Techniques for Recovering from Excess Sugar Intake

It’s that time of year again, when even health counselors eat more candy than they should. Sugary foods form such a big part of our fall and winter holiday celebrations because they cheer us up in spite of the dark and cold weather. Unfortunately, because the sugary foods we eat today (candy, pastries made with white flour and sugar, soda, etc.) are so processed, our cheerfulness lasts only a short time and we end up feeling more depressed and lethargic than before, which in turn causes us to crave even more sugar. The traditional “sugary” foods that people used to eat in this time of year were sweet vegetables such as winter squash, sweet potatoes, carrots and beets (beets, in fact, are the source of most of our refined white sugar). These foods are sweet, but also nutrient rich, and they release their sugars in the digestive system at a steady rate, so we have steady energy and mood instead of being on an emotional roller-coaster.

However, as much as we incorporate whole foods into our diets, our society is still structured around processed foods like white sugar, and it’s important to know how to recover when you’ve eaten too much of it. Here are some suggestions:

1. Drink more water.  Excessive sugar intake is dehydrating (even if you’re drinking soda), so the most important thing you can do to neutralize all the sugar is to drink lots and lots of filtered water.

2. Eat more dark leafy green vegetables, such as kale, collard greens, bok choy, cabbage, broccoli, etc.  These vegetables are high in vitamins and minerals that your body needs to metabolize and detoxify from the sugar intake. Also, since sugary foods generally have little to nonutrition, eating alongside them the foods that are super high in nutrition provides some balance.

3. Exercise (and/or have your kids exercise): Sugary foods are high in calories that your body can’t use unless you engage in some type of physical activity. While adults have adjusting to storing these calories as fat, kids tend to start bouncing off the walls due to their brief, high energy levels. Exercising helps put the sugar to use.

4. Eat more raw fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, miso and kombucha.  Raw fermented foods are foods that start out with some sugar in them, but contain bacteria that have digested the sugar and turned it into nutritious acids, giving the food a sour flavor. Since raw fermented foods are, due to the fermentation process, naturally low in sugar, they form a good counterpart to high-sugar foods.

5.  Finally, be aware that depression and fatigue may be a result of diet, and not just because something is wrong with your body.  If you’re eating a lot of sugar, these are the natural consequences, so examine your diet and see if there’s a connection.  To get your mood and energy back up, eat more of the sweet vegetables listed above, along with fruit, whole grains, and natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, agave nectar, and raw honey.

A Food Safety Double Standard

On August 3rd of this year, armed government agents, including representatives from the FDA, FBI, California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, LA County Health Department, and the LAPD, raided Rawesome Foods, a raw food co-op in Venice Beach, California, that was accused of selling raw milk without a license. The agents confiscated cash, computers and files, and carted away or destroyed $70,000 worth of farm-fresh produce. Surveillance cameras show that Rawesome volunteers were lined up against a wall and frisked at gunpoint. The agents arrested volunteer and organizer James Stewart, among others, whose bail was initially set at $123,000 – far more than is typical for alleged drug dealers, child molesters and killers.  And yet, in its 12-year history, Rawesome had never been linked to a single case of foodborne illness, despite the fact that its products included not just raw cow milk but raw goat, sheep, and camel milk, and even unwashed eggs.  In fact, Rawesome had even been raided a year prior so that its products could be randomly inspected – but no dangerous contamination was found. It appears that the authorities spent the interim trying find another justification for shutting down the co-op, even having its agents pose as members for a year to seek out evidence of wrongdoing.

While it’s true that Rawesome did not have a license, the coop did not operate as a purveyor of milk nor a business in the strict sense. All members were volunteers and all the money that was paid for the products went directly to the farmers to cover their costs. Essentially, the members were pooling their money to buy from farmers more efficiently, and each member was required to sign a waiver acknowledging the potential pathogenic content of raw foods.  The same waiver also guaranteed the organic and grass-fed diet  and free-range lifestyle of the cows, goats, chickens etc.  By signing the waiver, the members were taking responsibility for their personal, health-motivated, food choices. Although raw milk can be sold legally in California, it is so tightly regulated that only one or two companies can afford to offer it, and do not provide as much variety as is available when going directly to trustworthy farms. As can be seen from the case of Rawesome, the government is ready and waiting to devote its resources to prosecuting any apparent deviation from the already strict rules.

Meanwhile, also on August 3rd, Cargill, Inc., an agricultural company that is the largest privately held corporation in the US in terms of revenue, and which supplies about 22% of the domestic meat market, announced that it would be recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey due to contamination with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella bacteria. The recall was in response to an announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the contaminated turkey had been traced to Cargill’s Arkansas processing plant. At the time of the recall, the turkey had been linked to 77 cases of illness, 22 hospitalizations, and one death. More recently, the number of illnesses has been reported at 129 with 33 hospitalizations, all across 34 states. Since the CDC estimates that Salmonella cases occur on the order of 30 times the number reported, that means as many as 4,000 people were sickened by Cargill’s food product. Cargill’s meat (none of which can be identified in stores; most of the contaminated turkey was sold under a brand called Honeysuckle White, with the name Cargill nowhere to be found), it should be noted, has a history of contamination going back decades.

