Nutrition and Food Basics

 

CALORIES

A calorie is a unit of energy. Technically, 1 calorie is defined as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 mm of water (1/5th of a teaspoon) by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Historically, scientists defined “calorie” to mean a unit of energy or heat that could come from a variety of sources, such as coal or gas. A calorie in nutrition is actually 1,000 of these small calories. Some researchers use the term kilocalories to refer to the nutritional unit of 1,000 small calories. What Americans see on food labels are actually kilocalories, or kilojoules in most other countries. One medium-size apple contains 95 calories, it actually contains 95 kilocalories. A cup of dry Cheerios has 100 calories according to the nutrition label on the box but what that actually means is that is that it has 100 kilocalories, or 100,000 calories.

We derive the energy our bodies need from food. In a nutritional sense, all types of foods, whether they are from plant or animal sources, contain calories. Protein, fat and carbohydrates all contain calories.

  • 1 gram of protein has 4 calories. 
  • 1 gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories. 
  • 1 gram of alcohol has 7 calories. Add on more for sugars.
  • 1 gram of fat has 9 calories.

Caloric density refers to the number of calories contained in a certain amount of food, usually per serving or per gram. Foods with higher amounts of fats like animal products or nuts, for example, have a much higher concentration, or density, of calories than leafy greens or broccoli. At a fundamental level, calories as a measurement  and units of energy, are calories, but it is much more complicated than that in the nutritional realm.

It is popular to promote the idea that all calories are equal. They are not. How you burn off calories, whether it is exercising or sleeping, is the same however calories you eat are NOT the same. Calories which come from very processed foods like sugary beverages or refined flour products are absorbed very quickly. Calories from more complex, whole foods are taken up in a much different way. 100 calories of donuts or Doritos are siply not the same from a health perspective than 100 calories of carrots or broccoli. 

As an example, let’s compare 160 calories of almonds and 160 calories of soda, about 1 can of Coke. Because of the fiber in almonds, the food does not get broken down, digested and absorbed as quickly. The corresponding blood sugar rise is going to be much lower and for much longer. The triggered insulin secretion from the pancreas is much slower and lower, there is a lower spike and a much less dramatic drop in blood sugar afterwards. A soda on the other hand has no fiber. It gets absorbed almost immediately and goes straight to the liver where the liver gets a huge sugar rush. In addition to the immediate rise in insulin and subsequent crash in blood sugar levels afterwards and the high exposure of the liver to the sugar leads to production of fat. 

The sugar industry spins the “calories are equal” myth by promoting the importance of exercise. This issue is dealt with more in my “Exercise” section but as the saying goes, “You can’t out-exercise your mouth”. It takes over an hour of bike riding for a kid to burn off the calories from 1 can of soda. It takes over an hour of swimming to burn off the calories consumed in 1 average cookie. Exercise is important, but the issue IS the food.

How many calories a person needs in a day depends on the individual’s activity level and resting metabolic rate. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides general guidelines of calorie requirements for various ages and activity levels. A middle-age moderately active female should consume 2,000 calories per day. A middle-age moderately active male should consume 2,400 to 2,600 calories per day.

Foods that are considered high-calorie, or calorically dense, have a high amount of calories relative to their serving size. High calorie foods include meat, fish, dairy, eggs, oils, butter, fats, fried foods and many processed foods. Some fruits and vegetables are also calorie-dense. These include things like avocado, coconut, nuts and seeds. While high-calorie foods are often associated with junk food, some are high in nutrients, as well. Some examples of calorie amounts in meats include (per serving):

  • Chicken breast – 344
  • Pork – 363
  • Salmon – 367
  • Turkey breast – 1166
  • Beef brisket – 4308
  • Duck – 2137
  • Beef brisket – 4308

Healthy foods that are high in calories include avocados (227 calories each), quinoa (222 calories per cup), nuts (828 calories per cup of peanuts), olive oil (119 calories per tablespoon), whole grains, and, in moderation, dark chocolate (648 calories per bar). Although these foods are calorically-dense, they are significantly healthier than calorically-dense animal and processed foods because of all the other healthy things that come along with them like fiber (not found in animal products), minerals and vitamins (also found in smaller amounts in animal products).

Foods that are considered low-calorie have a low amount of calories relative to their serving size. Most fruits and especially vegetables are usually relatively low in calories. For example, 2 cups of shredded romaine lettuce or spinach have 16 calories, a large stalk of celery has 10 calories, 1 large ear of corn has 123 calories, 1 cup of broccoli has 15 calories and an orange has 70 calories. 

Empty calories contain few to no nutrients. They often come from added sugars and solid fats like butter, shortening and fats found in some meats. They can occur naturally but are often added to foods. Many typical American foods have a lot of empty calories. Examples include ice cream, sodas, cheese, pizza and processed meats like hot dogs and sausages.

Calories from animal products vs plantsAnimal foods are made up of cells which have a membrane and are easily broken down by our digestive system. The calories are maximally extracted and absorbed. Plants have cell walls which are much harder for the digestive system to break down. So, not only is more energy required to digest plants, fewer calories from plants are absorbed. However, the more processed the food, the more the cell walls are broken down and the more calories, fat… can be absorbed. A good example are peanuts. Actually a legume an not a nut, the calories absorbed from an equal amount of peanuts is much lower than what is taken up by consuming peanut butter. The same is true of all nut butters. Most nut butters are also roasted and more carcinogens and inflammatory molecules are produced.

 

 

CALORIE DENSITY vs NUTRIENT DENSITY

CALORIE DENSITY refers to the number of calories in a given weight of food. Usually expressed as calories per pound, it can range from as low as 50, for something like watercress, to 4,010 for olive oil. As a general rule of thumb, whole fruits and vegetables have a very low caloric density and you can eat a lot of them without packing on the calories whereas processed foods are in the middle and meat, dairy and oils are very high. Here are a few examples.

  • Watercress 50
  • Broccoli 150
  • Bananas 400
  • Brown rice 560
  • Black beans 600
  • Avocados 730
  • Bread 1,100
  • Almonds 2,630
  • Steak 730
  • Chicken 790
  • Salmon 830
  • Oreos 2,140
  • Olive Oil 4,010

As you can see, there are some plant foods, like nuts and avocados which can also be very calorie dense. One simple way of looking at a food and measuring up calories has to do with how full it makes you feel. If you have to eat a lot of something to fill you up, if it is very calorie dense, it is easy to go overboard on the calories. Here is a direct comparison between some equally caloric foods:

  • 3.5 tablespoons of olive oil vs 1 serving of sweet potato and squash soup (420 calories)
  • 2 Oreo cookies vs 2 cups of cubed cantaloupe (110 cal)
  • 3 tablespoons of peanut butter vs 1 large baked potato (110 cal)
  • ½ cup dried apricots vs 9 whole apricots (150 cal)

In each case, the second option has a lot more fiber, water content and retained nutrients and you will fill up on them faster. With the first item in each list, it is easy to overeat and go way over your caloric needs.

NUTRIENT DENSITY refers to the amount of nutrition in an equal amount of a specific food. There are a number of scales listing foods based on their nutritional value. Fats and proteins are considered “nutrients” however it is very easy to go way over on these amounts. In fact the average American consumes at least twice as much protein as he or she even needs. Fat is even worse. Plants overall contain the fewest of these and contain the highest density of vitamins minerals and are the only source of fiber. In general, plants are very nutrient dense and meat, fish, dairy and eggs are much poorer sources of nutrition overall and come loaded with all kinds of added bonuses like chemicals, drugs and hormones.

Considering that we have narrowed the variety of crops we grow to eat and have essentially destroyed the nutritional value of the soil and have bred the nutrition out of them (for example apples contain at least 15x less magnesium than ones grown 50 years ago), eating as many nutrient rich plant foods is even more important.

The graph below compares what we ate and the nutrient value of food in 1900 vs 2000. We did not have nutritional information on food back then but the estimates are that overall, food is about 50% less nutritious than it used to be.

 

 

 

 

THE PROBLEM WITH REDUCTIONISM

Reductionism is the practice of analyzing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of phenomena that represent a simpler or more fundamental level, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.

Reductionism in nutrition is the tendency to reduce foods to individual nutrients. Beta carotene in carrots. Anthocyanins in blueberries. Vitamin C in oranges. The problem is that if we assume that greater doses of those nutrients must be better, and we start to develop supplements for that, we lose the bigger picture. You lose the forest for the trees. Nutrition is an orchestra. There are millions of complex interactions amongs the nutrients in the foods we eat.

As we learn more and more about nutrition and its effects on our bodies, we tend to reduce the effects to isolated ones. But we know only a tiny fraction of what there is to know about how nutrients really affect us. There are many examples of how a drug, developed for one purpose, has an unanticipated effect elsewhere in the body. A great example of this is hydroxychloroquine, originally developed to kill the parasite which causes malaria, but was then by accident discovered to also reduce the swelling caused by the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis. Viagra was developed to treat heart disease, but its main use is to treat erectile dysfunction, a “side effect” noted during drug trials. The same is true of all nutrients. They act, but more importantly, they interact.

Here are a few issues which impact our understanding of nutrition.

THE WISDOM OF OUR BODIES

There is almost no direct relationship between the amount of a nutrient consumed at a meal and bioavailability, meaning, the amount that actually reaches its main site of action in the body. If, for example, you consume 100 milligrams of vitamin C at one meal, and 500 milligrams at a second meal, this does not mean that the second meal leads to five times as much vitamin C reaching the tissue where it works.

This means that we can never know exactly how much of a nutrient to ingest, because we can’t predict how much of it will be utilized. Uncertainty: a reductionist’s worst nightmare!

The reason we can’t predict how much of a nutrient will be absorbed and utilized by the body is that, within limits, it depends on what the body needs at that moment. In other words, the proportion of a nutrient that is digested, absorbed, and provided to various tissues and the cells in those tissues is mostly dependent on the body’s need for that nutrient at that moment in time. This phenomenon of the body sensing what it needs is well established in the animal world. All creatures, down to even slime molds, will absorb the nutrients they need, in the proportions they need, averaging out to an overall normal amount over the course of a short period of time.

This need is constantly “sensed” by the body and controlled by a variety of mechanisms that operate at various stages of the pathway from nutrient ingestion to nutrient utilization. The pathway taken by a nutrient often takes various routes leading it through various reactions. These are often far more complex and unpredictable than the simple linear model of reductionism would suggest. 

For example, the proportion of ingested beta-carotene that is actually converted into its most common metabolite, retinol (vitamin A), can vary as much as 8x. The proportion converted also decreases with increasing doses of beta-carotene, thus keeping the absolute amounts that are absorbed about the same. The percentage of calcium absorbed can vary by at least 2x. Furthermore, the higher the calcium intake, the lower the proportion absorbed into the blood, ensuring adequate calcium for the body and no more. Iron bioavailability can vary anywhere from 3x to as much as 19x. The same holds true for virtually every nutrient and related chemical.

In addition, various nutrients come in many different forms in nature and consuming supplements, which contain only 1 or 2 forms, blocks the natural absorption of all the rest. Beta carotene is a good example. So is vitamin E, which in nature from nuts and seeds, comes in 8 forms, all absorbed proportionally according to need. When you take a vitamin E supplement, you block the absorption of the other 6 or 7 forms.

