That is the million dollar question. If more people had even a rudimentary understanding of how food is used by the body, our national health crisis would shrink dramatically. Two quotes come to mind:
“Those who think they have no time for healthy eating will sooner or later have to find time for illness”… Edward Stanley (1826-1893) from The Conduct of Life, and,
“The wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings. Let food be your medicine”…Hippocrates
From the quotations, it is apparent that healthy eating bestows healthy living and improper diet yields sickness. One question that is often raised is which nutrient is the most important? The answer is obvious, it’s the one that’s missing.
Absorption Matters, in Fact, It’s Everything!
It’s not just what we chew up and swallow that matters, it’s what gets taken into our bodies and used, that is, absorbed.
The kicker is that certain nutrients must be present in order for other nutrients to be absorbed. To complicate things even further, some nutrients can block absorption of other nutrients.
Consider calcium. We reach our peak bone density in our early thirties. After that the body stops storing excess calcium and very few of us eat enough calcium rich foods to get the recommended daily allowance.
Thus, supplementation is highly encouraged. Vitamin D facilitates absorption of calcium, so without vitamin D the depleted calcium doesn’t get replaced and bones become weak.
On the other hand, iron blocks calcium absorption. It is also good to know that caffeine in soft drinks or coffee depletes calcium as well as sweating, as from exercise. Gets complicated, doesn’t it!
Balance is the key for nutrition
Instead of trying to remember all the absorption rules, it’s so much easier just to eat a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables (fresh and raw where possible), fiber, whole grains, meat and fish, and yes, even a little fat at the beginning of the meal.
That would be the monosaturated type found in things like butter, peanut butter, apple butter, walnuts and cashews. A little fat before a meal keeps food in the stomach longer and keeps the hunger pangs at bay for a few hours. And don’t forget the supplements and adequate water.
Before any absorption can take place, nutrients must be broken down into smaller and smaller molecules. It all starts in the mouth.
Your mother was right about chewing your food. Digestion starts in the mouth where certain enzymes start breaking down fats and carbohydrates. Before shoveling it in and swallowing, slow down, chew, enjoy the taste and think “absorption”.
Most absorption takes place in the 26 feet or so of small intestine. Very little nutrient absorption takes place in the colon; its function is mainly to absorb water but whether it’s water or nutrients, it’s still absorption.