Week 18: Gluten - The Truth About Grains

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

This statement, made by the early 20th C philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, reflected his deep mistrust of prevailing dogmas - in both his native British India and his adopted United States - and an even deeper belief in the power of the self to unlock truths. While he wasn't referring to food, per se, we could easily apply this profound quote to the post-industrial food world, in which we are fed truths with great passion, science and conviction by the powerful until they are no longer expedient, at which point they are readily abandoned for newer clothing.

In 2019, few food words are more hotly debated - whether vilified or extolled - than gluten. Gluten is big business. It's ubiquitous in the modern diet, and most of the most common meals (or snacks) we enjoy are laden with it. Breakfast? Pancakes, cereal, toast, crêpes, muffins and pastries all contain gluten. Lunch and Dinner? Sandwiches, burgers, pastas, fried or crusted meats and fish, salad croutons and dressings, foods with flour tortillas, thickened soups, that bread every restaurant serves, and even potato chips and french fries are all sources of gluten. Snacks? Just forget this category altogether. Cakes, cookies, pies, tarts, muffins, pastries, and even ice cream and energy/granola bars are loaded with... gluten. And let's not forget beer. In short, gluten is extremely difficult to avoid, because the American - and increasingly, global - diet is built on grains, and predominantly gluten grains.

In 2015, wheat - and its gluten-laden sisters, barley and rye, collectively comprised 58 million acres of US farmland that yielded 2.3 billion bushels, making gluten grains the largest use of American farm acres. Globally, that number jumps tenfold, to over 540 million acres of wheat, yielding 730 million tons of harvest. 80% of US produce is called ‘winter wheat’, which is used for breads, cereals, cookies, crackers and pastries, among myriad other industrial food products. Beyond the US, consumption of wheat products account for 20% of global calorie intake, while the world’s 3 most popular grains, which include rice and corn, account for one half of all caloric intake, internationally.

So just what is gluten, and why does it ignite such an inflamed response?

Gluten is comprised of several proteins - called prolamins - found in grain grasses (such as wheat, barley, rice, oats, millet, rye...) whose role is to provide energy to fuel the host plant's own growth. Gluten is stored in the endosperm of the plant's seed, which is the largest of the seed's three components, analagous to the albumen - or 'white' - of an egg. Gluten is primarily composed of gliadin, which allows dough to rise during baking, and glutenin, which gives dough its elasticity. Not all grains contain gluten, though. Sorghum, teff, millet, brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, corn and brown and/or wild rice are all gluten-free, and can contribute key proteins, minerals and vitamins to your diet. Oats fall into this category, as well; however most oat manufacturers use the same factories to produce gluten-containing foods; and so you will need to check labels carefully for ‘certified gluten-free oats’ if you need to avoid gluten altogether. In the same vein, many of the new, so-called ‘gluten-free’ processed foods that proliferate supermarket shelves and freezers today are produced by the same industrial companies that make their gluten-laden predecessors; as such, it’s best to check all gluten-free product labels to ensure they are not cross-contaminated in multi-use factories.

Celiac Disease

Fewer than 1 out of 141 Americans tests positive for the genetic autoimmune disorder Celiac Disease, and that number hasn’t changed over the decades in spite of our population’s predominant shift from farmer to consumer, and our corresponding increase in carbohydrate consumption. Over the past forty years, American grain consumption rose on average from 400 calories a day to 600 - a 50% increase, according to the Pew Research Center.

For those with the disease, ingested gluten is mistaken for antigens (toxins or other foreign substances, such as bacteria, viruses or mutated cells), that provoke an immune response. In the case of gluten, the body mistakes the small intestine’s healthy tissue - specifically its lining - for a foreign invader. This lining is critical in the body’s defences, and is made of finger-like structures called ‘villi’. It is the villi that absorb nutrients from foods while they are digested, and that simultaneously protect (real) antigens from passing through its cell walls and gaining free access to our other organs and tissue. Beyond the inflammation response that gluten triggers in an otherwise healthy gut, Gluten’s gliadins are experts at breaching the intestine’s protective lining (its so-called tight junctions), where it triggers yet another immune response, such that our body attacks its own GI tract from both sides, widening the breach and destroying the lining itself. If left unchecked, this process can lead to Leaky Gut Syndrome, which allows ingested toxins and pathogens that our intestinal lining typically withholds to enter the body and wreak havoc. Increased intestinal permeability leads to a cycle of ever-increasing inflammatory response, unless the trigger foods are removed, and other dietary changes are made in an attempt to heal the system.

Reversing Celiac Disease

Healthy Gut Company founder Jordan Reasoner - a Celiac engineer who lost his mother to the same disease, says that elimination of gluten alone has led to full symptom reversal in just 40% of Celiac patients. To a Celiac sufferer, that means the bodies of the other 60% never experience full remission. HGC goes on to point out that the standard gluten-free foods proliferating supermarkets are full of toxins that exacerbate leaky gut syndrome. These include non-wheat cereal grains, soy, industrial seed oils and sugars. Why? As a ‘value-add’ commodity worth billions to food giants, foods sold in packages as ‘gluten-free’ are often just as processed as other gluten-containing foods. Specifically, cereal grain proteins such as zein (corn), avenin (oats) and orzenin (rice) can also cause inflammation, much the way gliadin in wheat does. Soy can cause thyroid and hormone disruption, and in turn, increase the risk of certain cancers. Industrial seed oils are extremely heavy in omega-6 fatty acids, which trigger inflammation response (see Week 3’s post for more on this). And sugars are the primary food for bacteria, which in the presence of damaged villi leads to malabsorption of sugars and a corresponding overabundance of fuel for the bad bacteria (called SIBO, or small intestine bacterial overgrowth) that are busy attacking the intestinal lining. In a sense, we are fueling our own pain.

In spite of the science, the current gluten-free dietary craze - fed by countless Americans who experience some form of gastrointestinal discomfort, and believe gluten to be the culprit - was worth $4 billion USD last year in goods sold to over 100 million Americans, according to William Balistreri, MD - a doctor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, and is projected to exceed $6.2B by 2019. And it's not just the 'average American' who is following the craze. Gluten-free celebrities abound; and in one survey of 910 olympic medalists and world-class athletes, a whopping 41% of them said they followed a gluten-free diet. 

So what can a true Celiac sufferer do? As usual, it comes down to choosing healthy foods over convenience or marketing. Eliminate grains, and soy - obviously. In addition, remove processed foods high in seed oils and sugars from your diet, which are present in most packaged foods, gluten-free or not. Avoid added sugars in all forms (anything that ends in an ‘ose’, like sucrose, lactose and dextrose) that have double-digit gram counts per serving, to keep SIBO in check. Eat whole foods (low-sugar fruit and vegetables). Add fermented foods (with good bacteria) to your diet to rebalance the intestinal microflora. And eat animal products that are minimally processed.

Engineered for profit, not people

A final note on Celiac and gluten. Interestingly, wheat’s ‘family tree’, whose genetically modified (GMO) journey transformed it from wild grasses to an arsenal of modern industrial food products, produced branches of cereals along the way with very distinct genomes that according to newer research into dietary gluten, the human body tolerates quite differently. The difference seems to stem from the number of pairs of chromosomes in the wheat. The most ancient grains, like einkorn, are diploid, containing just two sets of seven ‘AA’ chromosome cells (14 total); emmer and durum - the latter of which is the dominant grain in pasta - are tetraploid, containing four ‘AABB’ sets (28 total); while modern wheat is hexaploid, containing six ‘AABBDD’ sets (42 total). There is emerging research from both NCBI (here, and here) and Wiley (here) that suggests the more ancient (diploid and tetraploid) grains react less, and in some cases not at all, to gluten peptides, and are thus better tolerated (or fully tolerated) in patients with Celiac disease. And since hexaploid wheat comprises 80% of the American market, providing 20% of total nutrient intake, it is possible that there is a correlation between this sensitivity and the modern diet.

While the subject of nutritional density isn’t central to this post, ancient grains have also been shown to have far higher concentrations of key vitamins and minerals. The chart at the middle of this post compares einkorn to major crop wheats (winter and summer), as well as to durum. Diploid einkorn (and to a lesser degree, tetraploid durum) far outstrip modern wheat in nutrient density. It’s worth a glance.

Copyright FFFL 2019 - All Rights Reserved

Copyright FFFL 2019 - All Rights Reserved


Celiac vs. IBS

While Celiac Disease affects less than 1% of Americans, a full 7 to 20% of the US adult population tests positive for IBS - or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. While IBS is not life-threatening, it can cause significant abdominal discomfort (bloating, cramping) and either constipation or diarrhea. Because wheat grains are high in starches and sugars, which are easily fermented by ‘bad’ intestinal bacteria, if you suffer from IBS, certain grains, like quinoa, buckwheat, corn, oatmeal, rice and oats are all better tolerated, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Beyond this, IBS-tailored food recommendations depend on how your IBS manifests itself. According to Everyday Health, it depends on whether your IBS expresses itself via constipation or diarrhea. If the first is the culprit, you want to ‘up’ your intake of foods with insoluble fiber to help push things through, such as broccoli, leafy greens and zucchini. If, however, you suffer from the second, then the opposite is true, and foods high in soluble fiber will help absorb excess fluid, such as apples, berries, oranges and peas. WebMD echoes these thoughts, and goes further to include advice related to lifestyle, including the ‘usual suspects’ of stress, exercise, caffeine and alcohol consumption, as well as a potential IBS-related cross-reaction with drugs such as antibiotics or antidepressants.

FODMAPs are a specific grouping of carboydrates that can cause gastrointestinal distress, like bloating, cramping, diarrhea and constipation. This unwieldy nickname stands for “Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols”. Eating foods that are low in FODMAPs (or avoiding those that are high) can generate considerable relief from IBS sufferers. The culprits include fructose (fruit sugars) in high concentrations (think bananas and mangoes); fructans, which are fructose polymers that are found in obvious culprits like wheat, barley and rye, but also in the allium family (garlic, onions and their cousins); lactose (the sugars found in all dairy); we now know that 65% of the population cannot produce adequate lactase [enzymes] to break down lactose - a number that climbs to 90% in those of East Asian descent; galactans (found in legumes, like beans and peas); and polyols, which are sometimes called ‘sugar alcohols’ and which occur naturally in some fruits, but proliferate the market as low-calorie sweeteners like erythritol, sorbitol and xylitol, among others (the last of these is common in chewing gum, toothpaste, mints and candy).

Some foods that are otherwise among the plant world’s healthiest - delivering significant amounts of vitamins and minerals - are on the list of foods that can cause GI distress in IBS sufferers. These include legumes (beans, peas), allium (garlic, onions, as stated above) and crucifers (broccoli, cauliflower). While under normal circumstances these are the powerhouses of a vegan diet, they can cause real distress to IBS sufferers. A good list from www.ibsdiets.org on high and low FODMAP foods can be found here.

The reason FODMAPs cause gastrointestinal distress is because of the high presence of SIBO, which we discussed above. The overgrowth of these so-called ‘bad’ bacteria is fueled by sugar (carbs), and unlike the good bacteria that are absolutely essential to a healthy GI tract and produce mostly methane as a byproduct, the bad bacteria generate hydrogen, which as one would expect is found in higher concentrations in IBS sufferers and is a direct cause of GI distress. This NCBI research paper demonstrates a direct correlation between hydrogen presence in the gut and bowel frequency, which is borne out by the symptoms those with IBS typically suffer.

The upshot

Celiac is a serious and life-threatening disease. Not all gluten seems to affect Celiacs in the same way, as we’ve learned, and ancient grains with fewer chromosomes seem to be tolerated better than the modern wheat that saturates the food supply today. Beyond ancient grains, there are many non-glutinous grains that can deliver nutrients in familiar form while avoiding autoimmune triggers. We have learned that the proliferation of gluten-free processed food products made by companies seeking to profit on this new ‘craze’ can equally stimulate an autoimmune reaction, and don’t represent any particular benefit over gluten-containing packaged foods. Thus making healthy dietary choices irrespective of gluten have a direct influence over GI health, and one should opt for an anti-inflammatory, low-sugar, whole food, probiotic diet to calm the GI tract and slow or reverse intestinal permeability, aka Leaky Gut Syndrome.

With respect to IBS sufferers, the advice is similar, though here the way sensitivity manifests itself must be considered when using food as functional medicine to remove irritants and reverse irritability. In all cases, a diet low in FODMAPs is recommended, to lower hydrogen production and reduce SIBO.

Beyond food choice, since both IBS and Celiac express themselves in the gut, which also hosts our enteric nervous system and is known as our ‘second brain’ (see Week 17’s post, here) our lifestyle choices, stress and energy levels all play a role in gut health and have been shown to influence the expression of IBS.


Week 17: Your Gut, Disease and the Immune System

All disease begins in the gut.

Although he died 2,386 years ago, the author of this quote - Hippocrates - is, more than any other person, responsible for how medicine is performed today, establishing clinical practice as the profession's dominant methodology, and asserting that natural factors - not gods and superstition - were the source of illness. Even millennia before the advent of the machine age and modern science allowed us to look into - and measure - human biological processes, he understood the gut's key role in creating and maintaining our health. 

The gut - which is also called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract - is comprised of multiple organs that begin where we ingest foods and end with where we expel them. Its primary job is to process nutrients from that which we eat. Beyond being responsible for the digestion of food, one's GI tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and rectum - in addition to contributory organs like the pancreas, liver and gallbladder - does, more than any other system in the body, determine the state of our well-being. As such, gut health is of fundamental importance, and accordingly, it deserves an exploration and a deeper understanding.

The GI tract is host to the majority of the 100 trillion microorganisms that are not part of your body, but are instead hosted by it. According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, some 90% of the genetic material in your body is not 'you', but rather "the bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms that compose your microflora." Together, according to him, "your body's microflora influence your genetic expression [whether or not genetic predispositions are 'triggered'], your immune system, your brain's development, mental health and memory, your weight, and risk of chronic and acute diseases, from diabetes to cancer." In just one example of our guts' deep-reaching influence, a 2012 Time Magazine article quotes from the website Autism Speaks, stating that "up to 85% of children with autism also suffer from some kind of gastrointestinal distress." The question that this astounding fact begs is, what is the relationship between these two conditions?

The GI tract is home to the body's enteric nervous system. This system is often referred to as 'The Second Brain', because - as explained in an illuminating Scientific American article - "it contains 100 million neurons, more than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system". The article goes on to say that the enteric nervous system operates independently from that of the brain, and that when the two do communicate, 90% of the exchange travels from the gut to the brain - not the other way around. Dr. Emeran Mayer - a professor of physiology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA - believes says that "A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut." Both of our 'brains' contain neurotransmitters, and some 95% of serotonin - that all-important chemical that regulates mood, social behavior, appetite, sleep, memory and sexual desire - resides in the bowel. Indeed, our 'second brains' seem to be regulators of many processes that most of us probably believed were the dominion of our 'primary brains'.

As important as these neurons are in regulating much of what we consider our psychological 'human-ness', there are other considerations with regard to our guts that directly affect our physical health, and is why, fundamentally, we are discussing the subject here.

The Immune System

The human immune system, which as we all know, is responsible for fending off infectious organisms and disease, resides primarily - approximately 70% of it - in our GI tracts. Disorders of the immune system can result in autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome and psoriasis, among others, which together afflict between 7% and 20% of all Americans - affecting women far more than men, up to 75% more, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, or AARDA. The immune system also regulates inflammatory diseases, like appendicitis, bursitis, rhinitis and ulcerative colitis - the latter affecting 500,000 to 2 million Americans, and from which my own brother died more than twelve years ago. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) pulls no punches, and states that 'Chronic inflammation is a major cause of age-related diseases and cancer.' Supporting NCBI's position, a 2006 paper published by the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine states that an environment friendly to inflammation is at the root of the diseases that claim the most dollars and lives in industrialized nations today: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and many cancers. 

On the subject of cancer, it's worth repeating a key line from our Week 3 post: that 'an estimated 1/3 of all cancer deaths are due to nutritional factors, including obesity'. Clearly, the health of our GI tracts directly influences the health of our bodies, since these tracts are not just the gateways for the foods we ingest and the nutrients that we cull from them, but equally important, they are the force that protects our bodies from an endless supply of toxins, pathogens and harmful bacteria that we also ingest daily. Thus, the health of this fundamental biological system is largely dependent upon of the types and qualities of food and drink that we choose to put into it.

Microflora and Health

Chief among our choices of how to best feed our bodies is an assessment of how those foods interact with the microflora (the bacteria and fungi) - within our guts. "These microbes influence digestion, allergies and metabolism," according to a 2015 article on the subject in The Atlantic, and importantly, the presence or absence of different bacteria change the expression of disease. Take autism: California Institute of Technology microbiologist Sarkis Mazmanian has linked one bacterium to the expression - and subsequently management - of autism symptoms in mice. He was awarded a 2012 MacArthur Genius Grant for his ongoing work on the subject. He believes that adjusting gut bacteria could be a viable treatment for Autism, along with other neuro-developmental disorders. Another study, by neuroscientist John Cryan at the University College of Cork in Ireland, found that feeding mice the bacterium lactobacillus - found commonly in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and pickles - resulted in reduced levels of hormones linked to stress. Similarly, Oxford University neurobiologist Phil Burnet fed 45 human volunteers a substance that fosters the growth of both lactobacillus and bifidobacteria (again, found in fermented foods), and discovered that they reduced the production levels of cortisol - the stress hormone - in his subjects when exposed to stress-inducing stimuli. The consumption of these bacteria generated similar results to those seen when subjects take anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications. His team's conclusion, as reported by NCBI: "The ingestion of probiotics modulates the processing of information that is strongly linked to anxiety and depression."

Probiotics

Many of us have seen this word and wondered what exactly it meant. We've been told that so-called probiotic foods - or supplements - are good for us; or that they might keep us 'regular'; or at least ease digestive problems. But most of our collective knowledge stops there. Adding confusion to the subject, we in the 'germophobe' West have been inculcated with the idea that bacteria are harmful. Accordingly, we have developed anxieties around keeping our bodies, children and homes pathogen-free. Topical agents like anti-bacterial soaps, sprays and hand sanitizers have proliferated, while the widespread use of medically prescribed antibiotics has likewise soared. According to researchers at Princeton University, global use of antibiotics has risen more than 36% in just 10 years, from 2000-2010. And while no one can argue that the correct administration of antibiotics like penicillin has saved countless lives since their introduction in the 1940's, the rise in antibiotics use and anti-bacterial everything brings with it three major - and somewhat worrisome - consequences. 1: Our bodies have lost some of their innate ability to manage reasonable exposure to a variety of pathogens. 2: Our guts' microflora is severely compromised when fed a regimen of antibiotics, and must be repopulated artificially. 3: Psychologically, our belief that bacteria are generally bad, and that anti-bacterials are generally good, leads to a misunderstanding of just how symbiotic the relationship between 'us' and 'them' is - and that without (good) bacteria, we would not exist. Probiotics are - as the name implies - the opposite of antibiotics; and as such, science is increasingly finding that the ingestion of probiotics can trigger or support the re-establishment of a balanced micro-biome in our guts.

It's worth repeating here that each and every one of us carries some 100 trillion microorganisms within us, comprising 90% of our genetic 'selves', and that this symbiotic relationship - when in balance - allows us to function, feel, maintain health and live long lives.  

Our ancestors knew this. In most global cultures, the regular, ritual ingestion of probiotic foods - that is to say foods in which thriving colonies of gut-healthy bacteria proliferate, via fermentation - can be found. Turks and Russians gave us kefir. Eastern Europeans provided sauerkraut. Koreans created kimchi. Japanese tripled down with natto, miso and tempeh. Chinese invented kombucha (before it was perfected by the Japanese). Indian cucumbers were fermented by Mesopotamians to create pickles. And today, most of the Western world consumes yogurt, which also originated in Turkey. Unexpectedly, some types of cheese contain some amount of probiotics that survive the aging process, including gouda, mozzarella, cottage cheese and cheddar, according to NCBI - but only if they are raw, as pasteurization (heat treatment) kills its bacteria and denatures its enzymes. Finally, even bread can be probiotic - sourdough bread, that is. Made with a 'starter' leavening agent, sourdough was the de facto form of bread for all of human history, until baker's yeast slowly replaced it beginning just 150 years ago.

Copyright FFFL 2016

Copyright FFFL 2016

For thousands of years, these foods have been ingested by our forebears for their curative, digestive benefits. As an area of scientific study, it is no more than 25 years old, though growing rapidly. As often happens, science is catching up with what cultural trial and error knew all along: that a healthy gut leads to a healthy self; and that certain foods can help foster that balance. According to Harvard Medical School, so-called 'probiotic therapy' "can help treat several gastrointestinal ills, delay the development of allergies in children, and prevent and treat vaginal and urinary infections in women." According to the American Nutrition Association, dysbiosis - or an imbalance in your gut flora caused by too few beneficial bacteria and an overgrowth of bad bacteria, yeast, and/or parasites - has been implicated in the following conditions: chronic inflammation, auto-immune diseases, neurological afflictions (including Parkinson's), psoriasis, colon and breast cancer, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, acne and eczema. They suggest four steps in the rebalancing of the gut, which is widely referred to as the 'Four R Program':

  • Remove toxins

  • Replace stomach acids and digestive enzymes

  • Repopulate (Reinoculate) good bacteria

  • Repair the bowel lining

The ingestion of probiotic, fermented foods help in all four categories. A good primer on the Four R Program can be found here, courtesy of Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.

The use of probiotic supplements - which are manufactured, not naturally occurring, and are, like all supplements, outside of regulation, as we discussed at length in Week 10 - is of potential, but unclear benefit. One key reason is that we as consumers cannot be guaranteed that what is advertised on the bottle/jar/box is in fact what is in the supplement, either in quantity or in quality. Some third-party consumer groups, like Consumerlab.com, have found that eight of probiotic supplements they tested contained less than 1% of the purported live cultures. Echoing this sentiment, neurologist Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride - the creator of the GAPS Diet (Gut and Psychology/Physiology Syndrome) - says that even if the probiotic supplements we take were to include what they advertise, fermented foods contain some 100 times the number of probiotic bacteria as the supplements. Put another way, she says that "Literally, one serving of vegetables was equal to an entire bottle of a high potency probiotic! So clearly, you're far better off using fermented foods." She further discusses another benefit of fermented foods, namely, that the fermentation process can increase the bioavailability of nutrients. In her interview with Dr. Mercola, she illustrates the point using cabbage, whose Vitamin C, she says, becomes 20 times more bioavailable than in 'fresh' form, where the nutrient is bound in the cellular structure of the host plant. She also cautions against overwhelming the body with probiotic foods if it is not used to them, and instead introducing it slowly into your system so as to acclimate it. You can find a great host of general information on her website, here, and about probiotics in particular here, including their introduction into your diet, as well as dosages. She believes that it takes approximately six months of consistent probiotic ingestion for the average gut to "remove the pathogenic flora and start re-establishing normal gut flora." The following graphic charts the range and breadth of probiotic foods indigenous to global cultures and - thanks to an increasing awareness of these foods' health benefits - largely available today at both up- and down-market food stores nationwide.

Copyright FFFL 2016

Copyright FFFL 2016

For an excellent abstract by the NCBI on the effects of antibiotic use on the immune system and health, click here.

We at FFFL recommend the regular - daily - inclusion of fermented foods in your diet, both because of their contribution to gut health and because as these are whole (albeit fermented) foods, they are also full of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. We further suggest you vary your intake, since each food contains different bacterial strains (some contain beneficial yeasts, as well); and because no two foods have the same nutrient profile, variation is central to a healthy diet. We recommend looking for 'raw' probiotic foods, as pasteurization and cooking (i.e.: high temperature) denatures the food's enzymes and kill its bacteria. And one last time, these foods have been successfully included in the human diet for thousands of years; they are not medicine, per se; and they are as old as human society. They are all, as we have consistently advocated, heart- and gut-healthy, live, healing, whole foods, produced by nature.

Week 16: Carbohydrates - Sweet and Vicious

What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

[In]arguably the most famous line in the most famous romantic play by the most famous playwright anywhere - William Shakespeare, those words were penned in 1595, exactly 350 years before the end of World War II. During the 70 years that have followed since war’s end – years marked by a period of technological and economic advancement unmatched in human history – our consumption of sugar has also skyrocketed, surging by over 88 lbs. per person per year, to approximately 150-170 lbs./year/capita (or 200 grams/day) today in the US, according to the USDA (more conservative estimates peg it closer to 125 lbs/yr/capita). In either case, this 70-year increase exceeds that of the 350 preceding years significantly, at the outset of which The Bard of Avon wrote his famous line, and when average annual sugar consumption was just 4 lbs. per person. That means we ingest 30-40 times the amount of sugar today as we did 400 years ago. In his comment about sweetness, Shakespeare wasn't talking about sugar, per se; but he was using the metaphor to suggest, effectively, that something’s label doesn’t change its nature.

Sugar’s ‘nature’ is to be a key source of energy for all living creatures – plant, animal and human – and it provides us all with a significant portion of our collective calories in the form of carbohydrates. In biochemical terms, carbohydrates are sugars, since all carbohydrates [except for fiber, which we will discuss shortly] are comprised of one or more forms of sugar molecules that when digested - whatever their form - are converted into glucose by our bodies for distribution to our cells as fuel. For the purposes of this post, therefore, we will often use the words carbohydrate and sugar interchangeably, to make certain points. But first, we’ll provide an in-depth explanation of the relationship between carbohydrates and sugars.

According to the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should consume 45-65% of our calories form carbohydrates, which translates to between 900 and 1,300 calories (or between 225 and 325 grams) of a 2,000-calorie diet. Carbohydrates come in 3 basic forms: sugar, starch and fiber. Sugars are fairly straightforward: they are either naturally occurring (i.e.: integral to the foods we eat, like those in fruit, milk, etc.), or ‘free’, aka ‘refined’, aka ‘added’ (i.e.: extracted from naturally occurring sources via processing and either consumed separately, like table sugar, or added to manufactured foods like cakes, breads, cereals, junk food, yogurts, etc.) Starches are simply multi-molecule sugars whose bonds (like links on a chain) are broken once digestion begins, following which they are converted into simple glucose molecules. Thus in practical biochemical terms, starches are no different from sugars. They naturally occur in so-called ‘starchy’ vegetables like peas, corn, potatoes and beans, and in all grains (bread, pasta, rice, cereal, pastry, chips – essentially anything made with flour). Fiber is the indigestible structure of a plant, which the body cannot break down, use for energy, or even digest. Fiber’s two main roles in digestion are 1: it slows down the process, by forcing the body to break down the ‘structure’ of the food in order to release ‘trapped’ nutrients into the bloodstream, sugars included; and 2: it cleans out the bowel, since the indigestible ‘bulk’ must exit, and as it does so, it acts like a broom for whatever is in the digestive tract. Biochemically, therefore, fiber is nutrient-neutral, and so we won’t discuss it further in this post. Suffice it to say that from the standpoint of nutrition, there is really only one thing worth discussing with regard to carbohydrates, and that is sugar. Hence, as mentioned above, we will use the two terms freely.

Food labels

Manufactured foods (i.e.: anything other than foods in their naturally occurring state) that are sold in the United States are required to provide a nutrition label on the food’s packaging that includes a number of metrics, such as a tally of its carbohydrates. To derive the amount of carbs in a food, manufacturers subtract fats, protein, moisture and ash from a food and weigh the remainder. They then measure that against the recommended 300-gram (average) daily maximum recommended intake to derive the percentage of the daily carb total that a serving of their food represents. Simple, right? Not so much.

The 'total carbohydrates' line on the label does include all three forms (sugar, starch, fiber) mentioned earlier. However, only fiber and 'simple' sugar content are individually tallied on their own lines beneath it. What is excluded from the sugar content listed, for some inexplicable reason, is a tally of a food’s starches, which we now know are also sugars, since biochemically, starch = sugar, and our food labels don’t (or are not required to) capture that. 

I find the exclusion of starches from a food label’s ‘sugar’ tally at best disingenuous to people trying to understand and limit sugar consumption, and outright dangerous to people with serious diseases like diabetes, hypoglycemia (low blood pressure) or hyperglycemia (high blood pressure), the risk and severity of which are all directly influenced by the amount of starches they consume. The key is in controlling not just the amount of carbohydrates consumed, but the quality and type as well. The less refined and more natural it is, the less risk carbs incur. A good article on webMD can be found here. Whether or not you suffer from a blood sugar disease, if you're interested in knowing just how much sugar you are actually consuming (we all should), then as a workaround to the food label omission, just subtract the 'fiber' content listed from that of 'total carbohydrates'. The remainder can fairly be considered to be its ‘true’ sugar load.