In brief, the relationship between amount consumed and amount used for virtually all nutrients is not a linear relationship. Although many professionals know this, few fully appreciate the significance of this complexity. It means nutrient databases are not nearly as useful as one might think. It also means reductionist supplementation with large doses of discrete nutrients does not guarantee the utilization of those nutrients. Our digestive processes are so complex and dynamic that super-dosing with a single nutrient all but guarantees an imbalance of some other nutrients.

THE VARIABILITY OF FOODS

Not knowing how much of a given nutrient will be used by the body is only part of our uncertainty. The nutrient content of the foods we eat themselves varies far more than most of us realize. For example, beta-carotene content in different samples of the same food is known to vary 3-9x, although it may be up to 40x or more for peaches. This variability occurs depending on things like season, soil, storage, processing, and even the original location of the fruit on the tree. The “relatively stable” calcium content of four kinds of cooked mature beans (black, kidney, navy, pinto) ranges 2.7x.

The variation in food nutrient content and in nutrient absorption and utilization by the body compound each other. A simple exercise might help to make the point. If the amount of beta-carotene in a carrot varies about 4x, and the amount of this uncertain proportion that is then absorbed across the intestinal wall into the bloodstream varies another 2x, then the amount of beta-carotene theoretically delivered to the bloodstream from any given carrot on any given day might range as much as 8x.

The ultimate message is the same: With the consumption of any particular food at any particular moment, we cannot know with any precision how much of any nutrient is actually available to our bodies, or how much our bodies actually use.

THE COMPLEXITY OF NUTRIENT INTERACTIONS

Nutrients can modify one another’s activities. For example calcium decreases iron bioavailability by as much as 400%, while carotenoids increase iron absorption by as much as 300%. So, in comparing a high-calcium, low-carotenoid diet with a low-calcium, high-carotenoid diet, we might see an 800-1,200% difference in iron absorption. But even if this theoretical variation were only 100-200%, this is still significant since for some nutrients, tissue concentrations varying by more than 10-20% can mean serious deficiency.Interactions among individual nutrients in food are substantial and dynamic and have major practical implications. A large number of nutrients impact one another, influencing our exceptionally complex immune system. Nutrient pairs that were found to influence each other and in turn, to influence components of the immune system include vitamin E and selenium and vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin A, and vitamin A and vitamin D. The mineral magnesium influences the effects of iron, manganese, vitamin E, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and sodium, and through them the activities of hundreds of enzymes that process them. Copper interacts with iron, zinc, molybdenum, and selenium to affect the immune system. Dietary protein exerts different effects on zinc. Vitamin A and dietary fat affect each other’s ability to influence the development of experimentally created cancer.

Even closely related chemicals within the same chemical class can greatly influence each other. For example, various fatty acids affect the immune system activities of other fatty acids. The effect of polyunsaturated fats from plant oils on breast cancer is greatly modified by the amount of total and saturated fat in the diet.

The fact that magnesium has already been shown to be an essential part of the function of more than 300 enzymes speaks volumes about the possibilities for the almost unlimited nutrient interactions. The effects of these interactions on drug-metabolizing enzymes and on the immune system also apply to other complex systems, such as the hormonal, acid-base balance, and neurological systems.

The above mentioned interactions are only an infinitesimally small fraction of the total number of interactions operating every second in our bodies. The common belief that we can investigate the effects of a single nutrient or drug, unmindful of the potential modifications by other chemical factors, is very narrow minded. This evidence should also make us extremely hesitant to “mega-dose” on nutrients isolated from whole foods. 

The bottom line, don’t consume foods because of label claims of nutrient contents. They are probably wrong anyway. Don’t consume foods because they are higher in one nutrient or another. Eat a variety of whole foods, in their natural state, and you will get everything that you need. Our bodies have evolved to eat whole foods, and can therefore deal with the combinations and interactions of nutrients contained in those foods. Give a body 10,000 mg of vitamin C, however, and all bets are off.

 

NUTRITION BASICS and PHYTONUTRIENTS

Nutrients in foods are divided into 3 categories: Macronutrients, Micronutrients and Phytonutrients. 

The term “vitamine” was coined in 1912 by Polish scientist Cashmir Funk who named the special nutritional parts of food after “vita,” meaning life, and “amine” from compounds found in the thiamine he isolated from rice husks. However, the concept of nutritional components was first mentioned in 1905, when Englishman William Fletcher realized that removal of special factors from food would lead to diseases, in his case specifically Beriberi which he associated with rice which lost its thiamine content when processed.

In 1906, English biochemist Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins also found that certain food factors (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals) were important to growth in the human body.

In 1924 iodine was first added to salt on a voluntary basis in an attempt to address the prevalent health problem of goiter in the United States. This initial fortification effort was followed in 1933 by the fortification of milk with vitamin D. 1940 the Committee on Food and Nutrition (now the Food and Nutrition Board [FNB]) recommended the addition of thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and iron to flour.

In 2000, we started identifying phytochemicals in plants along with their myriad of benefits.

Although all these discoveries and understanding of the function of these vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients is important, keeping in mind that they do not function in isolation is equally important. It’s the “symphony” of all these components that brings about good nutrition and health, not isolating and taking concentrated forms of them. Around the time that we started fortifying foods with vitamins (after we stripped away their nutrients by processing them to begin with), cancer rates started to rise and continued to do so until recent years when they started to plateau. Vascular disease also started to rise sharply. In 1900, only 2% of Americans suffered heart attacks or strokes. As of 2007, 40% of Americans suffer heart attacks and 11% have strokes. In addition, obesity rates have slowly increased since 1900 with rates making a sharp increase in the last 30 years. Clearly, our isolation of and obsession with proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals has not served our health well.

 

MACRONUTRIENTS

These consist of the big 3 Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates. All the calories in food come from these 3 components.

PROTEIN. Formed by chains of Amino Acids (AA), these compounds are found in all foods, both animal and plant. Although we think of protein as the building blocks of all components in our bodies, it’s actually the individual AAs which make up the proteins which are the actual blocks. Different types of proteins have different proportions of AAs. Some of their functions include:

  1. Tissue structure (part of organ tissues, muscle, hair, skin, nails, bones, tendons, ligaments and blood plasma)
  2. Part of cell plasma membranes
  3. Involved in metabolic, transport, and hormone systems
  4. Make up enzymes that regulate metabolism
  5. Involved in acid/base balance to maintain a neutral environment in our bodies
  6. Stimulate insulin production.

There are 22 AAs, 20 standard ones and 2 atypical ones. In mammals, we really only deal with 20, 9 of which are “essential”, named as such because our bodies cannot make them and 11 non-essential which we can make ourselves. A “complete” protein source is one which has a full complement of both essential and non-essential AAs. Most foods contain all the amino acids in varying proportions however a “complete” protein has adequate levels of all of the proteins. Interestingly, the only food which does not contain all 20 amino acids is gelatin, which comes animal products. When we consume a protein, we break them down into their individual AAs, absorb them and then re-assemble them into whatever we need. Although both animals and plants contain protein, ultimately, ALL protein comes from plants. Animals don’t make protein. They get it from the plants they eat or the plants the animals they eat, ate. The key difference between animal and vegetable protein is in their amino acid profiles and the rate at which our bodies can absorb amino acids and put them to use. Because animal protein is more similar to protein found in the human body, it is absorbed faster and used up more rapidly than those found in plants however they also contain a greater proportion of sulfur containing AAs such as cystein, methionine and leucine which are more acidifying in the body and we have to work harder to process and neutralize them. The sulfur in these AAs bind with water in the body forming sulfuric acid which leads to more acidic blood. The main way we neutralize this acidity is by using calcium as a buffer. This calcium comes from our muscles and bones. The calcium from muscle is more easily accessible in the short term but day after day and month after month of eating meat, our bones become a greater source and explains why the more animal products you eat, the greater the risk of developing osteoporosis. It also explains why meat-eating athletes have more muscle cramps and recover more slowly from workouts than plant-based athletes. The constant calcium removal from muscle in meat-eaters also explains the greater rate of sarcopenia (muscle loss) in older people who have eaten meat their whole lives. Animal protein is also much more taxing on the kidneys which filter out our blood. Some people argue that animal proteins are more complete than those derived from plants but this is simply not true. People need between 50-130 grams of protein a day depending on how active you are. Keep in mind that our bodies can only process about 25 grams at a time so over-consuming them is not a good idea and stresses the body too much. NOTE: 1 gram of protein has 4 calories.

At any age, we need to make ~300 grams of protein a day because of turnover.

  • Protein in the liver is replaced every hour.
  • Protein in muscle is replaced every 6 weeks.
  • Protein in connective tissue is replaced every 6 months.
  • We replace all the protein in our bodies 4x/year.

Of the 300 daily grams we need, only 25% is needed by muscle, which cumulatively is the largest organ on the body (unless you are obese in which case it can be the second largest). While we sleep, muscle “donates” amino acids from protein breakdown to the liver which needs to make various proteins continuously. Muscle protein is only made from feeding. The rest of the time, muscle protein is in a net negative state.

Protein breakdown. 1st pass effect: 50% of AAs from protein are oxidized in the gut and liver before making it to the general circulation.

ESSENTIAL AMINO ACIDS and the plants that contain them:

  • Isoleucine: watercress, chard, sunflower seeds, spinach, kidney beans
  • Leucine: alfalfa seeds, kidney beans, watercress, sunflower seed (Leucine content: Whey is 12%. Soy is 8%.)
  • Lysine: watercress, walnuts, peas, lentils, almonds, chickpeas
  • Methionine and Cysteine: sesame seeds, seaweed, spirulina, Brazil nuts, oats
  • Phenylalanine and Tyrosine: sesame seeds, kidney beans, spinach,peanuts
  • Threonine: watercress, spinach, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, kidney beans
  • Tryptophan: spinach, turnip greens, broccoli rabe, asparagus, oat bran, kidney beans, watercress
  • Valine: mushrooms, snow peas, kidney beans, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds
  • Histidine: apples, beets, carrots, celery, cucumber, spinach

FAT. Fats are just one type of lipid, a category of molecule unable to mix well with water. A fat molecule consists of two kinds of parts: a glycerol backbone and three fatty acid tails. Fat molecules are also called triacylglycerols, or, in bloodwork done by your doctor, triglycerides. Glycerol is a small organic molecule with three hydroxyl (OH) groups, while a fatty acid consists of a long hydrocarbon chain attached to a carboxyl group. A typical fatty acid contains 12–18 carbons, though some may have as few as 4 or as many as 36. These oily compounds serve various functions and are, like proteins, are also found in all animal and plant foods. Some of their functions include:

  1. Energy reserve source.
  2. Protection of vital organs.
  3. Insulation of nerves fibers and cells as well as under the skin.
  4. Transport fat soluble vitamins.
  5. Cell wall component and support.
  6. Hormone production.

