Friday, March 27, 2009

Some Very Sweet Problems

Greetings again,

In my last blog I mentioned that sugar is one of the factors involved in diabetes (which most people already know) and that it's also a factor that increases risk for heart disease (which fewer people know). I will mostly address the latter point because it is indeed so little known, but before I begin I'd like to explain that when I say “sugar” I'm referring to table sugar. No adverse effect mentioned in this blog applies to sugar in its natural, non-refined state i.e. in fruits and vegetables. Most fruits and veggies are low on the glycemic index* and our bodies can handle their sugar content with ease. As soon as you process it and thereby concentrate it, you get into trouble. I'm pretty sure no one claims that sugar is good for you, but I think you may be surprised just how bad for you it is. So this blog entry won't be so much about clarifying misconceptions, but rather about expanding awareness.

During my sugar research I came upon a very fitting “analogy” and I encourage you to remember it because it pretty much sums up the gist of this whole blog—sugar is a drug. It's addictive. It gives you a high. It produces withdrawal symptoms/cravings when you don't have any for a while. And it destroys your health. Here is a list of 76 negative effects of sugar including interference with mineral and protein absorption, causing of varicose veins, messing with your DNA structure, causing headaches and migraines, causing depression, aiding emotional instability, contributing to obesity and degenerative disorders etc.

I'd particularly like to address the fact that sugar suppresses your immune system for hours after you consume it. The effect starts less than 30 minutes after consumption and can last up to five hours afterwards. What happens on the molecular level is that sugar interferes with your white blood cells and decreases their ability to kill germs. Drinking two soda cans (which contain about 20 teaspoons of sugar) can reduce your white cell efficiency by 40% (if you're really interested in the nitty-gritty details this site and this site are pretty reader-friendly). So with this in mind consider “health foods” like Vitamin water. It has vitamins and minerals that are supposedly going to help you stay healthier, but it also contains 8 teaspoons of sugar (4 g = aprox. 1 tsp) that are going to suppress your immune system and block your mineral absorption. Keep this in mind and it will help you make genuinely healthy choices. And also keep in mind that this immune suppressing effect does not occur with starches and complex carbs, that is whole foods that naturally contain sugar.

So in addition to making you more susceptible to infectious disease, sugar also causes inflammation which is its key link to heart disease. Basically the more sugar you consume, the more your body makes C reactive protein (CRP). CRP is an excellent inflammation marker. The more inflammation markers you have, the greater your likelihood of heart disease and consequently heart attack. This research is fairly new (2005 and on) and prior to this pretty much everyone in the medical community thought of cholesterol as a predictor of heart disease. However, you can have high cholesterol and as long you have low inflammation markers, you are unlikely to develop heart disease. More and more medical professionals seem to be catching on to the idea that cholesterol really isn't the tell-tale sign of heart problems. But even before this new research came out, doctors had some inkling about sugar's role in coronary heart disease albeit they couldn't pinpoint the problem. Here is an American Health Association statement from 2002 if you're like me and like to smile at gradual changes.

All right, so refined sugar is pretty much horrible for your body, but there is actually something worse than sugar—high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). I learned that there are actually TV commercials advertising that HFCS is made from corn and is just fine for you in moderation. I looked up a couple of the commercials and have to admit that they're ingeniously structured and executed, but they are also misleading just short of outright lying so that, I'm guessing, they can't get sued. HFCS is made from corn in the same sense that your car tires are made from rubber trees. And it's not made from sweet corn, but from inedible corn that is chemically processed with three different enzymes, broken down and concentrated into something that is even sweeter than sugar and is nowhere to be found in nature.