Even in terms of the sugars that are listed on a food label – or anywhere else, for that matter, the USDA won’t tell you how much sugar you should (or should not) eat, or how it measures against a daily recommended limit. That is because the sugar industry has continually and successfully lobbied the US government to hide this information from food labels and consumers for decades, arguing (correctly) that doing so would negatively impact their ability to sell sugar and market their products. Thus we are forced to go outside of the US government to find out how much intake we should not exceed. The American Heart Association recommends we consume no more than 37.5g/day (150 cal.) of sugar for men and 25g/day (100 cal.) for women. To me, this seems more than reasonable, when you consider that just 400 years ago we consumed just one fifth of what the AHA is now recommending as a limit - a limit which in itself is just one fifth of what the typical American now consumes. Globally, the US leads sugar consumption, according to Euromonitor, which is unsurprising, given our elected representatives’ close and often muddied relationship with corporate America, as we discussed in brief in Week 2's post. The next closest country on Euromonitor's list – Germany – consumes one third less sugar than Americans do. India’s billion-plus people are at the bottom of the list, consuming on average just 5g/day each – the near-equivalent to what we, too, used to consume during Shakespeare’s time.

It needs to be said that without glucose, whether ingested from food sources or synthesized by our bodies’ own stores, we would essentially cease to exist. [Conversely, we could not survive solely on glucose, absent all the other nutrients the body needs in sufficient supply: the vitamins, minerals, amino acids (proteins), fats, phytonutrients and enzymes we have discussed at length in prior posts.] As we mentioned in brief, carbohydrates in whatever form they are ingested – table sugar, soda, fruit, breads, pastas, chips, dairy, sweets... – are broken down during digestion and converted (if necessary) into glucose molecules. These molecules are then carried via the hormone insulin through our bloodstream, hence the term blood sugar, to our cells where they are used as fuel. When carbohydrate-sourced glucose is absent or in inadequate supply for our body’s needs, and/or when our internal glucose stores are depleted, it turns to fats to turn them into sugars called ketones that healthy cells can use in place of their preferred fuel. In short, no matter what raw form a food takes, the body must convert consumed or stored fuels into glucose (or glucose-like sugars, like ketones) in order to for them to have utility.

In 2011, Gary Taubes wrote a memorable cover article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine provocatively titled Is Sugar Toxic? In the article, the Swiss biochemist Luc Tappy, considered by researchers in the field of sugar to be the world’s foremost authority on the subject, dropped a bombshell when he said that there was “not the single hint” that one form of sugar was any different from any other, biochemically. Meaning, the high fructose corn syrup that an increasing number of Americans now understand is bad for you is no different from the starch sugars in a slice of healthy 7-grain whole-wheat bread or the fructose in your just-picked apple. Sugar is sugar. But how is this possible? Is a Double-Gulp from 7/11 no worse for you than a ‘sugar-equivalent’ number of apples?

No – not by a long shot, which is where Tappy makes his (chemically correct) scientific point at the expense of painting an equally critical context of how we consume sugar and our bodies process it, for those among us who want to understand why our fixation with it is legitimately, slowly, killing us.

I can hear it now: ‘Wait. You just said that sugar consumption is essential to life, and that it’s ‘killing us’ in the same breath. So which is it?’

There are five critical measures when it comes to sugar that make an enormous difference in both the immediate and ultimate outcomes of its consumption:

  1. The quantity of sugars we consume (calories)
  2. The speed with which our bodies metabolize them (glycemic index)
  3. The brain’s evolutionary biochemical reaction to sugar (hunger and addiction)
  4. The presence [or absence] of other nutrients (nutritional completeness)
  5. The direct relationship between sugar and illness (biological stage-setting)

I will tackle each topic sequentially in this post, for us to better understand our relationship to sugar, how to ‘do sugar right’ and where the Western Diet fails our bodies and leads to chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and depression, or even more seriously, cancer and death.

But first, some history.

(Re)enter the post-war era, with which we began this post. Following World War II, the industrial food complex – enabled both by direct federal subsidy and legislation – capitalized on ever-more efficient – and synthetic – ways of delivering sugar to consumers. Production skyrocketed, and along with it, unsurprisingly, our conspicuous over-consumption, both knowingly (via junk foods like sodas and sweets) and unknowingly (via processed anything and dairy). Today, post-industrial sugar has over 60 names and hides in over 74% of all processed foods according to sugarscience.org, and is perhaps the single greatest cause for the raft of maladies that plagues post-war global culture.

As we reported in Week 15, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, upon entering office at the height of the Great Depression, quickly passed the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) to shore up farmers, focusing on major 'commodity crops' like corn, soy, wheat and rice, all of which are carbohydrates, and all of which are present and in many cases dominant in most packaged foods. Roosevelt’s legislation paved the way for subsidies that are still in place today, putting the selection of 'produce crops' like vegetables, legumes and fruits at a great financial disadvantage to farmers trying to make a living. In fact, over 90% of all subsidy funding in the United States goes exclusively to the four 'commodity crops', according to the Cato Institute, as we reported in Week 6, along with cotton, which we don’t eat.

Subsequently, as we reported in Week 2, President Richard M. Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, struck two historically consequential deals insofar as industrializing food. The first of these was with the Japanese, who in the mid-70’s created a new sugar-replacement from corn called high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Because of corn's robustness and consistent yields, this promised to stabilize and dramatically lower the price of sugar, which regularly seesawed up and down alongside volatile cane production in the West Indies. Butz created policies and economic incentives to move growers away form traditional produce crops (the vegetables and fruits) toward commodity crops like corn to maximize production, make the US the world’s largest producer of HFCS and drive down costs. Ultimately, his work guaranteed the place of ‘king corn’ in the US, where it comprises over 30% of all farmland today. When combined with the other ‘big three’ crops mentioned above, we find that the vast majority of US crops come from just four carbohydrate-laden sources, which bring with them a hostile environment for growers of other non-subsidized food enterprises. They are found lurking in processed foods everywhere, masquerading under dozens and dozens of unrecognizable names.

Finally, as reported in Week 4, Senator George McGovern convened a now-infamous panel of experts in 1976 to determine why Americans were getting fatter and experiencing an increase in heart disease. The panel, pointedly comprised of just two ‘experts’ alongside the elected officials, concluded that Americans were gorging on fat-rich, cholesterol-rich and sugar-rich meals, and that this was the root cause of the spike in chronic illness. Whatever the accuracy of these statements, the chief outcome of the just-published study was that - sensing the potential for market share loss in their businesses - the dairy, egg, sugar and beef associations banded together for the first time lobbied their demand for a governmental rewrite. They succeeded in getting the government to remove the suggestion to ‘reduce intake’ and replacing it with advice urging Americans to buy more food with lower fat content, thereby leading to an increase in sales and an entirely new market on which the industries could capitalize. The ultimate results? Americans have spent the past 40 years shunning healthy fats and harmless dietary cholesterol, while replacing those valuable, nutrient-rich calories with carbohydrates (sugars), because we were told that the latter provided our bodies with fuel without the health risks, and with fewer calories. Since this policy was put into place, our average net daily caloric intake has jumped from 2,000 in the 70's to a teetering 2,700 – a full 1/3 increase. Per Gary Taubes: "In retrospect, it's kind of amazing, but this was the thinking at the time."

Copyright FFFL

Copyright FFFL

So here’s what you need to know about sugar.

Issue 1: Quantity – the Overdose

We’ve mostly discussed this already. Americans consume far more sugar than they should – well over even their own historical norms and dwarfing that of every other country on Earth. We know beyond repudiation that the primary health impacts of excess dietary sugars are obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, due to both an increase in caloric intake and the body's over-production of triglycerides (fats) to capture all the sugars that we keep ingesting at a pace that outstrips how fast our cells can metabolize them. We all know with great frustration that once fat tucks itself into the corners of our bodies, it’s far harder to remove than we’d like to admit. Our bodies evolved to be experts in conservation.

With regard to cancer, it gets more interesting, and we will be creating a separate post on the subject of low-sugar diets and cancer. There is emerging proof, as more researchers study Ketogenic Diets, that a lack of available glucose can starve cancer cells. A Ketogenic diet is one that is high in good fats and low in sugar that essentially forces the host metabolism to ‘switch’ from burning glucose as its primary fuel to burning fat-sourced ketones, which it does for as long as our dietary intake promotes it. Our bodies favor glucose, as we know, and so this is the first nutrient to be converted to energy. But as we pointed out earlier, when there is an inadequate supply of glucose to fuel the body, it starts to convert fats into ketones and hums along happily in the process. A 2012 paper published in the journal Molecular Systems Biology Dr. Thomas Graeber, a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology, demonstrated that "glucose starvation - that is, depriving cancer cells of glucose - activates a metabolic and signaling amplification loop that leads to cancer cell death as a result of the toxic accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS)". He's not alone. Dr. Valter Longo is a biogerontologist and cellular biologist who has spent years studying the effects of [glucose] starvation, aging and diseases, like cancer. He believes unequivocally that fasting cycles retard the growth of tumors. Here's one video in which he explains his research and conclusions.

There are a number of scientists - like Dr. Longo, whose forthcoming ProLon will market a dietary regimen that he asserts will result in the wholesale reset of our immune systems and collapse of mutated cells, like those in cancers - as well as dietitians who have commercialized some version of this approach. They are scientifically referred to as ‘Starvation Diets’ though usually marketed as something much less macabre, like Michael Mosley’s 5:2 fast diet, or he-man Martin Berkhan’s LeanGains. While the dietitians are mostly interested in fat loss, and the scientists in cancer, the biological rationale is consistent: in pre-agricultural times the foods we hunted or foraged weren’t in consistent supply. We thus went through regular periods of ‘feast or famine’, and our bodies’ own biology evolved to expect this and compensate. It’s why we are, biologically, able to switch between sugar- and fat-based energy conversion: there are simply times when certain nutrient sources were not available. 

Recently, scientists like Dr. Longo and Dr. Graeber have pointed to cancer cells’ particular affinity for sugar. One already well-established cancer treatment – Insulin Potentiation Therapy (IPT) – uses sugar deprivation to get cancer cells in ‘true Stage IV’ cases to respond robustly with much lower doses of chemotherapy than is typical – thus IPT is considered less invasive. “Cancer cells have much higher levels of insulin receptor sites than do healthy cells, to increase glucose uptake”, according to the websiteCancerActive. In simple terms, cancer cells are glucose addicts. Additionally, cancer cells have “defective mitochondria”, and according to the website, “without glucose, they [the mitochondria] kill the cell.”

As I mentioned, we will create a separate post on starvation diets, their impacts on health, including cancer, and whether this is just the latest fad or a turning point in dietary science. It’s enough here to point our the particular relationship of cancer cells to glucose; and that this affinity – or chemical dependence – is potentially cancer’s Achilles heel.

 Issue 2: Speed – the Glycemic Index

As you now know, from a root nutrient standpoint all carbohydrates are sugars, with the exception of fiber, which we have discussed. These sugars have many names: glucose (as we’ve discussed at length), fructose (fruit sugar), sucrose (table sugar from beets or cane), maltose (grain sugar), lactose (dairy sugar)... and all other ‘oses’. Whether these sugars are ‘simple’ – i.e. made up of a single sugar molecules that convert quickly to glucose, like those in fruit, or ‘complex’ – i.e. made up of glucose molecules that are strung together, like those in breads, and broken down into simple sugars during digestion, these sugars are ultimately indistinguishable in the blood stream, where glucose is glucose is glucose. The difference between sugars lies primarily in the speed with which they are converted, absorbed, and used by the body’s cells.

To give an example, let’s take fruit juices, which are overwhelmingly devoid of fiber (and thus, in our opinion, should be avoided entirely – no matter how expensive or fresh it is). When a glassful is consumed, all of its sugar is released immediately, the rush of which generally overwhelms your body, creating an energy boost (aka sugar rush) that gives you 'energy' (pep), but sends your pancreas into overdrive producing insulin to capture and distribute the glucose to your cells as quickly as it can. Both your pancreas and your cells have limits: there is only so much glucose the body can absorb at once, and that amount is fairly low – hence the rush. Just picture pouring water into a funnel faster than the opening at bottom can evacuate it; the funnel overflows. In your body, this overflow of sugar is captured by triglycerides (fat packages that are produced by the liver) and stored in the body for future use, like squirrels store nuts in the winter. Unlike the foraging squirrel, a healthy liver has an infinite capacity to generate triglycerides, and your body has an infinite capacity to store them. When this biological process is applied to the extreme sugar-saturated diet of the average American, rich in grains, starches, pizza, canned soup, ketchup, snack foods, juices, cheeses, sodas, sweets and any other product with added sugars, the expected, all-too-common result is obesity, which afflicts more than 1/3 of all Americans, with 2/3 of us considered overweight and well on our way.

By contrast, let’s compare the consumption of orange juice against that of an equal amount of whole fruit. The major difference is in the orange's fiber. As you now know, a plant’s nutrients are stored in its (indigestible) fibers, which must be broken down by your digestive system in order for the plant to release them for your body's use. As it does so, a food’s sugars, vitamins, minerals, fats and other nutrients are incrementally released throughout the duration of digestion. Fibrous foods reduce sugar spikes because they release nutrients slowly – not at once, as it does when we drink juice. Thus insulin production doesn’t go crazy, and triglycerides aren’t produced. Two additional benefits of a fiber-rich diet are that A – fiber makes the body feel fuller, longer, by taking up space and by signaling the brain that it’s full, which ends cravings; and B – the indigestible fiber pushes other foods down the chain until they come out, keeping you ‘regular’ and flushing out toxins (which all foods contain) faster.

We refer to the speed with which sugar digestion occurs as its Glycemic Load. There's an index for that.

Fiber-rich foods rate low on the Glycemic Index, while fiber-poor foods rate high. The Glycemic Index is a list of carbohydrates that are assigned a value (from 1 to 100), which correlates with the speed with which they are converted to glucose and absorbed by the bloodstream. A top rating of 100 means pure glucose; while a (theoretical) rating of 1 means it’ll take ages for the bloodstream to extract a food’s glucose. The lower the number, the better it is for your health, and the less chance that food will trigger digestive chaos and fat production. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that most vegetables peak at a glycemic load below 15; most fruits at below 50; and most processed foods rate above a 50 on the GI. This is because vegetables and fruits are fiber- and nutrient-rich whole foods; while processed foods are generally fiber-poor and nutrient-poor, even if they’re made of grains like corn or wheat that were fiber-rich before they were processed into flour. Specifically, the milling of wheat into flour destroys its fiber, in addition to most everything else that’s good about it. Once it is milled, all that’s left is a grain's sugar – its carbohydrate. Because processing is so destructive, manufacturers often ‘enrich’ foods by adding synthetic forms of the natural nutrients that the manufacturing process destroyed. We know from Week 10 that supplements and enriched foods are poor substitutes for naturally occurring nutrients in their unadulterated host form. Here is a listing of 100 common carbohydrates and how they rate on the Glycemic Index. You may be surprised at some of the foods that you commonly eat, and until now thought were healthy.

Issue 3 – Addiction and Sugar

 Dr. Howard Moskowitz is known in the industry as ‘Dr. Bliss’. According to Dr. Mercola, Moskowitz – a Harvard-trained mathematician – helps processed food manufacturers “find the ‘Goldilocks’ zone of sugar, unhealthy fat and salt in order to get you to overeat and buy another bag or box even though you know you shouldn’t. And he’s made the sugar industry billions.”

Robert Lustig, MD – a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF and the author of several books, including ‘Sugar Has 56 Names: A Shopper’s Guide’, says about sugar, “No one can exert cognitive inhibition, willpower, over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute, of every day of every year.” He is also the co-author of the AHA’s 2010 recommendations on daily sugar limits, which we mentioned earlier. In a well-written 2014 article for The Atlantic called ‘The Sugar Addiction Taboo’, Dr. Lustig proposes that it’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘Did I really need to eat the whole box of chocolates,’ and goes on to describe Binge Eating Disorder, a newish label created by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for just such a phenomenon. The disorder's legitimacy is further supported by Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Lustig goes on to distinguish between liking, wanting and needing’ foods, labeling the last term an addiction. Sugar defenders say, ‘It’s food – how can it be addictive if we need it to live?’ to which Lustig cleverly –critically – distinguishes between nutrients whose absence causes deficiency diseases, like those of vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins, and those who simply don’t, like sugar. “Alcohol is energy, but it is certainly not required for life. There’s no biochemical reaction that requires alcohol.” He then goes on to say – in a corollary – that “As it turns out, there’s no biochemical reaction that requires fructose,” and in another blow to carbohydrate consumption, “glucose... is not essential – it’s so important, that if you don’t eat it, your liver will make it.”

In his Atlantic article, Dr. Lustig cites an abstract by the Society of Neuroscience in which rats were found to prefer Oreos to cocaine. An unrelated, ongoing Columbia University experiment by Dr. Nicole Avena exposes rats to sugar water in 3-week increments, then as she subsequently deprives them, she watches them exhibit every single sign of addiction: binging, withdrawal, craving and addiction transfer (aka co-addiction). In yet other studies involving MRI scans of brains exposed to sugar, only sugar lights up the reward center of the brain – the ‘feel good’ center that Dr. Moskowitz is such a genius at manipulating that we empty bags of chips and demolish tubs of ice cream without stopping to process the reasons or to self-regulate. And while Dr. Moskowitz uses the triumvirate of sugars, fats and salt, the latter two do not trigger the reward center of the brain – hence fat and salt are non-addictive, which leaves only sugar as the prime culprit in our tendency to binge on sugary foods. Worse still, the dopamine that the reward center releases upon receiving cocaine or sugar is apparently also a down-regulator, meaning with each subsequent exposure to a familiar drug, it spikes a little less, requiring more of the same to produce the same effect over time.

Some 77% of all American supermarket foods contain added sugar.

Issue 4 – Nutritional Completeness

This one should be self-evident, but given the food choices people make, let's revisit the illustration of oranges and juice, in greater depth, and contrast it to another popular and iconic sugar source: Coca-Cola. A 282g (10 oz.) Burger King kids' size Coca-Cola Classic (yes - kids' soda) has 123 calories, all of which come from its 31g of sugar – a full day’s worth of carbohydrates for an adult, according to the AHA recommendations we discussed earlier. That's all it has. The Coke does not contain a single trace of any vitamin, mineral, fat, protein, phytonutrient or enzyme - that is, nothing of any biochemical value to us, whatsoever. It is as empty as empty gets, nutritionally.

By contrast, a 248g (8.7 oz.) cup of raw orange juice has 112 calories, which is the same calorie-to-volume ratio as the Coke. While the juice delivers a significant 21g of sugar, there are major differences. First, that amount is just 2/3 that of the Coke – a significant relative reduction. Second, the juice provides 2g of protein, 10% of your daily vitamin A, 207% of vitamin C, 15% of thiamin (B1), 4% of riboflavin (B2), 5% of Niacin (B3), 5% of B6, 19% of folate, 5% of pantothenic acid, 3% of both calcium and iron, 7% of magnesium, 4% of phosphorous, 14% of potassium, 1% of zinc, 5% of copper, 2% of manganese, and trace amounts of necessary fatty acids. That is to say, orange juice is a good to excellent source of over 17 essential nutrients.

If we take the comparison to its next logical step, and eat 2 medium oranges in place of downing the juice, they will deliver the same calories, vitamins and minerals as the juice, but also deliver 3g – or 13% - of your daily fiber, which as we have seen both aids digestion and, critically, slows the metabolism of sugar, thereby reducing spikes and crashes while helping you to feel full. Sugar without fiber, regardless of vitamin and mineral content, does not satiate, as we've seen. In fact, it does the opposite, signaling the brain to eat more, which causes us ultimately to overeat (or drink).

In short, soda is both empty and toxic. Juice is a major vehicle for delivering a raft of essential nutrients, but leaves you hungry, since its calories and sugars are immediately available and quickly consumed. A piece of fruit too provides the nutrients, while providing fiber that results in less consumption via slower digestion, resulting in less body fat and less addiction. The same holds true of any whole food when compared against an 'equivalent' manufactured and/or processed food product.

So skip the calorie-counting. It’s frankly moot, and a major distraction to what we should be looking for: nutritional completeness for health and fiber to regulate digestion. Nature takes care of the rest without using a calculator.

Issue 5 – Sugar and Illness

By now it should be painfully clear that sugar isn’t healthy, for a number of reasons: 1 - It’s addictive, leading to overconsumption. 2 - It's nutritionally empty. 3 - It is biochemically non-essential. 4 - In the absence of sugar, the liver produces its own.

We should be mindful that in spite of the fact that humans have not evolved, biologically, in the past 400 years, we have nonetheless increased our sugar intake epidemically, from 4 lbs./year in the late 1500’s to between 125 and 170 lbs./year in 2000 – a roughly 30- to 40-fold increase, half of which has occurred in just the past 70 years alone, since which time food science has shifted our diets from real foods that feed the body to manufactured ones that feed corporate shareholders. We know it's not good for us, and yet we are clearly ignoring the signs.

We are not to blame. Much like Dr. Robert Oppenheimer – who was simply a man of science and had no personal drive to obliterate entire Japanese villages with the nuclear weapon whose creation he led – Dr. Moskowitz is just a mathematician with a gift for creating the ‘perfect storm’ of food addiction. And he’s not alone. Arguably, his (and his colleagues’) wake of destruction may well exceed that of Dr. Oppenheimer, since while the use of a nuclear bomb is both immediate and visibly catastrophic, leading to global bans and acute fear of its capability, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are quiet, slow and mostly invisible until they have caused severe and often fatal damage. And damage they have caused. As we wrote in Week 8 - the National Cancer Institute and Harvard University's School of Public Health propose that dietary factors account for 30% of all cancers, making it second only to tobacco use in cancer causes. 

We must therefore [if health is an agreed goal] consider the consequences of things when we make choices like what to eat - not just the incremental steps, but what a year or sixty years of steps looks like. We must take the long view. In the long view, a little sugar here and there isn’t an issue. In part, the body needs it, and is made to handle it. I also personally believe that should indulge every now and then in choices that make no sense but make us feel good. The key, however, is in the frequency and severity of our choices. A little is not a lot. A fruit is not a juice is not a soda, yet all three are available, and arguably the least expensive choice is also the healthiest. Beans are cheaper than a bag of chips. They also provide more calories and a ton of nutrients. They satiate your body longer, and promote health. On the flip side, chips lead to the diseases we keep discussing, week after week.

Eating healthy foods is inexpensive. Eating unhealthy foods is not only expensive with respect to your wallet and grocery bill, it’s catastrophically expensive with respect to healthcare costs and taxation, since ultimately it’s all taxpayers who foot the bill for people’s bad food choices, not just those who suffer from it directly. Obesity alone cost the United States nearly $200 billion in direct outlay in 2005; and more than $4 billion in job absenteeism due to an increase in sick days, adding proverbial insult to literal injury.

Smell the rose. Know her by all her names, and rejoice in how perfect Nature made her, without help.

 

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Week 15: Soil Health and Food - A Tipping Point

A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.

The quote's author, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has been consistently regarded as one of the United States' two greatest presidents (the other being Abraham Lincoln) by the academics and scholars who established an annual ranking system in 1948. He also implicitly understood the importance of agriculture. In fact, within days of his 1933 election, at the depths of the Great Depression, his very first piece of legislature was the Agricultural Adjustment Act - or AAA - to create parity for farmers, a practice that continues today. And while Roosevelt couldn't foresee the industrial consolidation of our food system - by companies that have become the ultimate beneficiaries of his 83-year old policy, and which we will discuss in detail later in this post - he understood nonetheless that without that which sustains us, we would perish, and acted accordingly.

The subject of soil health is a loaded one. It goes back to the birthplace of human agriculture - to the Fertile Crescent - and the explosive growth of human population that it fed. It continues through today, more critically than ever, because two major topics - population growth and decline of food productivity (that is, nutrient density per acre) - are currently in opposite modes. In fact, the subject is so big that we can only touch on it here, to provide context for the state of nutrition today and that of the imminent future. As we will see, there are many ways in which human activity is - in the research and conclusions of a growing number of scientists and governments - reaching a tipping point. Which brings us to some startling statistics.

"One third of the world's arable land has been lost to soil erosion or pollution in the last 40 years," according to Reuters, reporting new research scientists presented at this past December's climate change talks in Paris. In another report, published exactly one year earlier in Scientific American (SA), the title of an article reads "Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues." Another estimate - that of the non-profit National Security Institute [for soil health], gives it just 48 years. Think about that for just a second. In 48-60 years, without action, farming ends. We know that without topsoil - the 'arable' part of the Earth's lithosphere - we have no food production. And without food production, we have no people.

Our management of soil, perhaps more than any other subject, defines whether humans will live or die. 

So what exactly is happening?

To understand the phenomenon of farmland reduction, we have to look at four separate topics: ground water depletion; deforestation; human population; and agricultural practices (apart from ground water depletion and deforestation): farming, grazing and industrialization. And beyond the absolutes of available soil acreage, nutrient density - that is, nutrient output in the foods we grow per acre of farmland - is also declining. So not only do we have less land to grow food, but that land is becoming less productive, as you'll see, chiefly because of the choices that large-scale industrial food corporations have made insofar as how to maximize economic productivity, whatever the outcome. So let's begin.

Copyright FFFL

Ground Water Depletion

In 2013, the Economist published an article on the Fertile Crescent - the place where, about 11,500 years ago and for the first time in human history, man set down roots, because its arable land provided enough ground water to support food production in addition to the hunting and gathering that had until then defined human existence. Populations swelled as we began to manipulate Nature in order to coax productivity from it. The creation of 'farming' also meant that for the first time, not everyone needed to focus solely on food production. Hence, the birth of science, art, literacy... the modern fruits of a population subset with time on its hands.

That was then. In the article, the Economist cites a recent depletion of groundwater in the Tigris-Euphrates basin  - the heart of the Fertile Crescent, in present-day Iraq - of 144 cubic kilometers of water, or the size of the Dead Sea, in just six years, between 2003 and 2009. This constitutes the world's second-fastest loss, after that of Northern India. Due to human-induced aquifer depletion, it has corresponded to a 30% reduction in surface water - or the water available for farming. 

Just next door, in Saudi Arabia, the situation is even worse. The American Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) published an article in April 2015 on the disappearance of water in the Kingdom. In the 1970's, wealthy landowners convinced the king to let them pump the country's 20,000-year old aquifer - one that appears in multiple biblical references - to make Saudi Arabia 'wheat-independent', which they argued would create food security. Saudi Arabia went on to become the world's sixth largest producer of wheat, the majority of which it exported, since production far exceeded demand. In just 40 years, the aquifer has been drained, and a body of water the size of Lake Erie - one that took the equivalent of 800 human generations to create - is essentially gone. At the hands of just four families who became unfathomably wealthy, Saudi Arabia - which is 95% desert - essentially exported their water, in the form of wheat it didn't need. Today, the Kingdom currently imports 80% of its food, and wheat production has ground to a halt.

But if you think food problems are just the stuff of far-off countries and America's breadbasket is safe and sound, you'd be very, very wrong. 

The CIR article I cited above is called What California Can Learn from Saudi Arabia's Water Mystery. California grows half of the United States' fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The chief reason for this is not climate. In a thinkprogress.org report, Richard Walker, a UC Berkley professor, says there's "plenty of good soil elsewhere". He says “...it’s the ability to put water on [that soil] over a long, dry summer that allows you to get very quick results.”

And results they have delivered. California pumps water to nine million acres of farmland each year, according to the report - second only to Nebraska. And the source? Aquifers. According to both CIR and thinkprogress.org, 65% of California's food production system is fed by aquifers today - aquifers that, like those of Saudi Arabia, are being depleted as quickly. NASA hydrologist Jay Famiglietti wrote last year in the LA Times that California has "only about one year left of water supply in its reservoirs," and that its backup - groundwater - is "rapidly disappearing".  

