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Mark Hyman, MD

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How To Optimize Your Nutrition For Vibrant Health

Posted: 06/26/09 03:36 PM ET

Confused about what "good nutrition" is?

You shouldn't be -- we know what works and what doesn't.

In a moment, I will share 5 simple tips to help you optimize your nutrition and achieve vibrant health, but first let me clear up a few misconceptions.

Despite the "conflicting" scientific studies and media reports designed to confound rather than enlighten, there is no confusion about what constitutes good nutrition.

If we were to gather the world's top nutrition scientists and experts -- free from food industry influence -- there would be very little debate about the essential properties of good nutrition.

Unfortunately, most doctors are nutritionally illiterate. Worse, they don't know how to use the most powerful medicine available to them: food.

Common sense and scientific research both lead us to the conclusion that if we want healthy bodies, we must put the right raw materials into our bodies: real, whole, local, fresh, unadulterated, unprocessed, and chemical-, hormone-, and antibiotic-free food.

There is NO role in our diets for foreign molecules such as trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup, which interfere with our biology at every level.

If you want junk out, put junk in. Enough said.

If you want a whole, healthy body, put in whole real food.

Today I will explain how you can do that ...

This is the first in a 7-part series where I will give detailed explanations about each of the 7 Keys to UltraWellness. Key #1 is Optimize Nutrition, and in this blog I will explain what constitutes a healthy diet, give you some tips to help you optimize your nutrition, and clarify whether or not supplements are truly a waste of money.

The Basics of a Healthy Diet

What I am about to share might be shocking ...

Carbohydrates are the single most important food for long-term health and well-being.

This may be surprising given the low-carb movement, and "carbophobia" in our country, but it's true.

Of course, I don't mean the over-processed, refined, sugary, white foods we commonly think of as carbohydrates, such as donuts, bread, bagels, muffins, colas, juices, and most junk food.

And I don't mean the cheap, super-sweet, government-subsidized high-fructose corn syrup that is driving our epidemic of obesity and chronic disease.

The carbohydrates I am talking about are the real, whole, nourishing plant foods that the human species has thrived on since from the dawn of evolution.

Most of the food consumed by humans since the beginning of time has been carbohydrates. In fact, plant foods are comprised mostly of carbohydrates: vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices.

These foods contain slowly released sources of sugar that prevent surges of blood sugar and insulin. Too much insulin causes heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, and even dementia.

Carbohydrates contain almost all the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to operate normally and optimally.

They also contain fiber, which helps normalize our digestive function and slows the absorption of sugar and fats into the body, keeping us balanced.

The bonuses in plant foods are phytonutrients -- colorful healing compounds made by plants to protect themselves, but that also protect us against aging, obesity, brain damage, and more.

For example, broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale, Brussels sprouts, and other vegetables from the cruciferous family contain powerful detoxifying compounds that protect us against environmental toxins.

Green tea contains anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and detoxifying properties.

Resveratrol from red grapes boosts our energy production and protects our cells.

These are just a few examples of the thousands of phytonutrients in the plant foods that should be the foundation of our diet.

Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, summed up all nutritional research in 3 simple principles:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

In fact, you need know nothing else to be vibrantly healthy.

That's it. Eat real whole food as it came from the earth: fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, eggs, and lean animal protein like fish and chicken.

Imagine what your great-grandmother would recognize as food, or what might have been on her dinner table. Just food. There is really no such thing as junk food -- there is just food, and then there is junk.

Whole foods that contain phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fats, and fiber all directly, immediately, and specifically interact with our genes, controlling moment-to-moment changes in our physiology and biochemistry.

Food literally talks to our genes. Food is not just a source of calories, it is also a source of INFORMATION.

The key is to send the right information to your genes by eating whole, real, food -- mostly plants. Specific nutrients or plant compounds bind to receptors in cells, translating messages from the foods we eat or vitamins we take in into instructions that are carried out by our cells through their effect on our DNA.

That is why food can heal or harm. You make that choice every day by what you put on your fork.

That means if you eat whole, real, fresh food, you don't need vitamins. Right?

Well, maybe ...

Do We Need Vitamins or Not?

I agree that you don't need vitamins and that they are a waste of money.

But that is true ONLY if you eat wild, fresh, whole, organic, local, non-genetically modified food grown in virgin mineral and nutrient rich soils, and not transported across vast distances and stored for months before eaten.

It is true ONLY if you work and live outside, breathe only fresh unpolluted air, drink only pure, clean water, sleep nine hours a night, move your body every day, and are free from chronic stressors and exposures to environmental toxins.

Then you don't need vitamins.

But, of course, this describes absolutely no one on the planet! Therefore, in reality, we ALL need vitamins.

