Category Archives: Diet and Nutrition

Harvard Weighs in on Nutrition

I just finished reading an article1 about Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He and his colleagues created the following Healthy Eating Plate based on the best available scientific evidence:

healthy eating plate

Vegetables: Eat lots of them – the greater the variety the better. Potatoes, French fries, and tater tots don’t count.

Fruits: eat plenty of fruits of all colors.

Whole Grains: Eat a variety of whole grains; limit refined grains (e.g., white rice, white bread).

Healthy Protein: Choose fish, poultry, beans, and nuts; limit red meat and cheese. Avoid bacon, cold cuts, and processed meats.

Water: Drink water, tea, of coffee with little to no sugar. Limit milk/dairy and juice. Avoid sugary drinks.

Healthy Oils: Use modest amounts of olive oil or canola oil for cooking and in salads, as needed. Limit butter. Avoid trans fats.

Unlike the U.S. Government’s Eating Plat, the Harvard version does not have a specific provision for dairy, and it places far greater emphasis on vegetables.

Dr. Hu and his colleagues are as concerned about our health as they are the health of the planet (which are, of course, inexorably intertwined). According to the article, food production accounts for 80% of deforestation, 70% of fresh water use, and 30% of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Meat and dairy production account for 80% of the food industry’s GHG. Moreover, it takes 11 times more fossil fuels to produce a single unit of protein than it takes to produce a comparable amount of grain-based protein.

If eating meat were deemed healthy, there’d be a painful trade-off between bolstering human health and bearing the environmental cost. But it turns out that meat isn’t that healthy. Findings from the 2012 Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and Nurses’ Health Study revealed that increasing one’s consumption of meat by a single serving per day elevates morbidity risk by 13-20%.

Hu has published several papers on plant-based diets but claims that it does not have to be vegan or vegetarian. As I’ve read elsewhere, meat as a condiment instead of prominent occupant of the plate seems to be alright (though processed meats are not good!)

Hu and his colleagues face an uphill battle in gaining governmental traction on their recommendations. Powerful political and commercial interests stand in their way. And, to be sure, there are still randomized, double-blind studies to be done to solidify their research. But as Hu says: “Globally, if we always just wait for the absolute proof or conclusive evidence, then it’s going to be disastrous. It’s going to be too late for both human health and the environment.”

 

1 See Diet Science: Healthy Humans, Healthy Planet by Jacob Sweet in Harvard Magazine, March-April 2020

Daily “Tricks” to Support Weight Loss

quick tipsIn my final post on Dr. Michael Greger’s How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss, I’ll cover the a few “tweaks” that he recommends to optimize a diet for weight loss. (He advises a consult with your doctor if you have any medical conditions or have difficulty with any of these recommendations.)

At Each Meal:

  1. Drink 1-2 glasses of cool or cold water before eating.
  2. Start each meal with “negative calorie” foods – e.g., an apple or a very light soup of salad
  3. Flavor meals (or a glass of water) with 2 teaspoons vinegar.
  4. Focus on eating, not the TV, notepad, or smartphone.
  5. Decrease bite size and eat slowly to allow for the 20 minutes necessary for your brain to catch up with your stomach.

Every day:

  1. Take in 1/4 teaspoon black cumin powder.
  2. Use 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder.
  3. Use 1 teaspoon ground ginger or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper.
  4. Eat 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast. (When pre-packaged, it’s usually near the spice section. Otherwise, check out the bulk foods section.)
  5. Take 1/2 teaspoon cumin with lunch and dinner.
  6. Drink water, black coffee, or hibiscus tea during meals. Drink 3 cups of green tea daily between meals, waiting at least an hour after you finish eating.
  7. Drink a glass of water hourly, fitting in at least 8 cups throughout the day.
  8. Eat whole (intact) grains to make your microbiome happy. Flour doesn’t count.
  9. Have your largest meals earlier in the day. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.
  10. Confine your meals to a 12 hour window – e.g., 7:00am to 7:00pm.
  11. Exercise 90 minutes daily. (For optimal results, wait 6 hours after your last meal – e.g., first thing in the morning.)
  12. Weigh yourself regularly.
  13. Work on establishing good habits (and breaking old ones) with a set of intentions – e.g., when I sit down to watch TV, I’ll drink a glass of water and work on a Sudoku puzzle to break the habit of snacking mindlessly. Take stock daily on how you’ve done. Adjust your list every 2 months.