The Earth is a closed loop. Water is neither gained nor lost. But when we use up ground water, on which agricultural crops depend, and it evaporates after it is processed - into clouds - the majority of it ends up in the oceans, where it has increased water levels by a half-inch in just 100 years. And saline water in an ocean does not grow crops. Given that it takes 1,000 years for Nature to generate just 3 centimeters of topsoil, we are looking at a catastrophe of untold proportion. Maria-Helena Semedo, the Deputy Director of Food Resources for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, says in the SA article we mentioned up top, "Soils are the basis of life. Ninety-five percent of our food comes from soil." She says that by 2050, the global productive land per person will be one quarter of what it was in 1960. Worse, since soil encapsulates carbon, the faster we lose it, the hotter the Earth gets, creating a 'vicious cycle' of increased rate of loss.

Deforestation

It is not only water use that leads to the loss of arable land. The conversion of forests to grasslands is the prime agent of deforestation, accounting for 80% of it, according to the UN Framework Convention for Climate Climate Change: 48% for subsistence farming, and 32% for commercial agriculture. The loss is especially acute in conjunction with genetically modified organism (GM or GMO) farming, according to the article, since those require massive amounts of nitrogen fertilizers, unbalancing soil's inherent biological diversity. We will discuss this in detail below - and explored GM foods in detail in Week 11

In his phenomenal book Collapse, Jared Diamond - one of my favorite authors - tackles the fundamental question: what makes societies fail or succeed? Several chapters of the book deal with the unmanaged use of natural resources - trees primary among them. He discusses the common practice of tree removal for the creation of grassland and direct use, for building and heating. He writes that the removal of both the tree canopy that shades plants and provides animal habitat, and the root system that stabilizes not just soil but the plants on which animals depend (and on both of which we depend, as food) leads to systemic biological and societal collapse, due to the loss of habitat and arable soil. He uses myriad examples from across the globe, including places like Greenland where if anything, there is an overabundance of water. So it is not just ground water depletion that leads to loss of farm land, and life.

Human population

We have already discussed human impact on ground water depletion and deforestation. We also know that as the population increases, the demand for food does, too, proportionally. The human population is predicted to peak at around 9.2 billion people, according to consensus by most experts, somewhere around the year 2050. This is due to reductions in human fertility. But that's still 25% higher than today's global population of 7.3 billion. Thus the need to feed that many people will exacerbate the world food supply to the tune of a 25% increase over today's demands. And it's not just land-based foods, lest you think we can turn to the oceans that comprise 71% of the Earth's surface. According to a 2012 report by the BBC, humans consume four times as much fish per capita as we did in 1950. In that period, we have decimated over 85% of the world's fish stocks, through exploitation and depletion. The United Nations' FAO says that in order to supply adequate food to 'peak humans' in 2050 - by land or by sea, global supply will have to increase by over 70%. That's an interesting trick in the context of ocean depletion, soil degradation and loss, and as we'll see in a minute, science- and industry-led losses in soil nutrient density.

So far, we've discussed global issues over which few of us can exert a direct influence. First, aquifer depletion rests largely in the hands of governments and their policies. Companies (mostly) do only what they are allowed to do. Second, deforestation follows the same laws, with companies profiting chiefly only from sanctioned actions - or in the case of countries like Brazil, among others, inadequate governmental capacity to police and enforce policies that outlaw it. Of course, deforestation and ground water depletion have led to an extensive global loss of arable land - one third of it in just 40 years, according to that Reuters report. Third, any discussion about limiting growth in human population is both appalling and utterly impractical. It is what it is, until Nature deems it otherwise. Along with eating, the urge to mate is chief to our species' survival. Which brings us to our fourth influence over food production.

Agricultural practices

Agricultural production comprises a complex and inter-related set of decisions and practices, beyond those of groundwater and forestation. In the end, the practices we adopt result in either the sustainability (by which we mean the ability to be sustained in perpetuity) or the instability of the soil in which we must grow food if we are to survive and support 9.2 billion people within a few decades. Beyond the amount of soil we have, the productivity of of that (top)soil is central to the survival of the humans: those on the planet today, and those we will add in the coming decades.

I mentioned at the outset of this post that population growth and food productivity are at opposite ends of their trends: that is, the population is increasing while the productivity of our soil is decreasing, setting the grounds, without overstating it, for a crisis. But how do we know the soil is less productive?

To understand this, we need to look at how farming is practiced. Until the 20th Century, and really until after World War II, the way we farmed was by mimicking biology. Marianne Sarrantonio, PhD, an associate professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine, told Sharon Palmer, RD in a 2009 issue of Today's Dietitian (TD) that "before modern fertilizers were available, farms had to be more in balance. The nutrients in the soil were in balance because the farms had livestock and the manure was applied to the field. They grew cover crops to return the nutrients to the soil and used organic material as well. They didn't go to the store and buy a big bag of fertilizer. They planned the whole crop rotation to benefit the soil." According to the article, one teaspoon of native grassland contains between 600 and 800 million individual organisms, creating a 'virtual community of living organisms'.

Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD, who in 2014 became the Executive Director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) at the mighty USDA, contributed the following belief to that same TD article, 5 years prior to her current role:

“I believe nutrition professionals need to broaden their expertise beyond how food influences the health of individuals … to how individual, community, and societal food choices affect the availability and quality of natural resources: soil, water, genetic biodiversity, and nonrenewable energy. Everything we and animals eat is linked to soil. It is the life-support system for plants, animals, and eaters. Healthy soil is the basis for a healthy planet."

So what are we doing now that is different from what we did for the first 11,450 years of agriculture, which seemed sustainable, for all intents and purposes? Well, two things could be argued to have produced the greatest negative influence over soil health, and hence productivity. 

Monoculture Farming

First, we have moved from bio-diverse farming - what modern farming pioneer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms refers to as 'polyculture' or 'biomimickry', as related in Michael Pollan's seminal book The Omnivore's Dilemma, to that of monoculture production: that is to say, endless fields of one product: corn, soy, wheat, cotton...

"When one crop is planted repeatedly on the same land," according to chemical and environmental engineer Victoria Wilson in an article for One Green Planet, "certain nutrients become depleted from the soil due to the crop's specific nutrient demand." The article gives an example: "Plants, like soy, are able to 'fix' nitrogen from the air into the soil, where a crop like corn cannot. If you do not rotate between nitrogen-fixing plants and non-nitrogen fixing plants, the soil will be depleted of this vital nutrient." So, even among the United States' two largest crops - soy and corn - we cannot theoretically balance this one critical ingredient. And health of soil goes well beyond the measurement of its nitrogen. Per the TD article:

'The soil-to-food web is powered by the primary producers: plants, lichen, moss, bacteria, and algae in the soil that use the sun’s energy to fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Other soil organisms get energy and nutrients by feeding on the organic compounds found in plants, other organisms, and waste products. As organisms decompose, their nutrients become food for plants and other organisms. This web is an essential lifeline for all plants to receive nutrition and, in turn, for animals and humans to receive nourishment. Healthy soil also makes clean water and air possible.'

Complex, right? Just like Nature herself - incredibly intricate, holistic, and largely beyond (most of) our understanding. 

Enter Monsanto. 

We've reported in a few posts that Monsanto owns 27% of the world's seed market; that their seeds are 'terminator' seeds, requiring repurchase because by design they cannot reproduce, guaranteeing their patent-holder future income; that 60% of the US food supply contains GMO's, chiefly courtesy of Monsanto's seed banks; and that the prime GMO trait on which Monsanto profits is the seed crops' resistance to the chemical fertilizer Roundup. Roundup, the herbicide in which Monsanto's crops must be grown, exists - in essence - in order to reduce or entirely remove biodiversity in fields: the 'invasive' crops (which means anything outside of the 'desired' monoculture); and the 'pests' (living organisms that are part of a biodiverse food chain). Roundup accomplishes these by making the soil toxic to anything that has not been genetically engineered/modified to withstand it. 

In addition to removing plant and animal material from a monoculture, Roundup (the trade name for its main ingredient, glyphosate) has been shown in human studies - detailed here - to increase rates and/or severity of ADHD, Alzheimer’s, birth defects, autism, brain cancer, breast cancer, celiac disease, gluten intolerance, chronic kidney disease, depression, diabetes, heart disease, colitis, hyperthyroidism, IBS (leaky gut), liver disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, obesity, reproductive problems, and respiratory illnesses. And over 75% of air and rainfall in the Mississippi Delta contains glyphosate. This herbicide is simply Monsanto's latest creation in a long line of virulent chemicals, dating back 100 years. These include the insecticide DDT, which was finally banned in 1974 after causing depletion in populations of wild and domesticated birds and fish, as well as causing cancer and other illness in humans - thanks to the journalist who broke the story - Rachel Carson; the chemical warfare weapon Agent Orange, which was created to decimate crops and forests (and humans) in Vietnam in an attempt at forced victory, until it was finally banned in 1971; and the chemical coolant PCB, a known endochrine disruptor and neurotoxin that was primarily ingested via the food supply until it, too, was globally banned, by 1979.

Back to Roundup. If it triggers that many diseases in humans, what does it do to the soil?

In 2013, Iowa farmer Dennis Von Arb's conventionally grown corn was dying. It turns out his neighbor, Brad Vermeer, was spraying his own GM corn with glyphosate, 'next door'. In spite of his crop loss, Mr. Von Arb, according to the New York Times article, was more concerned about his soil. "Anything you put on the land affects the biology of the land, and that's a powerful pesticide," he said, referring to Monsanto's Roundup. Mr. Von Arb and local agronomists in Iowa tried to get Mr. Vermeer to switch away from Roundup and GM crops, citing their concerns that soil health. "They're going to have to show me that conventional genetics can produce the same income," is Mr. Vermeer's response. Therein lies one of the prime issues with the commercial effort of being a farmer. And while cash on hand is decidedly short-term in its outlook, when you're faced with whether or not your family can feed itself, we all tend to rate the long-term impacts on society-at-large a distant second.

But just how bad is it? According to permaculture.org:

  • Glyphosate-laden crops have created 'super weeds' among 120 million hectares of global farmland, leading to both resistance and increased use. In Argentina alone, glyphosate use increased tenfold as a result, between 1996 and 2010, in order to achieve the same results, pre-super weed.
  • Glyphosate-laden soils have led to 40 widespread plant diseases across the US due to chelation, damaging their inherent photosynthesis and reducing their ability to retain water, requiring greater quantities of it to equal effect.
  • Glyphosate damages macro- and micro-organisms, like the all-important earthworms, which Charles Darwin himself referred to as 'nature's ploughs' for their ability to create channels for oxygen, water and carbon dioxide to pass through, and whose voraciousness converts plant matter into waste that can be absorbed as nutrients by the soil. 
  • Glyphosate's high water solubility has accelerated the deterioration of water quality - especially in small systems, decreasing algae and killing frogs while increasing toxic-bloom-forming cyanobacteria.

Another expert, Harold Van Es, who chairs the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Cornell University, agrees:

Organic farms rely on organic inputs and organic sources of nutrients to feed the soil, according to van Es. “The set of rules and guidelines for organic production generally result in improved soil health. Organic fertilizers contain carbon, organic matter, and compostable material. The nutrient content is much lower than a bag of synthetic fertilizer. Organic fertilizer might contain 3% nitrogen compared with a conventional fertilizer that might contain 32% nitrogen. In an organic system, there is more balance of nutrients and less over-accumulation of certain nutrients,” notes van Es, who offers an analogy of donuts. You may get a lot of energy from donuts but not other nutrients or compounds that are important to sustain human life.

Angie Tagtow, the Executive Director of the CNPP, adds, “Ironically, we treat soil, plants, livestock, and humans in similar ways. When disease occurs, a chemical is applied or pharmaceutical is prescribed. The etiology of the disease is often ignored, and disease prevention strategies are not adopted."

Nutrient Density

Our final topic related to soil health is its most direct, insofar as the nutrition of the foods you eat today. I've saved this for last, in spite of the fact that the consumption of nutritious foods is most likely the primary - or only - reason you read these posts. But to provide information about nutrition without the context of its broader influences that create and safeguard it is to do everyone a great disservice. 

In a related question, whether or not an acre of soil will yield more or fewer bushels of corn today than it did in 1950 - translating directly to dollars in farmer's pockets and kernels on your table - we must look at both yield and nutrient density. That is to say, in the case of the latter, to determine whether an ear of corn today is in fact of lesser nutritional value to my body, since in the end, food = bio-energy that fuels our metabolic processes.

Well is it?

A 2011 article in Scientific American (SA) lists several sources and studies that offer an emphatic 'yes' to that question. One landmark study by the University of Austin's Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry, led by researcher Donald Davis, pored through 50 years of USDA nutritional data, from 1950 to 1999 for 43 vegetables and fruits. Their findings? 'Reliable declines' in concentrations of 6 key nutrients: 6% for protein; 16% for calcium; 9% for phosphorous; 15% for iron; 38% for riboflavin (B2); and 20% for vitamin C. By contrast, not one nutrient in any food measured over a 50-year period increased in value

Similarly, a study by macrobiotic pioneer The Kushi Institute in Western Massachusetts [where my own brother, a practicing physician, ate regularly and took nutritional courses for years] analyzed available data for 12 fresh vegetables and found that over a 22-year period, between 1975 to 1997, calcium dropped 27%, iron by 37%, vitamin A by 21%, and vitamin C by 30%. And there were other studies, including one that found that you'd have to eat eight oranges today to glean the same amount of vitamin A as that which our grandparents received from just one.

This means, bluntly, that even if yields were to increase under the artificial conditions of monocultures and pesticide use - which they decidedly don't - we would still be left with the fact that we have to eat more (sometimes far more) of any given food today to glean the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and phytonutrients as our grandparents did before we began this whole enterprise. And this news comes in the context of declining soil acreage, an increasing population, and a contaminated planet.

The SA article concludes very simply, 'The key to healthier produce is healthier soil'.

Selective Breeding

But there's more. A 2013 article in the New York Times - an original copy of which I've kept since it was published, talks about the selective breeding that humans have practiced since the dawn of agriculture back in the Fertile Crescent. That is to say, we have selected and re-bred cultivars (subsets of a given crop) based on maximizing yield, and favoring sweetness. The latter is one reason we have starch-rich foods that are low in phytonutrients: we as humans have always favored sweet over bitter. Starches are compound sugars: strings of glucose molecules that - once they hit the small intestine - are immediately absorbed by the body, and converted into energy. We also know that the body has limits on how much sugar energy it can immediately use, and that the excess supply spikes insulin production that captures those sugars in little fat packages called triglycerides. In other words, overconsumption of sugars makes us fat. While fat consumption is not the subject of this post, starches are the most common nutrient in the packaged foods that comprise 90% of our diets, which comprise the majority of US crops and farmland, which makes the practices of its growth very relevant. Phytonutrients in foods, on the other hand, not only don't make you fat; they have been shown to decrease mortality rates by 30%, according to just one recent study, as we saw in Week 13. What's the relevance of comparing starches to phytonutrients? They're at the opposite end of the flavor spectrum. Phytonutrients are bitter, or pungent; and as such we've overwhelmingly favored the cultivars of common foods that are lowest in phytonutrients and highest in starches for millennia, because of our proclivity for sweet tastes. A few examples:

  • Blue corn has 29% more of the phytonutrient anthocyanin than the sweet yellow corn that we can buy in the supermarket, and 20% more protein. 
  • European crab apples have 5-66 times the phytonutrients of the 6 most common varieties we eat
  • Dandelion greens have 30 times the antioxidants of all lettuces
  • Purple carrots pack 18 times the phytonutrients of orange carrots
  • Similarly, purple peruvian potatoes host 32 times the phytonutrients of yukon gold potatoes

Conclusions

Michael Pollan says, "The multi-billion dollar organics industry was created by consumers voting with their dollars." Organic foods are broadly considered more sustainable: to the soil, to the animals, to the biome and to the humans - us - who consume them and depend on their continued supply. Organics avoid the use of synthetic pesticides, and therefore organic farmers are overwhelmingly beholden to the age-old practice of farming via biodiversity. As such, organics carry our greatest hope of feeding 9.2 billion people on diminishing acreage, and a very large number of farmers outside of 'industrial food' consider the productive density of an organic farm to far exceed that of a conventional farm using synthetics.

So vote with your food dollars. The Economist provided great information and ammunition on the subject as early as 2006, here. Buying organics also reduces reliance on GMO foods, the purchase of which strengthen food giants like Monsanto and support the sale of pesticides that not only deplete soil health, create runoff and disease both in humans and the seas where they end up, but also don't solve the problems that they purportedly address. The biological organisms that these toxic substances are created to destroy - Nature's biodiversity - will always win, since Nature's mastery over mutation invariably leads to new strains of resistant 'invasive' species that will require a cyclical increase in pesticide toxicity and dose in order to accomplish a commensurate effect, as we've seen again and again.

To the same end, avoid packaged foods. They are overwhelmingly comprised of repackaged versions of the same cash crops that rely near-exclusively on farming practices and chemicals that deplete the soil, which depletes the nutrition value of the foods it grows. We reported in Week 7 that non-GMO corn contains between 6 and 438 times the nutrient levels of phosphate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, sulfur, cobalt, iron, zinc and molybendum as that in GMO corn, the latter of which comprises 88% of the US market. The numbers are staggering, both for their direct impact on our bodies, and for their larger impact on global food sustainability.

I'll end this post with the other quote I debated using 'up top'. It is by British renaissance man Jacob Bronowski - a mathematician, science historian, author, poet and inventor. He is best remembered for his 1973 book, The Ascent of Man - about the rise of humans from pre-history through modern times. His BBC version of the book is considered one of the 100 world's best television programs by the British Film Institute. Says Bronowski:

"You will die, but the carbon will not; its career does not end with you. It will return to the soil, and there a plant may take it up again in time, sending it once more on a cycle of plant and animal life."

We have a chance of finding solutions to our own species' survival; but it will only come from being committed to practices that have sustained the Earth for the half-billion years that complex animals have existed here; practices that put the survival of the species above the gain of the individual, whether that individual is tending the Earth or reporting to its stockholders.

Week 14: Enzymes and Food - Foundational Health

Enzymes are substances which make life possible. They are needed for every chemical reaction that occurs in our body. When it gets to the point that you can't make certain enzymes, then your life ends.

This macabre statement is an excerpt from a long interview with Dr. Edward Howell, who is considered one of America's pioneering biochemists and nutrition researchers. While his colleagues were studying vitamins and minerals, Dr. Howell spent his 50-year career strictly researching enzymes, identifying them via analogy - as early as the 1930's - as the body's 'work force'. In his words, 'You may have all the necessary building materials and lumber [his analogy for the vitamins and minerals that his colleagues were studying], but to build a house with them you need workers.' The results of his research, much of which still frames the scientific community's understanding of enzymes today, was the field of enzyme therapy

But just what are these tiny construction workers, and why haven't we heard more about them? If they're so central to life, why isn't everyone talking about them?

First, we will look briefly at how modern medical science has judged Dr. Howell's research, before getting into 'enzyme basics', including where prevailing nutritional dogma is split over his ultimate conclusion.

Encyclopedia.com's defines enzyme therapy as 'a plan of dietary supplements of plant and animal enzymes used to facilitate the digestive process and improve the body's ability to maintain balanced metabolism.'  It goes on to say that in traditional medicine, enzyme supplements are often prescribed for patients suffering from digestion-related diseases, such as celiac disease, Gaucher's disease, diabetes and cystic fibrosis. If you have any of these, there's a good chance your doctor has prescribed supplements. However, the entry then lists twenty-seven other ailments that 'can be treated by enzyme therapy', from AIDS to obesity to colitis to cancer to hepatitis to gastritis. Beyond ailments of the digestive system, the efficacy of enzyme therapy to the other modern ailments that proliferate today - like cancer, obesity, heart disease, food allergies and autoimmune diseases - are a hotly debated topic between thoroughly western practitioners, who largely favor the drug-and-technology approach of 'evidence-based medicine', and their eastern holistic counterparts, who favor a systemic approach that includes your psychological state, millennia of pre-modern medicine, use of Nature's own resources and a dose of modern science. The only thing that these two often mutually disparaging camps can agree on is that enzymes catalyze every single one of your body's biological functions, and without them, we could not live. 

But we've entered Act IV's battle without introducing its warriors - the enzymes themselves. 

Dr. Joseph Mercola, MD is a controversial character: his website garners as many new visitors per month (nearly 2 million) as that of the National Institutes of Health. He promotes alternative medicine therapies, and has been criticized and disparaged by business, regulatory and scientific communities across the board. He and another holist, Dr. Andrew Weil - more than any other American practitioners - provide a rare and powerful counter-perspective to the entrenched promotion of 'Big Pharma', and because of that alone, their research and advice are worth considering, if we value a broad perspective with respect to achieving optimal health. On both sides, as with anything, we must always separate efficacy from marketing, because politics or not, the body doesn't care who makes money. To that end, Dr. Mercola has an excellent primer on enzymes that is worth reading in full - linked here. Toward the end of his post, he draws conclusions about enzymes and health that are debated and debatable. But the information is excellent regardless, and I'll discuss some of the salient points below.

As mentioned earlier, enzymes are central to every one of the body's processes. Enzymes are first and foremost catalysts, spurring the processes that build raw materials, circulate nutrients, remove toxins, produce energy, break down fats, regulate hormones and slow down aging. There are three types: the first two, digestive and metabolic enzymes, are produced by the body (mostly in the pancreas, but also in the mouth and small intestine) to catalyze the processes within each system. Digestive enzymes break down food into nutrients your body can use, and metabolic enzymes run your metabolism, which is to say, your entire body, since these include your circulatory, cardiac, endocrine, neurologic, renal, lymphatic, hepatic and reproductive systems, in addition to your skin, bones, joints and muscle tissue. Put simply, enzymes are the work force that allows nutrients to reach their target, and to maintain the overall functionality of your body's systems. It's appropriate to mention here that Dr. Howell's most contentious assertion is that we are born with limited enzyme potential, meaning that we 'use up' the body's enzymes, and that once they are depleted, we cease to exist, because the body cannot function. He posits, therefore, that we must be parsimonious with our use of internal enzymes by relying on external enzymes (from foods, which we will discuss in a moment) to supplement and safeguard our internal supply. The notion of limited enzyme potential has been in no way proven, and is the focus of much passion-driven online ink and scientific debate. The fact is, we don't know. Dr. Howell presents compelling arguments. If you'd like, you can read some of them here (warning: it's on a website that sells supplements). If you want to 'geek out' and read a compelling set of counter-arguments - presented by the website 'beyond vegetarianism' - you can do so here. They, like many others, refute Howell's 'limited supply' theory and assert that the body produces what we need, without limit, and irrespective of how much we supplement our diets with external enzymes, triggering the other great enzyme debate.

That would be about the third and final type: food enzymes. These are the only enzymes our body does not produce but which we receive from external sources - the foods we eat. All raw plant and animal foods contain enzymes, as we humans do, in order to grow and function. So when we eat foods, we are by default introducing enzymes into our own digestive system. 

But.

There are other factors at play. We've seen in past weeks that some 90% of the foods that make up the average American diet are processed - i.e.: altered from their raw, natural state. Enzymes, as central as they are, are extremely fragile, and as such as prone to being 'denatured' - which means inactivated, and thus useless from a biological point of view. Several things decrease or destroy enzyme content (by which we mean active enzymes) in the foods we eat, with the two prime influences being heat and age.

Heat

Food enzymes are 100% denatured at 118°F (if wet heat) or 150°F (if dry heat). This applies to all foods, since heat is heat. Take one of our favorite subjects: pasteurization. As we discussed in Week 4, the US government strongly recommends this process (states have jurisdiction over regulation) in order to kill potentially harmful pathogens - aka bacteria - notwithstanding the fact that raw milk is naturally anti-microbial. In tests like those described here, when large amounts of pathogens are added to raw milk, it has been shown to kill them on its own. Pasteurization regulation, which requires milk products to be exposed to temperatures exceeding 160°F for 15 seconds, exists - if we are honest - because of the extreme pathogen-rich environment of industrial cattle factories, called CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), where bacterial risks to cattle and human alike are rampant. Because of the festering conditions in which CAFO's raise and process beef, cattle are administered staggering amounts - 29 million pounds in 2009 alone - of antibiotics. This is a problem for two reasons: first, antibiotics denature enzymes. Second, and even more troubling, antibiotics wreak havoc on your gut's micro-biome. Your gut, as we'll discuss more below, is comprised of 100 trillion bacteria that control both your immune system (90% of which lives in your gut) and your overall health, via the nutrients that are released there and sent to your body's organs. For that reason more than any, we recommend that if you're going to eat red meat, you do so from animals that were raised hormone- and antibiotic-free (aka organic), and grass-fed (aka pastrure-raised). Not only are enzymes preserved, and risks lower, but nutrient content is far higher.

Beyond enzymes, no less than the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) wrote a paper on CAFOs, and on page 13 they state that people who live near them - to say nothing of the cattle inside of them - are subject to high risk of respiratory irritants, chronic lung disease, chemical burns to eyes, nose, throat and skin, olfactory neuron loss, bronchitis and even death. To say it again, pasteurization does not exist because raw milk is harmful, since most - if not all - raw milk enterprises pasture their animals - meaning, they graze outside on grass, in low densities and healthy physical environments, and thus the pathogens that pasteurization is supposed to mitigate are simply not present, enough to overcome dairy's own anti-microbial defenses. The regulations simply exist to mitigate the risk of raw milk produced in CAFOs that can be easily contaminated in these horrific environments. Thus most Americans are deprived from dairy in its most nutritious form, while in Europe, one can buy it in a vending machine, underlining starkly the preposterousness of the American position. Worse still, studies show that the majority of the 65% among us who have become lactose-sensitive or intolerant - over the past 50 years alone - have become that way because by pasteurizing and homogenizing dairy, we have killed enzymes like lactase that allow us to break down milk's lactose (sugars). In fact, the non-profit Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) conducted a survey in 2007 and found that among Michigan residents who had been diagnosed with lactose intolerance, 82% stated they could drink raw milk without a problem. Adding to the issue, the calcium in pasteurized milk is rendered insoluble by the fact that the enzyme phosphatase, which aids the absorption of calcium into our bones, is also denatured with heat. Further still, the lipase in raw milk that exists to help break down its fats is, like every other enzyme, deactivated with heat. And all this is to say nothing of pasteurization's effect on vitamin and mineral content in milk. For some reason, this article boasts that 'only' 20% of vitamins and minerals are lost through pasteurization. It goes on to add that the removal of milk's fat (i.e.: low- or no-fat) also leads to a loss of most or all of its vitamin A and D. Ah, well. We've used milk as an example of heat's impact on enzymes. The same holds true of all commonly pasteurized products: fruit juices, all dairy, vinegar, eggs, and almonds. Many of these are available in non-pasteurized versions. Needless to say, for reasons explained, we highly recommend you opt for the latter. Lastly, it is not only enzymes that suffer; vitamins A, B-complex (except B3), C, D and E are all diminished, or eliminated, by heat. 

But enough about dairy and pasteurization.

Digestive Enzymes

Digestion is initiated in the mouth, where a combination of food enzymes and salivary enzymes amylase and lipase initiate the process of digestion, on carbohydrates and fats, respectively. Once this pre-digested food enters our stomachs, hydrochloric acid catalyzes other enzymes, like pepsin, which begins the digestion of proteins. 1-2 hours later, food passes through the duodenum, which sits between our stomachs and our small intestines, where a flurry of enzymes of all types - protease (proteins), amylase (carbs) and lipase (fats) - that are produced in the pancreas mix with the digestive food slurry. The small intestine - which is alkaline - produces 90% of digestion, according to Dr. Mercola, and is where foods' 'micro-nutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream through millions of tiny villi in the wall of your gut'

Copyright FFFL

Copyright FFFL

Raw Foods

I mentioned enzymes are present only in raw foods. As we've seen, heat denatures / deactivates enzymes. This includes cooking, and is one reason some health professionals champion a raw food diet. They assert that raw foods are enzyme-rich, and consuming them decreases your body's burden to produce its own. Central to the argument is the fact that as we've seen, enzymes are used for every metabolic function in the body. When our enzymes are not being used to digest food, they are being applied toward other metabolic processes, like flushing toxins, repairing skin, bones and tissue, catalyzing the brain's activity, etc. etc. etc. Thus, as the theory goes, consuming enzymes externally, from raw foods or enzyme supplements, allows our bodies' own internal enzymes to 'build our house' and keep it clean - to borrow Dr. Howell's analogy. That is to say, the more enzymes you consume externally, the more you body's own enzymes can focus on repairing and maintaining itself, instead of digesting foods. Enzyme supplements, it should be noted, are often encapsulated in an enteric coating, which is a polymer that is immune to the stomach's acids, but releases them in the alkaline small intestine, where the majority of digestion occurs. So if you take them, make sure they are enteric-coated. Another area of concern is the universally accepted fact that enzyme production diminshes with age. This is due to the fact that the organs that produce enzymes age, the same way the rest of you does, and with it, their capacity for production. A good explanation on aging and enzyme production can be found here. Thus, as the enzymes' efficacy diminishes, a vicious cycle of aging acceleration occurs, since enzymes are key to the maintenance of our bodies' systems. If they can't do their job, the health of our systems declines, in a downward spiral. This line of thinking is consistent with the quote with which we began this post: 'when your body can no longer produce enzymes, then your life ends'. If so, then the addition of digestive enzymes gains an added importance as we age - as both a supplement and a prophylactic - as our own bodies begin to lose their ability to produce them naturally. Enzyme production peaks - and starts to diminish... at the tender age of 27.

