Graphic illustrates relative amounts of mineral nutrients found in a natural diet.

Episode 4: Mineral Balancing in the Diet

Podcast Transcript:

An Excess of One Nutrient Can Create Deficiencies in Others

The concept of balancing minerals within the diet has been understood by life science researchers and nutritionists for at least 50 years. Yet surprisingly, in the competitive world of nutraceuticals, the importance of balancing minerals is easily overlooked. And I don’t just mean it is overlooked by consumers and health food store sales clerks.  Nutritional balancing is also being overlooked by healthcare providers. Doctors are recommending that a patient take more calcium because their bone density scan T scores are low.  But they aren’t inquiring about the total diet, or looking at intake of other nutrients that promote bone health, and that could become imbalanced when you start supplementing with excess calcium.

For example, if you aren’t also getting appropriate amounts of phosphorus, magnesium, and boron in the diet, your bones are not going to form properly.  And if you take too much calcium without also increasing magnesium, you may end up dealing with kidney stones, obesity, chronic inflammation, or even colorectal or  prostate cancer.

So all in all, it is insufficient to focus on having enough of any one nutrient.  The overall balance of nutrients also matters. One reason mineral nutrient balancing is so important is because each nutrient  within our body is capable of competing with other mineral nutrients for similarly charged binding sites within the cell. So an excessive amount of one nutrient can actually cause a deficiency in another.

Supplementing is Relatively Safe, but Fractionated Nutrition Should Be Avoided.

Now people have been taking nutritional supplements for at least a century. And while, some people swear by supplements, others report no visible effects at all.

While most supplements are reasonably safe when you follow the directions on the label (After all, this is why they are sold over the counter) there is no point taking supplements unless they are going to help you get or stay healthy.

So if you are going to use supplements properly, it is worth taking time to either educate yourself on proper use or find a qualified nutrition expert and a reputable supplement provider to help you.

The reason for this is that we already know that most of the food available in supermarkets, restaurants, cafeterias, and fast-food outlets today is lacking vitamins and minerals that are necessary to keep you healthy. Yet most of us use food from these outlets on a regular basis.  So until we embrace better ways of delivering food to the masses, most of us will need to supplement our diets.

But just as processed foods can be filled with empty calories, processed supplements can be filled with improperly balanced nutrients.  And like poorly balanced diets, poorly balanced supplements can contribute to long term, chronic health problems.

Many Studies are Available to Guide our Nutrient Choices

The fact is,  there are good supplements and bad supplements.  There are also a significant number of studies defining the biological functions and optimal ratios of mineral nutrients, like sodium calcium, potassium, magnesium, and others.

Minerals alone play such key roles in basic metabolism, cellular communication, bone development, and nervous system function and more that they have been heavily studied, not only as purified nutrients, but also in relationship to one another.

Nutritional Data Are Complex, so Studies May Seem to Contradict Eachother

The trouble is, when we step back from these key mineral nutrients to look at the full spectrum of nutrients that people require, nutritionists haven’t even finished debating which ones are essential for our survival, much less what optimal ratios between all the nutrients look like.

So it’s not surprising that discussions about nutrient balancing are rarely shared with lay audiences.  Experience tells us that people just get confused when you bury them in too many details.  Especially when so much of our information is still in a developmental stage, and what the best advice keeps changing as more information is found.

Another reason that nutritional health advice is often lacking is that high quality clinical studies of nutritional products are incredibly expensive. And while clinical studies are carried out all the time for pharmaceutical products, pharmaceutical products are synthetic.  This means they can be patented and marketed at prices high enough to compensate for the research and development that went into determining their best use.

While most people recognize that good nutrition really is the best medicine, nutrition products cannot be patented because these are natural products. They existed long before humanity came into the picture.  Unfortunately, where there are no patents and no exclusivity in the market. This is good news for the informed among us, because food prices are always going to be lower than pharmaceutical prices.  Even those nutraceuticals that look expensive when you buy them from the health food store are only outpricing your medications because your insurance or medicare isn’t paying for nutraceuticals. If you compare the actual base price to the base price of medications, prior to insurance compensation and government assistance, you’ll find that not only food itself, but also nutraceutical products are true bargains.  They just don’t cost enough to support the number of clinical studies we see in the pharmaceutical industry.