Most people don't understand the role of vitamins and minerals in our bodies. I certainly didn't when I finished my medical training.

I thought if we just got enough of a nutrient to prevent some horrible deficiency state like scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), then we didn't have to worry about getting more than that.

I also believed that if you ate "enriched food" like white flour with a few vitamins added back in, or milk with vitamin D added in, additional vitamin supplementation was a waste.

What most people don't realize is the same thing that I didn't realize when I first started practicing medicine: The real reason our food supply must be "enriched" is because it has been so processed that it is "impoverished" to start with.

So why can't you just eat "nutrient-rich" food, instead of eating "nutrient-poor" food?

Today, even with our "enriched food," more than 92 percent of Americans are deficient in one or more vitamins. That doesn't mean they are receiving less than the amount they need to get for optimal health. That means they receive less than the MINIMUM amount necessary to prevent deficiency diseases.

In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers found that 6 percent of those tested had serious vitamin C deficiency and 30 percent were borderline low.

A report in the journal Pediatrics found that obesity and malnutrition can coexist. Obese, overfed, and undernourished children with cognitive disorders were found to have scurvy and severe vitamin D deficiency or rickets. These deficiencies damaged their brains. You never think of an overweight person as malnourished, but they are!

A USDA survey showed that 37 percent of Americans don't get enough vitamin C, 70 percent not enough vitamin E, almost 75 percent don't get enough zinc, and 40 percent don't get enough iron.

I would say that 100 percent of us don't have enough of the basic nutrients to create optimal health or give ourselves a metabolic tune up.

There are many reasons why the foods we eat no longer contain the nutrient levels we require for optimal health. Crops are raised in soil where nutrients have been depleted. Plants are treated with pesticides and other chemicals so they no longer have to fight to live, which further diminishes their nutrient levels and their phytonutrient content -- not to mention the toxic exposure we receive from such chemicals.

Animals are cooped up in pens or giant feedlots instead of roaming free and eating the nutrient-rich wild grains and grasses they once consumed. Since cows' stomachs are adapted to grass instead of corn, they must take antibiotics to prevent them from exploding.

To complicate this further, all of us are exposed to hazardous toxins and chemicals that poison our bodies; we live with too much stress; we don't sleep enough; we don't exercise enough; and we are inflamed -- making the nutritional demands on our bodies even greater.

The question is not how much of a certain nutrient or vitamin we need to not get sick, but how much we need to be optimally healthy! In fact, lower amounts recommended by the government may NOT be enough.

Most people can get what they need by taking the following essential supplements every day:

• A high-quality multivitamin

• Calcium-magnesium supplement

Fish oil

• Special B vitamins (folate and vitamins B6 and B12).

I have tested thousands of patients for vitamin and nutrient deficiencies and found that by correcting them, people feel better, their mood, mental sharpness, memory, and ability to focus improve, they have more energy, and they even lose weight. It also helps prevent disease.

In my 20+ years of practicing medicine with thousands of patients, I have seen depression, anxiety, bipolar disease, autism, ADHD, mood swings, Parkinson's disease, and dementia go away or dramatically improve when people get the right nutrients.

In today's world, everyone needs a basic multivitamin and mineral supplement. The research is overwhelming on this point.

So what are the takeaways here? What do you need to do to optimize your nutrition?

Here are some simple steps you can begin taking immediately:

1. Eat whole, real, fresh, organic, unprocessed food. If it comes in a box, a package, or a can, avoid it. If you do choose to buy prepackaged foods, read the labels carefully and avoid foods that contain long lists of ingredients you don't understand.

2. Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables full of colorful phytonutrients. That means eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Choose a wide variety and you will do much to support your health.

3. Eat foods with plenty of fiber. Think whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and millet and vegetables like celery, asparagus, and leeks. Fiber is essential for balancing blood sugar and maintaining a healthy bowel.

4. Eat foods containing omega-3 fats. I recommend eating protein at every meal, and some of the best sources of protein have an abundance of these healthy fats, which are essential for building every cell membrane in your body. Try cold-water river fish like salmon, sardines, and halibut; eat omega-3 eggs; and eat plenty of nuts like almonds, macadamias, and walnuts.

5. Take the essential supplements outlined above every day. They are the basic workhorse team needed to support every biochemical reaction in your body.

Now I'd like to hear from you ...

What do you think about the quality of our food supply?

Do you think supplements are effective?

Do you have any tips for others on how to more easily eat real, whole foods?

Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman, M.D., practicing physician and founder of The UltraWellness Center, is a pioneer in functional medicine. Dr. Hyman is now sharing the 7 ways to tap into your body's natural ability to heal itself. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on Youtube and become a fan on Facebook.

 
 
 

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