There are a few different types of fats, all of which have 9 calories per gram:

    • Saturated fat. Saturated means that all molecules of fat are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. This is the worst kind of fat. It is usually solid at room temperature. This type of fat is used primarily for energy but when incorporated into cell walls, it makes them stiff because the molecules are themselves stiff since they are saturated and straight. The majority of saturated fat comes from animal products such as beef, lamb, pork, poultry and dairy products. All of these foods also contain dietary cholesterol. Foods from plants that contain saturated fat include coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil (often called tropical oils) and cocoa butter.
      • Saturated fat in foods:
        • Beef: 50% of fat is saturated (SF)
        • Chicken: 30% SF
        • Coconut: 100% fat, 90% of which is SF.
        • Olive Oil: 14% SF.
        • Avocados: 15% SF.
        • Nuts: 4-16% SF.
        • Brazil nuts, cashews and macadamia are the highest.
    • Unsaturated fat. These molecules are not completely saturated with hydrogen atoms. Because they are not completely saturated, the have bends in them and are more flexible. They are primarily used as structural molecules and since they are flexible, they make cell walls flexible. They are are also the main  substrate for hormones. There are 2 forms: Polyunsaturated which have many sites are free of hydrogen atoms (oily, cold fish like sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, and herring, dubbed the SMASH fish, as well as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds) and monounsaturated which have only one site is free (olives, olive oil, nuts, peanut butter, and avocado). Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may help improve your blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated and trans fats but this is deceptive. Replacing a “bad” fat with a “less bad” fat is not a good approach. The well-publicized Omega 3 and 6 fats are polyunsaturated however, there are other omegas to consider. Omega 7s are also known as palmitoleic acids. These monounsaturated fatty acids are lipokines, hormone-like molecules which control what other fats are doing in your body. They ensure optimal energy use and storage and as a result, impact significantly on fat metabolism. Good sources of these fats include avocados, macadamia nuts and cold water fish like salmon and sardines. If you choose to consume fish, make sure they are as high quality as you can get. Omega 9s are known as oleic acids. This is the most common type of monounsaturated fat in a healthy diet. It is one of the main types of oils in olive oil. Other sources include avocados, macadamias and almonds as well as sunflower seeds. Omega-3 are polyunsaturated fats and they have numerous benefits, not the least of which is brain health and lowering inflammation. The 3 main forms are DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linoleic acid). The predominant form in animal products like fish is DHA and EPA and the main form in plants is ALA. Although ALA is much less potent than the other two, it can be converted into the other two in the body. The process however is not very efficient with some reports suggesting that only 5% of ALA getting converted into EPA and 1% getting converted into DHA. Great plant sources of omega-3s include flax, chia and hemp seeds, walnuts, kale and purslane. If omega-3 is anti-inflammatory, omega-6, also a polyunsaturated fatty acid, is pro-inflammatory. Some inflammation is necessary but there is an important balance between omega-3 and omega-6 is the key. It used to be 1:1-1:3 when we ate mostly whole food but today’s factory produced  processed food, which leads to a ratio closer to 1:20. In some segments of the population the ratio can be as high as 1:50! They are mostly found in plant oils. Two forms of omega-6 which decrease inflammation are gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
    • Trans Fat. Trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Another name for trans fats is “partially hydrogenated oils.” Trans fats are found in many fried foods and baked goods such as pastries, pizza dough, pie crust, cookies and crackers. Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. These changes are associated with a higher risk of heart disease. The US is one of only 4 countries which have outright banned trans fats. Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden being the other three. Many other countries have strict controls but not banns. That having been said, there are many other food additives allowed in the US which convert into trans fats so they are still getting in via processed foods. There is more below about how trans fats can still get into our diet. Although they do occur naturally in some animal products like meat, fish and dairy, it accounts for only 1-10% of the fat content. But even small ampunts add up. As far as labeling is concerned, the food industry can mark trans fat content as “0” if levels fall below 0.5 gms.Trans fats have well etablished harmful effects on health, including:
      • Raising LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
      • Lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol
      • Increasing the risk of atherosclerosis, or built-up fat and cholesterol in the arteries 
      • Activating apoptosis, or programmed cell death
      • Causing inflammation
      • Triggering insulin resistance

        There is a lot more abput trans fats in the next section below.
    • OMEGA-3 and OMEGA-6 BASICS. Humans can make saturated fat and monounsaturated fats from carbohydrates and protein, but we cannot make polyunsaturated fats. The most well known polyunsaturated fat are the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. 

      “Omega” refers to the end of the carbon chain which makes up fats. Omega-6 means that the first double bond is 6 carbons from the end while omega-3’s have their first carbon bond 3 carbon units from the end. 

      Although omega-6 fatty acids have recently been thought of as being unhealthy, really the food environment in which it is packaged, most usually in the form of processed foods, which is the real problem.

      Linoleic acid is the most important essential omega-6 we need to consume. It is an 18 carbon chain with 2 double bonds. It comes mostly from seeds and seed oils. Other, longer omega-6 fatty acids can be made from linoleic acid, one of the most important ones being arachidonic acid. This important fatty acid is involved in healthy inflammatory and reparative processes and is the precursor to such molecules as prostaglandins and leukotrienes, along with 100’s of other ones.

      Alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is the most important essential omega-3 fatty acid we need to consume. It is also an 18 carbon chain however it has 3 double bonds. In the body, it is converted into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA),both of which can also be consumed separately. Most Americans get very little of these essential amino acids and get significantly more of the omega-6s. Found in large quantities in fish, especially cold water fish like salmon, herring and sardines, omega-3 fatty acids can also be found in algae, the original source for fish in the first place, as well as flax, chia and hemp seeds along with walnuts and soy products, especially soybean oil.

      A blood test, the omega-3 index, measures the ratio of total DHA and EPA as a percentage of total fatty acids. DHA and EPA are found most abundantly in cell membranes, including red blood cells which are the easiest way to measure this index. The range measured in most people is between 2% and 15%, 8% being optimal. Most Americans, who eat very little fish, have ~5% and Japanese, who eat a lot more fish, have ~10%. Typical vegans range on the lower end, between 3-5%.

      To raise DHA/EPA levels from 5 to 8% requires supplementation in the 1000-1500mg range of total omega-3 fatty acids.

      Meat from ungulates, animals which chew their cud and have 4 stomachs (cows, goats, sheep and deer), are a source of essential omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, but they are hydrogenated by the grains and other unnatural foods they are fed, particularly in Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms. Those same animals completely pasture-raised eating grass as well as the meat from wild grass-grazing animals like horses and zebras have higher levels of healthier omega 3 and 6s, but no one eats those in the US. 

      Oils can be healthful sources of essential fatty acids, but it doesn’t take much to degrade them. First, from a storage standpoint, light, oxygen and heat all lead to degraded oils. Keeping them in dark, sealed glass (to avoid plastic chemicals leaching into them) containers in a cool spot keeps them fresher for longer. Otherwise, they become rancid. The rancid taste is often masked by other products in marinades and dressings as well as in the cooking process. Second, the cooking process itself also creates many toxic compounds but it is all about the temperature. There is much discussion about smoke point, which is simply the temperature at which the oil burns, but damage starts long before that temperature is reached. When heating, either roasting or broiling, you must try to keep the temperature below 320 degrees. It may take longer to cook something, but it will be much healthier. Similar results can also be achieved by using liquids like plain water or vegetable stock.

CARBOHYDRATES. These are the sugars, starches and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables and dairy products. They are not found in any meat products. They play a vital role in the body. They fuel us during high exercise. They also fuel for the Central Nervous System (your brain!) which uses 75% of the sugars we consume despite being a small organ comparatively speaking. 

In a similar way that protein is made up of strings of amino acids, carbohydrates are made up of chains of monosaccharides. The most abundant monosaccharides are glucose and fructose. About 80% of the carbohydrates we consume end up as glucose, about 15% as fructose and 5% as galactose. If you consume a lot of processed foods and added sugars, the percentage of fructose goes up. Sucrose, which makes up table sugar, and lactose, the main sugar in dairy products, is mostly made up of glucose. In the case of lactose, the other monosaccharide is galactose, implicated in ovarian diseases like cancer. Glucose is stored glycogen, sparing protein (to preserve muscle mass during exercise). Also like protein, they have 4 calories per gram. Not all carbohydrates are the same. The more processed they are (think flower, pastries, rolled vs steel cut oats, pastas…) the faster they are broken down and the faster they are absorbed in the body. This accelerated process leads to spike in sugar levels in the body creating all kinds of problems like insulin spikes and hormone dysregulation. The more “whole” a carbohydrate is, the better.

ALL macronutrients contain calories:

  • 1 gram of protein has 4 calories. 
  • 1 gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories. 
  • 1 gram of fat has 9 calories.

On average, a person uses about 10% of their daily energy expenditure digesting and absorbing food, but this percentage changes depending on the type of food you eat. This is called the “thermal effect of food”. The amount of energy required to digest the 3 man macronutrients is also quite different. The amount of energy required to digest those macronutrients is also significantly different.

  • Protein – 20-30% of the calories in protein is used to digest it. Proteins are complex with coiled strings of amino acids which need to be separated and this requires a lot of energy. Americans consume so much protein though that we still get way more than our bodies can utilize and this is problematic.
  • Carbohydrates – 5-10% of the contained calories are used to digest it.
  • Fat – 0-3%. Much less and this is part of the problem. Fat is easy to digest so most of it gets processed.
  • Fiber takes a lot of energy to break down and in fact, much if it never actually gets broken down and just adds to stool bulk. Celery is a classic example. You burn more calories digesting celery than the celery actually contains.

Oxidative Priority. Macronutrients are broken down in order based on their complexity and nutrient value which is based significantly on storage capacity. For example, alcohol (not really a macronutrient but a frequent and important component of meals for most people) has no storage capacity, contains no valuable calories, just “empty calories” and is first to be metabolized by the body, primarily the liver. Fat on the other had had unlimited storage capacity so it is the last to be dealt with by the body. That’s why we store so much fat!

Order of priority:

  1. Alcohol. NO storage capacity. Alcohol actually has 7 calories per gram (1 shot).
  2. Protein. Very limited storage capacity (300-500 calories max) mostly in muscle and some in the blood.
  3. Carbohydrates. We can store about 2000 calories of carbs as glycogen. There is also a difference between simple carbs like pastries, flower products or sugar, which get metabolized immediately and processed by the liver often into fat, and complex carbohydrates like whole fruits and vegetables which are much more slowly broken down, used as fuel and stored as glycogen in the muscles.
  4. Fats. Last to get metabolized, we can store unlimited amounts of fat, an that is evident by the fact that 70% of the US population is at least over weight and 40% are frankly obese.

This partly explains why we are so fat and unhealthy as a society. The foods we eat are often full of all of those macronutrients, often with a disproportionate amount of unhealthy foods which are prioritized or have a lot of storage capacity (ie alcohol, protein and fat). We have de-prioritized the healthy carbohydrates like whole fruits and vegetables which should NOT be lumped in with the hyper processed carbs like breads, crackers and snack foods.

Carbohydrate has two important advantages over fat as a metabolic fuel. It is the only fuel that can produce ATP in the absence of oxygen, and more ATP is produced per O2 consumed when glucose is oxidized, compared with when fat is oxidized. However, once we maximize the amount of ATP we can store, and the amount of glucose we can use and convert to glycogen for storage, the rest of the carbohydrates we consume gets converted to and stored as fat.

By lowering ATP, the body is signaled that there is not enough energy around and we need to store fat. 2 foods can lower ATP levels in dangerous ways: Alcohol and Fructose. They both drop ATP stores by about 50% and they also shift energy storage into fat. They also block the stored fat from being burned.