The first problem with HFCS is that it has a higher amount of fructose than glucose. Glucose is the sugar that gives you energy. Unlike glucose, fructose is digested differently and doesn't trigger insulin. Because insulin signals to your brain that you're full, you don't experience the feeling of satiety when you consume HFCS so you are not only consuming a concentrated drug, but you have to consume far more of it to feel like you've had enough. In short, it enables you to consume far more empty calories by circumventing your body's natural responses to too much food intake. The effect is absolutely worst when you're drinking HFCS (in pretty much every soft drink and most juices) because there is also no fiber to tell you you're full and should stop. So it's no wonder that HFCS is blamed for America's obesity epidemic amongst other factors (like the low-fat food craze).

The second problem with HFCS is that it has high levels of reactive carbonyls. Table sugar, because it has a solid molecular structure, while HFCS is liquid, doesn't have those reactive carbonyls. In gist reactive carbonyls are similar to free radicals and cause tissue damage that becomes a factor for diabetes. The levels of these molecules are worst in carbonated drinks though they are always present in HFCS regardless of its source. And speaking of source:

The biggest problem with HFCS is that it is everywhere. I challenge you to go to your pantry and pick up any box or can of something and check its ingredients list. I am willing to bet that unless you're a strict health fanatic (like I've become after a bit of this research) you'll find HFCS in your house. It's in breads and ketchup and foods that you'd never think would have sugar in them. I mean it's everywhere. So unless you don't eat processed foods, how are you supposed to eat HFCS in moderation like their ad recommends? Of course you shouldn't be eating HFCS at all though it won't kill you if it slips in now and then, (like small amounts of rat poison won't kill you either) but the problem is that it really is everywhere.

My main goal here is really just to make you aware that you're consuming far more sugar than you might think you are. The USDA says that we should not consume any more than 10 teaspoons of refined sugar a day. That's about 40 grams. If you're up for a challenge, I challenge you to see if you can manage to eat less than 40 grams of sugar a day. If despite reading all this you still aren't up for that challenge, I ask you to just wake up tomorrow and keep track of your sugar consumption. Don't even try to limit it, just observe it and see if you're surprised.

So now you realize how bad sugar is and that its uglier cousin has infiltrated all your food and you're wondering what your alternatives are. Well, I'll address sugar substitutes in my next blog, but as a little spoiler I'll tell you to stay away from aspretame and sucralose (Splenda). If you realized you're addicted to sugar and would like to get it under control here are a few tips by one of my favorite nutritionists. And I'd like to end this blog by saying that if you're frustrated about sugar being so bad, I completely understand. I know no one who has a bigger sweet tooth than I do. I mean I could eat half a pound of fudge and not get sick. Pretty bad. About 6 weeks ago, I stopped eating sugar/refined carbohydrates and have not craved it since I got over the withdrawal period. I feel that if I can stop eating sugar and be happy about it and not miss it, then I'm sure that the rest of the population can at the very least limit their sugar consumption.

My little sister is coming to visit me next week, so I'm taking that week off and won't be posting until Friday after next. But tune back in for some suggestions how to satisfy your sweet tooth and not risk diabetes or heart disease.

Till then,

Every patient carries his or her own doctor inside.”--Albert Schweitzer

*The glycemic index (GI) indicates how quickly foods raise your blood sugar/blood glucose levels. Foods are assigned numbers relative to table sugar and white flour, both of which are 100 and go practically directly into your blood stream because they are so highly processed that they don't need digestion. The result of eating foods high on the GI is a sugar high/energy rush followed by a crash. Foods lower on the GI are better for your overall health. There are few exceptions to this, like watermelons for example because although their GI is high, they are a nutritious and vitamin-rich food. But if you eat them by themselves, they'll cause the energy spike and crash nonetheless.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Picture Cholesterol as an Antioxidant*

