Food Freedom Friday Edition 173 - Missing Nutrients
The modern environment, while filled with many wonderful conveniences and other advances, is not as healthy as it once was. The air and water are not as clean, toxins are found everywhere, in everything from the dyes in clothing to the products used to clean homes and personal care products, not to mention stressed by our hectic lives.
Even when following an optimal diet, consuming plenty of dark, leafy greens, bright orange and yellow vegetables, and seasonal fruits, you might not be getting all the nutrients needed and expected. Many people are startled to learn the fruits and vegetables grown today are actually not as nutritious as they once were. In fact, they are much less rich in vitamins and minerals, in some cases with reductions as great as 40% or more!
The modern cultivation practices used by the massive companies known together as agribusiness focus on speeding growth, increasing size, and improving pest resistance. Increases in yield that are produced by fertilization, as well as other environmental means, tend to decrease the concentrations of minerals in plants. In the process of increasing the food supply, making more food available for more people, modern agricultural practices have stripped the nutrients from the soil in which food grows. This is called soil depletion, and every new season of crops grown actually increases the problem.
One study analyzed nutritional data from the US Department of Agriculture of 43 different fruits and vegetables for two periods, 50 years apart. The study found marked declines in calcium, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C. Furthermore, the same researchers believe declines in other nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, and vitamins B6 and E are likely. Yet another study concluded that it would require 8 oranges to obtain similar amounts of vitamin A from one orange 2 generations ago. This dilution effect and soil depletion have a double impact on the nutritive value of our food.
The Impact on Your Health
These minerals and vitamins are essential for your cells and organs to function properly. They support your body’s optimal growth and development, and are vital for the health of your immune system. Nutrient deficiencies play a role in fatigue, mood imbalances, thyroid dysfunction, autoimmune conditions, and heart disease, among other issues.
The following vitamins and minerals are known to have declined in produce and this is impacting health.
It is well known that calcium is good for your bones and teeth. Without enough of it to form a compound called hydroxyapatite, your bones would become soft and bendable. Calcium also plays an important role in your nervous system, allowing your brain to control the release of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that interact with your nerve cells. Key plant sources of calcium include kale, bok choy, oranges, edamame and broccoli rabe. As opposed to simply taking a calcium supplement, many of these foods provide the co-factors responsible for calcium absorption – nature has always been smart that way.
Iron binds with hemoglobin in the red cells of your blood to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. It also helps bring oxygen to your muscles. It plays a critical role in fighting invaders; without enough of it you are more prone to infections and may feel weak because your body is unable to process the energy within your itself. Iron deficiency, also called anemia, can be characterized by tiredness, difficulty maintaining body temperature, and decreased immune function. Iron rich plants include all dark green vegetables, prunes and raisins.
Magnesium should be the fourth most abundant mineral in your body. It is a factor in more than 300 systems that regulate biochemical reactions as diverse as protein synthesis, muscle contraction, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation. Adequate magnesium is imperative for your immune function and heart health. It also helps you absorb calcium and enables healthy bowel movements by drawing water into the intestine. Foods rich in magnesium include dark leafy greens, seeds, coconut milk, among others. This all-important mineral is so critical yet half of the population do not consume even the recommended daily dose from the foods they eat. A dedicated supplement that is bound to citric acid for easy absorption is often something I recommend.
Vitamin B2, also called riboflavin, plays a critical role in your body. It helps process proteins, fats, and carbohydrates and regulates your body’s energy supply. It also helps maintain membranes in your digestive system, and supports your liver and adrenal glands. A lack of riboflavin can cause skin dryness and cracking, rashes, weakness and vision problems. Many of the most widely known sources of riboflavin contain gluten or are grains, but whole, real foods like avocados and spinach are also rich in this nutrient. A supplement that specifically supports adrenal function may also be helpful if you’re dealing with adrenal imbalances.
Vitamin A is actually a group of fat-soluble retinoids. Perhaps its most important function is as a component of rhodopsin, a protein that absorbs light in the retinal receptors, making vision possible. It also supports cell growth and differentiation, giving it a critical role in the function of your heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs. Eye issues including dry eyes and night blindness are two common symptoms of Vitamin A deficiency. There are two types of vitamin A. The variety derived from plants are carotenoids, the most important of which is beta-carotene. This is found in carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, apricots, and cantaloupe.
This important vitamin helps your body in several unique ways. It makes the mood regulator serotonin as well as norepinephrine, an important chemical that enables you cope with stress. It also produces melatonin which helps you sleep and aids in the production of hemoglobin to move oxygen through your body. With too little B6, you can be prone to skin rashes, mood changes, low energy, and tingling in the hands and feet. Plants that are rich in Vitamin B6 include avocados, sweet potatoes, and bananas.
Vitamin C is used by your body to form a protein to make skin cells, blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons. It also helps repair wounds, cartilage, bones and teeth, and is critical for the absorption of iron. Although rare, a severe lack of Vitamin C results in scurvy, characterized by bleeding gums, loss of teeth, and depression. All citrus fruits contain Vitamin C, as do guavas, strawberries, papaya, and broccoli.
Vitamin E is critical for eye and skin health, as well as a strong immune system. It’s an antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage. A lack of vitamin E can cause muscle pain, decreased coordination and visual disturbances. One of the fat-soluble vitamins, it naturally occurs in green, leafy vegetables.
This mineral affects your skin and the production of white blood cells. It also helps with hormone production and aids in digestion. It is vitally important for the health of your thyroid because it plays a role in the enzyme your body needs to convert T4 (the inactive form of thyroid hormone) to T3 (the active form.) Zinc deficiency can cause hair loss, diarrhea, skin sores, and weight loss. Plant sources of zinc include mushrooms, lentils, hemp seeds and most nuts.
Organic is a Better Choice
By now, most of you know I am a nutrition consultant and health coach, not a farmer. However, I was raised in a country where, at that time, farming practices were smaller and less chemical laden. We also had a huge backyard filled with vegetables and fruit trees. We were ‘forced’ to a seasonal diet, full of available produce.
Things have changed so much during my lifetime and now, even organic growers are often encouraged to make do with hybrid seeds, so most commercially available organic produce is not of the heirloom variety. That is, it’s not exactly the same type of fruit or vegetable grown prior to the 1950s, the benchmark for the decline in nutritional value.
So, while organic is definitely better for a whole host of reasons we have previously discussed, ,it still won’t be packed with all the nutrients you need. Your best bet for produce is locally grown, organic plants grown from heirloom seeds, such as those often found at farmers’ markets.
As always, awareness is key. Chasing perfection will often leave one feeling frustrated sand anxious. Being aware of your choices, making the best ones you possibly can at the time and taking advantage of a few of the advances modern technology has gifted us with (high quality, well produced supplements for example) will provide the best support for you on your wellness pursuits.