Herein you will find an account of two truths of optimum human nutrition that are slowly emerging from a huge mix of nutrition literature that clouds rather than clarifies a fundamental field of study. These two truths, also known as natural laws, evolved in the Beginning together with prehistoric Man. Through this bond between diet and Man was forged the dietary pattern that established Man’s basic requirementsh for optimum health. These tales of truth have been passed on to us through contacts from sundry sources.
In the context of these tales, human nutrition refers to the chemicals that provide the materials for growth, maintenance, and repair in combination with those chemicals that serve as the fuels required for creating and maintaining human life. These chemicals are grouped together and labeled “food” by modern day humans.
The chemicals consumed by prehistoric Man as he was evolving were, of necessity, chemicals that were available to him and were, by group experience, not harmful. This was the evolutionary diet. Because the pace of biologic evolution is so extremely slow, there has not been time for the genetic changes to occur that would be necessary to accommodate the major modifications to the evolutionary diet that the modern diet has imposed. The genetic constitution that dictates the nutritional requirements of modern-day humans is the same as the genetic constitution of their hunter/gatherer ancestors, which makes current requirements the same as hunter-gatherer requirements.
There is no general agreement today as to what the food components of a healthful diet are or even if there is such an entity as a healthful diet. Instead, we have a smorgasbord of diet plans that probably exists only because of a lack of understanding of the scientific truths that govern optimum human nutrition. These truths, or natural laws, are broad based and general in nature; their directives are absolute for all members of the human race, yet they apply to no individual member. This incongruity invites innovation and experimentation unhampered by truth. Hence, the smorgasbord.
Incongruity is unacceptable to time-pressed people who want straight, simple explanations when inquiring about the health of self or family, yet the incongruity is demanded by the reality of biochemical individuality. Hopefully this incongruity will be explained to the full satisfaction of the reader as this tale of two truths unfolds.
The First Truth of Optimum Human Nutrition
The first truth of optimum human nutrition says that the carbohydrate component of the diet must be restricted. This very simple specification is not world-shattering. It is not even new or unique or unfamiliar. It was the major force in formulation of the evolutionary diet; it expressed itself many times in human development throughout the millennia; and interestingly, it almost became accepted as a natural law for optimum human health at the time of William Banting. Note that this truth requires “restriction” but does not specify “how much!”
One of the earliest of the modern-day diet books to recommend restriction of sugar and starch was Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution by the late Robert C. Atkins. After winning a battle with obesity early in the 1960s, he redirected his medical practice to designing and prescribing for his overweight patients the diet that had been and continued to be beneficial to his own health.
By chance, Atkins had found and promoted an empirically-based weight loss diet to his patients whose health invariably flourished under his care. The many decades of successful clinical outcomes of his therapies are testimony to the reproducibility of benefit from the restricted carbohydrate diet, a criterion for scientific verification.
As accepted and valued as Dr. Atkins was to his patients, his therapeutic thinking and his remarkable clinical success were an anathema to the medical establishment. This open display of enmity on the part of the physician community and media plus the great public reluctance to give up the pleasure of eating sweets must surely have dampened interest in study of restricted carbohydrate nutrition. Thus, a generation passed before the next definitive book came forth to carry the message of the first truth of optimum human nutrition.
This book was Protein Power followed shortly by The Protein Power Life Plan, both authored by Michael R. and Mary Dan Eades. Like Atkins, the Eades’ restricted-carbohydrate diet plan produced long-term, consistently beneficial clinical outcomes. However, if Atkins was considered a physician-empirical scientist, the Eades must be viewed as scientists-pragmatic physicians.
In addition to their medical skills, the Eades brought the science and wisdom from their studies of biochemistry, anthropology, and paleopathology to their weight loss practice. The Eades’ discovery of the paleopathology of the early Egyptian agricultural community supported their conjecture that the benefits of low-carbohydrate nutrition would reach far beyond the treatment of obesity. The tremendous excitement that accompanied discovery of the Egyptian data is best appreciated by reading Dr. Eades’ blog post, Books That Changed My Life.
The nutritional program designed by the Eades and the scientific data that support it contained the core of the nutritional truth that had been long awaiting recognition. That core of nutritional truth is, very simply, “optimum human health requires restriction of carbohydrate intake” with the additional caveat of “the least amount the better.” The Eades’ low-carbohydrate diet plan meets the criteria for concluding that nutritional findings are scientifically valid:
- It is not in conflict with known scientific fields of knowledge
- It is explainable by known sciences such as biochemistry
- It is highly reproducible and survives the passage of time
The Second Truth of Optimum Human Nutrition
The second truth of optimum human nutrition says that the essential fatty acid component of the diet must be balanced. This very simple condition is probably perplexing to most people in the nutrition community. It is a relatively new concept first hinted at in 1929 when the Drs. Burr proposed that one or more of the polyunsaturated fatty acids were essential FAs (source). Note that this truth requires “balance” but does not specify “in what proportion or direction!”
