Malnutrition and Essential Nutrient Deficiency in the West
Look, it's like this. Your body is great at using the raw materials you eat to make the thousands of different chemicals your cells and blood need for you to survive. But there are 43 essential nutrients that you can't manufacture in your body. You have to eat them to get them.
Severe deficiency in even one of these essentials will kill you, and the slippery slope of deficiency is usually a messily painful one. For example, severe vitamin C deficiency will give you scurvy. It's a nasty way to die, that first gets really bad when your hair and teeth fall out. Another: severe copper deficiency will give you painful joint trouble as a first sign. So, for a few people, a copper patch on your skin (such as a bangle) works like magic on some kinds of arthritis, while it does nothing for the majority of us who don't need the extra copper.
Most people are at least mildly deficient in four or more of the essentials and a quarter of us are deficient in over a dozen. It's not as bad as it looks, though. A lot of the essential nutrients are hard to avoid on a typical refined Western diet – tin and the essential Omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid (LA), for example – and if you pop one multivitamin-and-mineral pill a day , you get pretty well all of the rest. (I recommend this as a 'backstop' aid these days to everyone except seriously freaky health nuts like me – and I take one a day anyway.)
But that leaves one essential fatty acid as a very big problem. It's the Omega-3 basic fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid ( ALA ). It's almost absent from the typical Western diet. And you've got to have it or get big trouble. What trouble? Mostly, an impairment of brain function, liability to skin problems and asthma, atherosclerosis, 'sticky blood', high blood pressure and arthritis – and there's a strong suspicion that there's a link to dementia, MS, ME and diabetes, too. Do these sound familiar? In children, low ALA and its derivative DHA have been clinically correlated with poor school performance, hyperactivity and ADHD in recent trials.
Of course, none of this may be a worry to you. If you've got too little ALA already, maybe you're too smashed to care! But making sure that your diet has just the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) of ALA can make a huge difference to your physical and mental wellbeing.
What Went Wrong
A hundred years ago, ALA deficiency was uncommon, and it's still rare in most of the world except among people with serious dietary problems – like the starving and, curiously, the majority of Westerners and those richer people in poor countries who eat a Western diet. In Japan, for example, there's statistical and case proof that moving from traditional Japanese food to an American-style diet brings on all the Western problems I've mentioned.
Does this deficiency malnutrition include you? You might think not, if you eat well. But in fact, dietary deficiency is commonplace in the West, because so much of our food is highly refined and processed. It's this processing which mostly causes that ALA deficiency which affects almost all of us in the West. Apart from the fiber problem, the salt trouble and getting poisoned by your food (see below for links to articles on these) the main issue with refining is what the processing removes .
In our modern society, convenience is king – along with a high profit margin, of course. So food manufacturers want raw materials which are cheap, stable in storage and easy to handle. Consumers want the same from the finished, refined product. Essentially, that means few natural foods pass the convenience test.
In the case of oils, for example, refining is used to remove fatty acids that go rancid quickly, along with vitamins, minerals and plant sterols. The rest is bleached and deodorized then has chemical antioxidants added to give a stable substance that won't go rancid for months. This is the oil that you buy on supermarket shelves and goes into most processed foods you buy.
"So what?" you ask. "Isn't that good – it's very useful to have foods that store well and look good!" True – but convenience has its price. "And surely the vitamin thing is exaggerated?" No, it's so real that most governments force manufacturers to restore some of the missing vitamins. (And the makers then hype it up as a bonus!)
Take another example – flour. It used to be stone ground, which gives a brown, whole grain flour with bran. If you wanted whiter flour, it had to be hand processed in fine hair sieves to remove the bran – white flour was for the rich. Then roller milling was invented. For about 150 years, roller milling has given us a consistent, fine white flour at low cost. It does this by nipping off the wheat germ along with the bran which colors the flour brown. Almost incidentally, the parts removed contain nearly all of the protein, minerals and vitamins in the grain. At least, the old way, white flour had the wheatgerm! The result for modern white bread eaters is malnutrition, and this was soon spotted in the poor by nutritionists even 140 years ago, as the poor turned en masse to the white bread that was traditionally the luxury of the rich. Bran and wheatgerm, by the way, are sold on as expensive and valuable food supplements.
The point is this: what is removed consistently from almost all of our processed food sources is the ALA you need for health, along with both oil-and water-soluble vitamins and other essential phyto-nutrients that were designed by nature to protect the seed until it could germinate. And they do this job very well in the whole food, if left alone. But they don't keep well processed, packed and on the shelf so, in our convenience-led processed food, you don't get them. You'll get some vitamins back in cereals and spreads that have them added, though not all you need. But one essential that never seems to be returned is ALA, which is why over 80% of people in the West are seriously deficient and suffer poor health accordingly.