So, science lesson aside, how do I get enzymes from foods?

Even within the world of raw foods, the amount and density of enzymes varies greatly. A good list of foods that are high in enzyme content is included here. Four of them - papayapineapplebananas and avocado - top everyone's list. Interestingly, they are also all tropical fruits. Sprouting is another food process that spurs enzyme content greatly in the host plant. We spoke briefly about sprouting in Week 12. Because of its relevance to this subject, I will re-post some of our own content here:

According to nutrition expert Dr. Mercola, young plant foods - called sprouts or shoots, and commonly referred to as 'raw' or 'living foods' - contain up to 100 times as many enzymes as adult plants, and up to 30 times the density of vitamins and essential fatty acids. Let's repeat that: up to 100 times the enzymes and 30 times the vitamins and fatty acids as the world's otherwise healthiest foods. This is why they are often referred to as miracle foods. In addition, according to Dr. Mercola, the nutrients in sprouts are often more bioavailable than those in adult plants, which means the body can more readily absorb them, instead of simply passing them through your system, unused. 

It's clear for a number of reasons that including sprouts in your diet is a good idea. From an enzyme perspective, it's hard to do better. Sprouted vegetables and grains can be found in farmer's markets around the country and in health food or health-minded groceries everywhere; and are far more varied than the alfalfa-blooming Chia Pet that may come to mind, if you're old enough to remember that fad. My own shopping cart regularly includes sprouted radish, pea shoot, broccoli, alfalfa and sunflower. Equally prevalent are sprouted mung beans, clover, wheat grass and lentils. Dr. Mercola has an excellent article on nutrient content in sprouts - and how to grow them yourself, for pennies.

Sprouted, whole-grain breads is another important source of enzymes. As we wrote in Week 8, this resource by the Whole Grains Council allows you to find whole grain breads in a searchable database, either to find good products or to see how the ones you use measure up. In general, we highly recommend replacing wheat breads (i.e.: any flour product) with their less processed counterpart. A good article by Weston A. Price on the effect of modern milling processes can be found here. In it, they discuss modern milling's destruction of a grain's most nutritious parts - the bran and the germ. This high-speed milling also heats the wheat to 400°F in the process, destroying nutrients like vitamin E. Before the advent of modern milling, bread was our most readily available source of vitamin E, according to to the article. By contrast, sprouted grains are especially valuable since beyond comprising whole grains, the act of sprouting lowers their gluten and starch content while preserving valuable enzymes and amino acids. These breads are often referred to as 'live' foods, and can be found easily in national grocery chains, in addition to specialty food shops - sometimes in the freezer section. A good resource that lists and grades sprouted grain-type breads is here

Fermented (Cultured) Foods

In a quasi-exception to the 'raw rule', enzymes are very much present in fermented (or cultured) foods. While these are often raw, they are nonetheless somewhat processed, insofar as they combine source foods to allow a natural catalytic process to induce fermentation. In fact, it is enzymes that cause fermentation, as discovered by German chemist Eduard Buechner, who in addition to being considered the founding father of biochemistry, his discoveries related to enzymes and fermentation won him a 1907 Nobel Prize. 

Fermented foods have the added benefit of being rich in probiotics - that is to say, they help regulate and normalize the micro-flora (aka 'good bacteria') among the 100 trillion (!) that inhabit your gut. It's widely believed - buoyed by strong and pervasive clinical evidence - that probiotic foods ease many of the digestive problems that so many people on enzyme-poor western diets experience. You need look no further than the yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, lassi and pickled cucumbers, beets, relishes and ginger in your supermarket - foods that were central to your grandparents' traditional diets. These fermented or 'live culture' foods are great sources of digestive enzymes, and have been intuitively used for centuries in cultures across the globe to palliate all manner of gastro-intestinal malaise. In fact, there are few traditional cultures where fermented products of some kind are not found. Commonly consumed as far back as Ancient Rome, Emperor Tiberius himself used to carry a barrel of sauerkraut with him on long voyages to the Middle East, since he (like many Romans) knew that the lactic acid it contained protected him from intestinal infections. 

Putting a modern spin on natural, historic fermented foods, now-widely available and hyper-trendy probiotics proliferate the high-end cold-pressed juice market. A daily $12 juice and $2 probiotic shot? Welcome to the world of the one percenters. But it works.

Nuts, Seeds, Grains and Legumes

Now for the bad news. Nuts, seeds and legumes are extremely important and dense sources of plant-based proteins, vitamins and minerals that are often rare in the plant world outside of these food groups. As such, we have encouraged you to include them in your diet in a number of posts. On the flip side, they also all contain significant enzyme inhibitors. As reported by FoodMatters here, enzyme inhibitors 'clog, warp or denature an active site of an enzyme' - not just those in raw foods, but those your body produces. They further explain that grains - rice, corn, bran, wheat and oats, chiefly - contain toxic phytates like phytic acid, which when present combine with calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron and copper to block their absorption, leading to serious mineral deficiencies and bone loss.

In all cases, with the exception of brown rice, soaking these foods neutralizes their enzyme inhibitors and eliminates the phytic acidAn added benefit to soaking, nuts, seeds and grains begin to germinate - that is, sprout - which carries the additional benefits we have already discussed above, increasing their density of vitamins (especially B-complex) and enzymes. Yet another added benefit to soaking is that gluten, to which so many people have a modern intolerance, is partially broken down, and thus easier to tolerate. So while we are used to soaking our oats overnight, and rinsing our rice, the practice of overnight soaking - in warm water - should be applied to the nuts and legumes (like beans) that we consume. The major difference is that in the case of nuts, grains and legumes, an acid like citrus or vinegar should be added to the soaking solution, to neutralize the phytic acid that blocks the body's absorption of minerals. A good Wikihow article on soaking is included here.

Cooking

One of the most controversial aspects of enzyme debate is what role cooked foods do and should play in your diet. It's a fact that enzymes die when heated. But there are other benefits to cooked food, in spite of nutrient density, which is often diminished with heat. Often, cooked foods are easier to digest, since heat is one way of breaking down foods' structure; in the case of bacteria and meats, it's necessary in all but the cleanest of sourcing and preparation techniques, like sushi. But there are other, non-scientific reasons to cook foods. Food, after all, is a culture; it's a social contract. Meals are planned, prepared, shared and savored with friends and family, creating common experiences and bonding us. At FFFL, we personally advocate a balance to pretty much everything, both in our attitudes and in our 'rules', which should be broken often enough not to become unbearable dogma. This includes a large dose of cooked meals - especially at dinner, which is often the most social meal of the day. The point here - always - is to make good choices in your selection and/or preparation of foods, but to eat in a way that is reasonable and realistic, because it'll be easier to maintain a diet if it is straightforward and satiates your palate. But cook healthy: use heart-healthy oils, like coconut (in high heat), olive (in medium or low/no heat), and walnut (without heat). Or use none at all, and steam vegetables, as we do near-nightly (broccoli, romanesco, cauliflower, snap or snow peas, green beans, etc...) We even steam our eggs, since learning that trick from our friends at Cook's Illustrated, here. Use oil in lieu of butter when cooking pasta or fish. Use spices liberally (with the exception of salt), which pack flavor and potent anti-oxidants, are easy to store, and are long-lived. Lastly, don't overcook your meals. Cooking animal products in particular at high heat have been shown to transform the animals' DNA into mutative carcinogenic amines and hydrocarbons, thus increasing your risk of cancer. The National Cancer Institute posted a good article on the subject, here

Packaged Foods

It should go without saying that cooked or not, packaged foods are a major no-no. We've posted in nearly every article about the extreme toll packaged foods take on your body, and so will not repeat the long list of illnesses and the disease that they promote. In Week 2, we introduced the context of Big Food; in Week 3, the modern diet and disease. In Week 7, how our food choices make us sick; in Week 8, food's relationship to a specific illness - cancer; and in Week 11 - GMOs. In all cases, packaged or processed foods are the the root cause of most modern illnesses, as we've discussed heavily. Thus unlike cooked whole foods, which - enzymes aside - can still deliver loads of nutrients, the packaged foods that comprise a staggering 90% of our collective food dollars have no place in our houses or bodies. 

One more censure: the modern food industry is driven by finance, not health; and the fact is that the two exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Nature, on the other hand, is firmly in the camp of health, since we don't just depend on her, our 200,000-year-old biological systems (6 million, if you count our ancestors) exist because of it. 

Luckily, there is a dawning renaissance underway that is focused once again on true health, in spite of the near-monopoly of industrial farming.

Conclusions

Eat a healthy diet full of raw, unprocessed foods for a host of reasons, inclusive of their critical enzymes. Introduce foods that are enzyme-rich into your daily diet, like papaya, banana, avocado and pineapple. They're all full of key nutrients and carry health benefits beyond their enzyme potential. Buy - or make - sprouted vegetables, and make them part of your salads, snacks or garnishes. They're brimming with enzymes, which are naturally produced to protect the young plant. Replace your wheat breads with sprouted-grain breads, which are 'live' and often in the freezer section to preserve their enzymes and vitamins. Include fermented foods in your diet; they're easy to find, and are full of enzymes and enzyme-catalyzed probiotics / live cultures - delivering a boon to your guts, where the majority of digestion occurs, and where 90% of your immune system resides. Soak foods containing enzyme inhibitors: nuts, grains and legumes. And cook! But ensure you strike a dietary balance of raw and cooked foods, favoring the raw (or near-raw) and most minimally processed foods, as enzymes are delicate, prone to denaturing, and as we saw, critical to every facet of human biology. And if for some reason we need to say it again, avoid anything in a box, or with source ingredients you could neither pronounce nor point to in Nature.

Week 13: Phytonutrients - Nature's Unknown Soldiers

Look deep, deep into Nature, and you will then understand everything better.

Our favorite scientist/theoretician/paragon of genius, Albert Einstein, spent no time engaged directly in food or nutrition science, but many of his quotes belied a sensitivity toward - and appreciation for - Nature's unmatched holism. That term - holism - was coined by South African statesman and philosopher Jan Smuts, in his 1927 treatise, 'Holism and Evolution' - which he dashed out during that year's parliamentary recess. It championed a focus on systems rather than parts. The idea of studying isolated components of things has constituted the lingua franca of the scientific community since the onset of the modern scientific method - an attitude that is just now beginning to change in favor of the systemic inter-relationship of things that Smuts and Einstein saw as self-evident. The ur-example is Nature itself. It is utterly impossible to remove one element or aspect of its system without inducing a (usually harmful, often cataclysmic) domino effect, whether that element is a single food nutrient among hundreds, like the enzyme lactase in milk which, once pasteurized, is killed, severely reducing our ability to digest and absorb its lactose (more on this later); or like Yellowstone's wolves - whose 1995 re-introduction has led to the wholesale rejuvenation of not just myriad animal populations but of willow trees and rivers, not to mention everything that depends on them (more on that amazing story here).

Enter the phytonutrient - aka phytochemical.

Most of us now know that we need vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, carbohydrates and even fiber in order to live. [If you're unclear on any of it, we welcome you to read our posts up to this point, starting with Week 1's overview.] But what nutritional science is just beginning to understand is that while these substances are indeed our bodies' fuel, it is another entire category of sub-nutrient that may be the glue that holds everything together, and catalyzes the processes that allow us to use nutrients. Like the concept of holism, a plant's phytonutrients have a large effect on the conversion, quality, quality, availability and rate at which its nutrients are absorbed by (i.e.: of value to) our bodies and brains. In fact, there are so many phytonutrients that are unknown or continually being discovered, now that the scientific community is focused on it, that no one can agree on just how many there are out there; Google it, and you'll find quotes from 4,000 to 100,000 and beyond.

So what are they? They are a meta-category of chemical compounds that plants have evolved to protect themselves from everything from insects to germs, fungi and UV radiation. We also know that plants have roughly 64 times as many phytonutrients as the animals we eat, according to nutritionfacts.org. Studies, like the 12-year study completed in 2013 by the Universidad de Barcelona and published in the Journal of Nutrition, showed that diets high in polyphenols - the largest category of phytonutrients - led to a 30% reduction in mortality in older adults. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, those polyphenols - which were largely unknown before 1995 - strongly support the prevention of degenerative diseases, like cardiovascular disease and cancer. AJCN goes on to say that the antioxidant capacity of polyphenols dwarfs that of conventional antioxidants like Vitamin C and Vitamin E - by ten times and one hundred times, respectively. Moreover, antioxidants catalyze the conversion/production of the vitamins into forms our bodies can use, like beta-carotene in carrots into vitamin A (more on that later). 

Confused by terms like polyphenols, phytonutrients and antioxidants? We haven't yet mentioned enzymes, phytosterols, carotenoids and glucosinolates. And those are just categories. There are sub-categories, like organosulfurs, flavonoids, curcuminoids, lignans, xanthophylls and tannins (you've heard of that one - red wine!), to name just six. And then there are the chemicals themselves, which are too numerous to list.

Before you stop reading, we've gone ahead and created a graph in an attempt to demystify - both for you and for ourselves - the world of phytonutrients. This list is in no way exhaustive; it's simply meant to help you understand how the 'tree' of nutrients relates to the whole, what the categories are, what each one does - health-wise, and which (common) foods contain them.

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You can also direct download a larger copy of the chart here

In it, we've focused on the antioxidant category - at center image in dark blue, and expanded it below, in green, purple and orange. Antioxidants are both the most largest and most important phytochemical class with regard to physical health. The other four categories (flanking the antioxidants), while extremely important, are relatively simple to explain, in brief: 

  • Enzymes serve to break down foods into nutrients, thereby improving our absorption of them. Nutritional scientists refer to enzymes as pre-digestive, because they begin to dissolve foods before the saliva in our mouths - produced by chewing - begins its own process as foods pass through on their way to our digestive tracts. As mentioned earlier, pasteurization deactivates all enzymes. This begins at 120F and is absolute at 160F - the legally required temperature by the Food and Drug Administration. Pasteurization - regulated since the 1950's, is why 65% of the population is suddenly lactose intolerant, according to Dr. Mercola, because the heating process kills the enzyme lactase in milk (and every other enzyme), whose job is to aid in the digestion of the nutrient lactose. Studies have shown lactose-intolerant people who consume raw milk products - as we reported in the second half of Week 4's post - can tolerate them without adverse effect.) A good article on why enzymes are important can be found here. It's also worth mentioning here that pasteurization has additional negative impact on the nutrient most people drink milk for in the first place: its calcium. Pasteurization renders insoluble the vast majority of the calcium milk contains. Meaning, the calcium in pasteurized milk passes through you, unabsorbed. This is a good example of what we mean when we talk about the interaction between nutrients, and the need for understanding foods holistically before we begin selectively re-engineering them.
  • Natural Acids are what gives foods their distinctive (and often strong) flavor, like the citric acid in lemons. Many are termed 'wholesome', and while they offer no direct health benefit, they are harmless; others are considered 'unwholesome', like the oxalic acid in dark, leafy greens. Overwhelmingly, the body can handle and dispose of them harmlessly. Occasionally, people do have sensitivity, such as those with kidney or gallbladder problems, in which case foods with 'unwholesome' acids should be limited. More info on Natural Acids can be found here.
  • Phytosterols inhibit the absorption of cholesterol. Thus people with diets high in phytosterols experienced lowered LDL (aka 'bad' cholesterol) levels, thereby reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease. A great overview on phytosterols can be read here. Phytosterols are predominantly found in wheat germ and vegetable oils.
  • Non-digestible Carbohydrates is a fancy term for what we call fiber. They are the 'insoluble' fibers of vegetables and fruit that give them shape - their structure, simply put. When ingested, these non-nutritive fibers pass through the body unabsorbed, while the vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and phytonutrients they carry are absorbed. The major benefit of 'getting fiber in your diet' - by which we mean these non-digestive carbohydrates - is that they improve digestion and 'regularity' - and provide the added benefit of whisking along ingested toxins, thereby minimizing their contact with, and absorption by, the body. In addition, these 'prebiotic' foods play a role in gut health, lower body weight and lower cardiovascular disease. More on NDCs here.

Which brings us to the main category of this post - the buzziest of buzz words today: antioxidants. We reviewed these in brief in our last post, insofar as dark, leafy greens are one of the greatest sources for these - and many other - nutrients. As we mentioned then, the blogger Sophia Breene said beautifully in this article that antioxidants are not so much a substance as a behavior. As the name suggests, they reduce oxidation - called oxidative stress - of the various molecules inside your body. This is important because rampant oxidative stress creates 'free radicals' - those unstable cells that cause damage to you on a cellular level: your DNA, your proteins and your lipids. [We explained the molecular basis of free radical creation in our last post here.] As we said then, these free radicals are thought to be major contributors to a raft of modern disease, including cancerAlzheimer'sheart disease, stroke, Parkinson's, fibromyalgia, diabetes, agingcognitive declinemacular degeneration and ALS. Because of this, antioxidant phytochemicals - the largest and most important group, and one that only over the past 20 years has begun to be studied by scientists in earnest - are getting a lot of attention. So let's examine them.

As we mentioned, our graphic is incomplete. There are many major groups of phytochemicals, a (reasonably) full listing of which can be found here. We have chosen to include 3 of those in our chart, because they comprise the area of greatest study, and therefore nutritional value to you, through the food choices you make, insofar as looking to benefit from what the international nutritional science community has discovered. These include Glucosinolates, Polyphenols, and Carotenoids. Chemicals in all three categories provide significant antioxidant benefits. We will look here at what makes each group unique.

  • Glucosinolates: these sulfur-based compounds occur in two groups: organosulfurs and indoles. The former is found mostly in the alluvium family (onions, garlic, leeks, chives...) while the latter is found in brassicae (aka cruciferous vegetables) like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, bok choy, cauliflower and others. All of these vegetables... well... stink. That's the glucosinolates. What they do is directly inhibit cancer cell growth, as well as directly kill cancer cells, by forcing their apoptosis. You see, all cells are programmed to die (apoptosis); cancer cells are great at avoiding that (i.e.: staying alive). Glucosinolates suppress carcinogenesis (the creation of cancer cells) 'in vivo' - meaning in live subjects - and have been shown to induce apoptosis (normal cell death) in cancer cells 'in vitro' - meaning in laboratories. I've include just one study - from 2003 by the NCBI - here. The research paper goes on to conclude that 'Brassica vegetables can exert a profound effect on the balance of colorectal cell proliferation and death in an animal model of colorectal neoplasia [aka uncontrolled growth of tumors or lesions]'. A diet, therefore, that includes daily intake of glucosinates like those listed above, has been shown in study after study to have an anti-carcinogenic effect on your body, to say nothing of the density of vitamins, minerals and other antioxidants they contain.
  • Carotenoids: these are what gives fruits and vegetables their orange, red or yellow color, as in papaya, carrots and mangoes, which are high in alpha-carotene; or, in the case of some vegetables, the green in chlorophyll may visually mask underlying carotenoids, such as in kale, spinach and chard, which are high in beta-carotene. There are two types of carotenoids: carotenes, like the alpha- and beta- ones mentioned; and xanthophylls, which are found predominantly in marine life, like shrimp, lobster, crabs and salmon, but are also present in red/yellow/orange vegetables and fruits. Xanthophlls include lutein, zeaxanthin, both of which are found in high quantity in the eye's macula. All carotenoids contribute to skin and eye health, while beta-carotene in particular has been associated with lower risk of macular degeneration, glaucoma, formation of cataracts, macular edema and other eye diseases. As far as xanthophylls go, this article by Dr. Mercola focuses on astaxanthin, which gives salmon its pink color. Dr. Mercola calls this 'the most powerful antioxidant' when it comes to free radical scavenging, 65 times more powerful than vitamin C, 54 times more than beta-carotene, and 14 times more than vitamin E. He especially advises older people to consume salmon (to which I'll add the qualifiers wild and Alaskan, for their low mercury and high omega-3 fatty acids...) because the elderly are at greatly increased risk of eye diseases. 
  • Polyphenols: I've saved this category for last, because it's the largest, with over 8,000 compounds, and the most complex. its six sub-classes - flavonoids (the largest, by far), lignans, isoflavones, curcuminoids, stillbenoids and tannins - all exhibit antioxidant qualities, but what each group does for human health is quite distinct. Our chart begins to break down the key benefits and foods each group confers. But perhaps THE key benefit is that high-polyphenolic foods are strongly anti-inflammatory as well as being anti-oxidative. As we've discussed in several posts, chronic inflammation is an environment of ill-health in which the body is in a constant state of aroused defense, using up nutrients and immune functions in an attempt to restore balance. Stress and lack of exercise are part of the cause; but diet is a major contributor, as well. Chronic inflammation has been directly linked to many cancers, Alzheimer's and heart disease. it is also considered largely a modern, diet-induced condition, because processed foods comprise 67% of our dietary calories, according to AJCN, and 90% of our food dollars, according to Eric Schlosser. Polyphenols - and more than any other group, the flavonoids - promote an anti-inflammatory response when ingested in sufficient quantity and variety, by 'blocking the messaging molecules that promote inflammation'. On the flip side, a reduction in the intake of inflammatory foods - processed anything, pasteurized dairy and red meat - aids the body in returning to a state of repose, i.e.: non-inflammation. Thus you should both increase your consumption of anti-inflammatory foods and decrease your consumption of inflammatory foods.

So what foods are high in polyphenols? It would be as knee-jerk as it is somewhat accurate to say 'all plant foods', since the production of poly-phenolic compounds is a byproduct of plants' efforts to protect themselves from both the ultraviolet component of the sun that feeds them and the predators that try to consume them. Thus a comprehensive discussion about foods and polyphenols is nearly impossible, and totally impractical. What we can do is focus on foods we typically consume, or can/should consume, and the polyphenols that make them valuable.

Flavonoids - the biggest polyphenol category, with over 6,000 compounds - are found in a giant cross-section of foods that by any other measurement have little to do with one another, from dark blue and purple foods, like beets, blueberries, purple carrots/corn, red berries, to white foods like bananas, celery, onions and quinoa; to green foods like parsley, turnip greens, lettuces and cabbage; and the list goes on.

Tea

The single largest source of flavonoid intake among Americans is via brewed black tea, according to both World's Healthiest Foods and the USDA's own research. If you do the math based on the USDA's numbers, (predominantly black) tea comprises 75% of all flavonoid intake among Americans. Tea's key flavonoids are called catechins, which are by far of greatest nutritional value in (high-quality) Japanese matcha. Matcha sellers will tell you that their product has shown to have 137x the EGCG (epigallocatechin) content (EGCG is considered the key health-promoting flavonoid in tea) as that of regular green tea. That comparison came from the University of Colorado, comparing matcha to Starbucks' Tazo tea; The reality is that matcha has approximately three times the EGCG content of regular green tea. Black tea, and every other source of catechins, drops off precipitously from there. According to UC Davis' research, 'regular' green tea has on average 5x the EGCG content of black tea, 4x the epicatechin content, and 2x the catechin content - all 3 flavonoids that create its value. So drink green tea in place of black tea, and seek out high-quality matcha if you can afford it; quality matcha is expensive, though it carries many other health benefits, as we reviewed at the very bottom of last week's post. A word of caution: like anything, the quality of matcha varies greatly. That shot in your Starbucks latte may come from a cheap producer in China, and as such the health boost you seek from it may not bear out. This web link provides some good rules of thumb when choosing matcha. 

Spices

But when it comes to antioxidant and poly-phenolic food, tea in general ranks far lower than many other foods, and as such should only be thought of as part of a healthy diet. The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (EJCN) lists here the 100 foods highest in polyphenols. Tea of any kind hovers around the #50 mark. The same chart also lists, by number, the foods highest in antioxidant activity. Interestingly, dried spices - led by the #1 antioxidant and #1 poly-phenolic food - cloves - are major contributors to both. In fact, cloves, peppermint, star anise, oregano, celery seed, sage, rosemary, spearmint and thyme all make the top 15 polyphenols on their list, in order. We, as do many health experts, encourage the use of spices in your meal preparation, from oregano in your pasta sauce to cinnamon on your morning blueberries, to curries in your cooked vegetable dishes. Last week we shared a quirky video by Dr. Michael Greger - a bit of a media star insofar as antioxidant health. We'll include it again here, because he shows how easy it is to up your antioxidant content with things you already eat. As the world's greatest antioxidant, cloves can be added to soups, teas, ciders or desserts; while the world's greatest anti-inflammatory, turmeric, can easily be incorporated into a variety of cooked meals. We often think of dried foods as being less 'live' or 'fresh', and therefore of lesser value. But teas and spices - essentially desiccated and often pulverized plants - often offer concentrated forms of these key nutrients. In fact, table 5 on the USDA's flavonoid intake chart here shows that dried parsley contains sixty times the density of flavones over raw parsley. So spice it up!

Berries

That's not to ignore fresh produce. Five berries - chokeberries, elderberries, 2 types of blueberry and black currants - all make EJCN's 'top 20' polyphenolic foods list. Unlike the catechins in brewed tea, flavonoids are especially delicate with regard to heat, and thus should be consumed raw, according to WHFoods. Blueberries are the largest source of anthocyanins (the blue- and purple-granting flavonoid in berries, purple carrots and purple corn, to name three) consumed by the American public. Blueberries are of particular interest not just because people already consume them, or because they're readily available everywhere, but because beyond the anthocyanins, blueberries contain fifteen distinct antioxidant phytonutrients, making them a 'whole body' antioxidant. WHFoods goes into detail here about blueberries benefit to your cardiovascular system, cognition, blood sugar, eyes, and of course, cancer. NCBI conducted a study testing the effect freezing berries (raspberries, in this case) has on their antioxidant phytochemicals. This is important, because frozen berries, which are cheaper and widely available in supermarket freezers, are often picked at peak harvest, then flash frozen, while fresh berries are often picked pre-peak, to improve their resistance to being pulverized in the long journey from field to supermarket. NCBI found that freezing had no effect on the overall antioxidant capacity of fruits. Buying frozen fruit has the added benefit of longevity. Fresh berries must be consumed within days of purchase before becoming mealy; whereas frozen fruit is easy enough to throw into smoothies - something I do daily. In either form, berries are a great form of antioxidant, along with other vitamins, a few minerals, and dietary fiber. Trailing the 'super-berries' but also making the top 50 on EJCN's list were plums, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries (the lowest fruit in sugar), prunes, black grapes and apples - in that order.

Other polyphenols worth mention? The sub-classes lignans and isoflavones both affect our hormonal health systems. Lignans, which are nearly unique to flaxseeds, help regulate hormone levels, having been shown to help menopausal symptoms in women. For men, they have been shown to lower DHT levels, improving prostate health. 

Isoflavones, soy, phytoestrogen and endochrine disruption

This is a MAJOR area of concern. The polyphenol category of isoflavones is most readily found, and concentrated, in soybeans, which have been touted by pseudo-studies to hinder cancer cell growth by mimicking estrogen, reputedly lowering risk of breast cancer in women and again improving prostate health for men. This is due to the very real fact that they are phytoestrogens - i.e. plant-based estrogens, which also makes them endochrine disruptors. Endochrine disruptors are chemicals that, at certain doses, interfere with the hormone (endochrine) systems of animals and humans. This is of great concern because of the ever-increasing production of soy products in the US.