How did this happen? Antibiotic-resistant pathogens develop when antibiotics are routinely used on factory farmed animals that are constantly sick due to the toxic environment in which they are raised.  It’s inevitable that resistant strains will develop and wind up in the meat we eat from these “farms.”  Of course, given that the government is so zealous and meticulous in protecting our nation’s health that they will even locate and shut down the smallest raw milk co-ops (most of which serve a few hundred fully informed people at most) just because of the mere possibility of contamination, they would be even more quick to crack down on a business producing factory farmed meat that actually hospitalized hundreds of unsuspecting people and sickened thousands more, right? On the contrary. As an article in the Wall Street Journal reported,

 

Federal officials said they turned up a dangerous form of salmonella at a Cargill Inc. turkey plant last year, and then four times this year at stores selling the Cargill turkey, but didn’t move for a recall until an outbreak killed one person and sickened 77 others.

 

As for the recall, it was only a request on the USDA’s part, not an order, as the USDA lacks the legal authority to force a recall.  Cargill’s was voluntary and, once the truth was out, aimed at salvaging their image; most of the recalled meat dated back as far as March and had already been consumed. But the most amazing part is that Cargill’s lack of quality control wasn’t even against the law. Federal regulations permit up to 49% of all samples tested at poultry plants to be contaminated with salmonella, and since new antibiotic-resistant strains pop up all the time, thanks to factory farming methods, the government doesn’t have bans on all of them. In fact, only one food-borne pathogen, E.coli O157, is classified as an “adulterant” by the government, meaning it’s against the law for it to be present in food.  In other words, even if inspectors find salmonella contamination, they can’t really do anything about it. No one at Cargill was charged with any crime, nor did Cargill even receive a fine. In their own carefully chosen words, they weren’t even responsible:

 

“It is regrettable that people may have become ill from eating one of our ground turkey products and, for anyone who did, we are truly sorry,” Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business, said in a written statement.

 

Ironically, it’s the very same small farms that are in trouble with the government that are producing meat and milk from healthy animals that don’t require regular antibiotics, if they require any at all. That means their meat isn’t contaminated with the “superbugs” present in factory farmed meat, and that their milk is safe enough to drink raw. Yet these farms, which are the antidote to the food safety dangers confronting us, are the ones under pressure.  According to the FDA, it is shutting down on raw milk clubs in order to protect health – particularly the health of children.  From theNew York Times:

 

Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the federal Food and Drug Administration, which participated in the investigation of Rawesome, said the administration banned the interstate sale of raw milk products because they could be dangerous for those with compromised immune systems.  “Our biggest concern is really with children, because pathogens that can be in raw milk can be extremely dangerous for the classically at-risk,” she said. “We’ve seen people wind up as paraplegics.”

 

Ironically, the gradual increase in numbers of children with compromised immune systems is likely due to the fact that children with still-developing digestive systems consume, on a daily basis, hard-to-digest pasteurized milk and white bread that ultimately inflames their immune systems and results in autoimmune disorders. Nevertheless, Ms. DeLancey seems uninterested in how these children came to be immunocompromised in the first place.  In fact, the government’s actions have very little to do with promoting health and ensuring food safety, and a lot to do with satisfying lobbyists for large, wealthy food corporations that have influenced legislators and thereby the law so that such corporations are very difficult to regulate, despite their grievous lapses in quality control, while small family farms that produce food according to traditional methods are very tightly regulated and are easy targets for obliteration if they make a single misstep – or even if they don’t. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the conventional food industry is using the government to suppress small businesses that produce high quality, fresh food, because such corporations cannot imitate this model – and when it comes to food, more and more people are concerned about healthfulness, flavor, and freshness of food and less concerned about paying the cheapest price regardless of quality.

There are reasons to be wary of small raw-food providers. Raw milk is only as healthy as the cow it came from. It’s happened before that unscrupulous or just plain ignorant dairies have tried to cash in on the raw milk fad by selling some of their milk raw, without taking care to make sure their cows are grass-fed, free-range, and in good health, and that their operations are sanitized. If you’re going to drink raw milk, buy it from a farmer you can trust, and one who also tests his milk for pathogens. They’re extremely unlikely to be in there (in fact, raw milk from healthy cows tests far lower in pathogens than what is required for pasteurized milk), but there’s no harm in being extra safe. If you’ve taken this precaution, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

On the other hand, if you’re buying a product such as ground beef from a faceless company such as Cargill, whose quality you can’t verify until it’s too late, you’ll be on much shakier ground, in hoping such companies police themselves. After all, they benefit so much from agricultural subsidies that they can recall millions of pounds of meat and still keep chugging along. The same tax dollars we’re paying for the authorities to shut down the small farms that sell good quality food, we’re also paying the big food corporations to perpetuate their existence and crush their competition.

However, as more people become aware of what’s going on and choose to pay a little more for truly good food, and then benefit from their healthier, more satisfying diet, the more small farms will prosper despite the pressures being put upon them from above. When enough people want these farms to be legitimized, the laws will change and the pressure will be on companies like Cargill to adapt or fail. To find sources of raw milk and other natural food-producing farms in your area, try http://www.realmilk.com/.