Greetings friends,

I've had a wonderful break and am now ready to talk about cholesterol. In gist—please don't get a heart-attack over this—all you've heard about cholesterol through mainstream media is pretty much very wrong. Cholesterol does not cause heart attacks or indicate a greater risk for cardiovascular disease. That's almost the whole story, but to be fair, I'll offer some more explanation. Let's start with what cholesterol actually is and what it does in the body.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that is technically something between a steroid and alcohol and is therefore designated as a sterol. It is manufactured primarily by our liver though the intestines, adrenal glands and reproductive organs synthesize some of it, too. As you can figure now, considering our body actually makes its own cholesterol, it is a highly important substance. Cholesterol performs a host of vital functions that amongst others include, building and maintaining cell membranes (the average human has 100 trillion cells), ensuring the semi-permeability of cell membranes so that the right substances can cross into the cell, manufacturing hormones, and it also functions as an inter-cellular mode of transport for other substances. If you remember from the last blog, 60% of our brains are made of fat. Well, cholesterol's role in that is to coat nerve fibers (myelin sheath) to ensure the speed of nerve impulse conduction that we enjoy. And all of these are just some of the functions. Finally, if your cholesterol is too low, you die.

Knowing this, you may wonder why cholesterol is vilified so much as the demon that will give you cardiovascular disease and clog your arteries. Or even better, you may not be convinced by my off-hand list, in which case I highly encourage you to look up all of these functions I've listed (and get back to me if you find me to be wrong). Because I don't like to deal in conspiracy theories, the explanation for cholesterol's bad reputation that I'll offer hinges on a severe and gross misunderstanding. Here is an analogy I like which original source you can find here: Imagine you're walking down the street and you see that a fire has burned a house down and that there is a fire-truck next to the site. A week later you come upon a different location, but it's the same sight, namely a smoldering ruin and firetrucks next to it. And a few days later, the same thing. So you conclude that firetrucks are causing fires!

You don't need to be a mathematician to see the flaw in logic here. It's a cause attributed to a correlation. It's the first thing you learn not to do when you begin studying any science, but because we don't live in an ideal world there actually is some bad science out there, and some of it concerns the role of cholesterol in disease. So what would you say if I told you that cholesterol is around when heart-attacks happen because it was trying to fix the inflamed cells? In other words, it was trying to do the things it does (repair and maintain cells etc.) and protect your body. Well, by now we've realized that this alternate explanation is a very likely scenario, but the reason it doesn't reach mainstream America is because pharmaceutical companies and certain food manufacturers spend billions on advertising for cholesterol lowering drugs and foods, while, on the other hand, scientists finding out that the medical establishment is perpetuating an error depend on grants that don't leave them much extra money to buy some prime-time commercial spots. But if you'd like to spread the news and possibly inform some loved ones that they might be potentially harming themselves because they're on cholesterol lowering medication, this is a very balanced, down-to-earth, comprehensive video explaining the implications of cholesterol.

Furthermore, the notion that LDL is “bad” cholesterol and HDL is “good” cholesterol is simply false. I'm even tempted to say that it's absolute nonsense. If you look at the acronyms more closely you will find that LDL stands for “Low Density Lipo-Protein” and HDL stands for “High Density Lipo-Protein.” As the names clearly tell you, these are proteins. LDL and HDL aren't even cholesterol. Cholesterol, as explained earlier, is a fatty substance called a sterol, while LDL and HDL are proteins—two completely different molecules. Cholesterol is just cholesterol and because it's not water-soluble it needs the help of LDL and HDL to be transported to all the cells where it performs its vital functions. LDL transports cholesterol from the liver to the cells, and HDL transports the cholesterol that has been “used up” by the cells back to the liver where it either gets recycled or discarded. (The fact that our body actually recycles cholesterol is another indicator of just how important of a substance it is).

If cholesterol is regarded as the villain, then it makes sense why LDL—the protein that brings cholesterol to the cells—got the bad rep. Although, the human body is immensely complex and placing the blame for major disease on a single protein is ridiculously over-simplified, there is one instance where LDL causes harm. In its normal state LDL is an essential transporter for cholesterol, but when it becomes damaged LDL actually is a risk factor contributing to inflammation and potential heart disease. If you recall from my last blog, damaged molecules are called "oxidized." So when there is a greater occurrence of oxidized LDL, there is a greater risk for heart disease. To keep LDL oxidation in check, your antioxidant intake should be high. (Amongst other sources, they can be obtained in fresh fruits and vegetables. For greatest protection and overall health, people should eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables of all colors in order to obtain many types of antioxidants [and of course nutrients] available.)