Every night:

  1. Fast after 7:00pm.
  2. Get a good night’s sleep!

If any of these recommendations seems peculiar, I have a suggestion for you. Get a copy of Dr. Greger’s book and read it cover to cover! As I’d mentioned in the introductory post to this series, he provides nearly 5,000 citations of credible (vetted) scientific evidence for each one of his recommendations. And by investing the time to read this amazing book, it’ll hep you reinforce your commitment to a healthier you!

Weight Loss Boosters

In my third installment of findings from Dr. Michael Greger’s How Not To Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Heathy, Permanent Weight Loss, I’ll briefly summarize his weight loss boosters to help win the battle of the bulge.

booster rocketAccountability: Group therapy, health coaches, and social support produce better results than going it alone. At a bare minimum, weigh yourself regularly to stay focused on your weight loss goals.

Amping AMPK: An AMP-activated protein kinase causes the body to switch from storing to burning fat. It also stimulates production of mitochondria, the energy engines inside our cells. Eat nightshade vegetables (bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes), barberries, and up to 2 tablespoons vinegar daily.

Appetite Suppression: Ground flaxseed, cumin, and black cumin naturally tamp down our appetites.

Chronobiology: Take advantage of our body’s circadian rhythms by eating when we’re most likely to process food efficiently. The rule of thumb is: Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. And don’t snack at night!

Eating Rate: It takes ~20 minutes after we start eating for the brain to put the brakes on our appetites. Eat slowly. Opt for solid foods that require chewing. Even the sensations in the mouth can translate into the sensation of physical fullness. Ergo, nibble and savor rather than chomp and gulp!

Exercise Tweaks: As noted in a prior post, adjusting one’s diet is a far more effective strategy for weight loss than relying on exercise (although exercise confers many other benefits). Choose activities that you genuinely enjoy so that you will be less tempted to reward yourself with culinary treats for doing it.

Fat Blockers: Thylakoids in greens delay fat absorption and decrease ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Superstars include kale, collards, and arugula.

Habit Formation: Build healthy habits so that good food choices (not bad ones!) become automatic. Be intentional every time you put food in your mouth. Don’t eat on autopilot.

Hydration: Substitute water for sugary beverages. Drink filtered water to avoid impurities.

Inflammation Quenchers: Adopt a whole food plant-based diet to maximize anti-inflammatory food substances. Try goji berries (wolf berries); they have four times to antioxidants as other dried fruits. Add turmeric and nutritional yeast to your diet.

Intermittant Fasting: Front-end load calories every day; “fast” every evening after an early dinner. This practice has been associated with lower inflammation, better blood sugar, and improved weight maintenance.

Meal Frequency: The more frequently people eat, the more weight they tend to gain. Break the snacking habit and/or make it really inconvenient to do so.

Metabolic Boosters: Drinking 2 cups of (plain) water boosts the metabolism; doing so four times daily can wipe out 100 calories! Cold water takes more energy to process than warm water. Limit consumption to no more than 3 cups per hour to avoid overload on the liver.

Mild Trendelenburg: Drinking extra water also causes our blood capacity to expand which induces the heart to release atrial natriuretic factor (ATF), a fat burning hormone.

Negative Calorie Preloading: If you drink 2 cups of water or 1 cup of water-rich vegetables before a meal, you tend to eat less during the meal. Apples and grapefruits can produce the same effect, but other fruits did not pass muster. (The sweetness may be an appetite stimulant.)

