Why we need a synergy of nutrients in our diet

I have had so many great questions from you all on my posts, Are you really eating a nutrient dense diet? and The Diet that Cures Cavities. It is hard to know which issues to address first. I decided to tackle the synergy of nutrients topic today. But before I go there I wanted to make two points. First, I don’t want to give the impression that I am a “know-it-all”. I am approaching this topic humbly because I know that not only is there so much more that we all can learn, I also know that I am still grabbling and weeding through just a small portion of the mountains of information out there on nutrition. Secondly, the reason that I am so excited about talking about this is because now that I am starting to feel better from my treatment for anemia, I am ready to do better in how I feed my family. I am not writing these in the vein of  “everyone feel guilty because I am the perfect mom and feed my family nutrient dense food at every meal”.  I am simply inviting you to join me in doing better, and making plans for that end. And I hope some of the resources we are working on behind the scene help you do that! I am so glad that my PDF of nutrient dense foods was helpful to so many of you. I can’t wait to share more.

Meanwhile, to get to the topic of the synergy of nutrients, Dr. Price was a firm believer that foods worked in a synergy together. One quote from his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, “I have referred to the importance of high-vitamin butter for providing the fat-soluble activators to make possible the utilization of the minerals in foods”. In his lab results of the 14 healthy people groups, he noticed that there were a lot of the “activators”, as he called them. These included vitamin A, D and the “X” factor (which does not involve any singing, but is what we now know to be vitamin K2). Back home he came across people who ate mineral rich diets (like a diet full of calcium-rich milk), but seemed to not be absorbing those minerals. He believed that their diet was unbalanced in nutrients and it needed the co-factors from other foods for the body to properly absorb the minerals in the diet.

He was a firm believer in the use of cod liver oil. When unprocessed, like the Green Pastures fermented brand, it is a potent source of natural vitamin A and D. Yet, he felt that cod liver oil was not enough to make your diet rich enough in certain activators or nutrients, but that it needed to be one part of a nutrient dense diet. He also felt that it should be consumed in fairly low amounts, with other sorts of nutrient dense foods rounding out the diet and complementing the cod liver oil.

This rings true to me. I think about when I was in high school and was put on a couple of supplements. They were so basic and singular. Weak bones? You were given plain calcium. Low energy, Vitamin B12. Now, there seems to be more and more awareness that those nutrients can be useless unless some balancing co-factors are also in the diet or provided through the supplement. Now we see calcium supplements that have a variety of co-factors included, such as magnesium, vitamin K and D, and Boron.

Dr. Price believed that it was short-sighted to simply supplement a few nutrients that we knew were important because he took the practical viewpoint that there was so much more going on with our food and our bodies then we knew. I think that history has proven him right. We know so much about the body now – much more then in Dr. Price’s time – but we know so little at the same time. He was concerned that simply introducing nutrients via a supplement were inadequate to make up for a poor diet. “Clearly it is not possible to undertake to provide an adequate nutrition simply by reinforcing the diet with a few synthetic products which are known to represent certain of these nutritional factors”.

I think that science now recognizes this thought. I was lucky enough to notice a recent article on the Wise Traditions Journal, Beyond Good and Evil, that talked about just a few of these important synergies that happen between different nutrients. This article takes the stand that food (or nutrients) isn’t as simple as good and evil (such as meat = bad, vegetables = good). But rather a diet rich in a balance of these foods is vital for providing a healthy body. In this more scientifically backed article, we find that there is good reason to eat nourishing bone broths, eggs, livers, and meats, vegetables and whole grains together. The nutrients in this wide variety of foods provide needed individual vitamins and minerals that help them all work together in a good synergy for a healthy body. For example, the article points out that a diet full of lean protein could be harmful to the body unless it is balanced out by the needed nutrients from a wide variety of other foods.

Research that simply focuses on one item, like lean meats, and it’s effect on the body are going to be limited because what you are eating with that lean meat can make a huge difference in how your body processes it. The article goes on to explain how diets unbalanced with high vitamin A (in comparison to vitamin D) amounts can lead bone loss, while if you reverse it and have a diet (or supplement) with a lot of vitamin D without other vitamins (such as vitamin A) to balance it out, it can lead to stones in the kidney and bladder, and calcification of the blood vessels and aortal valves. In other words, getting a lot of certain “good” nutrients without the balance of other needed nutrients can equal bad health. The article also addresses the vast importance of magnesium in our diets, and how we need it vitally. The article ends with this thought:

“The human body is a biological system characterized by astounding complexity. Nutrients often cooperate with one another to produce vibrant health. Quite often when one or more nutrients are missing, others may appear to contribute to disease. Methionine from muscle meats may appear to contribute to disease, for example, when the B vitamins, choline, and glycine found in bones, skin, organ meats, egg yolks, legumes, and leafy greens are absent. Vitamins A and D may each appear to contribute to disease when the other is absent. In the absence of other nutrients such as magnesium, some nutrients such as vitamin D and calcium may simply fail to function at all. The complex biology that makes the human body tick may operate very differently in the context of a diet rich in magnesium than in the context of a diet poor in magnesium.

