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.

Modern Day Malnutrition: Anemia

In a country as wealthy as the United States, with food so abundant and affordable, it seems strange that anyone could suffer from malnutrition. And yet, not only is malnutrition a common occurrence, even the most well–off of our citizens are susceptible to it. The same goes for other developed nations. But it’s not happening because we’re not getting enough food. Developed countries rarely, if ever, have famines and food shortages. Rather, it’s the nature of our food that is causing this problem. Thanks to modern food processing methods, developed countries produce a plentiful supply of food that is high in calories—sugar, white flour, corn syrup, and animal products from animals fattened up on soybeans and corn. While in centuries past, many people died for want of calories, we have more than we could ever eat, and at an affordable price. Unfortunately, those same modern processing methods, though they give us cheap calories, eliminate much of the nutrition from foods. Nutrients are just as important for survival as calories, so with too much of the latter and not enough of the former, it’s easy to end up both overweight and undernourished. You can be eating too much and not enough at the same time! It doesn’t help that, thanks to the structure of our society, high–calorie/low–nutrient foods are the cheapest and the most convenient.

Anemia is a good example of the malnutrition that runs rampant despite the prosperity of our country. Anemia is a blood disorder with symptoms including fatigue, pallor, depression, headaches, lower back pain, dizziness, easy bruising and slow healing, loss of sex drive, brittle nails, hair loss, thin and dry hair, dry skin, and, in extreme cases, shortness of breath and palpitations. The disease is most commonly caused by a lack of dietary iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12. Iron is necessary for the production of hemoglobin, a protein that makes it possible for red blood cells to carry oxygen to our tissues. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are essential nutrients for the formation of the red blood cells themselves. Though such nutrients are readily present in whole, natural foods, anemia affects an estimated 3 to 6 million Americans.

One reason why such deficiencies exist even in people who can afford whole foods is simply a lack of knowledge. Most doctors don’t receive a thorough education in nutrition, let alone the average American, and most people don’t realize that eliminating the cause of their symptoms could simply be a matter of eating better. Another reason is that our society is structured so that processed foods are cheaper and more convenient than more nutritious whole foods. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find even one anemia sufferer who would really rather endure fatigue, depression and back pain than make some changes in diet and lifestyle that would not just eliminate those symptoms, but make for a more satisfying mealtime as well.

If you are (or think you may be) anemic, nutrient deficiency is very likely the cause. To increase your intake of the nutrients you need, try these recommendations:

–Add more leafy green vegetables to your diet. These include kale, collard greens, cabbage, bok choy, swiss chard and spinach. Leafy greens contain both iron and folic acid, as well as manganese, another important nutrient for iron absorption. They also contain chlorophyll, a nutrient similar to hemin, the pigment that forms hemoglobin when combined with protein.

–Add more iron rich red meat, such as lamb and beef, to your diet. These meats also contain vitamin B12 and the protein needed for forming hemoglobin. However, meat should be from grass–fed animals. Animals that did not eat their greens will have little iron in their own blood, and the meat from anemic animals won’t help you very much to overcome your own anemia. Especially rich in nutrients are organs such as the liver and kidneys, and since blood is formed from the bone marrow, try making a soup with beef soup bones containing marrow.

–Seafood is another good source of iron, B12 and protein, but it should be wild caught. Organic eggs and dairy products from grass–fed cows can also provide the same nutrients.

–Other foods that contain the nutrients you need: whole grains, beans, nuts, dried fruit, and especially sea vegetables such as nori and kombu.

Whether you’re anemic or not, eating more of these foods will without a doubt increase your energy and improve your mood, and since they contain such a wide variety of nutrients, they will address other types of deficiencies as well. So give it a try, and email me with any questions!

Squashing Nutrient Deficiencies

The star of the fall vegetable harvest, in all its many colorful varieties, is the winter squash. Its name probably comes from its hardy ability to survive a long winter storage without spoiling. Winter squash has just the right kind of energy and the right nutritional profile to help you acquire the hardiness needed in winter. It is one of the best foods you could eat at this time of year.

Many people are familiar with only one kind of winter squash: the pumpkin. And some are more accustomed to decorating with pumpkins than eating them. But squash can be so delicious, and make you feel so good, that once you add it to your diet, you won’t want to let your squashes sit around for long. Pumpkin pie is just the tip of the iceberg.

The most common varieties of squash besides the pumpkin are the acorn squash, butternut squash, buttercup squash, delicata squash, hubbard squash, kabocha squash, red kuri squash, and spaghetti squash. There are sub–varieties of these varieties (like the Cinderella pumpkin) but we won’t get into those. For now, there’s plenty to choose from!

As you could probably have guessed, squash is nutritious. Squash is high in vitamin A (which gives the interior flesh its bright orange color), vitamin C, potassium, and folic acid (B9). It also contains moderate amounts of other B vitamins and of essential minerals such as manganese and copper. Like all vegetables, it has plenty of fiber. Its healing properties include improving the health of the spleen and pancreas and reducing inflammation and associated pain. And finally, squash is high in calories. Not so high that you can eat more than you really need, but high enough that you’ll get that extra bit of heat energy you need during the winter, which you wouldn’t get from spring and summer vegetables. As with whole grains, potatoes, and other starchy whole foods, the calories in squash come from complex carbohydrates that are metabolized gradually so that you get a steady flow of energy in addition to the nutrients that you need.

Squash is a mildly sweet, calming and pleasant food that creates a cozy atmosphere in the kitchen. It combines well with fat (including butter, olive oil, sesame oil, and bacon fat), which increases vitamin A absorption and balances the carbohydrates. Add a little salt or tamari soy sauce to squash and you’ll bring out the sweet flavor even more. Squash is good with pumpkin pie spices (obviously) such as cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg, all of which set off the mild nature of squash and provide additional heat energy. Squash is also an inspiration for many great desserts, in which you can use natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, raw honey, and agave nectar.

Add more squash to your diet this fall and winter and I guarantee you’ll have better energy and experience visible improvements in your health. And when your body develops those squash cravings, you may have to find a new ornament to grace your front step!

Are You Malnourished?

We live in a country where almost everyone can afford all the food they need. In fact, food here is so plentiful and cheap that we are more likely to eat too many calories than too few. In this day and age, famine is the least of our concerns. And yet, even with all that wealth at our disposal, we’re not rich in health. Many people, even though they get their calories, still don’t get enough nutrients. They become malnourished and subsequently develop health problems. What could explain this strange irony in our modern society? How is it that we, with all the food we need at our disposal, can still get sick from nutrient deficiency?

The problem is that the most ubiquitous, most heavily advertised, most addictive, and least expensive foods available to us are processed foods containing mostly white flour, sugar, and artificial or rancid fats. These foods are high in calories and low in nutrition. Don’t think that calories are a bad thing. We can’t live without calories, and lots of them. But we can’t live just on calories either.

The only reason we can get so many calories and so little nutrition from processed foods is because they’ve been processed. Natural, whole foods contain the right balance of calories and nutrition. In the old days, as long as you got enough food, you were certain to get all the nutrients you needed. But food processors have gotten so adept at separating the nutrients from the calories, and at packaging and selling them separately, that even if we get both junk food and vitamin supplements, we benefit from neither.

When we eat processed foods that are low in nutrients, instead of eating nutritious foods, two things happen. The first is that we stop adding nutrition to our body’s supply, giving it less to work with. Another is that we force it to use up what little it already has in the process of digesting, assimilating, and eliminating the processed and toxic foods. Foods and ingredients that result in a net nutrient loss include white flour, white sugar, corn syrup, soft drinks, caffeine, trans fat, pasteurized milk, artificial sweeteners and any other artificial and synthetic substances. Eating mostly these foods is a form of self–starvation; it makes us malnourished.

