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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


If Only Nutrition was as Easy for Us as it is for an Astronaut

By Michael McBurney

When it’s a slow news day, the media, including bloggers like me, lean on comedians and congress. My friend and colleague, @drdairy50, tweeted a link to the Congress Blog article entitled “Dietary guidelines: Focus on diets, not individual nutrients”.

Ken Lee and Robert Murray, both professors, wrote an interesting article. They emphasize the importance of dietary patterns. Many readers will like this article but I have my doubts.

There is something wholesome about the quest for eating foods straight from the farm and garden like people did several generations ago. It is inspirational to think about transforming produce we grown from seeds we sowed, eggs collected from hens we fed, milk stripped from cows we herded, and meat from animals we butchered. Wait, the last one doesn’t sound so idyllic. And it may not be very pleasurable milking a cow when summer temperatures soar.

Here are some realities when it comes to our dietary patterns which deserved consideration:

1.    Since more people live in urban areas than rural areas, the competition for food would be fierce if it wasn’t for an efficient food production and distribution system. Thank you farmers, food processors, distributors, and retailers.

2.    Even with an amazing food distribution system, people don’t want to prepare foods from scratch at home. USDA Economic Research Service data confirms a growing preference to eat meals (not individual foods) someone else prepared.

3.    We rarely put together meals around food groups. Our most favored food choices consist of multiple food groups: hamburgers (protein foods, grains, vegetables, oils), hot dogs (protein foods, grains, vegetables, oils), french fries (vegetables, oils), oreo cookies (grains, oils), pizza (grains, protein foods, dairy, vegetables, oils), soft drinks (grains), chicken tenders (protein foods, grains, oils), ice cream (dairy, oils, grains), donuts (grains, oils) and potato chips (vegetables, oils).

Think for a moment about NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and others who spend more than a year in space. Clearly, their food is not local. They do not prepare meals from staples. They do not cook from scratch. Astronauts eat freeze-dried, highly processed, prepared meals – for extended periods of time.

Listen to this NutraIngredients video about food preparation for NASA astronauts, introduced by @SteveDaniells.

By providing astronauts with processed and carefully preserved foods, astronauts can balance their food intake and physical activity (even in zero gravity), to come back from space with the same, or in some cases, better bone and muscle mass than when they left earth. Maintaining bone and muscle mass in space requires more than food groups and exercise. Astronauts need calcium and vitamin D to help maintain bones. Muscle requires essential amino acids and vitamins to work. NASA nutritionists and food scientists work diligently to ensure that astronauts have enough of these essential nutrients in their diet.

Some nutrients will degrade during food preparation and storage. Thus, like the food industry, NASA food and nutrition scientists rely upon food fortification and improvements in food technology to preserve essential nutrients, i.e. vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.

Dietary patterns provide insight but they are not an accurate indicator of health. Just as NASA monitors biological measures, bone and muscle mass, blood vitamin levels, to assess astronaut health, we on earth need to adopt similar techniques. In the end, it is nutrient status which matters.

Main Citation

Lee K, Murray R. Dietary guidelines: Focus on diets, not individual nutrients. 2015 Congress Blog, July 10, 2015