Eat your medicine, Part 2

OK, yesterday I talked about how the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in foods don’t operate in isolation. So, when you’re trying to be optimally healthy, it’s not enough to pop the “nutrient du jour” in pill form. You’ve got to eat a variety of healthy food so you can be reasonably sure you’re getting a full spectrum of health-promoting (and possibly disease-preventing) nutrients.
So what do nutrients do, anyway. Depends. Some, like the antioxidants (including vitamins A, C, E, the mineral selenium, and phytochemicals like lycopene in tomatoes and resveratrol in grapes), absorb “free radicals” in our body. It’s normal to have some free radicals, but we don’t want too many, because they can damage our DNA, which is one step on the path to cancer. Other nutrients (like many of the B vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper, chromium and calcium) act as enzyme cofactors.
Our bodies are a bundle of constant tiny chemical reactions. If the reactions stop, we stop (and by stop I mean we die). Most of those reactions would not happen fast enough on their own to support life, so they need to be catalyzed (helped out) by enzymes. An enzyme tends to be pretty specific to a certain type of reaction (for example, only the enzyme lactase can break down the milk sugar lactose). And many enzymes won’t do their job unless a specific cofactor attaches to it first. So a shortage of the nutrients that act as cofactors means your enzymes can’t do their job optimally, which means you don’t operate optimally.
That, dear readers, is why you need to eat a variety of healthy foods, especially veggies. I’m not opposed to taking a quality multi-vitamin and mineral supplement as a nutritional “insurance policy,” but I don’t think it’s a good idea to think that eating a crappy diet + taking your vitamin pills = being A-OK. Here’s an example why:
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts) are high in a group of compounds called glucosinolates. Glucoraphanin is one important type of glucosinolate. When we take a bite of broccoli and chew it up, the broccoli’s cell walls break rupture. This exposes glucoraphanin to the enzyme myrosinase, (Until you started chewing, glucoraphanin and myrosinase were in separate cell compartments.) Myrosinase immediately converts glucoraphanin to sulforaphane, a powerful anti-cancer molecule that we can absorb into our bloodstreams.*
Now how are you supposed to isolate that little chemical-reaction-in-your-mouth and put it in a pill? Those are sensitive little molecules, so I don’t think you can. So eat your broccoli (and cabbage and kale…). And chew your food!
If you want another example of why we need to get our vitamins from food, go here and scroll down to two paragraphs below the solitary tree photo, in case you don’t remember me talking about the vitamin E debacle.
The moral of my little two-day saga is this: Read the latest news on what nutrients are “hot” if that interests you (it interests me!), but take them with a grain of salt. Honestly, it’s not bad to fall back on the words of Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” You know he means real food right? OK…just checking.
Tomorrow: A delicious spinach recipe. Seriously…delicious!
* This most fascinating information about broccoli and its tasty nutritious cousins came from Foods to Fight Cancer.