The Biochemical Structure of Your Food

The following is an excerpt from Doctor Stillman’s online course, “Practical Wellness.” To find out more or to subscribe, visit StillmanMD.com.

The nutritional properties of your food depends on its biochemical structure. Its biochemical structure depends on its function in nature, which we call food groups. How to best prepare any food depends on the mechanisms that are present in the food that can help or hinder your digestion. This includes how cells within the food are organized, what enzymes are present, and whether or not the food is exposed to water, heat, or enzymes before you eat it.

Fruits are used by plants as a means to spread their seeds. The fruit, which animals eat, is packed with nutrition and fiber that, when it transits through the animal, provide an excellent fertilizer for the new plant. Fruits are meant to be eaten fresh. They will decompose quickly, which means that if they are going to be eaten, they need to be preserved in some way. Since they are meant to be eaten, they are easily digested, and many of their most important nutrients are lost in the preservation process. The cells within fruits are each compartmentalized carefully to protect their nutrients until the food is eaten. This is why a bruised fruit will turn brown, whereas the same fruit would remain the perfect color on the shelf for months. The force of impact does not directly change the fruit’s color, the breaking of its cells and perhaps the introduction of air into those cells, which will increase oxidation.

Vegetables are perhaps the most diverse food group. This includes starchy root vegetables and fibrous leaves. What we typically think of as vegetables are not meant to be eaten, they are vital to the plant’s survival. They typically require some kind of cooking to be eaten, although many are eaten raw. Sometimes, they have compounds in them that are meant to discourage animals from eating them. A good example would be the spicy compounds in plants in the mustard family and the spicy capsaicin in hot peppers. Some animals have adapted to use these compounds in a medicinal way. Both capsaicin and mustard compounds have powerful health benefits. Vegetables may also require preservation to have any kind of shelf life, although many vegetables are designed as storage devices for plants. Potatoes, turnips, beets — root vegetables of all kinds — tend to keep well, so long as they are dry and cold. Like fruits, the nutritional value of vegetables is highly dependent on their being eaten in a raw state. Vegetables often pack their leaves, roots, or stems with nutrients that are susceptible to oxidation.

Meats, the living organs and muscles of animals, are susceptible to spoilage the moment the animal is butchered. Bacteria are introduced during the butchering process that can quickly make the meat go rancid. Sunlight and air will cause oxidation and spoilage as well. This is why meats are kept cold or are preserved immediately in some way.

Milk and dairy are also highly susceptible to spoilage. They can be fermented with probiotic bacteria to create yogurt or kefir. The sugar in milk and dairy is broken down in the fermentation process. Pasteurization, which is legally required for almost all dairy products, destroys enzymes and degrades certain nutrients in milk. Milk, unlike other whole foods, is acellular — meaning that it does not consist of “cells.” Its nutrients are dissolved in the milk itself.

Eggs are the unfertilized ovum of birds, most commonly chickens. Eggs are divided into the yolk and the white, which each contain different nutrients necessary for the growth and development of a bird. Eggs are highly susceptible to spoilage, but over days or weeks, even at room temperature, because of their hard external shell.

Seeds are a category of foods that includes grains, legumes, and nuts. Seeds are how many plants reproduce, and, unlike fruit, having animals eat seeds defeats this end. Seeds often contain compounds that inhibit digestion by animals. However, seeds are also meant to survive years or even decades in the ground, which means that they need little if any preserving. They can be kept as is, so long as that is dry and usually in darkness. During development, all water is removed from seeds, leaving them completely dry. This is why they do not spoil for long periods of time. Their signal to germinate is water. Soaking seeds will cause them to sprout. This also signals them to deactivate their defenses against your digestion and to turn on the enzymes that they need to grow and mature. This makes them more digestible.

Enzymes are an important subject in biology in general. They are essentially the gears of your metabolism, without which nothing could happen in your body, from the firing of neurons to the digestion of food to the creation of new cells.

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