 

Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 3

As discussed in previous newsletters, gluten-containing foods such as wheat or rye bread can be safely consumed by gluten-sensitive people if made with whole grain flour and leavened with sourdough starter instead of with baker’s yeast.  However, ff you have any type of sensitivity to gluten, it’s best to first avoid it entirely for two weeks to a month or more, depending on how severe your reaction normally is and how long you have had a noticeable reaction. Avoiding gluten gives your body time to completely detoxify from it. It also helps reduce your body’s sensitivity, some of which may purely be due to overexposure to gluten. While you are avoiding gluten-containing grains, get your complex, starchy carbohydrates from gluten-free grains such as brown rice, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, corn and amaranth, and from potatoes. All of the grains can typically be found in bulk at your local health food store.

After abstaining from gluten for a few weeks, try reintroducing it in the form of a small amount of 100% sourdough whole wheat bread. Some large supermarkets, such as Whole Foods or Wegman’s, carry whole wheat sourdough, as do most health food stores, but you may need or desire to make it yourself, which takes a little time to learn, but is a very rewarding and enjoyable skill to have mastered. After eating a small amount of sourdough bread, wait a day or two to see if you have any reaction. If you do, you may need to give yourself a few more days or weeks to let your body finish detoxifying. In the meantime, continue with the gluten-free whole grains, but try to limit processed, prepackaged gluten-free foods, as they may delay detoxification due to their own gluten-imitating ingredients.

Once you can eat a small amount of whole wheat sourdough without difficulty, gradually increase your intake. Your body, having had a sufficient “break” from conventional bread, pasta, baked goods, and processed foods containing dextrin (aka gluten), will be able to tolerate daily sourdough bread just as the bodies of your ancestors did. In fact, you should even be able (eventually) to also tolerate non-sourdough whole grain breads and pastas, in moderate amounts, but too much too soon may inflame your immune system again. Therefore, it is important to continue to make whole grain sourdough bread, and sourdough baked goods in general, the majority of your gluten intake. The right balance depends on the individual, and the only way to find out exactly is to test yourself by adjusting your diet accordingly.

Making your own sourdough may sound complicated, but once you have mastered the technique, it does not require a lot of effort, and your home-baked sourdough bread will be the most satisfying, best-tasting bread you’ve ever had. Instructions for making sourdough starter and sourdough bread can be found on many websites. If you’d like our recipe, just send me an email, and I will forward you our instructions while answering any questions you may have. For anyone with gluten sensitivity, I hope this series of articles opens up a new world of possibilities for you. Having grown up with a wheat allergy myself, I find that sourdough gives me the opportunity to enjoy gluten-containing bread just as much as everyone else (if not more), which is the way it’s meant to be.

Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 2

As discussed in last week’s article, a growing number of people are being diagnosed with celiac disease, a chronic condition in which the immune system reacts negatively to the presence of gluten in the small intestine. There appears to be a genetic predisposition to celiac, but unexpectedly, those most susceptible are descended from European and Caucasian ancestors – the very same people who made gluten-containing grains a staple of their diet, usually in the form of bread. Why would people whose ancestors could tolerate gluten just fine be unable to tolerate it today? This phenomenon has much in common with the history of corn, which traditionally provided sufficient sustenance to Mesoamericans but resulted in nutrient deficiencies among Western Europeans when it was brought over by Columbus. In the case of corn, it was the natural processing method used by the Mesoamericans, but forsaken by the Westerners, that made corn digestible. In the case of gluten-containing grains, the problem again comes down to a change in the processing method.

Ever since the beginning of civilization in the ancient Near East, bread has always been the centerpiece of the diet. Traditionally, to make bread, whole grains were ground into whole grain flour, which was then mixed with water to form dough, and leavened, or allowed to rise. The leavening agent was a portion of a “starter,” a small amount of wet dough that had been colonized by microorganisms already naturally present in the air and on the individual grains: a symbiotic blend of Lactobacillus bacteria and wild yeast (the bacteria far outnumbering the yeast).  The yeast would turn the starches in bread into ethanol and carbon dioxide (which enabled the dough to rise) and the bacteria would feed on the yeast’s byproducts, thereby forming sour-tasting lactic acid, which in turn helped protect both the yeast and bacteria from unwelcome organisms such as other forms of bacteria or mold. After sufficient leavening, this “sourdough” bread would be baked. The result was a moderately risen loaf that kept well and was packed full of nutrition. This was the bread that become known as the “staff of life,” and which served as a metaphor for food in general.

Up until the mid-19th century, bread throughout the world was prepared according to this traditional method. However, the new technology that came with the industrial revolution enabled factories to mass-produce bread made with white flour instead of whole wheat, which reduced the nutrient value of the bread. While white flour had previously been a delicacy of the upper class, it now became the standard for all classes, which had a devastating effect on impoverished people who relied on bread as their main source of nutrition.

Meanwhile, advances in science made it possible for bakers to isolate and grow their own strains of yeast, instead of having to rely on wild yeast. With these abundant quantities of yeast, bread products could be made that didn’t rely on bacteria at all for leavening. The result was bread with a sweeter flavor, which, like white bread, appealed to the upper classes, who were already indulging in large quantities of meats that left them craving excessive sweet flavors. When, in the 1850’s, the technology was available to mass-produce this new form of industrial “baker’s yeast,” bread leavened solely with yeast became the new standard, given that baking with it was easier and quicker, it rose more, and didn’t require sourdough starter. Ever since, the standard form of bread that we eat has been white bread leavened with baker’s yeast, due to both its convenience and its immediate gratification.

