Saturday, October 08, 2011

Micronutrient Malnutrition

Say "malnutrition" and thoughts go straight to starving children in Africa; drought victims relying on bags of UNICEF rice. Children and adults with seriously caloric-deficient diets will eventually die. This is starvation.

Say "micronutrient malnutrition" and thoughts go straight to... what? The image I want you to think of is an obese westerner. With micronutrient malnutrition there has been no lack of calories, but micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, enzymes and more) have been in short supply. Such diets are also fatal, but instead of starvation, the result is chronic illness. Nutrition studies are now linking a lack of micronutrients to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular illnesses, and cancer.

Food is much more than simply carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. In addition to these macronutrients, we require minerals and vitamins in our food. Necessary micro-minerals include at least iron, cobalt, chromium, copper, iodine, manganese, selenium, zinc and molybdenum.

Vitamins are organic compounds that are essential for life. They include at least 13 different substances including retinol, thiamine, ascorbic acid, calciferol, riboflavin, tocopherol, cobalamins, phylloquinone, pantothenic acid, biotin, pyridoxine, niacin, and folic acid.

But obesity, cancer and adult-onset diabetes are modern ailments. If early humans could find enough folic acid and cobalt what has changed such that we do not? I believe there are two primary causes: modern food processing and industrial farming.

Processed food is an obvious problem. Strip away the wheat germ and you loose the vitamin E, tocopherol. Sure you can spray a synthetic vitamin E back into the flour, but this is far less bio-available (less able to be used by your body) than the tocopheral in the wheat germ. Now repeat this process for every ingredient of every food you eat and voila, most of the micronutrients are missing.

Other problems with food processing include heat damage. Enzymes are often destroyed with heating, such as when milk is pasteurized or homogenized. Nutrients can be oxidized, as when oils are converted to trans-fats simply through the heat of an extraction process.

Most foods are now "built" rather than cooked. Proteins are taken out of wheat flour but then put back in from soy beans. Cheeses are no longer fermented but simply thickened with the protein taken out of the bread flour. Scientists build foods like children build with blocks. The foods we like are soft, smooth, fluffy, sweet, but completely devoid of nutrition.

The solution to over-processed foods is simply to switch to eating whole foods. Cook your own food from basic, single ingredients and you won't have to worry about soya in your bread or wheat in your cheese.

The consequences of industrial farming are far harder to see, at first. In the long-term, however, the image of industrial farming is that of a desert; sandstorms and drought. We are only just beginning to appreciate the complexity of something as ubiquitous as soil. Or more precisely, what makes soil different from dirt.

Soil is a living ecosystem. Made up of dirt plus a large array of biomass, healthy soil is a complex balance of many forms of life, from plants to insects to fungi, molds, microbes, bacterials and more. With each harvest, nutrients are removed from this ecosystem. In order to maintain a balance, they must be replaced.

Modern farming practices replace nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Some fertilizers include other elements, but none replace the complex organic compounds that left with the last harvest. And the next crops suffer the loss. Fertilized plants will grow, but if they are missing important elements they end up weaker. Weaker plants are easier for pests to eat, so fertilized crops are more prone to pest invasions. More chemicals are called into use, neurotoxins and such, to eliminate the pests. But these chemicals kill almost all the insects. So the insects that feed on fungus are also killed and suddenly the fields are overrun with a new threat. Fungicides are called in and sprayed liberally. But that promotes an imbalanced ecosystem where some plants can flourish faster than others. We call those plants weeds, and spray even more poison onto our food and soil to stop them.

When you stop regenerating your soil, and so aggressively attack the life of its ecosystem, you kill it. And dead soil is simply dirt. Plants don't grow well. Rain washes it away. And eventually, even the rain will stop and there is nothing left but desert.

But long before the fields turn to deserts and people starve from malnutrition, there is micronutrient malnutrition and sickness. The simple element iodine is a good example. Iodine is necessary in every human body and every plant cell. Every plant is a "good source" of iodine. Except, if the soil is iodine deficient, the plant will be too. Eat only nutritionally deficient plants and you will be iodine deficient also. So even if you skip the processed foods and go straight for the broccoli and lettuce, you can end up in trouble.

Would you believe that throughout North America the soils are chronically iodine deficient? The home of the Green Revolution (industrialized farming) has for decades added iodine to salt and bread products to replace what is known to be missing. We feed it to cattle to make up for what the crops didn't find in the soil. And iodine is just one example. Soils around the world are becoming deficient.

Thankfully, soil destruction has a simple solution. Organic, especially dynamic-organic, farming is the answer. Organic farming uses none of the chemicals that kill soil ecosystems. Pests are controlled through rotations of crop types which also strengthens the soil. A 30-year comparison of farming techniques was recently reported on. It concluded that organic techniques produce more food with more nutrition than industrial/chemical farming. This fact was largely due to the healthier organic soil supporting better yields in times of drought and pests.

Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people. Unhealthy soil, nutrient deficient plants, chronically sick people.

So far this is a pretty simple argument. Logical. So why is it new? Why haven't you already been told that obesity is a body is craving nutrition? There is a third contributing factor.

The average medical doctor spends 8-15 years studying medicine, and about 2.5 days studying nutrition. Nutrition, the science of it, isn't taught to doctors. So when they see obesity or diabetes they turn to their training. They prescribe a drug to treat symptoms, because they were never taught the root causes.

I believe our modern disease-care system (you can call it health care if you wish) has built an incredible momentum, in the wrong direction. Hippocrates, father of modern medical thinking, understood the connection between diet and exercise centuries ago. We can only hope that the findings of nutritional science will soon be brought back into medical science.

If these assertions are correct then the changes required to fix these problems are enormous. To convince medical science to give up the medicines and return to nutrition could take decades. Converting world-wide farming practices could take even longer. But the good news is you can make these changes for yourself, right now.

You and your family can choose healthy nutrition. It isn't simple, but once in the habit it is worth it. Health is an incredible reward. And if you remove a chronic illness at the same time, then you really will be amazed by how good you feel.

My hope is that, as more people discover the benefits of real food, our society will begin to accept micronutrient malnutirtion as a problem and will work to solve it. Meanwhile, I urge you to help yourself. For your own health.


Bart said...

Interesting post, again :-)

I haven´t read much on food, food production etc., but I have come across articles in which was stated that our current food was indeed micro nutrient poor. Like there was a table in which was shown how much of different nutrients was found in a broccoli 20 years ago and nowadays. That amount had fallen drastically.

And this problem is not often mentioned in the media. I read once about this book ´The omnivore´s dilemma´ by Michael Pollan, but I´m not sure whether this book is about this problem as well. I´ll check it out.

I Dive At Night said...

Bart, that's a great reference. I just checked Michael Pollan's website and I think he and I would see things similarly. I haven't read the book but I'm curious to now.

And yes, the comparison of nutrients to the past, or comparing them to dynamic-organic farming, is scarey. Why is this allowed to continue? Shouldn't the government, to use a tired phrase, do something? And when you search into that question is becomes more clear.

Food in the modern world is controlled now by a small group of corporations. These same few corps openly exhibit undo influence on politics and beaurocrats.

And that brings us full circle. So when I say "I don't want my food chosen by what is most profitable" what really I mean is "unless you're actively choosing otherwise, your food has been chosen for you and it isn't safe to eat."

Thanks for the repeat questions Bart. A very positive thought exercise.