Sleep Enhancement: When we sleep too little, we tend to crave unhealthy foods and gain weight. Excess weight can be a deterrent to a good night’s sleep due to indigestion, sleep apnea, or physical discomfort. Aim for 7 hours per night of sleep.

Stress Hormone Relief: Much like sleep deprivation, stress is associated with weight gain. (They don’t call it “comfort food” for nothing!) Stress-induced weight gain tends to lodge in the belly – the worst place for it! Remedies include exercise, laughter, yoga, massage, and mindfulness-based stress relief (MBSR).

Wall Off Your Calories: When eating whole foods and whole grains, calories get trapped in their cell walls. It passes through our elimination channel and never makes it inside us. So, that’s an easy way to limit caloric intake. So, for example, choose raw, unprocessed almonds instead of almond butter, or whole grains instead of a slice of whole wheat bread!

17 Characteristics of a Great Diet

As promised in my last post, I’m going to cover 17 characteristics of a great diet according to Dr. Michael Greger in his latest book, How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss.

Anti-Inflammatory: Inflammation is our immune system’s response to unhealthy elements that invade our bodies. Processed foods and animal products are pro-inflammatory; whole plant foods, fiber, and phytonutrients are anti-inflammatory. Anti-inflammatory superstars include turmeric, ginger, raw garlic, green or black tea, and fiber.

Clean: Research connects chemical pollutants with obesity. The meat, poultry, and seafood industries have been plagued by obesogenic pollutants. Harmful substances can be present in canned goods and certain plastic containers. Pesticides also affect the obesity rate. The solution? Go organic, get to know the people who make your food, and learn to cook from scratch.

High in Fiber-Rich Foods: High fiber diets make us feel full by distending our bellies and delaying emptying into the intestines. Upon reaching the intestine, they block absorption of carbs and fats into the bloodstream and help curb our appetites. And to top it off, the good bacteria in our gut biome love to feast on fiber!

High in Water-Rich Foods: Water adds bulk to what we eat without adding calories. Water-rich foods take more chewing action and have a dampening effect on stomach emptying. These built-in delays provide much-needed time for our body to signal to our brain that we should stop eating!

Low Glycemic Load: These foods avoid sugar spikes in our bloodstream and the associated activation of the reward/craving centers in our brains. They help us burn more fat and result in less of a metabolic slowdown as we lose weight.

Low in Added Fat: Naturally low-fat foods rank among the lowest in caloric density. Naturally low-fat foods encourage a higher burn rate in resting calories, and a higher percentage of their intake gets flushed down the toilet. Don’t be fooled by processed foods claiming “low fat” as they frequently contain extra sugar!

Low in Added Sugar: Sugar amps up our caloric intake, triggers an addictive response, and delivers no material nutritional value. What’s the number one strategy to avoid added sugar? Stop eating processed foods!

Low in Addictive Foods: The combination of sugar, fat, and salt revts up our craving engines and compels us to overeat nutritionally vacuous foods. Better to train our brains to enjoy healthy foods.

Low in Calorie Density: We’re designed to eat about 4-5 pounds of food per day. The body principally registers satiety by volume, not calories. So, it may be that obese individuals eat the same relative weight of food but simply ingest substantially more calories per mouthful.

Low in Meat: According to Dr. Greger, the odds of being obese increase by 18% for each 1% intake of calories by meat. This weight gain tends to settle in the abdomen.

Low in Refined Grains: Ultraprocessed food account for 58% of our daily intake. These refined grains contribute to weight gain far more than any other dietary and lifestyle factors. By contrast, whole grains increase satiety, increase our metabolic rate, and increase caloric loss via stool.

Low in Salt: Like sugar and fat, salt has an addictive quality that stimulates appetite and may encourage ingestion of sugary drinks.

Low Insulin Load: Sugar and meat protein cause insulin surges which, over time, result in cellular insulin resistance. High fat meals also diminish insulin sensitivity.

Microbiome Friendly: Our microbiome regulates our immune system, balances hormones, improves digestion, and makes life-sustaining vitamins. Every food choice affects our gut flora. A diverse gut flora supports lower body fat. Eat fiber-rich food (the real stuff, not fiber supplements).

