A Unique Perspective on Diet
The purpose of this section is to present a unique and simple way of looking at nutrition as it relates to experiencing a healthy lifestyle. This unique model is The Hierarchy of Nutrients. A hierarchy is a set of groups that are classified according to their level of importance. This offers an approach to categorizing foods and nutrients with the most integrity to those with the least integrity as they relate to maximizing nourishment. This is a simple yet powerful way of showing how foods affect health and vitality. As a naturopath, my emphasis is looking to nature as the provider for both nourishment and healing of the human body. This hierarchy categorizes nutrients in a way that exposes many of the popular misconceptions about foods and also empowers you to make the best choices from available nutritional options.
The Hierarchy of Nutrients
The guiding principles underlying the nutrient hierarchy as follows:
- God, through nature, placed us on this planet to thrive and not to just survive.
- This planet provides the nutrients we need most in the highest quantity.
- This planet provides the nutrients we need most in the most easily available form.
So, let’s look at our nutritional requirements from this alternative, and perhaps new, perspective which categorizes all nutrients into five food groups.
Figure 1. Hierarchy of Nutrients
The basic formula for explaining the nutrient hierarchy is this: God provides for us, through nature, all the nutrients we need to thrive and not to just survive. Furthermore, the nutrients we need most are provided most abundantly and in the most easily available form. So, let’s look at physical nourishment from this alternative and perhaps new, perspective. According to this new perspective on nourishment, the nutrient sources have been divided into five nutritive groups.
Nutrient Group 1: Basic Nutrients
The first four nutrients are the most basic (foundational) nutrients for all life forms on this planet. They are so abundant and available that we generally tend to take them for granted without realizing their significance to experiencing high vitality and optimum health. The nutrients in this category are air, water, sunlight and the earth. We can live without food for several months, but a lack of the basic nutrients in Group 1 will severely impact general health and well-being after just a short period of deficiency. Let’s take a brief look at each of these from a nutritious standpoint.
Air is the most important nutrient since as little as 3–5 minutes of deprivation will have very apparent and serious affects not only on our health but also on our very existence. Every cell in our body needs life-giving oxygen. High quality fresh air is actually electrified. The oxygen molecule is negatively charged or “negatively ionized.” This negatively charged oxygen gives rise to a number of benefits, including:
- Improved functioning of the lungs
- Improved relaxation and ability to deal with stress
- Improved mental clarity
- Improved healing of wounds
- Decreased survival of bacteria and viruses
- Stimulated appetite and easier digestion
- Induced sound and restful sleep
We will show how this important nutrient is related to our ideal diet as we continue our evaluation of the nutrient hierarchy. Clearly, air is the first and most important nutrient and it behooves all of us to get as much fresh air as possible.
The planet is 70–75 percent water and our bodies are 70–75 percent water. We can live without water for perhaps a week or two at the most. The consequences of a deficiency of water are very well understood, and the body’s need for water is already appreciated by many. A wealth of information has been published on the subject of water and its impact on a variety of disease states. The implication of this research is that adequate water combined with other aspects of a healthful lifestyle may help postpone or prevent a variety of diseases and their complications. Some important factors relating to water include the following. Water does the following:
- Thins and increases the blood volume
- Acts as a natural diuretic
- Helps eliminate accumulated waste from your body
- Manages body temperature during exercise
- Acts as the universal solvent
- Aids in digestion, assimilation, and elimination of nutrients.
Sunlight supports all life and is necessary for the synthesis of all plant nutrients. We can live without sunlight for extended periods of time, longer than without air and water, but not without serious consequences. It is true that excessive ultraviolet light from the sun can increase the risk of skin cancer and cataracts, but judicious amounts of sunlight can be extremely beneficial. For example, sunshine plays a critical role in helping to prevent osteoporosis. Some of the important benefits of sunlight include the following:
- Converts cholesterol into vitamin D, an essential factor in maintaining good bone health. As little as 15 minutes exposure provides minimum requirements of vitamin D
- Improves vitamin and mineral absorption
- Stores energy in muscles and nerves
- Improves overall metabolic function and efficiency
- Boosts the immune response that kills bacteria and viruses
- Controls the chemistry of the blood
- Increases a sense of well-being and energizes the personality.
It may seem strange to classify the earth as a nutrient. The earth, however, plays the following two important roles in the context of nutrients:
- An electromagnetic field emanates from the earth.
- The earth produces our food.
The earth is a large magnet with a North and a South pole; it has a metallic core, and it spins and emits a low-grade magnetic field. This magnetic field provides several health benefits, including improved immune function, energy, bone density, brain and nerve function. Like sunlight, an electromagnetic field deficiency can be endured longer than a deficiency of air and water, but we have learned quite a bit from the experiences of astronauts traveling in outer space about the serious consequences of decreased gravity and long-term deficiencies of the earth’s electromagnetic field.
The most obvious benefit of the earth are the nutrients it provides in various forms for the nourishment and optimum performance of our metabolic and systemic functions.
Now let’s connect the basic nutrients in Nutrient Group 1, as discussed above, to all other nutrient intakes. The relationship between these basic nutrients in Group 1 and all the remaining Nutrient Groups is that all the remaining nutrients are categorized based on the way in which they manifest and present the other basic, life-giving nutrients.