Soy production is second only to corn in the United States, comprising 8% of all US farmland - or 3 billion bushels - which is 35% of all worldwide production. Soy is consumed in many forms: infant formula; dairy alternatives like soy milk, soy spreads and soy creamers; tofu; soy protein isolate (in 'health' and 'workout' drinks, energy bars and cereals); and fresh, in soybean form (edamame). There is so much soy being farmed, that - like corn - the industrial agro-giants are scrambling to 'add value' to foods by including cheap, plentiful soy. Today, 31% of Americans consume soy products once or more per week - which is a 50% increase over just five years ago. For all the documented benefits of plant protein over that from animals, which bears out in the research, increasing research into the area seems to point out a wide disparity on the purportedly beneficial link between soy intake to breast cancer. The benefit seems to differ widely according to race, with largely no benefit among studies of Caucasians, and much more consistent benefits reported in studies of Asians, who have been consuming soy for 5,000 years. NCBI goes into depth on global studies here, under bullet point 5. Worse still, as an endochrine disruptor, scientists frankly have no idea - and wildly conflicting research results - as to what the increased consumption of soy will do to our hormone (endochrine) systems. Over 35% of bottle-fed newborns receive some of their protein from soy, according to a cautionary Men's Health article here. In doses we have yet to identify, soy consumption has the ability to disrupt our hormonal balance. Just look to retired US Army Intelligence officer James Price, who upon drinking a whopping 3 quarts of soy milk a day, developed breasts, experienced major hair loss, reduced sexual desire (and abilities) and mood swings. And while James' intake is admittedly far higher than normal, he eats other foods, whereas newborns - whose futures have yet to be studied, given the relative novelty of soy today - consume 100% of their nutrients via formula. Scientists are concerned that they don't know what long-term effects on hormonal (reproductive) systems soy-rearing will have on them. At the root of the issue is the fact that we don't know the acceptable level of phytoestrogen in our diets that will not trigger endochrine havoc. What we do know is that the FDA is to 'thank' for the uptick in soy consmption, which increased dramatically when they approved a health claim linking soy consumption to a reduction in heart disease. You can see the data here

In the end, as with everything, it is a matter of threshold. We are not telling you to avoid soy. It's somewhat impractical anyhow, given its market saturation. We are cautioning against jumping on the band wagon of the latest trend, where soy is thought of as a simple switch from cow's milk. We question the value of both, and caution you to consume either in small amounts, for reasons we've explored in depth with respect to dairy, and now discussed here insofar as soy is concerned.

So what to take away from all this?

Phytonutrients abound in the plant kingdom - 64 times as common as in the animal kingdom. Phytonutrients are an invaluable source of antioxidants, which keep your cells, DNA, lipids and proteins healthy and on track. They kill cancer cells, and prevent the formation of new ones. They confer all manner of health benefits, from skin health to eye health to cardiovascular support to nutrient absorption (bio-availability) to the people who consume them. And the sheer number of phytonutrients - likely over 100,000, with more being discovered every day - makes it important to consume a broad variety of fruits and vegetables in order to capture as wide a cross-section of benefit as is practical. 'Eat your colors', as the adage goes. Phytonutrients are the reason that statement (intuitively) exists, because they are the chemicals that create the color in our foods. Humans are complex systems that science is just beginning to understand. We evolved from and with Nature, because of it, and if Nature couldn't provide us with adequate nutrition to flourish for the millennia we have roamed the Earth before taking agricultural root just 10,000 years ago, we would simply not exist.

I created this website because we no longer produce our own foods, and now rely on companies with shareholders, profit-centered motivation, sophisticated marketing budgets and back-pocket politicians who create legal policy around issues of food production and consumption. In this context, most of us really don't understand food anymore, or exert much control over our intake of it, in the face of the ubiquity of unhealthy choices. It is therefore extremely important that we understand the nutritional profile of whole, plant-based foods as best as we can - foods that feed from the same root nutrients that we do, against the context of manufactured, industrial food-like products that isolate components of foods, alter and recombine them radically, and tell us they are as healthy as - or healthier than - the things that Nature grows. If there's a take-away from this week's post, it is that Nature - of which we are a constituent part - is holistic, while science and commerce are decidedly compartmentalized. And we are gambling with our own - and our families' - health.

So drink green tea - matcha if you can afford it; eat your colors - the whole rainbow of fruits and vegetables; include spices in your food preparation - they're cheap, long-lasting and phytonutrient-dense; base your diet on plant-based foods (that said, eat wild Alaskan salmon at least once weekly); avoid packaged foods that take a Frankensteinian approach to nutrition; avoid over-relying on any one category of food, since doing so can throw your system's balance off - like that of soy; and follow the sun, like the plants - not the balance sheet, like the industry.

Week 12: Greens - Everything you don't know

Our bodies are our gardens - our wills are our gardeners.

The author of this statement - none other than William Shakespeare - was one of the world's greatest stewards of language and western culture. While certainly not known as a nutritionist, he has nonetheless created two powerful metaphors in a single sentence, linking us decisively to the Nature from which we were created at the same time as admonishing us that our health is determined by how well we honor that relationship.

When we think of 'greens', most of us think of listless leaves of a vague sickly hue that taste like cardboard and are as exciting as the slow-moving herbivores who eat them, like rabbits, cows, goats and manatees. By contrast, it is the carnivores that we find most potent: lions, crocodiles, wolves and sharks, to name a few. After all, these are the flesh-devouring animals who hunt, kill and dominate the animal kingdom - and to whose 'winningness' we aspire, whether tackling a spreadsheet, kicking a ball through posts or watching an actor avenge someone's honor, guns blazing. 

In short, few of us aspire to the role of the quiet gardener, preferring instead the (d)elusive dream of the triumphant gladiator. Except that in the world of nutrition, this basic misconception about fortitude can be quite literally deadly. We have posted here week after week about ever-increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, all of which are caused, improved or exacerbated - in large part - by our modern, industrial, western diet. In Week 2 we dipped our toe into the murky waters of the food industry, using the heavily misleading, industry-friendly food pyramid to help you separate business enterprise from truth. Week 3 provided an overview of our modern diet and its relationship to disease; Week 4 parsed food words, focusing on those which are actually healthy from those which are designed to sound healthy but in truth are not. In Week 5 we explained the dangers of dieting. In Week 7 we 'saw the enemy', and it was us, due to our ever-decreasing expenditure on food. In Week 8, we addressed diet's relationship to cancer directly. And we will continue to explore the relationship of diet to health until we have exhausted every angle of this extremely complex - and incredibly contentious - subject. 

This week, we aim to get back to foundations. In the case of human diet, from our earliest days as foragers, that foundation was - and should ever be - that which blankets the Earth's surface more than any other substance: plants; and in particular, green, leafy plants.

Part of the problem is our narrow definition of the word. 'Greens' - which are not a food group, or even a color, so much as a visual categorization of leafy vegetables - are more varied than any other food group, in terms of composition, flavor and nutritional value. In fact, 'greens' - or leaf vegetables - are the single most varied and plentiful food source on Earth. This Wikipedia listing alone tabulates over 400 edible leaf vegetables, many of which are neither leafy nor green, like Brussels Sprouts (spheroid), Cauliflower (white) and Radicchio (red-purple), to name just three. And while you cannot find all 400 of them easily in the US, dozens of the healthiest among them are available at every supermarket, every farmer's market and every specialty storeYou simply need to understand what to buy, and why. And once you've mastered the basics, you can branch out to more exotic flora, where things get really interesting, as we will discuss below.

The ABCs of Greens

  • Let's start with the (near) obvious. Green leafy vegetables are full of vitamins, which maintain healthy cell tissue and organs, and minerals, which fuel the bio-chemical processes of metabolism. Spinach, kale, Swiss chard and collard greens alone each provide the body with over 20 of these key nutrients, with spinach topping the list. Ounce for ounce, no foods are denser or broader than greens in terms of what the body needs to function properly. But you knew this already, which is why your wise parents always nagged you to eat them.
  • Less obvious, and worth an in-depth explanation, green leafy vegetables are full of antioxidants that - as put beautifully by Sophia Breene in this article - are not so much a substance as a behavior. Perhaps unbeknownst to you, our bodies' cells need an even numbers of electrons in order to be considered stable (inert). When they don't, they behave erratically and steal electrons from adjacent cells, which in turn become unstable and rob yet others, causing a chain reaction of 'free radicals' (cells with unpaired electrons) that quickly cause cellular damage called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress degrades and 'ages' your body's proteins, DNA and lipids, which have been shown in studies to catalyze or exacerbate most modern diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson's, fibromyalgia, diabetes, aging, cognitive decline, and macular degeneration. Vitamins C and E are the body's chief source of water-soluble and fat-soluble antioxidants, respectively. Antioxidants are self-stable molecules that roam the body, donating electrons to unstable molecules without impact to themselves, thereby ending the free radical chain reaction. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, bok choy, parsley and turnip greens - in descending order - all provide between 135% and 50% of your DRI (daily recommended intake) of vitamin C, while beet- mustard- and collard greens follow close behind. Only bell peppers, papayas and guavas rank higher. In terms of vitamin E, spinach, Swiss chard, turnip- beet- and mustard greens all provide, in descending order, between 25% and 17% of your DRI - second only to almonds and sunflower seeds. In short, greens are important, commonly available antioxidants that are easy to incorporate into your daily intake.
  • Green leafy vegetables are anti-inflammatory. If antioxidants roam the body preventing cellular damage, then anti-inflammatories keep your body's own immune system from overtaxing itself, due to chronic inflammation. 'Regular' inflammation is the cornerstone of the body's own defense system, which targets infected sites and sends additional nourishment and immune activity to its rescue. Think of inflammation as a SWAT team. But chronic inflammation is different. All soldiers need rest. If you keep pushing them without down time, eventually they collapse, and things break down. In the case of your body, chronic inflammation is not a localized immune response: it is instead an environment of ill-health in which the body is denied its 'pause', and is therefore in a constant state of aroused defense. Stress and lack of exercise are part of the cause; but diet is a major contributor, as well. Chronic inflammation has been directly linked to many cancers, Alzheimer's and heart disease. As we reported in the second part of Week 3's post, our ancestral, pre-modern diet comprised a balance of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and pro-inflammatory omega-6's - a 1:1 ratio. Today, the typical western diet is tremendously pro-inflammatory, skewing the ratio to a staggering 25:1 in favor of omega-6's. This difference is the primary cause of the spike in chronic inflammation over the past half-century and the ensuing raft of modern diseases. The food culprits that cause unchecked inflammation? In descending order, they are: sugars, common cooking oils (in commercially prepared foods), trans fats (same), dairy, red meat, feedlot-raised meat (red or otherwise), refined grains (anything flour-based) and artificial food additives (in nearly every processed food). You can read more detail about each one here. And green leafy vegetables? They are the base of the anti-inflammatory food pyramid, as beautifully illustrated by wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil, here. While nuts (esp. walnuts) and cold water fish are omega-3 royalty, green leafy vegetables are no slouches, with Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, collard greens, spinach and kale offering healthy omega-3's in addition to everything else they do.  

What is in a name?

Unfortunately, our problems extend beyond the simple choice of plant foods over industrial products. Even those among us who want to eat healthy food, and who do their best to reach for a salad over a burger, have large knowledge gaps when it comes to the plant world, and so parsing what sounds good (like 'salad') vs. what is good (the actual ingredients behind the name 'salad') is a challenge.

Which brings us to the inexplicable, and unfortunate, story of Iceberg lettuce. Iceberg is the most common leafy green (white, really) consumed in the United States, with each of us eating on average 17 lbs. of it every year, according to Jill Nussinow, a California-based culinary educator and author. It's likely the root cause of many people's perception of salad as being as exhilarating as a manatee. The problem with Iceberg lettuce, which is the foundation of the nutritional disaster called a Caesar's salad, is that it is mostly water, and almost devoid of nutrition. (We'll leave aside the dressing, which is an effective delivery method for adding empty calories, fat, sodium and cholesterol to your diet; not to mention those croutons...) In fact, the difference in nutritional value is so varied among 'greens', that it's worth taking three commonly eaten leaves and comparing them here for you, in detail. The chart below shows the DRI (daily recommended intake) of each vitamin, mineral and other key nutrients present in all three. Percentages show the amount of the average person's DRI that a single 100g serving of leaves provides. The last column shows the number of times higher in each nutrient the spinach is over the iceberg (with common romaine consistently in between the two). The discrepancy between leaves is staggering:

Copyright FFFL

Copyright FFFL

At the root of it (no pun intended), and in every single measurable nutrientspinach contains roughly 2-45 times the concentration of 21 different essential nutrients as iceberg lettuce. You can find a fully detailed comparison here - one you can also customize to compare foods against one another, beyond the greens we have contrasted.

It gets better. The nutrient profile of the plant world's 'it' girl - kale - reaches close (but not quite) to that of spinach; as does nearly unknown but omnipresent Swiss chard; ditto mustard greenscollard greensbok choy and broccoli - all leafy greens and all among the healthiest foods on the planet. Individually, they deliver significant amounts of roughly 40 essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids. The best part? There's so much choice when it comes to vegetables in general, and leafy greens in particular (think thyme, sage, rosemary, mint, parsley, cilantro, basil and oregano, which are common flavor bombs in tiny doses; or perilla, sorrel, mustard greens, mizuna, radicchio and arugula, which are far less common, but widely available and pack strong and highly distinctive flavors as additions to - or substitutions for - other everyday salad leaves), that there's really no excuse to think of greens as rabbit food.

Salads - the way we should think of them

Leaves are simply a base for other ingredients - and should be thought of as such, much the way that the Italians consider pasta to be a vehicle for delivering what's on it. As I remember fondly from my year-plus spent living there, they eat pasta every day, and often in multiple meals each day, without getting sick of it. Why? It's what's on it that counts, and provides the flavor. Unlike pasta, the flavor variation in greens is infinitely broader, and so the richness of variety allows for less repetition, if you pay attention and vary your greens. 

In the world of food, salad as a category has morphed as much as the the martini has in the drinking world - where the term now applies to a broad set of vaguely related concoctions as unlimited as the minds that think them up. Salads these days - to the benefit of your well-being - can include aspects from every food group, from vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy, grains and nuts. Thus you can dress the 'plate' (i.e.: greens) however you want, and feel extremely good about feeding your body well. Beyond the near-infinite choice of vegetables that can and should make up a large proportion of your meal - not to mention some fruits that pair well (think spinach and dried cranberries or arugula and pear) - there are rich, flavorful and healthy unsaturated fats like those in avocados, olives, and heart-healthy oils like olive, coconut and walnut; proteins like nuts, seeds, beans and eggs (all of which also deliver excellent doses of heart-healthy fats and minerals); and animal products such as cheese (though this should be used sparingly and in its raw state, if possible, as we detail in the second half of Week 4's post), cold water fish (like wild Alaskan salmon), and the occasional piece of lean, pasture-raised beef or chicken (Week 4 covers this at length). In the case of salad, leaves should always comprise the lion's share of the bulk, followed in descending order by other vegetables; fruits; plant proteins; plant fats; and finally animal products - as represented in illustrations like Dr. Weil's pyramid. If your 'salad' looks like a grass-fed steak with a few leaves underneath it, it's not a salad.

If you lack the creative impulse to figure out what works, just look to indigenous cultures who have been combining ingredients for health and for taste since before agri-businesses existed, like these examples, to name just a few: French salade niçoise (greens; tuna; olives; haricots; potato; egg; anchovy); classic Greek salad (greens; cucumber; tomato; feta); Lebanese tabouleh (tomato; parsley; mint; bulgur; onion); Italian caprese (tomato; basil; mozzarella); Vietnamese 'Thanksgiving' salad (fennel; cabbage; cashew); and Mexican black bean salad (beans; peppers; tomatoes; corn; cilantro; onion; lime). Just make sure greens are the literal base of everything you do - even if the traditional salads listed above don't call for them. They'll combine well with any classic recipe, and will add tons of heart-healthy nutrition to your diet. 

To paraphrase the duc d'Uzès during the 14th C accession of Charles VII, 'Salad is dead! Long live salad!

Spices and herbs

It's not just fresh leafy greens that provide your antioxidant needs. Sometimes, it's as simple as sprinkling some dried oregano or marjoram on your pasta. One pinch of oregano doubles the antioxidant value of a bowl of whole wheat pasta with a marinara sauce, according to Dr. Michael Greger, physician, author and Stephen Colbert / Dr. Oz guest. In his eccentric video, he walks you through visual aids that show how you can add nutrition value with dried spices and herbs. Basil, parsley, oregano, thyme and rosemary are all 'leafy greens' that one can easily store dry, for months on end, and which you can simply sprinkle onto the foods you already eat to up their antioxidant value dramatically, which - as we've seen - has a material effect on modern diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. 

Let's review what we've learned so far:

  1.  All leafy greens are not created equal. Some of the healthiest foods on Earth include spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, tatsoi (chinese spinach), mustard greens, collard greens, arugula, cabbage, watercress and turnip greens. Iceberg and other red-or-green lettuces, while not devoid of nutrition, should be substituted where possible with those listed above, since the difference is substantial.
  2. Some leafy greens are neither green nor leafy. They are, however, as (or nearly as) nutritious as their forebears, especially the cruciferous vegetable family, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco (a delightfully tasty 'fractal' vegetable), Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, radish and turnips. Bonus: crucifers, which also includes kale and bok choy, are the food world's champion cancer-fighters. See the second half of Week 8's post for more detail on glucosinates and indoles).
  3. Leafy greens should be thought of as a base for your culinary creativity. Vary the ingredients. Add vegetables; fats; proteins; dairy; grains... these things are limited only by your imagination - or your ability to conduct Google searches on sites like EpicuriousGourmetBon Appétit and AllRecipes
  4. Leafy greens are incredibly flavorful, and varied. Venture beyond the lettuce aisle and pick up one of the leaves listed above; or go to a specialty market in Chinatown, or where the ethnic minorities in your area shop: the Indians, Vietnamese or Japanese, to name three cuisines that heavily feature leafy greens that are as flavorful as they are exotic and unexpected.
  5. Spice it up. Spices are dried leaves. They're used to make tea; add flavor to foods; and are nutritious ways of including nutrients in your diet. The Indians - who use spices of greater depth and breadth than any other culture - are not just predominantly vegetarian, but understand spices' healing properties, like turmeric, which is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatories in Nature. It has been used for centuries by the Chinese and Indians - and increasingly modern medicine - to treat everything from IBSrheumatoid arthritisalzheimer's and cystic fibrosis, and has been shown in numerous studies to inhibit the growth of cancer cells significantly - to name just one of countless spices with real, measurable medicinal value.

Now that we've mastered the basics, let's move on to some lesser-known fare.

Sprouts - a Master's degree in 'greens'

The young of every living creature carries within its tiny package the genetic material for it to grow into maturity, whether in animal or plant form. The sheer density of healing, growth-promoting elements they contain makes them dwarf their adult counterparts' healthfulness because they represent a life form in its most vital state. In humans, children heal more quickly than adults; their skin is more supple; their systems are more robust; and the number of synaptic connections in their brains - and the speed at which they learn - run circles around those of grown-ups. The same is true in the plant world. According to nutrition expert Dr. Mercola, young plant foods - called sprouts or shoots, and commonly referred to as 'raw' or 'living foods' - contain up to 100 times as many enzymes as adult plants, and up to 30 times the density of vitamins and essential fatty acids. Let's repeat that: up to 100 times the enzymes and 30 times the vitamins and fatty acids as the world's otherwise healthiest foods. This is why they are often referred to as miracle foods. In addition, according to Dr. Mercola, the nutrients in sprouts are often more bioavailable than those in adult plants, which means the body can more readily absorb them, instead of simply passing them through your system, unused. 

Better still? A wide variety of them are easy to find in both farmer's markets and specialty markets, including sprouts from broccoli, sunflower, pea shoots, alfalfa, clover, radish, lentils, wheatgrass and mung beans. On a walk through New York's Union Square last Saturday, I counted over a dozen purveyors of sprouts, alongside their usual greenmarket fare.

Best of all? Though this requires a commitment, and/or if you have trouble finding them where you live, it's extremely easy to grow them yourself, and to therefore not just save tons of money (they're pennies on the dollar) but to eat them within minutes of harvesting, regularly, when nutrient levels are highest. Here are links to growing many of the sprouts listed above, complete with videos: sunflower; broccoli; wheatgrass; mung beans and lentils; radish; pea shoots.

Matcha - Doctorate-level 'greens'

We will leave the subject of green, leafy nutrition with the story of matcha - my own newest discovery. While I'm decidedly late to the party, Japanese Zen buddhist monks and Shogun warriors have been sipping this beverage since the 12th Century - when they perfected a process invented by the Chinese some 300 years earlier. The monk Eisai - the man responsible for bringing it to Japan - referred to matcha as 'The Elixir of the Immortals', and its drinkers swore by its sustained energy and mental clarity. 

Under the lens of modern science, the traditional endorsement not only holds up but becomes even more interesting. As measured on the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale - which was developed the the National Institute of Aging (NIA) and venerable National Institutes of Health (NIH) - on a per-gram basis, matcha is one of the greatest antioxidants on the planet, matched or exceeded only by turmeric, dried oregano, sorghum, cinnamon, sumac and cloves - the last being the world's reigning champion. Moreover, the form of matcha's antioxidants - EGCGs, a form of the phenol catechin - have been shown to aid in the management or risk and severity reduction of both HIV-1 and cancer - the latter because EGCGs are chemopreventive. None other than the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), one of the nation's decisive authorities on molecular biology, lists EGCGs present in green tea as playing a potent role in cancer cell death. You can read their study here. And keep in mind that matcha has 30% more catechins (EGCGs) than regular green tea, making them even more effective in managing cancer cells.   

In addition to its antioxidant and anti-cancer properties - and the fact that it is a good source of vitamins A, B-complex, C, E and K - matcha's particular caffeine, called theophylline, has been shown to release more slowly into the body than that of coffee, thereby sustaining energy levels longer without the spikes. Better still, L-theanine, an amino acid unique to matcha, is known to boost alpha waves in the brain, creating a paradoxically calm alertness. It is this alertness that attracted the monks to it all those centuries ago. I can attest to a (very uncharacteristic) calm that follows my own morning cupful, while those who know me well understand just how remarkable an outcome that is. Let's just say I've been encouraged to keep it up...

So to revisit what we've discussed just one more time:

  • Greens are the most varied food source in the world, with over 400 types, many widely available
  • Greens are calorie for calorie the most nutritious foods, with a number of standouts, listed above
  • The flavor of greens is far more complex than most people realize; the key is to experiment
  • We must select our greens carefully, since nutritional profiles vary widely, and avoid 'empty' ones
  • We should think of greens as a 'base' for other foods, the way Italians use pasta
  • To wit: greens don't replace other foods; they complement them and are essential to optimal health
  • Dried greens - aka spices and herbs - are nutritional powerhouses that are easy to incorporate
  • Sprouts are the plant world's champions, delivering unmatched nutrition
  • Matcha is a great substitute for coffee, and offers many of the benefits of 'other greens'

I'll leave you with some of my own favorite greens, in no particular order, with hyperlinks given for informational purposes only (FFFL does not endorse or have any commercial relationships with anyone):

  1. Breakaway matcha: the quality of matcha is key to its efficacy
  2. Red-veined sorrel: a lemon-flavored herb-leaf that makes a fantastic addition to any salad
  3. Shiso (aka perilla): a minty, pungent, grassy herb as an accent to fish (used in Korea, Japan, Vietnam)
  4. Sunflower sprouts: one of the tastiest sprouts, with a decidedly nutty flavor; add it to salads
  5. Radish (aka Daikon) sprouts: for a wonderful little 'tang' in your salad
  6. Romanesco: the most beautiful - and tastiest - among its siblings broccoli and cauliflower (I simply steam it for 4-5 minutes and drizzle with a high-quality olive oil and sea salt (fleur de sel)
  7. Mustard Greens: want proof that greens can knock you off your feet? Try these amazing decongestants in your salad. Just don't say I didn't warn you. Or try this recipe.
  8. Spinach: okay, so it's obvious, but it's the #1 world's healthiest food, surprisingly tasty and neutral, and as such able to be blended, eaten raw or cooked and combined with nearly anything. But skip the supermarket greens and get them from the farmer's market. They will not only be far tastier and stiffer (meaning less decomposed), but as such will last twice as long before beginning to wilt 
  9. Pea shoots: Peas are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. And the sprouts? 7x the vitamin C content of blueberries; 8x the folic acid of bean sprouts; and 4x the vitamin A of tomatoes
  10. Brussels sprouts: when I make them, they always disappear like popcorn. Half-fill a gallon-sized Ziploc with halved sprouts; add 3 tbsp. olive oil and 1 pinch sea salt; inflate/close the bag and shake vigorously until mixed. Place in a single layer in a 425F oven on a baking sheet, and flip each one every ten minutes; repeat the flipping until they're charred - usually 3-4 total times. Your friends and body will thank you.

 

Week 11: GMO foods and you - What you need to know

'God (Nature, in my view) makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil. He fores one soil to yield the products of another, one tree to bear another's fruit. He confuses and confounds time, place, and natural conditions. He... will have nothing as nature made it, not even himself, who must learn his paces like a saddle-horse, and be shaped to his master's taste like the trees in his garden.'

In his commentary, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – an 18th C Swiss philosopher credited with influencing the European Enlightenment, the French Revolution and modern political and educational thought at large – understood the difference between nature’s evolutionary balance and man’s ham-fisted approach to undermining it. His quote preceded Monsanto’s 1901 creation as a chemical company by more than a hundred years. Now the world’s dominant producer of food seeds, herbicides and pesticides, Monsanto’s first product was the unhealthy-but-relatively-benign saccharin, followed quickly with the industrial production of sulfuric acid, PCB’s, polonium-based neutron initiators that trigger nuclear bombs' detonation, DDT and finally Agent Orange – all of them among man’s singularly most destructive creations.

In the 1990’s, Monsanto entered Dr. Frankenstein territory, when it purchased Calgene – the company that created the Flavr Savr tomato, the world’s first genetically modified organism (GMO - or GM), whose genesis was aimed at slowing the ripening process and preventing tomatoes from softening between harvest and kitchen. The Flavr Savr stayed rock hard and without sign of decay an entire month outside of the refrigerator. Monsanto's prime interest, however, was not in the tomato but in the patents that Calgene held for engineering Nature, for which it saw tremendous future value. Since the acquisition, completed in 1997, Monsanto has grown over the past 18 years through a series of acquisitions and mergers into the world’s largest producer and seller of crop seeds, holding 27% of the global market. More than 50% of these are genetically modified (GM), a percentage that is rising. As we reported in Week 7, corn – the US’s largest crop, comprising 30% of all farmland and present in 25% of all supermarket foods – is 88% GM, while GM soybeans – the US's second-largest crop – comprise 93% of all commercial product.

The dwindling number of farmers who opt to avoid GM can scarcely find seeds: Monsanto is doing its level best to make it harder, by buying up traditional seed companies and their patents, in order to remove the competition and modify the seeds that they bought, inserting their own herbicide-resistant gene into the mix (more on that below). While GM is certainly good for big business, it is equally bad for your body. We reported in Week 7 the mind-boggling statistic that non-GM corn contains a between 6 and 438 times the nutrient levels of phosphate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, sulfur, cobalt, iron, zinc and molybendum as that in GM corn (chart here). This is important because the biggest / most obvious GM crops - corn and soy, comprise a whopping 69% and 10% of our carbon molecules, respectively, according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta - meaning on a molecular level, that is exactly what we are eating. We reported that corn is present in more than 25% of all supermarket foods, according to Michael Pollan. We eat it both directly, in packaged foods that are suffused with it in the form of corn starch, corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose and sorbitol (among many more), and indirectly, via land and marine animals who are overwhelmingly raised on it. Even farmed fish are fed a diet of corn. Beyond its nutrient content, GM corn has also been linked to organ failure by the International Journal of Biological Sciences, in a 2010 study linked here.

But the real story with GMO lies not in its nutrient profile, surprisingly. Instead, it's the fact that Monsanto’s GMO empire relies on the foundational efficacy of its flagship herbicide and phosphonate, Roundup, which it began producing in 1974 after its previous flagship product DDT was outlawed by the US Government. DDT, a known carcinogen, was exposed by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, which led to a widespread environmental movement and eventually secured its ban in 1972. DDT had been shown to increase rates of pancreatic and liver cancers, lower semen quality, and increase early miscarriage and congenital hyperthyroidism, among other risks. Monsanto introduced Roundup in response, and in the 1990’s, started building seeds that were genetically resistant to its toxicity, thereby assuring the stable sale of both. Insidiously, EcoWatch reported earlier this year that Monsanto launched an aggressive campaign to get farmers to spray Roundup on GMO and non-GMO crops alike to speed up their harvest. The success of the campaign led to the widespread use of this toxic herbicide, which increased by over a half-billion pounds, even though Monsanto claimed that its GMO crops would reduce herbicide and pesticide use. In fact, Roundup is so pervasive that according to the article, more than 75% of air and rainfall in the Mississippi delta – America’s breadbasket – contains the carcinogen.

