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.

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.

 

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.

The USDA’s MyPlate Eating Guide

On June 2, 2011, the USDA, in conjunction with First Lady Michelle Obama, released MyPlate, which replaced MyPyramid as their guide for how Americans should eat.  For decades, the government has been trying to consolidate nutrition advice from health professionals and pass it on to Americans in a clear, easy to follow format, especially as our obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates have increased over the same time period. However, in giving advice, the USDA also has been careful not to be to too strong in warning people away from the processed food produced by the American food industry, which is both a major part of the economy and a major reason why Americans are so sick. As a result of its conflicting obligations, the government’s advice is often contradictory and confusing, and the MyPlate guide is no exception (though it is marginally better than its predecessors).

The plate that now replaces the pyramid as the icon of how to balance our diets consists of four approximately equal sections, one each for fruits, vegetables, grains and “protein.” There is also a separate cup beside the plate, labeled dairy. The USDA has boiled down its directives to the following simple messages: 1. Enjoy your food, but eat less; 2. Avoid oversized portions; 3. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables; 4. Make at least half your grains whole grains; 5. Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk; 6. Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers; and 7. Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Will MyPlate actually help stem the obesity epidemic? According to Michelle Obama, quoted in the USDA Press Release, “As long as [our kids’ plates are] half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, we’re golden.  That’s how easy it is.” Unfortunately, MyPlate will probably not have much of an effect, despite the fact that some very good advice can be found among the USDA’s recommendations. A major reason for this is that MyPlate, in addition to offering good advice, also offers some bad advice, and fails to offer any advice at all in some crucial areas. As a result, those who try to follow it conscientiously will find themselves feeling hungry and craving junk food after meals, and those who follow it less conscientiously will find plenty of wiggle room within the guidelines for including lots of processed food.

For example, MyPlate instructs us to make at least half of our grains whole grains. Because whole grains are naturally more dense and fibrous than refined grains, and have a more complex flavor, they need to be paired with a healthy fat, like cold pressed olive oil, or butter from grass-fed cows, to be appetizing. Combining whole grains and healthy fat also helps us feel full exactly at the point when we’ve eaten the right number of calories. But in MyPlate, fat is either frowned upon or relegated to the background. In following MyPlate, people will try to eat whole grains with little or no fat, and will find them unpalatable.  They will therefore gravitate towards the refined grains, which they are permitted to eat an astounding 50% of the time. What’s ironic is that refined grains, not fats, are what cause us to gain weight, because while both are high in calories, fat makes us feel full but refined carbs leave us constantly hungry. Thus does MyPlate’s bad advice (reduce fat) actually nullify our ability to follow its good advice (eat more whole grains). What about the other recommendations? Let’s take a look at them one by one.

1.      Enjoy your food, but eat less. The first part of this message is good – food is meant to be a source of pleasure as well as nutrition and sustenance. The second part, however, propagates the misconception that we need to cut down on the foods we enjoy in order to be healthy. In fact, the most enjoyable foods also happen to be the healthiest, and when we eat these foods, we feel full right at the point when we’ve had enough. Only when we’re following a flawed plan like MyPlate do we need to worry about “eating less.”

2.      Avoid oversized portions. Again, when we’re eating a healthy diet, we can let our cravings dictate how big of a portion we need. Sometimes it will be large, sometimes it will be small, but it will always reflect what our body needs at that moment. MyPlate’s vague, one-size-fits-all statement doesn’t offer any concrete guidance.

3.      Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. Most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, so this advice points in the right direction. But fruit shouldn’t usually be eaten with other foods – it’s better digested eaten alone, as a snack or dessert. Though a one-size-fits-all approach still has flaws, a better general recommendation would be making your plate 1/3 vegetables, 1/3 whole grains, and 1/3 meat, eggs or beans.

4.      Make at least half your grains whole grains. Again, this recommendation should really be “Make all your grains whole grains.” If whole grains are better (and they are) we should eat them all the time; there’s no need for refined grains. The USDA doesn’t want to acknowledge this explicitly because so many food products are made with refined grains.

5.      Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.  First of all, fat makes you full, not fat, so following this recommendation won’t help reduce obesity. Saturated fat, the type in milk, was at one time linked to heart disease, but it’s since been discovered that the real culprit is theabsence of another type of fat, omega-3 fatty acids, which are lacking in the milk and meat of factory-farmed cows. This recommendation should therefore be “Switch to whole unpasteurized milk from grass-fed cows raised on small family farms.” Finally, milk is not an essential food; the USDA implies that it is in order to satisfy the dairy industry. However, the nutrients it contains can be found in other foods, such as beans, eggs, and green leafy vegetables.

6.      Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers.  While this is good advice if you’re going to be buying pre-made soup, bread, and frozen meals, the best way to get a healthy amount of sodium, and what the USDA should recommend, is to make your own soup, bread, and meals, adding salt until it tastes right to you.

