What Foods Are “Essential?” Do You Know?
By Nurse Mark
I was chatting with an old friend recently – he was asking me a few questions about diet. It quickly became clear to me that he wasn’t too certain about what nutrients (i.e.: “foods”) are essential and which are not.
“What can you tell me about the essential foods?” I asked. “Which foods are essential foods?”
Now, that really wasn’t a fair question I suppose, since my friend began to hum and haw and mumbled something about “well, you’ve got your vegetables, and you’ve got your rice and beans, and then there’s your breads and pastas…”
I realized what a great job of misinformation our USDA has done with their politically-driven “Food Pyramid” (TM) that our conventional medical establishment and conventionally trained nutritionists promote so slavishly.
Yes, people actually believe that fruits and vegetables and bread and potatoes are “Essential foods!”
Let’s start out with some definitions and see if we can figure out what’s what:
Essential in this case means “necessary for the maintenance of life.” We say a nutrient is essential because the human body must receive it from without, as food, for it cannot be synthesized by the body from other substances.
Water is a good example of an essential nutrient. Surprise – you never thought of water as a nutrient, did you?
Nutrients are substances which provide our bodies with the materials needed to function: they can provide energy or the structural materials from which our bodies are built and maintained. Some nutrients provide both.
Nutrients can further be thought of as Macronutrients, needed in larger amounts and generally supplying energy or calories to our bodies, and Micronutrients, needed in smaller amounts and supplying important structural and functional materials such as vitamins and minerals.
Macronutrients are generally considered to be Carbohydrates, Fatty Acids, and Amino Acids – all of which supply energy (measured as ‘calories’) to our bodies.
Two of those macronutrients can be considered “essential” and one is not. Do you know which is which?
“Essential Fatty Acids” are popular these days – with many products on the grocers shelf proclaiming to be “high in essential fatty acids”.
Many of the fatty acids are non-essential, meaning the body can produce them as needed by building them out of other fatty acids. However, at least two fatty acids are essential and must be included in the diet. An appropriate balance of those essential fatty acids – omega-3 and omega-6 – is essential for continued health.
The simpler name for Essential Fatty Acids is just plain ol’ fat. Fats are an essential component of our diet and without them we would sicken and die.
“Essential Amino Acids” are likewise popular on food labels with everything from junk breakfast cereals to supposedly healthy-choice “energy bars” loudly proclaiming the inclusion of ‘essential amino acids’ in their recipes.
Amino Acids are the foundation for body structures such as muscles, skin, and hair and they form enzymes that control chemical reactions throughout our body. The body requires amino acids to make new proteins and to repair or replace damaged proteins. Some amino acids are essential (meaning we cannot produce them internally) and some are non-essential (meaning that we can produce them internally from other compounds). There are twenty-one proteinogenic (used to create or build proteins) amino acids present in our bodies, ten of which are essential and must come from our diet. A diet that contains adequate amounts of amino acids is especially important during early development, growth and maturation, pregnancy, lactation, or injury.
The more common dietary term for Essential Amino Acids is simply protein. Protein is so essential to life that if it is not adequate in the diet our bodies will “cannibalize” our own muscles and other tissues in an effort to maintain our most vital organs such as our heart.
“Carbohydrates” are also much talked-about these days, with “good carbs” and “bad carbs” and “simple carbs” and “complex carbs” and high glycemic and low glycemic carbs, and on and on and on. There is so much talk about carbohydrates that they must be essential in our nutrition- right? Wrong!
There is no such thing, in human nutrition, as an essential carbohydrate. That’s right, we don’t need carbohydrates!
Now, before someone sits down to write me a scathing letter accusing me of being ignorant of the need for carbohydrates (glucose) in certain areas of cellular metabolism such as the brain, yes, I am aware of that need for very small amounts of carbohydrate (glucose) based energy.
But our bodies are a truly wonderful machine – for even in the total absence of any carbohydrate intake (highly unlikely, but theoretically possible) our body is quite capable of furnishing whatever carbohydrates are required through a process called gluconeogenesis which is the creation of glucose. This process occurs mainly in the liver and as long as the body has adequate glucogenic amino acids and fatty acids to work with it is very efficient.
Gluconeogenesis is how our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors managed to survive the lean times when game was scarce and there were no fruits or berries in season and roots and tubers were in short supply. Our livers evolved to be very, very good at turning any small scrap of protein or fat into energy.
So, just what are the “essential nutrients” and what are not? Here’s the “Cliff-Notes” for those who just want the bottom line:
- Water: Essential – we must have it or we dehydrate and die!
- Vitamins: Some are essential (like vitamin c) and some (like vitamin d) can be made by our bodies as long as we are otherwise well-nourished.
- Minerals: Essential – we must obtain minerals and trace minerals from diet. Potassium, sodium (salt), calcium are examples.
- Fatty Acids: Essential.
- Amino Acids: Essential
- Carbohydrates: Absolutely not essential – our bodies can make these from other substances like amino acids and fatty acids very efficiently.
But what about “The Essential Food Groups”? (I think that the USDA and conventional medicine and conventional dieticians have this term trademarked and patented)
We are told to think of “The Essential Food Groups” as being groups based on the Food Guide Pyramid (TM) with “importance” as follows:
- Carbohydrate group
- Vegetable group
- Fruit group
- Fat Group
- Dairy group
- Protein group
From our discussions above you can rate this for yourself – but here are my thoughts:
- The carbohydrates are unnecessary, except that they may provide fiber which is an important part of diet, yet not actually considered to be a “nutrient” by conventional medicine. The consumption of carbohydrates, especially in the importance given to it by our USDA, results in a great number of health problems.
- Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and in some cases amino acids and fatty acids. They may also provide fiber. Some vegetables can be considered “superfoods” because they contain such high levels of important and valuable nutrients – just don’t cook all those nutrients away! Many vegetables (such as carrots) are very high in carbohydrates (sugar) – so use them in moderation.
- Some fruits provide sugars (carbohydrates), a few vitamins and often little else. They sure are tasty though. Still, many fruits, such as berries, can be considered “superfoods” because of their phytonutrients and antioxidants and other benefits. Be aware of the sugar content of some fruits compared to their other benefits.
- Fats, as we have seen, are essential. Cholesterol is a fat that is so important to us that our liver can create it ‘de novo’ – just like it can create glucose ‘de novo.’ Eggs are our friend – enough said!
- Dairy is a confusing one – there are amino acids, fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins present in raw, unpasteurized dairy products – but once cows milk has been pasteurized, homogenized, sterilized, irradiated, fortified, and otherwise denatured, all bets are off! Once it has been worked over like that it is mostly a high-sugar (lactose) white drink that causes all sorts of allergy and intolerance problems. Sorry, but that’s just how I see it. Try raw milk sometime – I guarantee you’ll never want to drink the other stuff ever again!
- Proteins, considered by our mighty USDA to be the least important and least necessary of their food groups is, as we have seen, possibly the most important to life after water! The very word protein, derived from the Greek ‘protos’, means “first” – as in “first in importance.” Without protein in our diets we would quickly weaken and die. With apologies to the sensitivities of our vegetarian and vegan readers, animal protein is the most natural, complete and easily obtained source of essential amino acids for most people. Just try to be sure that your protein sources are free of antibiotics, hormones, and GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms). Look for “organic”. Remember that eggs are one of nature’s best deals as a protein source. Did I mention eggs? Eggs are a health food!
O.K. my old friend, there you have it – nutrition in a nutshell. Hope this helps you understand diet a little better.
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