Several studies have shown that high cholesterol levels are not indicative of heart disease, but rather that damaged LDL together with inflammation factors is a far more accurate predictor of disease. If you think about it, cholesterol is a substance your body makes itself and transports where it wants it. If you have elevated cholesterol, it's likely there “on purpose” so to speak. For a great in-depth explanation of the LDL vs. HDL misconception, here is a comprehensive article with about a hundred sources illustrating the role of oxidized LDL in heart disease as well as the issues involved with cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Finally, eating cholesterol-rich foods will NOT impact your cholesterol levels. I hope that understanding what I've explained to you so far will make this statement only sound logical. But to reiterate; it is your body that makes and uses cholesterol as it sees fit. If you eat more cholesterol, your body makes less, if you eat less, your body makes more. So eating eggs, unless you're allergic, is a great idea. Eggs, that is egg yolks, are a great source of nutrients**.

There, however, are studies that indicate a correlation of elevated cholesterol and trans-fat and saturated fat consumption. As explained in the previous blog, trans fats are oxidized fats and are loaded with free radicals (particles that wreak havoc on your cells and cause damage that eventually leads to heart disease). So cholesterol likely goes up to fix the damage. As for saturated fats causing elevated cholesterol levels, the only thing I have read about is that eating red meats is very hard on your body to digest, and cholesterol plays a function in bile creation which digests fats for absorption. Red meats are the meats highest in saturated fat content (poultry has up to 70% unsaturated fat) which doesn't mean you shouldn't eat them, it just means you shouldn't eat them all the time.

All in all I hope I've explained that cholesterol is not the demon that will hit you with a heart-attack. In general, I find that whenever a single factor is identified as the ultimate villain or the ultimate hero, the information is just plain incomplete or sometimes, as in this case, completely wrong. So now that cholesterol is off the hook, you may be wondering what actually does increase your risk for coronary heart disease and the answer is that one of the highest risk factors leading to heart disease as well as diabetes is sugar. But more about that next Friday.

Till then,

"As I see it, every day you do one of two things: build health or produce disease in yourself."--Adelle Davis

*Antioxidants are molecules that keep other molecules from getting oxidized/damaged and can thereby treat and/or prevent disease.

**If you like eggs, I highly encourage you to buy free-range, organic eggs because they have far more nutrients, but I'll likely talk about the difference between organic vs. conventional foods in an upcoming blog.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Deal With Fats and Other Oily Business

Greetings and welcome back,

Before I even start talking about the different kinds of fats and what they do for and to your body, I'd like to state that one of the keys to a healthy diet is variety. An overdose of any one good thing, even water, is bad. Always aim to eat a variety of foods, balancing the macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) that are right for your body's metabolic type. So with that said ...

Fat is perhaps the most misunderstood macronutrient in America, but the bottom line is, we need fat to function properly. To give you just a very quick idea, vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble which means that your body needs fat in order to make use of them. You need fat in your system for healthy skin, hair and cell walls in all your tissues. And about 60% of your brain is made of fat. So in short, we need to eat fat in order to stay healthy.