Glyphosate - the scientific name for Roundup - has been shown in many scientific studies, detailed here, to increase rates and/or severity of – wait for it – ALL of the following afflictions: ADHD, Alzheimer’s, birth defects, autism, brain cancer, breast cancer, celiac disease, gluten intolerance, chronic kidney disease, depression, diabetes, heart disease, colitis, hyperthyroidism, IBS (leaky gut), liver disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, obesity, reproductive problems, and respiratory illnesses. Glyphosate is a categorical toxin of rare reach.

Monsanto’s GMO empire, it’s worth re-stating, relies on the use – and efficacy – of Roundup. And as the world’s largest seed company, with 27% of the global seed market, this means that half - or 13.5% - of the world’s seed supply is GMO. In fact, according to Cal Poly's Food Digest, an astounding 60% of the US food supply contains GMOs, as well as 80% of packaged (i.e.: engineered) foods

Normally, when a company gets too big or too dominant in the United States, citizens rely on governmental safeguards to protect its citizens: in this case, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), which oversees anti-trust laws aimed at protecting fair competition. Beyond this, we have a Food and Drug Administration, which exists to protect our food (and drug) safety, and the USDA to promote agricultural trade, production, and food quality.

In practice, however, the protection picture is much different. As reported in Week 2, the triumvirate of Monsanto, the US Government and the agencies we've listed above enjoy a ‘revolving door’ policy, in which executives in all three groups routinely move between one another, sometimes more than once. Monsanto executives have occupied the very top position – the directorship – of both the FDA and the USDA, as well as been elected US senators and congressmen, been appointed top advisors to presidents and vice presidents, and occupied countless lesser positions throughout the system. Dr. Mercola has a great article on the subject, entitled ‘Why Monsanto Always Wins’.

So if by this point you’re somewhat uneasy about GM foods and governmental assurances of your food's safety, your apprehension is entirely justified.

In order to maintain its market share, Monsanto has programmed all of its GMO seeds to be ‘suicide’ or ‘terminator' seeds – meaning they can’t reproduce. Thus, unlike 'natural' crops that reproduce through pollination, you must keep buying seeds and Roundup in order to continue farming. This suicide trait safeguards Monsanto's global monopoly, and by extension guarantees the dominance of nutrient-poor foods - like that of GM corn, as we've seen, or soybeans. On the latter, a comparison between GM and non-GM soybeans is linked here. The article also implicates the FDA, which is 1992 insisted the two were equivalent. This lack of adequate nutrient density pushes consumers to buy more product / eat more calories in order to meet your dietary needs and feel satisfied, which in turn ultimately guarantees for Monsanto a continual sale of its seeds as well as the sale of its toxin Roundup, through the farmers that need them to meet an ever-growing demand for 'empty' foods. Perhaps worst of all, we've seen that their herbicide ends up in our air, our water and our bodies, where it promotes the 20-plus hallmark life-threatening illnesses we've already listed above, while at the same time effectively decimating the environment around it.

There could not be a better exemplar of the term vicious cycle. In this case, we've illustrated it as a snake eating its own tail...

Copyright FFFL

Copyright FFFL

Carlton University is just one of many institutions to study the environmental effects of pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides in our water system. So-called 'Dead Zones' are the result of runoff from agricultural heartland, where it discharges into bodies of water in which no living marine creature can be found, due to the water's hypoxia - or lack of oxygen. One such dead zone - where the Mississippi delta discharges into the Gulf of Mexico - is over 6,500 square miles large, equivalent to Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. In addition to causing mass contamination and death to marine life - the oysters, shellfish and fish that we eat - the runoff has a larger impact because the water it contaminates isn't static: it evaporates into the air we breathe, which falls as rain into the groundwater we ultimately drink, as well as into the plants and animals that we eat. In short, chemicals in 'place A' always end up in 'place B' because of the way nature works. It's a closed loop. And 'place B' in our case is our bodies.

Frighteningly, and in spite of great resistance on the part of the recipient nations, Monsanto is poised to make a giant leap into Africa, partly at the behest of President Obama, who has pushed hard for investment in agricultural advancement there, and partly funded by Bill Gates, whose foundation is a key Monsanto investor. Delegates from 18 African countries issued the following statement to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization:

We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly nor economically beneficial to us. We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia, and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.

Think about that for a minute. People want to remain in control of their own food supply, and keep knowledge, self-sufficiency and farming practices alive that have sustained it since man started tilling the Earth. What a concept. On top of this, a March 2012 report by Anthony Gucciardi, co-founder of Natural Society, revealed that over 900 scientists at the UN admitted that traditional farming outperformed GMO crops, following their research.

So what is going on with our food supply?

You have heard us advocate in every post the benefits of buying and eating food that is as close to how nature made and produced it as is feasible. The reasons are clear: organic food minimizes our ingestion of man-made toxins. High-quality (organic, non-GMO) foods far outstrip engineered and industrial foods insofar as nutrient density, affording us greater health in fewer bites, thereby also reducing overeating and health risks caused by obesity. Moreover, artificial, ‘engineered’ foods (GMO or otherwise) that don’t expire are linked with – or the root cause of – every major modern disease, slowly killing millions and infirming countless more, as reported at in our very first post: with 280,000 annual obesity-caused deaths, over 800,000 from cardiovascular disease, and another 200,000 cancer deaths attributed to diet, well in excess of 1 million people die each year because of their diet in the US alone. But equally important, and the focus of this week's post, is the fact - to restate it once more - that Monsanto's GMO empire is a binary one: one part genetic seed, one part Roundup. That means that in order for farmers to realize the upside of the GMO yield and crop control (which is why farmers buy Monsanto's seeds), it needs to use the toxic glyphosate Roundup - the rightful heir to Monsanto's PCB- DDT- and Agent Orange-laden throne. 

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So far, we’ve seen that beyond the consideration of nutrient density, GMO foods are substantially more harmful than non-GMO insofar as the toxicity of the herbicide in which medium they must grow; that this herbicide is the cause of countless human illness, from ADHD to liver failure; and that this herbicide damages both humans and non-human Nature (animals, rivers, seas, air, rain, plants) alike. We've also seen that companies like Monsanto are 'beyond the law', because they are the law. 

A perfect illustration of the premise that Monsanto and Law are one and the same – as if this stunning chart listing the US Government executive / policy positions and the Monsanto executives who have held them were somehow not enough – is the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. The Bill, which recently passed 275-150, forbids states from enacting their own laws to require companies to label GMO foods as such. Instead, the federal government wants to create a standard for voluntary labeling that companies can elect to follow, or more likely, ignore. The implications are perplexing on several fronts:

1 - If GMO foods are as safe as - or safer than - non-GMO foods, why fear the label?

2 - If 'freedom' is the number one American export and core to its national identity, isn't this 'gag order' a suppression of said freedom, and as such anti-American? 

3 - If the bill, which was introduced by - and overwhelmingly supported by - Republicans, mandates a (voluntary) federal standard, doesn't that directly contradict the key GOP tenet of 'small government' and 'decentralized power'? Isn't individual states' rights at the heart of the party's dogma?

The proverbial math doesn't add up.

The truth, I'm afraid, is that with regard to food and agriculture, Monsanto (and its ilk) and the government are effectively one, via lobbying, revolving door positions and electoral favors. For an in-depth view, read this insightful 2012 article by blogger Josh Sager (the Progressive Cynic), posted by the Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalization: Monsanto Controls both the White House and the US Congress.

So what, if anything, can an ordinary person do, if they want to know what they are eating, and want that food to be healthy?

The answer is unnecessarily complex, because of the lack of transparency related to both the root source of the foods we eat, from seed to table, and the ownership structure of the people and practices who grow and sell that food to us. That said, we do know a few things about food health...

Organics.

First, what does the word mean? Throughout most of its history, food was farmed 'organically' - that is, using natural raw materials and farming practices, in sync with Nature's cycles and understanding of the inter-dependencies between flora and fauna. Only in the 20th Century was a large supply of chemicals introduced into the food supply, thereby giving people outsized control over Nature: changing/adding cycles by super-charging the earth with fertilizers; leeching soil nutrients to maximize short-term yield at the expense of long-term soil health; practicing monoculture farming at a mammoth scale - for efficiency - in place of the natural world's intrinsic biodiversity; and controlling 'unwanted' by-products - weeds, insects and non-commodity plants - through the introduction of toxic substances. This last category takes two forms: sprays that are applied to crops to kill unwanted biology (against which genetic manipulation of the 'wanted' crops gives them immunity) - like Roundup; and toxins that are internal to a crop to give it a natural defense against invaders. This second group of toxins is called Bt-toxin, and is worth an in-depth explanation.

Bt-toxin is a synthetic form of a naturally occurring toxin that gives a plant natural resistance to pests. In its natural form, insects that eat a toxic plant learn to leave it alone, the 'easy way' or the 'hard way'. In its GM form, insects who take a bite out of corn with Bt-toxin will be split open and killed, according to food health author and film-maker Jeffrey Smith. And while Bt-toxin exists naturally, in spray form, the GM version that is internal to the plant is 3,000-5,000 times more concentrated, according to Jeffrey, and unlike a spray it does not wash off of the crop when rinsed, thereby leading to widespread adverse reactions in the people who ingest them. These range from allergy-like symptoms among thousands of Indian field workers using Bt-toxin-laden GM cotton to the death of embryonic cells among pregnant women in Canada who have tested positive for Bt-toxin via food intake. 

As reported in Week 3, our food is literally killing us.

But back to organic. The industrialization of our food supply in the first half of the 20th century created in reaction an organic farming counter-movement in the 1940's, which is at the root of what we term 'organic' farming today. In the United States, and generally among industrialized nations, organic food is regulated insofar as it forbids the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, is free of food additives, is free of the neurotoxin Hexane, doesn't contain sewage sludge (AKA human waste contaminated with endochrine disruptors and heavy metals), and does not use growth-promoting antibiotics that contribute to weight gain and the creation of resistive super-bacteria. Organic foods also often avoid chemical ripening, food irradiation, and GMO ingredients, though these are not mandated, per se. To that end, to understand organic as it's practiced today - in the shadow of the industrial food complex, we need to know that organic farming is generally practiced by small-scale farmers with a personal viewpoint about health and/or relationship to the land and to their customers, which is why - as we advocated in Week 7 (and every week) - buying not just organic food, but food from farmer's markets, since food quality is of paramount value to the small farmer's success, which gets passed on to you in the form of non-toxic, nutrient-dense and fresh, seasonal produce. Once again, here is a link to a resource that lists farmer's markets nation-wide. Most, but not all organic farmers operate solo, or at a small scale. Some operate as farm co-ops - a fancy term for organizations that rely on a network of small organic farms to pool their food resources together for resale. This is generally done for exposure and reach, as with Wisconsin's Organic Valley, which sources its milk from a variety of small farms and sells them nationally under a single brand.

Whatever its organizational structure it takes, organic farming is decisively better for you and our planet.

In truth, there remains a great deal of controversy over the nutrient differences between organic and conventionally grown foods, outside of GM corn and soy beans, which we've already seen. The root question is: which is healthier? The inconclusiveness of these studies has to do with complex issues of soil health and management practices, plant varietal differences, and other variables that aren't the sole dominion of organic regulation. Therefore we will not pretend to know the answer, conclusively, as to how much better organic food is for you with regard to nutrient density.

What we can say with confidence is that whether or not there is more Vitamin C in an organic papaya than a conventional one, the organic one will be less toxic to both the Earth and to you, by virtue of GM's use of synthetic pesticides such as Roundup, which as we saw are present wherever GM seeds are sown; and by its genetic manipulation of substances such as Bt-toxin to make plants more pest-resistant, which hurts both the land's natural biodiversity and the food's ultimate terminus: YOU. Thus, we will refrain from listing a series of nutrition data tables here, since one can find both 'pro' and 'con' charts to serve their various agendas. Instead, we will keep our discussion to the disease-promoting characteristics of the toxin-laden GM foods we have been describing already, via their host, the global juggernaut at the center of both food policy and food creation: Monsanto.

The take-away?

Buy organic, which precludes synthetic pesticides by definition.  Buy local, from small farms / farmers at green markets; you can ask them directly about their farming practices while they stand in front of you. They'll tell you, because they want you as a customer. Avoid food products that rely on the biggest / most obvious GM crops - corn and soy, which together comprise roughly 80% (!) of our carbon molecules, according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta. This means avoid packaged foods, preservatives and other industrial products, which you should, anyhow, since these are the emptiest and least healthy foods, and the most likely to contain toxic substances. Easy? Apparently not so, if you look at the numbers. About 90% of the dollars Americans spend on food goes to buying processed food products, according to Eric Schlosser, author of the seminal Fast Food Nation.

If our message is consistent from week to week, it's because everything points to a clear solution for eating healthy: real foods, as fresh as possible, and organically farmed. Our goal at FFFL is simply to supply you with information so that you can build a contextual understanding of the industry, its goals, its practices, and their impact on your well-being, so that you can make informed choices for achieving true food health

Keep reading. We're just getting started.

Week 10: Real food or Supplements - Fact vs. Fiction

"We cannot read... a verse without making a face at it, as if every word were a pill to swallow: he gives us many times a hard nut to break our teeth, without a kernal <sic> for our pains."

The expression - 'a pill to swallow', to which the adjectives 'bitter' or 'hard' were added in the following centuries by others - was first published in 1668 by the English poet John Dryden, in the sentence above. He was aiming his critique at fellow poet John Cleveland, using the pill as a metaphor for lack of substance, backed up by two food enforcers, one good and one bad. His words could just as easily be aimed at the modern supplement business in its relationship to 'real foods' - an industry which, poetry aside, relies almost solely on words to part us with our hard-earned dollars, with little science to back it up, little oversight to ensure its safety and honesty, and much (little-known) science to reveal its ineffectiveness in ensuring good health among the general pill-taking populace.

In plain 20th Century english, the vast majority of supplements don't work. Worse still, some deliver concentrated amounts of single nutrients that can actually harm us. The trick, as with everything health related in post-industrial America, is parsing science from market-speak. This week's post will share what we know about supplements, and how best to think of them as partners in health.

But first: foods. Real food can, should and must be thought of as your de facto source of complete and balanced nutrition. Eat real foods, and process them minimally. You know the rules, and have doubtlessly heard them ad nauseum, from me and from others, but they are worth repeating here, with brief explanation as to why you should consume them, and how:

  1. On a daily basis, eat a highly varied diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and oils - in that order (meaning the most of the first and the least of the last) - to ensure you receive adequate levels of plant-based vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Why daily? A majority of vitamins are water-soluble and thus must be consumed daily in order for your body to get what it needs to thrive, since what is not immediately absorbed is flushed out. Dark leafy greens are the world's densest and broadest sources of these. A complete list of the 81 foods we consider healthiest - with a complete list of every nutrient each contains, and in what amount - is the basis of Week 9's post, here. Further, both proteins (in the form of amino acids), and carbohydrates (in the form of glycogen) are two essential nutrients whose ability to be stored by the body is limited. Similarly, minerals are used by the body for countless processes. Think of them as workers keeping a machine's parts moving - feeding adequate amounts of themselves to blood cells, tissue and bones as necessary, given the body's specific demands at any given time. Because, like other nutrients, minerals are used up, often to depletion, they must be replenished daily. Why in that order? First, the body uses carbohydrates as its primary source of energy, such as those in vegetables, fruits and grains. Second, vegetables and fruits comprise the primary dietary source of vitamins and minerals. Third, we require lesser food quantities to ensure adequate muscle-building, tissue- and organ-regulating protein; and lastly, because we need the least volumetric quantities of heart-healthy fats to ensure nutrient absorption and adequate lubrication of the body's internal tissue.
  2. Every 2-3 days, supplement the foods above with healthy fish such as wild Alaskan Salmon or Pacific Sardines, to name two of the healthiest (and least polluted) sources of vitamins B12, D, choline, protein and good fats, because these are difficult (protein/good fats) or impossible (B12/D/Choline) to find in plant-based foods. Why every other day? The body has shown it can store vitamin D for up to six months (in adipose tissue - aka fat) and store vitamin B12 for years (in the liver). Ditto good fats, which like any form of fat, the body has an unlimited ability to store. Therefore, these nutrients needn't be consumed daily, but since they, like any other fuel source, are depleted by the body as needed, they must be consumed regularly.
  3. If for whatever reason you really don't like fish, or just find yourself in a place where it's unavailable, then supplement your plant-based diet with by-products and meats from pastured/pasture-raised land animals, like eggs (with the yolk, which contains most of its nutrients), pure yogurts (with minimal to no added sugars - yogurt naturally has fewer than 10g of sugar per serving), cheeses (raw and unpasteurized if available in your state) - and finally animals, if you must, on occasion, for adequate intake of vitamin B12, choline and protein, although the latter two can be found in equal or greater doses in beans, shrimp and scallops - all of which are healthier. Why pastured or pasture-raised? As we saw in depth in Week 4's post, this is the only term that guarantees the animal ate its natural diet in a natural setting, which has a very real impact on the animal's own health on a molecular level. Pastured animals - and their by-products - have far higher densities of the nutrients we rely on them to provide, over conventionally raised or even organic fare. Ironically, this is the only term that is not governed or defined by the US government. As such, grass-roots farmers who have bucked the trend toward (heavily subsidized and more heavily under-regulated) industrial farming have come up with this term as a fancy way of saying 'the way animals were before we domesticated them'.

Now, for the supplements. An increasing and unequivocally consistent body of science is accumulating, and like John Dryden's critique of his nemesis, it does not favor the pill.

Why is 'real food' better than supplements? There are several reasons that we will explore here: 

  1. Supplements are not regulated. The FDA inspects just 1% of the 65,000 supplements on the market, according to Todd Runestad, editor of the trade publication Functional Ingredients and the Engredea Reports. Those of us in New York will remember the recent scandal exposed earlier this year, when the State Attorney General examined supplements sold at the country's largest retailers, like Walmart, Target, and GNC, and found that they contained little to none of the ingredient they peddled, and often contained products that provoked allergies or other health risks instead. A great New York Times article from February 2015 is linked here. In just one example, Walmart's ginkgo balboa contained no ginkgo balboa, and was instead comprised of powdered radish, houseplants and wheat - in spite of claiming it was gluten-free. Taking it thus poses a real health risk to people with Celiac disease; and offers zero benefit to anyone else. According to the article, it found many supplements in GNC that contained legumes - a class of plants that poses a hazard to allergy sufferers, like those who are allergic to peanuts.  In fact, according to healthline.com, 5% of all US grocery expenditure is on supplements, from which grocers make 10x the profit as on real food. James Johnson of the Nutrition Business Journal says that supplements keep many small grocers in business. The food business trend both here and among food product makers is consistent: the more unnatural the product is, the greater its profit margins for not just shareholders but for the middleman and retailer, as well. In market-speak, this is called "value-added", and it applies broadly, whether to 5 cents-worth of high-fructose corn syrup being resold as a 99 cent soda, or to 3 cents-worth of mulched up houseplants being resold as a $9.99 container of ginkgo bilboa. Thus commerce is almost always stacked against nutrition when it comes to feeding you and your family. The fact is that whatever is mulched up or concocted in the laboratory and stuffed into a pill casing on the factory floor before being shipped to a retail shelf where it sits, at great length, until purchased, is about as close to natural as an aging hollywood star. Natural once, perhaps, but at this stage unrecognizable.
  2. Natural nutrients, whether vitamins, minerals or herbs, are delivered in their natural plant form with a variety of co-dependent chemical ingredients that are typically isolated in supplement form, thereby reducing or eliminating its efficacy. In one example, feverfew is an herb used historically to treat migraines. The plant consists of dozens of chemical components, of which one - pathenolide, is assumed by pill-makers to be the relieving agent. Assumed. In fact, product makers and independent testers cannot demonstrate feverfew supplements' effectiveness - in spite of the fact that it is on sale on shelves and its makers make claims, relying on the common lore surrounding the root plant to part consumers with their dollars. The fact is that one could make a similar claim for the overwhelming majority of supplements on shelves. In general, they are ineffective, deceitful, or both.
  3. Related to the point above, when we eat a food, we are receiving far more than the benefit of one ingredient/nutrient therein. Natural foods are complex systems that deliver a multiplicity of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats whose interaction is often critical to their food value to humans, including our bodies' success in absorbing them. Furthermore, real foods deliver thousands of micro-nutrients whose names that we as consumers may not know but whose presence supports the body's health, like phytonutrients, carotenoids, retinoids, phytoestrogens, and polyphenols, to name a few such categories. In addition, real plant-based foods are full of fiber, which is critical to the health of our digestive system and its breakdown, expulsion and delivery of nutrients to our body's systems. Thus single-sourcing or targeting a laboratory supplement as the source of nutrition is not only ineffective, it denies the body the foundational value of the complex foods from which they are distilled.

So while we cannot think of pills as replacements for food, we can think of them in two ways that are truly helpful in terms of human diet:

  1.  To fill in the nutrition gaps left by an inadequate or incomplete dietary intake of real foods. In this sense, supplements in some forms may provide us with a stopgap, such as that of those of animal-only nutrients B12 and choline for those with a vegan diet; vitamin D3 for people in northern climates who don't get enough exposure to D3-synthesizing sunlight; or Folic Acid in women who are pregnant and want to guard against neural tube defects, to name just three examples. Again, it's important to re-state here that the naturally-occurring form of any ingredient/nutrient is the best form, and supplements should be thought of as such - supplementing your diet in the case that a gap exists. Even there, some are effective - and backed by science - while others aren't. A phenomenal and beautiful interactive graphic that demonstrates which supplements science supports can be found here. In it, just four of the myriad available supplements are strongly supported by science: garlic, niacin (B3), probiotics and zinc. Yet here again, all four are widely available in 'real' form: garlic as such, niacin in turkey, chicken, beef, salmon, sardines and lamb - and in lesser concentration in plant-based foods like sweet potatoes, peanuts and brown rice; probiotic bacteria in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, pickles and sauerkraut; and zinc in beef, lamb, beans of all kind, scallops, shrimp and turkey. So it's frankly easy, in a normal healthy diet, to glean all four of them in forms that provide great culinary enjoyment, to boot.
  2. To provide additional support for people with specific medical or health conditions for which targeted dietary supplements can act as palliatives or prophylactics. Let's look again at niacin (vitamin B3). A 2010 review by the NCBI at the National Institutes of Health found that niacin supplements resulted in significant reductions in the rate of strokes or heart attacks for those who suffered from heart disease - yet in spite of this, only a minor drop in rates of mortality from same. Does that make it worth taking a niacin supplement? Absolutely. Here again, however, niacin is widely available in 'real foods', as we've seen, and so an informed sufferer of heart disease has many ways to ensure adequate niacin intake, if he/she were to know how to source it, as in our Week 9 food list. A second - perhaps better - example can be made of the joint pain medications glucosamine and chondroitin. Aimed at sufferers of joint pain - especially those caused by osteoarthritis (OA) - the NCBI at NIH reports 'statistically significant improvements in joint space loss, pain and and function here. As a 46-year old adult in excellent physical shape and with a diet better than that of most Americans, I have OA of the hips, and have been taking the supplement daily for nearly 10 years, following a diagnosis (a 'freak accident of DNA', in my doctor's own words) and a recommendation of urgent and immediate hip replacement, due to the fact that I had (and could see in my own x-rays) zero cartilage between my hip bones, lots of grinding, and I had been suffering increasingly until I finally went to the doctor to see what was causing it. 10 years later, I maintain a pain-free life, as long as I take the supplements, without having had the surgery. On rare occasions when I forget to (or cannot) take the pill for more than 3 days, I begin to feel dull but consistent pain, which goes away within a day of resuming my regimen. So in my personal experience, it both tangibly 'works' and is supported by science. Moreover, there are no food sources of glucosamine, which occurs naturally in the body, and in the shells of marine creatures, which make up the bulk of supplements. So here, a supplement is effective and necessary, unless you suffer from shellfish allergies.

So, let's recap the reasons supplements don't work, by and large, as a viable strategy for nutrient intake in 'normal' people - those without specific health conditions. 1. Supplements are big business: $17 billion annually, according to Dr. Joseph Mercola. He goes on to say that in spite of this, the rates of some chronic diseases have not diminished, while the rates of others continues to increase. The reason for the existence of supplements, by and large, is that supplements make their makers money. 2. Supplements ignore the fact that in naturally occurring sources, their 'key' ingredients are one among many that require interaction in order to be effective. 3. Supplements are 'single nutrient' palliatives. Real foods contain many nutrients that benefit the body broadly - not in a limited way. 4. Science does not support the vast majority of claims of efficacy. Again, take a look at the interactive graphic here to see which supplements are supported by current science, or lack thereof. The graphic is fantastic. 5. Supplements are not regulated. They often fail to include the ingredients they peddle; and often include other harmful substances as either fillers or substitutes - making them not only deceitful, but potentially (and often) harmful, as exposed by the New York State Attorney General at the outset of 2015.

Copyright FFFL

Copyright FFFL

We support your health, as we do our own. Supplements have a place in human health, but it's one that's far smaller and for far fewer people than the 1 in 5 Americans who currently rely on them to guarantee their dietary health and well-being. I take them for my hips, much as others take them for medical reasons that real food cannot help, or as a 'belt and suspenders' strategy, as in women's intake of folate while pregnant. In either case, do the research, or refer to our Week 9 post, in which we list every essential nutrient in the 81 foods we consider healthiest. These are readily available real foods that provide countless ways to eat your way to a delicious state of (largely) supplement-free health.

Week 9: Foods Fit for Living - the List

This site began with a simple, personal goal: eat well.

Doing so proved more difficult than we thought it would be, requiring knowledge beyond what is readily offered by both the food industry and the US government. A constant negotiation between Washington, DC elected officials and lobbyists seesaws between human and economic health. Food labels - the only tangible outcome of this perpetual tug-of-war, are are only moderately helpful, focusing on calories, fats, sugars, sodium and fiber. While these are important metrics, they are hardly comprehensive. More key nutritional data are missing on labels than is included: that of all 14 vitamins and 16 minerals, as well as detailed information related to the make-up of a food's fatty acids, proteins and carbohydrates. The differences within each category are essential to whether something is good for you, or bad. Furthermore, when we eat out, whether at a pizza joint or a fine restaurant, it's impossible to determine whether our body's needs are being met. Instead, we are forced to rely on instinct and rules of thumb: 'eat some salad', 'skip the cheesecake', 'leave some fries on the plate'...

In establishing FFFL, we had a few fundamental questions in mind: 

  1. What foods are healthiest, and why?
  2. What are the best sources of each nutrient, and in what form?
  3. What do we need to consume in order to meet 100% of the 'recommended daily intake' of all nutrients? Is it even possible to do so in a single day, from real foods? And what would that menu look like? 
  4. Once we have answers, can we create a single chart of the world's healthiest foods with comprehensive nutritional data, as a reference for people?

The answer to the last question is yes - and we've included it here, for you. Comprised of the 81 foods we consider both healthiest and widely available, they run the gamut between single-nutrient dynamos and pan-nutrient superstars. 

You can download a high-resolution version of the chart here. Print it. Study it. Keep it as a reference in your kitchen, with your cookbooks or taped on the inside of a cabinet door. We do. Serving sizes are included both in volume and in weight, to help quantify things that don't measure easily, like greens. To that end, a kitchen scale is a small investment that can help you to develop an instinct for portion size and remove the mystery. Nutrient levels below 7% of daily recommended intake have been omitted, to focus instead on significant contributors to dietary health. Percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet for an 'average' person. Lastly, nutrient levels vary - sometimes dramatically - based on a food's freshness, preparation, and growing methods. We always recommend you buy the freshest food possible, grown in the most natural way available, and eat it in its least altered state. 

What follows is a selective list of foods/groups that everyone should include regularly in their diets. They include just some of the foods from our comprehensive chart, to dive a little deeper into what makes them so good for us. They are powerhouses across a variety of key nutrients; are readily available, most anywhere; and will, together, provide you with the ingredients for long-term dietary health. Beyond these, remember the well-worn adages: eat the rainbow (all colors); vary your intake (for broader nutritional health); process (i.e.: cook/blend) whole foods minimally, while avoiding all things laboratory-made; eat at peak ripeness (local beats transported); and prepare it yourself, to the greatest degree practical (so that you know exactly what you are eating).