7.      Drink water instead of sugary drinks. Hooray! The USDA got one right – sort of. People crave sugary drinks often because their diets are already imbalanced – and following MyPlate’s recommendations won’t take away that imbalance. Most people will just not be capable of following this advice, especially if they are eating MyPlate’s way. So the soda manufacturers don’t have much to fear.

 

As a response to MyPlate, I’ve created the following alternative simple five-step eating plan, which I think would vastly improve the health of all people who adopted it, and which contains recommendations that complement one another:

1.      Eat whole foods, or foods with whole-food ingredients. For example, tomatoes, or tomato sauce containing tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and olive oil, but no sugar. With each meal, try to get some of the foods in each of the following macronutrient categories:

a.      Complex Carbohydrates: Grains such as brown rice, whole wheat or whole wheat flour, quinoa, barley, oats, corn, and buckwheat; Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squashes; Fruits such as apples, pears, melons, bananas, plums, mangoes, oranges, and grapefruit ; Natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, barley malt, and raw honey.

b.      Protein: Animal products such as beef, poultry, lamb, pork, milk, cheese, fish and eggs; Beans and bean products such aslentils, black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, chickpeas, tofu and tempeh; Nuts and seeds such as almonds, peanuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and cashews.

c.      Fats: Vegetable oils such as olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil and corn oil; Animal fats such as butter and lard.

d.      Vitamins & Minerals: Vegetables such as  greens (kale, collards, chard, bok choy, spinach, etc.) roots (beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, parsnips, etc.), bulbs (onions, garlic, celery, scallions, etc.); nightshades (peppers, tomatoes, eggplant), gourds (cucumber, summer squash), and many more; Fruits such as berries, lemons and limes; Herbs and Spices such as basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, garlic, pepper, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, etc.

e.      Microorganisms: Raw fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha, raw sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, and kefir.

2.      On average, eat about 1/3 carbs, 1/3 protein, and 1/3 vegetables with meals. The right way to balance a diet differs from person to person based on body type, activity levels, climate and environment, season, gender, age, and so on. If you’re eating healthy foods, then by listening to your cravings, you can figure out what balance is right for you at any given time. Some other notes: Fruit, especially raw, doesn’t digest well with most other foods, so it should be eaten as a snack or a dessert. Fats, such as olive oil or butter, can be obtained separately or from eating the whole food in which they are originally found (olives and milk, in this case). Herbs, spices, and sweeteners should all be used in small amounts, to flavor foods. As seen above, some foods contain more than one type of nutrient and can meet more than one requirement at once.

3.      Use good quality ingredients. All plant foods – grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, vegetable oils, etc. – should be organic when possible. Animal products should come from animals raised on their natural feed, and if that feed is organic, even better. Fruits and vegetables should be fresh and in season; if locally grown, even better. Vegetable oils should be cold pressed and packed in a dark bottle, in addition to organic. Milk is best unpasteurized, if from healthy cows; if pasteurized, choose organic and grass-fed. Even if organic, foods such as beans or tomato sauce are better cooked from scratch than from a can.

4.      Eat home cooked food at least 80% of the time; when eating out, choose restaurants that also follow the recommendations above.  When eating home cooked food, you can fully control the quality of the ingredients, the balance of the meal, and adjust the flavors and proportions as suits your body’s individual needs.

5.      If the above steps are followed, eat in accordance with your cravings.  We’re taught that food cravings are to be resisted. But when we’re eating a healthy and balanced diet, our bodies naturally start to crave those healthy foods, and crave them in just the right quantity and proportion. As a result, once you’ve introduced your body to the healthy way of eating described above, you don’t need to worry about calorie counts, portion sizes, or how much fat or carbs you are getting – you can listen to your cravings, and they will guide you towards foods that will help you to achieve our natural weight.

 

Such an eating plan, if many people followed it, would result in major upheaval in the American – and world – economy. Not only is our food system global, but people in the rest of the world look to Americans as their example for how to eat.  The sugar, dairy, meat, processed food industries would never abide by it, for it would result in almost total abdication from their products in favor of a more local, farm-to-table based economy.

This brings us back to the conflicts inherent in MyPlate. Programs like MyPlate and MyPyramid have tremendous influence, not in getting people to be healthier, but in giving them a flawed conception of what is healthy and what is not, and actually reinforcing them in eating processed food by giving them an unappetizing alternative.  Instead of trying to give people advice that is skewed by vested interests, the government should eliminate the subsidies that make processed food artificially cheap, so that it’s easier for us to make our own choices to eat healthier. While MyPlate is better than previous guides, it’s inherently insincere, as it is committed to the status quo rather than allowing a new food economy that actually supports our health.

Preventing Pneumonia in Children

This past winter and spring, I kept hearing about how children in the families I knew were coming down with pneumonia. In fact, pneumonia, which is a condition of inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs associated with infection, is fairly common in our country; it affects 5.6 million people per year and is the 6th most common cause of death. In the winter and spring, when our immune systems are weakened by the cold and then overloaded by pollen, respiratory issues are at their worst. Fortunately, since pneumonia in children is usually caused by a bacterial infection, it can be treated with antibiotics.  Unfortunately, for increasing numbers of children, pneumonia is not an isolated event, but the consequence of chronic respiratory illness, such as asthma. This type of chronic illness is a condition to which antibiotics actually contribute, due to their overall weakening of the immune system.