Being malnourished isn’t bad merely in an abstract, theoretical sense. It causes a variety of very real health problems. In fact, the way we discovered nutrients in the first place was by cutting them out of our diet and getting sick as a result.

Fortunately, it’s easy to address nutrient deficiencies. Simply add into your diet the foods that contain the missing nutrients! This is how, in the 19th century, ship captains such as James Cook addressed outbreaks of scurvy (which comes from vitamin C deficiency) on long voyages. Cook took barrels of high–C sauerkraut with him, added it to the sailors’ diet, and didn’t lose a single man to scurvy.

Scurvy is fairly rare in our time, but there are many other common health problems that can come from nutrient deficiency. Review the “symptoms of deficiency” for the vitamins and minerals listed below to see if any of them apply to you, and try adding the recommend foods to take care of your symptoms. Some foods, like leafy green vegetables and sea vegetables, help with almost every deficiency because they are so high in so many different vitamins and minerals. Use them to take out multiple deficiencies at once! If you have any questions about how to add any of these recommended foods to your diet, send me an email.

Symptoms of Deficiency in Major Nutrients

Calcium: Osteoporosis (bone loss), fragile/brittle bones and nails, frequent dental problems, joint pain, arthritis, irregular heartbeat, and hypertension. See also Magnesium.
Foods to eat: spinach, mustard greens, collard greens, kale, swiss chard, kombu (a sea vegetable), celery, sesame seeds, brazil nuts, almonds, yogurt, raw milk, raw cheese, blackstrap molasses.

Iron: Anemia, fatigue, pale skin, weakness, brittle nails, pica (appetite for non–foods), constipation, depression.
Foods to eat: green leafy vegetables (mustard greens, collard greens, kale, cabbage, broccoli, spinach), medium rare red meat (grass–fed), naturally raised pork, liver (organic), seafood, sea vegetables, beans, nuts, eggs, dried fruit.

Magnesium: skin inflammation, allergies, anxiety, asthma, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, heart disease, and calcium deficiency symptoms (magnesium is needed for the absorption of calcium. Without magnesium, calcium forms deposits in soft tissue, including heart valves, increasing the likelihood of heart disease). Foods to eat:green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, brazil nuts, other nuts and seeds, whole grains, beans and tofu, seafood, sea vegetables.

Potassium: fatigue, or chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgia (muscle cramps and pain), constipation, high blood pressure/hypertension. Foods to eat: green leafy vegetables, potatoes (with skins), sweet potatoes, winter squash, tomatoes, beans, bananas, and almost all fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin A: poor vision, dry eyes, eye inflammation, dry mouth, dry/wrinkled skin, allergies, dandruff, weak immune system, cancer. Foods to eat: organic grass–fed butter, raw milk, organic liver, cod liver oil, eggs, carrots, pumpkin seeds, sweet potatoes, leafy green vegetables, winter squash, peaches, cantaloupe.

Vitamin B complex (B1: Thiamin, B2: Riboflavin, B3: Niacin, B6, B9: Folic Acid, B12): Lethargy, fatigue, severe weight loss, hypoglycemia, beriberi (B1); chapped, cracked lips, mouth/tongue inflammation, sensitivity to sunlight, bloodshot/itchy/watery eyes (B2); pellagra, weakness, sensitivity to cold, lack of appetite, skin infections, high cholesterol, alzheimer’s (B3); anemia, depression, high blood pressure (B6); anemia, birth defects, depression, anxiety, fatigue, heart disease (B9); pernicious anemia, fatigue, diarrhea, muscle spasms (B12) Foods to eat: Whole grains, liver, eggs, asparagus, cauliflower, potatoes with skin (B1); raw milk, raw cheese, leafy green vegetables, organ meats, beans, almonds (B2); whole wheat and other whole grains, beans and peanuts, mushrooms, sesame seeds, fish, meat (B3); whole grains, seafood, meat, leafy green vegetables (B6); leafy green vegetables, beans, sunflower seeds, whole grains, root vegetables (B9); all animal products, esp. liver, shellfish, raw milk, and eggs(B12).

Vitamin C: scurvy (incl. bleeding gums), weak immune system, asthma, respiratory problems, allergies, frequent colds and infections, slow healing wounds. Foods to eat: Leafy green vegetables, sour fruits (strawberries, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, limes, raspberries, pineapples), melons, kiwis, papaya, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cauliflower, celery, asparagus.

Vitamin D: Rickets, osteoporosis, other bone disorders, depression, seasonal affective disorder, schizophrenia, periodontal disease, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.Foods to eat: The best source of vitamin D is actually sunlight, by means of which we synthesize the vitamin. If unable to get adequate sunlight, you must rely on animal products from fish (particularly cod liver oil) and from animals that got enough sunlight, including grass–fed, free–range beef, pork, raw milk, chicken and eggs.

Vitamin E: Cancer, leg cramps, wrinkles, parkinson’s disease, alzheimer’s disease, glaucoma, cataracts, heart disease, neurological disorders. Foods to eat: Whole grains, esp. whole wheat, olives and olive oil, nuts and seeds and their oils (such as sunflower, sesame, walnut, almond, and hazelnut) leafy green vegetables, asparagus, cucumbers, seafood, and raw milk.

Nutritious Herbs and Spices

Including herbs and spices is vital for making your home–cooked food taste good. But there’s more to it than that; herbs and spices contain some of the most powerful health benefits of all plant foods and are often used as medicine just as much as they are used for flavor. Below is a list of 10 of the most nutritious herbs and spices!

1. Cayenne Pepper contains a compound called capsaicin, which is responsible for its hot and spicy flavor. Capsaicin is a very powerful anti–inflammatory and can reduce pain from arthritis, psoriasis and other inflammatory conditions. The stimulating heat of capsaicin also induces sweating, breaks up congestion in the body, and helps you burn calories, so it’s good for losing weight and eliminating toxins. Bright red cayenne also contains a high concentration of beta carotene, which supports the immune system. Include it in your cooking if you are often congested or have inflammatory pain. Use it to spice up beans, hot chocolate, sautéed vegetables and bitter greens. Also mix with lemon juice to make the master cleanser.

2. Cinnamon, one of the most popular spices, is also one of the greatest medicines. Like cayenne, cinnamon is anti–inflammatory and helps break up blood clots. The “power compound” in cinnamon is its essential oil, cinnemaldehyde, which is anti–microbial; it kills bad bacteria and fungi such as Candida. Cinnamon is excellent for people with diabetes, as it reduces sugar cravings and triples insulin’s ability to metabolize blood sugar. Finally, cinnamon makes you smarter! Studies have shown that the scent of cinnamon stimulates brain function, including memory and visual–motor speed. Cinnamon is excellent in baking, as it balances out the sugar of most desserts, and on hot breakfast cereals. It also goes well with ground meats and beans.

3. Cumin contains high amounts of iron, which is especially beneficial for menstruating women, and it improves digestion by stimulating the secretion of pancreatic enzymes. Like cayenne, it breaks up blood clots and reduces cholesterol in the blood. Cumin is also known to have anti–cancer properties, in that it neutralizes free radicals in the body and enhances the liver’s detoxification capabilities. Cumin combined with black pepper and honey is reputed to be an aphrodisiac. It also goes well with black beans, guacamole, falafel, hummus and fish.