What does this have to do with gluten and celiac disease? While the transition from whole grain to white flour is part of the problem (due to the loss of nutrients that would otherwise aid digestion of the bread), the main culprit is the transition from sourdough bread to baker’s yeast-leavened bread. The bacteria that used to ferment all our bread just so happens to produce enzymes that help break down gluten proteins. In addition, the lactic acid byproduct weakens the gluten network by increasing the number of positively charged amino acids along the protein chains, and increasing the repulsive forces between chains. A similar process takes place when we soak meat in an acidic marinade to tenderize it: the protein-based tissues break down and the meat becomes more digestible. The gluten in sourdough bread, therefore, is much easier to digest, which explains why our ancestors could tolerate so much bread. True, their bread didn’t rise as much as ours, but they didn’t mind – they tended to eat it with a lot of butter, lard or olive oil, and just a small amount could sustain them for a long time, which reduced the amount of calories they ate overall.

We started turning our backs on sourdough around the year 1850; the first case of celiac was formally diagnosed only a few decades later, in 1887, and the disease has been getting more prevalent since then. To an extent, we are all gluten-sensitive, even if we don’t have readily apparent celiac disease, wheat allergies, or digestive disorders. We’re just not meant to eat large quantities of gluten unless in a form such as sourdough bread. Nevertheless, in the modern world, gluten is everywhere, not just in bread; in fact, it’s extremely difficult to avoid. Fortunately, we don’t need to cut it out completely, or genetically engineer it to be digestible; we just need to go back to eating it in the form that we did, without health issues, for thousands of years. In the next and final installment of this series, I’ll explain how we can change our baking ways to be more in line with traditional methods.

 

Freedom From Gluten-Free, Part 1

Celiac disease, also referred to as gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity, or celiac sprue, is a chronic condition in which the immune system reacts negatively to the presence of gluten in the small intestine. As a side effect of the immune system’s inflammatory response to gluten, intestinal villi are destroyed.  Villi are small, finger-like projections on the intestinal wall that help us to absorb nutrients. Due to the destruction of the villi, celiac disease sufferers (aka celiacs) gradually lose their ability to digest nutrients. Symptoms of the disease include diarrhea, intestinal cramps, bloating, fatigue, excessive weight loss, failure to thrive (in children), allergies, anemia, and general malnutrition. The only known cure is to completely eliminate gluten from the diet.

Celiac was first described in 1887. Over the succeeding decades, it has become more commonly known and better understood. Today, many people are familiar with the concept of a gluten-free diet, and many people with digestive difficulties experiment with the diet to see if it eliminates their symptoms.  In fact, in recent years a whole cottage industry of gluten-free foods has emerged, catering to the needs of those who cannot tolerate gluten, a group whose numbers seem to be growing exponentially, whether due to better diagnosis of the disease, increase in incidence, or both.

Gluten is the type of protein that is contained in the grains wheat, rye, spelt, kamut and barley. Its elastic, sticky nature is what makes these grains ideal for grinding into flour and baking into bread. The strength and elasticity of gluten protein chains enables the bread to maintain its structure as yeast releases gases that cause the bread to rise. Gluten’s thickening and stabilizing properties also make it popular as a food additive, where it can be found in processed foods sometimes under the name dextrin. In addition to being present in virtually all bread products (essentially any food made with the grains named above), gluten can be found in candies, gravies, imitation meats, lunch meats, salad dresses, sauces, soups, and most processed foods in general. A celiac disease sufferer, in order to be symptom-free, must find a way to avoid all these foods while still managing to eat a balanced diet. Gluten is especially difficult to replace when it comes to foods such as bread and pasta that require its properties to maintain their structure.  As such, modern medical research is currently focused on trying to genetically engineer gluten to maintain its properties while not inflaming the immune system in celiacs.

One fact that these researchers have been able to determine is that celiac disease is hereditary. That is to say, our level of sensitivity to gluten tends to be determined by our genes.  Those populations with the highest sensitivity to gluten tend to be northern and western Europeans and Caucasians in general. Interestingly, these are the populations that are most closely associated with historical consumption of gluten-containing grains such as wheat and rye. Since celiac is a relatively recent disease, what must have happened to suddenly make gluten so intolerable to significant percentages of these populations? This is an area of celiac disease research that has regrettably been left under-explored. However, a look back at history of gluten consumption may shed some light. Actually, it’s best to start with an analogy to the history of maize, or corn, consumption.

Corn, along with rice, millet, amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat, among others, is one of the gluten-free grains, so it has never been linked to celiac disease. However, corn does pose its own digestive issues. The ratio of the different types of protein in corn is not ideal for our own amino acid balance. Corn can contain mycotoxins, byproducts of mold that are carcinogenic. Finally, corn contains niacin (aka vitamin B3), an essential nutrient, but in a form that is indigestible.  Anyone eating a diet that depended heavily on corn to meet nutritional needs would be at risk for a variety of serious health problems, including the vitamin B3 deficiency (aka pellagra), which, like celiac, can be ultimately fatal if the diet is not changed.