In the Absence of Clinical Data, It Pays to Look at Natural History

So how does the average consumer figure out the optimal balance of nutrients to be taking when even the experts in academics, can’t quite figure it out?

Many of us believe that the best answer to that question comes from looking at what’s happening in natural history.  In other words, look at what our ancestors evolved eating.

Because our bodies are made of living cells, and those cells have not changed much from the cells of other primates, much less the cells of our human ancestors, what we need to eat to stay healthy is going to be similar to what our ancestors ate.

Early Humans Were Omnivores

You might be wondering at this point, “What should a balanced diet look like, anyway?”  You aren’t alone.  The more commercialized our food systems become, the more debate there is about what a diet should contain. This is why many experts look to our past for clues. Think about it. Humans actually survived long before food came in boxes and bags with government approved labels.

We know from studies of jaw structure, tooth structure, comparisons to other primates, and food remains found in ancient encampments of early humans that humans evolved as omnivores.  Our diets vary extensively across ecosystems because we can adapt to our ecosystems by eating both plant and animal based foods.  Humans have been eating everything from roots and toads to bears and berries, since the dawn of time.

As with other living creatures, our own bodies are capable of balancing out certain excesses by eliminating those molecules we got too much of in our diets, and by stimulating cravings for foods that we need more of.

This system works well as long as we are eating a natural diet.  Researchers confirm that in parts of the world where natural whole foods are widely available, people stay quite healthy. So do animals.  A wild cheetah does not have to look up a calorie chart or read the nutritional label on a box to decide whether or not eating a gazelle will make it fat.

Modern Humans Are NOT Eating Natural Diets.

Hot Pockets, Fruity Pebbles, and Impossible Burgers on the other hand, are new additions to the smorgasbords of foods that humans evolved eating, and because these foods are well marketed, a problem we’re encountering in modern society is that very few of us are eating natural foods at all.

Processed Foods Stimulate Unnatural Cravings

As our bodies become overloaded with artificial flavors, excess sodium, carbonation, excess sugars, and nutrient imbalances created during processing, our natural regulatory mechanisms become overloaded, our microbiomes lose functional diversity (microbiomes help us maintain nutritional homeostatis). So we start craving the very foods we have enjoyed too much of.

We start wanting sweet, salty foods, simple carbohydrates, and maybe even alcoholic beverages in amounts beyond what is good for our health.  Even the few among us who managed to replace our processed packaged fast foods with whole foods are finding that it’s difficult to find foods which have been grown on healthy soils or handled in ways that preserve their nutrient compliment.  So even those who are making heroic efforts to eat well are finding their diets nutritionally deficient.

Nutraceutical Demand is Related to Shortages of Naturally Grown and Processed Foods

This is why the nutraceutical industry is booming. People simply need to supplement their diets in order to meet their nutritional needs. We know today that living cells require anywhere from 10 to 20 elements just to stay alive. These are the elements needed by cells from any living organism.  If you are alive, you need ten to 20 elements to make the thousands of biomolecules that build and repair cells, fight off disease organisms, and eliminate toxins so you can go on living.  Additional evidence suggests that there may be as many as 60 elements that our bodies can benefit from at certain points in time or under unique conditions. We also need the nine essential amino acids our cells can’t make. We need certain vitamins, and we need omega fatty acids. If these are not contained in our food, we can choose to get sick, or we can take supplements.

Even Whole Foods May Be Lacking Nutrients.

In the early 1900’s, government agencies (perhaps under lobbying pressure from industries that had learned to make nitrogen fertilizers) defined complete fertilizers as fertilizers containing only three elements: nitrogen phosphorus and potassium. The message for the grower was that if a fertilizer contained these three elements, they could apply it each year and maintain healthy crops.

