By Carmel Wroth, Ode Magazine
Studies have repeatedly shown that the typical Western diet corresponds to higher risks of heart disease, cancer and other chronic conditions, such as diabetes. Bruce Ames, a nutrition researcher at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, has a theory about how the diet-disease connection may work. “There are about 40 micronutrients you need to run your metabolism,” says Ames. “If you don’t get any one of them, you die. What we’re learning is the consequence of not getting enough is that your body cuts back on certain functions that affect long-term health. When you’re short of micronutrients, there’s a lot of hidden damage going on.”
The World Health Organization has stated that diet is second only to smoking as a preventable cause of cancer. Indeed, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), American Heart Association and American Cancer Society have made dietary recommendations a central part of their disease-prevention messages, suggesting we eat more fruit and vegetables, replace refined carbs with whole grains and cut down on junk food. Yet according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveys, only 11 percent of Americans meet the USDA’s guidelines for eating five to nine servings of fresh fruit and vegetables daily. The nutrient shortfalls are dramatic. According to data gathered from 1999 to 2002 and compiled by the CDC, 93 percent of Americans don’t get enough vitamin E, 56 percent don’t get enough magnesium, 31 percent don’t get enough vitamin C and 12 percent don’t get enough zinc. Another CDC survey indicated many people are low on vitamin K, calcium and potassium, and many seniors lack B vitamins.
The first step to fixing nutrient shortfalls is to improve diet, says Yale University nutrition researcher David Katz. The 40 or so isolated micronutrients that scientists study – and supplement companies pack into capsules – are only a fraction of the array of organic compounds found in food. Indeed, many vitamins are not a single “vitamin” but a family of compounds. And our bodies need these complementary nutrients to make use of these vitamins. When you get your vitamin C in a piece of fruit, for example, it comes with a lot of other ingredients – fiber, antioxidants and trace minerals – that might help you more consumed together than if you down vitamin C alone in a supplement. “It may be that the active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli,” says Katz. “People who don’t want to eat broccoli and take a vitamin instead will probably be disappointed. If you want the benefits of nutrients in foods, you need to eat foods rich in nutrients.”
Next: The decline of nutrition in food: are you getting enough vitamins?