Foods have more than one side to them. When the body metabolizes food into energy and useful nutrients for rebuilding the body, there are waste products produced from that process. It is common to focus on what good things the food brings to the body, but not at what internal cost. Not only does the body have to work (expend energy) to extract benefit from the food, it has to expend energy to get rid of the waste products. It not only has to get rid of the waste products, many waste products cause negative stress inside for which the body has to expend more energy and resources to combat.
A friend introduced me to Brendon Brazier’s great book Thrive which opened my eyes to the concept of stress in the body caused by food. He wrote in the Introduction:
…in short, nutritional stress is the term used to describe the body’s stress response to food that is void of nutrition and/or foods that require a large amount of energy to digest and assimilate… Nutritional stress has the same damaging physiological effects as other kinds of stress. With modern-day demands and a diet based on refined foods, the average North American’s body is under as much stress as that of a professional endurance athlete. Although the source of stress may be different, the need to curtail the negative effects is the same. Stress may be the cause of many health problems, but the good news is that we have control over what we eat and can prevent and reverse many health problems simply by eating a diet that alleviates nutritional stress.
For a prominent example of unnecessary nutritional stress, take sugar. Sugar can be quickly converted into energy, yes, but its waste products produce terrible systemic inflammation, which is a sign that the immune system does not like the waste products of sugar and works overtime to combat these. The more sugar, the more inflammation, the harder the immune system has to work. No sugar, no inflammation, and the body can use that energy for other things. The immune system can focus on other threats. That’s my simplified argument for abstaining from processed sugar.
The foods we can possibly eat are not all equal. They could have mostly beneficial features, mostly harmful features, or a mixture of both. Foods are not dualistic – all good, or all bad. Their benefit and liability can be affected by several things.
Food Is Multi-Dimensional
Foods have a few dimensions to them which we need to pay attention to:
- Calories – conversion to energy which the body can convert to power for work
- Macro-nutrients – carbohydrates, proteins or fat which the body converts into energy or into building blocks
- Micro-nutrients – which are the multitude of substances that help grow, repair and regulate healthy function of the body
- Waste Products – which cause stress in terms of energy used to expel them and amount of immune resources taken up to combat their attacks on the body
It is not enough to just count calories. The type of calories effects the body – whether coming from carb, protein or fat.
It is not enough to work on ratio of carb to protein to fat. The type of carbohydrate matters. The type of protein matters. The type of fat matters. Because we have to pay attention to micro-nutrients and metabolic stress that each food type presents.
We want to aim for food that has these features:
- Nutrient dense – more micro-nutrients per calorie
- More efficient – the food is in its most bio-available state – easy for the body to convert with minimal energy cost
- Clean – it produces least amount of stress (less waste, less attacks on immune system, less energy to expel waste)
When we aim for these, then the body doesn’t need as many calories to get work done. Good is then defined as that which maximizes these features, and bad is what we label a food that gets farther away from this ideal.
This is what I have understood and experienced: ‘Bad’ foods encourage the body to consume more calories because the body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs out of the quantity consumed so far. ‘Good’ foods encourage the body to consume less calories because the body’s need for nutrients is satisfied at a much lower calorie count.
And, when we use the term ‘clean’ we include within that the concern for what toxins may have been pulled into the plant or animal from the environment, and what has been applied to its surface while growing or being processes, shipped and presented at the market. For example, some otherwise very beneficial food, like a cucumber, can be loaded with vitamins and fiber, while also being burdened with pesticides that were pulled into the seeds from the soil and were trapped on the skin, under the layer of wax used to make it attractive in the market.
Affects Of Benefits And Liabilities
Though foods are usually discussed in isolation (e.g. “broccoli is good for you”), in reality the body does not metabolize foods in isolation. Historically, and now, humans tend to eat a collection of foods in a meal and those are being processed in the body together. Further back in history, there may have been more distinct patterns in what foods were eaten together and in what time of day, and in what season. It can be argued that human bodies evolved to process foods in certain combinations, in certain seasons. There could be a case for following some of those ancient patterns.
Therefore, the way a food is paired with other foods can affect the benefits and liabilities.
Though components of a food are often discussed in isolation (e.g. “curcumin, extracted from tumeric, is good for reducing inflammation”), in reality the body does not, by nature, metabolize components of a food in isolation. And, apple contains a wonderful burst of Vitamin C, but it contains so much more that when, eaten whole, work together to create an even greater health effect in the body.
The amount of processing – how far from its natural state at time of harvest – can affect the benefits and liabilities.
Though foods are often discussed without reference to how they are processed, in reality, the value of each food is determined by how it has been presented to the body – the manner and degree in which it has been cooked or processed away from its natural state. (e.g. “Is that broccoli being delivered raw or streamed, fried, or baked or saturated in a sauce?).
The way a food is prepared for eating can can affect the benefits and liabilities.
Lastly, there is a lifestyle context for nutrition. If one is aiming for maximum work capability (like an Ironman Triathlete or a hard physical laborer or a pre-historic woolly mammoth hunter) then nutritional strategy may be different than one has for longevity. A certain nutritional strategy may be suitable for improving your ability to be tough now, but it may not be suitable for improving your ability to live long.
Note that I wrote ‘may be‘ or ‘may not be‘ in that paragraph. For example, I see gaps in the logic for the paleo movement being suitable for a long life, while I see the whole food, plant-based nutrition community making a strong argument that you can have both. The problem is that it takes a lifetime to prove it! So, I would not want to make absolute statements about this, though I have developed some convictions.
There may also be different daily tactics for nutrition. Some foods may be more suitable for you in the morning. Some foods are more suitable before a training time and some better to eat afterwards for recovery.
Different goals, short-term and long, may tolerate a different balance between benefits and liabilities.
This seems quite complex and intimidating, doesn’t it!
For many years I felt confused and frustrated by the conflicting or disorganized advice. Then a few years ago I decided it was time to seriously jump into the chaos and start mapping out a path for myself, my family, and to help others who shared my values.
Sorry, It Is Not Simple
If foods were truly simple and two dimensional in their properties (i.e. all good or all bad), then it would be easy for science and for consumers to find a consensus on what is the best diet for each context. But since there are many possible contexts, and since there are all these dimensions to consider with each food, it is understandable why there is a wide range of opinions and conflicting advice out there on nutrition. Yet, that is small comfort for those who want to come up with a plan for themselves!
In some posts to come I will share with you some of the ideas and principles I am using to construct my own nutritional map through the complexity…
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