Avocados 

Avocados deliver nature's highest dose of monounsaturated fats, which help reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, thus lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke. After avocados, the foods next highest in monounsaturated fats are olives and olive oil, cashews, salmon and almonds.

The fats in avocados (and the other foods listed above) are key to promoting the body's absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. In the case of vitamin A, avocados increase the absorption of carotenoids in low-fat foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach and kale by 200-600%. They also improve the conversion from beta-carotene to vitamin A. Carotenoids (like beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein, to name a few) are key to eye health (the reduction of retina degeneration) and positively influence a wide spectrum of systems, from male reproductive health to liver, prostate, colon, breast and lung health.

Surpassed only by beans and barley, one avocado serves up 40% of your DRI of fiber - 63-82% of which is insoluble, in the California and Florida varieties, respectively. Soluble fiber lowers blood cholesterol and glucose levels by slowing the absorption of sugars. Soluble fiber also helps you feel full longer, reducing your urge to overeat and thereby aiding in weight loss and reducing rates of obesity. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, remains intact through your lower intestine, where it pushes waste, including toxins, out of your system, keeping you 'regular'. 

Beans

Yes - I just lumped all beans together. While there are over 40,000 types of bean, fewer than a dozen make up the overwhelming majority of those broadly cultivated and consumed. Most of these are included on our list: pinto, garbanzo (chickpeas), black, kidney, navy, lima and soy, as well as lentils and green peas. While nutrient densities vary, all beans follow a similar profile with respect to being a significant source of fifteen vitamins and minerals, with occasional standouts in any particular category. 

Beans are the plant world's reigning monarchs in protein content, packing roughly 30-60% of your daily recommended intake (DRI). Queen among queens is the soybean, with nearly 29g (57%) per cup. All beans contain at least 30% of your DRI. If you are vegetarian or simply avoid animal proteins due to (largely well-founded) health concerns, then the bean family, which includes lentils and green peas, are a phenomenal resource.

Folate is a broad group of B-vitamin nutrients, of which folic acid - the only form found in fortified foods - is just one. Women in particular are familiar with the need for adequate folate intake, as it is a key nutrient in female reproductive health, insofar as reducing the risk of neural tube defects in pregnant women. Beyond this well-published benefit, folate is a key contributor to human neurological health, maintenance of a healthy colon, and - when combined with zinc sulfate, has been shown to augment male sperm count by 74%, along with their motility and morphology rates. While folate (from the latin root word for 'leaf') is often associated with dark, leafy greens, beans are the single greatest source of this nutrient, with lentils (90% of DRI) leading the charge, and pinto and garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas) comprising a close second.

Fiber. Yet again, in this category, beans occupy the top nine spots in the world's best source of dietary fiber. From navy beans (76% DRI) to kidney beans (45% DRI), fiber is the digestive system's ally, providing all the benefits to general health that we've already outlined just above.

Cruciferous vegetables

While we covered this category of wonder foods in detail in Week 8's post, any list would be incomplete without them. The group is varied, and includes such seemingly different vegetables as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, turnips, bok choy, and Chinese cabbage, in addition to arugula, horse radish, radish, wasabi, and watercress. Part of their key value as a group is their glucosinates, which offer several benefits, including reduction of lung and colorectal cancer risk, and fortification of the gut's lining - keeping toxins inside of it so that the digestive system can purge them. Beyond glucosinates, crucifers are powerful anti-inflammatories. Chronic inflammation, as we reported in Week 3's post - and which is caused in great part by what we eat - can 'lead to environments that foster genomic lesions and tumor initiation' - i.e.: cancer, as summarized in a highly detailed 2006 entry in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine here. Put in plain English: cancer cells feed on inflamed tissue, while the reverse - a reduction in inflammation - starves the cancer cells of the nutrients that allow for their proliferation in our bodies. 

Individually, the nutrients in crucifers vary far more than they do in the bean family. Let's look at three individual all-stars in brief. These three vegetables are individually among the world's healthiest foods.

Broccoli is the plant world's best manager of corporeal inflammation, oxidative stress (which does damage to cells, pointedly DNA) and toxicity. Together, these three processes are interwoven, with an imbalance of one creating an imbalance or reduced ability to manage the others. Broccoli does two things: it manages the relationship between them, and it contains nutrients that are themselves anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and detoxifying. Although we cut inclusion of nutrients off at 7% DRI on the FFFL list, one cup of broccoli contains at least 5% of twenty-four separate vitamins and minerals, making it one of the most robust in the plant kingdom, including 240% of vitamin K, 135% of vitamin C - far more than an orange! - and nearly half of your folate. In addition, that serving provides 8% of your omega-3s, 21% of your fiber and 7% of your protein, to highlight just a few.

Brussels Sprouts top the list of glucosinate content among crucifers, besting even broccoli in this regard and making them an anti-cancer champion. Like broccoli, they are also great detoxifiers, anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants. From a nutrient standpoint, Brussels sprouts contain twenty-one separate vitamins and minerals. Most of these track closely with those in broccoli. Brussels sprouts have the edge in also providing 10% of your iron, and 11% of your omega-3s. Beyond the percentages of your DRI (daily recommended intake) within each category, the specific make-up of glucosinates and anti-oxidants vary between crucifers, and so you will want to vary your intake and sources.

Arugula (called Rocket in the UK) has a bitterness that the Mediterranean farmers where it originates enjoyed, and which, like herbs, green tea and radishes, stimulates an entirely different digestive process than do other non-bitter foods. Those who advocate nutrient balance suggest we get adequate amounts of foods that contain all four basic tastes (leaving umami aside): sweet, salty, bitter, sour. Each one aids in a feeling of satiety, reducing the urge to overeat. Beyond this, bitter foods like arugula activate taste buds that simultaneously promote enzyme production and bile flow. These processes are key to digestion, which breaks down foods into nutrients the body can then use. Besides arugula's broad nutrient base - fourteen vitamins and minerals - these bitter greens are natural liver detoxifiers.

A last note on arugula (and other dark, leafy greens): beyond measuring vitamin and mineral content, an index of great value exists that analyzes content and density of the root nutrients behind the vitamins and minerals that contain them, since vitamin and mineral names are, frankly, just convenient labels for groups of organic compounds produced and consumed by plants and animals alike. The index is called the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), and measures phyto-chemicals like polyphenols, carotenoids, retinoids, glucosinates and chlorophylls, among others. Arugula scores sixth highest on the ANDI, behind other foods you may have intuitively expected: kale, collard greens, bok choy, spinach and Brussels sprouts. ANDI scores don't replace other measures of nutrition in any way. They do provide information about a growing area of scientific research into the relationship between phyto-chemicals and health. While broad conclusions are highly contested, a large number of researchers are beginning to connect high phyto-chemical content with lowered risks of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancers, diabetes and neuro-degeneration. An interesting resource for more information can be found here.

Spinach

Spinach is, gram per gram, the single most nutrient-dense food in the world. So much so that it almost feels like a 'gimme' to spend time discussing it here. But then again, if everyone knew what we do about nutrition, we wouldn't need sites like this to help connect people with real data from people who don't sell anything or have a vested interest in specific outcomes. So where to begin with this god among plants? Spinach is a good to excellent source of twenty-four distinct vitamins and minerals, with a single serving providing your entire DRI of vitamins A and K, the majority of your manganese and folate, and between one quarter and one third of your magnesium, iron, copper, vitamins B2 and B6, vitamin E, calcium, vitamin C and potassium. Like kale, spinach tops the list of bone health-promoting vitamin K, at nearly 1,000% of your DRI in a single serving. After nuts and beans (and soybeans' derivatives, tofu and tempeh), spinach is among the highest sources of plant-based protein, adding 11% of your DRI. Only green peas, at 15% (!) and oats, at 13%, rank higher. Lastly, spinach plays the same anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and detoxifying role as crucifers, keeping your systems healthy.

(Side note: the common green pea is a powerhouse on its own - an excellent source of fifteen vitamins and minerals, has significant protein, as we saw, and 30% of your daily fiber.)

Marine Foods

Salmon, sardines, scallops and shrimp - all in one alliterative breath. What do two fish, one mollusk and a crustacean have in common? Apart from being sea creatures, which matters from a health standpoint, they are perhaps the healthiest contributors to several essential nutrients that are almost entirely absent from the plant world. These include vitamins B12 and D, choline and selenium. B12 is essential to DNA production, brain and nervous system health. Luckily, it can also be stored for years in the body, unlike all other B vitamins. Vitamin D is key to bone health, increasing calcium in the bloodstream. Choline is central to production of phosphatidylcholine - a key structural building block of cells - keeping them elastic yet impermeable. And in addition to its anti-oxidant protection, selenium is responsible (with iodine) for strong thyroid function, turning T4 hormones into T3. In just 2 months of a low-selenium diet, thyroid function can begin to suffer. 

Thus, the inclusion of animal foods is key to ensuring adequate intake of all four key nutrients and avoiding deficiency and its attendant health risks. Salmon provides the second highest density of B12 (236%), the highest of D (128%), the fourth highest of selenium (78%), and reasonable choline (19%) - leading the list among healthy animal foods for that reason. Sardines top the list of B12 (338%), are second best in D (44%), third highest in selenium (87%) and provide reasonable choline (16%). Scallops provide 102% of B12, excellent choline (30%), and 45% of daily selenium. Shrimp provide excellent B12 (78%), chart-topping choline (36% - followed only by that found in egg yolks), and a selenium content (102%) second only to tuna, which we do not recommend due to high mercury content and overfishing.

Apart from these unique nutrients, all four sea creatures provide excellent protein, at approximately half of the DRI, and critical, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon and Sardines each provide more than half the DRI of omega-3s, while scallops and shrimp each provide 15%. Lastly, all four are extremely low in mercury levels and other toxins (if the salmon you eat is from Alaska, which it should be - either sockeye or coho), making them the safest and most sustainable in the aquatic world.

Nuts and seeds

This is another broad category to lump together, but is done so intentionally here. We typically use both food gropus as garnishes: that is, they don't make up the focal point of a meal or even a single dish, unless you're given to meals of PB+J. Serving amounts, similarly, tend to be quite small: a generous sprinkle over a salad; a handful eaten as a snack... Lastly, it would be difficult to single out one nut or one seed as a standout. The fact is, when it comes to individual nutrients, there is likely a nut or a seed that tops the list out of any food, and therefore you should include a variety of these heart-healthy, protein-dense, good-fat-filled mini-foods as a regular part of your daily diet. Some highlights: Peanuts. No food is higher (88% DRI) in biotin - a B-complex vitamin essential to skin health and blood sugar balance (since biotin promotes insulin production). Almonds are second highest, at 49%. Almonds are the second highest food in vitamin E (40%), after Sunflower seeds (at 82%). Vitamin E is a potent anti-oxidant that protects cells from free radical damage, and protects against heart disease by preventing the body's cholesterol from becoming oxidized. Flaxseeds are the food world's reigning champion (133% DRI) in omega-3 fatty acids, which, as we've seen in Week 3's post, are essential fats that reduce chronic inflammation, bad cholesterol, blood pressure, risk of stroke, heart disease, arrythmia, arthritis and dementia. Hemp seeds are a close second, at 127%, with walnuts following closely, at 113%. You should include all of these as a regular part of your diet. They all provide double the amount of omega-3s found in those cold water, fatty fish that we love so much and discussed above, like Alaskan salmon and Pacific sardines.  Sesame seeds - the kind often found on that decidedly unhealthy bagel we love so much - are the highest food in copper (163% DRI). Cashews follow next, at 98%. Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and cashews each comprise a quarter of your DRI of zinc - the highest of any plant-based food. Zinc is an essential nutrient in promoting good immune function and skin health. For men, zinc also increases both the motility and quantity of sperm. Lastly, oddly, low levels of zinc have been associated with loss of taste and appetite. Protein? One serving of hemp seeds delivers 22% of your DRI - more than any other plant-based food, after beans. Almonds, cashews, walnuts, flax and sunflower seeds each deliver approximately 10% of your protein DRI. If you're a vegetarian, nuts and seeds are important sources of this tissue-building and -repairing nutrient.

Oh - and one more thing.

That perfect food day? The one in which a realistic, easy-to-assemble-and-eat set of foods delivers the hypothetical 100% of all daily nutrients? It's not as hard as you might imagine. We've made one, below, simply to illustrate the point. A high-res download is available here. Our one shortfall? Iodine. But if you eat your salmon wrapped up in nori and rice - a la Japanese - you've just hit a 100% day.

Enjoy!

Week 8: Cancer and Diet - a relationship

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

Hippocrates, the author of that statement and the sentiments behind it, was not a hippie quack, a denier of scientific progress or a fearful skeptic of doctors. He is, more than any other, the person who established medicine as a profession separate from philosophy and theology, instituting clinical practice as its methodology. Our experiences with doctors today are largely built on the foundations he laid 2,500 years ago, and he is accordingly considered the father of Western Medicine. Upon licensure, all physicians are still required to take an Oath to uphold the standards contained in a text that he wrote. According to Wikipedia, 'Hippocrates is credited with being the first person to believe that diseases were caused naturally - not because of superstition and gods.'

But just what is it in nature that causes disease?

The answer is incredibly simple. But to uncover it, to believe in that discovery, and to learn how to foster its opposite - health - is an uphill battle. First, we have lost our intuitive connection with food. If you were not born into aristocracy, then 100 years ago you were most likely a farmer, and understood plants, seasons, soil and yield. Today we understand none of it, since as we saw in Week 7's post, fewer than 1% of us still farm. Second, since industrial food conglomerates largely supply the foods that we no longer grow ourselves, their executives are the people determining how healthfully we eat, via the decisions they make and the products that emerge from those decisions. And their chief - if not singular - goal is to make money. This distinction bears little resemblance to the goal of the small farmer insofar as feeding his/her own family, where nutrition comes first. The bigger the company, the greater the influence small decisions in cutting costs have on the 'bottom line', whether in profitability to them or health to you, which are usually at opposite ends of that equation. Besides, there is so much food choice in supermarkets, gas stations and pharmacies today - to say nothing of national restaurant chains - that these companies are engaged in sales warfare, and must compete for your dollars. Overwhelmingly, this is accomplished via sophisticated marketing, through which we are invariably sold a story to lure us into brand loyalty. And this rarely has anything to do with how good something is for you. Quite the opposite: the less healthy and more engineered a product is, the more companies profit and hence the more they invest in selling it. And the strategy succeeds in large part because it's nearly impossible for us to gauge the actual healthfulness of most food products, since the long list of engineered substances they comprise are things we've never seen, smelled or touched in Nature. And so we rely on others to tell us what's good for us, and must spend our mental energies trying to divine truth from market-speak. We covered this phenomenon at length in Week 4's post: Food Words - Science or Snake OilThird, the food industry that dominates the West has so successfully taken control of the business of food via advertisements, websites, games, characters, lobbying, national policy and even Law, which are aimed collectively at creating economic health, that it is near impossible to practice healthy eating without overcoming the tidal wave of temptations that are designed to prevent most of us from doing so. It's just not good business.

To come back to that 'incredibly simple answer' to what causes disease, it's the processing of our foods. But if you've been following us closely, you already know that. We could fill multiple posts simply tabulating the specific health risks associated with each engineered food-like substance. Instead, we try to include one example each week that illustrates the point. In week 6's post, we learned that the modern process of milling wheat into flour - in which it is stripped of its bran, germ, endosperm, fiber and bulk (coarseness) - results in a 50% content loss of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B9 (folate) and E, and an equal amount of calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and fiber. We learned that in addition to that loss, the resulting wheat flour converts immediately into sugar once it reaches your stomach, where your pancreas starts going haywire producing insulin and spiking blood sugar levels. This week we will take it a step further, and explore the relationship between wheat and cancer.

Wheat flour is just one of many high-glycemic foods, so named because as we just mentioned, it converts quickly into sugar once ingested. A food's glycemic index is a tool for understanding how quickly and how much foods raise your blood sugar level once ingested. High glycemic foods are known to seriously increase the risk of the now-familiar triumvirate of modern disease: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This article by Harvard's School of Public Health provides a good overview on carbohydrates and blood sugar. Another good resource for understanding the glycemic load on common foods, posted by Harvard Medical School's Publications division, is here. In the HMS link, you'll notice that the list is overwhelmingly comprised of highly processed foods that make up 90% of our diets, according to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and also covered in Week 7's post.

Why focus on wheat? Because it's one of the most consumed foods in the United States, via sandwiches, pastas, snack foods, baked goods, desserts, cereals and even salads. And so unpacking what we consume and how we consume it is of great relevance to the discussion of cancer, as we'll see in a moment. 

First, let's look at the difference in the glycemic loads of two ingredients that to the typical shopper are opposite in health promotion: those of  'white' flour and 'whole wheat' flour breads. Both rate an identical 71 on the glycemic scale's 100-point index, qualifying them as high-glycemic foods - i.e.: quick to convert into pure sugar. Yet we are ever seduced by marketing campaigns into thinking whole wheat is healthier than 'white' wheat. It is, but only if consumed in whole grain form - i.e.: not milled into flour. Once wheat of any kind is milled, as the majority of so-called whole wheat products are, there is precious little difference. They become sugar and are devoid of the key nutrients that unmilled wheat carries as a living plant. Thus we encourage you to read food labels carefully, and avoid flour-based products altogether. If it says 'flour', it's simply not good for you. This resource by the Whole Grains Council allows you to find whole grain breads in a searchable database, to find good products or see how the ones you use measure up. In general, we highly recommend replacing non-whole grains (i.e.: any flour product) with their less processed counterpart. Sprouted grains are especially valuable, since beyond comprising whole grains, the act of sprouting lowers their gluten and starch content while preserving valuable enzymes and amino acids. These are often referred to as 'live' foods, and can be found easily in national grocery chains, in addition to specialty food shops - sometimes in the freezer section. A good resource that lists and grades sprouted grain-type breads is here

So what do high-glycemic foods have to do with cancer, anyway? Everything. The sugars promote insulin resistance. Insulin resistance creates and environment that is conducive to tumor growth in your body, according to the American Institute of Cancer Research. For example, the risk of colon cancer increases by 300% in a high-glycemic diet, according to Dr. Liu and his fellow researchers at Harvard Medical School.

Which brings me to a personal story.

In the Fall of 2003, I received a call from my brother Jordan, a 38-year old Harvard-trained physician and proponent of holistic healing. Holistic healing centers on the belief that psychological health and diet are partners with Western medical science in providing long-term health. I was living in Hong Kong at the time, and he in Western Massachusetts, in no small part because of its proximity to both the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, where he meditated regularly, and the Kushi Institute, the American epicenter of Macrobiotics where he took most of his meals and learned all of his dietary practices. This was for two reasons: first, because of the ulcerative colitis from which he had suffered since the age of seventeen and which had wreaked havoc on his large intestine for more than half of his life; and second, because as an undergraduate student, he had taken a sabbatical from Harvard to live among a specific group of Tibetan monks who had proven through meditation to be able to exert a high degree of physiological control over their bodies. And his interest in learning from them was related to his own health challenges.

On the phone in Hong Kong, Jordan told me that his cancer had returned - for the fifth time - and that it was stage IV. Our family had lived through his first - a pineal blastoma (brain cancer) diagnosed at the age of 22 - from which he later became the disease's first-ever recorded long-term survivor. I knew about his ulcerative colitis and that it increased his risk of colon cancer, if untreated surgically. What I didn't know was that in the years between that odyssey and our phone call, he had already twice fought colon cancer; that this was his third such diagnosis; and that he had chosen to keep this information from his entire family. The reason, in part, was because he had declined surgery both times, striking a recurring bargain with his frustrated doctors: that if the cancer hadn't completely disappeared in twelve months following the diagnosis, without surgery or other Western medical intervention, he would allow the operation on his colon to take place. His plan was to heal himself through meditation and diet - and nothing else. And he knew our family would have likely pressured him emphatically to operate.

Like Hippocrates, my brother was no quack. He was a member of Mensa since the age of 10. He enjoyed our century-old high school's highest-ever grades. He went to Harvard at 17, after 11th grade, where he was elected Phi Beta Kappa and graduated Magna Cum Laude. And he finished Harvard Medical School as its valedictorian in spite of tackling brain cancer during his first year - the cancer from which he had been given a 0% of surviving. Jordan was a remarkable human being by every possible measure. He also firmly believed - to the point of putting his own life literally on the line - that his and others' path to health was through connecting his mind with his body, and through diet.

Twelve months after the onset of both of his battles with stage II colorectal cancer, by adhering to nothing more than a self-prescribed regimen of daily meditation informed by his Tibetan experience and a strict macro-biotic diet that Michio Kushi himself had created for my brother at his institute, Jordan's tumors disappeared and were, upon each final medical examination, untraceable. Both times, his doctors' reaction was the same: 'It's impossible'. And both times, my brother felt vindicated in his beliefs.

Back in Hong Kong, Jordan told me on the phone that this latest colon cancer was Stage IV, having spread to his lymph nodes and through them to other organs. He had chosen to tell us - his family - only because of this. He had entered hospice so that he could free himself of daily responsibilities, to allow him to re-double his focus on healing himself. He insisted, emphatically, incessantly, that he had no intention of dying. 

My brother lived another nine months, battling 25-plus tumors everywhere from his brain to his lungs to his stomach and beyond. The largest - in his stomach - was the size of a cantaloupe. The week before that - the last in which he was able to articulate his thoughts - he reiterated that he had no intention of dying, but instead was grappling for one final piece to the mental mystery of healing. To his last breath, he felt he could heal himself, as he had done so many times before.

_____________

I include this story not to suggest the mind's absolute control over the body, or that diet alone is a panacea. Jordan's is, however, one of countless examples - in this case a very personal one - that points to the equally irrefutable influence of both diet and our psychological state over our health. My brother would not have been able to make his tumors disappear had his diet, or mind, or both not supported it. In tribute to my brother, I offer a web link to the only online presence he has: 2 enlightening interviews at the 2000 Macrobiotic Summer Conference, in which he discusses his battles and his medical philosophy - here.

We at FFFL are not doctors, oncologists, or cancer researchers. Cancer may well not be 'curable', capable only of going into remission, whether temporarily or permanently. It is likely caused by factors that are equally genetic, environmental and chemical. That said, diet has been proven many times to slow, stop or reverse cancer's spread - often completely, in people across the globe. The same holds for other chronic diseases that are as varied as the stories and people associated with each. I include links to just five testimonials/videos below in which the only common thread is the adoption of a plant-based diet and a resulting remission of cancer. To reiterate: we are not in any way advocating refusal of conventional medical treatment in the case of a cancer diagnosis. Our interest lies in exploring and sharing what we have learned about the very real power of diet in influencing health, lowering risk and reversing disease. Some stories:

  1. Ruth Heidrich, PhD - breast, lung, bone and liver cancer. Cancer-free since 1982
  2. Kelly Binkoski - invasive ductal carcinoma, triple-negative. Cancer-free since 2014
  3. Scott Gill - stage IV colon cancer. Cancer-free since 1990
  4. Candace-Marie Fox - stage III thyroid cancer. Cancer-free since 2014
  5. Kris Carr - stage IV liver and lung cancer. Cancer-stable since 2005

Moving onto to diet itself, let's look at three specific foods (or groups), their relevant key nutrients and the current science that links them to cancer prevention. A powerful paper prepared for the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly by the University of Oxford, the National Cancer Institute and Harvard University's School of Public Health - included in full here - proposes that dietary factors account for 30% of all cancers, making it second only to tobacco use in cancer promotion. In one section, they list diet as being responsible for 80% of the increase in colon cancer rates between developed and developing countries, where colorectal cancer rates are ten-fold higher in the former than they are in the latter.

The most studied group of cancer-fighting foods are crucifers - aka brassicas. These include broccoliBrussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, turnips, bok choy, and Chinese cabbage, as well as arugula, horse radish, radish, wasabi, and watercress. All crucifers contain sulfur-containing compounds called glucosinolates, which have been shown to reduce certain types of cancer, either by removing carcinogens from the body before they can alter DNA, or by preventing normal cells from being transformed into cancerous ones. They are of particular interest in the prevention of lung and colorectal cancers. It is advised to consume these foods raw, for two reasons: 1 - the act of chewing results in glucosinolate hydrolysis - which creates the indoles and isothiocyanates that do the protecting; and 2 - cooking inactivates the enzymes that catalyze the all-important hydrolosis that protects us. Nutritional scientists also recommend cruciferous vegetables for their ability to fortify your gut's lining. This lining is all that separates the contents of your gut from your bloodstream. The anti-inflammatory, immune-strengthening properties of crucifers' indoles strengthen the lining, allowing toxins to remain trapped inside and be purged without seeping into your bloodstream and causing inflammatory havoc. Table 1 midway through the linked article here from OSU's Linus Pauling Institute lists crucifers in order of their glucosinolate quantity.

Coffee is the most popular drink in the United States. 83% of us drink it - making us the world's largest consumer. Coffee has several compounds that are of interest with regard to cancer. Caffeine speeds carcinogens' (and other toxins') passage through the digestive tract, reducing the time our bodies are exposed to them and lowering our risk of colorectal cancers. It also contains the antioxidant cholorogenic acid, which reduces inflammation and promotes self-destruction of cancer cells. Lastly, coffee's lignans regulate cell growth and promote the self-destruction of abnormal cells, including cancer. More information on coffee's anti-cancer properties can be found at the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) here.

Beans are an area of great interest, and not just for their cancer-fighting properties. The plant kingdom's best source of protein, beans are also vitamin and mineral powerhouses. Beans are high in fiber, which creates the sensation of fullness and helps regulate digestion, pushing toxins and carcinogens through digestion more quickly, as with coffee. Further still, beans are low in sugar, which prevents over-production of insulin, helping to decrease hunger. Together, these properties significantly assist us in achieving weight loss and reducing body fat, lowering the risk of inflammatory diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Lastly, beans contain the plant world's highest levels of anti-oxidants, which helps us to eliminate free radicals that have been cited widely in cancer prevention studies. In one, the National Center for Biotechnology Information conducted an eight-year study in Uruguay - where legumes are a major part of the national diet - and found a those individuals in the top third of bean (and lentil) consumption had significant decreases in the risk of the following cancers: oral cavity, pharynx, esophagus, larynx, upper aero-digestive tract, stomach, colorectal and kidney. AICR concurs that regular legume consumption convincingly reduces the risk of colorectal cancers - citing both its fiber, which we've discussed, and its folate, which regulates DNA and cell growth - as key to their conclusion. AICR is a treasure trove of information on plant foods and their ability to reduce the risk of cancer. We encourage you to explore their links and data related to a number of food groups here.

On the flip side, certain foods and their effect on our physiognomy have been shown to greatly increase our risk of cancers. These include red meat (colorectal cancer), alcohol (mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, colon and breast cancers) and body fatness - primarily caused by a high-sugar, highly processed diet (cancer of the oesophagus, pancreas, colon, breast, endometrium and kidney). Minimizing intake of these foods and remaining lean are of central importance in reducing risk. 

So what to conclude?

Plant-based foods are not a panacea. Eating crucifers will not guarantee you will live a cancer-free life, nor will a diet that includes adzuki beans guarantee a reversal in your colorectal cancer diagnosis. We do not encourage you to forego the (surgeon's) knife in favor of the (table) fork. Those are personal choices, and surgery is directly responsible for innumerable lives being saved across the world. 

What we are saying is that there is abundant nutritional, biochemical and molecular evidence, researched and supported by world's most respected institutes, that a plant-based diet in general - and one that includes key nutrients and food groups in particular - directly lowers your risk of many cancers. The most comprehensive book ever published on the links between food, nutrition, physical activity and cancer prevention, a summary of which can be found here, includes a fantastic matrix on pages 8 and 9 that maps foods to their likely influence on cancer factors. Created by a global partnership of more than 200 scientists and experts in 2007 and funded by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), the full report - all 537 pages of it - can be found here.

Copyright FFFL

Beyond food, we know that non food factors significantly contribute to your overall state of health: your genetics, lifestyle (e.g.: smoking), psychological well-being and stresses, as well as environmental factors (e.g.: air pollution), quality of sleep, level of fitness, etc. etc. 

