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Beyond the Plate: Nourishment vs. Nutrition

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For many of us, nutrition can be a confusing matter. It has become a topic of bewilderment, inciting dizzying searches for the ideal way to eat. Even if you've never wrestled with these concerns, you have to concur that Western society is bombarded with "expert" advice urging us to eat this and forego that for well being and longevity.

What's missing from this well-meant advice is the distinction between nourishment and nutrition, for nourishment is more than the sum of nutritional grams. According to Joshua Rosenthal, founder and director of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and author of Integrative Nutrition, "Eating well helps, but don't expect it to work miracles. It can fill you, but it cannot fulfill you."

When it comes to sustained health and aging well, sound nutrition is important, but it isn't everything. "The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science," states Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at NYU and author of What to Eat, "is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle."

Mr. Rosenthal continues:

"If we are not physically starving, other dimensions of the human experience are much more important than what we put in our mouths. The foods you eat are secondary to all the other things that feed you -- your relationships, career, spirituality and exercise routine. All that we consider today as nutrition is really just a secondary source of energy."

The Ideology of Nutrition-ism

There exists an unexamined assumption that food, with its nutrients, phytochemicals and minerals, is merely a means to an end, a way of achieving and maintaining physical well-being and that its cultural and social implications are, in comparison, superficial.

According to Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at the University of California and author of Food Rules:

"Hippocrates' famous injunction to 'let food be thy medicine' is ritually invoked to support this notion ... it is not shared by all cultures and the experience of other cultures suggests that, paradoxically, viewing food as being about things other than bodily health -- like pleasure, say, or socializing -- makes people no less healthy; indeed, there's reason to believe that it may make them more healthy."

The X Factors

Chronic, overwhelming stress, including historic stress, is thought to be the most significant plague of modern life. Dr. Mark Hyman, chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine and author of The Blood Sugar Solution, states that 95 percent of all illness is caused or worsened by stress. Prolonged activation of the stress response and the subsequent overexposure to stress hormones can disrupt almost all your body's processes, making none of our organs immune to its effects. Heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, hypertension, depression, ulcers, headaches and chronic anxiety are all scientifically linked to chronic stress.

"So, if you don't think the mind has the power to influence your body, think again," states Dr. Hyman. "The good news is that you can change your beliefs and attitudes and their effects on your mind and body. You may need to learn a few new skills, like stress reduction techniques, but it can be done."

He continues, "... the health of your mind and spirit and your sense of connection to your community has an immense impact on the health of your body. In fact... the biggest predictor of longevity is psychological resiliency -- being able to roll with the punches that life throws at us." How does he suggest building this resiliency? Through our attitude, social networks, community and spiritual beliefs.

"We've known about this in medicine for a long time," he says. "There is a dramatic and powerful connection between your mind and body, and between your body and your mind. In fact, it really should not be called a connection because it is just one bidirectional system. Unfortunately, few doctors accept or understand this fundamental reality about biology."

Undoubtedly, eating a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet is essential for good health, but our attitude towards food and life and how we manage stress are equally if not more important, for nourishment is not limited to food alone. It includes all of the ways we feed the many needs we have as humans.

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