Now, not all fats are the same. For the purposes of this blog, I will just explain the differences between saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and trans fats also knows as hydrogenated oils. I feel that its beneficial to know the basic chemical make-up of fat in order to understand what all these terms actually mean so that it's not just a name memorization game. Here is a very basic, simplified explanation of the chemical make-up of fat: All fats are a variation of fatty acids that are being held together by hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats have lots of hydrogen atoms holding its fatty acids together which is why saturated fats, such as butter, stay solid at room temperature. The hydrogen gives it structural integrity. Going along those lines, as you may guess monounsaturated fats lack one hydrogen atom, so their structure isn't as solid. It's actually liquid, and olive oil is a great example of monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats, then are fats that have many of its fatty acids not held together at all. Seeds and nuts contain many polyunsaturated fats, but if you extract them from their source (which is bad ju-ju to be addressed below), these fats are liquid at room temperature; namely your vegetable oils (that you should stay away from). Out of all of these mentioned, trans fats are the only ones that don't occur in nature and are a “Frankenstein fat” that is the result of trying to make extracted unsaturated fats solid by infusing them with hydrogen atoms. That's why trans fats and hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils are synonyms. The result are things like margarine, which is solid at room temperature and practically all trans fat.

You've probably heard that trans fats are bad for you. That is right. What happens when you take a naturally unsaturated fat and try to artificially solidify it is that the molecule you end up with is solid, but in a weird shape. I've heard that it has a kink in its structure and I've heard that it looks like plastic, but either way, when you get this molecule traveling through your bloodstream, you can imagine that it's easier for it to damage your artery walls or to get stuck than it is for the saturated fats that, while solid don't have an obstructive shape. And of course it's easier for trans fats to damage or clog arteries than it is for unsaturated fats that are more flexible anyway and adapt to the curving of the circulatory system. Because trans fats mess with your arteries, they have been linked to an increased risk for heart disease. Pretty straight forward. That's one tidbit of common knowledge, or I should say popular knowledge, that is true. However because I've set out to clear up misconceptions in regards to health and nutrition, I'll tackle those now rather than validate already established trends.

Here are some common misconceptions about fats:

Misconception: Animal fats are saturated fats. If that were true, meat would be a hard, waxy substance. Animal fats are a mixture of all the naturally occurring fats listed above. The harder the meat, the more saturated fat it has. To give you an idea, chicken fat is about 70% unsaturated fat. You can read more about that in the link I'll post in the next paragraph.

Misconception: Saturated fat is bad for you/causes heart disease. If that were true, your great-grandparents (unless they didn't live in America or Europe, and I haven't researched other countries sufficiently to know their historical diets) should have died early of heart attacks because they didn't have any extracted vegetable oils to cook with and ate milk, lard, butter, and meat on a fairly regular basis. Doing research for this I've read that there is no scientific evidence that shows saturated fat contributes to coronary disease any more than any other naturally occurring fat. I didn't find any. So if you find some, please send them my way. But meanwhile, here's a good article on why we need to consume saturated fat. In gist, saturated fat is necessary and pretty good for you as long as you consume adequate supporting nutrition (which is pretty much the case for any other macronutrient, remember, too much of one thing is bad). I found a very good testimony by a guy named David Brown who studies nutrition. He left a comment in response to a shoddy post on a health site and he got permission to post about a page and a half of a good book on saturated fat. Since I didn't go through the trouble to get permission to copy and paste that, whole thing, here is the link to the shoddy site, just scroll down to David Brown's response in the comment section. So if you eat a good range of nutrients, your chicken will do your arteries no harm. The same technically goes for red meat, too, but there are other reasons why red meat should be consumed sparingly. Unless your metabolic type is high protein, your body will take a very long time to break down red meat and extract nutrients from it, so it's not really an ideal food though that has little to do with its saturated fat content. If you really like steak, I wasn't able to find a definitive number of how often you can indulge in it and be on the healthy side, but 2-4 times a month seemed what I got from the research.

Misconception: Vegetable oils are good for you. I just learned this and quit using vegetable cooking oil two days ago, and the evidence is overwhelming and I was surprised it's not more publicized (but then again, lots of big companies would lose money if it were publicized). Basically, if you place the statistics of vegetable oil consumption to the statistics of heart-disease, you will notice that they are proportional to each other. The more vegetable oils are used in people's diets, the more people get sick. It seems mind-boggling at first, but bear with me.