They block the burning of fat and increase storage of fat. They do this by impacting how ATP is made. They “stun” the mitochondria so they don’t make as much atp. So the energy goes in, but can’t be converted into ATP and gets stored as fat. Despite eating, obese people continue to be hungry partly for this metabolic reason.

Excess refined carbohydrates are the real driver of ATP blockage. Even if you are not eating fructose, our bodies convert glucose into fructose. So foods like white potatoes and rice can get converted into fructose, driving the fat gain process.

Hunger from this mechanism, driven by leptin resistance, leads to an unnatural craving for fat. We do not naturally crave fat but this develops as leptin resistance progresses. The sugar and the carbs make you hungry and then you eat the high energy fat (9 cal/gm vs 4cal/gm from Cho or protein).

All fructose is not created equal. For example, the fructose in fruits and vegetables come packed with fiber and various other nutrients, making it much less impactful on metabolism than fructose in processed and sweetened foods and beverages. The fiber and phytonutrients in fruit block the effects of the fructose on ATP levels. The higher the concentration of fructose, the greater the negative impact on ATP production and levels. 

WATER and FIBER. I would put these in the macronutrient category but to keep things simpler, the big three above are easier to understand.

We are born ~70% water but that composition drops to aboput 50-60% my middle age. Water is a key nutrient to good health, cellular comminucation, hormone function… It’s benefits are immeasurable.

Fiber is the key to good gut health. Fiber is divided into digestible and indigestible fiber and bpth are very important in promoting good microbiome health. The bacteria and other organisms responsible for most of our immune system, brain neurochemicals like serotonin, as well as a myriad of other improtant bodily functions, thrive on fiber. Each plant has its own fiber composition and they are all important. Fiber ONLY comes from plants.

 

MICRONUTRIENTS

37 Billion billion chemical reactions occur in our bodies every second. Each of these reactions are impacted by co-factors, which consist of vitamins and minerals. 1/3rd of our DNA codes for enzymes which help with those reactions as well.

Micronutrients are small compounds needed in minimum amounts to enable the body to produce enzymes, hormones and other substances essential for healthy growth and development. They include vitamins and minerals and the do not have any calories. Vitamins are necessary for energy production, immune function, blood clotting and other functions. Meanwhile, minerals play an important role in growth, bone health, fluid balance and several other processes. Vitamins and minerals differ in basic ways. Vitamins are organic and can be broken down by heat, air, or acid. Minerals are inorganic and hold on to their chemical structure. The minerals in soil and water easily find their way into your body through the plants, fish, animals, and fluids you consume. It’s more difficult to shuttle vitamins from food and other sources into your body because cooking, storage, and simple exposure to air can inactivate these more fragile compounds.

  1. VITAMINS. There are 14 vitamins. Some are fat soluble and some are water soluble. They do break down over time which is why frozen foods are sometimes more nutritious than those which have traveled half way around the world or even across the country.
    • The fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K, are stored in the body for long periods of time and generally pose a greater risk for toxicity when consumed in excess than water-soluble vitamins. Eating a normal, well-balanced diet will not lead to toxicity in otherwise healthy individuals. One important note about these is that the more weight you have (ie more fat cells in your body), the greater the risk of deficiencies in these vitamins because the fat removes these vitamins from circulation.
    • Water-soluble vitamins are those that dissolve in water upon entering the body. Because of this, your body cannot store excess amounts of water-soluble vitamins for later use. There are a total of nine water-soluble vitamins: the B vitamins which include folate, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12, and vitamin C. Vitamin C is interesting in that only Humans and Guinea Pigs cannot make vitamin C, which most animals can. We must get it from the foods we eat.
  2. MINERALS. There are 25 minerals. Unlike vitamins, they do not break down over time. These are divided into macrominerals (we need more of these) and trace minerals.
    • The macromineral group is made up of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfur.
    • Trace minerals includes iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride, and selenium.
  3. WATER. This may sound odd, but water is a crucial nutrient in many metabolic processes, donating hydrogen and oxygen (H2O), and facilitating many reactions. In our 20’s, we are approximately composed 70% by water. This drops to 50% by our 60’s. The fact is that 80% of Americans are walking around dehydrated.  In addition, people start taking various medications like diuretics for blood pressure for various conditions which add to  “insensible water loss”. Just breathing and perspiring while you sleep leads to enough eater loss to wake up in a relatively dehydrated state every morning. In addition, fruits and vegetables are very high in water content, as much as 95% for things like zucchini, greens, mushrooms and watermelons. Meat is at most 75% water and this is often water which is injected into the tissue to plump it up. Refined carbs are however worse. cornflakes contain 4% water and a whole wheat bagel has 34% water.
  4. FIBER. This is such an important micro-nutrient that it gets its own section. Click here to learn more about fiber. Fiber, which you only get from plants, none from any animal products, do not just feed us, they feed the trillions of bacteria in our intestinal tract, keeping them healthy and providing for a healthy microbiome. Fiber doesn’t just provide nourishment for our healthy bacteria and bulk to our stool. It also binds many vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (plant nutrients). Up to 80% of them. The healthy bacteria breakdown the fiber and release those healthful compounds.  When you juice fruits and vegetables, you remove the fiber and in doing so, remove almost 80% of the phytonutrients. Blending is better than juicing since the fiber is not removed but you can consume a lot of calories quickly in a liquid form. EAT YOUR PLANTS WHOLE.
  5. ANTIOXIDANTS. These are compounds found in brightly-colored plant foods. Although they do occur in some animal products, plants contain on average 64x more antioxidants. These compounds mitigate the damage which occurs to tissue when free radicals, formed by various normal and inflammatory processes which cause oxidation, try to grab an electron to “stabilize” themselves. Antioxidants act as electron “donors”, stabilizing free radicals.
  6. PHYTOCHEMICALS. See below.

 

PHYTONUTRIENTS and POLYPHENOLS 

Also technically a micronutrient, this last, underappreciated category was discovered in the late 1990’s. Plant foods contain thousands of natural protective chemicals called phytonutrients. “Phyto” refers to the Greek word for plant. These compounds help protect plants from germs, fungi, bugs, bad weather, overexposure to the sun (XRays) and other threats. Although phytonutrients aren’t essential for keeping humans alive like vitamins and minerals are, their importance in maintaining good health is becoming increasingly clear. The protective benefits they provide the plants DO transfer over and protect humans as well. When you consume phytonutrients, they help prevent disease and keep your body working properly in the same way they protect the plants they come from. Dark colors of plants, like blueberries (anthocyanins), are a defense system. This is partly why organic foods are healthier. Because the plants need to fend for themselves more, they produce more compounds acting like insecticides. These are basically the antioxidants and polyphenols. These benefit us. This phenomenon of transferred protection is called xenohormesis, which is a is a biological principle that explains how environmentally stressed plants produce bioactive compounds that can confer stress resistance and survival benefits to animals that consume them.

There is an old saying, “That which does not kill you, makes you stronger'”. There is truth in this. Examples include:

  • The purple color of grapes and eggplant protects the fruits and vegetables from the sun.
  • The bitter taste in greens is to discourage insects from eating them. These compounds increase when they are attacked. The “bitterer”, the healthier.
  • Orange growers know that if they bang a nail into the trunk of an orange tree a day or 2 before harvest, the oranges are plumper and tastier, a reaction to the “threat” and injury from the nail.
  • Apples that have been bitten by a grub or other insect have higher concentrations of vitamins than those which are grown conventionally and are sprayed with chemicals.

Small amounts of stress cause our bodies to protect and re-build themselves. This is what happens every time you exercise. Microtears in muscle get re-built and that’s how muscles grow. The same goes for phytonutrients. When exposed to stress, plants generate these compounds and, in many cases, the protective benefit of these compounds is transmitted to us when we consume them. This is also why plants which grow in the wild generate more protective than those grown in green houses, protected from the elements. In some cases by 10x.

Only 5% of plant polyphenols actually get absorbed in the small bowel. The rest goes to feed the bacteria in the large intestine. This is partly why the more plants you eat, the better.

Polyphenols are known to turn off NF-κB (nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells), a protein complex that controls transcription and expression of over 400 genes involved in inflammation and cell survival. It is found in almost all animal cell types and is involved in cellular responses to stimuli such as stress, cytokines, free radicals, heavy metals, ultraviolet irradiation, oxidized LDL, and bacteria or viruses. NF-κB plays a key role in regulating the immune response to infection. Incorrect regulation of NF-κB has been linked to cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, septic shock, viral infection, and improper immune development. NF-κB has also been implicated in processes of synaptic plasticity and memory.

Research reveals that phytochemicals have significant anti-carcinogenic powers by:

  • Providing antioxidant activity and scavenging harmful, cancer causing free radicals.
  • Preventing DNA damage.
  • Repairing broken DNA.
  • Destroying harmful cells in our body.
  • Tempering the growth rate of cancer cells.
  • Inhibiting angiogenesis (growth of new blood vessels to supply tumor cells).
  • Stimulating the immune system.
  • Regulating hormone metabolism.
  • Improving insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.
  • Reducing inflammation.
  • Supplying antibacterial and antiviral effects.

More than 25,000 phytonutrients have been identified in plant foods however it is estimated that there are over 5 million in edible plants. We still don’t know much about them. A typical tomato has over 10,000. Here are a few common ones we do know something about:

    • Carotenoids. More than 600 different carotenoids provide the yellow, orange, and red colors in fruits and vegetables. They act as antioxidants which means they tackle harmful free radicals that damage tissues throughout your body. The types of carotenoids that may have other health benefits include:
      Alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin. Your body can convert all of these to vitamin A which helps keep your immune system working properly and is needed for eye health. Yellow and orange foods like pumpkins and carrots are good sources of alpha- and beta-carotene.
      Lycopene. This gives red or pink color to: tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit It has been linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer.
      Lutein and zeaxanthin. These may help protect you from cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, which are two types of eye problems. Good sources of these phytonutrients are greens such as spinach, kale and collards.
    • Ellagic Acid and Ellagitannins. These are found in a number of berries and other plant foods, especially: strawberries, raspberries, pomegranates and walnuts. Ellagic acid may help protect against cancer several different ways. For, it may slow the growth of cancer cells. It may also help your liver neutralize cancer-causing chemicals in your system. Urolithn A, a compound converted from ellagic acid by hut-friendly bacteria, was shown to induce mitophagy, which is a selective recycling of mitochondria by autophagy, a process that cleans defective mitochondria following damage or stress, and tends to become less efficient during aging.
    • Flavonoids. A large number of phytonutrients fall into the flavonoid category. They are found in a variety of plant foods and include:
      CatechinsGreen tea is an especially good source of catechins. The drink may help prevent certain types of cancer.
      Hesperidin. Found in citrus fruits, this flavonoid works as an antioxidant reducing inflammation in the body to help prevent chronic disease.
      Flavonols. Quercetin is a well-studied type of flavonol. It is found in: apples, berries, kale and onions. It might help reduce people’s risk of asthma, certain types of cancer, and coronary heart disease.
    • Resveratrol. This is found in: grapes, purple grape juice and red wine. It acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Some research suggests that resveratrol might play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Some animal studies have shown that resveratrol extends longevity but more human studies are needed to establish a clear relationship.
    • Glucosinolates. Glucosinolates are found in cruciferous vegetables including brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and broccoli. They give these vegetables their sharp odor and flavor. The glucosinolates turn into other chemicals during the cooking process and while you digest these foods. These chemicals may help hold in check the development and growth of cancer. Glucosinolates which are converted into isothiocyanate, a potent anti cancer compound. It is so potent that Johns Hopkins University makes a pill with concentrated isothiocyanates. The pill is dubbed the ‘Broccoli” pill since broccoli contains high amounts of this compound.

