Friday, February 27, 2009

why cow's milk isn't really good for you, and why soy milk isn't either

Greetings again dear friends,

I have a feeling lots of my vegetarian friends and also milk-drinking friends might not really like what I'm about to say, so before I begin, let me proclaim: don't kill the messenger. For clarification purposes I'm not trying to tell anyone to drink or not drink soymilk or cow's milk. I've consumed both these products myself at one time.* My only issue is that some things are being celebrated as health foods when they're not and that, as its title indicates, is what this blog is about.

So let's start with cow's milk. It's ubiquitous and people have been consuming it for ages. Where would a cereal breakfast be without it? And let's not even mention the humongous “Got milk?” campaign to get you to consume it even more. It's touted as a great source of calcium and is therefore good for your bones. Now that would be true if they also were to mention that the increased bone mineral density is a temporary phenomenon and that long-term overconsumption of calcium through cow's milk causes osteoporosisand does not prevent it. No, I'm not kidding and I know that that statement runs counterintuitive to all we've been “taught” about bone health and prevention, but it does explain why countries with the highest dairy consumption have the highest incidents of osteoporosis and hip fractures. If you have some time click on the link and read the whole article. Strictly speaking the data presented in regards to the countries is not causal, but rather correlational, but the correlation is very distinct. Additionally the article goes into the physiology of how the body treats excess calcium and why in the long run it becomes detrimental to bone health.

But that's really not the only beef with cow's milk (no pun intended). The large-scale production of cow's milk produces, what one controversial author in 1998 called poison. I didn't like his governmental conspiracy tone and wanted to draw on some more recent data so I'm not really using him as a source, but If you want to, check him out. His name is Robert Cohen and he wrote the book, Milk, the Deadly Poison. I cross-referenced my data and concluded that it's safe to say that in large-scale commercial milk production, due to the way the cows are confined in close proximity to each other they are given antibiotics to prevent an epidemic outbreak. We get these antibiotics in the milk. We also get the dead bacteria and viruses. Because cows naturally only give milk for the duration that the calf needs it, they are injected with often genetically engineered growth hormones to increase the milk production. We get these growth hormones in the milk. And pus from the udders because the excessive milking, now that they're producing excessive milk, rubs their flesh raw. But it gets better, ... that is, worse.

After the commercial farmer obtains this pathogen-loaded secretion, it needs to be processed to make it safe for consumption. One of the main steps therein is pasteurization and that ends up killing all bacteria in the milk (the bad and the good) so that the bacterias' cell membranes are broken open and all its “guts” are now in the milk. And those guts happen to be cyto-toxins which, as the name implies are toxic. Those bits and pieces of dead bacteria together with the cyto-toxins, once they enter your body, elicit a histamine response from your immune system (itching, asthma, inflammation, mucous production etc.). Another step of the processing is homogenization which destroys the butterfat clusters and is the reason why processed milk stays at an evenly distributed consistency instead of the fat separating from the milk. The problem with that is that the now destroyed fat-cells may cause some problems with your intestines. At the same time it yields a nutritionally poor product.

For a thorough explanation on milk processing here is a good video. This video also offers the only healthy alternative I could find anywhere if you want to be healthy, but staunchly don't want to give up cow's milk and insist on consuming the secretion of another animal. And that alternative is raw cow's milk. Because raw milk is absolutely unprocessed it can only come from grass-fed, healthy animals which are raised in free-range farms and it is subject to far stricter inspections. It contains all the nutrients that commercial processing kills and at the same time contains none of the pathogens. From personal experience, because this is the milk I grew up on, it tastes far better. The downside is that it's illegal in most states and the reasons for that are a subject unto itself that I won't cover here. And if you're lucky enough to live in a state where you can enjoy the benefits of raw milk, remember to still have it in moderation due to the excessive calcium-osteoporosis link.

Now let's go to soymilk that is often being touted as a great replacement for animal milk for people who are lactose intolerant (the majority of the world population) and for those who prefer to not consume animal products. There is one truth to this praise and that truth is that soy is a complete protein. This means that it contains all the amino acids that the human body needs for normal function and optimum health. I wasn't able to find whether it is the only plant that is a complete protein, but even if it isn't, it certainly is the most popular animal protein substitute around and a staple food of most vegetarian and vegan diets.

Before I go into why soymilk is pretty bad for you and why soy in general is not a health food, let me establish that the data on this subject is so varied and so diverse that it was absolutely insane to find two articles that agreed on all the main points. If you have some data to add to what I'm about to say, please do. Because the soy industry is a multi-billion dollar giant, it seems hard to find straight-forward information on the effects of soy. Although I've looked at a good 20 sources, here is a very reader-friendly article on all things soy and it largely contains a conglomeration of main points that most nutritionists and scientists agree about.

