IN THIS SECTION we will begin to examine the six nutrients essential for life. These vital nutrients are carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. It is important to make a distinction between essential nutrients and an essential food. An essential food really doesn't exist. There are numerous foods which promote life and are conducive to health, but there isn't any single food that one absolutely must eat to attain optimal body function. However, it is imperative that food choices supply these six essential nutrients. It will become evident as we examine these six essentials that certain foods rank much higher than others in supplying our nutrient needs. Before delving into these nutrients, it would be well to have a framework on which to construct the principles of making wise food choices. This can be built on two supporting pillars: nutrient density and balance.
Nutrient density means getting the most nutritional value from the calories you take in. Carbohydrates, such as fruit, vegetables, grains, and legumes, generally provide the widest range of nutrients for the least calories. They are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, provide some protein and almost no fat. It's like applying the concept of getting the most for your money to food choices.
Balance, the other pillar, is a key concept when it comes to body function, since all body processes seek to achieve this end. In a dietary sense it embraces variety, adequacy, and moderation. To routinely choose the same limited spectrum of foods could lead to dietary inadequacies and would not deliver the benefits to be gained from a wide variety of foods, especially where vitamins, minerals and other protective plant chemicals are concerned. A narrow range of food selection also jeopardizes the delicate balance of all nutrients working together in proper amounts so vital to optimal health.
Excess also creates imbalance and is just as conducive to improper balance and poor health as getting too little. Generally we think in terms of avoiding that which is harmful, but we must also consider that there may be negative consequences in getting too much of even a good thing.
As previously mentioned, body nutrient requirements and processes are not random. I reiterate this concept because some people seem to amble quite randomly through the process of food selection. They eat to satisfy a craving, urge, or impulse with little forethought. I'm not saying one must rule out spontaneity or an occasional splurge, but for optimal body performance one must have some awareness of key nutrients and a method, or at least a notion, of how these nutrient needs will be satisfied. Another point, perhaps more subtle, is that there is a difference between eating what's required to survive and eating to maximize our health and well-being potential.
As we study these nutrients one by one, it will always be with an eye toward health enhancement. We will begin with the energy-contributing nutrients:
carbohydrate, fat, and protein. As a lead into our focus on carbohydrate, let's create a backdrop to explore the marvel of where this food energy comes from and how that is related to the essence of what makes food life sustaining. The sun will be the focal point in our backdrop, for without sunlight all life would cease to exist. We are solar-powered creatures of light, sustained moment to moment by the radiant energy of this magnificent star.
Have you ever given much thought to light? It is something of a conundrum to science because it possesses properties of both waves and particles, which is unlike anything else we know. Without light you could not be reading right now. The brain devotes a full thirty percent of its activity to vision. Four elements comprise the sense of sight: form, motion, color, and depth. Four separate areas of the brain are associated with these elements. Yet 1+1+1+1 does not equal 4 in this case, because it is still a mystery how these four factors come together in the brain to make sense out of what we see and actually create vision. It is not understood what integrates these elements to formulate sight. We do know that it is light originating from the sun which acts upon the eye to make the whole process possible.
Now let's challenge the mind's eye to explore the prism of meaning emanating from the relationship which inextricably links us to the sun's energy bound up in the food we eat. It is the plant world which captures this life-giving energy from the sun, and by the process of photosynthesis converts it into just the nutrients humans and all living organisms need to sustain life. If the eyes of our understanding could be enlightened, we might begin to see just how remarkable, unique, and compelling this relationship is.
The body requires six kinds of nutrients: water, carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Most of these are composed of just four simple elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Hydrogen plus oxygen makes water. Hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon combine to make carbohydrate and fat; protein contains nitrogen as well. It is an eloquently simple arrangement, and at the same time astounding in its capacity for variations on a theme. Through the process of photosynthesis, green plants intercept a portion of the sunlight reaching their leaves and capture its energy within the chemical bonds of glucose—a simple carbohydrate. Protein, fats, and other carbohydrates are then synthesized from glucose to meet the needs of the plant. The plant thus becomes a depository for all three of the energy providing nutrients—carbohydrate, fat and protein. Plants are also nature's storehouse for vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other chemicals which protect us from disease. Thus the plant becomes capable of providing all of our nutrient requirements. *13
In this way we are able to harvest sunlight in the foods which we eat. Energy from the sun drives this process and thereby provides energy to us as the metabolism of our food breaks down these nutrients and releases the life locked within their molecular structures. The process of photosynthesis, centered on sunlight, is also an intrigue to science. Scientists know its reactions in the minutest detail, and yet it has never been reproduced from scratch; only green plants can make it happen.*14
The interdependent relationship between plant and man is so indispensable that we literally could not breathe without one an-other. We rely on the oxygen plants release, and they rely on our carbon dioxide. When one considers how primary breath and energy are to life, it gives one pause to consider whether this perpetual exchange between man and plant is merely a coincidental symbiosis or whether there may be something more profound at work: a meaningful design by which humans were intended not only to survive, but to be nourished in a way which would protect from disease, promote vitality, and enhance every dimension of our well-being. This is a philosophical question, I know. And it might be argued that eating has nothing to do with philosophy. On that point I must differ. After all, when people communicate their beliefs and values, are they not expressing their philosophy on life? And doesn't food have everything to do with life? Isn't that why we eat? Can there be a more intimate relationship than that which exists between our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being and the food which keeps us living, thinking, feeling, and creating, and which sustains all facets of those factors which make each one unique? Perhaps this is all so elementary that it is taken for granted and overlooked. But I would submit that the way we eat conveys a great deal about how we see the world, our responsibilities, and our place in the scheme of things. Consciously or not, the way we eat is connected to a myriad of other beliefs and perceptions.
As we continue our exploration into the benefits of the plant world, think of what life means to you. Webster's dictionary defines it as "that property of plants and animals which makes it possible for them to take in food, get energy from it, grow, adapt themselves to their surroundings, and reproduce their kind: it is the quality that distinguishes a living animal or plant from inorganic matter or a dead organism." Ponder Webster's definition in light of the logic of obtaining food to support life from the lifeless blood and flesh of a dead animal carcass whose body has become a second-hand, indirect, diminished source of the plants that you could have eaten directly, intact with their full complement of vital nutrients from living trees, vines, and nature's harvest. Doesn't that intimate at least an unnecessary waste, ineffectiveness, and perversion of what would seem a more ideal way to care for ourselves? I know the argument can be made that man sits atop the food chain and anything beneath him is fair game for consumption. Perhaps there is something that makes us feel powerful, even omnipotent, in that point of view. It is not for me to draw conclusions for anyone else, but to encourage thought as we supplement our personal perspectives and health goals with what we can learn from the growing body of research and observation regarding the way our bodies respond to the kinds of food we put into them.
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