Diet Does Not Equal Nutrition

Its not good enough to just eat well

The words 'diet' and 'nutrition' get used almost interchangeably these days in conversation.  But reframing them as two distinct words is imperative to understanding how food, supplements and medicines - anything that we consume - are actually used by the body.

 

Defining 'Diet' & 'Nutrition'

Diet is the plan.  It's the rules, it's the restrictions - It's just what we put into our mouths as fuel for the body.  Period.  

Nutrition though, it's a much more complex process.  It's the cumulative result of physical breakdown of foods (chewing, peristalsis); chemical digestion (enzymes, gut flora); absorption into the bloodstream; transport around the body; delivery into cells and tissues; synergy and metabolism with other chemicals; and excretion of waste products.  Nutrition is defined not only by what we actually are able to get into the cells and tissues of our body, but what we can actually use.  So, the usage food, or fuel, that we put into our body is completely dependent on our body's ability to utilize it.

Just putting food into your mouth doesn't necessitate that it's getting into your cells & tissues.

Consider that your digestive tract is actually outside the body.  Your digestive tract is just specialized skin - It's contiguous with your skin, and it's just a tube going through the middle of the body.  But foodstuffs that travel through your digestive tract aren't actually in your body until they go through the complex process of digestion, absorption, transport and delivery that we outlined earlier.  

Digestion happens outside the body and our diet is an environmental exposure.

No 'diet' is ever going to applicable to the general population, and the idea of fad diets is ridiculous, if we assume that every person is a cumulative result of different genetics, environmental triggers and experiences.

Its not good enough to just eat well.

In order to optimize diet then, it's essential that we know how the body that is consuming that food is functioning - When we put fuel into the system, we want to make the best selection of quality and type of fuel to maximize the usage of that fuel in the system.  This is essentially terrain theory (stay tuned for another blog post about terrain theory) - That health (and disease) are dependent on the status of the host (human body), and a result of the interaction of the host body with its environment in the context in which it exists.

A very short, and incomplete, list of reasons that we might not be getting the most out of our food include:

  • Insufficient stomach acid or digestive enzyme production - Without adequate acidity and enzyme production, we can't chemically breakdown food.  Furthermore, the low pH of the stomach is a positive feedback trigger to the rest of the digestive tract to begin secreting more enzymes and moving appropriate to facilitate proper physical breakdown, movement and excretion of foodstuff.
  • Stress inhibits digestion - When we are under stress, our adrenal glands produce hormones that help make us the best fighting machines possible, in order so that we were historically prepared to run away from, or fight, a sabre-toothed tiger.  Our stresses are very different today, as our world has changed dramatically even in our short lifespans, but our bodies are built for a world with acute, infrequent stressors, not regular, chronic stress.  Under stress, these hormones (cortisol, and especially epinephrine & norepinephrine), shunt blood away from the digestive tract in favour of delivering oxygen and blood sugar to your muscles, lungs, heart and brain.  This is why you get cramps when you eat, and then immediately go and walk or exercise - The pain is literally your digestive tract crying for oxygen and blood.
  • Food reactions - These include food allergies (rare, acute, often life-threatening), sensitivities (chronic inflammation due to antibody-antigen complexes that leads to symptoms up to 3 days after food exposure), and intolerances (inability to digest a food component, like lactose intolerance)

 

Declining Quality of Fuel

Dietary choices, and nutrition, are even more important today than they were decades ago.  Due to processing of foods, overfarming of our agricultural lands, harvesting plants before they are ripe and long transport times, freezing and genetic modifications, the quality of the fuel that we are putting into our digestive tract isn't even as good as it was even 15 years ago.  

Our bodies aren't built for the world that we live in, and our food isn't the fuel we think it is

This is one of the biggest arguments for the use of supplements and functional foods.  We always strive to do as much as we can without external (supplemental) help, but diet and lifestyle, it is being argued, may not be enough for us to reach optimal health.  Choosing to use some supplements to shorten treatment times, to make our bodies more resilient to stress and nutrient depletion/insufficiency, or simply optimize the terrain of our body, can help enable us to thrive in a challenging environment relative to what our bodies are built for.

 

There is no magic bullet.

Nutrition must be individualized.  Each of us is different from a genetic standpoint, and each of us is a cumulative result of the environmental triggers and experiences of our unique lives.  And no treatment plan (or diet) is going to be perfect for everyone.  All we can do is educate ourselves and make the best, informed decision as to our next step.  Then, take the next best step, and so on.  The compounded benefits of continually making small positive change eventually snowball and enable us to thrive in our own unique was, in a way that we are comfortable with, and that we can sustain.

 

Dr. Jason Marr is a Naturopathic Doctor, an Expert Health & Wellness Speaker, Founder and Director of Evoke Integrative Medicine Ltd. in downtown Vancouver, BC.  He arms urban professionals with evidence-based, integrative, real-world tools to maximize productivity, performance and learning agility, while overcoming fatigue, stress, anxiety and burnout.