Nutrient Group 2: Natural Raw Foods
The natural raw foods–fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds–are the second category of essential foods. These foods are abundantly supplied by the earth and require very little human effort to be produced. They are already in the most efficient form for human consumption. All can be eaten in their natural, raw form without preparation of any kind. Nutrient Group 2 foods all contain the basic nutrients found in Nutrient Group 1 and provide these nutrients to the body in their most bio-available and integrated form. An added benefit is that the leaves of trees provide all our breathable air; trees are the lungs of this planet.
Fruit in many respects is the most efficient and nourishing of all foods. It can be thought of as a cocktail of air, water, sunlight and the earth’s nutrient resources. Key characteristics of fruit (and to a lesser extent the remaining foods in this category) include the following. Fruits:
- Are higher in water content than other foods.
- Have sunlight locked into every atom.
- Grow on trees whose roots reach down to absorb both the earth’s electromagnetic field and the earth’s micronutrients–-minerals and other plant nutrients.
- All the foods in this category can be eaten in their natural, raw form with no preparation required.
Plants, with the aid of microorganisms and an adequate supply of the basic soil nutrients, have the ability to synthesize minerals and other nutrients. They, effectively, can “eat” soil. Minerals and other absorbed or plant-synthesized nutrients are then organized in fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts for optimum human consumption and assimilation.
Nutrient Group 3: Grains and Legumes
While the general view is that grains and legumes (beans and peas) are the foundational foods of a health-producing diet, it should be noted that all these foods generally require some form of preparation prior to consumption. In addition, they are not as hydrated as the natural, raw foods in Nutrient Group 2 and should be eaten in moderation. Their clear value is that they contain a high concentration of nutrients (primarily complex carbohydrates and proteins) and can be stored for long periods of time in the event of flood, famine, warfare, or other factors affecting the availability of natural raw foods noted in the previous group.
Nutrient Group 4: Flesh Foods and Dairy Products
Flesh foods, which include fish, meat, poultry, and dairy products, are surprisingly low on the nutrient hierarchy. These foods provide the most concentrated nutrients (primarily fats and proteins), but they also place significant stress on our bodies. They are difficult to digest, are highly acidic and/or mucus-producing, and put a considerable strain on the gastrointestinal tract and liver in breaking them down for assimilation and on the kidneys for elimination from the body. When we eat flesh foods we are receiving our plant-based nutrients second-hand. The commercial production of flesh foods, along with the compromised environments and conditions they are exposed to, further impacts the integrity of this food source. The liberal use of growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically-engineered feed and exposure to other environmental hazards and conditions, make consumption of flesh foods significantly more problematic than it was fifty to one hundred years ago.
There is much misinformation and many misconceptions about flesh foods and dairy products, primarily due to brilliant marketing, rather than valid scientific evaluation. These foods should be eaten in very limited quantities, if at all.
Nutrient Group 5: Refined and Processed Foods
All of the previous categories of foods and nutrients come from nature. Processed and refined foods, however, are not provided by nature. They are made by the food industry and are really junk foods. These include most of the foods that come in boxes, plastic containers, or cans, and they generally contain preservatives, additives, stabilizers, dyes, colorings, artificial flavoring and other nutritive-compromising ingredients. Plant analogues, refined sugar, food isolates, isolated vitamins and minerals, synthetic drugs and even poorly cooked foods, all belong in this category. They are low in essential nutrients and/or leach essential nutrients from your body.
For centuries, our planet provided
all the essentials for human nourishment.
No company can improve on the integrity
of naturally produced, planet-based foods.
Relationship of Health to the Hierarchy of Nutrients
Those individuals who experience higher levels of health tend to utilize the higher Nutrient Groups in the Hierarchy of Nutrients. Conversely, those experiencing poor health and illness at the lower end of the health continuum tend to get a disproportionate amount of their nourishment from the lower Nutrient Groups in the Hierarchy of Nutrients. As a naturopath, I spend a considerable amount of time evaluating each individual’s dietary factors as they relate to their degenerative conditions. I encourage those individuals at the lower end of the Hierarchy of Nutrients to consider dietary modifications that include appropriate foods from the upper end of the Hierarchy of Nutrients. The amount and concentration of the foods are evaluated based on each individual’s requirements and capacities.
The Hierarchy of Nutrients is not a cure-all for all conditions. As a naturopath, I recommend that my clients consider additional lifestyle factors, including exercise and rest, stress management, prayer and meditation, and other important natural remedies. I also understand the important role pharmaceutical and surgical approaches can play, especially in acute conditions.
Diet and lifestyle factors have a long-term record for producing the best results for most chronic degenerative conditions. I believe that applying the dietary principles inherent in the Hierarchy of Nutrients, based on an individual’s requirements and capacities, with the appropriate application of lifestyle factors, is the most effective approach for experiencing optimum, radiant health. From a nutrient standpoint, the aim is to move as high on the Hierarchy of Nutrients scale as required for meeting your desired health goals.
Health is a precious gift, and most people can experience major improvements in their health by making the best choices from the options available. This requires some personal effort on your part and will generally require working with health professionals and educators for guidance in this lifestyle change endeavor. This unique perspective on evaluating food choices is provided to help you in the exciting endeavor of taking charge of your life and achieving your goal of health and happiness. The choice is yours.
The following is a graphic comparison that summarizes the relationship of the Hierarchy of Nutrients to the Health Continuum, discussed at the beginning of this section.
Figure 2. Hierarchy of Nutrients and the Health Continuum
Additional information on the Health Continuum and more detail on the hierarchy nutrients is provided in my book, Basic Principles of Total Health.
– Dr. Jim Sharps