Thanks to increasing knowledge and great medical advances we are less likely to die from injury or sudden illness. However, there has been a dramatic increase in long term diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancers and heart disease.
We live longer but very often the quality of our lives declines dramatically with age. This is especially true in more developed countries. There are probably many causes including increasing stress levels and environmental pollution. But a new theory suggests our diets may not have the nutritional density our long term health requires.
I have recently stumbled upon the work and theory proposed by Bruce Ames Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Emeritus at the University of California, and Senior Scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. His theory explains the role of suboptimal nutrition in developing chronic illnesses.
According to this theory, nature cares the most about short term survival and reproduction and prioritizes short term survival over long term health benefits. This of course make sense. But what does it mean for us?
It means that from the many different enzymes and proteins needed for human body to function properly, those required to protect us today from death are prioritized. The enzymes responsible for repair and long term health are lower on the priority list.
Our short and long term health can rely on similar vitamins and minerals. Unless we have a really poor diet, we won’t show outward signs of lack of nutrients as our body is keeping us healthy in the here and now. But, suboptimal intake of nutrients can lead to chronic problems and diseases manifesting later in life.
Although it is in our nature to not worry about the distant future and focus more on immediate needs, I think we all want to live happy and healthy lives into old age.
So, how can we make sure we meet our nutritional needs?
It is important to note that Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) are set to prevent serious acute immediate problems and not long term diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancers and heart disease. Also, the RDA of a vitamin is set based on the fact that a person will die if not provided with that particular substance.
There are many nutrients though needed for our optimal health that will not necessarily lead to death if deficient. A great example are carotenoids like lutein and astaxanthin needed for healthy vision and prevention of age related eye problems. Carotenoid-rich foods are orange and yellow foods like corn, carrots, orange and yellow peppers, salmon and eggs
However, carotenoids are not considered essential and no Recommended Daily Allowances exist.
Vitamin K’s priority need is to clot our blood, but we need an excess over above blood clotting requirements to prevent heart disease. Its estimated 50% of people in the US have a magnesium deficiency. Magnesium’s priority is the role it plays in energy production, yet is also an essential component of repair enzymes. Energy production is the body’s priority but a lack of magnesium inhibits the repair of our bodily cells.
Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health and the daily recommendations are based on the prevention of bone related problems like rickets. Vitamin D is also a ‘social hormone’ linked to ADHD and autism in many studies. It also controls thousands of genes, yet estimated 70% of US population is deficient.
So far, Bruce Ames’s theory was confirmed in studies with only a few vitamins. Hopefully it will continue to attract more attention and contribute to better understanding of optimal nutrition for health and longevity.
What’s the solution?
Unfortunately the main problem is for many nutrients we still don’t know their optimal levels. With little to gain for commercial companies and expensive trials research to produce RDAs for long term health is not likely to be sponsored.
Many people in developed counties are overfed but suffer from nutrient deficiencies at the same time
Furthermore, there are so many nutrients that we need for optimal health, but they are not considered essential and are not likely to be part of many vitamin and mineral formulations.
What do I do?
Eat fresh and organic wholefoods
I believe, a wholefood diet including many colourful vegetables and some fruit, rich in micronutrients and phytonutrients (non-essential nutrients from plants), is the best approach.
Considering the quality of our soil and the fact that plants lose their nutrients content quickly after harvesting, a good quality multivitamin and some other key nutrients supplementation would also be beneficial. For most people a good quality multivitamin, vitamin D (after testing) and a good quality fish oil are important to consider.
Understand your genetics
Genetic factors play a role in our susceptibility to illness, so some of us need to supplement selected nutrients in higher quantities. While a good quality nutrient dense diet of wholefoods should be the base, supplements can be a good way to get the extra some of us need.
Although more is not necessarily better, you should understand your specific requirement. This also explains why we should think about our diets outside of the realm of calories only. A professional practitioner can identify your genomic profile.
Watch your nutrient intake, not just your calorie intake
It’s been shown that many people in developed counties are overfed but suffer from nutrient deficiencies at the same time.
Eating processed, junk foods and compensating with exercise is also not a good strategy. Maybe we can burn excess calories and maintain body weight, we are happy with, but we are not delivering the key nutrients our body needs for long term health. Watch the quality of the food you eat, make sure it’s got good nutritional density.
Considering our lifestyles and environmental factors we probably need even more nutrients in our diet now than ever before!
Kamila is a Registered Nutritionist based in London www.kamilabloch.com