The Micronutrients - Forget Them Too
“Nicotinic acid cures pellagra, but a beefsteak prevents it”. This quote from Sigerist appears in Michael and Mary Dan Eades’ ‘Protein Power’ (p.169), and it captures the essential question when it comes to micronutrients. Eat well and they are not an issue.
The category of micronutrients has entered mainstream nutrition thinking from two sources. Neither are valid. The first is a by-product from the adoption of macronutrients, which are differentiated from micros by their volume and the fact that they provide a fuel source to the body. As I’ve discussed already (see here) macronutrients are not a helpful way of approaching nutrition. This applies even more to the micronutrients, which far outweigh at least one of the macros – carbohydrates – in their importance to the diet. The nutrition establishment approaches essential vitamins and minerals like a kind of afterthought, and this method lends itself towards a reliance on supplementation rather than real food. This is consistent with a view of nutrition that focuses heavily on energy, and in fact misses the entire point of eating (see here).
The second source is even more revealing, it has arisen out of deficiency. The model here is beri beri, a condition triggered by a lack in the B vitamin thiacin. Once this vitamin was isolated, early in the 20th century, Western medicine embarked on a hunt for similar ‘magic bullets’ in the treatment of diseases, vitamin C for scurvy already being known, and another B vitamin niacin was soon found connected to pellagra. This sat well with the mechanistic world view that had emerged during the 19th century, the ‘germ theory of disease’, which understood the causes of sickness in terms of ‘one microbe, one illness’. This oversimplification did lead to some early successes, but brought with it a whole host of problems that now impede further progress in the field. The ‘Calories In, Calories Out’ theory is a similar mechanical model that has proved disastrous in the nutritional space.
This approach to micronutrients also sits perfectly with the negative definition of health we currently have, namely as ‘the absence of disease’. Vitamins and minerals are dealt with purely in this negative manner, as a means of staving off sickness. This combines with the accountant’s view of nutrition that predominates in the mainstream, reducing everything to numbers, that ends up with a series of Recommended Daily Intakes (RDIs) set at levels that will achieve this objective. Beyond this, it has little to say.
No concept of optimal health
One of the gaps this leaves is any positive idea as to what amounts of micronutrients we should be taking in if we wish to optimise our health. The nutrition establishment is unable to tackle this question for the simple reason that it has no conception of optimal health. Its entire framework of dietary guidelines is built around the negative concepts of avoiding deficiencies, imbalances, or excess. This is why it promotes key principles such as balance, variety, and moderation in formulating its recommendations. Eating this way will prevent, in theory at least, undesirable outcomes such as obesity, heart disease, or illnesses like scurvy, and that is as far as its rationale goes.
The truth is that we have NO IDEA how much of the micronutrients we should be taking in. Catherine Shanahan, in her ‘Deep Nutrition’, draws on Weston A. Price’s work to argue that it most likely is several times more, maybe as much as ten, than the amount we currently get, and that it is highly probable that most of us in the West are seriously malnourished. (p.44) This stands in sharp contrast to the traditional diets of indigenous peoples. She cites Price,
“The foods of the native Eskimos contained 5.4 times as much calcium as the displacing foods of the white man, 5 times as much phosphorus, 1.5 times as much iron, 7.9 times as much magnesium, 1.5 times as much copper, 8.8 times as much iodine, and at least a ten-fold increase in fat soluble activators (vitamins).” (p.44)
My guess is that these results were obtained through the regular inclusion of bone broths in the Eskimo diet, rich in fat soluble vitamins and collagen – a food group that is completely missed in our current macronutrient scheme. (see here) (Frank Tufano has several videos on a similar theme, see his YouTube channel here)
Our relative deficiencies go unnoticed because they do not manifest themselves in a way that can be causally traced to illness in a mechanical manner, like beri beri was, and because we live in a period where physical abilities play an insignificant role in whether we succeed or fail in life. Few men today have to fight their way out of situations with their fists, or earn their living through feats of strength and endurance, instead the manipulation of words and symbols make up the critical skills of this post-modernist era. This is why the mainstream view persists, it accurately reflects our time, its world view, and its priorities.
On our part, however, if we wish to address this question of optimal intake, the category of micronutrients proves itself to be completely useless, as does the accountant’s way of tackling the problem. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, it is an overly analytical approach, identifying single minerals or vitamins, when in reality these work in synergy (Frank Tufano also discusses this in detail). This underpins the second problem, which is one of complexity. How much of any single micronutrient we need is dependent on what else we are eating, and depending on how we answer this question there are an almost infinite set of quantities that can turn out to be correct. We encounter a similar difficulty when it comes to optimising the microbiome, an issue I will address in another post. An example of this can be seen in the case of vitamin C, which is present in only small amounts in meat, much less than in citrus fruit, but which seems to be entirely adequate to ward off scurvy. Exactly why this is so remains a mystery.
The reality of this picture also shows up the limitations of the scientific method. Science is of little use here, precisely because of the system’s complexity. A good indication of the problem can be seen in the results of this recent study, “Assessment of micronutrients in a 12-week ketogenic diet in obese adults” (available here), whose abstract reads,
“Throughout the diet the intakes of magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium were below recommended values, but their serum levels always remained within the reference range… Calcium serum levels were negatively associated with ω-6 but not with ω-3 unsaturated fatty acid intake. The intakes of water-soluble vitamins were also too low. However, the antioxidative potential of serum did not change during intervention.”
Faced with this result, the authors could only conclude,
“Careful choice of foods which would provide the necessary micronutrients is of utmost importance when consuming ketogenic diet. In the 12 weeks the decreased intakes did not reflect in serum values, but special attention to calcium should be advised if such diet is recommended through longer periods.”
The problem here should be clear – if ‘careful choice of foods’ is of the ‘utmost importance’, this study is of absolutely no use whatsoever in determining what that choice should consist of. In fact, NO STUDY is likely to help, because we are dealing with the non-linear causality of a complex system – inputs do not lead to outputs in a predictable manner. The study subjects were technically deficient in micronutrients, but this did not show up in their results, there is a strong possibility it NEVER WILL.
If this is so, then how should we approach the problem ? Luckily, the solution is simple – forget micronutrients, eat well and they will look after themselves. The same also applies to the microbiome, feed yourself properly, and it will sort itself out. This is the message contained in the Sigerist quote, and why the Eades included it in their book.
Just to be absolutely clear – my argument here is NOT that micronutrients are unimportant, it is just the opposite. It is that the division of foods into macro and micro nutrient categories is UNHELPFUL, we should drop it. Instead we should concentrate on the Six Real Food Groups, on genuine nutrition, and in this way obtain a proper amount of the essential vitamins and minerals we need.
If we run into problems, that is another matter. I will deal with this in another post as well, but the gist of it will be that in such cases we are leaving the field of nutrition, which is about eating for optimal health, and moving into the domain of medicine, where we are dealing with ill-health. Different rules apply for these two areas. Part of the problem with mainstream nutrition is precisely its confusion between eating for health, about which it has nothing to say, and the prevention or treatment of sickness, which is its exclusive content. This puts the cart before the horse, because the whole point of nutrition is be healthy and not need to select edible substances for their medicinal properties.
In other words, the mainstream Dietary Guildelines are for SICK people, not healthy ones, and therefore of no relevance to the nutrition field whatsoever. The micronutrient category, and how they approach it, is the clearest example of this. Forget them, eat real food instead, and if you are sick go find a traditional healer who knows what they are doing.
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