Category Archives: Diet and Nutrition

Prebiotics and Probiotics

In an earlier post, I discussed the importance of maintaining a healthy microbiome. This collective of microorganisms helps digest our foods, regulates metabolism and blood sugar, and participates actively in immune function. It also prevents bacterial invasion into the blood supply and thwarts infection from tainted foods. Most of these trillions of microorganisms live in our guts. We need to cultivate a diverse population of good microorganisms that minimize space available for bad ones.

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that confer health benefits on the host when they are  administered in adequate amounts and planted in an environment conducive to growth. Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso, and sauerkraut are natural sources of probiotics. Fruits and vegetables are covered in lactic acid bacteria, some of which are the same strains found among our gut bacteria.1

probiotics and prebioticsPrebiotics are compounds in foods that foster the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms. They’re found in fruits and vegetables that have a high fiber content and/or starches that resist digestion. While we may not derive nutrients from these substances directly, our friendly microorganisms happily eat them up. Food sources include artichokes, asparagus, bananas, chicory root, garlic, leeks, legumes, onions, and whole grains. Just as we like variety in our diets, our microbiome responds favorably to different prebiotic food sources.

Our healthy gut biome dies off when we take broad-spectrum antibiotics. These lifesaving drugs do not have the sophistication to kill disease-causing bacteria while leaving the good stuff alone. The good guys also suffer in response to intestinal infection. Even stress has been associated with a substantive die-off of our healthy gut flora.2 In such cases, our once densely populated “gut garden” may become uncomfortably barren. Worse yet, unhealthy bacterial strains resistant to the effects of antibiotics, infection, or stress may attempt a hostile takeover of our guts.

Good nutrition can and should come to the rescue. Attentive consumption of a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fermented foods nourishes our guts in good times and helps repopulate them after unanticipated reversals.

What about probiotic supplements?

According to nutritionfacts.org, the jury is still out on the safety and efficacy of these supplements. Most of the research to date has been sponsored by organizations with an economic interest in the findings, potentially leading to an overstatement of benefits and an underreporting of negative results.3 Moreover, even the most reputable products only supply a tiny fraction of microorganisms in relation to the trillions of bacteria and yeast needed to populate a healthy gut. Moreover, these prepackaged microorganisms may not survive their time on the store or household shelf and may not make it through the rigors of digestion.

Words to the wise: Focus on eating gut-friendly food. Avoid antibiotics unless medically necessary. Manage stress.

References:

  1. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/preventing-the-common-cold-with-probiotics/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18023961/
  3. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/culture-shock-questioning-the-efficacy-and-safety-of-probiotics/

A Few Thoughts on Supplements

The last several posts have provided a brief introduction to vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. All of these substances show up in nutrient-dense forms of the foods or, in the case of Vitamin D, get coaxed into production by sunshine. We falter in getting our recommended daily doses when we make poor dietary choices. According to the USDA’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, here are the percentage of the U.S. population ages 1 year and older who are below, at, or above each of their dietary recommendations:

U.S. nutritional guideline compliance

According to this same report, poor dietary choices account for the country’s high incidence of obesity as well as preventable cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis. All of these conditions combined account for billions of dollars in healthcare costs. So, there’s ample reason to pursue a lifestyle that promotes a healthy diet and exercise. For those who don’t want to make these choices and/or simply want to hedge their bets, the multi-billion dollar supplement industry stands ready to pick up the slack.

Does it make sense to take a multivitamin every day?

Scientist does not support an affirmative vote. Drs. Mcpherson, Pipigas, and Pase performed a meta-analysis of 21 randomized, controlled trials to determine whether multivitamin-multimineral (MVMM) supplementation decreased mortality from all causes. No such benefit could be observed.1 In fact, it might be argued that MVMM supplements might have a deleterious impact if use in lieu of healthy eating, regular exercise, and tobacco cessation, three proven strategies for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and the like.

The U.S. government does not require vitamin mineral, and herbal supplement manufacturers to adhere to “current good manufacturing processes” (cGMPs) that ensure the identity, strength, quality, and purity of drug products. A full 7 years after these practices went into effect, 65% of dietary supplement manufacturers inspected by the FDA remained noncompliant.2 Supplements do not have to be pre-approved before hitting the store shelves; supplement ads do not have to be vetted before they’re presented to the public. Moreover, as Dr. Michael Greger of nutritionfacts.org states, “Dietary supplements may be adulterated with dangerous compounds, be contaminated, fail to contain the purported active ingredient, or contain unknown doses of the ingredients stated on the label.”3

When we take MVMM supplements, we risk getting too much of a good thing. Some nutrients like Vitamin A, folate/folic acid, niacin, copper, iron, and zinc are toxic when taken to excess. Supplementation may also inhibit absorption of other essential elements. For example, high levels of calcium has been shown to decrease the bioavailability of iron and magnesium.