4. Garlic may be the strongest of all healing herbs. Its potent, pungent healing effects come from sulfur–based compounds known as thiosulfinates, of which the most notable is allicin. The superstition that garlic wards off vampires is symbolic of its ability to kill off bad bacteria and viruses. Garlic reduces blood pressure, eliminates free radicals, reduces plaques, and is perhaps the most powerful antioxidant, anti–inflammatory, anti–microbial, anti–viral natural substance you can eat. A clove of raw garlic can usually knock out any approaching sickness. Garlic also reduces your risk for cancer and promotes optimal overall health. When it comes to cooking, garlic is standard for improving the flavor of almost any dish, especially when combined with onions and olive oil. Good roasted with root vegetables and meat, cooked in soups, sautéed with vegetables, toasted on bread, etc., etc.

5. Ginger, actually a root, is highly effective at reducing all forms of gastrointestinal distress, including cramps, stomachaches, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and even motion sickness and nausea. Ginger is yet another powerful anti–inflammatory that reduces arthritis pain, especially in the knees. It’s also been shown to kill off ovarian cancer cells. Ginger boosts the immune system by producing heat that encourages the expunging of toxins through sweating. Grated ginger is excellent added to lemonade, rice and bean dishes, sautéed or baked fish, baked goods (such as ginger cookies), and as a salad dressing with tamari, sesame oil and garlic.

6. Parsley,, like cinnamon, contains volatile oils that inhibit tumors and neutralize carcinogens; it also contains many antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins A and C. It helps reduce urinary infections and can be useful for breaking down and expelling gallstones and kidney stones. Parsley adds some spice to pesto and hummus; combined with garlic and lemon juice, it goes well with meat dishes. Its bright green color makes it an excellent garnish for soups and other dishes; just don’t forget to eat it!

7. Rosemary just plain smells good, and its distinctive smell has the same memory–strengthening properties as cinnamon. One of rosemary’s most distinctive health benefits is its ability to improve blood flow and circulation, especially to the brain, and is good for those with low blood pressure and any other circulatory weaknesses. It is also an anti–inflammatory agent and an antioxidant. Rosemary is great as a seasoning for roasted chicken, in omelets, added to tomato sauce, and to roasted vegetables.

8. Saffron, which has a cameo in the movie Ratatouille, inhibits the growth of tumors and it also stimulates T cells (immune system cells) to reproduce, thus supporting the immune system. It turns everything a golden yellow and is used in rice dishes such as paella.

9. Thyme’s specialty is reducing disorders associated with the chest and lung area, and can reduce coughs, bronchitis, and congestion located in the chest. It also helps expel intestinal worms and destroys bacteria and fungi. It contains an essential oil, thymol, that is a strong antioxidant, and it is also high in iron, manganese and calcium. Thyme can be used in cooking pretty much just like rosemary, and is also especially good with poached fish.

10. Turmeric may be second only to garlic as one of the most powerful anti–inflammatory and anti–cancer seasonings. Add it to your food to reduce inflammatory pain, especially from inflammatory bowel disease, and to reduce the risk of cancer, strokes and heart disease. Its healing strength comes not just from its volatile oil, but the compound that gives it its orange–yellow pigment, which is known as curcumin. Curcumin is as powerful an anti–inflammatory as some over the counter drugs, but has no side effects (unless you count reducing or preventing chest pain, bruises, colic, menstrual difficulties, prostate cancer, leukemia, alzheimer’s, and even inhibiting the spread of HIV. Wow!). Curcumin is pretty strong; you’ll notice that everything cooked with turmeric becomes the color of turmeric. It goes well with eggs, brown rice, Indian foods such as lentils and cauliflower, and roast chicken.

Understanding Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the current culprit for obesity. Back when the conventional wisdom dictated that fat, especially saturated fat, was bad for you, many food companies started to extensively promote low-fat foods such as pasta, cereal, crackers, chips and even pastries as the “healthy” alternatives to foods such as meat and dairy products. Because people were afraid of butter and cream, food companies avoided those ingredients. What did they add back in to keep their food products interesting? Usually it was sugar and white flour, both low in fat but high in carbohydrates. But even though they avoided fat, Americans didn’t get any thinner.

One of the lone voices dissenting from the low-fat philosophy was Dr. Atkins, whose “Atkins diet” claimed that it was carbs, not fat, that made you fat. A few years ago, the Atkins theory, which was backed up by other low-carb diets like the South Beach diet, really caught on, such that carbohydrates are currently thought to be as bad as fat once was. Some alternative nutritionists now argue that we weren’t even meant to eat starchy carbohydrate foods at all but should stick to our primal, hunter-gatherer origins and eat meat, berries and roots. What has been the result of all this theorizing? Food companies have jumped on the low-carb craze and come out with lots of low-carb foods, just like they did, and are still doing, with the low-fat craze.

As always, the goal of food companies (sometimes working in tandem with nutritionists and diet-book authors) is to convince you that you can only eat certain foods – that is, the ones that they produce and sell – and then get you to buy them. They argue that the foods made naturally – whether it’s butter, or bread made from whole wheat – are not good enough, and need to be refined and then enriched or replaced entirely with artificial creations. In my opinion, however, there is nothing wrong with natural sources of fat or carbs; in fact, some of the healthiest foods are high-fat and high-carb foods. In the last article, we talked about natural, healthy sources of fat and how to include them in your diet. In this article, we’ll talk about healthy, natural carbohydrates and how to get enough of them to stay full and satisfied without gaining weight.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are molecules made up of the atoms carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Much of the food we eat consists of carbohydrates. Grains, including wheat, rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, barley and oats, are the most well known high-carbohydrate foods. However, fruits and vegetables are also made up mostly of carbohydrates, as are beans. In fact, one of the most ubiquitous carbohydrate foods, sugar, is derived from fruits and vegetables. Not all of these carbohydrate foods are identical, though; there are three distinct kinds. The first group of carbohydrates is sugars. Foods that are mostly made up of sugars include fruit, sweet vegetables, and the pure sugars derived from them, such as maple syrup, corn syrup, and cane sugar. The second group of carbohydrates is made up of starches. Whole grains, bread, beans, and potatoes are foods that are mostly starch. The third group of carbohydrates consists of foods that are mostly fiber, like green leafy vegetables. None of these foods are 100% sugar, starch, or fiber. However, it is possible to process foods down to that point. White sugar, also known as sucrose, is indeed pure sugar. It comes from sugarcane or from beets, which, while they contain sugar, also have some fiber and starch. You can also get fiber supplements at the store, but a high-fiber food, like collard greens, also has a little sugar and some starch in it, particularly in the stem. So don’t make the error of thinking of a food as a “sugar” or a “starch”; most foods have some of each kind of carbohydrate.

The difference between these three groups is really only one of degree. Sugars, which include glucose (the kind of sugar in our blood), fructose (the kind of sugar that is in fruit), and sucrose (the aforementioned white sugar) are the simplest forms of carbohydrates. They are also known as monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides can be absorbed into the blood without any metabolism necessary. Disaccharides have to be broken down into monosaccharides to be absorbed, but their metabolism is extremely quick. The more simple sugars a food contains, the more quickly we digest it and absorb it into our blood.

Starches are made up of long chains of glucose saccharides. For this reason the digestive system needs more time to metabolize them and absorb them into the blood. Starches, again, come from plant foods like grains, beans, squash and potatoes. These “complex carbohydrates,” also known as polysaccharides, are created by plants as a way of storing glucose energy. Enzymes in the human digestive system break them down into disaccharides and then into monosaccharides.

The final category of carbohydrates, fiber, is also a polysaccharide, but so complex that it cannot be broken down by the human body. There are two kinds of fiber. Insoluble fiber passes directly through the intestines without being absorbed. Because it attracts water, it softens the stool, making bowel movements easier. The other kind of fiber, soluble fiber, ferments inside the large intestine and yields beneficial short-chain fatty acids. Most plant foods contain both soluble and insoluble fiber; beans, grains, fruits and vegetables all provide us with abundant fiber.

What are carbohydrates good for?