Progress in study of the EFAs was hampered for decades because of the complexity of the biochemicals involved and the inability of organic chemistry of the time to separate and identify long-chain isomers of polyunsaturated organic acids. When it became possible to determine EFA structures, it was found there were two families of EFAs instead of one; one family with its terminal double bond at the omega-6 carbon (labeledbad) and the other with its terminal double bond at the omega-3 (labeled good).
EFAs have lived a dual existence ever since. Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids became the province of nutritional scientists; their eicosanoid and docosanoid lipid mediator endpoints became the province of the science of lipidomics. Before the second truth of optimum human nutrition can ever be understood or accepted as law, these two disciplines must unite.
Nutritional Science: Nutritional scientists study the metabolic cascade of EFAs common to both omega-6 and omega-3 families plus the biological roles of their component members. After the two families were identified, it was found that omega-6 compounds were primarily of plant origin and were usually proinflammatory, whereas omega-3 compounds were primarily from animals and were almost always anti-inflammatory. Many studies were designed and conducted to determine EFA requirements with little or no success.
It soon became apparent that it was not the total quantity of EFAs in the diet but rather the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 that was the critical factor. Over the years, the estimates of a healthful ratio have varied from about 5:1 with gradual decreases down to 1:1 or less. The important point is that all available scientific evidence indicates that the ratio should be considerably less than the 16:1 or greater ratio currently estimated to be in the current American diet (source).
An example of the remarkable skill of the human body to survive by improvising when faced with a nutritional deficiency was found in study of the EFA metabolic cascade. When the diet is inadequate in EFAs, the body desperately attempts to make up for the EFA deficiency. It tries to make omega-3 and/or omega-6 EFA from oleic acid. It adds two more carbons to oleic acid to make a 20-carbon omega-9 acid, and then it desaturates the single bonds at C-12 and C-15 to make the double bonds it normally would make in linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids. The result, Mead acid, is a biochemical marker of EFA deficiency in humans.
The nutrition community has found that EFAs have important structural and functional roles, particularly in membranes and in neural tissues. For example, approximately 20 percent of the lipids of the brain are omega-3 DHA. However, the major function of EFAs appears to be as precursors of the eicosanoid-docosanoid control system. With the exception of the Eades, who did a noble job of discussing the eicosanoids in a time period when so little scientific information was available, nutritional scientists have, at most, only a superficial understanding of the eicosanoid system.
Evidence for this lack of understanding of lipidomics by the nutrition community is revealed by the dogged campaign of citizen-activist David Brown who became an enthusiastic nutritional scholar as a result of a disastrous linoleic acid (peanut butter) episode suffered in earlier life. He has a large correspondence with editors, journalists, and authors, a few of whom politely agree that intake of omega-6 EFAs probably should be limited but do not know why. For anyone willing to read the scientific literature, David has an extensive list of publications available on the subject in his home library.
Lipidomic Science: Lipidomic scientists study the metabolic roles of the final products of EFA metabolism. The science of lipidomics probably had its origin in the 1982 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery that the analgesic effect of aspirin was due to its ability to prevent conversion of the EFA arachidonic acid to inflammatory prostaglandins by cyclooxygenase, the enzyme now known by the general public as the COX enzyme. This apparently was the first public notice that the end products of EFAs, known then only as eicosanoids, were subjects of scientific investigation.
Charles Serhan, who began his postdoctoral career in the laboratory of the 1982 Nobel laureate Dr. Samuelson, has been a leading scientist in eicosanoid-docosanoid lipid mediator research during the long journey through very complex lipid biochemistry to final recognition of the new science of lipidomics, a branch of the larger discipline of metabolomics.
The lipid mediators discovered by Serhan and colleagues began to be found and described in the 1990s. In 2005, Serhan published a seminal paper discussing a decade of progress in eicosanoid research. It announced discovery of the lipid mediators of endogenous anti-inflammation and resolution and introduced to the scientific community the astonishing concept that disease is failure to heal (source).
Lipid mediators are short lived, biologically active messenger chemicals that produce physiological effects at biologically minuscule levels. They are biosynthesized in all mammalian cells except erythrocytes and consist of two major groups that maintain the omega-6 and omega-3 designations of their parent EFAs. Lipid mediators from these two groups tug against one-another to form a net signal, the strength of which depends on their relative concentrations in a given cell or tissue. A major task of the eicosanoid control system is to regulate inflammation. In human physiology, there are two types of inflammation, acute inflammation and chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is the body’s well known automatic response to minor injuries and infections that includes management of repair and healing processes.