    • Phytoestrogens. There is a lot of confusion about these compounds because of concern about estrogen and cancer, especially breast cancer. Although similar in structure, the plant phytoestrogens do not have the same effects as the estrogen in humans or ingested from animals and dairy products. They actually block the effects of animal, and human, estrogens and are protective. Soy foods contain isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen. Soy foods are linked to lower risk of breast and endometrial cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. It’s also also linked with a lower risk of bone loss in women. Your body converts lignans, another type of phytonutrient, into chemicals with some estrogen-like effects. Two especially good sources of lignans are flax and sesame seeds. Other sources of healthful phytoestrogens include: oats, barley, beans and lentils, apples, carrots, sesame seeds, hops (used to make beer) and many other fruits and vegetables. Phytoestrogens are also found in clover, sweet potato and soy. Sheep feeding on clover became infertile because of it’s high concentration of the phytoestrogen formonenin. The phytoestrogen disogenin in the Mexican yam was used to synthesize the first contraceptive pill in 1951.

    • Phenolic acids. This group accounts for around 30% of all polyphenols. Examples include stilbenes and lignans, which are mostly found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and seeds.

    • Polyphenolic amides. This category includes capsaicinoids in chili peppers and avenanthramides in oats.

    • Betalains are a class of red and yellow pigments found in many plants, higher order fungi and some vegetables, particularly beets, Swiss chard, Amaranthus, cactus pear, pitahaya, and some tubers. They are most often noticeable in the petals of flowers, but may color the fruits, leaves, stems, and roots of plants that contain them. However, the use of betanin. or Beetroot Red, a red glycosidic food dye obtained from beets, as food colorant and the plant betalain-enriched extracts in functional foods increases the consumption of this type of phytochemical. They are potent antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.

Some of the well-known cancer fighting phytochemicals include apigenin, curcumin, ursolic acid, sulforaphane, quercetin and luteolin.

  1. APIGENIN. This is a flavone compound found in such plants as celery (hence the popularity of celery juice), parsley (often juices along with the celery), chamomile, vine-spinach, artichokes, oregano and citrus fruits. Apigenin may induce muscle relaxation and sedation, and it is also active as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It may also protect against Alzheimer’s disease since it helps to break down amyloid (the protein which builds up and causes this condition) and it is neuroprotective and enhances cognition.
  2. CURCUMIN. Curcumin is a biologically active polyphenolic compound found in turmeric, a spice derived from the rhizomes of the plant Curcuma longa Linn. Turmeric has long been known to be a potent anti-inflammatory. It improves heart health and prevents Alzheimer’s and cancer. It’s a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It may also help improve symptoms of depression and arthritis.
  3. URSOLIC ACID. Sometimes referred to as urson, prunol, malol, or 3β-hydroxyurs-12-en-28-oic acid, ursolic acid is a triterpene compound (plant version of steroids) found in the natural waxy coating of apples as early as 1920. It is also found in the peels of other fruits, as well as in herbs and spices like rosemary and thyme.  It’s been found to have beneficial effects including anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-apoptotic (prevents premature cell death), and anti-carcinogenic effects.
  4. SULFORAPHANE. Sulforaphane is a compound within the isothiocyanate group of organosulfur compounds. It is obtained from cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbages. Because of its ability to neutralize toxins, it has been purified and is a popular supplement. Broccoli sprouts contain as much as 100x more sulforaphane than broccoli florets. A potent antioxidant, sulforaphane neutralizes free radicals, tiny particles that weaken and damage healthy cells. Free radicals form in your body because of pollution, UV rays, food additives and preservatives, and even through natural processes like digestion.
    1. It reduces inflammation. Because sulforaphane neutralizes toxins, it also calms inflammation in your body. Inflammation has been linked to several kinds of cancer.
    2. It protects your DNA by blocking mutations in DNA that lead to cancer.
    3. It slows tumor growth.
  5. QUERCETIN. Quercetin is a plant flavonol from the flavonoid group of polyphenols. It’s one of the most abundant antioxidants in the diet and plays an important role in helping your body combat free radical damage, which is linked to chronic diseases. It is found in many fruits, vegetables, leaves, seeds, and grains especially capers (one of the highest concentrations), red onions, apples and kale are common foods containing appreciable amounts of it.
  6. LUTEOLIN. Luteolin is also a flavone, with a yellow crystalline appearance. Luteolin is the principal yellow dye compound that is obtained from the plant Reseda luteola, which has been used as a source of the dye since at least the first millennium B.C. Luteolin has numerous useful actions that include: anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, microglia inhibition, neuroprotection, and memory increase. Vegetables and fruits such as celery, parsley, broccoli, onion leaves, carrots, peppers, cabbages, apple skins, and chrysanthemum flowers are luteolin rich.

Plant compounds known to block carcinogenic activity include:

  • Sulforaphane – broccoli and kale
  • Indole 3 Carbinol – broccoli and kale
  • Genistein – soy
  • Diallyl Sulfide – garlic and onions
  • Ellagic Acid – berries and walnuts
  • Curcumin – turmeric
  • Epigallocatechin (EGCG) – green tea
  • Resveratrol – green grapes
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids – flax seeds and avocado
  • Procyanidins – berries
  • Lycopene – tomatoes
  • Anthocyanidins – apples
  • Limonene – lemons and oranges

For a little more on NUTRIENTS 101.

 

 

TRANS FATS: WHAT THEY ARE and FOODS TO AVOID

Fat in general is an essential part of your diet that gives you energy. For example, your body burns carbs during physical activity, but after 20 minutes, it starts burning fats. Although you need to eat essential fats, like Omega 3 fatty acids, some fats, especially saturated and trans fat, are harmful. 

Although trans fats are better known as industrially manufactured, partially-hydrogenated oils (PHOs), or vegetable oil that have become solid fats, trans fats also occur naturally in animal products such as meat and dairy. Known as hydrogenation, food manufacturers use that process to keep foods fresh and to increase their shelf life. 

Trans fat is dangerous for your health, even in small amounts. Eating a high-trans-fat diet increases the risk of many chronic conditions, including all of the leading causes of death in the US which include heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises limiting trans fat intake to less than 1% of your daily calories. The Food and Drug Administration requires trans fat to appear on nutrition labels if a serving contains more than 0.5 grams. In other words, food manufacturers and restaurants can list small amounts of trans fat as zero grams. Multiple servings of food with less than 0.5 grams can add up to a significant intake.

The most prominent trans fat offenders are baked goods, fried foods, and most chain restaurant fare. You may find trans fats, in the form of PHOs, in foods like:

  • Pastries
  • Snacks
  • Fried foods
  • Shortening and margarine
  • Some vegetable oils

Why Are Trans Fats Unhealthy?

Trans fats have extremely harmful effects on health, including:

  • Raising LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
  • Lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol
  • Increases the risk of atherosclerosis, or built-up fat and cholesterol in ALL the arteries 
  • Inappropriately activating apoptosis, or programmed cell death
  • Causing inflammation
  • Triggering insulin resistance

FOODS WITH TRANS FATS

For the most part, food manufacturers and restaurants have eliminated trans fats due to their harmful effects. Still, you may find PHOs in foods like fried and battered foods, shortening and margarine, pastries (e.g., cakes, pies, and cookies), and dough. Below is a list of common foods containing trans fats:

Animal Products, particularly meat and dairy. Although amounts are small, they add up and given the fact that most Americans eat animal products with every meal, they add up very fast. Those trans fats negatively affect the body in exactly the same manner that manufactured trans fats do.

Anything Fried or Battered. Many restaurants use that PHOs to make foods, such as: 

  • French fries
  • Fried chicken 
  • Potato wedges or chips
  • Fried fish
  • Other fried snacks

Not frying food in PHOs can significantly reduce the amount of trans fat in on-the-go foods. Still, some restaurants have products that have trans fat listed on their nutrition labels. For example, a serving of large Cajun fries from Popeyes has 2 grams of trans fat.

Nutritional information might be challenging to find for small and local restaurants. You can ask them for information, or just assume that if it is fried or mass produced, it contains PHOs.

Pie and Pie Crust. Many major restaurant chains have removed PHOs from their apple pies. Still, some baked products may contain trans fat. You may find trans fat in a pie or pie crust variety at your local grocery store.  Always check the label if you are in doubt. Manufacturers must list the trans fat content of foods. 

Margarine Sticks and Shortening. Previously, manufacturers marketed margarine as a healthier alternative to butter. Margarine is made from vegetable oil instead of dairy or animal products. For margarine to maintain its solid form, many types, mainly stick varieties, depend on PHOs high in trans or saturated fat. Steer clear of regular sticks. Instead, opt for whipped, reduced-fat, or fat-free soft spreads. Companies can round down and put “zero grams” on their nutrition labels if their product has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Those trace amounts can add to unhealthy amounts if you bake or eat baked goods.

Cake Mixes and Frostings. You could see the telltale word “shortening” on many ingredient lists, even if you find a cake or muffin mix labeled trans-fat-free. That could mean trace amounts of trans fats, which can add up over multiple servings.

Pancakes and Waffles. Some pancake and waffle mixes may contain PHOs. Many popular brands have none, but checking the nutrition label does not hurt. You may still spot some PHO high on the ingredients list.

Fried Chicken. Manufacturers may hide trans fat in frozen fried chicken in many products, such as frozen meals marketed to children. Many restaurants may use trans-fat-containing oils to fry chicken. Those oils are inexpensive options that improve the dish’s taste and texture. It’s a good idea to check websites or ask what type of oil a restaurant fries their chicken in before you eat it. Or, better yet, avoid all fried foods because they are unhealthy for many other reasons anyway.

Ice Cream. Specific ice cream flavors can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. The telltale listing of PHOs will be missing if you read the ingredients list. There are naturally occurring trans fats in fat-containing dairy products. Several animal products from ruminant animals like cows and sheep contain trans fat. You may find those naturally occurring trans fats in meat products. Those trans fats affect your body similarly to the manufactured kind, even though they occur naturally.

Non-Dairy Creamers. Coffee and tea have many beneficial properties including lots of phytonutrients, however, adding dairy or non-dairy creamers not only nullify those benefits, they actually make them frankly unhealthy. Non-dairy creamers may be a regular part of your morning if you are a coffee lover. Even plant-based creamers can have added PHOs. The ingredients listed on some creamers may list zero grams of trans fat per serving. Yet, PHOs may be the second or third ingredient listed, meaning they’re one of the top ingredients. Those oils can add up if you drink multiple servings of coffee daily.

Some manufacturers have replaced PHOs with hydrogenated oils that do not contain trans fat. Still, those oils increase the risk of heart disease. Try avoiding those oils as much as possible.