'Getting Your Omegas' – Sources of Omega-3 Oil
In the past, people got ALA from green vegetables, some nuts and seeds and a variety of oils, but principally flax and hemp seed and oil. These were a Northern European staple, eaten both as seed and as the pressed oil. Both are still used today in Europe and North America – as cattle feed, to keep dairy herds healthy in winter. It's surprising that the vital connection between animal and human nutrition wasn't made until the 1980s! Now you can get it again from health stores and most big supermarkets. It's expensive compared to refined oil, but you don't need much; just a few grams a day.
It's interesting to note that flax and hemp growing in the West died away at the same time – the 1920s – that food oil processing came to be dominated by a few large industrial combines. It has always been a vital part of the crop cycle and nutrition of Eastern peoples, grown on a micro-scale as much for the fiber (flax for linen and hemp for canvas) as for the food. Traditional farmers know the value of these plants for both.
THE KEY SOURCE OF ALA: Flax seed and oil is the ultimate source of ALA. Flax (linseed) oil is usually over a half ALA, and no other source comes near this – it's a uniquely valuable plant. The next best is hemp oil, which is just under a third ALA.
BALANCING OIL SOURCES: More important is that you must have a balance between Omega-6 LA (from oils like sunflower, corn and peanut), with Omega-3 ALA so that you don't eat more than three times LA than ALA – otherwise, you can't utilize the ALA properly. As these Omega-6 rich oils are usually in over-supply in the Western diet, that's something to watch. For most of us, the ratio is between 10: 1 and 20: 1 and we waste most of the little ALA we can get. Another reason why we're ALA-deficient.
Hemp oil is a perfect balance of Omega-6 and Omega-3, but if you use it, you're overdosing on Omega-6 unless your hemp oil is the only poly-unsaturated oil source in your diet – and that's unlikely! If you already have Omega-6 in your diet, use flax oil for a better balance. In fact, you may have to cut back on Omega-6 to be safe, substituting Omega-7 and -9 oils for Omega-6. That means mono-unsaturated rapeseed oil or olive oil for cooking and – especially – frying. In North America, Canola oil is a variant of rape – and the only rapeseed oil allowed in the US (it's a long story of bad science!)
HOW MUCH DO I NEED? Half an ounce of flax oil a day is all you need. An ounce a day is better for a few months if you're deficient and wanting to top-up quickly. An alternative is to eat milled flax seed, maybe an ounce a day. In both cases, mix it with your food for preference. You can also usefully eat wild sub-Arctic oily fish a couple of times a week: salmon, trout, herring, mackerel and so on, but not tuna (because it's an Omega-3-poor warm water fish), nor farmed fish ( fed on ALA-deficient commercial junk meal rather than eating ALA-rich plankton). The fish oil contains some EPA and DHA derivative Omega-3 fatty acids which can't give you ALA but mean that you don't need as much.
I don't recommend popping oil pills, though a mixture of flax and cod liver capsules will work. That's because fish oil is almost invariably rancid and foul tasting, and in any case, using the oil directly in your food is a lot cheaper. With the capsules usually at half a gram, you'll need at least ten a day for adequate nutrition – far more than the makers tell you!
Children and Fish
So, what about that Reuters article I read? It describes a long-term study of weaning infants in Sweden, which found that those who were fed some fish early had much less trouble with eczema as they grew. There was no direct link with Omega-3; any fish was OK, but I'm sure that general diet in their family was a factor. If a breastfeeding mother has plenty of Omega-3, especially ALA, it gets passed on to the baby, and I'm sure that babies fed fish will almost always be picking up a healthier-than-usual family habit. Now, fish oil doesn't have much ALA in it, but derivative Omega-3 fatty acids instead. But if your body is healthy, you can make all of these you need from ALA.
In studies, children with enough ALA get better brain development than those who don't. And the 'don'ts' may well be most young children in the West. I'd be fascinated to read a report from someone studying this. Maybe it accounts for those well-publicized gripes about falling educational standards!
Here's where to find more:
See my article on food additives, 'Short On Vitamins?', For more deficiency advice. There are many more: click on my author name for the full list. You could also look at the Reuters post I mentioned and, from it, the medical report on Omega-3 deficiency that prompted this article.
Source by David Croucher