Because the data was so contradictory, I've gone and looked at the actual original studies conducted about soy and here are the highlights: soy has anti-nutrients, in particular it has enzymes which inhibit protein digestion, iron, calcium and zinc absorption. It also has phyto-estrogens which are chemicals resembling the human hormone estrogen. Excessive consumption of this has been linked to everything from male infertility, to thyroid gland problems, to female risk of breast cancer. Pretty much 85% of the sources say to keep soy away from children and to not give them soy-infant formula (if you have babies and this is of interest to you, check it out and let me know what you find). 60-70% of all soy available to us is genetically modified and has a higher concentration of the infertility-inducing components. There is soy in 60% of all products around us (seriously, pick up any ingredient list at hand and I'll bet you'll find some soy part in it. It's even in chewing gum.) Because this list can really go on and on and on, I suggest just google “antinutrients in soy.”

In regards to the original studies on soy, there is

Now that's you've read all of these studies and their depictions of soy as a practical poison, there is one thing you should be wondering and that is namely, how did people in Asia manage to eat this stuff for thousands of years? No, it's got nothing to do with genetics, though that's also a theory that's out there. Here are some good news if you want to be healthy and don't want to give up soy (and because you already read the long first article I presented you already know what I'm about to say, right?). If soy is processed correctly, namely fermented for 18 months (not a typo, months it is) the way it is in Asia, you can enjoy the benefits of its fiber and protein without taking in its anti-nutrients. Traditional products that are safe and healthy due to this processing include tempeh, natto, miso and shogu, which is a type of soysauce. Edamame are also safe to eat because they're not yet mature and their isoflavones/phytoestrogens are not bioactive and seem to not impair your biochemistry. If you do eat them though, make sure you get the organic ones and not the genetically modified ones. Note: soymilk and tofu are typically not fermented soy products and contain all the harmful substances found naturally in soy. For a very simple down-to-earth look at what soy to eat and not to eat, here is a brief article.

All right, that pretty much sums up my dabbling with this topic. In the next blog I will tackle the equally contradictory subject of the fats. Trans fats, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated? What's their deal. So tune in next Friday!

Till then ...

"The health of the people is really the foundation upon which all their happiness and all their powers as a state depend." -- Benjamin Disraeli

* If you'd like to know why I quit drinking both of these, it's actually not because of their nutritional value, or lack thereof. I reduced my cow's milk consumption when I moved here from Europe. The milk here tasted just awful (and now I finally know why) and we had to find the whole organic milk for me to drink it because that at least came close to the milk I had grown up on. When I started college and my mom didn't do my grocery shopping for me anymore, I just quit cow's milk because the organic kind was expensive and hard to find at the supermarket. I switched over to soymilk because I thought it was good for me and it was easier to find in stores and had a far longer expiration date. I quit soymilk because I quit eating cereals and that was the only time I even had any of it because it didn't taste good in any other way. And finally, I quit eating cereals because I had become a bit more nutritionally literate and realized there were better breakfast alternatives, but that'll be the blog on sugar.

Friday, February 20, 2009

of metabolisms, calories, nutrients and balancing acts

Greetings again and welcome back,

Because this specific entry tackles one of the biggest keys to proper nutrition and health it's pretty long, but if you're curious why some diets work for some people and not for others, why Eskimos didn't get heart disease, why you might like the name Pottenger though it sounds funny and such things, you won't be disappointed.

I'd like to start this series of blogs with an installment about metabolism. In my opinion the beginning of understanding nutrition and health is in understanding metabolism. And the beginning of understanding metabolism, well, that's actually in evolution, but for all intents and purposes we can start with Eskimos* about a 1000 years ago.

For the vast majority of human history people couldn't readily buy plane tickets so they stayed relatively isolated from each other in their respective regions of the world in their respective climates, which included some of the most hostile weather conditions. For example, the climate surrounding the North Pole, which is where Eskimos lived and in part still live, is essentially a snow and ice desert that makes Boston winters seem warm by comparison. Beside the cold, another downside of feet of ice covering the earth is that it's pretty hard for plants to grow, so as a consequence a traditional Eskimo diet consisted mostly out of fish, blubber and meat from seals and the occasional whale. In other words, they ate loads of protein and fat, ate nearly nothing but protein and fat to the point where our GPs today would proclaim death sentences on them and bury them in a mountain of cholesterol reducing drug prescriptions. But the fascinating thing is that Eskimos on a traditional Eskimo diet were free of degenerative diseases like diabetes or heart disease. How come? The answer is simply that they were adapted to their environment in every way including their biochemistry, that is, their metabolism. Just like every single population on this planet was adapted to their environment and the foods present in their environment.