In ancient Mesoamerica, where corn was first cultivated, a process called nixtamalization was developed, in which the corn was soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution made of lime (calcium hydroxide) and ash (potassium hydroxide), then hulled. This process removed the mycotoxins, eliminated the excess protein, and freed up the niacin for absorption. As a result of this natural, time-honored form of processing, the Mesoamericans could rely on corn as a staple of their diet. However, when corn was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus and quickly adopted by many due to its high yields, the nixtamalization process was not brought with it. Instead, corn was processed and hulled in mechanical mills. As a consequence, wherever corn became the staple food crop, malnutrition struck.

Today, if any single food has become our staple, it’s wheat, and gluten is clearly even more ubiquitous than wheat. The very people who were able to tolerate it for centuries now appear to be genetically incapable of safely digesting it. Unsurprisingly, the key to the riddle has to do with the change we’ve made from the traditional processing methods of gluten to the modern, just as in the case of the abandonment of corn nixtamalization. Next week’s article will explore the history of gluten processing and describe how, with the right preparation, gluten can be safely consumed – even by celiacs.

Summer Reading Guide

I know, summer is practically over. But if by any chance you’re looking for a captivating and educating health read (besides my newsletters, of course…*ahem*), try any of the books listed below – you’re sure to be both entertained and edified.  The links will take you to the book’s listing on Amazon.com.

The Jungle Effect by Daphne Miller.  Miller, a California MD, decided that the best way to help her chronically unhealthy patients would be to put them on the whole-foods based, traditional diets that their ancestors ate. However, in order to do so, she first had to research those diets. Due to the diverse ethnicities of her patients, she ended up traveling to countries as far-flung as Mexico, Greece and Iceland to learn about these traditional diets in regions where they were still being practiced.  The book contains, in conjunction with anecdotes about how her patients adopted these diets and got healthy, eating plans and recipes for the various traditions she studied.

Food Rules by Michael Pollan.  This one’s short – and memorable. It consists of 64 (usually) one-sentence rules about what kind of food we should eat. The rules are geared towards eating more whole foods, and fewer processed foods – examples include “Avoid foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup,” “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead,” “Eat your colors,”  “Don’t buy food where you buy gasoline,” etc. You might not agree with every single rule, but they’re certainly thought-provoking and creative.

Nourishing Wisdom by Marc David. This short book, while confirming that eating good quality whole foods is very important, addresses the other factors that go into determining our health, such as our emotional and spiritual nourishment, as well as the importance of “how” we eat: e.g., are we enjoying our food slowly while sitting at a table with friends and family, or gulping it down while driving to work? Some of us need this type of practical wisdom far more than we do more advice on what foods are good and what are bad.

The Self-Healing Cookbook by Kristina Turner. As the title indicates, this is a cookbook as much as it is a health book. Turner writes from a macrobiotic perspective, which means that the recipes center on adding whole grains, beans, vegetables and sea vegetables to your diet. However, Turner also details how different foods can affect your mood and emotions, and gears her recipes towards helping you to establish a balanced physical and emotional state. The exercises in the book also help to figure out what particular foods are best for you and why.

The Energy Balance Diet by Joshua Rosenthal. If any of you out there are determined to find a specific diet plan to follow, I can’t recommend any more highly than this one, written by the founder and director of Integrative Nutrition, where I received my health counseling education. Rosenthal shows how to develop a balanced diet of whole foods that will help you to achieve your correct weight, establish steady energy levels, and understand and address your food cravings. Like all the other books on this list, it’s well-written, easy to follow, and entertaining without being shallow or extreme. Happy reading!

Eating Right on Vacation

Whenever summer rolls around, I inevitably hear from my clients during this week or that that they didn’t eat well because they were on vacation. In fact, eating right is extremely difficult on vacation. It’s not just that whole, natural foods are hard to find when traveling; we can also get into a celebratory mode in which we decide to eat and drink what we want and worry about the consequences later, because we’re supposed to be having fun. To a certain extent, that’s a good attitude to have; if we’re constantly worrying about whether we’re eating right, we’ll make ourselves sick . But if we eat too poorly, we can easily come down with digestive problems, headaches, low energy, weak immunity, etc., both during and after our vacations.  Naturally, we don’t want to be sick during this time; we want to be refreshed. So what can be done? Here are a few tips that can help make your vacation this year or next a little more enjoyable:

1. Make meals in advance. The best way to ensure that you feel good during vacation is to bring some of your own food. However, you may not want to spend all your time cooking. If you’re staying somewhere that has a kitchen or kitchenette, I recommend making balanced meals in advance, freezing them, and then thawing them out while you’re vacationing. In the weeks leading up to vacation, just make a double portion of a meal that you’d like to have while vacationing, and freeze the leftovers. This year, for our vacation, my wife and I are bringing with us homemade frozen red lentil sauce with chicken, chili with ground beef, shepherd’s pie, and Bolognese sauce. Since we have access to a kitchen, we’ll also be able to bring and make brown rice, greens, and other simple supplementary foods, but it won’t involve a lot of cooking time. The net result is that, since we’ll be nourished by these balanced meals, we’ll have plenty of energy for the things we want to do, and we’ll still feel good when we get home!

