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Our body strives to balance a big collection of chemicals

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    Kokua Market’s refrigerator features grass-fed beef from Hawaii island. Lean beef is a good source of protein, iron and zinc.

It is human nature to bestow certain foods with special status based on their perceived health benefits. Some foods are even called “superfoods” due to their purported nutritional strengths.

But before we get carried away with extolling any specific food for its healthful properties, it is critical to remember the most important of all nutrition principles: Overall health comes from consuming adequate amounts of all essential nutrients.

About the only way to meet essential nutrient needs with food is to eat a wide variety of all types of wholesome food in reasonable proportions. All science-based food recommendation systems have been based on this principle. If overall nutrient needs are not met, a beneficial property of any single food is relatively unimportant.

Question: Why is meeting essential nutrient needs the most important nutrition concept?

Answer: You can think of the human body as a rather big bag of critical chemicals — many of which we call nutrients. A rather well-organized bag of chemicals it is. The body is constantly working toward a specific balance among thousands of chemicals. What we eat may help the body to reach its preferred balance, or it may, at least temporarily, throw it out of balance. If we keep throwing it out of balance in the same direction for too long, eventually the body will be unable to compensate, and we will have a health problem.

Q: How many essential nutrients are there?

A: There are close to 50 different chemical compounds and elements the body cannot produce and must obtain from food in adequate amounts to meet its needs. If an inadequate amount of any one of these nutrients is consumed, the body will function fine until it is drained of the nutrient beyond its capacity to adapt. How long this takes depends on the nutrient.

Q: Which nutrients can the body run low on most quickly?

A: Water can run dangerously low within a day or two, depending on the conditions. How quickly other nutrient deficiencies cause a problem depends on a person’s reserves of the nutrient to start with.

One of the most basic nutrients for body function is protein. If inadequate protein is consumed, the body will simply mobilize its own protein, mostly from breakdown of muscle tissue, to meet the most critical protein needs throughout the body. This works great in the short run, especially in people with plenty of muscle mass. However, someone with low muscle mass, like many seniors, may experience protein deficiency problems rather quickly.

The most common nutrient deficiency in the world and in the U.S. is iron deficiency. Although it can take months or longer for a well-fed person to run critically low on iron, a diet with inadequate iron will definitely lead to serious health problems at some critical point of depletion. Another mineral nutrient that tends to run low along with iron is zinc. These two minerals have hundreds of functions throughout the body, so when they run low, a great variety of complex symptoms can result.

Q: Is there a “superfood” for protein, iron and zinc?

A: Perhaps the common food richest in this combination of nutrients is lean beef. There is a trend toward producing grass-finished beef, which generally produces a lower-fat meat than grain-finished beef. (“Finishing” is the final fattening of the animal before slaughter.) However, other differences are minor, so leaner cuts of either type of beef represent good sources of these nutrients.

Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., and Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii-Manoa. Dobbs also works with University Health Services.

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