Rich in Fruits and Vegetables: Such diets yield 17% lower odds of weight gain or abdominal obesity. Plant cells also affect gene expression in a way that promotes weight loss.

Rich in Legumes: The more beans you eat, the lower your body weight, waist size, saturated fat, and cholesterol intake. Beans also slow digestion and delay the return of hunger. And beans are packed with protein and fiber.

Satiating: We are built for gluttony. Our survival mechanisms were fine-tuned through thousands of years of scarcity. To keep our brains and hormones appropriately regulated, opt for fiber-rich, water-rich whole foods that suppress appetite. Make sure there’s ample variety in food selection to keep the mind and body happy.

Diet Beats Exercise for Weight Loss

I’ve watching videos from Dr. Michael Greger’s nutrtionfacts.org website for the past two-and-a-half years. As noted in an earlier post, I’m impressed by Dr. Greger’s passion and integrity as well as the rigor with which he tackles nutrition research. So, I purchased his latest book – How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss – as soon as it was published.

Given scads of diet books on the market, Dr. Greger set out to produce something unique – an evidence-based diet book for which the author had no personal financial incentive. (He donates all of the proceeds to charity.) It’s a 570-page tome jammed-packed with all kinds of valuable information and backed up by nearly 5,000 citations of scientific articles. (The team actually reviewed 500,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications to support this book!)

Here are a few of the attention-getting statistics that introduce the core of his content:

  • obesity pandemicWhile the diet industry rakes in $50 billion per year in revenue, it’s plagued by a gaggle of “fake news.” All too often, the profit motive supersedes well-researched, unbiased academic scholarship.
  • Seventy-one percent of Americans are overweight; 40% are classified as obese. Perhaps even more startling, 90% of Americans are overfat. (That is, a lot of thin people have too little lean muscle mass!)
  • The rise in daily caloric intake more than accounts for our obesity epidemic. The U.S. produces 3,900 calories of food per person per day – far more than we need to sustain normal body weight.
  • Taste engineers in food processing companies strive to make their foods irresistibly desirable by tapping into the addictive properties of sugar, fat, and salt. Dr. Greger refers to their products as C.R.A.P – i.e., Calorie Rich And P
  • The average child may watch upwards of 10,000 ads for C.R.A.P. foods in the course of a year.
  • Failure to turn the tide of obesity isn’t a matter of personal willpower. It also reflects a lack of political will. Food lobbyists influence government policy and work to suppress the stark truths about their products. Moreover, the sugar, fat, and meat industries receive substantial governmental subsidies.
  • The per capita lifetime cost of obesity (including lost productivity) equals ~$200,000.
  • Four million deaths annually can be traced to excess body fat.

The foregoing may not surprise you. But here’s a fact that probably will: Caloric intake, not physical activity, predicts weight gain. Moreover, the power of your genes is nothing compared to the power of your fork. Say what?

Body fat accumulates when Calories IN consistently tops Calories OUT. So how do we burn calories?

calories out

  • Our resting metabolic rate consumes 60% of our calories. It’s what we need to feed all of our cells and manage all of our bodily functions.
  • Twenty-five percent of our calories get used up supporting non-exercise physical activity – e.g., walking, hoofing up and down stairs, gardening, housework, cooking, etc.
  • Another 10% of our calories get used for thermogenesis, which is just a fancy word for the effort it takes to process food into usable substances (and eliminate the rest).
  • The remaining 5% gets burned off during exercise.

But wait – what about all those elite athletes who burn thousands of calories during their workouts? Sure – their Calories OUT equation looks a whole lot different from the Average Joe. But here are all the ways the Average Joe thwarts the benefits reaped by exercise:

  • Rewards self with a sugary protein bar immediately after working out
  • Adds more calories to daily consumption than gets burned off by exercise under the guise of increased appetite
  • Spends more time as a couch potato, thereby dialing down the burn available through non-exercise physical activity

Exercise most assuredly adds years to our lives and life to our years by stimulating our cardiovascular system, building strong bones and muscles, and increasing our flexibility and agility. But we can’t hang our weight loss hats on this strategy alone. We must watch what we eat AND make sure we’re getting sufficient non-exercise activity. (Just move!)

