THE SUBJECT OF NUTRITION SEEMS TO HAVE BECOME QUITE COMPLICATED in the last few decades and it continues to become more confusing with each passing day. Countless diets promise good health and a long life, supplements claim to make you healthier, smarter, stronger, have better immunity, live longer, and have better memory, hair, skin and nails. Even our grocery stores, which are supposed to be our main sources of food have aisles devoted to supplements, superfoods, cleanses, anti-oxidant teas and calming waters. Nutrition has become complicated. Nutrition has become big business.
Eating is also complex. We eat for so many reasons. Most of them have nothing to do with fueling our bodies. We eat for fun. We eat for weight loss. We eat for weight gain. We eat to make more lean muscle. We eat for our workout plan. We eat for nostalgia. We eat for comfort. We eat for fashion. We eat for social status. We eat for taste. We eat for excitement. We eat to pass the time. We eat because we’re bored. We eat because we’re watching TV. We eat because it’s in the fridge. We eat to save the planet. We eat because our family does. We eat because our friends do. We eat to cure ourselves of ills we don’t have. We eat because we’re hungry. We eat because we’re starving. We eat because we’re susceptible to advertising. We eat because we’re curious. We eat to experience the world. We eat because we are foodies. We eat because we are supposed to eat. We eat because we’re not supposed to eat. We eat because we like it. More and more, we eat for reasons other than nourishing our miraculous bodies and make ourselves sick with chronic diseases that are preventable.
Nutrition at its essence and the way I’m going to discuss it here, couldn’t be simpler. The Oxford Dictionary defines nutrition as “the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth”. It is the fundamental way we fuel our bodies. This is why we eat and why what we eat matters so much. Human beings get their nutrition through food and we have to eat daily. The basic building blocks of nutrition, macronutrients and micronutrients, are then broken down by the body to be used in the various metabolic reactions in our cells. Foods are broken down into two main components. Macronutrients are needed in larger quantities in our diets; these are proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals and are essential for the cellular function.
Micronutrients are needed for the basic work of the cells as they are cofactors and building blocks for all the enzymatic reactions at a molecular level that keep the body running. A balanced diet with good nutritional content should provide all our bodies’ needs. The role of micronutrients in the management of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) has been highlighted in several scientific articles. Vitamin C may help in the absorption of levodopa and may protect against levodopa toxicity. Lower vitamin D levels may increase the risk of Parkinson’s Disease and higher levels have been shown to improve motor symptoms, cognition and mood. A pilot trial of the long term use of vitamin E may delay the use of levodopa in patients with PD. Based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control Americans are deficient in multiple micronutrients. Over 50% of us are deficient in vitamins A, D and C. Over 10% of us are deficient in folate, Vitamin B6 and Zinc. Overall, and despite supplemental vitamins in our foods, we are malnourished. Perhaps stripping and bleaching flour and adding the supplements back in synthetic form wasn’t such a good idea. Our bodies may not be recognizing the ‘enriched’ flour as well as it does the natural whole grains from which we have evolved to obtain nutrition naturally.
Through the last 100 years, we have gone through several iterations of the food pyramid and recommendations about how much of each nutritional element we should have in our daily diets. The current guidelines are less structured and focus on healthy patterns. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2015-2020 guidelines recommend eating a variety of vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, dairy, a variety of proteins and healthy oils. Consumption of saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars should be limited. No one diet fits all. Based on our age, gender, activity level, health conditions and weight goals, each of us needs something different. Our caloric macronutrient and micronutrient requirements vary. Some of us need to keep our blood sugars low to control our diabetes and need to reduce our carbohydrate intake. If we suffer from high blood pressure, we may have to reduce our salt intake. If we have high cholesterol, we need to reduce our saturated fat intake. As we age, our ability to absorb many micronutrients declines due to the attrition of several special cells in our bodies responsible for vitamin absorption. This is especially true for vitamins B12 and D. Despite maintaining healthy and nutritious diets, getting bloodwork to check micronutrient levels may be helpful to determine if supplementation is needed. This type of laboratory testing is available through the main commercial labs and can be ordered by your physician. The reference ranges can be large so keeping in the upper normal ranges may be best for neurological health as cells of the nervous system do not store micronutrients in the same quantities as other organ systems. When it comes to vitamins and minerals, the best way to approach getting enough is to eat fresh things. Cold and prolonged storage of most foods deplete micronutrients rapidly. For example, vitamin C starts degrading rapidly after a fruit or vegetable is picked. While frozen fruits and vegetables may retain their flavor, the vitamin C has all but disappeared.
Although grocery stores were developed as a convenient way for us to access plentiful foods, the modern versions have prioritized convenience over nutrition. Cold storage and high degrees of processing allow longer shelf life, but have reduced the nutritional content of the foods we eat. In addition, packaged and canned foods contain increased amounts of sugar and salt. An apple is usually cold stored for 9 to 12 months before we buy it, so there’s very little vitamin C left. Canned vegetables and soups have little to no vitamin C. Fresh foods that are difficult to store such as greens or seasonal fruits (peaches, cherries, local berries, etc.) are available and usually more nutritious than the broccoli and brussels sprouts that are available in the heat of the summer, as these are winter crops which were grown in another climate and clearly had to be cold-stored for transport.
Many of us forget to plan time into our day for the most important part of our health: preparing and eating a healthy meal. Clearly, this requires time, thought, planning and a few skills. If we can prioritize the act of home cooking, we would all spend less time with our doctors. Instead of budgeting the 1-2 hours in a day for good nutrition, we often think we can eat a protein bar or grab a shake to replace fundamental foods. Meal replacements are great if you’re an astronaut or a soldier and have no other options, but they are not adequate for daily nutrition. Most meal replacements are high in sugars, stabilizers and preservatives. They are highly processed and require all sorts of unhealthy ingredients to sit on the shelf. The more processed a food, the less its nutritional value. With freshness and ease in mind, I’m including a simple and delicious recipe for pasta with summer tomatoes and basil which is also available on www.Tasting-Health.com along with other easy seasonal recipes. Check out Dr. Achari’s cooking video on HAPS social media as she demonstrates how to make the delicious recipe provided on the previous page.
Dr. Madhureeta Achari is a neurologist in Houston, Texas and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area. She has been in practice for more than 20 years. She completed her medical school training at University of Texas Medical School and specializes in nutritional neurology. She recently moved her Integrated Neurology practice to the Heights. Dr. Achari enjoys teaching cooking classes and is a member of the HAPS Medical Advisory Board.