A Standard American diet aka the SAD diet, looks like a lot of frozen or canned vegetables, processed foods, genetically modified ingredients, pasteurized dairy, vegetable oils, and meat from animals that are grain fed. Although numbers vary from study to study, all conclude that as a country the United States is eating more food, and yet we more malnourished than ever. What does this tell us about our current diet, and how has it changed?
A more traditional diet included pasture raised animal meat. Rather than eating just muscle meats we ate the whole animal including the organs. Animal fats like lard and butter were rendered down and used to cook with. More traditional “old” grains and seeds like rye, barley, oat, quinoa, amaranth, teff, flax, and chia seeds were the bulk grains of our meals. These grains and seeds were soaked or sprouted to release phytic acid before consuming them. Phytic acid is considered “anti-nutrient” because it binds to minerals in the digestive tract making them harder for our body to absorb. Fermented vegetables and beverages were also extremely important. Both provided probiotics which assisted in maintaining a healthy microbiome and supported our immune system. In colder climates sauerkrauts allowed us to keep raw foods in the diet throughout the year. With such a significant change, what are we missing now? Some common deficiencies seen in the standard american diet are vitamin D, vitamin K2, essential fatty acids, and an imbalanced microbiome also known as dysbiosis. (This list does not include an iron or B12 deficiency for those that are vegetarian or vegan).
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, as well as vitamins A, E, and K. There are 2 forms, Vitamin D2 & D3. Vitamin D2 is harder for our bodies to utilize, but is present in sun dried fungi and yeast. The main source of vitamin D comes from absorption of sunlight through the skin and that is Vitamin D3. To a much lesser degree vitamin D3 can be found in animal products such as cod liver oil, oily fish, butter, cream, and egg yolk. Vitamin D is known as the “keeper of blood calcium homeostasis”. This means it regulates calcium and phosphorus levels in the blood by increasing absorption of calcium through the intestines. It does this by supporting the tight junctions between your cellular membranes. This has a very anti-inflammatory effect. When you have a lack of vitamin D the cell membrane of the intestinal wall becomes lax or weak, it eventually starts to break down, and this causes proteins to leak through the cellular wall and into the bloodstream. This is called Leaky Gut Syndrome. Not only does Vitamin D support our digestive system but our immunity as well. Vitamin D modulates the immune response to infection. It can be extremely therapeutic for certain individuals, especially those with autoimmunity or digestive issues. An average dose can range from 2,000 IU to about 5,000 IU’s a day. However with more chronic conditions, some practitioners will suggest up to 10,000 IU a day.
Vitamin K1 and K2 were both discovered in the 1930’s. At the time researchers didn’t exactly know what Vitamin K2 did thus they assumed it did the same thing as K1, contrary to some belief it does not. Vitamin K1 comes from green leafy vegetables. It keeps blood clotting properly, so when we get a cut we don’t just bleed out. This makes it essential for human survival and because of this our body has come up with a way to recycle this nutrient. Vitamin K2 is found to be highest in a japanese superfood called Natto but also present in grass fed animal products like organ meats, egg yolks, and dairy products, particularly high in brie and gouda. Your body cannot recycle this nutrient, therefore we must get it in our diet often, and deficiencies tend to be much more common than Vitamin K1. The job of vitamin K2 is to pick up calcium in the blood and bring it to the right places (like the bones and teeth), while keeping it out of soft tissues (like kidneys and arteries). Today we’re seeing something that’s called the “Calcium Paradox”, our bone density is decreasing at the same time calcifications in soft tissues are increasing. This is not a result of too little calcium in the diet, but rather of too little vitamin K2, which largely controls where our calcium goes. Common symptoms of Vitamin K2 are tooth sensitivity/ tooth decay, calcification of arteries, kidney stones, and breast calcification and osteoporosis. Typically any symptom where there is calcification in the soft tissues of the body is a sign of a K2 deficiency. Vitamin K2, calcium, and vitamin D all work very synergistically together. Vitamin D supports the tight junctions between cells which increases the uptake of calcium through our intestines, vitamin K2 then brings that calcium to where it supposed to go in the body. Some practitioners won’t suggest supplementing with vitamin D without vitamin K2 as well, particularly if this person is prone to calcifications in the body. Studies have shown that vitamin K1 can be converted to vitamin K2 through the liver, but those same studies suggest that there is only about a 5% conversion rate thus making it important to get through the diet. Dentist and Anthropologist Weston A. Price studied indigenous diets and their effect on dental hygiene. He identified vitamin K2 before it was discovered and called it ‘activator x’. He noted it’s role in the traditional diet being responsible for the strength of people’s teeth. He said that this ‘activator x’ was found in grass fed animal foods such as organ meats, egg yolk, dairy products and fish eggs. He used a protocol of cod liver oil and grass fed butter to treat tooth decay. Not only did he find it stopped decay but in some cases also reversed it. He also noted incredible improvement in bone health. Dr. Kate Rheaume-Bleue wrote Vitamin K2 and The Calcium Paradox, she states children have a higher demand on K2 because of their growing skeleton, she suggests up to 240 micrograms of K2 a day for children and adolescents. As an adult approximately 120 micrograms is recommended.
