more calories than they expend. However, I think that people can obsess about calories, focusing on how many calories they ate throughout the day without really thinking about the quality of the food they ate.
Now let’s look at each of the components that make up our calories. Carbohydrates, protein, and fats are all essential parts of a diet – they are all necessary for our body to function. However, the sources and amounts of each can have either a negative or positive impact on our health.
Carbohydrates – Are carbohydrates bad? No. Your body and brain need carbohydrates to survive. However, if your body consumes more carbohydrates than it needs, it converts the extra to fat. It also depends on what types of carbohydrates we are consuming. Most of the carbohydrates in our diet are highly refined and processed. Instead of having white breads, pasta, rice, cookies, muffins and buns every day – have more complex carbohydrates – i.e. whole grains, quinoa, and brown rice. These will help you to feel full longer, provide a greater amount of fiber and avoid a spike in insulin.
Protein – The amino acid building blocks of protein are necessary for tissue repair and growth. Having too little or too much protein can lead to health problems. It is important to consider your sources of vegetable and animal protein – it’s great to have nuts and seeds but are they candy coated? If consuming meat, consider the type – recent research shows deli and smoked meats containing nitrites increase the risk of cancer.
Fats – Fats are essential for growth, energy, and hormone production. However, high amounts of saturated or hidden fats in processed foods can promote inflammation. Opt to increase unsaturated fats and Omega 3 sources of fat, as found in fish, flax oil, hemp seed or avocado. But be cautious: you may think you are eating something healthy because it advertises itself as “low-fat” when it is actually higher in something else that could be even worse for you – higher sugar/ corn syrup, highly processed oils, or artificial flavours and chemicals. This can be another problem with thinking of something solely from a reductionist point of view.
Vitamins and minerals are nutrients that your body needs to grow and develop normally. It is useful to know that you are getting enough of each of the essential nutrients, and that you are meeting the minimum daily requirements. Health problems may arise from being deficient in them, i.e. Vitamin C (scurvy) or iron (anemia). Eating a well-balanced diet will provide most of the vitamins and minerals that you require for the day. However, in some cases a supplement may be necessary – i.e. calcium supplement if you are not consuming enough calcium from food. A discussion of supplements will be left for a future post. For now, I’ll say the disadvantage of thinking of vitamins and minerals reductionistically would be to think that a sugary drink “fortified with vitamins added” will provide you with your daily requirements. You would be missing out on the many health benefits of consuming fresh fruits and vegetables.
Stay tuned to the next post where we will discuss food from a more holistic point of view. What if we ate mostly whole foods – vegetables, fruits, dairy, grains, and organic meats – would that not make the big difference to our health? Could we stop looking at the calories and numerical values?