2. Bring your own healthy snacks. Vacationers tend to eat lots of snack foods. I recommend that you make it a priority, if possible, to eat three balanced meals a day. But part of the joy of vacation is snacking. Fortunately, there are many healthy snacks out there that can be a good supplement to your diet (and if you are very physically active during vacation, you may need them in addition to regular meals). Examples include fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds, trail mix, popcorn, yogurt with honey, homemade ice cream, lemonade, or sorbet, smoothies, dark chocolate, corn chips with guacamole or salsa, cheese, olives and pickles.

3. When eating out, choose what’s easy to digest. Eating out is another pleasure of vacationing, and sometimes it’s nice to get a comfort food even though it may not be so good for you. But if you’re eating out because you have no other choice and you simply want to avoid feeling gross, stay away from foods that are deep-fried, made with white flour or sugar, or contain dairy products. Instead, choose meat, fish, or poultry, and vegetables. If the restaurant has brown rice or whole wheat bread, then you can go with that as well. If you follow this advice, you’ll be more likely to maintain your energy and digestive health in the hours and days that follow.

 

What Vegetables Do I Need?

Everyone says to eat more vegetables, but what does that look like in practice? While all vegetables are nutritious, they don’t all provide the exact same nutrients. Some are better eaten in the winter, some are better in the summer; some are better roasted, while others are better steamed, boiled, or raw. But the most important distinction to draw among vegetables is what individual health benefits they provide. Vegetables can in fact be broken up into different families, each one providing a unique general health benefit. The best way to be nourished by vegetables is to get some from each family on a regular basis. The following chart provides a basic outline:

 

Roots Greens Gourds Nightshades Bulbs Sea vegetables
Carrots Cabbage Yellow squash Tomatoes Celery Arame
Radishes (Daikon, Red) Spinach Zucchini Peppers Leeks Hijiki
Beets Broccoli Cucumber Eggplants

 

Scallions Nori
Parsnips Collards Acorn squash Potatoes Onions Kombu/Kelp
Turnips Kale Butternut squash   Garlic Dulse
Rutabagas Swiss Chard Pumpkin   Asparagus Wakame
Yam Mustard Greens Kabocha squash   Rhubarb  
Sweet potato Arugula     Shallots  
  Bok Choy     Kohlrabi  
  Salad greens        

 

Roots. These vegetables contain sweet, complex carbohydrates that are filling and satisfying, reducing the need to snack on carbs in the form of potato chips, cookies or crackers. They also contain many vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Roots and greens together create a powerful 1-2 punch of nutrition that keeps your body stabilized and healthy, whatever else you eat.

Greens. These vegetables are the best for balancing blood sugar and restoring nutrients to the body. Some people need time to get used to the bitter flavor. Try starting with mild or sweet greens such as bok choy, cabbage, or napa cabbage. I recommend having a serving of greens at least once a day, with lunch or dinner. Your body will begin to crave them after you begin eating them regularly.

Gourds. In the summer, this means summer squash, zucchini and cucumbers, and in the winter, pumpkins, acorn squash, and other winter squashes. Mildly sweet, these vegetables are very soothing to the digestive system. Cucumbers are good raw or pickled, summer squash combines well with nightshades in dishes like ratatouille, and winter squash is a great ingredient in desserts (pumpkin bread or pie) or savory dishes (chunks of butternut squash boiled and then roasted on pizza).

Nightshades. Potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are among the most-often consumed vegetables, but they are not necessarily the best. All of them are in fact tropical vegetables, originating in South America and North Africa, and while they are nutritious, they should not be consumed in greater quantities than the other vegetable groups, particularly because they contain small quantities of alkaloids, chemical compounds that can cause joint inflammation and minor nervous system disorders.

Bulbs. Usually spicy when raw but mild when cooked, these vegetables are best at killing bad bacteria and dissolving excess fat. They’re very good for dealing with colds and congestion and support the immune system, and combine well with roots and with greens (in fact, onions and garlic go with just about anything).

Sea vegetables. The most mineral rich of all vegetables, sea vegetables are important but can be eaten in moderation. Sea vegetables like kombu and wakame are good in miso soup, and are excellent at restoring health to someone who has experienced mineral loss as a result of too much sugar in junk food and soda.

If you are working on adding more vegetables to your diet and/or your kids’ diets, include some vegetables from each of the groups listed above. Choose what’s in season, emphasize the different colors, shapes, sizes and tastes of the vegetables, and don’t hesitate to combine them with salt, herbs and spices, and some healthy fat to create a balance of flavors. Not only will your health improve from greater variety and more frequent servings of vegetables, but your meals will become tastier as well.

Analyzing the hCG Diet

Today’s most popular crash diet is the hCG diet, which consists in eating no more than 500 calories per day, while supplementing (via regular injections prescribed by a doctor or through lozenges, sprays and drops) with the pregnancy hormone hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin). HCG is naturally produced by pregnant women to maintain the corpus luteum, which it does by causing the body to secrete the uterus-enriching hormone progesterone. Its mainstream medical usage is as an infertility treatment for women.  HCG also helps maintain testosterone production that is otherwise lowered by performance-enhancing steroids, which is why it is banned in professional sports.