Because carbohydrates are easy for the body to metabolize and quickly absorb into the blood, they are an excellent source of energy (calories). Carbohydrates are to our body almost like gasoline is to a car. Following the development of agriculture and the subsequent growth of human populations, most people have depended on high-carbohydrate plant foods to get them through a physically intense workday. Since meat was traditionally not widely available, most people around the world for thousands of years depended on a combination of grains, beans and starchy vegetables like yams and potatoes to provide most of their sustenance, and ate highly prized meat and fat when they could get it.

What happens when we don’t eat carbohydrates? The body still needs energy from glucose to function properly. If it doesn’t have carbohydrates (the most efficient source of glucose), it will burn fat for energy. It will even break down muscle tissue and draw on protein stores if desperate. This process is known as ketosis. It’s a way for us to survive even in periods of famine. Many low-carbohydrate diets make use of ketosis as a way to help people lose weight. In my opinion, though, starvation is not the best way for people to lose weight; a moderate diet with the right kind of carbohydrates is a much more sensible option.

Carbohydrates are not just important for providing us with energy to undergo physical activity. Glucose is also the fuel that the brain needs to function. If you starve yourself of carbohydrates, you can slow down your brain’s ability to function properly and lose your ability to think clearly.

In sum, sugars and starches are important for keeping both your body and mind running. Fiber helps you to digest your food more easily and provides us with short-chain fatty acids that contribute to a number of important physical processes. Including some of all these kinds of carbohydrates in your diet is very important.

What kind of carbohydrates should I eat?

Many people are now cautious about carbohydrates because they’re linked to weight gain. I grew up on a high-carbohydrate diet: the Macrobiotic diet. The diet is mostly whole grains, with a ton of vegetables, some fruit, and occasionally beans. Fat hardly ever puts in an appearance (except for a little sesame oil here and there), and protein is pretty low (you get some protein from combining grains and beans, but high-protein animal products are out). Everyone who goes on this high-carbohydrate diet loses weight like crazy, no matter how much food they eat (and sometimes it’s a lot, because the diet is not very filling).

Why didn’t macrobiotic people get fat on carbohydrates? It’s because not all high-carbohydrate foods are alike. There are two kinds: carbohydrate foods that occur in nature, which contain not just carbohydrates but also vitamins and minerals; and carbohydrate foods that have been processed to the point where they are just pure sugar or starch. To understand what the difference means for your body, we’ll have to talk a little more about food chemistry and what happens when you digest carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates start being metabolized in the mouth, when acted on by the salivary enzyme amylase. They are broken down into their simplest form, that of glucose monosaccharides, in the small intestine. Glucose molecules are small enough to be absorbed through the intestine into the blood, where they can be used for energy (a process called catabolism).

When we eat a natural, whole form of a carbohydrate food, such as brown rice, quinoa, black beans, carrots, onions, apples, bananas, etc., we digest not just pure carbohydrates, but also other compounds such as vitamins, minerals, other nutrients, and water. Natural foods like grains, fruits and vegetables are constituted such that all of their components combine for gentle and steady digestion, which results in a gradual, consistent flow of glucose into the blood and therefore a calm, steady energy level.

What kind of carbohydrates should I avoid?

Unfortunately, many people don’t get their carbohydrates from whole, natural foods, but rather from refined, processed foods. The two kinds of carbohydrates that are in most processed foods are sugar, or high fructose corn syrup, and white flour. These two foods are pure sugar and pure starch, respectively. They constitute most cereals, breads, pastas, chips, candies, bagels, pastries and crackers. What happens when we eat these foods? Because they contain pure carbohydrates and little else, they are digested very rapidly. This means that our blood gets a flood of glucose all at once. Having high blood sugar levels gives us a lot of energy, but it’s dangerous for your body’s health. To keep blood sugar within safe levels, the pancreas secrete the hormone insulin, which stores glucose in the cells in the form of glycogen (a polysaccharide) and in the form of triglycerides (fatty acids). Responding to dangerously high blood sugar levels, the body overreacts and takes too much sugar out of the blood, leaving us fatigued and irritable. At this point we often reach for more pure sugar and white flour-containing foods, and the cycle begins again. If this happens too often, a person’s insulin production can become exhausted, which is the condition known as diabetes.

Diabetes is not the only side effect of eating too much sugar and white flour, though; every time the body is flooded with too much pure sugar, it has to draw on its own nutrient stores to properly handle the sugar and remove it from the body. Since most foods that are high in sugar and white flour don’t contain vitamins and minerals, then not only does the body use up its supply, but that supply doesn’t get replenished! If our body doesn’t have enough nutrients, it loses the ability to undergo its most basic functions. The immune system is weakened and can’t protect us. The brain does not function as well, leading to depression, bipolar disorder, or other irrational behavior. Osteoporosis, tooth decay, and kidney damage can all occur as a result of mineral deficiency. Sugar and white flour create an over-acidic condition in the digestive system, leading to candida, acid reflux, and other digestive disorders. The list goes on.

What about weight gain? When sugar is removed from the blood via insulin, it is stored as triglycerides – fat molecules. Since most foods with white flour and sugar are low in density (they don’t contain or water of fiber, and so are not very filling), it’s easy to eat a lot of them – and since they’re pure carbohydrates, they’re very high in calories. Sugar and white flour are the real culprits for high triglycerides and hardening of the arteries. Not only do these simple carbohydrates get stored in our bodies as fat, making it very easy for us to gain weight, they make it very easy for us to succumb to a heart attack. Nevertheless, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bread product that contains 100% whole wheat flour, instead of white flour, or to find any food product at all that doesn’t contain sugar, high fructose corn syrup or some other form of sugar.

A good way to distinguish between natural carbohydrate foods and processed ones is to refer to them as “complex carbs” and “simple” carbs. The former include whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. Whole wheat flour is a complex carbohydrate because, even though the wheat has been ground into flour, the fiber and wheat germ have not been processed out. Fruit and vegetable juices, even though they have been processed a little (fiber has been removed), still contain a lot of water, vitamins and minerals.

Simple carbohydrates are white flour, sugar (in all its forms), and the foods made from these ingredients. You don’t have to avoid them 100% of the time; in fact, how much you choose to eat simple carbohydrate-containing foods is up to you. But if you notice symptoms of fatigue, poor digestion or depression, if you have an erratic energy level, if you’re gaining a lot of weight, or if you’re at risk for heart disease – in fact, if you have any health concern at all – I suggest you reduce your intake of these foods and observe whether your health improves.

What if I like sugar and white flour?

Because of the high energy and mood boost they provide, sugar and white flour are tough to kick. A good place to start is to use more whole wheat flour and natural sweeteners (raw honey, barley malt, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, maple syrup and molasses). Here you have sugar and starch in a form that digests pretty quickly, but not so quickly that your blood is flooded with glucose. Whole grains, starchy vegetables and fruit are not as sweet as most processed foods, but you’ll soon crave them for the balanced mood and energy they give you and you’ll begin to notice their more subtle flavors.

Another group of foods you can eat to control your craving for simple carbs is the high-fat foods. Many of our cravings for pastries and pasta come from the fact that we’ve eliminated fat from our diets, and so we don’t have a satisfying, long-lasting form of energy. Adding in more fat will actually make us more satisfied and cut down on the number of calories we eat in the end. Refer to the Understanding Fat article from last month for a guide to including fat in your diet.

5. Conclusion

Even though carbohydrates are healthy when found in whole, natural foods (in which condition they are known as “complex carbs”), they will cause weight gain and other health problems when eaten in the pure forms of white flour and sugar (“simple carbs”). I should point out that I don’t completely abstain from simple carbs. If I’m actually going to be using the energy they provide, then they’re not as bad. In the summer, when we need less food and prefer food that is less dense and heavy, more pasta and bread is okay. Let’s not forget that sugar really is delicious, even though I’ve essentially accused it above of being America’s No.1 killer. What’s important is that if you eat some simple carbs, make sure that you also eat some highly nutritious foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. These will keep your system healthy and help your blood sugar stabilize. Sugar and white flour are still natural foods in the sense that they come from grains and vegetables (sugar is far, far better than artificial sweeteners that the human body cannot digest); they’re just very extreme foods that can put your body out of balance. Making sure that your diet is balanced and that your intake of simple carbs is moderate is key for living a long, healthy life at your natural weight.

Understanding Fat

1. Health Benefits of Fat

Fats are acids that are not soluble in water (hence the phrase “like oil and water” for things that do not mix well together. Oil is simply fat in liquid form). Edible fatty acids, or “fats” for short, are essential to the human diet. Examples of edible fats are animal fats from meat (lard, tallow, etc.), dairy fat (butter, cream, cheese), and vegetable fats (olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil). People have been eating fat as long as the human race has been around, and with good reason. Fats provide long–lasting energy, because they are high in calories but are slow to digest. They contribute to the formation of cell membranes and hormones in the body. They also contain and transmit the fat–soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and assist in mineral absorption. Without enough fat in the diet, many of us cannot properly assimilate our nutrients. This is one reason why taking vitamin and mineral supplements by themselves is not as healthy as, say, having a salad with olive oil.

Fats also provide warmth and insulation to the body and provide a layer of protection around our organs. They help us feel full so that we do not overeat. Some kinds of fats have antimicrobial properties that help strengthen the immune system. Fat also relieves stress, which is why it is thought of as a comfort food. When human beings did not have as much access to food as we do now, fat was highly prized for the heat and long–lasting energy it provided; for this reason it plays a major role in traditional diets.

It’s clear that having enough fat in our diets is extremely important. Without it, we can become weak, deficient and cold. We’re also more likely to get stressed out and anxious when something goes wrong. Without enough fat, we’ll turned to refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour for energy, which won’t fill us up even though they are high in calories. We won’t make the most of our vitamins and minerals, which makes our immune system weaker. Unfortunately, though, many people are uncomfortable about including more fat in their diets. People stick to low–fat or reduced–fat foods as a way to lose weight, and think they’re doing something sinful when they eat a lot of cream or butter. It’s important to acknowledge that fat can be dangerous if it’s not good quality. In the following section, we’ll see how the introduction of low–quality and processed fats contributed towards giving fat a bad name.

2. History of the Fat Scare

As I said above, people have been eating fat for just about forever without getting sick. So why did studies come out in the 1940s and 1950s saying that fat made you fat and clogged your arteries? In the beginning, it was a particular kind of fat that got all the negative press: saturated fat. This is the fat that is found in animal products like meat, milk, eggs, butter and cheese. Researchers noticed a correlation between a high amount of saturated fat in the diet and heart disease and obesity. You might wonder why foods that had been widely consumed for millennia were suddenly linked to health problems, but that question did not really get asked. The studies did provide the opportunity for food companies to sell more reduced–fat products that they could specially process. The studies also created a market for an alternative to natural saturated–fat animal products: polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Cheap vegetable oils had first been sold as alternatives to butter when Crisco, the vegetable–oil shortening, was put on the market in 1911. As more people thought they should avoid butter, food manufacturers sold vast quantities of margarines, liquid vegetable oils that had been hydrogenated to make them solid at room temperature. A massive financial incentive existed for food companies to encourage people to be afraid of natural, whole animal fats and to buy their processed trans fats or low–fat alternatives instead. It was more profitable for food companies to encourage misunderstanding of the real consequences and meaning of the saturated fat studies.

There is a tendency in nutrition to pinpoint a food as good or bad, a “superfood” or a poison. In reality, what’s much more important for eating healthy is balancing your diet properly and making sure the foods you eat are of good quality. The reason why high consumption of saturated fat was linked to health problems was twofold: not only was the saturated fat of poor quality, but it wasn’t balanced enough by other foods.

Poor quality: Around the time these studies were done, animals raised for meat and milk were much less likely to be fed a healthy diet than they had been in the past. Instead of letting animals feed on grass and insects and roam on pasture, factory farmers crowded them into manufacturing plants and fed them cheap grains such as corn. Because these animals didn’t eat their vegetables, their meat and milk lacked important vitamins and minerals that would have helped us to process the saturated fat in it. More importantly, the animals didn’t have access to the omega-3 fatty acids that are in grass and insects. Omega-3 fatty acids are a kind of polyunsaturated fat that cleans out our arteries and helps our brains function (see the extensive article I wrote on them a few months agohere). If you eat the meat or dairy products of an animal fed on grass, you’ll get both saturated fat and omega-3 fat. The omega-3 fat will cancel out the artery–clogging effect of the saturated fat. In other words, it wasn’t saturated fat that was the problem; it was the absence of omega-3 fat. Unfortunately, the study did not make that clear. In conclusion, poor quality saturated fat from unhealthy animals that did not get their omega-3s will cause health problems.

Imbalanced diet: The studies done on people eating a diet high in saturated fat didn’t take into account what other foods they ate. In the 40s and 50s, it wasn’t uncommon for a family to eat a lot of meat but few vegetables, except perhaps peas and potatoes. Vegetables are very important for balancing our fat intake; they provide water, fiber and nutrients. We should be eating at least as much vegetable food by volume as we eat animal food. If you’re not eating your vegetables, too much fat will be a problem. Again, it’s not a single nutrient in isolation that’s good or bad, but what you eat with it. Instead of continuing to avoid vegetables and then also avoiding saturated fat, people should eat plenty of both.

What we’re finding out now is that the reason why heart disease and obesity haven’t decreased is because the processed foods that replaced saturated fat—sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils (aka trans fats)—are much worse. To understand why, we’ll need to move on to the final two sections of the article, where we talk about the science and chemistry of fats, and the quality of fat.

3. Fat Chemistry

There are three different kinds of fat molecules: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Polyunsaturated fat can be further divided into other fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The names are completely unintelligible because they connote characteristics on the molecular level. Fats are chains of carbon atoms whose bonds are completely or partially filled by hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats are called that because they have their bonds completely filled, which makes them very stable and unlikely to undergo any chemical reactions. Because they are stable, they pack together well and so are solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats are missing two hydrogen atoms, so they are less stable and liquid at room temperature, but solid in the refrigerator. Polyunsaturated fats are the least stable and should be kept away from heat and light so that they don’t undergo a chemical reaction such as oxidation, which makes them rancid.

The fat that we eat and that exists in our bodies is in the form of triglycerides. A triglyceride is three of these fatty–acid chains attached to a glycerol molecule. We can raise our triglyceride levels by eating more fat but also by eating sugars (carbohydrates) which the liver turns into triglycerides if we do not use them for energy. This is the body’s way of storing calories in case we need them later. Extremely high levels of triglycerides in the blood have been clearly linked to heart disease, but it’s very hard to build those high levels by eating fat. Fat is so filling that there’s only so much we can eat at one sitting. Sugar, on the other hand, is not very filling but still very high in calories. Since we’re unlikely to be able to use all those calories, the leftover sugar will be converted into excess triglycerides, which will then just accumulate. The number one thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease is to reduce consumption of refined sugar.