But food is our fuel. It feeds us on a molecular level and promotes or inhibits every one of the millions of bio-chemical and bio-mechanical processes that keep us alive and healthy, or make us sick. Food influences what genes express themselves, and which are suppressed. What you put in your body matters - more than anything else - and can influence the other factors we listed above significantly. Without a healthy diet, like so many others before him, my brother's life would have been considerably shorter that it was. And while death by cancer at the age of thirty-eight is a tragedy, his diet bought him the most precious of human commodities - one for which I will personally be forever grateful and which made the difference beyond all others. 

Time.

 

 

Week 7: Food Dollars - How our Choices are Making us Sick

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish.

While Robert Burton, the Oxford Professor and author, first coined the idiom in 1621 in reference to the English Pound, the enduring expression, currently defined by www.dictionary.com as 'stingy about small expenditures and extravagant with large ones', is perfect for describing our food priorities, including those that have landed us in an increasingly global health crisis, fueled by diet-induced obesity and related medical expenditure. 

In simple terms, the US Government - through its policies and subsidies, and individual Americans - through our choices in how we spend our dollars, are partners in the paradoxical creation of a food desert in the world's richest country.

The reason is twofold.

First, we have drastically reduced the amount of money we spend (or are willing to spend) on food. In a 2012 article in The Atlantic, writer Derek Thompson provides some startling graphs on the shifting nature of the American budget. In the 103 years between 1900 and 2003, family food expenditure dropped a whopping 30%, from 43% to 13% of total income. Ditto clothing, which today consumes just 4% of our budget, a 10% reduction from 1900 levels. Three questions arise from this data. Ignoring clothing for a moment, the first is: what has transpired that caused us to spend that much less on food? Part of the answer is, we have become a lot richer - 68 times richer - than we were in 1900, when over half the country worked in agriculture and there were more servants than sales workers. Thus food prices, which have dropped dramatically while wages have increased - especially since WWII, when manufacturing buoyed the American middle class, simply represent a smaller amount of an increasing budget. The other major reason for our reduced spend can be addressed with a second question: why have food prices dropped? The answer here is less benign: as family farming has withered and factory farming has emerged, in large part due to federal subsidies, the focus on food yield has overwhelmingly replaced the focus on food quality, for reasons of commercial gain. Put another way, we used to grow food to maximize our family's nutrition-based health - or buy it from someone who did so for us. Today, however, we have outsourced that job to large companies whose sole charge is to maximize shareholder profit. This is accomplished two ways: driving down costs by maximizing volume (yield) while using the least expensive source ingredients; and finding increasing ways of parting consumers with their dollars by creating new food products. We will come back to factory farming and the US Government in a minute.

But first, regardless of what Big Ag and Uncle Sam are up to, I can't help but dwell on the fact that we used to readily spend 43% of our precious income on eating; and yet today, as rich as we have become as a country by contrast to our earlier selves, we spend just 13% and complain about food prices vociferously. To understand the full picture, we need to look at where we are spending those dollars, if not on foods that prioritize our long term health.

Which brings us to our third question: what are we doing with the 'extra' 40% in discretionary income? The answers may or may not surprise you. First, housing has become more expensive, and accordingly we have increased our housing spend by 10%, according to Derek Thompson's chart. Income spent on health care costs, by contrast, have risen just 1% over a hundred year period. How? The US Government, both directly and via your employer, has picked up the tab - to the tune of three times what we as individuals spend, according to Thompson. Health care spending today comprises 16% of the entire US economy - a rate that has quadrupled in the past 50 years. In 2005, the US spent $190 Billion treating obesity-related conditions alone, according to a study cited by Harvard's School of Public Health. That money comes from taxes. In other words, we are spending more on healthcare - via taxation - to treat the conditions we have created through our dietary choices.  

But that still leaves roughly 18% more income on the table, once you neutralize the so-called necessities. Where is it going? Chart 43, on page 67 of the linked 2006 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows us that we have increased our spend on non-necessities by 28% since 1900. To quote the final paragraph in the study: 

In the 21st century, households throughout the country have purchased computers, televisions, iPods, DVD players, vacation homes, boats, planes, and recreational vehicles. They have sent their children to summer camps; contributed to retirement and pension funds; attended theatrical and musical performances and sporting events; joined health, country, and yacht clubs; and taken domestic and foreign vacation excursions. These items, which were unknown and undreamt of a century ago, are tangible proof that U.S. households today enjoy a higher standard of living.

So we've chosen iPods over pea pods. But at what cost?

Let's return to what we eat. About 90% of the dollars Americans spend on food goes to buying processed food products, according to Eric Schlosser, author of the seminal Fast Food Nation. But how come there's so much junk food on the shelves in the first place, and where are all the vegetables, fruits and other healthy produce we should be eating instead? To understand this, we need to first look at the American farm. Farming, which before WWII comprised 50% of all US jobs, accounts for less than 1% today. Of the 2.2 million farms that remain, according to the group Farm Kind, 90.5% of those are family-run, small to medium sized farms that produce in total 32% of our food. The remaining 9.5% of farms are large to extra large - what we would term agri-businesses. These mega-farms produce over two thirds of our food, at nearly 67%. Their operations are heavily underwritten by the US Department of Agriculture, which spends $30 billion per year on subsidies to farms - more than half of which goes to the tiny share of mega-farms that are supplying most of our food. Shockingly, over 90% of all funding - for small or mega-farms alike, according to the Cato Institute, goes to just five crops: corn, rice, wheat, soybeans and cotton. Ignoring the last non-food crop, the United States Government, through its subsidies, is in essence paying businesses to grow a very specific set of nutrients - nutrients that are unsurprisingly the foundation of the junk foods on which we spend 90% of our food dollars. We will come back to one of these - corn - in a moment.

So, in summary: we are spending less on food and more on lifestyle products and services; what we do spend is overwhelmingly spent on junk foods comprised of corn, soy, wheat and rice created by mega-farms, refined beyond recognition into calorie-empty food products by mega-companies; and the US Government is aiding and abetting the whole enterprise through subsidies, while admonishing us (on occasion) for not eating enough vegetables.

Hmm.

So how much more expensive is it to eat healthy, anyhow, assuming we can resist the temptation of snack foods, we are willing to spend money on real foods, and we will spend time to prepare our own meals with that nutritious produce after a long and exhausting day at work?

As reported in a 2007 New York Times article, Americans spend an average of $7 a day on food - $4 for the lowest income individuals. A 2,000 calorie diet of junk food averages just $3.52, according to the study cited in the article, while they posit that an equal calorie day's worth of high-nutrient, low-calorie foods would cost over ten times that amount - or $36.32. But to stop reading there would be to miss the big picture, for two reasons: first, calorie-empty (junk) foods leave our bodies less satisfied than whole foods, making us consume (far) more of it than we otherwise would, increasing our relative spend; and second, a calorie is not just a calorie, when it comes to nutrition. As we saw in Week 5's post, a 'Double Gulp' from Seven-Eleven, at 750 calories, is the caloric equivalent of 15 servings - or 5 lbs. - of broccoli. The soda delivers zero nutrition - not one vitamin or mineral - starving our body and making it ask for more 'food'. The (hypothetically possible) consumption of that much broccoli, on the other hand, provides 100-3,000% of our daily requirement of eighteen different vitamins and minerals. Besides the insanity of the comparison, the roughly $5 worth of broccoli would provide both nutrition and fullness well in excess of three times the cost of the roughly $1.75 soda, making it a clear value for money, from a nutrition perspective. So when we compare dollars and food choices, we need to look at the correlation between calories and nutrition. In that sense, the numbers don't support a dire conclusion.

A 2008 study by the USDA here used Nielsen Homescan Data to determine the average cost of 153 commonly consumed fresh and processed fruits and vegetables. They found that the average American could satisfy the USDA's dietary recommendation for fruits and vegetables for just $2 to $2.50 per day. At the bottom of each list: watermelon - at $0.17 per cup, and pinto beans, at $0.13 per cup. The 244-calorie beans are an excellent source of 7 vitamins and 9 minerals; while the watermelon is a good source of 6 vitamins and 3 minerals. And that nutritional powerhouse, broccoli? A single 55-calorie serving would cost about $.30. In short, your $2 could go extremely far in supplying you with all of your dietary needs. 

It is not expensive to eat well. It is simply a choice.

Now that we've determined it's possible to eat healthy foods on a budget, we need to look at how those good foods are produced, shipped and sold, to fully appreciate their true cost. While all fruits and vegetables are better for you, on balance, than any other food category, there are several considerations with regard to each food that greatly affect its nutritional value to us as consumers, as well as its price. These include classifications (conventional, organic, pasture-raised...) farming (pre-harvest) practices (fertilization, pre-peak harvesting, mono-cropping...), post-harvest practices (food coatings; chemical bio-retardation; food handling...), food transportation (distance, method...) and finally point of sale practices (handling, pre-processing, storage...). 

All of these have two primary points of influence: 1 - the people creating our food, and the choices they make with regard to what to grow and how; and 2 - the post-harvest life of that food, and its influence over nutrient retention and cost to consumer. 

There has been no shortage of discussion around the subject of 'local' vs. 'global' eating. If anything, the 'locavore' movement is gaining in speed and popularity, with countless restaurants sourcing their entire menu within the 100-mile accepted standard for 'local', and listing individual farms from which they purchase their foods, treating meals like artisanal labors of love. There is also no shortage of studies around the subject. One, by Kathleen Frith - the former Managing Director of the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School - echoes the conclusions we have read in a number of reports: as a general truth, factory (global) farms focus primarily on yield to maximize profit, at the expense of nutrient density (breed selection and soil richness being two major factors), while small (local) farms focus primarily on taste (which correlates strongly with nutrient density and variation) in order to ensure a strong customer base. On the cost side, large factory farms are production dynamos, using scale and efficiency to reduce expenses, while the inefficiencies of a small family farm has neither the scale nor costly machines of their mega-competitors, driving their prices upward. Conversely, the mega-farms rely invariably on costly transportation - by plane, boat, train and truck - to distribute their goods to consumers to a wide network of buyers, while small farms tend to travel fewer miles to sell their produce, reducing their operating costs in that regard. In the end, however, food bought at a farmer's market, from an upscale grocer or from a food co-op (the three primary outlets by which these farms to reach customers) will most likely cost more money - perhaps significantly - than conventional produce sold to mega-corporations like Costco or national supermarket chains like Kroger. The same goes for an 'organic' product vs. a 'conventional' one: the former costs more because the labor, acreage, supplies and, in the case of livestock, the physical environment that supports the animals' own health - all consume additional capital. So, if dollars spent directly on food are your only consideration, by need or by choice, you can write off the world of small farm, organic, heirloom, wild-caught, small batch, hand-picked, lovingly raised foods as conceits for those with the disposable income to care about these things. And perhaps, you can spend just enough to choose factory-farmed vegetables over snack foods, because in the end, it really is affordable to eat good food, and the gulf between the two food groups' nutrient values to you as a biological machine is the fundamental difference between health and sickness. So if that's all you take away from this, we've done our job. 

But.

There are two additional considerations we must recognize before making that decision. The first of these has solely to do with our health - in terms of nutritional value. Produce crops grown by small-farm, local business owners are by every measure more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. From soil charging to mono-culturing to doubling crop cycles to breeding nutrient-inferior breeds to using synthetic pesticides to harvesting 'sub-ripe' foods to transporting long distances to pre-processing foods, the choices made by factory farms at every step diminish the nutrition in their food products. An excellent report from the Organic Center called Still No Free Lunch - one we encourage you to read - illuminates dozens of studies across the US and UK on the subject of nutrient decline in our food system over the decades. One such UK study found that we would have to eat three apples in 1991 to supply the same iron content as one apple in 1940; and that broadly, British spinach's potassium content dropped by 53%, its phosphorous by 70%, iron by 60% and copper by 96% over the same period. In the US, a 2004 University of Texas study sifted through 50 years of USDA food composition data for 13 nutrients in 43 garden crops - comparing what we grew at home with what is now commercially farmed. Their conclusion? Declines in concentrations of 6 key nutrients: 6% for protein; 16% for calcium; 9% for phosphorous; 15% for iron; 38% for riboflavin (B2); and 20% for vitamin C. By contrast, not one nutrient in any food measured over a 50-year period increased in value.

In this sense, we are incontestably getting more for our money when buying foods grown by the small farm. I could fill an entire blog with examples and data comparing the levels of vitamins and minerals of any crop grown each way. To make the point, I will offer one example for one of the many key decision stages in the life of a food crop: varietal selection. Corn is the biggest crop in the United States, comprising 30% of all US farmland. More than 25% of supermarket foods contain corn, according to author and health guru Michael Pollan. Rick Sietsema, a corn farmer from Allendale, pegs it at 75%. Perhaps more shocking still, a strand of hair belonging to Dr. Sanjay Gupta - CNN's telegenic health reporter - was tested with a mass spectrometer, which can evaluate tissue on a molecular level to pinpoint its sources: 69% of his hair's carbon molecules were made of corn. He is an 'average American' in this regard. Thus, corn's nutritional value is perhaps more important than that of any other food crop. This stunning chart shows the comparison of non-GMO to GMO corn - the latter comprising 88% of all corn produced in the US. The upshot: within the same cultivar (that is, comparing yellow corn to yellow corn), non-GMO corn contains between 6 and 438 times the nutrient levels of phosphate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, sulfur, cobalt, iron, zinc and molybendum as that in GMO corn. The graphic below reviews the toxicity and nutrient decline in GMO corn in detail. Between cultivars (that is, comparing yellow corn to its more historically plentiful cousins, blue and purple, for example), there are also differences. Blue corn contains almost 30% more anthocyanin - a key phytonutrient. This chart from a 2013 New York Times article demonstrates how, through cultivar selection across dozens of popular crops - not to mention their genetic modification - our agri-businesses have overwhelmingly opted to grow crops for maximum yield and robustness, at the significant expense of nutrition. 

Copyright FFFL

The bottom line is this: to maximize nutrient levels per calorie consumed - which does translate to dollars spent, since organic and/or small-farm foods are more nutritious than conventional - we should opt for the least industrial varietals and sources for each. As we've already discussed, the farmer's market is your best bet, while the organic section in your supermarket is a decent second choice.

Our final consideration for spending more money on food than we as a population do today examines the hidden costs - that $190 Billion in annual US spending on obesity-related chronic disease for which we pay via taxes or direct personal expense - that we discussed earlier. Even if you, personally, are 'healthy' - by which I mean you haven't had surgeries such as bypass, bariatric, liver or kidney transplant, colectomy, etc. - you have paid for it regardless via taxes on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have. This money, if redistributed equally among the two thirds of the US population that qualifies as overweight today, would add $2.36 per day to each of their food wallets - enough to pay in full for the USDA's daily recommended intake of fruits and vegetables, in perpetuity.

By several measures, then, we cannot afford not to eat nutritious foods:

  • We used to spend four times as much money on food 100 years ago as we do today, with all our newfound wealth
  • We pay for this privilege with our health, costing US taxpayers an obscene amount of money on disease control - five times what we spent on the same modern diseases just 30 years ago
  • We pay for it with the decline in nutrient values - nutrients which are absent in processed snack foods - but which even for fruits and vegetables are plummeting at mega-farms due to their choices and practices, requiring us consumers to eat an ever greater amount of both to deliver the same nutrients as those foods' pre-engineered, pre-industrialized selves

We strongly encourage you to prioritize healthy eating over non-necessity spending. It's less expensive than you think, in direct outlay; and the hidden costs of not doing so are exorbitant and shared by all of us.

Put down the iPod. Pick up that pea pod.


Week 6: Vitamins - A Comprehensive Guide

What are vitamins, anyway?  We all know we need them. We know that malnourishment stems from a deficiency in them, among other nutrients.  Many of us even have a vague sense that we’re probably not getting our full dosage on a regular basis, but rationalize, “Well, I’m still alive and kicking, so does it really matter?”  Maybe the word conjures up memories of choking down massive, oddly metallic-tasting pills or dinosaur-shaped Flintstones tablets. Maybe you’re one of those folks who swears by loading up on massive doses of Vitamin C at the first sign of an oncoming cold. But really, if you had to explain to someone who had no concept of what a vitamin is, could you tell them where they’re found, what they do and why they are so crucial to the processes and functions that keep our bodies running? Could you explain to that person why you’re downing all that Vitamin C, in the hopes that you can fight off that cold before it fully sets in?

Merriam-Webster defines a vitamin as ‘a natural substance that is usually found in foods and that helps your body to be healthy.’  Seems straightforward enough. But what about all those letters: A, B, C, D, E and K? And what happened to F, G, H and I? To muddy things further, some vitamins have alternate names, like Retinol – one form of Vitamin A. In addition to aliases, some vitamins are broken down and assigned numbers, like B-Complex vitamins, which include a range of distinct but co-dependent nutrients – 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 12 – aka Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Pyridoxine, Biotin, Folate and Cobalamin, respectively. 

Vitamins—like our bodies themselves—are complicated, but the good news is you don’t need to be a medical professional to understand what you need and be confident you’re doing right by your health.  As long as you can familiarize yourself with a few basic concepts and terms, and ensure adequate intake of a broad variety of real, whole foods in your diet on a regular basis, you can be reasonably confident about your vitamin levels. 

One critical thing to remember about vitamins, as with any other nutrient: intake is not the same thing as absorption.  For example: if you swallow a pill whose label tells you it contains 4,000% of your Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) of vitamin ‘X’, by no means can you take it for granted that you’ve actually supplied your body with 4,000% of that vitamin.  For starters, your system has a limit to what it can absorb for immediate use on its way through your digestive tract before being excreted.  On average, foods take anywhere from 30-48 hours to pass through our system before being eliminated; and specific nutrients have particular locations within the digestive tract where they are absorbed. Since water-soluble vitamins in particular cannot be stored by the body and pass relatively quickly through your system, and since the body can only absorb so much at once, then often, the overabundance of a nutrient is excreted before it has a chance to ‘do the body good’.

Another important thing to note: if you’re relying on artificial supplements, you need to know whether it is in a form that can be absorbed and used by your body – aka bio-available. At the health food store or pharmacy you’ll find aisles full of lab-developed – i.e. synthetic – versions of every vitamin, but in many cases our bodies don’t even know what to do with them.  An excellent example: we’ve been taught that Ascorbic Acid and Vitamin C are the same thing, ascorbic acid being what you’d find in those little brown bottles on the shelves. Unfortunately they are not in fact the same substance and studies show ascorbic acid doesn’t provide any of the same health benefits as actual Vitamin C as found in natural sources. In fact, these pills pass through your system without benefiting it in any way. Some call this ‘snake oil’. Thus Vitamin C tablets – whatever the dose – unfortunately won’t save you from that cold. This is why we stress the importance of obtaining vitamins from actual food sources – sources our bodies recognize and which allow us to effectively process, absorb and synthesize what they need. 

Most doctors and nutritionists agree that synthetic supplements are inferior to a healthy balanced diet for gleaning your nutrients, and many even argue that some if not all of those benefits pass through you unabsorbed.  Conversely, there are vitamins (the fat-soluble variety to be specific) that don’t get flushed when they should — instead they’re stored for later use, contributing to hyper-dosages that can actually become toxic in excess, or that can throw your body’s natural balance.  We will discuss this in a minute. Another important thing to remember about vitamins is that more is definitely NOT always better.  Even when consumed from healthy sources, vitamin excess can cause damage as readily as can a deficiency.

We’ve created a comprehensive chart as an at-a-glance reference to explain the specific roles each vitamin plays in keeping us healthy, including the body systems and functions with which each one is most closely associated; daily recommended doses for average healthy adults; and the healthiest sources for obtaining each. One caveat: there are plenty many situations in which your ideal consumption levels will vary from the generic, including, health conditions. The levels we have included in our chart are for the ‘average’ man or woman.

Copyright FFFL

 Water-soluble vs. Fat-soluble

Water- and fat-soluble vitamins are exactly how they sound: vitamins that dissolve in either water or fat, respectively. If you’re wondering why this is important, picture a bottle of olive oil and vinegar salad dressing.  The oil sits atop the water-based vinegar in a distinct layer, because the oil is less dense than the vinegar. As we all know, oil and water (or vinegar) don’t mix. You can shake that bottle all you want to form an emulsion (i.e.: combine them), but if you let the bottle settle, it’ll invariably separate once again. However, if you were to combine two oils – say olive and walnut – they would have no trouble bonding. Ditto vinegar and lemon juice – both water-based foods. For the record, this is not about salad dressing – it’s just there to illustrate a point. 

What we are saying is that fat-soluble vitamins need to be consumed with fats in order for the body to absorb them; otherwise they pass through unused. By contrast, water-soluble vitamins are readily absorbed without additional need, because water is readily on hand for use with digestion.

To wit: all B Complex Vitamins and Vitamin C are water-soluble, so they dissolve in the water in your body as soon as they’ve been ingested. Unfortunately, this readily available format also means that they’re easily flushed out of our systems, which means it’s important to make sure we get adequate amounts of each on a consistent, even daily basis.  Fortunately, because of their transient nature in our body, it’s extremely difficult to consume too much of these vitamins from food sources, as any excess is excreted as waste, obviating the need to worry about toxicity. 

Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, on the other hand, are dissolved and absorbed by fat globules that are present in our digestive tracts while passing through, if present. This is why it’s important to consume these vitamins with a healthy fat source like avocado, healthy oils, fatty fish or full-fat dairy.  After being broken down in the small intestine and assimilated into the globules – called Triglycerides – the vitamin stores then make their way into the blood stream to be carried away to other parts of the body and stored in various tissues.  Unfortunately the body doesn’t do a great job of regulating these stores once they’ve been deposited, so the caches grow unchecked and can reach toxic levels if our intake is too high (aka hypervitaminosis.) Thus it is extremely important to be informed about optimal intake levels to ensure we don’t exceed these amounts. Excess intake is relatively easy to avoid when relying on natural food sources for our vitamins rather than on supplements, both because real foods typically don’t contain concentration levels of vitamins as extreme as in supplements; and because our stomachs become full long before we can consume enough food to do vitamin-based damage. On the reverse end of the spectrum, vitamin levels can easily become deficient if our fat intake is too low or fat absorption is compromised, such as in the case of digestive conditions (i.e.: Crohn’s Disease, IBS or Ulcerative Colitis), or by our selective exclusion of food groups, such as when we follow diets or make other dogmatic food-based lifestyle decisions.

 As far as cooking and storing goes, water-soluble vitamins tend to be highly sensitive to light, heat, and of course time, so it is important to try to consume foods in their freshest state with minimal cooking, and to store them in cool, dark places when you won’t be eating them immediately, which slows the decomposition of these nutrients.  Fat-soluble vitamins tend to be more stable and can withstand more abuse with regard to cooking, though they too are sensitive to light and should be stored accordingly.  Keep in mind, however, that when working with real, whole foods, they tend to boast a whole swath of different vitamins, as well as minerals and other nutrients, so it’s generally a good rule of thumb to try and keep these foods relatively intact – i.e.: minimally processed or altered – to minimize damage.  Interestingly, some foods benefit from cooking, as doing so can raise nutrient levels and/or bio-availability (the ability to be absorbed) more so than it their raw state.  You may have heard that the tomato, for instance, is very high in the phytochemical lycopene, but may not know that the amount of lycopene (and its bio-availability) differs greatly whether consumed raw or cooked.  One study conducted by Cornell University showed that while Vitamin C levels unfortunately drop by up to 30% during cooking, lycopene levels increase by 164% after a half-hour.  This provides us with an excellent example of why we should vary our methods of food preparation, since in many cases the levels of nutrients are affected by how we consume them – often in opposite directions.

Vitamins in Pill Form

We at FFFL are not doctors. We are people who have a passion for healthy eating and a penchant for doing research to feed our knowledge.  Naturally we understand that our readers come from all walks of life: male, female, a wide age range, various body types, health conditions and concerns. It is important that you use your best judgment when making decisions for yourself and your family. That being said: from what we – like others – have researched, pills and supplements don’t seem to be the answer. They are synthetic, and their bio-availability, as we’ve seen, doesn’t match that in real foods. Thus, supplements should be relied upon only if your health needs or lifestyle choices really do pose the risk of undermining your ability to otherwise obtain the nutrients you need, from whole foods. This is certainly the case with veganism and vegetarianism, in which the lack of good sources of critical fats, as well as choline, B3, B6 and B12, in particular – all overwhelmingly or exclusively found in animals – can pose a real challenge to ensuring your body gets what it needs to be healthy. This is why we emphatically advocate nutritional completeness over blanket lifestyle choices.

Vitamin-Enriched Foods

As with pill form, vitamin-enriched foods are synthetically added post-processing, most often because industrial processes strip source foods of most health benefits. For example: wheat. Its grain, composed of the germ, bran and endosperm – which sit at the base of the soft ‘crown’ atop each stalk – contain the bulk of its nutrients. The vast majority of wheat-based products in the United States – the breads, pasta, baked goods and snack foods – are milled to 60% extraction. This means that 40% of the original grain has been removed. Sadly, milling also correlates to a 50% loss of its store of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B9 (folate), and E – not to mention an equal loss of other minerals and nutrients, like calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and fiber. By contrast, whole grain foods – not to be confused with whole wheat flour products, as flour of whatever type is milled as described above – maintain 100% of its nutrient integrity. This is why since 1941, the US government has instated laws that require flour-based products be enriched to replace what has been lost. Enrichment means the addition of synthetic forms of vitamins and minerals, as with pills. We’ve seen already that these are poor substitutes to real food sources, with their lack of bio-availability. The same strategy has been widely applied to dairy, due to the destructive nature of pasteurization, as we saw in Week 4’s post; and to eggs, also covered in that post.

The answer, predictably, is to eat real foods that provide ample vitamins in their full complement and in combinations that ensure their absorption and utility.

 

 

Week 5: Diets - Why They Don't Work

"Prohibition didn't work in the Garden of Eden. Adam ate the apple."

This poignant quote by Vincente Fox was about Mexico's drug problems during his tenure, and his attempt to legalize them to take the wind out of the cartels' sails. It didn't happen, of course. But he could just as easily have been referring to diets today. Why? Hunger for the forbidden goes back since long before the story of Adam was written. It's in our genetic code.

We saw in Week 1's post that we need all nutrients found in the human body, in adequate supply, to be present and available when needed in order to function optimally. When it is short-changed of nutrition, as during diets, the body signals the brain to crave whatever it's missing in order to spur the action that will result in its obtainment, short-changing our attempt to deprive it. Diets don't work. They invariably miss the central point that the body needs food from all nutrient categories - categories that include foods that every diet, from the first to the latest, has tried to omit.

Understanding what these nutrients are, what they do for us and where to find them is the first key - and the primary focus of this website. Once we can distinguish health-promoting foods (those produced by nature and which promote health) from unhealthy foods (those altered and/or produced by industry and which promote sickness), we can move on to issues of sourcing, nutrient balances, combinations and preparations that best support your long-term health.

But first, we need to understand the body's biology insofar as how it sees food. Which brings us to diet strategy number one: reduce calories. This is a dangerous game, because it backfires and results in weight gain. To explain: the body is extremely good at managing its fuel supplies. In the absence of adequate intake, the brain (correctly) perceives the loss as a threat, and starts producing large quantities of cortisol and adrenaline, the so-called 'stress hormones'. These in turn send a signal to the body's metabolism to slow down, conserve fuel and reserve the rest for later. Slowing your metabolism prevents nutrients from being absorbed and calories from being burned, i.e.: used up. Instead, the body stores the nutrients it's trying to protect in fat cells, making us gain weight and girth. So, instead of nourishing the body and fueling its metabolic processes, we are telling it to hunker down and hoard what little it has, much as a squirrel does in storing nuts for a long winter. If the nuts aren't eaten and used up, they accumulate. Except that in our case, instead of nuts sitting in a tree, we store fats in our bodies. The result is that losing weight becomes even harder.

This is why dieting by calorie reduction is a game of attrition: even if your overall weight reduces (maybe you're exercising in addition to limiting intake), your willpower to keep starving yourself is pitted continually against your body's inexhaustible ability to produce stress hormones and slow your metabolism. Eventually, biology will triumph. 

Copyright FFFL

So much for diet strategy one. Let's look at another common strategy: reduce fat intake. We saw in Week 3's post that fats are an essential set of dietary nutrients without which our bodies cannot properly function. Fats fuel metabolism. Your brain is comprised of cholesterol and fat - primarily saturated - and needs to be fed in order to function. Without fat, calcium cannot be absorbed by your bones, making them weaker. Fat insulates your liver from the damage of alcohol and medications, and fat coats your nerve endings, protecting them from damage. