Conventional nutritional wisdom goes something like this: vitamins and minerals are co-factors in metabolism; if we are eating well enough to avoid a clinical deficiency, then we must be doing ‘OK’; higher and consistent intakes of nutrients are superfluous. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The body will triage nutrients and shuttle them to where they’re needed most leaving other cells, tissues and metabolic pathways running almost on empty, in biochemistry, it’s referred to as having inadequate substrate. This theory was demonstrated by Bruce Ames using vitamin K.
The results may take a couple of decades to manifest, but the wear and tear eventually rears its ugly head and degenerative diseases kick in. However a newer field of study underscores the importance of nutrients beyond their classic role: nutritional genomics or nutrigenomics. This is the study of how food and nutrients influence our genes (our genes direct the production of proteins which affect every part of our bodies), and in turn, how our genes respond to how much of a nutrient(s) we consume.
Magnesium, Cacao Or Dark Chocolate And Your Genes
A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has shown that higher intakes of magnesium [500 mg], amounts that was eaten when there was less junk/refined food, up-regulated (turn on) 24 genes that positively impact glucose (blood sugar) homeostasis (balance) and insulin sensitivity and down-regulated (turns them off) 36 genes involved in inflammation. Insulin insensitivity and inflammation are involved in the development of diabetes and this new study helps us to better understand the established association between higher intakes of magnesium and lower rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and vascular dementia.This almost forgotten mineral does more than just play a side role in some 300 metabolic reactions, it actually gets into our cells’ nucleus and directs the functioning of our DNA!
Nutrigenomics is helping us to appreciate the far reaching impact that diet & nutrients can have on our long term health.
Not surprisingly we don’t eat enough magnesium because of the high degree of refining that occurs in food manufacturing and magnesium-poor soils. Magnesium is not one of the minerals in artificial fertilizers either; nitrogen, potassium & phosphorus are the big three. Magnesium-rich foods include dark green and leafy vegetables, meats, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate [>85%], raw dark cacao beans, nibs or powder, fish & whole/intact grains. A magnesium supplement of 200-300 mg per day is also a convenient way to top up your intake.
Similarily, exciting new research in the Archives of Internal Medicine has found yet another way in which dark chocolate lowers blood pressure. Genes that are responsible for the production of the angiotensin-converting enzyme, or ‘ACE’, were found to be inhibited by the polyphenols in cocoa.
Drugs called ACE inhibitors, like Altace, are designed to block this enzyme thereby lowering blood pressure. Turns out dark chocolate can do the same thing.
Chocolate polyphenols have also been shown to increase the production of nitric oxide, a molecule that helps to relax/dilate blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure in another way.
Most studies used dark chocolate with 72% cocoa but required a 50-70g serving to achieve results. This amount of chocolate will carry about 200 calories give or take. The higher the cocoa content however, the more polyphenols and the fewer calories needed. Go for 85-90% dark chocolate or experiment with raw cocoa powder, beans or cocoa nibs – chocolate as unprocessed as it gets.
The nibs are ‘strong’ tasting, mix them with some 85% dark chocolate until your taste buds adapt or throw them into some homemade trail mix with some nuts, dried fruit and unsweetened dried coconut. The whole beans [pictured left] are easier to munch on; 2-3 delivers a lot of polyphenols, more than half a 70% dark chocolate bar with a fraction of the calories. Dutch process chocolate is not the same, the processing destroys the polyphenols.
Food beyond the basics of preventing vitamin and mineral deficiencies
This is a great example of how a non-essential constituent of food, not technically required to maintain life (you can’t have a polyphenol deficiency), can positively impact health & wellness. There are numerous nuances of our diet that we just don’t understand yet hold so much promise; don’t underestimate the importance of the quality of your food choices.
I yearn for the day when people, including fellow nutrition professionals, get back to basics and see food for what it really is: much more than the sum of its parts. With our focus on calories, protein, fat and carbohydrate, we’ve lost our way. There are about ten thousand phyto-chemicals/nutrients in a typical apple for example, not to mention vitamins & minerals, all of which work in concert to optimize health & well-being. It is my hope that we start to appreciate and exploit this beyond the simple view that diet only relates to blood sugar, protein intake, or sodium, when we think about diseases of civilization and change our messages to reflect that.