Knowledge is not power — it’s potential power. Knowledge is not mastery. Execution is mastery. Execution will trump knowledge every day of the week.
– Tony Robbins
Let me kick this post off with a little analogy that I like to use with my Efficient Exercise clients: consider a construction site; workers are on hand, tools at the ready — but alas, no construction materials have yet arrived. Everyone is milling about. But hey, they’re paid by the hour, so slingin’ a hammer or not, they ain’t too worried about the situation. Time passes. lazy conversations ensue.
After a while, a flatbed truck pulls up to the site and dumps every 2 x 4, truss, shingle and slat-board needed to construct the little shotgun shack. The workers suck down the remainder of their Marlboro’s and truckstop coffee, then descend upon the material. It quickly becomes evident, however, that some brainiac back at the home office forgot to order one little thing that has now put a halt to *any* construction — there’s not a single piece of f’n hardware anywhere to be found in the delivery. No nails, no screws, no brackets of any kind. All that raw material. All that (mildly) enthusiastic labor… and still *nothing* is getting — or is ever going to get — slung together, anytime soon.
The moral of the story? Beyond that fact that some “brainiac” back at the home office will be looking for a job by the end of the day? Well, here it is: that union of the construction site and the workers? Yeah, that’s your body. That load of raw construction material? Those are the macronutrients — the constituent carbohydrates, protein and fat — of your last meal. And that pesky friggin’ hardware that now has the whole shebang at a standstill? That, my friend, is the micronutrient content of the food you eat; the vitamin, mineral and phytonutrient density packaged within the macronutrients.
Now, I get it. You biochemistry geeks are ready to put a foot in my ass over the scientific inadequacy of this analogy. Here’s where I, ever politely so, tell you to… well, I’ll let Johnny take it from here:
Here’s the deal: I work with real-world clients who just need some kind of a ready reference to make sense of all this wizardry that is the human body. Yes, there’s more — a hell of a lot more — to this biochemical symphony made of the human body and incoming micronutrient content. But the fact of the matter is this: modernity has made the simple act of eating in a healthy way that friggin bewildering to most that analogies like this have to be drawn for the sake of first-step education. And for the same reason, I’ll pull out the ol’ Grok analogy to help explain the benefits of eating Paleo when need be, too. Again, no offense to the academic literalists (you do important work!), but I’ve got real-world clients to work with who need (because they work 9 to 12 hours a day in jobs far removed from diet, health and wellness) directional accuracy. They don’t need to reproduce the Kreb Cycle from memory any more than they need to be able to properly program their workouts. That’s my job. They simply need direction as to what the hell to eat for breakfast. More on the “directional accuracy” idea as it relates to Paleo, here.
And, by the way, “Chiclets” are one example of a micronutrient-devoid food. Unfortunately, most people’s diets weigh heavy on the Chiclet side of the nutrient-density spectrum, as opposed to where it should be: the pasture-raised beef liver side of the spectrum.
Ok, so we have that out of the way. But the obvious follow-on question here is this: can I get all the micronutrition I need from my food? Glad you asked. And the answer is, well…maybe. Do you hunt your own meat, concentrating on eating the internal organs of that which you kill? Do you forage on pristine lands? Do you drink solely from unadulterated springs? Do you live in a toxin/pollution-free environment? Excellent! No need to dawdle anymore here. Go check out one of my kick-ass S&C articles, and get your swole on!
And hey — send me some of that wild, big horn sheep liver and sweet meats, you lucky son-of-a-bitch!
However… if the above is not you, and you feel so inclined, please read on.
Smoke and mirrors
Cruise the produce aisles of any grocery store today and you’ll see overflowing displays of beautifully plump, colorful and seductive fruits and veggies. These displays give one the impression that, in this most awesome modern, technically advanced age, quality (and, by implication, nutrient density and health) is at our very fingertips. Just an I Dream of Jeannie-like nod, and uber-nutrition shall saturate our bodies. Chalk it all up to yet another marvelous triumph of science. We put a man on the moon, motherfuckers! And eradicated smallpox! And now science has put a serious, bitch-slapping “one-up” on Mother Nature herself by bettering her at her own game: producing nutritious, satiating, disease-fighting food.
Except that, unfortunately, this as false an assumption as could ever be conjured. As evidenced by a continuing stream of credible studies, the quality (i.e., nutrient density) of our plant foods are in serious question. The nutritional value of modern crops has declined precipitously over the past few decades, enough so that the recommendation of “five servings of fruits and veggies a day,” has become, at best, anemic advice.
And “anemic” is an apt word choice here, as the nutrient value of CAFO beef is paltry compared to its pasture-raised alternative. Same for fish, fowl, pork… you get the idea.