Even if dietary supplements were proven to be safe and effective, they can’t compete with mother nature’s delivery system. The vitamins and minerals present in whole foods come prepackaged with a complementary complex of compounds that increase their collective efficacy. As a case in point, most vitamins produce optimum results in the presence of certain naturally occurring “cofactors,” such as trace minerals, enzymes, and coenzymes, as well as other vitamins. Plant-based food also contain phytonutrients that serve as anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory agents.

Of course, there are those among us whose health conditions and/or diets prevent them from getting all of the vitamin and minerals they need. For example, vegans and vegetarians may take vitamin B12 supplements given the lack of meat in their diets. Persons with limited exposure to the sun may take Vitamin D supplements. If you choose to take supplements, make sure your physician knows what you’re taking. Some supplements interact poorly with prescription medication!

Finally, if you want some measure of assurance that the supplements you purchase are safe, check the labels for seals of any of the following organizations:

  • U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP)
  • ConsumerLab.com
  • NSF International
  • Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL)

None of these organizations guarantees that the supplements in question have therapeutic value. They test and certify that the products contain the ingredients advertised on the label, and they do spot checks during the year. Companies pay a healthy chunk of change for these endorsements, which is why so few of the tens of thousands of products on the market have them.

References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23255568/
  2. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/dangers-of-dietary-supplement-deregulation/
  3. https://nutritionfacts.org/2020/02/27/supplement-labeling-fraud-is-widespread/

Phytonutrients

I lived several decades on this planet before I ever heard anyone talk about phytonutrients. I knew the Greek word for plant was phyto, so I had a fair idea of what these things were once they came to my attention. But I had no idea why I should care about them. After all, if there were essential to human health, surely someone would have told me about them sooner!

whole food plant based dietPhytonutrients refers to a collection of natural compounds that plants produce to promote their health and provide protection against germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats. You find phytonutrients in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, spices, and teas. While they’re not required for our survival, their presence in our diets proves beneficial.

Plants and related foods produce thousands of phytonutrients. Here are some of the common ones that enjoy a bit of notoriety.

Carotenoids produce the brightly colored red, orange, and yellow tones found in carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, papaya, sweet peppers, watermelon, and grapefruit. They’re also found in dark leafy greens, but the distinctive yellow hue gets masked by the green chlorophyll. As antioxidants, they tackle harmful free radicals to prevent damage to tissues throughout the body. They’ve also been associated with ocular health. Common carotenoids:

  • Alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and beta-cryptoxanthin (yellow, orange) can be converted to Vitamin A and support immune function and eye health.
  • Lycopene (red, pink) has been linked to reduced risk of prostate cancer.
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin in greens (spinach, kale, collards) may protect against cataracts and macular degeneration.

Ellagic acid can be found in grapes, berries, pomegranates, black currants, walnuts, pecans, and green tea. It has been shown to exert preventive and therapeutic effects against several types of cancers.1 Scientists theorize that it may help the liver neutralize cancer-causing substances as well as thwart the growth of cancer cells.

Flavonoids protect cells against oxidative damage and can help prevent the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and cognitive impairment. As different flavonoids manifest their antioxidant and anticancer activities in different ways, it’s a good idea to take advantage of various plant food sources to cover all the bases. Rich sources of flavonoids include berries, apples, red cabbage, onions, kale, parsley, green tea, red wine, citrus fruits, soybeans, and ginger.

Glucosinolates take up residence primarily in cruciferous vegetables such as boy choy, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and mustard greens. They give these vegetables their distinctive aroma and flavor. Among other things, epidemiological studies suggest that these vegetables are protective against cancers of the lung and digestive tract.2 That being said, cooking can destroy the enzyme myrosinase that converts glucosinolates into active metabolites. It doesn’t erase the benefits but may downgrade them considerably.