So what does this have to do with your metabolism? Well, let's think, still 1000 years ago, of tribes near the equator where the climate allows plantlife to flourish all year round. Their diet consisted mostly out of fruits and vegetables and only of a little bit of fat and meat that they would catch on occasion. Yet, they too didn't have any degenerative heart diseases and flourished in their environment. But if you started feeding them nothing but fat and protein, they would have gotten sick. Just like an Eskimo would have gotten sick on a diet that predominantly consisted out of fruits and veggies. Their biochemistry was unsuited for efficiently converting such food into fuel.

Today, especially here in America, we may no longer be physiologically adapted to our environment, but we still carry the genes that made our ancestors flourish on one type of food and perish on another. So in that regard, we all have unique biochemistry, and roughly in the last 100 years, the term metabolic type was developed to refer to that biochemical uniqueness. Basically, just like none of us are identical on the outside (save maybe for identical twins), none of us are identical on the inside. It's one of the most common sense things, but for some reason current marketing trends are still selling a universally applicable diet—something that simply doesn't exist.

What is a metabolic type? Just like every other human characteristic, metabolism is on a continuum, but that continuum can be divided into 3 major categories—a protein type (like Eskimos), a carbohydrate type (like the populations near the equator) and a mixed type
(likely descendants from regions where people had to rely on plants and meat approximately equally).

How do the different metabolic types work? This is a simplification, but essentially your metabolism is your personal fuel furnace** that keeps your body in balance. You have people who are fast oxidizers, meaning their biochemistry processes food quickly, and slow oxidizers whose biochemistry breaks food down more slowly.

If you're a fast oxidizer and you eat, let's say an apple (lots of carbohydrates that are broken down easier than fat or protein) your body will process it very quickly, you'll have a sugar high and a crash and you'll feel tired and hungry again very soon afterward because that particular food puts that particular body out of balance. However, if you're that same fast oxidizer and you eat a chicken breast (lots of protein and some fat both of which take a longer time to be broken down), your body will break it down at a balanced rate that will keep you energized and satiated for longer. On the other hand, if you're a slow oxidizer and you eat a chicken breast or a steak, your body will take so long to process it that you will feel heavy and lethargic. So the key to converting food into fuel efficiently is to give your body the foods that will keep it balanced so that you can sustain a stable level of energy and clarity.

As you might have already guessed, fast oxidizers tend to have protein metabolic types, slow oxidizers tend to have carbohydrate metabolic types, while people who are energized by both nutrient groups are the mixed metabolic types (like myself).

How do you find out what metabolic type you are? There are several routes to finding this out and most of them lead to you putting your money into someone else's pocket. I really am not a big fan of buying concepts, especially diet concepts so I honestly don't recommend spending money on getting a metabolic type test. However everything I read about people who have struggled with weight and then finally gotten their metabolic type assessed, have lost weight and changed their life for the better has been highly encouraging. So whatever you choose is really up to you, just keep in mind I'm not promoting any of these products, ... I'm more saying these methods exist.
  • One method is a book. It's called the Metabolic Typing Diet by Wolcott and Fahey and why it's called a “diet” I don't know. The book explains the research and science behind metabolic typing. It also has a questionnaire you can follow that will help you determine your metabolic type. I got this book as a gift which means I have it, which also means (at least for my Boston friends) that if you'd like to borrow it, feel free to ask. And that reminds me, check your local library. Maybe they have it, too.
  • Another method would be to go to a specialist certified in metabolic typing and get tested with a more sophisticated questionnaire. If you're keen on this, check out Sean Croxton. He is a very down to earth personal trainer with a wealth of information. I started most of my research with his YouTube posts and his website. Even if you don't want your metabolic type assessed, he's a great source, and here is one of his short videos if you'd like more information about metabolic typing.
  • The simplest method of figuring out your metabolic type would be just to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Do you feel tired after you eat a particular food? Do you feel energized? full? Or does it make you hyper and then you crash? Just be aware that while some foods are bad for everyone (i.e. highly processed, sugar-loaded, empty calorie stuff) some good foods are good for some while not that great for others. We all have unique internal chemistry.