So what the hell? What’s the problem, here?
Well, at the root of the problem (see what I did there?) is soil depletion. As early as the 1940’s, scientists began documenting disturbing observations of rapid mineral depletion in the soil. Now, there are for sure a plethora of contributing factors here, but unabated use of petroleum-based fertilizers and over /mono-crop farming practices and associated techniques have had the largest effect on the accelerated depletion (both in amount, and quality) of our soil.
Side note: returning “life to the soil” is the long-term answer here, and the Savory Institute is the preeminent authority on how that’s done.
And too, the use of cheaper, higher yield crop varieties has only worsened the situation. Economies of scale (and government incentives) necessitate that large-scale commercial farmers, rather than planting region and climate-specific heirloom crops, opt for more profitable hybrid varieties that have been intentionally bred for production convenience, look and “sweetness”. In other words, these crops have been selected for their yield, impressive size, taste and picture-perfect appearances. However, the flip-side of these “advantages” is a plummeting nutrient density. University of Texas biochemist, Dr. Donald Davis, puts it this way:
“During those 50 years, there have been intensive efforts to breed new varieties that have greater yield, or resistance to pests, or adaptability to different climates. But the dominant effort is for higher yields. Emerging evidence suggests that when you select for yield, crops grow bigger and faster, but they don’t necessarily have the ability to make or uptake nutrients at the same, faster rate.”
So, like a South Beach bodybuilder in a fluorescent fuchsia banana hammock, these high-yield crops wind up being “all show and no go”; swole and tanned and purty, for sure — but pitifully absent of content. So, like a South Beach bodybuilder in a fluorescent fuchsia banana hammock, these high-yield crops… Click To Tweet
Side note: bananas are, actually, (compared to liver from pasture-raised beef), nutrient lame as well…
Another hit to nutrient density comes via transport distance and shipping time. To support extended transport times, fruits and veggies can be picked weeks before full maturity, then artificially ripened in route or at destination. This means that a particular fruit or vegetable has not only spent less time in the ground or on the vine, but during transport time live material continues to respire, churning through what scant, beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols were in the produce to begin with. Also, the mere jostling and handling of product during shipping degrades nutrient value. By the time the beleaguered fruit or vegetable does finally arrive at your grocer’s, it has considerably fewer of the very disease-fighting, health-promoting compounds that we consume them for to begin with.
We are, essentially, hunting health and wellness with the most precise sight set upon the most highly calibrated rifle available… only to be firing blanks. We are, essentially, hunting health and wellness with the most precise sight set upon the most… Click To Tweet
And here’s one more thing to consider: how do think the body compensates for this lack of nutrient density? Very simply, it manipulates the hunger signal so as to consume more volume. An excess of empty calories, whether they come from Twinkies or nutritionally void “natural” foodstuffs, gets stored as — you guessed it — fat. Have you heard the term “overweight and undernourished”? Lack of nutrient density in the diet is the mechanism that leads to this condition.
So, what to do?
Personally, I take a two-pronged attack that’s actually very easy to implement. First, I eat the best, most nutritious foods I can get my hands on. On this, I am uncompromising. Then, realizing that, no matter how well I eat there will always be shortfalls in my micronutrient levels, I supplement intelligently.
Yes. With the emphasis on intelligent. And (by extension) an emphasis on high quality; which means we’re decidedly not talking about the highly compressed, little cinder blocks of indigestible (and unabsorbable) versions of cheap multivitamin / minerals, here. With supplements (as with most things in life), you get what you pay for.
The good news is, though, that with certified, high quality supplementation, a little goes a long way.
And part of intelligent supplementation is the knowledge that our base supplementation program has got to be well rounded; mega dosing a single (or handful of selected) of vitamins and/or minerals de jure is ill-advised (extreme / special cases notwithstanding). Because just as in the “construction” analogy above, you might also have the wrong size nails for the task at hand. Try framing a house with cabinetry nails… or building fine cabinetry with bulky framing nails. The body utilizes vitamins and minerals in a bewildering array of combinations, concentrations and processes, with the bottom line being this: you’ve got to have good levels of the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals to make for a healthy, well-functioning body. Mega-dosing in one or a handful of micronutrients is like having a kegful of framing nails on hand when you really need to be building cabinetry; those nails are rendered useless for the task at hand, and those cabinets are never getting built, no matter how many extra framing nails you have laying around.
For me, my base supplementation is ID Nutrition. ID Nutrition is uniquely dosed, with that dosing occurring at chronobiologically appropriate times. For a little more on why ID Life (the company that provides ID Nutrition) is the only supplement company that I personally endorse, see this post.