Phytoestrogens feature prominently in flaxseeds, soy products (beans, nuts, tofu, tempeh), miso, and sesame seeds. They are structurally similar to the estrogen we product in our bodies, but they preferentially bind to different estrogen receptor molecules than our homemade variety.3 This characteristic gives them the ability to offer relief to menopausal symptoms (e.g., hot flashes 4) without the deleterious effects associated with traditional hormone replacement therapy. Phytoestrogens have also positive effects on bone density.

Resveratrol found in grape skins and red wine has been touted as protective against cardiovascular disease. According to nutritionfacts.org, resveratrol was shown to have no proven human activity in over 10,000 studies.5 The hype surrounding over-the-counter resveratrol supplements appears to have been driven by non-human research. In lieu of taking dietary supplements, eating the whole grape allows for the possibility of synergistic activity among multiple ingredients than enhances bioactivity.

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4069806/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11887749/
  3. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/who-shouldnt-eat-soy/
  4. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/soy-phytoestrogens-for-menopause-hot-flashes/
  5. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-best-source-of-resveratrol/

Iron, Zinc, Selenium, Iodine, and Copper

Last week’s post provided an introduction to the body’s mineral requirements and offered a few details about the 7 essential macrominerals. While I do not plan to present information on all other essential minerals, a few of the trace minerals capture my attention.

iron, zinc, selenium, iodine, copperIron tops the list in public awareness given the prevalence of products (and associated advertising) targeting folks with “iron-poor blood.” Seventy percent of the body’s iron finds its way into red blood cells (hemoglobin) and muscle cells (myoglobin). Both are responsible for accepting, storing, transporting, and releasing oxygen from the lungs into tissues. Another twenty-five percent of the body’s iron takes the form of ferritin which regulates iron utilization in the cells and bloodstream. The remainder are constituent elements in certain proteins and enzymes that support vital metabolic functions.

Nutritionist Roberta Anding tells us that roughly 10% of dietary iron gets absorbed by the body. Heme iron in animal products proves more bioavailable than plant-based sources. It matters when you ingest iron. Calcium, zinc, magnesium, phosphorous, phytates, and soy inhibit iron absorption.

Iron deficiency manifests as fatigue, lightheadedness, leg cramps, cold intolerance, infections, shortness of breath, and difficulty swallowing. Iron deficiency anemia typically results from blood loss due to menstrual bleeding, gastrointestinal disorders, peptic ulcers, and certain cancers. It may also result from poor iron absorption as can occur with celiac disease, gastric bypass, Crohn’s disease, and excessive use of antiacids. Vegetarians, vegans, and older adults may be prone to iron deficiency.

Zinc has grown in the public consciousness due to published claims of its ability to reduce the severity and duration of common colds. (Anding says the jury may still be out!) We do know that zinc plays a role in wound healing, tissue growth/repair, blood clotting, DNA synthesis, taste perception, bone mineralization, and healthy thyroid function. It’s also involved in blood sugar control and is required for maintenance of Vitamin E in the blood. Anding tells us that the body leverages 15-40% of dietary zinc, with meat sources being four to five times more bioavailable than plant sources. Zinc competes with iron, calcium, and copper for absorption. Deficiencies are most prevalent in older populations and typically manifest as a loss of taste, smell, and/or appetite.

Selenium works with Vitamin E as an antioxidant and plays a valuable role in thyroid function. It is also required for pancreatic function and tissue elasticity; it has shown to be protective against radiation and toxic minerals. Meat and poultry tend to be reliable sources of selenium as this mineral as regularly added to animal feed. Plant-based foods (notably grains) also provide selenium if grown in selenium-rich soil. Deficiencies can occur among folks with gastrointestinal disorders and those who’ve had gastric bypass surgery.

Like selenium, iodine plays an important role in producing thyroid hormones. These hormones affect our basal metabolic rate, heartbeats, rate of breathing, and mitochondrial activity. They’re also crucial for normal human development, sexual function, sleep, and cognition. Proper iodine utilization requires sufficient access to Vitamin A. Iodine deficiencies may cause muscle cramps, cold hands and feet, weight gain, poor memory, constipation, depression, and headaches. Excess iodine can be toxic. Unrefined sea salt, kelp, fish, broth, butter, pineapple, artichokes, asparagus, and dark leafy greens are good sources of iodine.

Copper helps the body form bone and hemoglobin and promotes healthy nerves, immune function, and collagen formation. It also plays an important role in memory and brain function. Copper does its work in conjunction with zinc and Vitamin C. High doses of zinc can precipitate a copper deficiency. While a variety of foods provide copper, beef liver is the best resource.