Given that eating high–quality fat is not going to result in dangerously high levels of triglycerides, and that it has so many health benefits, how do we incorporate it into our diets? We need a balance of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6). Most foods contain a combination of each, but a predomination of one. For example, butter is about 70% saturated fat, while the rest is unsaturated. Sesame oil is about 40% monounsaturated and 40% polyunsaturated. Below is a breakdown of which edible fats fall into which categories:

Saturated fat: Foods with a high amount of this extremely stable fat are dairy products (butter, milk, yogurt, cream, cheese) animal fats like beef, pork and chicken fat (tallow, lard and schmaltz), and tropical fats like palm oil and coconut oil. Butter, animal fats, and tropical fats are the ones that you should use when you are cooking with high heat, whether stir–frying, deep–frying, or sautéing for long periods of time. Once softened a little, they are excellent for spreading on bread or other grains and grain products.

Monounsaturated fat: These are the fats that are liquid at room temperature but will sometimes solidify in the fridge. They include olive oil, avocado oil, and the oil from nuts such as almonds, pecans, cashews, macadamia nuts, and peanuts. These fats are a little lighter and less filling than the saturated fats. You can do some light cooking with olive oil or peanut oil, but monounsaturated fats are best eaten raw, whether you’re eating nuts or olives, olive oil dressing, or nut butters.

Polyunsaturated fat: These are the least stable of the fats; not only are they liquid at room temperature, but even in the refrigerator. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are found either in green plant foods or in animals that have eaten a lot of green plants, whether from sea or land. Fish oil and cod liver oil is very high in omega-3s because fish feed on algae and plankton. Eggs, butter, meat and cheese from grass–fed animals also has plenty of omega-3 and omega-6 fat. Omega-6 fat can also be found in seeds such as sunflower seeds and flax seeds, soybeans, corn, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, pistachios, and sesame seeds. In most cases, plant foods will have equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6. Avoid purchasing polyunsaturated omega-6 oils such as soybean oil, walnut oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil and safflower oil. Stick to just eating walnuts, corn, soybeans, sunflower seeds, and the like.

To be healthy, we need to eat some of all of these fats. Right now, saturated fat is recovering from a bad reputation, monounsaturated fat like olive oil is thought to be pretty good, omega-3 fatty acids are considered a miracle food, and omega-6s are just starting to get hated on. We already saw that the case against saturated fat was flawed. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids actually must be eaten in a 1:1 ratio for good health; the former is only thought of as better because we weren’t eating it at all, and we were eating too much omega-6. The reality is that all these fats are good; just eat some of each on a day–to–day basis. They balance each other within your system and are all needed for optimum health.

By itself, though, balance is not all you need to have a healthy fat intake. The final subject we need to take up is fat quality. Balancing the different kinds of fats in your diet is no good if the fats are rancid or toxic. Just as you wouldn’t buy wilted or rotten fruits and vegetables at the store, you must avoid low quality fat.

4. Fat Quality

Most of us don’t eat fat straight from the source; we go to the store and buy butter or olive oil or bacon or canola oil. Even if these foods are healthy in the ideal, natural state, how do we know if the specific fatty foods we buy are good for us? To answer this question it will be helpful to break down the different kinds of fat once again.

Saturated fat: Since this kind of fat mostly comes from animals, the key question is whether the animals were healthy. As we’ve already discussed, if an animal is grass–fed, its meat and milk will contain both saturated fat and omega-3 fat in a healthy ratio. Organic meat and milk is important as well because often toxins from pesticides and artificial fertilizers in the animals’ feed will be stored by their bodies in fat cells. The best quality saturated fat comes from an animal that’s been feed on organic grass and had room to move around.

Dairy products such as milk, cheese and butter should also come from a cow or goat that’s been able to feed on organic feed and grass and roam freely. Most dairy products are homogenized, which is a process that breaks up fat molecules so that they don’t collect together at the surface. Homogenization turns fat from a very healthy macronutrient into a dangerous one. See my milk article for a more detailed explanation. Pasteurization also kills bacteria and enzymes in dairy products that make it easier for us to digest fat. In addition to looking for non–homogenized milk, try also to find cheese made from raw milk, and butter that has had a bacteria culture added back into it. The nice thing about these better quality dairy products is that there really isn’t any limit on how much you can eat; just continue until you feel full. At the very least, avoid any dairy products or ice cream that are reduced fat; instead, have the whole–fat kind, but consume less.

Monounsaturated/Polyunsaturated Fat: Because these kinds of fats are less stable, they are more sensitive to heat and light. The first priority is to try and find vegetable oils that are made from organically grown vegetables. But also important is to buy oils that are carefully preserved on their way to the store. When unsaturated fats are exposed to light and other sources of heat, the heat will catalyze a chemical reaction in which the fat molecules react with the air and become oxidized. This is also known as rancidification. Rancid fats are very bad for us because they contain free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that contain extra oxygen. Once they are in our system, free radicals attack and break down the cells of our own body as a way to become neutralized. Symptoms of consuming foods with many free radicals include poor skin (wrinkles, age spots), a weakened immune system, and stagnant/damaged cells that can turn cancerous.

Almost all the commercial vegetable oils you can consume, whether they’re sold in clear plastic or glass jars at the store, or listed among the ingredients on a packaged, processed food, are probably already partly rancid and contain many free radicals. Serious oxidation can occur just from jars sitting on the shelf under fluorescent light all day. But most of it happens during processing. Almost all oil manufacturers extract vegetable oil from seeds by crushing the seeds while simultaneously heating them. The heat, light and oxygen that the oil is exposed to all contribute to its oxidation. Chemical solvents are also used to separate oil from seed pulp, traces of which still remain in the final product. Natural preservatives in the oil that prevent rancidity, such as vitamin E and other antioxidants, are also destroyed during processing.

It is possible, although perhaps not as efficient, to cold–press seeds as a method of extraction. Cold–pressed or expeller–pressed oil will contain far fewer free radicals, and will also contain natural antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. It is also possible to process oils without using a chemical solvent. These oils are called “unrefined” oils and contain a slight residue that signifies the presence of vitamins and other nutrients. Unrefined, cold–pressed vegetable oils sold in opaque jars are, like cultured, grass–fed butter, healthy fats that you can eat to your heart’s content (literally).

Trans fat: It’s worth it to devote special attention to the one kind of fat we consume which doesn’t occur in nature. Trans–fatty acids are those created when polyunsaturated vegetable oils (usually soybean oil, already rancid from its own extraction process) are mixed with a metal catalyst, usually nickel oxide, and put in a hot, high–pressure reactor with hydrogen gas. A forced chemical reaction occurs between the liquid oil and the hydrogen gas to create hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is solid at room temperature. The newly created trans fat molecule is indigestible and toxic to the human body, but our body will try to assimilate it anyway, upon which it interferes with normal cell metabolism, leading to overall physical dysfunction that includes a weakened immune system, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, birth defects, sterility, difficulty in lactation, sexual dysfunction and cancer. It’s obvious that there is no such thing as good quality trans fat, ever. Trans fat is found in most processed, packaged foods (just look for fully or partially hydrogenated ___ oil among the ingredients), and in most fried foods that you get at restaurants.

Our government has made it legal for food companies that make products with trans fat to list “0 grams trans fat” on the nutrition facts label when the serving size is small enough to contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. However, if you eat multiple servings, those grams will definitely pile up. In other words, you can’t trust the nutrition facts; look at the ingredients for hydrogenated oil.

5. Conclusion

Fat is an essential part of every person’s diet. How much of it you eat on a daily basis is something that you can let your body’s natural wisdom dictate; you don’t always have to consult an expert. As I’ve said before, eating too much is rarely a problem when it comes to something as filling as fat. Consuming fat only becomes a health risk when we’re eating poor quality fat, or if we’re not balancing our fat intake with other healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and beans. Eating some of each of the different kinds of fat is important as well (saturated, monounsaturated, omega-3 and omega-6). Avoid polyunsaturated fats that are rancid or hydrogenated (trans fats), and try to cut down on saturated fats that are from grain–fed animals. When push comes to shove, though, always choose a saturated fat like butter over a hydrogenated vegetable oil, regardless of quality, and remember to eat plenty of highly nutritious, antioxidant–laden fruits and vegetables no matter what you do. Not only will you be healthier after adding more good–quality fat into your diet, you’ll probably be a lot happier too!