Although I criticized antibiotics in last week’s newsletter, what I’m really criticizing in both cases is their overuse. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children in poor countries, and it doesn’t kill children here because of antibiotics and other tools of modern medicine. But while antibiotics may prevent serious illness and death, they don’t establish general health. Just prescribing them over and over again won’t prevent future illness. The real question is why our children are getting sick in the first place. After all, it’s easy to identify the causes of respiratory illness in poor countries. In these countries, children are malnourished because they can’t access the food they need. They are more likely to be at risk of lung pollution from the poisons accumulated in the environment due to unregulated industry or ongoing war. But by and large, we don’t have those concerns. So why do American children get sick as much as they do?

The reason lies in the fact that, in many ways, our children are the extreme opposites of their third-world counterparts. Instead of suffering from getting too few calories and protein, they get too much, in the form of sugar, white flour, factory farmed meat, and rancid or hydrogenated oils. This excess of protein, calories and toxins is more than the liver and kidneys can handle, leading to a backlog that accumulates in the lungs and sinuses as phlegm and mucus, and causes the symptoms of wheezing and shortness of breath that are seen in asthma.  This backlog also makes it harder to the immune system to effectively deal with respiratory infections. In fact, pathogens are far more likely to take root in a person with a congested, stagnant condition, as congested lungs are just the type of environment in which they thrive.  In addition, as a side effect of our overzealous attempts to create a clean environment for our children, we rely on excessively strong cleaners and antibacterial products, which cause our children’s’ immune systems to be under-developed. The result is that an infection their bodies should be able to zap without a second thought ends up making them sick.

Once children develop chronic respiratory issues, they are often given prescription medicine to take indefinitely – usually some type of anti-inflammatory steroid, the purpose of which is essentially to eliminate the symptoms of wheezing, mucus production, and so forth. However, these symptoms, as said above, are the consequence of the body attempting to detoxify of the byproducts of excessive processed food or allergens. Shutting down the body’s systems works in the short term, but leaves the child vulnerable for more serious illness – such as pneumonia. In addition, such medications have negative side effects such as cramps, sore throat, lightheadedness, dry mouth, upset stomach, even behavioral changes.

The best long-term approach is to put your child on a healthier diet, one that provides the appropriate amount of calories and nutrition. Particularly important to emphasize in the beginning are foods that specifically heal and protect the lungs. Here are some examples broken down according to the different types of foods that help:

Pungent Foods: These foods help to break up and flush out the mucus in clogged lungs and sinuses. Examples are onions, garlic, radishes, horseradish, white peppercorns, turnips and chili peppers.

Cleansing Foods: Green leafy vegetables, which contain nutrients that helps the lungs to eliminate toxic residue. Interestingly, the stalks of many leafy greens, such as kale, collards, mustard greens, and swiss chard, somewhat resemble the lungs.

Immune Boosters:: Golden-orange vegetables contain beta carotene that helps protect the mucous membranes of the lungs. Examples are carrots, winter squashes, pumpkins, turnips, and rutabagas.

Fermented Foods: Raw fermented foods contain active bacteria and enzymes that aid digestion and detoxification and help the immune system fight off pathogenic bacteria. Finding one that your child likes and serving him or her a small amount each day will go a long towards improving their health.  Examples are sugar-free yogurt, raw sauerkraut or kimchee, miso, kombucha, and kefir.

The following foods also aid the lungs in various ways: brown rice, barley, millet, oats, cauliflower, lotus root, celery, white fish, and herbs and spices such as dill, fennel, coriander, basil, bay leaves, cardamom and licorice. One particularly powerful natural medicine is oil of oregano, which has antiseptic and antibacterial properties but does not weaken the immune system. It can be taken internally or inhaled via vapor steaming. Finally, simply breathing deeply on a regular basis helps to heal the lungs.  Shallow breathing results in reduced oxygen, which decreases the capacity of all the body’s systems.

Adding foods is more important than removing them. However, it’s good to know which foods can make respiratory conditions worse. The main culprits are pasteurized dairy products, white flour, sugar, and hydrogenated oils, so they should be eliminated or replaced with their healthier counterparts as appropriate. However, even the healthier versions of these foods – raw dairy from grass-fed cows, whole wheat flour, natural sweeteners, and naturally processed oils – may need to be given in more limited quantities until the child shows freedom from symptoms even when not on medication, as these foods are by nature more heavy and congesting.

If your child has pneumonia, he or she obviously needs immediate medical attention. But if your child has frequent colds or chronic respiratory issues, which may occasionally worsen into pneumonia, you can use the foods and remedies listed above to change the course of your child’s health, help them to detoxify fully, and give them the nutrients they need for strong, healthy lungs.