As noted in prior posts, make sure your physician is aware of any mineral supplements that you take regularly. The body needs a balanced intake of vitamins and minerals. Imbalances may introduce unwanted issues.

Macrominerals

Just like fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins, our bodies need small amounts of seven macrominerals and a gaggle of trace minerals to sustain life and forestall disease. These minerals may show up in our bodies as salts – i.e., molecules in which a negatively charged ion is bonded to a positive one (e.g., sodium chloride, calcium phosphate, zinc sulfate). Or, they may be held claw-like (chelated) by a larger molecule. For example, hemoglobin chelates iron atoms. Our guts extract minerals from what we eat and render them into a form we can use.

Here’s a bit of information about the seven macrominerals:

macrominerals

Calcium supports strong bones and teeth, the heart and nervous system, and muscle growth and contraction. Our blood and tissues need a steady supply of calcium. If they run short, they’ll tap into our bones to replenish. As such, a diet chronically low in calcium may contribute to faltering bone integrity (a.k.a., osteopenia and osteoporosis). Excess iron, zinc, phosphorous, and magnesium can inhibit calcium absorption.

Chloride helps regulate the blood’s acid-alkaline balance as well as the passage of fluids across cell membranes. It plays a substantive role in digestion. (You can’t get hydrochloric acid for the stomach without chloride!) It’s also vital for proper brain growth and functioning.

Magnesium supports enzyme activity, calcium and potassium uptake, nerve transmission, bone formation (including the hard enamel in teeth), and metabolism of carbohydrates. It also joins chloride in ensuring proper blood serum acid-alkaline balance. High carbohydrate diets and excess quantities of zinc and vitamin D increase magnesium requirements.

Phosphorous sustains bone growth, kidney function, cellular growth, and the body’s acid-alkaline balance, among other things. To be used properly, it needs to be absorbed with the right amounts of serum magnesium and calcium. Excess phosphorous leads to calcium loss, a condition that may arise due to high soft drink consumption. Too little calcium may impede calcium absorption by the bones.

Potassium and sodium work hand-in-hand at the cellular level. Sodium pumps water into the cell; potassium pumps waste products out. Potassium participates in many chemical reactions within the cell. Sodium supports a whole range of biochemical processes outside the cell, including water regulation, muscle contraction/expansion, nerve stimulation, and, yes, acid-alkaline balance in the blood. As a rule, Americans consume an excess of sodium by virtue of high-salt processed foods and canned goods as well as salt we add at the table. While the liver can rid the body of some excess, elevated levels can give rise to hypertension. Word to the wise: Eat fresh, whole foods, use other spices for taste, and read labels. You’d be surprised how much salt has been added to prepackaged foods!

Sulphur aids in many biochemical processes and finds its way into the structure of several amino acids. It helps protect the body from infection, blocks harmful effects of pollution, and slows down the aging process. (You’ve got to like that!) Sulphur-containing amino acids build cell walls. Sulphur also shows up in the gel-like connective tissue in cartilage and skin.

A partial list of required trace minerals includes Boron, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Germanium, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Selenium, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Not all minerals are beneficial; some are toxic in quantity. Fortunately, minerals like calcium and magnesium along with antioxidants (e.g., Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium) protect against toxins and help the body eliminate them.

A number of factors inhibit the absorption of minerals even when an adequate supply has been ingested. The glandular messenger system that helps direct our gut’s mineral processing function needs ready access to fat-soluble vitamins. The gut’s mucosal walls leverage fat-soluble vitamins and cholesterol to maintain structural integrity, thereby letting beneficial substances pass though and keeping toxins out. Overconsumption of one mineral may crowd out absorption of another given “competition” for receptor sites. Strong chelating substances may develop such tight binds with their mineral substrates that they prevent them from being absorbed.

Here’s the good news: We’ve evolved over thousands of years to extract what we require when we eat a balanced, healthy diet. We just need to feast upon nutrient-dense foods and beverages, including mineral-rich bones broths. (It’s really easy to make bone broth from chicken or turkey carcasses. You can often buy beef or pork bones at your local store or famer’s market.) And, of course, you can always add minerals to your diet naturally by letting a little dirt or clay filter into your meals! Be sure to tell your doctor if you are taking mineral supplements regularly.