What this means for people who eat is that for nearly a century, farmers have been growing crops that pull 60 or more mineral elements out of their soil, and they have been replenishing those soils with three nutrients.  Those who have stayed in business have used their heads and figured out that a so-called complete fertilizer wasn’t going to do the trick. A sad number of those have turned to pesticides and herbicides to maintain productivity rather than recognizing that weeds and other pests are almost always indicators of nutrient deficiencies. As a result, many growers are spraying crops with costly pesticides whose residues further complicate the picture when it comes to nutrition.

Now, the big, shiny tomato you see in the supermarket looks fresh and amazing, but it is not delivering on the aromas and flavors that guided our ancestors towards the best nutrition. And it is not providing the complement of nutrients that you would have seen had soils been properly restored with natural amendments.

Even those farmers who have figured out the secret sauce and are doing a wonderful job of growing pest free, nutrient dense foods in healthy soils are often having to sell their crops to middlemen who store these crops, process them and transform them into packaged foods with fewer nutrients.

Now these packaged foods are convenient to pop in the microwave and put dinner on the table. But they don’t compare nutritionally to what the grower harvested from the field. Not only are nutrients missing, but the balance of nutrients, the natural ratios of one mineral to another, are all messed up.

Mineral Nutrients in Processed Foods are Poorly Balanced.

An article that was published in the Journal of Human Hypertension back in 2009 will give you an idea of just how much nutrients are lost during this process.  I’ve included a full citation and a link to the article in the description below this podcast.  For the record, I have no affiliation with the authors or publishers, I just found it online and considered it worth sharing.

The authors of the study looked at only four mineral nutrients:  calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium.  They review the role that these four elements play in cardiovascular function, and while I won’t jump into those details here, suffice it to say that if you have any concerns about heart disease, stroke, or obesity, you will want to pay attention to their findings.

They used a natural diet as a reference point, suggesting that our ancestors consumed diets made up of about two-thirds plant food, and one-third animal based food.  So early humans ate a lot of fruits and vegetables, but they also ate a sizable amount of meat, eggs, fish products, and in some societies, dairy products.  It is safe to say that Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, Snickers bars, and deep fried tortilla chips were not on the menu.

According to the authors, this natural diet offers a daily average of about 500 milligrams, sodium 7,400 milligrams of potassium, 1100 milligrams of calcium and about 800 milligrams of magnesium.

By contrast, in a processed food diet we’re seeing sodium levels between 2- and 3000 milligrams. This is up to six times the amount of sodium that our ancestors consumed! Meanwhile, modern diets are only exposing us to about 1,750 milligrams of potassium and 180 milligrams of magnesium every day. That’s only about a quarter of what our ancestors ate. We’re only doing a little better with calcium, eating about half of what our ancestors once enjoyed.

The deficiencies of potassium, calcium and magnesium are disturbing enough when you look at the totals.  But when you consider the fact that the excess sodium in our diets is competing with insufficient levels of potassium, calcium, and magnesium, it should not surprise anybody that our health is suffering. High ratios of sodium to potassium, or calcium to magnesium can be deadly.

Potassium is not only important for balancing electrolytes, (That’s why they add it to Gatorade, by the way.) it also helps improve our glucose tolerance and prevents hardening of the arteries. Calcium is important for preventing osteoporosis, and it can also prevent or reduce obesity. Magnesium is central to at least 300 kinds of metabolic reactions that occur in the body, including reactions important for electron transport and conversion or recycling of the energy molecule, ATP.  So if you know of any coworkers or live with any teenagers who just seem to sit around all day, unmotivated to accomplish anything  a lack of dietary magnesium may be a big part of the problem.

A Whole Foods Diet Contains a Healthier Balance of Mineral Nutrients

Now in my opinion, what is most important about the study I’ve referenced herein is that its authors confirmed the most effective way to ensure people are getting a proper balance of mineral nutrients would be to simply replace processed food items with unprocessed natural whole foods.   They share some valuable tables comparing the sodium and potassium content and the calcium and magnesium contents of various food items.  These tables offer striking revelations.

As foods in general are processed, not only do sodium levels increase, but levels of magnesium, calcium and potassium decrease.