In my next post, I’ll cover Dr. Greger’s 17 key ingredients for a successful weight loss program.

Death and Diet

In 2013, the National Institute of Health published a research paper entitled “The state of US health, 1990-2010: burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors.” Its analysis and comparison with 34 other industrialized nations provided valuable input for national health policy. Here are some interesting facts:

  • The US spends the most per capita on health care.
  • US life expectancy increased from 75.2 years in 1990 to 78.2 years in 2010.
  • Healthy Life Expectancy increased from 65.8 years in 1990 to 68.1 years in 2010.
  • Among the 34 countries, the US rank for age-standardized death rate went from 18th in 1990 to 27th in 2010.

To summarize: We spend a disproportionate amount of money on healthcare. While life expectancy has increased, the average person still experiences 10 years of disability. And the US is falling behind other countries in its mortality rate. Not such great news!

Roughly three-quarters of all US deaths can be attributed to one of 10 causes. Here are the statistics gathered by the Center for Disease Control:

leading causes of death in the usa

I know a lot of people who think that we do not have much control over when and how we die. They think that maladies come with old age and that something is bound to get us. But when you look at the data, it turns out that we have much more control than you might think. According to the aforementioned State of US Health report, here are the top 10 primary risk factors that lead to premature death:

risk factors for death

What’s the number one risk factor? Diet! And if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll see how diet impacts blood pressure, body mass index, plasma glucose, and cholesterol. So, in reality, diet is responsible for the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 7th leading risk factors for premature death. And Dr. T. Colin Campbell makes the connection between diet and cancer in his book, The China Study.

Bottom Line: Change your diet and you just might save your life!

What Research Says About Dieting

I am an enthusiastic subscriber to NutritionFacts.org videos. As I’ve mentioned in a prior post, Dr. Greger and his team wade through thousands of scientific articles annually to keep the general public informed on the latest findings on nutrition. And they do it for free!

On Friday, I joined thousands of other folks for a NutritionFacts.org webinar re: dieting and the efficacy of fasting. Dr. Greger shared previews of videos that will be posted on the site over the next several months in support of his upcoming book, How Not to Diet. Here are just a few of the things that I learned.

bathroom scaleA long-standing maxim regarding weight loss goes something like this: 1 pound of fat is equivalent to 3500 calories. Therefore, if you want the bathroom scale to register one less pound, simply reduce your daily caloric intake by 500 calories for 7 days. Trouble is, the body doesn’t quite work that way.

The body’s “math” says that weight loss is a function of CALORIES IN (i.e., what you eat) minus CALORIES OUT (i.e., what the body has to burn to keep you alive). A heavy person’s body at rest will burn more calories than a thin person’s body at rest because there’s a lot more tissue and blood vessels to maintain. As a heavy person loses weight, it takes increased caloric restriction over time to sustain the same rate of weight loss. But that’s not all…

Our bodies have been hard-wired over millions of years to defend against scarcity. When they confront caloric restriction, they’ll respond by lowering their metabolic rates to ensure survival. They’ll also amp up the hunger sensation to get us to forage for food. As such, it takes that much more willpower to stay the course!

Folks often complain that their diets stall after about 6 months. Both factors noted above contribute to that result. But there’s an insidious little factor that slips beneath our level of awareness. Studies show that most dieters inadvertently start eating more food over time. At the 6-month mark, they may feel as though they’re still eating 500-600 fewer calories every day, but they’re actually only eating 200 fewer. The hunger drive gets the better of them and distorts their perceptions.