Microwave Popcorn. Popcorn is a healthy snack that provides a serving of whole grains. Still, there’s no telling what you add when you pour on the gooey toppings. Many microwave popcorn may contain some amounts of trans fat. Even organic brands of popcorn may have some trans fat. You can check the nutrition facts label to ensure your popcorn has the optimal amount of trans fat per serving, according to your dietary needs.

Ground Beef. Just as with dairy products, beef can contain natural trans fat. Some chains have removed PHOs from their fried foods. Still, some burgers served at restaurants contain significant levels of trans fat. You will find trans fat in many frozen burgers, beef sausages, hot dogs, and ground beef.

Cookies and Cakes. Some cookie varieties may have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Though some still contain PHOs. Beware of store-bought frozen desserts, some of which contain trans fats.

Biscuits and Sweet Rolls. Many fast food chains offer biscuits with zero grams of trans fat per serving. Several donut and cinnamon roll retailers have phased out all trans fat. Still, others offer treats with up to one gram each. Be sure to check the grocery store types, too. Some frozen biscuits and sweet rolls may include some trans fat. Other varieties do not have trans fat on the label but list PHO in the ingredients.

Breakfast Sandwiches. Some breakfast sandwiches served on biscuits at restaurants can have up to six grams of trans fat. At the grocery store, frozen sandwiches may include small amounts of trans fat per serving.

Frozen or Creamy Beverages. Trans fat can naturally occur in dairy products, so you may want to look closely at dairy desserts. Although it may seem counterintuitive, those treats might have the most trans fat on the menu.Many restaurants’ shakes and creamy drinks have 0.5 grams or less. Still, some can contain up to nine grams of trans fat. Mix-ins, such as cookies or cookie dough, add additional trans fat.

Meat Sticks. You pack more than just protein when you snap a processed meat snack. Some of those snacks may contain trans fat since it occurs naturally in beef. Instead of processed meat sticks, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises eating plant-based snacks like fresh fruit or veggies. You can get protein from heart-healthy fish, poultry, lentils, soybeans, and nuts.

Crackers. Some crackers may not list any trans fat on their nutrition labels. Still, some varieties contain partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil in their nutrition labels. Even that small amount will add up if you eat more than a few. To be sure you are buying crackers that contain no trans fat, read the ingredients before even looking at the nutrition label. 

Frozen Dinners. Frozen foods are likely to contain trans fat not just to make the foods more stable but to give them a fatty feel in your mouth. Not all frozen foods are problematic, though. For example, frozen fish and frozen vegetables can make wonderfully nutritious meals. That said, prepackaged frozen and microwave meals can contain unhealthy trans fat. As with other foods, make sure to check the nutrition label.

Canned Chili. Several varieties of frozen beef chili contain about 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Turkey chili may be a healthier alternative to beef chili. Turkey chili often, but not always, has fewer calories and less saturated fat than beef chili.

 

ANTINUTRIENTS: FRIEND or FOE

Just to be clear, too much of anything, including water and oxygen, is not good for you. In addition, looking at individual components of anything ignores the whole. When it comes to food, the same is true. For example, eating fruits high in beta carotene like yellow peppers and carrots, reduces the risks of developing lung cancer in smokers. But isolating and consuming high doses of beta carotene from carrots increases lung cancer risks. Why? Because the carrot provides this healthy nutrient in appropriate amounts, in combination with thousands of other compounds including fiber. All plants have defense mechanisms against predators like insects and harsh environmental elements. This is what makes grapes green (a natural sunscreen) and gives cruciferous plants their butter taste. These compounds provide protective benefits to those who consume those plants as well. Sme of the compounds can also be toxic to us, especially if consumed uncooked or in too great an amount. Some of the compounds are called “antinutrients”.

Antinutrients are plant compounds that reduce the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients. They are not a major concern for most people, but may become a problem during periods of malnutrition, or among people who base their diets almost solely on grains and legumes. In fact, evidence shows that the antinutrients found in plants can help protect against and treat some types of cancer. Many can help boost the immune system. Tannins specifically have been found to help slow or prevent the growth of fungi, bacteria, and viruses that can cause illness. All provide a source of dietary fiber.

The most widely studied antinutrients include:

  • PHYTATES: Mainly found in seeds, grains and legumes, phytate reduces the absorption of minerals from a meal. These include iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium. 
  • TANNINS: A class of antioxidant polyphenols that may impair the digestion of various nutrients.
  • LECTINS: Found in all food plants, especially in seeds, legumes and grains. Some lectins may be harmful in high amounts, and interfere with the absorption of nutrients.
  • PROTEASE INHIBITORS: Widely distributed among plants, especially in seeds, grains and legumes. They interfere with protein digestion by inhibiting digestive enzymes.
  • OXALATES: They are the primary form of calcium in many vegetables. The highest amounts are in spinach, Swiss chard and beet greens. The calcium bound to oxalate is poorly absorbed however unless properly prepared.
  • SAPONINS: Saponins, also selectively referred to as triterpene glycosides, are bitter-tasting usually toxic plant-derived organic chemicals that have a foamy quality when agitated in water.
  • GOITROGENS: Goitrogens are substances that disrupt the production of thyroid hormones. This triggers the pituitary to release thyroid-stimulating hormone, which then promotes the growth of thyroid tissue, eventually leading to goiter. Although many cruciferous plants contain these compounds, you need to eat a barrelful a day (there is literally a case of this) to have any significant impact on thyroid function.

All of these compounds are very common on many plants, and when consumed in normal amounts and prepared in traditional ways, have no impact on health for the vast majority of people. In fact, the opposite is true. These compounds can impart some health benefits.

As far as lowering the amounts or deactivating the harmful effects of these compounds go, there are some simple ways to do this. These include properly cooking, soaking, fermenting or sprouting. Beans are a classic example. Vilified for containing high amounts of lectins, they are only an issue if you eat beans raw. There was a craze where people started grinding raw kidney beans into smoothies under the false impression that it was a magic weight loss trick. Not surprisingly, a number of people were hospitalized with GI issues. Beans and legumes do have a lot of lectins but if you cook them the way they are supposed to be, those lectins are inactivated. Beans are a universal component of the diets of all the Blue ZOnes in the world. These are areas where people are the healthiest and live thelonges with average healthy life expectancies 10 years more than Americans.

Simply put, Normal amounts of raw vegetables are very healthy. Salads are great. But if you eat a barrel full every day, that is both nuts and unhealthy. Cook or employ one of the other methods of food preparation and you will minimize or eliminate any of the potential negative effects of these otherwise healthy compounds.

 

 

ESSENTIAL NUTRIENTS

There are around 100  nutrients that should be in the diet for optimal health and well-being. Some 40 of these are classified by nutritionists as being “essential” for humans, which means that they cannot be made by our bodies but must be consumed in the diet. These include:

  • Amino acid. There are 9 of these and they include:
    • phenylalanine
    • valine
    • threonine
    • tryptophan
    • methionine
    • leucine
    • isoleucine
    • lysine
    • histidine
  • Fatty Acids. There are only 2 kinds we can’t make and they are the omega-3 and omega-6:
    • alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, which breaks down in the body into EPA and DHA.
    • linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid.
  • Vitamins. There are 13 of these:
    • A
    • C
    • D
    • E
    • K
    • thiamine (B1)
    • riboflavin (B2)
    • niacin (B3)
    • pantothenic acid (B5), B6, biotin (B7), folate (B9), and B12
  • Minerals. 15 of them.
    • potassium
    • chlorine
    • sodium
    • calcium
    • phosphorus
    • magnesium
    • iron
    • zinc
    • manganese
    • copper
    • iodine
    • chromium
    • molybdenum
    • selenium
    • cobalt

 

 

PROTEIN, MUSCLE and NITROGEN

Maintaining skeletal muscle is crucial for various physical and metabolic functions. Skeletal muscle plays a very important role, not only in strength, stability and movement, but it is also very important in both glucose and lipid metabolism. 

Our metabolic rate is controlled by:

  1. Muscle, primarily because of its mass and
  2. The Liver, because of its extreme metabolic activity, cleaning all the waste and toxins from our bodies.

We don’t lose liver function as we age, assuming we don’t destroy it with food, alcohol or viruses, but we do lose muscle, if not appropriately managed through diet and exercise. After the age of 30, we start to lose 1% of our muscle mass a year if not kept in check through exercise coupled with a proper diet.

Although it is well established that you can’t “out-exercise a bad diet”, you also can’t “out-eat inactivity”.

Diet and exercise work synergistically.

It’s not the mass of muscle per se which is important, but the function of that muscle is.

Just Like every other organ in our body, muscle cells are constantly turning over and regenerating, through the uptake and breakdown of proteins. When buildup exceeds breakdown, muscle grows and becomes stronger, assuming the muscle is challenged with exercise. 

Renewal of tissue and organs occurs in all parts of our bodies, including muscle. Skin constantly grows. Your bone marrow replaces every single platelet (the cell  partly responsible for clotting) every 5 days. The entire gut lining is replaced every 10 days, as are our taste buds. Bone is constantly building up and breaking down. So too does muscle. Muscle completely remodels every 50-100 days. It completely replaces itself. 

Of the 3 main macros, carbohydrates and to a lesser extent fat, are the main sources of fuel which runs all of our cells, organs and metabolic functions. In addition, both are readily stored in our tissues for later use. Glucose is stored as glycogen in muscle cells as well as in the liver and there is a limit to it’s storage but fat can be stored in unlimited quantities, in both fat cells, but more dangerously in all other cells where it wreaks havoc, as is evidenced. Our ability to store fat is evidenced by our overweight and obese society. Protein, the third major macronutrient, is not a good energy source. Nitrogen can be burned for fuel but it is very taxing on the body. In addition, there is no storage capacity for protein. Any extra we consume must get processed and excreted immediately. It’s either used or it must be removed. 

Protein toxicity occurs when protein metabolic wastes build up in the body. During protein metabolism, nitrogen wastes such as urea, uric acid, ammonia, and creatinine are produced. These compounds are not utilized by the human body and are usually excreted by the kidney. However, due to conditions such as renal (kidney) insufficiency, the under-functioning kidney is unable to excrete these metabolic wastes, causing them to accumulate in the body and lead to toxicity. Although there are many causes of protein toxicity, this condition is most prevalent in people with chronic kidney disease who consumes a protein-rich diet, specifically, proteins from animal sources that are rapidly digested and metabolized, causing the rapid release of a high concentration of protein metabolic wastes in the bloodstream. As opposed to proteins from plants, animal-based proteins have higher concentration of sulfur based amino acids which acidify the blood, adding to the strain on our bodies to balance that acid load, in addition to the additional work of the kidneys to clear these excess amino acids.

As mentioned above, humans as well as all the rest of the mammals excrete nitrogen, primarily as urea, through the kidneys. Fish excrete the nitrogen through their gills as ammonia. In birds, the nitrogen is removed as uric acid. 

Our bodies become much more efficient at processing protein when fasting but there is a limit to that. At some point, muscle starts to break down faster than it builds up. Muscle loss is called sarcopenia, and as mentioned above, we start to lose muscle mass after the age of 30, unless we do something about it like exercise and eat well.