What does hCG have to with weight loss? Back in the 1950s, British endocrinologist Albert Simeons claimed that when he gave it to his obese patients in India, they lost weight in just the places where they needed to lose it – but only when they coupled it with an extreme low-calorie diet. The theory was that hCG stimulated the body, when faced with near-starvation, to burn unnecessary fat rather than muscle tissue.  Proponents have also claimed that hCG supplementation suppresses hunger, making a 500-calorie diet relatively sustainable.  Since Simeons published his theories in 1954, the hCG weight-loss fad, like many others, has alternately gone in and out of style, and is currently enjoying a resurgence.

Does the diet work? It depends who you ask. Doctors who provide hCG injections and diet consultations costing over $1,000 per monthcertainly claim that it does, as do websites that offer hCG by mail-order. Also online are many anecdotal testimonies of the hCG diet’s effectiveness, of which an unknown number have been written by hCG salespeople. A Dutch study back in 1995 analyzed 14 randomized clinical trials of the hCG diet and found that in only two trials did people accomplish more on hCG – in terms of weight loss, reduced appetite, and improved figure – than on a diet with a placebo used in place of hCG. This is regardless of whether either diet worked very well at all. The FDA has said with regard to hCG:

 

“HCG has not been demonstrated to be effective adjunctive therapy in the treatment of obesity. There is no substantial evidence that it increases weight loss beyond that resulting from caloric restriction, that it causes a more attractive or “normal” distribution of fat, or that it decreases the hunger and discomfort associated with calorie­restricted diets.”

 

The American and Canadian Medical Associations have also condemned the diet. In addition to being no more effective than a placebo, hCG in excess is known to cause headaches, blood clots, leg cramps, and constipation, and may cause other health problems; its side effects in connection with a starvation diet have never been thoroughly studied.

At this point, to be confident that hCG works, you’d need to have acquaintances you know and trust who have tried it, lost weight permanently, and are still visibly healthy and active. But even if hCG has either no effect or a negative effect, what about just doing the low-calorie diet? It’s possible that hCG does function as a placebo, simply giving people the confidence to stick with the low-calorie plan they need.  But super low-calorie diets, due to malnutrition, will cause not just weight loss but also bone and muscle loss, mental deterioration, and exhaustion, so that even without hCG a 500-calorie diet is dangerous to your health. Although you will lose weight – it’s practically impossible not to when you don’t eat – you will simply gain it back when you’ve finished dieting and have gone back to the old diet that caused you to gain weight in the first place, except that this time your body will have deteriorated further due to the added strain of having dieted. Crash dieting, diet drugs, even anti-obesity surgery to some extent, has never worked, though it’s been tried many times.  If any of these strategies worked, we wouldn’t still be searching for solutions to the obesity epidemic that affects 1 in 3 Americans.

The FDA, AMA and other major government and medical organizations are somewhat culpable here, because even as they scramble to announce that the hCG diet is ineffective and dangerous, they are content to continue to put their hope in sanctioned, mainstream “quick fixes” that consistently fail to pan out.  In October of last year, the FDA had to decline three separate weight loss drugs for approval due to health risks.  Two of the drugs were new (Qnexa and lorcaserin); one had been on the market for 13 years (Meridia). Particularly since the debacle of fen-phen, a weight loss drug approved in the early 90s that was years later shown to cause potentially fatal pulmonary hypertension and heart valve problems, the FDA has had to be more strict about the drugs it approves. Nevertheless, as quoted in the article linked to above, Dr. John Jenkins of the agency’s Office of New Drugs has said that the FDA is “”committed to working toward approval” of new obesity drugs, “so long as they are safe and effective for the population for which they are intended.””

The attitude that a drug, or a device like an obesity lap band, can at some point be an effective way to combat weight gain, when validated by the FDA and our medical professionals, simply encourages the average person to think that they can get away with focusing on the symptom of the problem and simply rely on a quick fix (like the hCG diet).  While this is profitable for both the pharmaceutical industry and the supplement industry, it doesn’t really help those who are overweight.  We in fact need to deal with the root cause of the problem by making sound long-term diet and lifestyle changes. But as I discussed in my article on MyPlate, since the government’s approach to diet and lifestyle is severely flawed, people are extra disinclined to deal with the root causes.

If diet and lifestyle changes are made wisely, however – without crash dieting, excessively restricting foods, or even more than the most moderate exercise – those who need to lose weight will lose about 1.5 to 2 pounds a week, or about 40 pounds in six months. This weight loss will continue until a healthy weight is achieved. This is what has been achieved by clients of mine who have followed my recommendations to eat a balanced diet of whole foods. The best part is that they don’t have to change the way they eat once they’ve reached their weight loss goal, because they aren’t eating to lose weight in the first place, just to be healthy. The weight loss simply happens naturally.  One thing we tend to forget easily is that the human body is meant to be a healthy weight. We think that we need to punish and manipulate our bodies to get them to the weight that’s healthy – but in fact it’s the opposite: we’re punishing and manipulating them when we load them up with high fructose corn syrup, toxins, artificial flavors, free radicals, and hydrogenated oils, and when we’re sedentary instead of active. When you have a willing spirit and the knowledge of how to go about it, getting healthy and in shape is actually one of the easiest and most fun things you can do – no supplementary hormones required.

