We hold these truths to be self evident, that all nutrients are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of conversion into usable materials for human metabolism
-Buddy Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s much less known nutritionist cousin)
It is no surprise Buddy was lost to the annals of history while his cousin was remembered. His conception of the sovereign nutrient, equal to all others was fundamentally flawed. However, many today still believe that all nutrients are indeed created equal.
This is true on a number of levels and stems from intellectual laziness. Teaching anything in detail is always going to be harder than putting things into neat little boxes. The easier the model we work with, the less we have to explain when we defend ourselves. We can shut out any questions and walk away with clean hands. But at the end of the day we are forced with reductionist thinking.
While this has been useful for giving millions access to basic knowledge of nutrition through public education, it becomes problematic when these simplified models are accepted as gospel. By believing these simplified models many people are leaving themselves in the dark, ignoring important realities while convincing themselves they are fine while they eat poor quality survival foods.
1. All calories are created equal
The definition of a calorie is derived from thermodynamics and is the measure of potential energy, the amount required to heat one gram of water one degree Celsius. The nutritional definition of calorie actually refers to the kilocalorie, which is 1000 calories. How do we determine how many calories is in a particular substance? We burn it, and see how much water it heats. It might sound ridiculous to think that the Food and Drug Administration is burning big macs to determine how many calories they contain, but it’s really not that far from the truth.
So fundamentally, the concept of a calorie is designed assuming the complete efficiency of a closed loop machine. There is no consideration to what happens to this food once it enters the human body, regardless of your age, genetic makeup, metabolism or anything else. Let’s take a ridiculous example: eating grass vs. eating rice. Grass is certainly a nutrient dense food and so is rice. You could have 2000 calories of grass or 2000 calories of corn. If you ate the grass, you would most likely not get anything out of it because the calories are contained within cellulose, a compound our body does not have the means to break down. If you ate your 2000 calories of grass per day diet you would eventually die because you weren’t getting enough calories to survive. However, your 2000 calories of rice diet would keep you alive for a very long time.
This is obviously a ridiculous answer but when you get down to smaller levels of difference it is true for the same reason. Eating cheez whiz is not going to be absorbed by your body as well as kraft singles, which aren’t going to be absorbed by your body as well as a nice ol’ brick of cheddar. Aside from the external problems with eating processed foods, there’s a distinct disadvantage of what your body can use, which is the important thing.
2. All macronutrients are created equal
It’s all about what your body can use. I’m going to use the example of protein here. Protein is identical to the carbohydrate but it has the difference of amino groups, which contain nitrogen, which is a gas (this will become important later). Like calories, there is a difference in dietary protein and usable protein. You will only use what is digestible, the rest is broken down as a carbohydrate. This is why carbohydrates and protein both have 4 calories per gram.
So it’s all about which amino acids make it to your bloodstream. Eating meat, fish and poultry has a relatively high number of 32% while many protein supplements are much lower at 16%. That’s also assuming that the protein on the label is the protein that’s in it, which might not always be the case. Protein from vegetable sources such as beans can be even lower.
Remember that nitrogen I was talking about? Protein that isn’t usable will create free nitrogen. Now you know why beans make you fart. (You’re welcome).
3. All vitamins are created equal
There was an interesting study that came out last year that proved that vitamins do nothing for your health. However, I am a massive advocate of vitamins and recommend them to everyone in my life, most people in the online health movement spend hundreds of dollars per year on them. What gives?
Again, it comes down to what your body can use. Take for example, vitamin A. The main forms of vitamin A are beta carotene (found in plants) and retinyl palmate (found in animals). Beta carotene is easier and cheaper to produce, and for these reasons it’s no surprise that it’s the most common form you see in over the counter multivitamins. However, conservative estimates list that beta carotene is converted at a 4:1 rate at best which means the 100% vitamin A you’re getting on the label is really 25%.
It all comes down to what your body can use, whether it’s calories, macronutrients or vitamins. To go more in depth I’m planning on writing a series which will give you the tools to find out what is best for what your body will ACTUALLY use. Stay tuned.