The Recommended Daily Allowance, or RDA, is the level of a substance recommended to consume in order to prevent deficiencies, like vitamin C and scurvy. However, what is the minimum and what is optimum, are different things altogether. An example of this is Vitamin D. Although the “normal” range for this very important hormone is 30 to 100 ng/mL. We often assume that if you are over 30, all is OK. However, levels of those who live in the climates most conducive to normal levels as well as the Blue Zones, where people live the longest and are the healthiest, their levels are closer to 70. That is optimum. Vitamin D levels, which are low in about 70% of Americans, is important for proper protein metabolism. As is a healthy calcium consumption.

The RDA for protein is all about nitrogen balance. In humans, most N loss is via urea in the urine, which is why impaired kidney function can impact on protein metabolism. We do lose some through sweat and poop, but much less. Protein does not CAUSE kidney disease, but excess protein does stress an already damaged kidney. Plant protein less so.

Protein amounts should be a minimum of 0.8 gm/kg/day (1.75 gm/lb/day). Ideal however is closer to 1.5 gm/kg/day (3.3 gm/lb/day), especially if one is very active.

 

OXIDATION

Oxidation is any chemical reaction that involves the moving of electrons. Specifically, it means the substance that gives away electrons is oxidized. Normally, this is a reaction between oxygen and a substance such as iron. When iron reacts with oxygen it forms rust. This process involves iron losing some electrons (being reduced) and the oxygen gaining some electrons (being oxidized).

Oxidation is the opposite of reduction. A reduction-reaction always comes together with an oxidation-reaction. Oxidation and reduction together are called redox (reduction and oxidation). Oxygen, however, does not have to be present in a reaction for it to be a redox-reaction.

Oxidation is the loss of electrons. Reduction is the gain of electrons.

In terms of oxygen transfer, oxidation may be defined as the chemical process in which a substance gains oxygen or loses electrons and hydrogen. When one of the reactants is oxygen, then oxidation is the gain of oxygen. Reduction is a loss of oxygen.

Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons. The uneven number allows them to easily react with other molecules. Free radicals can cause large chain chemical reactions in your body because they react so easily with other molecules. These reactions are called oxidation. They can be beneficial or harmful.

Antioxidants are molecules that can donate an electron to a free radical without making themselves unstable. This causes the free radical to stabilize and become less reactive.

 

 

ANTIOXIDANTS – Explained in Simple Terms

You may have heard a lot of talk about antioxidants, however, few people know what they are or how they work. 

In a nutshell, antioxidants are molecules that neutralize free radicals in your body.

What are free radicals? Atoms are surrounded by electrons that orbit the atom in layers called shells. Each shell needs to be filled by a set number of electrons. When a shell is full, electrons begin filling the next shell. If an atom has an outer shell that is not full, it may bond with another atom, using its electrons to complete its outer shell. These “incomplete” types of atoms are known as free radicals. Atoms with a full outer shell are stable, but free radicals are unstable and, in an effort to make up the number of electrons in their outer shell, they react quickly with other molecules, degrading them.

Free radicals are constantly being formed in your body. Free radicals do serve important functions that are essential for health. For example, your immune cells use free radicals to fight infections. Chemotherapy for cancer often works by generating free radicals which kill cancer cells. In fact, when taking chemotherapy, patients are often told to stop all vitamins, especially those high in antioxidants. They are even told sometimes to avoid excessive amounts of fruit and vegetables because the antioxidants in them make the chemotherapy less effective! 

When free radicals are produced in excess however, tissue and cellular damage occurs. Antioxidants keep free radicals in check. As with everything in life, balance is the key. Your body needs to maintain a certain balance of free radicals and antioxidants. When free radicals outnumber antioxidants, it can lead to a state called oxidative stress which can damage your DNA and other important molecules in your body. Sometimes, it even leads to cell death.

Your body generates  its own antioxidant defenses to keep free radicals in check. Antioxidants are also found in food, especially in fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based, whole foods. Although animal products do have antioxidants, plants contain 30x more. Most vitamins, such as vitamins E and C, are effective antioxidants. Antioxidants also act as preservatives and play a crucial role in food production by increasing shelf life.

Several lifestyle, stress, and environmental factors are known to promote excessive free radical formation and oxidative stress, including:

  • air pollution
  • cigarette smoke
  • alcohol intake
  • toxins of any kind including chemicals, radiation, even fragrances.
  • high blood sugar levels 
  • high intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids (saturated fat)
  • radiation, including excessive sunbathing and medical tests
  • bacterial, fungal, or viral infections
  • excessive intake of iron, magnesium, copper, or zinc
  • too much or too little oxygen in your body. Too little can be the result of lung disease or sleep apnea.
  • intense and prolonged exercise, which causes tissue damage
  • emotional stress.
  • excessive intake of antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E
  • antioxidant deficiency (this is very common)

Antioxidants are essential for the survival of all living things. Although your body generates its own antioxidants, such as the cellular antioxidant glutathione, their production diminishes with age and foods become more and more important sources of antioxidants. In addition, antioxidants are used up very quickly. Just the stress of driving home in traffic is enough of a stress to wipe out all the antioxidants in your circulation

Plants and animals, as well as all other forms of life, have their own defenses against free radicals and oxidative damage. Antioxidants are found in all whole foods of plant and animal origin.

Berries, green tea, coffee, and dark chocolate are renowned for being good sources of antioxidants. Coffee is the single biggest source of antioxidants in the Western diet, but this is because the average individual doesn’t eat that many antioxidant-rich foods to begin with but most people guzzle the coffee.

Meat products and fish also contain antioxidants, but to a much lesser extent than fruits and vegetables.

Types of dietary antioxidants. Antioxidants can be categorized as either water or fat soluble. Water-soluble antioxidants perform their actions in the fluid inside and outside cells, whereas fat-soluble ones act primarily in cell membranes because those membranes are made up mostly of fatty acids.

Important dietary antioxidants include:

  • Vitamin C. This water-soluble antioxidant is an essential dietary nutrient.
  • Vitamin E. This fat-soluble antioxidant plays a critical role in protecting cell membranes against oxidative damage.
  • Flavonoids. This group of plant antioxidants has many beneficial health effects.

Many substances that happen to be antioxidants also have other important functions. Notable examples include curcuminoids in turmeric and oleocanthal in extra virgin olive oil. These substances function as antioxidants but also have potent anti-inflammatory activity.

Dietary intake of antioxidants is essential for optimal health, but more is not always better. Excessive intake of isolated antioxidants can have toxic effects and may even promote rather than prevent oxidative damage. Eating plenty of antioxidant-rich whole food is a much better idea. Studies indicate that foods reduce oxidative damage to a greater extent than supplements. For example, one study compared the effects of drinking blood-orange juice and sugar water, both of which contained equal amounts of vitamin C. It found that the juice had significantly greater antioxidant power.

Foods’ compounds work synergistically. Taking just one or two isolated nutrients won’t have the same beneficial effects. Another example is Vitamin E. There are actually 8 different forms of this vitamin in foods but supplements often have only or maybe 2 forms. As a result, absorption of the other forms from food is blocked. In addition, Vitamin E supplements, in high enough doses, have been linked to prostate cancer in men.

The best strategy to ensure adequate antioxidant intake is to follow a diet rich in various vegetables and fruits, alongside other healthy habits. However, low-dose supplements, such as multivitamins, may be beneficial if you are deficient in certain nutrients or unable to follow a healthy diet. One notable example is Vitamin D. Actually a hormone, it is crucial to hormonal and bone health and about 70% of Americans are deficient. It comes primarily from adequate sun exposure since it is made from cholesterol in the skin exposed to UV radiation. Mushrooms and foods fortified with vitamin D are dietary sources but it is often not enough for most people who are deficient.

 

 

GLUTATHIONE

Antioxidants are substances that reduce oxidative stress by combating free radicals formed by inflammation in the body. We make them and we consume them when we eat plants. One of the one we can make is glutathione and it is one of the most potent antioxidants in the body. It is found in every cell in the human body. In fact, it’s found in every cell of all animals, plants, fungi and even bacteria. Discovered in 1921 by Sir Frederick Gotland Hopkins, it is a simple protein composed of only 3 amino acids: glutamic acid, cysteine and glycine. In comparison, human growth hormone requires 191 amino acids. Our bodies can manufacture those 3 amino acids but as we age, our ability to produce those amino acids decreases and the role of diet increases.

Glutathione  is produced by the liver and is found in high concentrations there because of its important role in detoxification. It enhances our immune defenses and protects against DNA damage.

Depletion of 20-30% of our glutathione can impair cellular defense systems and lead to abnormal cell-to-cell communication, and cause various adverse effects including protein breakdown and cell injury. We’ve learned that as little as 5 days of sleep deprivation can impair the production of glutathione by 30%. However, sleep recovery showed restoration of glutathione and antioxidant activity in both liver and heart.

Foods high in glutathione include:

  • Avocado
  • Strawberries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Oranges
  • Asparagus
  • Spinach (raw)
  • Winter squash
  • Potatoes with skin
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Beef, poultry and fish have some as well but no more than plants do.

Foods high in the amino acid cysteine:

  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • Peaches
  • Beans
  • Spinach
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Walnuts
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Beef, poultry and fish have more cysteine than fruits and vegetables because they also contain more sulfur containing amino acids but these also acidify the blood, leading to osteoporosis so focus on the plants.

Foods high in glutamic acid include:

  • Beans, especially soybeans
  • Oatmeal
  • Green tea
  • Some fish and cheese

Natural Ways to Increase Your Glutathione Levels

There are a number of reasons why your body’s glutathione level may become depleted, including poor diet, chronic disease, infection and constant stress. Maintaining adequate levels of this antioxidant is incredibly important. Below are 10 of the best ways to increase your glutathione levels naturally.