For example, a natural tomato has about 2.5 milligrams of sodium per hundred grams of tomato. But when you turn that tomato into ketchup, a hundred grams of ketchup has a whopping 1,360 milligrams of sodium.

Now if your are thinking about this at all, you might be saying, Hey, wait a minute!  Ketchup is highly  concentrated. Of course the sodium levels are going to go up. You’ve taken most of the water out! This is a good point, but if all of this high sodium was due to water loss, we would see comparable increases in the levels of the other minerals, and the ratios between the other minerals would go unchanged. This is not what we are seeing.

I also need to point out that even if all of this sodium increase is due to the concentration factor, jumping from 2.5 milligrams to 1,360 milligrams in ketchup is a pretty big leap.  You are talking 544 times as much sodium in ketchup as you have in a fresh tomato. In fact, if all you did was take the salt shaker and shake it on your French fries, you probably wouldn’t be adding a gram of sodium.

But this is still only part of the picture.  When you look at how potassium levels change going from a tomato to ketchup, the natural tomato has 290 milligrams of potassium.  In ketchup, this amount is not quite double. That goes up to only 400 milligrams. So while sodium levels are more than 500 times higher in ketchup than in a tomato, the potassium levels have not quite doubled.

While the whole food would provide a rich amount of potassium, and a dab of sodium, the ketchup is providing a little bit of potassium and a colossal amount of sodium.

The two products – the tomato and the ketchup- can’t even be compared in terms of how your body is going to respond to them. The whole food is nutritionally balanced.  The processed food is not.

Mineral Balancing with Whole Foods Can Lower Blood Pressure

Let’s look at what this means for your health.  We know that balanced ratios of sodium and potassium can influence cardiovascular function for a healthy heart.  The authors tell us that when a test population changed to a more natural diet, they actually saw blood pressure lowered as effectively as it is lowered with medication.

Take-Home Message on Eating and Supplementing for Mineral Balance

First of all, it’s worth noting that the comments I have shared here are based on my understanding as a biologist, my reading of scientific literature, and my understanding of how metabolism occurs. I am not providing medical advice, nor do I intend for this information to be used as such. Your personal health concerns should be discussed with appropriately credentialed health care professionals.

The research cited above is one of many scientific discussions indicating that natural, whole foods diets offer more effective, more balanced blends of nutrients than processed foods can offer.  For this reason, whole foods are the best option for keeping people healthy/  Eating right may even help you reduce  household medical expenses.

For a host of reasons, most families are not consuming natural, whole foods diets.   This leaves most people a few options for improving their physical health and expected longevity.

  1. Increase the amount of whole, natural foods in your diet. This might mean planting a home or community garden, buying from local farmers, or at least ditching the packaged foods you buy, and choosing restaurants that have also ditched the packaged, institutionalized foods.
  2. Take supplements. However, pay attention to the sources and the balance of nutrients in your supplements.   A natural diet will offer about 14 mg of potassium to every milligram of sodium. Widely recommended calcium: magnesium ratios hover between 1.2 to 2 mg of calcium for every milligram of magnesium.  Do your supplements match those ratios?
  3. Use whole foods and whole food-based supplements to improve your odds of eating a nutritionally balanced diet. Stay away from “fractionated nutrition,” including supplements that contain only one or a few nutrients.

Looking Ahead

As we approach the end of this week’s episode, I’d like to shift gears a little, and leave you asking, “What can we do to increase the availability of fresh whole foods in our communities?”  And since the most nutritious whole foods are fresh off local farms we should also ask, “What can we do to make our communities more farm friendly?”

Keeping in mind that a local farm is a local business, and that free enterprise is an important part of our cornerstones model, we might even ask how we can make our communities more friendly to local businesses.  Here at End-O-Fite EnterprisesLLC, we strive to address this need through services we offer in our affiliate marketplace and by networking with other small businesses.

To highlight this, I’ve invited a speaker for our next episode.  Website developer and graphic designer, Monica Kekuewa, from MK Design House will discuss tools she uses to help small businesses thrive.

Until next time, have a great week.

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