Fasting has become a popular tool for weight loss due to its potential for rapid results. But the research doesn’t bode well for this approach. During fasts, the body cannibalizes itself, using lean muscle mass to create fuel. Moreover, fasting for a week or two can interfere with the loss of body fat long term. Fasting also deprives the body of essential vitamins and minerals. That deficit can result in serious (even fatal!) consequences. Breaking fast is also dangerous if not pursued intelligently. The body can’t turn up its digestive functions on a dime. Anyone considering this technique for weight loss should only do so under medical supervision with folks who know what they’re doing!

Folks who opt to lose body fat through liposuction may lower their body fat composition but do not reap the benefits of improved health. That procedure simply removes subcutaneous fat. It’s the visceral fat – i.e., the stuff that surrounds our vital organs – that wreaks havoc on our systems, leading to hypertension, arteriosclerosis, insulin resistance, etc. So while clothes may fit better, the newly thinner person is not a healthier person.

Sustained weight loss requires a consistent deficit of 300-500 calories daily. To meet this requirement, Dr. Greger tell us not to eat less food of the kinds you’ve always eaten; rather, eat better food. You can lower the caloric density of meals and keep hunger in check by pursuing a whole food plant-based diet. You also do yourself a big favor by consuming your calories earlier in the day. He tells us to eat breakfast like a king (queen), lunch like a prince (princess), and dinner like a pauper.

Exercise needs to factor into the mix. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact of calorie restriction on weight loss. BUT exercise improves muscle mass, and resistance training prevents bone loss that can occur with calorie restriction. The research also suggests that it’s best to exercise first thing in the morning before eating.

Finally, our bodies like to have a daily fast of ~12 hours in duration. So, set aside a 12-hour window for eating (e.g., 7:30am to 7:30pm) and drink water and herbal tea during the other hours. That practice alone supports weight management as we tend to eat less healthy foods at day’s end.

If you’d like to find out the optimal number of calories to drop for weight loss based on your current weight and level of activity, check out the NIH Body Weight Planner.

Find the Right Balance of Acid and Alkaline Foods

Long ago in science class, I learned about the pH scale which measures the relative acidity of a solution. Acid solutions generally measure between 0 and 7, while base (or alkaline) solutions measure between 7 and 14. At room temperature, pure water is neither acidic nor basic and has a pH of 7.

balance acid and alkaline foodsAs the human body is predominantly liquid, it has a pH as well. It runs between 7.35 and 7.45, which is alkaline. It must maintain this environment for all necessary cellular functions and reactions to occur. When faced with an influx of acidic material, the body has the ability to neutralize it within reasonable limits. But this activity can have unwanted consequences – e.g., leaching the calcium out of our bones. Excess acid load disrupts the delicate machinery of the body.

An acid-forming diet introduces excess acids into our bodies. Until I read a little booklet about it, I had no idea what that statement meant. I didn’t know which foods were acid and which were alkaline. At a high level, here’s how they play out:

Alkaline-Forming Acid-Forming
Most fruit
Most vegetables
Lentils
Most spices
Most herbs and seasonings
Most seeds and nuts
Meat
Fish
Poultry
Eggs
Most Grains
Most Legumes

The worksheet on acid/alkaline foods provides more detailed information. Looking through it, I found many things that seemed counterintuitive. For example, I would have thought that citrus fruits (lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges) were acidic, but they’re alkaline! I also noticed that honey, maple syrup, sugar, and cocoa sit on the acid side of the divide. Finally, sea salt is “most alkaline” while common table salt is “most acid.” (Fortunately, I’m not big on salt, period!)

A health-promoting diet ensures that the body is not battling an excess of acid. The 5 principles of the Alkaline Way® Diet are:

  1. Eat high quality foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, free-range poultry, grass-fed meats
  2. Restore health by eating 80% of foods from alkaline sources; maintain health by eating 60% of food from alkaline sources.
  3. Eat a wide variety of high quality foods as each delivers its special blend of vital nutrients and helps sustain healthy digestion.
  4. Strike the right balance of acid and alkaline foods at each meal. (When your plate is filled with colorful produce, you’re on the right path!)
  5. Consume enough fiber and pure water to keep things moving smoothly through the digestive tract.

