In this post I will show you a thought experiment you can play with using various kinds of food. The example will be broccoli since it is a common food, but any food will work.
The objective is to highlight how ridiculous it is to think that we could ever optimize a person’s diet beyond the basic variables.
Suppose you are trying to find the optimal way to eat broccoli. You consider it has a few dimensions, namely calories, total fat, sodium, potassium, carbs (fiber and sugar), protein. Then for vitamins and minerals, it has vitamin A, C, B, B-12, B-6, calcium, iron, and magnesium. That’s 13-16 constants found in every piece of broccoli, depending on how you view total carbs, fiber and sugar content. For this article, I will go with the full 16.
I am not going to look up the recommended amount for any of them, because we don’t need to for this thought experiment. The objective is achieved before we fill in any of that information, but you can try for fun.
Right away, we have 16 constants. None of them are harmful, up to a point. Certainly, nobody ever hospitalizes themselves by eating too much broccoli. You can get 10,000% of your vitamin C intake and be fine (that is a guess). But when you ask “What is the optimal way to eat this?” the answer is very complex, even in isolation.
What time of day does the body process vitamins the best?
Are you trying to reduce overall sodium content in your diet? Broccoli is for you.
How much fiber is already in your diet? If there’s already a lot, you might not want to eat 500g of broccoli in a day, because there are 2.6 grams of fiber per 100 grams.
How much do you weigh? If you are a 200 lb bodybuilder and you only need more vitamin A in your diet (but how would we know, right?), maybe broccoli turns out to be more effort than its worth. You could find a more dense source of vitamins and minerals elsewhere.
Already we have found four questions with very difficult to quantize answers. But what happens when we add another food to the equation?
Here comes peanuts.
Peanuts are literally half fat. Saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat. Sodium, potassium, carbs (again, fiber and sugar, then total carbs), no cholesterol. Peanuts have a large list of vitamins and minerals including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin b6, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E. Minerals include calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, zinc.
But when you look at the specific content of its proteins, you realize it has more than fifteen different amino acids, and suddenly this optimizing thing seems a little more complex.
Suddenly, you are trying to balance the optimal amount of peanuts with broccoli in your diet. You have to ask:
If I eat a handful of peanuts now, will adding extra fiber from broccoli be too much work for my intestines?
Do I waste effort collecting certain vitamins and minerals that my body does not really need, having already found them from another source?
If I can get everything in one food (broccoli) from another food (peanuts), should I even eat the former?
Each one of these questions can individually be related to time, bodyweight, past and future physical activity, and even mental efforts throughout the day.
Imagine this as an n dimensional matrix where n is the number of different foods currently available at your 3 closest supermarkets. (Limit to 3 for simplicity.) You will quickly see that this has the potential to be a very large matrix, since the equation for eating broccoli will depend on peanuts will depend on fish.
Each person’s unique values for body weight, age, and activity level will shape a unique matrix. We can certainly simplify a recommendation for caloric intake and macro breakdowns. But pretending like we can get close to optimal is absurd.