Studies suggest about 70% of Americans are magnesium deficient. This is because the soil in the U.S. has been depleted of magnesium due to farming practices of the agricultural industry. Magnesium is a major mineral along with calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, and sulfur. Magnesium plays an essential role in our body as it participates in over 300 enzymatic reactions. It supports our structure, over 60% of the magnesium in our body is stored in our bones. Both calcium and magnesium work together, 2 to 1. Our muscles use calcium to contract and magnesium to relax. Because vitamin D and K2 support calcium uptake, they also enhance absorption and utilization of magnesium. There are many symptoms that can be associated with a magnesium deficiency but some more common ones are cramping and twitching of the muscles, anxiety/ depression, fatigue, insomnia, panic attacks, chest tightness, memory loss, confusion, headaches. A common suggestion for dosing from clinicians is to find the amount of magnesium that makes your stool loose and take just under that amount. An average dose can range anywhere from 120-500 mg.
Essential fatty acids are called essential because they have to be obtained through the diet. They play a significant role in our bone health, digestive health, they promote cardiovascular health, and support our nervous system. These fatty acids are partly responsible for reducing and controlling systemic inflammation. Omega 6 is called linoleic acid (LA) and arachidonic acid (AA). It’s found in nuts, grain fed meat, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and vegetable oils. Because we get a lot of omega 6 in the standard american diet it typically doesn’t need supplementation. Omega 3 on the other hand is more commonly deficient. Omega 3 is called alpha linoleic acid (ALA), which the body then converts to EPA or DHA. Alpha linoleic acid is found in foods like flax seed, hemp seed, chia seeds, cold water fish, wild game and grass fed domesticated animals. Some practitioners will suggest supplementing with fish oil or algae oil because it already contains DHA, which means the body doesn’t have to convert it and can utilize it immediately. An ideal diet should have a 1:1 or 1:4 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids, however it’s suggested that most americans are closer to a 1:15 ratio. Because the eicosanoid cascade is extremely complex, rather than thinking omega 6 is inflammatory and omega 3 is anti-inflammatory, it’s best to try and think about it as a balance.
The human body has about 10 times as many microbial cells as we do human cells. There are bacteria, bacteriophage, fungi, protozoa, and viruses all living inside and on our skin. Dysbiosis is when all of these microbes become imbalanced within ourselves. Microbes assist in training and modulating our immune systems, it protects our mucosa, inhibiting overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria, fungi and yeasts. It reduces inflammation, and encourages digestion and uptake of nutrients. This helps to accurately distinguish between ‘friend’ or ‘foe’. Some theorize that the rising number in autoimmunity disorder is in part due to this microbial imbalance. Common symptoms of dysbiosis include autoimmunity, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or constipation, leaky gut syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), candida overgrowth, urinary tract infections, or yeast infections. A low sugar and low carbohydrate diet along with high quality probiotics can be beneficial at starting to balance your microbiome. The best medicine is our fermented foods; try eating a spoonful of sauerkraut with each meal, drinking a small glass of jun or kombucha. You could also try supplementing with a prebiotic. The preferred food beneficial bacteria in our digestive tracts preferred food is an insoluble fiber called inulin. Some herbs that contain inulin are artichoke, burdock root, chicory root, dandelion root, elecampane root, and echinacea root. Heat and a longer saturation time is what pulls the inulin out of these herbs. Make a decoction with these herbs to make a prebiotic tea.
We know vitamins and minerals work very synergistically together so rarely do we see a deficiency in just one. Take a moment to reflect on how your families diet has changed each generation. I myself have heard my mother talk a lot about liver and onions, or my grandmother talk about their garden and her chore of getting eggs every morning. As a culture we’ve forgotten important steps into maximizing our foods nutritional value, and unfortunately our health is paying the price.