Some quick tips to boost your daily dose of alkaline foods:

  • Drink the juice of a half of a lemon or lime or a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in 6-8 ounces of water a few times during the day.
  • Add lentils, yams, and sweet potatoes to your diet regularly.
  • Eat at least 1 cup of alkalizing greens daily – i.e., kale, mustard greens, collard greens, or endive. (Note: Spinach is acid-forming!)
  • Add miso and seaweed soups as a precursor to meals. They are alkalizing and aide in digestion.
  • Give preferential treatment to oats, quinoa, and wild rice when choosing grains.
  • Enjoy liberal amounts of fresh fruit and avoid dried fruit.

Note: The Alkaline Way® Diet was developed by Susan Brown, PhD, CCN and Russell Jaffe, MD, PhD, CCN.

The Vitamin C Controversy

According to the Mayo Clinic, the recommended daily amount (RDA) for vitamin C is 65 to 90 mg with an upper limit of 2,000 mg. This RDA is intended to prevent scurvy, a fatal disease caused by Vitamin C deficiency. They further state that while megadoses are unlikely to cause serious harm, certain side effects might be experienced – e.g., diarrhea, nausea, heartburn, cramping, headache, insomnia.

vitamin cDecades ago, Dr. Linus Pauling – a two-time Nobel prize winning biochemist – took these recommendations to task. In Vitamin C, the Common Cold, and the Flu, he cited multiple randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies in which elevated intake of vitamin C significantly reduced the frequency, severity, and duration of colds and flus.

How does a cold or flu virus work?

Viruses cause the common cold and the flu (among other things). They are teeny, tiny microorganisms that worm their way into the body at the cellular level. They direct the cell’s biomachinery to produce lots of viral copies instead of the cell’s usual products. These copies then insinuate themselves into other cells and continue ramping up viral production. Along the way, they release poisons and toxins that make us feel lousy.

Our immune system fights back once a viral infection has taken hold. B cells generate virus-specific antibodies that bind to the microorganisms and stop them from replicating. They also tag viruses so that other cells called phagocytes know to destroy them. Viruses may also become inactive or destroyed by heat. (Note: Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections, not viral infections!)

So how might vitamin C work to ward off the common cold?

Vitamin C contributes to the formation of the colloidal substrate that binds tissues together. Pauling likens it to the rebar we use to lend strength and stability to a block of cement. Low Vitamin C weakens these substrates, making the cell more vulnerable to invasion. Vitamin C may also be implicated in the production and activation of interferons that inhibit viral production.

Infection-fighting leukocytes need Vitamin C to render them effective at destroying pathogens. Regular ingestion of Vitamin C keeps them in an appropriate state of readiness and may increase their motility. Levels deplete when combatting active infections. Therefore, an extra measure of Vitamin C may be required at such times to keep them in good working order.

Pauling notes that Vitamin C has been shown to deactivate herpes virus, vaccinia virus, hepatitis virus, bacterial viruses, and others. However, the rate of inactivation is proportional to dosage. One needs a large enough dose to generate favorable results.

How much should I ingest as a vitamin supplement?

If a person eats at least 5-7 serving of fresh fruits and vegetables daily, he or she is likely to get sufficient Vitamin C to prevent scurvy. When cooking, it’s best to steam or microwave veggies lightly to minimize nutrient loss.

To reap the health-promoting advantages touted by Dr. Pauling, one needs 1000-2000 mg supplemental Vitamin C spread through the day to maintain optimal blood levels. A large dose all at once may have a laxative effect. He notes, however, that the optimal dose for each individual varies based on his or her genetic profile and general state of health.

Dr. Pauling notes that the larger to the dose of Vitamin C, the greater the elimination of Vitamin C in the urine. This fact has been used by his detractors to suggest that excess dosage is a waste of money. However, even at higher doses, a percentage of the intake continues to remain bioavailable. It still proves beneficial as an antioxidant and as an essential coenzyme for important biochemical reactions. Moreover, Vitamin C in urine may prevent bladder infections and bladder cancer.