Water-Soluble Vitamins

Last week’s post launched the discussion of vitamins, those chemically active agents that are required to promote our health and growth. As noted, our bodies are unable to produce these life-sustaining substances on their own. With the exception of Vitamin D, we must take them in through food or supplements. This week, we’ll focus on water-soluble vitamins.

vitamin cVitamin C has been a popular dietary supplements ever since Dr. Linus Pauling (two-time Nobel prize winner in biochemistry) touted its benefits decades ago. As discussed in an earlier post, Vitamin C protects cells from incursion by viral agents and bolsters the efficacy of infection-fighting leucocytes. This powerhouse of a vitamin serves many other important functions.

According to nutritionist Roberta Anding, Vitamin C aids in the synthesis of carnitine which transports long-chain fatty acids into the cellular mitochondria for energy production. It’s needed for the synthesis of collagen, norepinephrine, peptide hormones, and tyrosine, an amino acid. It also supports iron absorption, and helps strengthen cartilage, bone, and teeth.

The recommended daily dose of Vitamin C is far lower than that suggested by Dr. Linus Pauling and can be obtained by eating 5-7 servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Vitamin C deficiency results in a condition called scurvy characterized by swollen, bleeding gums, joint pain, and fatigue. Scurvy was prominent among poorly nourished sailors at the end of the 18th century; it’s rarely found in the developed world.

The B vitamins work as a team to promote healthy nerves, skin, eyes, hair, liver, muscle tone, and cardiovascular function. They typically serve as coenzymes, triggering important chemical reactions that would not occur without their presence. They are found in fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, seafood, and organ meats. Excess alcohol consumption proves detrimental to the bioavailability of B vitamins and may result in disease.

Vitamin B1 (thiamin) helps break down the food we eat into sugars and amino acids. Thiamine needs an acidic environment for absorption and is damaged in the presence of heat. Thiamine deficiency results in one of two forms of disease. Wet beriberi affects the heart and circulatory system; dry beriberi damages nerve tissue.

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) helps break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates during digestion. It’s destroyed by ultraviolet light, hence the use of opaque containers for supplements. Excess riboflavin shows up as a distinctive yellow tinge to excreted urine. A deficiency results in ariboflavinosis as evidenced by mouth ulcers, cracked lips, dry skin, and sore throats. It may also be associated with anemia and itchy, watery, or bloodshot eyes.

Vitamin B3 (niacin) participates in the action of over 200 metabolic processes. Its deficiency brings on pellagra, a disease characterized by dermatitis, diarrhea, tremors, and mental disturbance. Niacin has been prescribed by physicians with patients who have been unable to control their cholesterol through stains, exercise, or diet. However, a high dose of niacin can result in flushing, rapid heartbeat, itching, nausea, diarrhea, liver damage, and elevated blood sugar. In short, it’s not a vitamin to be trifled with on one’s own.

Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) has been associated with the proper functioning of the adrenal glands as well as cell metabolism and cholesterol production. It’s found in organ meats, egg yolks, and whole grains. Some naturopaths prescribe pantothenic acid to combat stress. Deficiencies tend to be associated with acute malnutrition.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) supports healthy brain, nervous system, and immune function. It is destroyed by heat and may be toxic in excess quantities. A deficiency may result in declining oral health, weakened immune function, fatigue, tingling in the hands and feet, and seizures.

Vitamin B7 (biotin) supports processes to metabolize fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Deficiencies are rare but can lead to hair loss, skin problems, lethargy, impaired immune function, and other symptoms.

Vitamin B9 (folic acid) is a popular supplement for pregnant women as it has been known to prevent birth defects and support good spinal development. It’s an important coenzyme that builds the body up, bolsters immune function, supports red blood cell division, combats depression, among other functions. Good sources of folate include leafy greens, green beans, mushrooms, brown rice, lentils, cauliflower, and peas. While 50-67% of folate is bioavailable from foods, it is vulnerable to heat.

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is needed to produce red blood cells, maintain the central nervous system, and support DNA synthesis. When bound to food, it is released by hydrochloric acid and protease in the stomach. Because stomach acidity decreases with aging, folks over age 50 may be subject to malabsorption. Animal products are the primary source of Vitamin B12. Vegetarians and vegans may need B12 supplements or risk anemia and/or nervous disorders.

Check with your doctor or a trusted government resource to determine the recommended daily allotment of these vitamins based on your age and overall health. Let your doctor know about any supplements that you take regularly.