Chronic inflammation is a much more complicated matter; it can be maintained silently in the body for many years. Eicosanoid research has made it clear that major causes of chronic inflammation are common dietary patterns that cause eicosanoid imbalance. The eicosanoid control system is critically affected by diet; it cannot function properly on the modern American diet. Most importantly, chronic inflammation is implicated in the pathogenesis of many of the chronic diseases that are part of modern life: arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, asthma, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The concept that disease is the failure to heal is well explained by lipidomics and should be the stimulus for nutritional scientists to welcome the lessons of lipidomics and broaden their views of diet and nutrition.
The Third Truth of Optimum Human Nutrition?
The nutritional need for certain micronutrients and the shocking fact that their absence could cause serious even lethal disease was established more than a hundred years ago with the identification of niacin as the cause of pellagra. In the early 1900s, researchers began to accept that not only pellagra and beriberi but also scurvy and rickets might also be caused by specific dietary deficiencies. This opened a period of active research that might be labeled the Era of Vitamin Discovery aimed at finding the chemical identity of micronutrients that prevented specific diseases.
The number of classic nutritional diseases for which the etiological agents were unknown gradually decreased as new vitamins were discovered. By the mid-20thCentury, all of the major vitamins were known, important dietary minerals were recognized, and epidemics of the classic nutritional diseases became afflictions of the past.
Minimum amounts required to prevent overt disease became well known for most vitamins, but the optimum amount, the amount that affords and sustains maximum good health, is still not known for any vitamin. As a result there has been a great deal of controversy about what amounts of which vitamin supplements, if any, people should take. Regardless, the fact that vitamins and certain minerals have been generally accepted as essential for many generations and by all varieties of dietary philosophies suggests that the requirement for micronutrients may be the third law of optimum human nutrition. Or perhaps it should be called an at-long-last-recognized first law.
It is said that every one of us alive today is descended from a common prehistoric ancestor. Whether it is true or not, we all are genetically classed as humans. Yet as far as we know, there are no two of us that are exactly alike in any aspect that can be measured – anatomically, physiologically, biochemically, nutritionally. How can that be?
Genetic science has shown that minor genetic changes are constantly occurring within individuals and across generations of individuals of a given species. The accumulation of these small mutations within a species through the millennia is not sufficiently powerful to form a new species; they can only account for individual variations within the species. That is why some people can enjoy peanut butter sandwiches with impunity and others follow ketogenic diets with gusto.
The phenomenon of biochemical individuality was given its name by Roger J. Williams early in his career in vitamin research at Oregon State College, where he discovered and named the vitamin pantothenic acid (B5, the coenzyme A of acetyl CoA). His initial scientific studies were concerned with individual differences in the taste of creatine, a work published in 1928. Later work in this area demonstrated the broad role of inborn differences in creating unique biochemical individuality. In several books he stressed that these inborn individual differences are widespread, of varying magnitude, and are crucial to the understanding and solving of most human problems.
In 1939, Dr. Williams moved to the University of Texas-Austin, where he founded the Clayton Foundation Biochemical Institute. He is primarily remembered as the discoverer of pantothenic acid; however, he felt that his most important and far-reaching contributions were embodied in his books: The Human Frontier, 1946; Free and Unequal, 1953; Biochemical Individuality: The Basis for the Genotrophic Concept, 1956; You Are Extraordinary, 1967; and Rethinking Education: The Coming Age of Enlightenment, 1986.
Dr. Williams’ basic idea was that human differences (differences between individual human beings) are widespread, often of great magnitude, and demand careful and extended study and attention, in order that human understanding may progress and better human relations be accomplished.
There exists in the public sphere today a myriad of truths and believable untruths in supposedly beneficial diets that cater to widely differing lifestyle philosophies, such as veganism, hedonism, or physical fitness. Within the philosophy of biochemical individuality, there could very well be as many or more individual diet plans as the current variety of trendy diet plans based on believable untruths.
For example, there probably are at least 5 categories of healthful carbohydrate intakes, 5 of healthful EFA balance, and perhaps 3 levels each of the numerous vitamins and essential minerals. Assuming 3 levels each of 15 micronutrients (a multiplier of 45), yields 5x5x45 = 1,125 different diet plans. Eleven hundred and 25 different plans based on nutritional truths and drawn from the same supply of foods that serve the current mishmash of designer diet plans should satisfy the needs and concerns of all but the most stubborn of skeptics.
Would it not be a tremendous gift to all of the current and future sufferers from faulty nutrition if Dr. Williams’ teachings were recalled and current nutritional research funds were dedicated to learning the mechanisms of individual dietary differences rather than by spending the funds repeating more of the same old classic methods of study (only with more sophisticated constructs) that generally have been labeled as being inherently incapable of establishing reliable nutrition knowledge?