Nutrient-dense, traditionally balanced diets, however, provide all of these nutrients together so that they synergize with one another to nourish our bodies to health and protect them from harm. Rather than seeking dietary villains from among our most ancient traditional foods to blame for our most recent modern diseases, we should elaborate our understanding of how the many components within successful traditional diets work together to promote radiant and vibrant health.”

Read the article for the full picture on this important issue.

But the point is this. We can’t just supplement our way to good health, but we also can’t just eat a “clean diet” and expect to be well nourished. What we need is a diet rich in the wide variety of nutrients our bodies need to create healthy inner nourishment. We are learning more and more how that works, yet I am sure that there are co-factors in our food that lay undiscovered still. The article works to prove that the diet that Dr. Price used was an excellent source of the many variables needed for a healthy, body nourishing diet.

Two answer a couple of questions. My idea from looking at Dr. Price’s writing again recently was that I have often failed to get a wide variety of these foods together in the same meal. Does that mean that we have to get that large of a meal that Dr. Price had feed to malnourished in one meal or else it won’t do any good? No. However, he was a firm believer that getting those minerals and nutrients together in a meal was important. One mistake I can make is giving out cod liver oil to everyone right before bed, while Dr. Price felt it was best given with a meal, as the nutrients in that (and butter oil) were co-factors to the minerals in the meal.

In other words, if you look at the diet he gave of 1 pint of stew, 2 cups of milk, fruit, cod liver oil, butter oil and butter, whole grains, and juice, you might not need to get all of that quantity down at one time, but it may be true that getting all of those nutritional factors into one meal is important.  For example, I can easily eat the 2 cups of stew at a meal, but I only have one cup of milk with the meal, and have the other cup later or earlier. The fruit dessert is sometime replaced with vegetables or eaten a little later. That’s how I am feeling about it now, at least. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

In closing, the point is this: Food works in a synergy together, something that many native groups of people seemed to understand without knowing the “science” behind it. Dr. Price was ahead of his time in understanding that not simple isolated nutrients were going to be solution to prevent malnourishment, but rather a full, well-balanced diet of nutrient dense foods.

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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  1. Stephanie says

    This is such revolutionary thinking–even though I read Dr Price’s book and have been a follower of WAPF for about 8 years now. I mean, in principle this is what I have been telling my family: nutrients do not work on their own. They come in a God-made package, meant for ultimate assimilation. But…..there’s something different about this thinking. That eating a salad at one meal, taking some CLO at some point during the day and trying to down a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt is not going to cover me. Maybe it *doesnt* all work out that way. Maybe the nutrients must be present all at ONCE to be effective. I told my husband I wanted to try this–to make at least one of our meals crazy nutrient dense and synergistic. He’s on board, even if it means soup (which he is not a fan of). Our family’s teeth are in sore need of help.

  2. Renee says

    I’m glad to read this today! I was just at the market the other day looking at the supplements, thinking “I’d like to take a class on using supplements.” Now I know I should really think about taking a class on whole, nourishing foods! Thanks. I’ll go check out that article.

  3. says

    This is excellent information. I have been thinking a lot about your recent post where you first introduced this idea. Like another commenter said, it’s not new info (I’ve been doing this ten years now!) but somehow the way you have stated it has made a lightbulb go off in my head. I have been processing this info for the last week or so, trying to figure out how I can make at least one meal a day pack a powerful synergistic punch. Thanks so much for delving into this issue! It is refreshing to be reading more about what I CAN do rather than all the things that I can’t do, or all the things I am doing that I thought were good but are bad, etc. 🙂 You are not only helping me see what I CAN do but also helping me figure out HOW! Looking forward to future posts!

  4. Crystal says

    how awesome my friend and I were just having a discussion about this the other day she had watched what I like to call a “vegetarian propaganda movie” I can’t wait to forward this on to her!!! Thank you so much for the reminder/kick in the pants about nutrition. Do you have thoughts on exclusionary diets? such as GAPS

  5. says

    This is a great topic, and hopefully will get lots of people thinking and discussing. The one question I have is about truly eating seasonally, and what real life would’ve looked like for the people groups that Weston A. Price documented. For example, the “ideal meal” couldn’t have included fruit all year for those people living in cold climates, but we know that they still had perfect teeth/bone development, etc. Do you think maybe they just got their “fruit-like nutrients” from other sources during the winter?
    Sorry if this is rambly, I’m just thinking “out loud,” and wondering what your take is on the issue of seasonality and availability for these pre-grocery store groups?
    Thanks again for all the awesome research you are doing, and the inspiration these posts provide!