Sea Vegetables

I’ve always known that sea vegetables are among the best foods for your health. I grew up eating all the different species—nori, kombu, hijiki, arame, dulse, wakame. I was so familiar with them that their names even sounded normal to me. So when I started attending classes at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I couldn’t wait to hear my teachers extol the virtues of these unusual ocean–dwelling plants (or weeds, to use a less euphemistic term). To my surprise, sea vegetables were not placed front and center. Even the school’s founder said that it took him a long time to get into them. Later I realized that my teachers were trying not to alienate the majority of the student body by telling them that a healthy diet was all about eating the oddest and most exotic foods you could find. And they’re right—you can certainly be healthy without sea vegetables. Many traditional peoples settled and thrived in places where they weren’t available. But because sea vegetables do have so many nutritional benefits, and because they taste quite delicious even in quick, simple recipes, I think it’s important to devote some time to them, especially at this time of year, when their warming, salty qualities balance the harsh winter.

Because sea vegetables come from the ocean, they are coated with a wide variety of different minerals that are naturally present in the sea. These include calcium (ten times as much as an equal amount of milk), iron, magnesium, phosphorus, iodine, chromium and zinc, to name a few. Because of contemporary agricultural practices, the soil that our conventional food is grown in is often less rich in minerals than it used to be. Sea vegetables are therefore a good way to get all your minerals without having to buy expensive mineral supplements (which are not as efficient; minerals are much better absorbed when digested alongside plant tissue). Because of their salt and mineral content, they are even more alkalizing than other vegetables. Because they are plants, sea vegetables also contain a lot of vitamins such as A, C, and many of the B vitamins. Because they thrive in cold ocean environments, they especially help strengthen people in the winter. They are very good for people with serious health conditions like cancer because they carry toxic and radioactive waste out of the body.

Finally, because of their abundance of nutrients, sea vegetables will do amazing things for your skin and hair. Hijiki, arame, and wakame especially help promote beautiful glossy, shiny hair and prevent hair loss. Because they are so detoxifying, sea vegetables naturally promote healthy clear skin.

Most sea vegetables can be eaten in soups, as snacks, or in salads or stir–fries. The brands sold in health food stores always include on the packaging several recipes, because they are well aware that very few people have experience cooking these strange, and strange–looking, foods.

My sea vegetable cooking class, mentioned above, will be held on February 25 th. It’s a way for anyone interested in introducing these bizarre and wonderful foods to their diet to learn how to prepare them easily and quickly. If you’d like to come, send me an email and I will reserve your spot!

Animal Products

One of my recommendations for winter weather was to eat more fat and protein. For a non–vegetarian, animal products are among the best sources of these macronutrients. They are filling and strengthening, and possess plenty of iron and B vitamins. Good quality animal food also contains omega-3 fatty acids. Very active people benefit especially from animal foods and so do those who spend a lot of time in the cold. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of rightly deserved controversy surrounding the consumption of meat and other animal products. It’s been said that these foods are inherently unhealthy and lead to fatal diseases such as heart disease and cancer, as well as to related problems such as high cholesterol, strokes, and osteoporosis (see the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, as an example). It’s also been said that there’s nothing wrong with animal products themselves, in fact, that they ard a traditional and integral part of a healthy diet, but that factory farming and other industrial techniques severely diminish the quality of the animal foods, as well as being responsible for animal cruelty and environmental waste (for a corresponding example, see the Weston A. Price Foundation). So what is the reality?

It’s true that almost all traditional societies have had some animal foods in their diets. From the Eskimos to the Celts to various African tribes and South Sea islanders, practically everyone ate meat or fish in some form or other. The animal foods they ate have been credited with helping them build muscle and develop proper bone and facial structure (including perfect teeth — there was no need for modern dental techniques until the 20 th century, and this is attributed to the end of the traditional consumption of raw animal fat). Animal foods also gave people enough stored protein and fat to survive periods of famine, helped them absorb vitamins and minerals, and enabled them to remain both warm and nourished in the winter. However, these people consumed these foods very differently hundreds or thousands of years ago from the way we do now. All the animals were organic, free–range, grass– and insect–fed, and were never given hormones or antibiotics. The most highly prized and sought after parts of the animals were not the muscle tissues that we eat now, but the organs that held all the vitamins and minerals. The liver, the heart, the kidneys, even the blood were essential parts of the diet. Eating the healthy organs of the animal nourished these organs in the person, making them much stronger against heart disease, liver failure, kidney stones, etc. Some of this tradition has come down to us in the practice of taking cod liver oil medicinally, even though this too has fallen out of favor.

Meat not being as readily available as it is now, people also ate smaller and fewer servings. People in warmer regions especially, with less active lives, needed to eat a lot less meat. The Eskimos could get away with eating tons of fatty animal foods, but, of course, they also lived in freezing cold igloos. The main problem with eating animal products the same way today, though, is that most animals are raised in factory farms where they live very brief, very unhealthy, very unhappy lives. Their organs are filled with toxins from the pesticides and chemicals in the food they eat, which includes not just a ton of corn and soy (common allergens for a good reason), but leftover ground up animal products from the unused parts of other animals. There are antibiotics to keep them alive in cramped living conditions that would otherwise kill them off, and hormones to make them constantly grow bigger and fatter. I don’t think I would want to eat a liver that has to process all that stuff, let alone a raw liver! No wonder they warn you to cook the meat to death — you’re cooking some unhealthy bacteria to death too. Even the muscle meat of these animals is nutritionally far poorer because of the diet that they are fed. Cows are meant to eat grass, which has vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Cows that eat nutritionally empty food are correspondingly nutritionally empty on your plate. Finally, I don’t approve of eating animals that have been subject to needlessly cruel treatment, in which they are mutilated or artificially inseminated without any thought to the way they are naturally meant to live. I would not be surprised if there are additional health ramifications for eating an animal that led an unhappy life, or if there turns out to be a connection between the depression that afflicts so many Americans and the depression that exists in the animals they eat.

So, are animal foods healthy and good for you? I think they certainly can be, but you can see it depends on a number of factors, one of the most important of which is whether the animal itself was healthy and happy, and on a healthy diet of its own. Given that the meat, milk, eggs, or cheese did come from a health animal, we should also take into account how much we eat, whether we balance it with enough vegetables and other foods, and whether we’re just eating a lot of steaks or occasionally trying something like the liver. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of heart attacks out there went significantly down if people switched to organic, grass–fed, free–range meat with omega-3 fatty acids, which act like antifreeze in your arteries, and therefore balance out the saturated fat of the animal.

Some organic meat is available from health food stores and supermarkets like Whole Foods. However, I think it’s best if you can find a local farmer. The website www.localharvest.org has a national database of farmers selling their own locally grown animal products from family farms. The Weston A. Price Foundation has a section on their website where they list local providers of high–quality animal food: go tohttp://www.westonaprice.org/localchapters/index.html.

