You probably have heard the phrase “you are what you eat”. It is true in that our bodies are composed of the raw materials that come from protein, fat, carbohydrates, and nutrients we get from food. Or you may have heard that food is “fuel” used to support your body in its day to day activities. While all of those things are true, food is much more than just fuel or raw material. What you choose to eat is providing an extensive amount of information to your body and triggering all sorts of chemical reactions that can change everything from your mood to your weight to your risk of chronic disease. Let’s explore the idea of food as information a little bit more.
Food Initiates Chemical Reactions
Your body functions are controlled by a set of thousands of chemical reactions which are initiated or stalled by the presence of certain nutrients. For example, when you eat foods with carbohydrates, as soon as the nutrient enters the cell, it heads into the mitochondria to enter a complex biochemical pathway called glycolysis (breaking down of glucose) that results in the formation of ATP, a molecule the body uses for energy. Without the presence of the carbohydrates, the body is still able to make ATP, but it is forced to use a completely different set of chemical reactions to do so and the reaction is not as effective, resulting in fewer molecules of ATP. Without carbohydrates, the body does not have access to its preferred fuel, leading to decreased energy levels based solely on a change in the standard pathway used to create energy.
Food Triggers/Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is a reaction of the immune system, designed to be a temporary response to an illness or injury. But, the environment we live in, including the food we eat, can be a trigger for a widespread, chronic type of inflammation that is linked to almost every illness from diabetes to the common cold. Although there are many different causes of inflammation in our environment, food has the power to either exacerbate it or stop it in its tracks.
For example, sugar has been well documented as a trigger for inflammation. Just a moderate intake of processed sugar from sweet beverages or other sugar-sweetened foods can trigger your body to increase the formation of cytokines, inflammatory molecules, and raise levels of C-reactive protein, a sign of full-body inflammation. On the other hand, intake of anti-inflammatory foods, such as omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and chia seeds, immediately lowers levels of both of these inflammatory molecules. So your food choices either tell your body to begin the inflammatory response or stop it, what power food has!
Food Changes Your Mood
Our mood is partially controlled by a complex system of brain-specific hormones, called neurotransmitters. They are the “messengers” of the brain, sending information back and forth to control things like energy levels, appetite, and mood. They are significantly influenced by what we eat.
For example, when you are feeling sad, why is your first instinct to reach for a cookie and never a piece of celery? The magical combination of fat and sugar seems to provide some relief from negative emotions and there is a biochemical reason for this. High carbohydrate foods trigger the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a natural opioid that will make you feel better mentally. Sugar actually changes the chemistry of your brain, soothing you and making you feel better. An interesting thing to note, is that people with uncontrolled carb cravings, or a “sweet tooth” do tend to have lower levels of serotonin in the brain. This doesn’t mean you should go out and get a box of donuts right away. You don’t need unhealthy carbs to increase your serotonin, eating foods high in folate, such as spinach or other leafy greens also helps your body maintain levels of soothing hormones.
Food Activates or Suppress Genes
In the last 15 years or so, through the study of human genetics, scientists have come to understand that food actually has the ability to turn specific genes on or off. Meaning that an individual gene can be activated or suppressed based solely on what we choose to eat or not eat. This new field is referred to as nutrigenomics and may be the key to unlocking why certain people develop diseases while others don’t. It will help us understand why some people with a family history of a specific disease develop the disease, while other family members don’t. Although this is a relatively new area of study, with the science of nutrigenomics we may be able to better understand these genetic differences, how food triggers different genes, and create tailored programs to help prevent diseases.
These are just a few of the many examples of how food is much more than just raw materials or fuel for our bodies. The relationship between our bodies and food is dynamic with food activating health or triggering the body in ways that lead to disease. Food is information, it is the way our bodies communicate with the outside world and learns how to act in response. Every day you have an opportunity to provide your body with quality, healthy food to give it a new set of instructions to allow it to reach its full potential of health and wellness.