But supplementation is just that: a supplement to an otherwise healthy diet and lifestyle. While the studies cited in this piece have pointed to some serious issues with modern crop production, this doesn’t mean we should give up eating plant foods altogether. After all, fruits and vegetables continue to be our only source of uniquely packaged phytonutrients. That’s why it is so important for us to continue producing them in smart, environmentally sustainable ways.
Here are some actionable steps on that front that you can take that will make a big difference in your overall diet:
- go Paleo. Ditch the grains and sugar. Opt for nutrient dense foods. ‘Nuff said there.
- support you local farms, ranches, and farmers markets
- eat protein from pasture-raised, naturally grazed animals
- don’t forget the organs! And bone broth!
- eat plenty of good fats. Olive oil, coconut oil, and fat from pastured animals, for example.
Those few easy steps, coupled with rock solid supplementation to bridge the gaps, will ensure that your nutritional bases are covered.
Not that hard to implement, and you didn’t need a PhD in biochemistry to understand the material at a level that will change your life for the better, forever.
I’ll wrap this up with a few more citations to peruse if you’re so inclined. This is hardly an exhaustive listing; just something to get you started if you’d like to research this area of study independently. And I encourage you to do just that.
- Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999. This 2004 article published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition compared nutritional differences in 43 garden crops between the years 1950 and 1999. Bottom line: Modern nutrient density (my term, not theirs) slumped 6 to 38% behind historic averages. Of the 13 nutrients considered, protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, riboflavin (Vitamin B2) and vitamin C showed the most precipitous decline. Many other nutrients had likely been similarly affected, but magnesium, zinc, vitamins B6, E (and others) were not sufficiently studied in 1950 to make official claims.
- One of the studies cited in the review above noted a drop of up to 84% in the mineral content of foods during a 62-year span (1940-2002). 84%!! And this analysis included a sobering look at animal products. Conventionally-raised beef, for example, notched a 38% drop in iron, an 84% decrease in copper and a 4% dip in magnesium content.
- A similar study published in the British Food Journal noted a significant decline in the nutrient density of vegetables grown in the 1930s vs those grown in the 1980s. For the 20 vegetables studied, the average calcium content dropped 19%, iron 22 %, and potassium 14%.
- In this NY Times article, foraging expert Jo Robinson explains that wild plants contain many times more phytonutrients than modern varieties. Wild dandelions for example have seven times more nutrients than spinach. Purple potatoes from Peru have 28 times more beneficial anthocyanins than Russet Potatoes. Select native apples, which are no bigger than the size of a cherry, have 100-fold more phytonutrients than the common Golden Delicious. He also explains how modern varieties came to be so nutrient impotent. Hint: blame your monkey-brain-driven sweet tooth.
- In 2006 the United Nations identified / classified a new type of micronutrient-driven malnutrition. From the report:
“…[A]nd further, billions of people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies (so-called ‘hidden hunger’) especially of iron, vitamin A, iodine and zinc. Under-nutrition is the main threat to health and well-being not only in middle- and low-income countries but also globally…”
- All of which leads to this: the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published this 2002 warning stating that people can’t get enough vitamins from diet alone, and that supplementation in all adults is recommended, if not outright necessary.
Now the caveat here is, of course, that not all supplementation is created equal. Far from it. For a supplement to work, it has to be digestible and absorbable; that means those little cinder-block multi’s are useless (unless you’re using them as slingshot ammo). And to be truly effective, a supplement needs to be dosed to YOU. A one-size-fits-all prescription fits exactly no ONE in particular. Can you imagine how ludicrous it would be to prescribe everyone do 3 x 10 at 135 lbs in the bench press?
Ok, so I’ll get REAL sophisticated and say 3 x 10 at 135 for males, but we’ll go 3 x 10 at 95 lbs for females.
Whoo-hooo! That really dials things in, huh? Laughable, yes — but that’s exactly how standard supplementation is dosed.
We can do a hell of a lot better than that. Like precise, individualized dosing based off of an extensive, HIPAA-compliant assessment. Dosing backed by continual review of extensive research by a top-tier medical review board. These are just a couple of the reasons why ID Nutrition is the only micronutrient supplementation I endorse.
Optimal fueling for the body really is not rocket science, nor is it at all difficult or time consuming. Eat a Paleo diet consisting of the most sustainable (i.e., locally, intelligently and ethically raised) food you can get your hands on. Bridge the nutrient density gaps with ID Nutrition.
Easy as that. Now you’re free to concentrate on another pillar of your overall program.
9/4/16 – for the skinny on chronobiology and chrononutrition (especially how it relates to the efficacy of IDNutrition), see this post.
In health, fitness and ancestral wellness,