Fat-Soluble Vitamins

Vitamins are chemically active agents that are required in small quantities for our health and growth. They facilitate or control vital chemical reactions. As they cannot be manufactured by the body, we must rely on outside sources to supply them.

Vitamins A, D, E, and K dissolve in fat – hence the term fat-soluble – and can be stored in adipose tissue or the liver. The body can leverage these repositories to address any short-term deficiencies.

vitamins a, d, e, and kWe associate Vitamin A with healthy vision. It also plays a role in protein digestion, gene transcription, cell differentiation (i.e., telling cells what to become), epithelial cell development, bone metabolism, and blood development. It also serves as an antioxidant, protecting the body against free radicals and pollutants. Of the three forms of Vitamin A – retinol, retinal, and retinoic acid – retinoic acid is the most bioavailable. Vitamin A rich vegetables include sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, collard greens, and carrots. Egg yolks, organ meats, shellfish, and cod liver oil are good resources for meat-eaters. While we need sufficient Vitamin A for optimal health, an excess can be toxic. Laxatives, fat substitutes, and cholesterol-lowering drugs may interfere with absorption.

Vitamin D is most closely associated with healthy bone and teeth mineralization. It also regulates the amount of calcium that circulates in the blood. We generate Vitamin D out of cholesterol in the presence of sunlight. Synthesis depends on the amount of direct sunlight we experience, the level of melatonin in our skin, our use of sun screen, our clothing, and the time of day when exposure occurs. While sun exposure is not toxic with respect to our Vitamin D manufacturing operation, it may engender skin-related problems – notably burns, cancer, and premature signs of aging. Therefore, for those of us with sensitive skin or living in dark or overcast climates, Vitamin D supplementation might make sense. Blood tests can reveal whether or not the body has what it needs.

Vitamin E serves as an antioxidant to stabilize cell membranes and prevent oxidation by free radicals. It helps protect against mutation in our DNA and staves off heart disease by thwarting LDL oxidation. It has 8 different forms (called tocopherols), and each form serves a slightly different function. Dietary sources of Vitamin E include butter, organ meats, oils, nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens. Preparation and timing matter. Roasted almonds lose 80% of their Vitamin E; oils lose their Vitamin E over time. Vitamin E deficiency in the U.S. is rare. While Vitamin E supplementation used to be quite popular, its efficacy has been called into question in recent years.

Vitamin K is the master coagulator. It promotes blood clotting and the formation of proteins necessary for bone health. Plant-based sources of Vitamin K include kale, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and miso. Levels may be threatened when taking antibiotics as they kill the bacteria necessary to activate Vitamin K. Persons on anticoagulant drugs may also need to monitor their vitamin K intake to ensure they have sufficient resources for appropriate blood clotting.

Check with your doctor or a trusted government resource to determine the recommended daily allotment of these vitamins based on your age and overall health. Let your doctor know about any supplements that you take regularly. Make sure to consume sufficient dietary fat to give these vitamins the means for proper absorption.

Right Fats, Right Amounts

Fats (a.k.a. lipids) are organic substances that are not soluble in water. They win the prize for the most energy dense macronutrient. Whereas protein and carbohydrates deliver 4 calories per gram, fats serve up 9 calories per gram. For this reason, many diets argue for severely restricting (or eliminating) fats from the daily meal plan to speed weight loss. Beyond the challenge of sustaining a fat-free diet, such constraints ignore the essential work that fats do for our bodies. They serve as:

  • Building blocks for cell membranes as well as several hormones and hormone-like substances
  • Nutrient sources for brain development
  • Thermal insulation for vital organs
  • Carriers for fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K)
  • Appetite suppressors by slowing digestion and conferring a sense of fullness

When folks consume too little fat, they may experience low energy, difficulty concentrating, depression, weight gain, and mineral deficiencies. They may also wonder why their food doesn’t taste very good!

fatsFats come in several forms:

Saturated fats show all available carbon bonds filled by hydrogen atoms; there are no double carbon bonds. They are solid or semi-solid at room temperature – e.g., animal fats, cheese, coconut oil, palm oil. Saturated fats form 50% of cell membranes, support calcium absorption into bones, protect the liver from toxins, enhance immune function, and provide an antimicrobial shield around the heart. They’re the most stable fat; they don’t go rancid even when used at high heat for cooking. The body can make them from available carbohydrates if they’re not included in the diet.

