Staying healthy is more than just watching your total calories, fat and protein intake. Macro-nutrients are important (carbs, fat and proteins), but micro-nutrients are equally if not more crucial to a proper metabolism, healthy body and keeping your energy levels high.

Micro-nutrients refer to all the vitamins, minerals, enzymes that exist is in food. When you make food choices with an attention to micro-nutrients and nutrient density (i.e. the amount of micronutrients per calorie), you realize just how poor a diet most people have. The bulk of a standard diet, is calorically dense but not nutrient dense. In this post I’ll discuss micro-nutrients, their impact on health and some easy ways to make sure you are getting enough of them in your diet.

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Don’t Rely On Government Advice 

The emphasis for a modern diet is on getting the right amounts of macro-nutrients, with a minimal amount of micro-nutrients based on US RDA guidelines as set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The problem is, RDA’s (Required Daily Allowances) were not established to help you achieve optimal health. They were created as a minimum bar for survival.

How many people do you know with rickets or scurvy? Probably not one. Did you know that these diseases were rampant in the pre-WWII America? In part, this is what lead to the development of the RDA guidelines and the Food Pyramid. Flour and common cereals were fortified with basic nutrients. Now “deficiency diseases” like rickets or scurvy are common only in third world countries.

RDA guidelines were set based on the minimum levels recommended to avoid any serious diseases. Getting 100% of the few vitamins and minerals that are actually part of the RDA guidelines in no way ensures that you will have the energy and vitality to live an outstanding life. However, it may ensure that you won’t come down with scurvy or rickets. Is this good enough a goal for your life? I would assume that most of you are not willing to settle for an average life. Don’t settle for average health either.

Micro-nutrients In Food

All foods have some amount of micro-nutrients. THese nutrients are assimilated best when they are digested in a proper ratio of micro and macro nutrients. While nature produces foods with optimal nutrient profiles, by grinding, milling and processing foods, we strip away many nutrients, kill living enzymes and lower the overall nutrient density of the foods.

Unfortunately, taking a multi-vitamin does not solve the problem. Whole foods contain phytochemicals and enzymes that are not (and in some cases cannot be) included in any multi-vitamin. Furthermore, micro-nutrients work in concert with other compounds in the food to achieve a given result in the body. Biological processes are incredibly complex, and despite the advances of modern science, we have yet to understand all the relationships of nutrients amongst one another and the human body. Eating a variety of whole fresh foods and whole food derived supplements will help to assure that you are getting what you need.

The Scourge of Hidden Hunger

Hunger takes on many forms. As Professor Swaminathan, a world-renown ecologist, states:

1. There is endemic hunger from overall food deficits and poverty.
2. There is hidden hunger caused by deficiency of micronutrients in diet.
3. There is transient hunger caused by natural or man-made calamities.

What is this “hidden hunger”? It is the body’s cry for nutrition. Why does a society with an increasing prevalence of obesity also have a corresponding decrease in energy and vitality? Why are people addicted to “borrowed” energy sources (particularly from sugar and caffeine) when the American per-capita calorie consumption has increased by 20% from 1982 and 2000.

Shouldn’t the extra energy make us more energetic, alive and healthy? Instead, we are living in a society with higher incidences of diet-related mortality than every before in recorded history.

It doesn’t make sense. Or does it?

If you believe that the body intuitively knows what it needs to survive, than our expanding collective waistlines should come as no surprise. We eat a large plate of pasta for lunch….and just a few hours later, are starving at dinner-time! We are craving food because all the calories we consume not satisfying our bodies cry for micro-nutrients, including the water, enzymes, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals that are present in fresh, organic, whole foods. As a results, we overeat until we either 1) satiate our need for these nutrients of 2) physically fill up our stomach until more food just won’t fit in.

The Solution: Eat Nutrient Dense Foods

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My juice last week = apple, celery, kale, cucumber.

Nutrients are assimilated best when they are digested in a proper ratio of micro and macro-nutrients. While nature produces foods with the optimal nutrient profiles, by grinding, milling and processing foods, we strip away many nutrients, kill living enzymes and lower the overall nutrient density of the foods. The result is food that is high in energy, but low in nutritional value.

Animal products (milk, dairy, eggs, meat) are further contributors to the problem. A large part of the standard American diet, comes from animals, but these sources are relatively poor when it comes to nutrient density, although they are very high in caloric-density. This is counter-intuitive to most people, but is the honest truth. On a per-calorie basis, broccoli is many times more nutritious than beef (along a number of micro nutrient dimensions).

In fact, it turns out that fresh green vegetables are the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, on a per-calorie basis. Fruits are in second place. Below is a table by Dr. Furhman that I found quite interesting:

Nutrients present in 100-calorie portions
Broccoli Sirloin Steak Romaine Lettuce Kale
Protein 11.2 gm 5.4 gm 7.5 gm 11 gm
Calcium 322 mg 2.4 mg 374 mg 470 mg
Iron 3.5 mg .7 mg 7.7 mg 5.8 mg
Magnesium 74.5 mg 5 mg 60.5 mg 97 mg
Fiber 4.7 g 0 4 g 3.4 g
Phytochemicals Very High 0 Very High Very High
Antioxidants Very High 0 Very High Very High
Folate 257 mcg 3 mcg 969 mcg 60 mcg
B2 .71 mg .04 mg .45 mg .32 mg
Niacin 2.8 mg 1.1 mg 2.2 mg 2.1 mg
Zinc 1.04 mg 1.2 mg 1.2 mg gm .55 mg
Vitamin C 350 mg 0 100 mg 329 mg
Vitamin A 7750 IU 24 IU 10,450 IU 23,407 IU
Vitamin E 26 IU 0 32 IU 34 IU
Cholesterol 0 5.5 mg 0 0
Weight 307 gm 24 gm 550 gm 266 gm
(10.6 oz) (.84 oz) (19 oz) (9.2 oz)

This table is from Dr. Fuhrman’s diseaseproof.com

The veggies win by a landslide. The catch is, you must eat almost 10 ounces of broccoli for 100 calories, compared with less than an ounce of meat. This is where most people (vegans and vegetarians included) fall short. A small serving of veggies just doesn’t cut it. You must make vegetables a signficant part of your diet. As a result, you will find you body feeling lighter, more energetic and in many cases, food cravings will begin to disappear.

Making A Change

You might be saying, what’s next? How can I start making this change? There are a few things you can commit to, that require little will-power or sacrifice. Implement the tips below, and you are bound to feel better. With proven results, you’ll then be able to embark on a more dramatic diet make-over (if you so choose that is!).

Some tips:

1. Keep fruits and veggies out on your counter. You are more likely to eat what you see.

2. Eat a salad with every meal. It doesn’t matter what else you eat, just add a salad to it!

3. Focus on adding nutrient dense foods into your diet, instead of subtracting unhealthy food from your diet. This way you won’t worry about missing out on the foods you love.

4. Drink a green drink every day, twice a day. I drink one first thing in the morning, and then in the evening before bedtime. There are some great powdered greens you can use if you don’t want to put kale in your smoothie 🙂 .

This article is in no way a plea to go vegan or vegetarian, it is simply a statement of fact; that fresh fruit and vegetables are of critical importance to any diet. Particularly leafy green vegetables. Stop worrying about calories and “carbs” and start worrying about the lack of real nutrients in your diet. Make a conscious effort to implement the tips outlined in this post for 30 days and see how your body responds. Feel free to add a comment and let me know how it is going!

Published by Ravi Raman

Executive Coach + Yogi + Endurance Athlete

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