    • KimiHarris says

      I don’t think it’s necessary to always have fruit in the diet, no. I think that he was probably just trying to give more of a wide range of nutrients by providing the fruit. Using winter squash and other “winter vegetables” could be helpful instead of the fruit, as well. We also need to remember that in many climates you could preserve a lot of fruit and crops in cold cellars (and other more primitive storage methods). You could certainly still be eating apples in the Winter from your cold cellar!

      Other cultures had much longer growing seasons, then say, Alaska, so they may have had longer times of eating fresh produce throughout the year. I think that we need to remember that this diet plan of his is supposed to be one example, of many, of how to get certain nutrients into your diet. Many of the other cultures didn’t even include dairy, but got their calcium and other needed nutrients from other foods. (I recently talked to some friends who had a couple over from an African country, and they literally ate bones that would seem impossible for us to eat! That’s one way to get your calcium!).

      • says

        Excellent points, especially about the cold storage and longer growing seasons. Thanks for pointing that out! And what a cool story about the African friends – I wonder if your friends have tried eating bones like that themselves?

  6. says

    Thanks, Kimi! Like others have said, this is not new info to me but a lightbulb went off! I too am quick to give the cod liver oil when I think about it and not necessarily with meals. I think I will try giving at breakfast each day – that way it is done and with a meal!

  7. Kelly says

    Since reading your first post on the topic, I have been trying to make dinner our “nutrient dense” meal. We start with CLO in orange juice and then a healthy combination of foods. Some examples include baked trout with a butter/egg yolk sauce (I don’t know the name), couscous cooked in bone broth with pine nuts, and sautéed kale. Another dinner was meatloaf from grass fed beef, peas, whole wheat rolls, and mashed potoes. Dinner is followed with a kiefer fruit smoothy for desert. We drink milk with our meals. I don’t believe that it necessarily has to be stew, but I try to use your nutrition PDF and make sure I’m covering all the bases. I think this is really a great idea because it includes a huge variety of nutrients!

  8. Cory says

    Ok, so, what if you can’t do milk? Or at least not with meat meals? It seems like Dr. Price (who I am a fan of, for the record) thought the milk and butter with the meal was necessary, but at least one traditional diet doesn’t permit meat and dairy to be eaten together. I wonder what would need to happen instead? It seems broth has similar nutrients to milk…?

    That same diet also has a tradition that meat and fish shouldn’t be eaten together. I wonder what modern analytical methods would tell us about that?

    • KimiHarris says

      Hey Cory,

      Actually, the majority of the diets Dr. Price studied didn’t use dairy – I think only a couple did. They did however get a lot of calcium and vitamins from other foods -such as seafood, bone stocks, organ meats, etc. You could get what you need from more bone broth for the calcium, and then get the vitamins you’d need from organ meats, fish eggs, etc. I don’t know if the milk and bone broth really always need to be consumed at the same time as they are mostly providing the same nutrient (calcium) that he was after.

      Also, I remember hearing one theory that the Jewish laws (and do Muslims have some of the same restrictions?) served two purposes 1. To show a spiritual truth of separation from the world. 2. It is possible that the dietary restrictions were especially viable ones for the health of that people group. All of our genetic backgrounds are different, and we may thrive on different diets. 🙂

  9. Jo tB says

    Wow, wow and wow, what a fantastic post. Every paragraph had bells ringing in my head. Researchers research sub sets of sub sets and base their recommendations on their findings, which is comletely out of context/synergy of the whole product. You don’t eat vitamin A on its own you eat food which contains vitamin A along with a lot of other vitamins and minerals. Synergy is so important.
    The question for me is how to put this knowledge into pratice when planning our everyday meals. I will definitely be following this post to see how you and others do it.

  10. says

    Thank you so much! So beautifully written and your beginning words reflect my heart exactly! I will be sharing this via FB and on my personal blog. Thank you for being an inspiration! Lv, MM 🙂

  11. says

    I started giving cod liver oil with dinner after reading your first article. I actually smacked my forehead over it! 🙂 How could I have missed that?

    I look forward to reading through what sorts of things you put into your nutrient dense meal. I am positive I’m overlooking various things…

  12. Michelle says

    Just wanted to chime in and say I have been loving this series as well! Cant wait to read more, you are really on a roll with this!

  13. Beth says

    Your articles are always to informative. Thank you soo much for doing all the research and heading us in the right direction. This blog and healthy home economist are my favorite that I read every day.

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