How to Approach Antioxidants

Antioxidants are one of today’s most popular nutrient groups. Many health books and articles have been written extolling their virtues. Capitalizing on this popularity, food producers tend to prominently advertise the antioxidant content of the beverages, cereals, teas and other items they offer, often directly supplementing their products with antioxidants to increase nutrient content. As with vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and digestive enzymes, the presence of antioxidants is a persuasive signifier of a given supplement or food’s health benefits. However, to really benefit from antioxidants, we must understand why and in what context they are valuable.  Simply consuming more foods that are advertised as containing them (e.g. green tea, chocolate, and red wine) is too simplistic, and can have negative consequences for health.

In order to comprehend antioxidants, we first have to discuss their counterparts, free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that our bodies generate in order to neutralize toxins as well as pathogens such as bad bacteria, viruses and fungi.  Due to reacting with oxygen in a process known as oxidation, free radical molecules lack the electrons they need to be chemically stable. The way they neutralize is by stealing an electron from another molecule, which then itself becomes a free radical. Our bodies use free radicals to start a chain reaction of molecule destruction among whatever toxin or pathogen has invaded our system. Free radicals are also created by our bodies when we’re stressed out, physically injured, or when we exercise.

It’s clear that free radicals play an important role in our immunity. However, if we have too many free radicals active in our systems, they will begin turning on the body’s own cells, damaging those cells’ DNA and turning their molecules into additional free radicals.  This process of cell breakdown, continuing unchecked, is linked to the development of cancer, stroke, diabetes, heart disease, liver damage, premature aging, emphysema, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, unchecked free radical proliferation may be the most ubiquitous health problem of our time.

Excessive free radical activity can be caused by too-frequent stress, infection, or exposure to toxins (toxins include cigarette smoke, polluted air and industrial pollutants, pesticides and herbicides, certain prescription drugs, and radiation), or by too-frequent consumption of rancid vegetable oils, which contain high amounts of free radicals due to their oxidization during high-heat cooking, processing, and lengthy exposure to light. If we’re facing any of these problems, how are we supposed to neutralize the free radicals? Enter antioxidants.

Antioxidants are molecules that are capable of “donating” electrons to free radicals to stabilize them, while remaining stable themselves. Our bodies manufacture some antioxidants, just as they manufacture free radicals. However, a major part of our antioxidant need is supplied by dietary nutrients. Examples of antioxidants are vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin B9, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, and a class of nutrients called polyphenols (which contain another class known as bioflavnoids).

It’s easy to see why antioxidants are touted as being so important. Who would not want to add to their diet nutrients that reduce the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, and the other diseases listed above? But rather than fall into the misconception that all we need to do to protect ourselves is eat more foods that are advertised as containing antioxidants, we need to take a holistic approach to the situation. We need a healthy amount of both free radicals and antioxidants. It may be that production of free radicals needs to be reduced, rather than antioxidants increased, as excessive antioxidant intake can cause problems of its own. Also, we should get our antioxidants from whole, natural foods, rather than from either 1. antioxidant supplements, 2. processed foods to which antioxidants have been added, or 3. foods that naturally contain them but also contain potentially harmful ingredients. I recommend that the following strategy should be used for developing a healthy balance between free radical and antioxidant levels:

 

1.      Reduce stress. If you are under continual stress, antioxidants can help somewhat, but the best thing you can do for your health is to actually resolve the stress in whatever way is right and appropriate. There is no way that diet alone can compensate for the damage to health done by ongoing mental and emotional stress.

2.      Reduce exposure to the environmental toxins listed above. One way to do this is by increasing consumption of organic food vs. conventional, and exchanging the conventional cleaning and self care products in your home for those with natural ingredients. Quitting smoking and cutting back on prescription drugs where appropriate will also help.

3.      Avoid consumption of rancid vegetable oils (e.g. fried foods from fast food restaurants). When purchasing vegetable oil for home cooking, choose olive, sesame, sunflower or corn oil that is cold-pressed and contained in dark glass bottles. Use coconut oil or lard from naturally raised pigs for high-heat cooking.

4.      Eat more of the following whole, natural foods that contain antioxidants: all vegetables, but especially leafy green vegetables; all fruits, especially berries; vegetable oils processed in the healthy way described above; dairy products from grass-fed cows; organic eggs; beans; whole grains; all herbs and spices, but especially turmeric, oregano and cinnamon

5.      Moderate your intake of foods that contain antioxidants, but which can actually reduce mineral absorption when consumed in excess: green tea, chocolate, red wine, spinach, swiss chard, and soybeans (unless cooked with kombu, a sea vegetable).

 

Ultimately, the point is that we should not reflexively think “I need that, it has antioxidants,” but focus on eating a diet of whole natural foods, balancing that diet based on our cravings, and reducing stress and exposure to toxins and rancid oils.  If we take that approach, our freeradical/antioxidant balance can be trusted to take care of itself, and we’ll have greatly reduced our risk for the diseases mentioned earlier. This is a holistic approach, one that accounts for both the nutrients we know and those we have not yet discovered. It can be relied upon regardless of what dietary trend is popular at the moment, and will not lead us down the path of eating in an unbalanced way even as we’re trying to get healthier.