  1. Consume Sulfur-Rich Foods. Sulfur is an important mineral that occurs naturally in some plant and protein foods. It’s required for the structure and activity of important proteins and enzymes in the body. Notably, sulfur is required for the synthesis of glutathione. A number of human and animal studies have found that eating sulfur-rich vegetables may reduce oxidative stress by increasing glutathione levels.
    Sulfur is found in two amino acids in food: methionine and cysteine. It’s primarily derived from dietary proteins, such as beef, fish and poultry however those sources also acidify the blood, leading to calcium breakdown in our bones. Better sources of sulfur include vegetables such as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, watercress and mustard greens and allium vegetables, including garlic, shallots and onions, also boost glutathione levels, likely due to their sulfur-containing compounds.
  2. Increase Your Vitamin C Intake. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin found in a variety of foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. Strawberries, citrus fruits, papayas, kiwis and bell peppers are all examples of foods rich in vitamin C. This vitamin has many functions, including working as an antioxidant to protect cells from oxidative damage. It also maintains the body’s supply of other antioxidants, including glutathione. Vitamin C may help increase glutathione levels by attacking free  radicals first, thereby sparing glutathione. Vitamin C helps reprocess glutathione by converting oxidized glutathione back to its active form. Taking vitamin C supplements increases glutathione levels in white blood cells in healthy adults.
  3. Add Selenium-Rich Foods to Your Diet. Selenium is an essential mineral and a glutathione cofactor, a substance needed for glutathione activity. Some of the best sources of selenium are some meats but it’s better to get selenium from healthier sources like brown rice and Brazil nuts.
  4. Eat Foods Naturally Rich in Glutathione. The human body produces glutathione, but there are also dietary sources. Spinach, avocados, asparagus and okra are some of the richest dietary sources. However, dietary glutathione is poorly absorbed by the human body. Additionally, cooking and storage conditions can decrease the amount of glutathione found in food. Despite having a lower impact on increasing glutathione levels, glutathione-rich foods may help decrease oxidative stress.
  5. Milk Thistle. Milk thistle supplements are another way to boost glutathione levels naturally. This herbal supplement is extracted from the milk thistle plant, known as Silybum marianum. It consists of three active compounds, collectively known as silymarin. Silymarin is found in high concentrations in milk thistle extract and is well known for its antioxidant properties. Silymarin has been shown to increase glutathione levels and prevent depletion in both test-tube and rodent studies. It is able to maintain glutathione levels by preventing cell damage.
  6. Turmeric Extract. Turmeric is a vibrant yellow-orange herb and a popular spice in Indian cuisine. The herb has been used medicinally in India since ancient times. The medicinal properties of turmeric are likely linked to its main component, curcumin which is much more concentrated in the extract form of turmeric, compared to the spice. Numerous animal and test-tube studies have shown that turmeric and curcumin extract have the ability to increase glutathione levels. Curcumin found in turmeric may assist in restoring adequate levels of glutathione and improve the activity of glutathione enzymes.
  7. Sleep Well. As mentioned above, poos sleep depletes glutathione. A good night’s rest is essential for overall health. Interestingly, long-term lack of sleep can cause oxidative stress and even hormone imbalances.
  8. Exercise. Regular physical activity has long been recommended by physicians and healthcare providers. It’s no surprise that exercise is good for both your physical and mental health. Recent research shows that exercise is also helpful in maintaining or increasing antioxidant levels, especially glutathione. Completing a combination of both cardio and circuit weight training increases glutathione the most, compared to completing cardio or weight training alone. However, athletes who over-train without maintaining adequate nutrition and rest may be at risk of decreased glutathione production.
  9. Avoid Drinking Too Much Alcohol. Excessive alcohol causes a lot of inflammation, leading to free radical formation. <any organ systems are affected. While not as well known, lung damage is also an adverse effect of alcoholism. This is likely related to a depletion of glutathione levels in the lungs. The small airways of the lungs require glutathione to function properly. Healthy lungs have up to 1,000x more glutathione than other parts of the body. Depletion of glutathione in the lungs of alcoholics is most likely due to oxidative stress caused by chronic alcohol use. There is an 80–90% decrease in lung glutathione levels in those who regularly consume excessive amounts of alcohol.

 

 

GLYCEMIC INDEX AND GLYCEMIC LOAD

The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of the blood glucose-raising potential of the carbohydrate (sugar) content of a food compared to a reference food (pure glucose). Carbohydrate-containing foods can be classified as high (≥70), moderate (56-69) or low-GI (≤55) relative to pure glucose (100). Consumption of high-GI foods cause a sharp increase blood glucose concentration that declines rapidly, whereas consumption of low-GI foods results in a lower blood glucose concentration that declines gradually. Part of the problem with using GI as a guide for eating is that a specific foods GI can be affected by its ripeness and how the food is prepared. A great example are bananas. 98% of the calories from a banana come from carbs. When under ripe, the GI is much lower than when it is ripe since much of the resistant starch (which accounts for 80-90% of the carbs when under ripe) is converted into simpler, more rapidly digestible sugars as it ripens. Roasting foods also increased their GI as the sugars are broken down. Processed, refined foods like white bread or pastries have high a GI because the sugars get absorbed quickly since there is a lot of air which leads to more surface area for enzymes to break things down. Pasta lie spaghetti, especially when it is al dente (meaning a little firm and not overdone) tends to have a much lower GI because it is dense and gets digested and absorbed more slowly.

The glycemic load (GL) is obtained by multiplying the quality of carbohydrate in a given food (GI) by the amount of carbohydrate in a serving of that food. This is a more practical value.

A food with a high GI raises blood sugar more than a food with a medium to low GI but the glycemic index but does not take into account the amount of carbohydrate in a food. So glycemic load is a better indicator of how a carbohydrate food will affect blood sugar. As an example, watermelon has a high GI (72), which is relatively high. However, a typical serving size (1 cup or a 1-inch wedge) only has 5 grams of carbohydrate and its GL is very low (3.6). You would practically have to eat half a watermelon for it to significantly impact on your blood sugar.

Lastly, and most importantly, you have to consider a whole meal and not just individual food items. For example, one slice of white bread has a very high GI (>70) and even worse GL (100) however, if you put hummus on it along with some tomatoes, spinach and broccoli sprouts, the overall nutrition of the bread is improved. I am certainly not condoning eating white bread but the points are 1) consider everything on your plate, good and bad and 2) eat your whole fruits and vegetables and avoid processed foods. In addition, a Snickers candy bar has a GI of 43 (low) and peanut butter has a GI of 33 (even lower) but both have a significant amount of fat along with other potential harmful ingredients. 

EAT WHOLE UNPROCESSED FOODS, MOSTLY PLANTS WITHOUT FAT AND YOU DON’T NEED TO WORRY ABOUT GI OR GL!

For a easy place to look up the glycemic index of specific foods, click here.

 

 

PLANT FAMILIES

Grouping plants by botanical families makes it possible to save space and promote mutual protection among vegetables. When grouping vegetables, take the 13 families into account.

  1. THE UMBELLIFERAE FAMILY. The Umbelliferae family includes plants whose defining characteristic is the arrangement of their flowers in umbels, hence their name. Some species, such as hemlock, can be poisonous, while others are edible. A few examples: dill, anise, garden angelica, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, cilantro, cumin, fennel, parsnips, and parsley.
  2. THE LAMIACEAE FAMILY. The Lamiaceae family includes plants with leaves containing many small glands that secrete essential oils, making these plants highly fragrant. That is why many are used in herbal teas (mint, lemon balm), jams (mint), cooking (sage, thyme, savory), perfumes (oregano, lavender), and more. A few examples: basil, catnip, hyssop, lavender, marjoram, white horehound, lemon balm, oregano, rosemary, savory, sage, and thyme.
  3. THE SOLANACEAE FAMILY. The Solanaceae family, more commonly known as the “nightshade” family, includes herbaceous plants, shrubs, trees, and vines that grow in temperate to tropical regions. A few examples: eggplants, bell peppers, potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes.
  4. THE ASTERACEAE FAMILY. The Asteraceae (or Compositae) family is very large, including nearly 13,000 species, mostly herbaceous plants but also some trees, shrubs, and vines. A few examples: absinthe, artichokes, chamomile, cardoons, chicory, tarragon, lettuce, dandelions, and salsify.
  5. THE BRASSICACEAE FAMILY. The Brassicaceae (or Cruciferae) family is characterized by a siliquose fruit (elongated, having two valves that fall away leaving a central partition as the fruit dries) and a four-petaled flower, with four petals in a cross shape and six stamens, including two smaller ones. A few examples include: cabbages, watercress, turnips, and radishes.
  6. THE LILIACEAE FAMILY. The Liliaceae family includes plants with leaves that are usually vertical and very long, as well as flowers with six colorful petals. These species can be ornamental or medicinal, or can be eaten or used to make textiles. A few examples: garlic, asparagus, chives, shallots, onions, and leeks.
  7. THE ROSACEAE FAMILY. The Rosaceae family includes herbaceous and woody plants with alternate leaves and either simple or composite flowers, usually pinkish in color. A few examples: strawberries, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, pears, apples, and plums.
  8. THE CUCURBITACEAE FAMILY. The Cucurbitaceae family includes herbaceous plants (and a few very rare shrubs), usually rampant or else climbing, using spiral tendrils. They live in temperate, hot, and tropical regions. A few examples: pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, and melons.
  9. THE CHENOPODIACEAE FAMILY. The Chenopodiaceae family includes plants without petals that often grow in soil rich in salts or nitrates. A few examples: Swiss chard, beets, and spinach.
  10. THE FABACEAE FAMILY. The Fabaceae family, commonly known as pulses, includes herbaceous plants, shrubs, trees, and vines. This family is present in regions that range from cold to tropical. A few examples: beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soy, and fava beans.
  11. THE POACEAE FAMILY. The Poaceae family, formerly known as Gramineae, includes nearly 12,000 species in over 700 genera. Most plants that we commonly call “grains” belong to this family, but it also includes other species, such as bamboo. A few examples: corn, rice, wheat, barley, oats, rye, and millet.
  12. DIOSCOREACEAE FAMILY. Yams are a monocot (a plant having one embryonic seed leaf) and from the Dioscoreaceae or Yam family. They typically have rough brown skin and are low in beta carotene.
  13. CONVOLVULACEA FAMILY. Sweet Potatoes, often called ‘yams’, are a dicot (a plant having two embryonic seed leaves) and are from the Convolvulacea or morning glory family. They have smooth, varied color skin, unlike yams. Also unlike yams, they are high in carotenoids including beta and alpha carotene. They are also high in the superoxide dismutase and catalase, enzymes that help break down potentially harmful oxygen molecules in cells. Also high in sporamin, its main unique protein, has significant aromatase inhibitor function (it inhibits the enzyme which makes estrogen) and thus lower the risk of hormone-related cancers).

 

DIGESTION

Once we have eaten complex proteins, fats, and carbs, so-called macronutrients, we need to break them down into their smaller constituent units, amino acids, fatty acids, and monosaccharides respectively, that can be absorbed by the gut and then are able to sustain life. Complex carbohydrates ultimately get broken down into monosaccharides. For starch, this process starts in the mouth, where starch-digesting enzymes in saliva (amylases) get to work, breaking starch down to glucose. Disaccharides such as table sugar (sucrose) and milk sugar (lactose) are split into monosaccharides by enzymes in the small intestine. These monosaccharides are then absorbed into the bloodstream. Sucrose gets broken into glucose and fructose. Much of the fructose we eat is converted into glucose in the intestine, while the rest enters the blood and is processed by the liver. High intakes of fructose from processed foods, primarily sugar-sweetened beverages, but not the fructose from fruits and vegetables, lead to buildup of liver fat. A person who lacks the enzyme for breaking milk sugar (lactose) into glucose and galactose is “lactose intolerant.” Originally, we humans lost the ability to digest lactose at the time of weaning, but about 5,000 years ago, populations in different parts of the world evolved the ability to digest lactose and drink milk later in life, allowing full nutritional advantage to be taken of domesticating dairy animals. Still, more than 70% of adults worldwide are lactose-intolerant. Depending on how difficult the carbs in a meal are to digest, they may be completely broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream by the time they get much past the start of the small intestine on their way to the large bowel. More complex carbohydrates and other forms of dietary fiber that are harder to digest make it down to the bowel, where the microbiome breaks them down, liberating energy, short-chain fatty acids, vitamins and gas in the process.

Protein digestion begins in the stomach through the action of stomach acids and the enzyme pepsin. Protein digestion continues as the food enters the start of the intestine (the duodenum), where more protein-digesting enzymes enter from the pancreas. Single amino acids and very small peptides (composed of 2-3 amino acids) are absorbed into the cells of the small intestine to be transported into the bloodstream.

The pancreas also secretes fat-digesting enzymes into the small intestine, and fats are emulsified by bile, which is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, and enters the small intestine. The resultant fatty acids and other lipid components released are absorbed into the cells of the small intestine and then enter the bloodstream. 

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