Monosaturated fats have one double-bond of carbon atoms. They are liquid at room temperature and relatively stable. They’re found in olive oil as well as almonds, peanuts, pecans, cashews, and avocados. They are considered heart-healthy fats when used in moderation. The body can make them from saturated fats if they’re not included in the diet.

Polyunsaturated fats have two or more double carbon bonds – e.g., omega-3 and omega-6. The body cannot make these fats; they must be obtained from foods. We need omega-3 fats to produce hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins which play a role in reproduction as well as resolving inflammation. They’re found in oils of cold water fish (e.g., herring, shell fish, sardines) and flaxseeds. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils (e.g., corn, safflower, sunflower) and support proper functioning of cells. Polyunsaturated fats are fragile in that they tend to become oxidized or rancid when subject to heat, air, light, and/or moisture. That’s why they’re packaged in dark bottles and may require refrigeration. When they’ve gone bad, they become extremely reactive chemically and may cause damage to cell membranes, blood vessels, and red blood cells.

Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been hydrogenated artificially to preserve shelf life and sustain high temperatures in commercial fryers. They’re also inexpensive. Unfortunately, they raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Most fat in the body takes the form of triglycerides – i.e., three fatty-acid chains attached to a glycerol molecule. While elevated triglycerides are a risk factor for heart disease, they don’t come from food directly. We make them in the liver as a function of excess sugars that have not been used for energy.

Cholesterol has been characterized as a lipid even though it does not contain a fatty acid. It gives cell membranes stiffness and stability and is essential for corticosteroids (stress hormones), sex hormones, bile salts, and serotonin receptors. There’s no dietary requirement to consume cholesterol because the body can make all that it needs. Ingesting dietary sources of cholesterol may not raise blood serum cholesterol (although excess consumption is hardly recommended!) Elevated serum cholesterol may be associated with a thyroid condition or the presence of high levels of altered, free radical-containing fats from which cholesterol serves a protective function.

Nutritionist Roberta Anding suggests that a prudent diet contains no more than 30% dietary fat of which 70-80% is unsaturated. Eating plans with < 20% dietary fat have been associated with lower rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease. She advises that we be careful with eating fish due to mercury contamination. Above all, eliminate processed or deep-fried foods containing trans fats or free-radical-containing unsaturated oils as they’re more likely to behave like marauders than nutrients.

Eat the Right Carbs

All green plants produce carbohydrates – sugar and starch. Through cooking, chewing, and enzymatic action during digestion, these substances transform into glucose molecules that the body uses for energy. When consumed in their whole, unrefined states, carbohydrate-rich foods contribute life-sustaining vitamins, minerals, enzymes, protein, fat, and fiber. They also moderate the speed at which glucose enters the bloodstream.

Like any finely tuned machine, our bodies want a steady supply of fuel to function at peak efficiency. They don’t want to be inundated with more than they can handle any more than they want to run dry. When we eat sugars and starches in their natural states alongside healthy protein and fat, they’re digested slowly, and the resulting sugars enter the bloodstream at a measured pace over a period of hours. The body gets exactly what it needs, when it needs it.

When we eat processed foods, sugars enter the bloodstream in a rush. The body kicks insulin and related hormone production into high gear to get rid of the excess. Excess insulin may work a little too well, plunging blood sugar lower than its desired state. The resulting hunger pangs may trigger further consumption of processed foods, which starts that negative spiral all over again. Eventually, the body stops responding to insulin and accumulates an unhealthy levels of sugar in the bloodstream, a condition known as diabetes. And because processed foods lack the vitamins, minerals, fiber, et al associated with whole foods, the body must deplete its nutrient reserves to sustain life and/or suffer the ill effects of nutrient deficiencies.

We exacerbate our processed foods sugar rush with direct consumption of sugars and syrups. Sugar used to be a luxury item whose delights were experienced sparingly. In 1700, inhabitants of the developed world consumed a mere 4 pounds of sugar per person per annum. By 1800, this figure rose to 18 pounds and topped 60 pounds by 1900. According to the USDA, 123.2 pounds per person of caloric sweeteners were available for consumption by U.S. consumers in 2019, down from a high of 151.5 pounds in 1999. Excessive consumption of sugar has been associated with a gaggle of adverse health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, obesity, bone loss, and dental decay.