Some folks have an allergic reaction to the fillers used in the manufacture of Vitamin C tablets. Therefore, Dr. Pauling advocates use of sodium ascorbate in powdered form. Beyond the benefits for those prone to allergy, this formulation creates a lower acidic load in the bloodstream.

Has anything changed in the 4 decades since the publication of Dr. Pauling’s book?

In “Criteria and Recommendations for Vitamin C Intake” published in January 2006 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the authors demonstrated that recommended intake of Vitamin C could be increased up to 200 mg per day. No change appears to have been made in the RDA. However, as Dr. Douglas Gildersleeve, MD notes:

“Having worked as a researcher in the field, it is my contention that an effective treatment for the common cold, a cure, is available that is being ignored because of the monetary losses that would be inflicted on the pharmaceutical manufacturers, professional journals [as recipients of pharmaceutical advertising revenue], and doctors themselves.”

How to Eat to Promote Sleep

It seems like every time I turn around these days I come across another book about the adrenal glands. Who knew that these tiny little glands that sit atop the kidneys could be so interesting?

The latest tome to grace my nightstand is entitled The Adrenal Reset Diet: Strategically Cycle Carbs and Proteins to Lose Weight, Balance Hormones, and Move from Stressed to Thriving, by Dr. Alan Christianson, NMD. Here are the key messages that I got out of his book.

The adrenal glands produce cortisol, the hormone that opens up cell walls to let other hormones in. They are also implicated in regulating our electrolyte balance, immune function, fight-or-flight response, blood sugar, and sleep-waking cycles. The latter is of particular interest to me.

The adrenal gland works in tandem with the pineal gland to manage our circadian rhythm – that is, our wakefulness and sleepiness across a given 24 hour day. The adrenal gland produces cortisol which acts as a stimulant. The pineal gland produces melatonin, which makes us sleepy. When we’re operating at peak efficiency, our blood levels of these two compounds looks something like this:

cortisol-melatonin cycle

We run into trouble when our cortisol is too low in the morning, thereby denying us that jolt of energy that we need to greet the day and sustain our energy. We also suffer if we get an undesirable boost of cortisol in the evening, causing us to be wakeful when we should be sleeping.

According to Dr. Christianson, meals with a higher percentage of protein and fat cause more cortisol to be released as an aid to digestion. It also has the effect of decreasing fat storage. By contrast, a higher intake of carbohydrates causes less cortisol to be released. With that in mind, he advocates the following pattern of eating:

Breakfast

Lunch

Dinner

Protein

One serving (roughly the size of the palm of your hand)

Fat

One smallish serving

Carbohydrate

1 serving

2 servings

3 servings

Carb cycling keeps the cortisol levels at the proper levels given the time of day.

Protein must be high quality protein – e.g., free range poultry, grass-fed beef, mercury-free fish, protein powder (from a reputable source). Carbohydrates must come from whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and nuts. No processed foods! Whole foods with a high fiber to fructose ratio are preferred.

Skipped meals are a big no-no. It amps up cortisol as a means of helping the body adjust to its depleted energy resources. This is bad news for those of us who don’t feel hungry in the morning! However, his protein shake recipe looks appetizing and relatively easy to prepare: 1 scoop protein powder, 1/4 cup berries, 1 cup unsweetened nondairy milk, 2 TBSP flax seeds, 1 handful of frozen spinach, and 1/4 cup cooked navy beans.

Dr. Christianson favors outdoor exercise where possible. Apparently, fresh air is good for the daily biorhythms. Exercise should be limited to yoga or walking after 2 pm to avoid an inauspicious jolt in cortisol. A gentle 10-15 minute walk after dinner helps the body prepare for sleep.

The optimal biorhythm? Early to bed (no later than 10 pm) and early to rise… Not so good for the night owls among us!