Most of us think of nutrition as a fairly simple, straightforward equation. Foods contain measurable amounts of various nutrients. When we eat, our digestive system extracts the vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, and everything else that our body can use, and eliminates the leftovers. Building on this idea, some would claim that an ideal diet would consist solely of a perfectly-chosen set of supplements: Everything we need, nothing more and nothing less. However, when it comes to nourishment, the human body is more complex than we give it credit for. Science has shown that the process of actually eating food, and even the environment in which we eat, plays a big role in our ability to receive the nutrition that we need to thrive.
The science of nutrition is way more beautiful, and way more complex, than we might ever know. There’s a hidden poetics to the science of the body that often goes unnoticed. We can say that nutrition is largely the experience of nourishment, and by this I mean that nourishment is the nutrients in the food, the taste, the aroma, the ambiance of the room, the conversation at the table, the love and inspiration in the cooking, and the joy of the entire eating experience. Science has demonstrated time and again that the subjective experience of food has a powerful impact on how we literally digest and assimilate a meal.
Even at the cellular level, nourishment is not derived exclusively from nutrients in food. Nourishment comes from the process our body undergoes to metabolize those nutrients. Many of us believe that only vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, the end products of digestion, are what nourish us. However, equally important is the work the body must do to extract the nutrients from the food and utilize them properly.
In other words, nutrition is how the body PROCESSES food. It’s the physical and chemical challenge the body faces in the breakdown of food in the mouth, the churning and the enzymatic digestion in the stomach, the absorptive process in the intestinal villi, the whole range of digestive activities. The process of digestion IS nutrition. Consider this analogy:
The digestion of food is analogous to weight lifting. A weight lifter does not build muscle because two hundred pounds of weights are in his hands. It’s not the weights that build muscle, but the process the body must go through, the weight lifting, that does it. Likewise, it’s not just the nutrients in the food that nourish, but the entire process the body undergoes to extract and assimilate those nutrients. It’s as if the digestive system were one big muscle, and food the weight it must lift. With this in mind, the drawbacks of putting our nutritional emphasis exclusively on supplements are obvious. Why swallow large amounts of pills when the body is ideally nourished through the process of extracting nutrients from the food?
Scientists have long known that a diet of pure chemical nutrients cannot sustain human life. No matter what combination of substances is used, pure nutrients simply cannot replace real food. In one study, back in the days of Apollo moon missions, scientists at NASA were looking for the most simple, compact, and ideal diet for astronauts in space. Test subjects were fed all the known daily-required nutrients in chemical form. They consumed vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber mixed with water. They received no food in the diet, no meat and potatoes for dinner and apple pie for dessert, just the recognized isolated nutrients that comprise those foods. On this diet, test subjects suffered from immune dysfunctions, bone loss, digestive disorders, bloating, and impaired mental functioning, to name just a few symptoms. Because they had no food to exercise the full range of muscular, enzymatic, and hormonal components of digestion, subjects were left only partially nourished.
The challenge we face, then, is to see the full picture of our nutritional world. Food is meant to be grown in the ground, not in a laboratory. Farming is meant to be practiced naturally, not with chemicals and genetic roulette that destroy the environment and the human body. Supplements are meant to augment food, not replace it. Science is meant to teach us about our world, not remove us from it. Food is also meant to nourish us on all levels of our being, and not merely provide nutrients.
Adapted from: Emily Rosen
Nutrition Tip of the Day
Whole grains are a good option! Choose whole-grain foods, such as whole-wheat bread, rye bread, brown rice, popcorn, oatmeal and whole-grain cereal.