Important Dietary Concepts

By Joel Fuhrman, M.D.

Understanding Fundamental Terms And Principles Of The Eat For Health Program!

Macronutrients are the nutrients that are used in large quantity by the body—lipids (fats), carbohydrates, protein, and water. Macronutrients, with the exception of water, supply the calories we need. Macronutrients are used for structure, function, and energy.

Micronutrients are the nutrients used in relatively small amounts (compared to macronutrients) by the body, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Micronutrients are involved in building and maintaining the health of our tissues. They don’t contain calories, so they do not supply energy.

My health and longevity formula is Health = micronutrients/macronutrients ( H = N/C).This helps illustrate the fact that in order to maximize our genetic potential, we need to eat a diet that is rich in micronutrients per calorie. One important point that I often make is that when we eat more micronutrient-rich food, we find it easier not to overconsume calories.

Are You A Nutritarian?

Nutritarian is a term I coined to refer to people who follow my dietary recommendations, which incorporate and emphasize micronutrient-rich plant foods that are rich in phytochemicals, antioxidants, and other micronutrients. Nutritarians preferentially choose to eat foods that are naturally rich in micronutrients. Nutritarians strive toward nutritional excellence by avoiding highly processed foods and consuming sufficient natural plant matter, especially foods such as leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, tomatoes, seeds, and berries.

Essential And Non-Essential Nutrients

There are essential and non-essential macronutrients as well as essential and non-essential micronutrients. Essential nutrients are nutrients that are required for health but cannot be manufactured by the body, and, therefore, must be obtained from the diet. Non-essential nutrients are nutrients that are useful and needed that your body can make for itself if you don’t get them from the food you eat. Fourteen vitamins and at least fifteen minerals are considered essential, and even if a nutrient is considered non-essential, that does not mean that it is not vitally important or even critical for health.

There are eight essential amino acids—isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Our bodies need twenty different amino acids, but we are able to make the other twelve kinds from these eight, which we must obtain from our food.

Complete proteins contain a balanced set of all eight essential amino acids for humans. It is not necessary to eat complete proteins because foods eaten in the same day can complement each other. However, going after protein completeness in the same meal is helpful in muscle building and for those who require more protein because of aging or enhanced need.

Though generally overlooked, complete proteins are found in plants such as green vegetables, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, buckwheat, hempseed, amaranth, and soybeans. Even though they are complete, greens are rich in lysine, whereas sunflower seeds, even though they have all eight essential amino acids and are high in protein, are relatively low in lysine. When you eat a meal rich in greens along with some sunflower seeds, you maximize protein utilization. The amino acids are used more efficiently, with less urinary wasting, when a more complete amino acid pattern is present.

Sunflower seeds are 22 percent protein, the same percent as some meats. Like blueberries, they are one of those super foods indigenous to the Americas. Sunflowers were an important food used by the American Indians, and they were carried back to Europe by Spanish explorers.

Essential And Non-Essential Fatty Acids

There are only two essential fatty acids: alpha linolenic acid and linoleic acid. The body can manufacture other important fatty acids (i.e., nonessential fatty acids) from these two.

Just because a fat or amino acid is non-essential does not mean an individual may not benefit from its inclusion in the diet. Different people manufacture varying amounts of non-essential nutrients, and many may benefit from including higher amounts of non-essential nutrients. Remember, even a non-essential nutrient can be vitally important or even critical for health. For example, DHA is considered non-essential because your body can make it from omega-3 precursors. However, you have to eat enough of the omega-3 precursors to be able to make enough DHA. Some people do not make enough DHA to maximize their health, even if they consume plenty of the omega-3 precursors. These people can benefit from dietary intake of DHA.

Beyond Nutrient Density

Nutrient density is not the only factor to consider in human nutrition. Though nutrient density is important, other important dietary features should not be ignored. Consuming enough fat and the right type of fatty foods is important, even though these foods may not have a relative high micronutrient per calorie density.

For example, walnuts, though not a very high micronutrient food, supply macronutrients, in particular essential fats, necessary for optimal health. Their consumption is protective against all types of heart disease. Excluding them from one’s diet does not offer any benefit for cardiac reversal or weight loss.

The most important nutrient for the brain is fat because the brain is mostly made up of omega-3 fat. You need to consume enough omega-3 fat to produce the DHA you need. If you do not produce or consume enough DHA, you could compromise your long-term health, increasing your risk of Parkinson’s disease and other neurologic problems later in life. Some early complaints usually brought to my attention from people following extremely low-fat diets are irritated flaky skin, digestive problems, increased thirst and urination, poor exercise tolerance, and impaired sexual function. Adequate fat in the diet is important for normal athletic performance and recovery.1

My observation is that many people who tried a low-fat flexitarian or vegan diet in the past and did not thrive suffered from insufficient fat. Their overall diet was poorly designed, but they blamed their problems on the lack of animal products. A higher-fat diet, with the liberal use of seeds and nuts, could have helped them thrive. When a person uses seeds and nuts for the fat source, instead of oils and animal products, they do not suffer from the negative problems associated with traditional fat intake, such as heart disease and strokes.

A diet too low in fat can also cause stunted growth in children. Muscular growth and response to stress also can be negatively affected in both children and adults. Diets too low in fat, such as some vegan diets promoted by well-known physician authors, can have a detrimental effect on anti-inflammatory immune factors and can promote irregular heart rhythm as you age.


1. Venkatraman JT, Leddy J, Pendergast D. Dietary fats and immune status in athletes: clinical implications. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000;32(7 Suppl): S389-95. Coyle EF, Jeukendrup AE, Oseto MC, et al. Low-fat diet alters intramuscular substrates and reduces lipolysis and fat oxidation during exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 2001; 280(3):E391-8. Ranallo RF, Rhodes EC. Lipid metabolism during exercise. Sports Med 1998; 26(1):29-42.

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