Does eating according to my metabolic type make me lose weight? The simple answer is yes. To explain this without exceeding the scope of this blog, you will have noticed that I referred much to macronutrients (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) but not to calories. Calories are merely units of energy (namely one calorie being the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water to one degree Celsius) and they measure the energy that our bodies need to perform metabolic functions. However where you get your calories matters too. In order to be healthy you need a balance of nutrients, you need carbs, protein and yes, fat. If you're a carbohydrate metabolic type you need half or more than half*** of all your calories to come from carbohydrates in order to maintain optimum energy and health. If you have too little or too much of the wrong nutrient, you get sick, namely you get malnutrition. And the most prevalent type of malnutrition in America is obesity. Go figure. The phrase “junk food” is applicable to junk food because the food is poor in its nutritional value and has loads of empty calories. If you give your body the right nutrition it will keep you healthier and leaner.

But speaking of leaner, here is one last thing about metabolism being a furnace. Your metabolism helps you burn calories, so if you're interested in losing weight it's in your best interest to keep your metabolism going at full blast, and here are a few tips as to how to do that:
  • Eat breakfast. Your body is starved after 8 (did I say eight, ha! after the few) hours of sleep you manage to get at night and to give it energy to get it going, you should eat breakfast.
  • Eat small meals every 3-4 hours. Whenever you put anything into your body, your metabolism kicks in and starts breaking it down. Furthermore, eating small meals throughout the day keeps you from getting famished and starving and thus keeps you from overeating later on.
  • Eat your biggest meals earlier in the day and have a smaller dinner so that you have energy for the most strenuous parts of your day.
  • Some research shows, and I didn't really look too deeply into this, but it makes chemical sense, that eating lean protein together with complex carbohydrates gives your metabolism the greatest boost in terms of the amount of work it has to do. (If you want to double-check this info, it's sometimes referred to as the thermal value of food and I read it in Tosca Reno's book. You can google her.)
  • If you stop eating or drastically cut your calories, your metabolism slows and you are more likely to gain weight that way because you've got nothing burning your calories. So for your own sake, don't cut calories like crazy.

That's all folks. Thanks for sticking through the long blog. Consider it a big breakfast and now that we're on the way, we can make the portion sizes smaller. Next week, I'll be writing about milk and soy and the mountain of misconceptions surrounding this topic.

Till then ...

It is not what disease the patient has, but which patient has the disease.”--attributed to William Osler

*I am aware that some Eskimos prefer to be called Inuits, but for the sake of simplicity I chose to use the word Eskimo as the umbrella term encompassing a few different native populations in the circumpolar region.

**I'd like to thank Lindsey H. (D.O. in the making) for answering several of my metabolism questions and giving me the furnace analogy. Good luck in med school. =)

***for more information on the foods pertinent to the metabolic types check out the Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation

Friday, February 13, 2009

and so it begins

Greetings friends and other friends' friends,

I've decided to set up a blog which purpose it is to be a one-stop center in regards to some of the most frequently baffling issues regarding health and nutrition (and thereby tangentially regarding fitness), in current North American society.

Why am I doing this? Well, I'm not quite (yet) someone you could describe as a “health nut,” but I've taken an interest in my personal health for a few years now and have eventually grown—to use a euphemism—severely annoyed at all the contradictory health and nutrition information that is floating around. So recently I sat down and researched the sources for a lot of health do's and health don't's. And because quite a few of my friends and almost everyone I know are concerned about their weight and looks, are on a diet or in-between diets, I figured it might help them out to know what I found out. At this point I'd like to explicitly state that I'm not advocating for or against any type of diet. The purpose of this blog is to present information in the vein of objectivity so that you can sift through your own mountain of misinformation and information and decide which course to take in regards to your health.

The second purpose, or rather hope, is that you can help me supplement or correct the information I present. I am not an authority in this field. Rather I'm simply a consumer and strive to be a highly educated consumer. Unless you have a slew of letters behind your name that are related to health and nutrition, we are peers, and as peers, I ask you to check and balance me. The ideal thing would be for this to become a dialogue, hence the name of this blog.

I'd also like to state what I will not do here. While I acknowledge that physical appearance is among the primary reasons why people hit the gym, buy diet books, starve themselves, or whatever else they do to lose weight, my focus here is on health, not explicitly weight loss. I do exercise 5-6 times a week because I do want to look a certain way, but above even that, I want be healthy, happy, energized and fully functional. Generally they go hand-in-hand, but I prioritize health above looks. So I will not write about exercise routines or any types of workouts. While I'm saying this with caution, it seems that the information floating around regarding exercises is not as confusing or contradictory as information on health and nutrition. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a positive correlation between the amount of money to be made in an industry and the degree of unclear information within that industry, but that's just speculation on my part. If you ever collect the data, let me know.

For those of you who do not know me and might want a reference point, check out the “about me” section.

My goal is to update this once a week so it would be lovely of you to tune in once a week.

Till next week ...

"It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver."--Mahatma Gandhi