“What’s in your wallet?” asks a large, burly barbarian and star of the famous credit card commercial, implying that the value of your credit cards is inferior to their card’s value and services. I’ll ask you a similar question, “What’s in your food?” Now I am not a big burly barbarian wielding a club, but a physician wielding studies with a genuine interest in improving your health. Have you ever really stopped to carefully consider the food you eat each day? What are the components of food? What makes it “healthy”? What and how much may cause disease? Why do you choose the foods you eat regularly? These are important questions to answer because they will impact your future. Multiple times each day you choose to eat some type of food, but before it passes your lips, how often do you consider the value and health benefit of that food? Some people may consider about the fat, carbohydrates and protein. These three — fat, carbohydrates and protein — are called macronutrients and have been the primary focus for decades because they contain calories and excess calories lead to weight gain. As a result, the vast majority of diets have become some variation of these macronutrients – low fat, low carb, high protein – each with empty promises to be the only answer to your weight and health problems.
Yet science has revealed that food is far more than just fat, carbohydrates and protein. These macronutrients have stolen the spotlight from the true stars – micronutrients. Let’s consider a bite of food for a moment. Each bite of fruit, vegetable, bean, nut or seed contains some combination of macronutrients but it is also loaded with a myriad of micronutrients including vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antioxidants/phytochemicals. When the food reaches your stomach, these micronutrients are quickly absorbed and transported to the cellular level. Once they arrive at the cell they are involved in critical activities that include repair, maintenance, production, clean up, communication, metabolism and transportation. Without the micronutrients, the cells will fail and ultimately die. In fact, your body requires at least 90 nutrients for optimal function including 60 different minerals, 16 vitamins, 12 amino acids and 3 essential fatty acids. This does not include the 8000 different antioxidants/phytochemicals that have been shown to combat diseases like cancer and heart disease. The only way to obtain these vital nutrients is through your diet.
While life is in the macronutrients, optimal health is found in the micronutrients. Consider for a moment your daily diet of approximately 2000 calories. You could meet your caloric needs by eating a diet of pure sugar, meat, cereal, French fries and candy bars — one devoid of micronutrients. Your body would survive quite a few years and continue forward but degeneration and disease would grow over time and eventually cause total system failure. In contrast, if health is your goal, then it seems logical to try to fill each calorie with as many micronutrients as possible. In effect, nutrient packed calories or a nutrient dense diet. Nutritional science has demonstrated that diets high in micronutrients prevent and, in many cases, reverse the majority of degenerative diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and many cancers.
So, the most direct and simple path to a life of health and normal, stable weight is to eat a diet rich in micronutrients or a nutrient dense diet. At the most basic level a nutrient dense diet is founded on plant based foods because they have the highest ratio of nutrients per calorie. Leafy green vegetables generally contain the highest ratio of nutrients per calorie and the grand champion is kale.
You can use the ANDI™ scores in Whole Foods Market stores to help steer you to the most nutrient dense foods. The goal of eating should be to make each meal a delicious opportunity to fill your body with life giving and health supporting micronutrients – a nutrient dense diet. So the next time someone asks, “What’s in your food?,” you will be ready to answer confidently, “MICRONUTRIENTS!”
Dr. Scott Stoll is a board certified specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and currently serves as the medical director for the Center for Advanced Spinal Solutions at Coordinated Health, chairman of the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and team physician for Lehigh University and the United States Bobsled Team.