Unfortunately, carbohydrates have been tarred with the ill-effects of processed foods and sugars to the extent that so-called dietary gurus started promoting high-protein, low-carbohydrate meal plans as the way forward. This approach fails to acknowledge the crucial metabolic functions that carbohydrates provide. They deliver the fuel necessary to maintain our metabolism and keep us moving. They prevent ketosis, a physiological state in which there is an excess of ketones in the blood or urine (caused when fat is not burned appropriately). And, by attending to the body’s energy needs, they free protein to perform its life-sustaining functions. (Read last week’s post.)

carbohydratesIn a well-balanced diet, at least 50% of one’s daily calories should come from carbohydrates, according to nutritionist Roberta Anding. These carbs ought to take the form of whole foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds (sparingly due to high fat content).

Aim for carbs that have a low glycemic index. The glycemic index measures how quickly your blood sugar rises after consumption of food. A high number indicates rapid conversion to sugar; a low number suggests a slow rise in blood sugar. Carbohydrates with a high glycemic index present the greatest risk of chronic disease when consumed in quantity.

Foods with a low glycemic index include:

  • Fruits: apples, berries, oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit
  • Non-starchy vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, spinach, tomatoes
  • Whole grains: quinoa, couscous, barley, buckwheat, oats
  • Legumes: lentils, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans

Food with a high glycemic index include:

  • Bread: white bread, bagels, pita pockets
  • Rice: white rice, jasmine rice, arborio rice (i.e., the rice used in risotto)
  • Cereals: instant oats, breakfast cereals
  • Pasta and noodles: lasagna, spaghetti, ravioli, macaroni, fettuccine
  • Starchy vegetables: mashed potatoes, potatoes, french fries
  • Baked goods: cake, doughnuts, cookies, croissants, muffins
  • Snacks: crackers, microwave popcorn, chips, pretzels
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages: soda, fruit juice, sports drinks

Protein: The Body’s Build and Repair Squad

Americans give a great deal of thought to protein. Grocers and health food stores serve up a wide variety of protein drinks, protein powders, and protein bars. Several weight loss “experts” tout the benefits of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets. Elite athletes credit protein for their impressive musculature. But is protein really worth all that fuss?

proteinWithout a doubt, we could not survive without protein. Our bodies build a wide variety of proteins using amino acids per instructions encoded in our DNA. There are nine essential amino acids which must be included daily in the foods we eat. Our bodies can manufacture the remaining eleven nonessential amino acids should they be absent from our diets.

Protein’s primary function is to build and repair tissue. This role takes on elevated importance during periods of rapid growth, intense exercise, and recovery from injury or surgery. Protein also supports immune function, synthesizes enzymes, acts as a chemical messenger, serves as a transport mechanism, and maintains fluid balance by preventing leakage in the space between cells. In a pinch, protein can provide a source of energy if the body lacks sufficient carbohydrates for the tasks at hand. However, nutrition expert Roberta Anding likens this usage to burning $100 bills in a fireplace to heat a room. It’ll take care of business but reflects a really poor use of resource.

Our bodies need daily deposits of amino acids; we don’t store them. Beef, poultry, fish, dairy products, and soy have been deemed “complete proteins” as they serve up adequate quantities of all nine essential amino acids. Folks who pursue a whole foods plant based diet get the requisite quantity of essential amino acids eating a variety of complementary – e.g., rice and beans, peanut and whole wheat bread. Such foods need to be eaten over the course of a day; they don’t have to be combined at every meal.

So, how much protein do we need?

The Daily Reference Intake (DRI) for a normal adult’s daily protein intake is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or .36 grams per pound. That figure translates into 54 grams of protein for the average 150-pound adult. According to Anding, endurance athletes need 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per day, and strength-training athletes need 1.6-1.6 grams of protein per day. Infants and adolescents also need elevated protein intake: 2g/Kg daily for infants, and 1 g/Kg daily for adolescents.

How much protein are we getting?

According to a survey by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, our average daily protein intake came to 56+14 grams in young children, 91+22 grams in adults, and 66+7 grams in the elderly. Unfortunately, excess protein does not translate into elevated function. If eaten in lieu of carbohydrates, it creates inefficiency in the production of energy. If it simply amounts to  excess daily calories, it contributes to weight gain.

If you are a “normal” adult and follow a balanced whole foods plant based diet, you will get the right amount of protein in a form that is least disruptive to the body’s controlled alkaline blood serum. If, on the other hand, you like being an omnivore, take a lesson from the world’s longest-lived human beings. Consider limiting your intake of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy to 10% or less of daily calories.