Sometimes it may seem like organic animal products are very expensive compared to their conventional counterparts. However, for conventional animal products, there is a “cost” of selling so cheaply: that cost is the practice of factory farming and all its flaws. The difference in price between the two is made up in the overcrowding of the conventional animals, the poor quality feed, the environmental waste, and the animal cruelty. These are practices that the manufacturers of the meat industry (they really do seem like manufacturers, not farmers at all) implemented in order to beat the competition and sell their meat at an artificially low price. What I recommend is eating fewer animal products but buying higher quality. I would also note that if you go out to a restaurant and order a steak, it’s not going to be organic, but you still pay about as much for that steak as you would for an organic steak at the supermarket that’s twice as big. Plus, at most restaurants they probably overcook it. One last advantage to point out with organic, free–range meat: because it’s been raised in healthier, disease–free conditions, cooking it a little more on the rare, juicy side isn’t cause for worry — just for pleasure.

The Mysterious Appeal of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Part of what I studied in nutrition school were nutritional trends, or fads: dietary theories centered around a superfood, or supernutrient, that would make you live longer, look better, feel healthier, improve your IQ, etc. Other times the fad would be for the antidote to an evil food like saturated fat or carbohydrates. Some of our teachers who lectured about the folly of these narrow-minded trends, though, were themselves susceptible to latching on to fads. For a few months it seemed like everyone who came to our school to speak was recommending fish oil, not necessarily as the cure to everything, but something you should take in addition to anything else you were doing. (i. e., “If you’re struggling with such-and-such health concern, then do so-and-so. Oh, and take fish oil.”) The fish oil was being recommended as a healthy way to get people to eat the miracle omega-3 fatty acids.

Now, I have developed my own theory about supernutrient fads. It goes like this: each supernutrient becomes widely known in proportion to the degree to which the foods that contain it are eaten less and less. Support for this theory dates back at least to the discovery of vitamins. Throughout history, sailors who went on long voyages would develop scurvy after their supplies of fruit and vegetables perished, and it was a Scottish surgeon, James Lind, who found that specifically citrus fruit, such as lemons and limes, could cure the disease (the British Royal Navy was quick to adopt his findings, resulting in their sailors being nicknamed as “Limeys.”). This discovery eventually led to the isolation of vitamin C and sparked research into other possible vitamins.

Sometimes when you read health and wellness magazines that advise you to take advantage of the latest antioxidant, you may think that scientists have discovered some new fountain of youth within a particular food – but it’s not so much that the supernutrient cures a particular disease as that we started becoming vulnerable to sickness when we stopped eating the foods that contained the nutrient. Some people then take the nutrient all by itself – as a supplement – without going back to the original, missing food. I always feel a little silly recommending foods based on their nutrients, because there are probably many as-yet undiscovered reasons to eat whole foods (or drink fish oil), and the nutrients we know are just the tip of the iceberg. The reason why I’m writing on omega-3′s is both to give my own perspective on the supernutrient idea while explaining what these fatty acids are (I didn’t want to tell my clients, “Uh, just take them”). So, on to the fats.

According to my theory, there’s such an emphasis on omega-3′s these days because at some point in the past they disappeared from our diet. I think this disappearance can be traced back to the once-popular notion that saturated fat (as contained in lard, butter, meat, milk, cheese and other foods for which there are usually “lean” “low-fat” or “non-dairy’ alternatives) is detrimental to one’s health, specifically in that it clogs your arteries and leads to heart disease (an ailment which still kills twice as many people as all cancers combined). When studies were released demonizing saturated fats in the mid-20 th century, many people turned to the alternatives that manufacturers had provided: polyunsaturated vegetable oils, such as Crisco and margarine (a hydrogenated polyunsaturated vegetable oil).

It’s curious that there ever were such reports about saturated fats, because people had been eating them for thousands of years, and benefiting from the practice in many ways. These fats constitute half of our cell membranes, make it possible for calcium to be incorporated into our bones, supply warmth and heat to the body, insulate vital organs, and help assimilate the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K. So why did butter get demonized? To answer this question, we’ll have to talk about the science behind the omega-3′s.

The polyunsaturated fats, found in plant life, come in two categories, omega-3 fats and omega-6 (the number refers to the location of the first double-bond in the acid molecule). They are both called “essential” fatty acids because they can’t be synthesized by the human body. Both are needed for human health, but in a very specific ratio: they should be consumed at about a rate of 1:1. For a variety of reasons, over the last century the omega-3 acids practically dropped out of our diet and the consumption of omega-6 increased such that for many people the ratio is around 20:1 or even 50:1.

One of the reasons for this development is that as farms consolidated and grew in size to become factory farms, their livestock were less and less likely to feed on grass and insects and more likely to feed on grains. Milk, meat (especially organ meat such as liver), cheese, butter, and eggs that come from grass-fed animals contain far more omega-3 fatty acids than their grain-fed counterparts. This is because the seeds and grasses and bugs are the original sources of the omega-3 fatty acid, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), from which the body can make the other important kinds, eicosapentaenoic acid and docohexaenoic acid (EPA and DHA). Flax seed, chia seed, hemp seed, walnuts, dark green vegetables such as kale, collards, chard, and parsely, and soybean products such as tofu and tempeh all are sources of ALA. One major reason why our omega-3:omega-6 ratio got all out of whack is clear: not only did we stop eating as many green plants and wild grasses and herbs, but even stopped feeding them to the animals we ate. As we’ll see in a moment, omega-3 acids are very important for counterbalancing the saturated fat in animal foods. Saturated fat is fairly healthful in combination with omega-3′s (and plenty of vegetables), but it isn’t so great all by itself. A saturated fat scare was probably inevitable, and in response we started eating more commercial vegetable oils, which have the omega-6 linoleic acid, as opposed to the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid. As you can see, this just made things even worse.

Omega-3 fatty acids have sometimes been compared to antifreeze; they reduce blood viscosity and clotting, lower blood pressure, and generally clean the circulatory system of fat and cholesterol. This makes them very helpful when protecting against strokes and heart attacks, the number one cause of death in America. When we eat grass-fed animal products, the omega-3 fatty acids they contain help regulate the saturated fat content by cleaning the arteries, making these animal products much more balanced, healthier foods than their grain-fed counterparts.

Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA in particular, are also said to be beneficial for the brain, including improving eyesight and attention span, raising serotonin levels, reducing depression and bipolar disorder, and even increasing cognitive skills. This probably has something to do with the fact that omega-3 fatty acids comprise about 8 percent of the human brain, and contribute to both brain structure and brain function. It could be that one reason why we’ve seen so much depression, ADD, and other mental “disorders” in recent times is the ballooning omega-6/omega-3 ratio.

In addition to the above-mentioned sources of ALA (flax seed, greens, soy products, grass-fed eggs, milk, and cheese, grass-fed beef and lamb), there are also foods from which you can obtain EPA and DHA directly. And when I say “foods”, I mean fish. Cold-water fish have high quantities of EPA and DHA because they eat the oceanic version of what land animals eat: algae, plankton, seaweed, or smaller fish that feed on these sea-grasses and sea-insects. Just like in meat, the oil is found most plentifully in the organs; that’s why we used to take cod liver oil! Unfortunately, many species of fish that are high in omega-3s, such as salmon, tuna, herring, anchovies, and sardines, cod, now suffer from some contamination by heavy metals (like mercury), thanks to our water being so polluted. The smaller fish, such as sardines, are lower on the food chain and less likely to have such contaminants. Some people recommend buying purified fish oil in capsules at the health food store. It may be worth trying out for those of you who may be extremely deficient in omega-3s, and suffer from the corresponding symptoms.

All the same, I don’t advocate everyone taking omega-3 supplements the way many of us take other vitamin supplements. I think that eating some of the whole foods I mentioned above, such as greens or grass-fed animal products, and some sardines or wild salmon or cod liver oil, at least a few times a week, while at the same time cutting down on polyunsaturated vegetable oils (hydrogenated or otherwise) is sufficient. As always, the emphasis should be on the whole foods, because there are a lot more valuable things in them besides omega-3′s that we still don’t even know about.