Vegetable oils are polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are good for you, but here is the catch: if you extract the polyunsaturated fat from its source, be it sunflower seeds or whatever else you'd like, and you expose that extracted fat to heat, light or air, it goes rancid. If your oil is rancid, that means it's becoming oxidized and instead of maintaining the polyunsaturated structure that's good for your body, it's become a highly reactive free radical in your body. Free radicals are particles that cause damage to your cells and are responsible for a range of ailments, starting with premature aging to cancer. It's impossible to keep oils away from heat, light or air, (in fact the extraction itself is a heat process) so companies are further processing the rancid oil so that you can consume it without tasting that it's rancid and wreak havoc on all your tissues at the same time. In short, vegetable oils, with one exception, harm your health.

The one exception is (organic) cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. The cold-pressed part ensures that its not heated to get at it, which means that it maintains its molecular integrity (remember, it's monounsaturated, not polyunsaturated, so it's more stable when exposed to air and light and even heat to a degree). The extra virgin part means that it's the very first oil extracted from the olives and that it's practically unprocessed aside from the pressing. (Virgin is the slightly processed oil that's been somewhat heated and if the label just says olive oil, it's completely conventionally processed and you should stay away from it). Your best bet is to get it organic. This oil makes for good salad dressings and is a good cooking oil as long as it's not heated too much. As soon as you hit its smoke point, it has started decomposing and producing free radicals (you can google the smoke points of various oils). Again, you don't want free radicals in your body. (To combat the ones you do get from factors outside of your control, make sure you consume antioxidants.)

Another good oil to cook with, if you don't want to melt butter, is organic coconut oil. Unlike vegetable oils, it has a high saturated fat content and is therefore much more stable when exposed to high heat. Furthermore, it is a very good source of nutrients.

In summary, fat is a necessary macronutrient. Ever since America went on a low-fat craze, the rate of obesity has increased. I'm not trying to say that the lack of the good and healthy fat is solely responsible for obesity, but it certainly is a factor. Remember how in the metabolism blog I mentioned that obesity is a form of malnutrition? Well, if you don't get a certain nutrient, your body slows down your metabolism, so you need fat in order to burn calories and ultimately lose fat. So, here are a few tips: when it comes to whole foods, go for the non-reduced, non fat-free foods. Instead of skim milk, that's insanely processed and devoid of the nutritious fat, go for organic whole milk. Make sure it's organic and that the cows are grass-fed, for all the reasons stated in the previous blog. Yes, that milk is processed, pasteurized and homogenized, but unless you drink lots of it every day it's likely to not only not harm you, but to give you some benefit. Eat whole eggs, not just the whites. If you're eating organic meat, don't be afraid of its fat (if you're eating commercially raised meat, cut the fat off because many of the antibiotics and toxins are stored therein). Good sources of unsaturated fats include nuts and legumes. Omega fatty-3 acids are especially good fats that are often lacking in our diet and can be found in milled or ground flax seed (the seeds themselves are indigestible for us) and fishoils. However, make sure you know where your fish is coming from so that you know it's not loaded with mercury or was farmed (farmed fish, like commercially raised animals are nutritionally inferior due to the poor diet and living conditions they receive, not to mention that such ventures are disastrous to the environment and the animals). Above all, whatever you do, make sure you're eating a nutritionally balanced diet. At the very end, I'll post a link to a pretty good and short video on fats. Look at it and pass it on to people who may be equally confused about fat. However, don't listen to what the doctor in the video says about canola oil. Canola oil is little more than poison. And don't listen to what he says about cholesterol. He's off on that one, too, but I'll cover that in my next blog. So here is the summary video.

I'm on Spring Break right now, which is partly why this blog is a day late. I'll still be on Spring Break next Friday, so I doubt I'll be posting by Friday, but I won't be posting any later than the Friday after next, and the topic will be all about cholesterol! And why it doesn't cause heart-attacks.

If you too are on break, enjoy it. =)

Till then,

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” -- World Health Organization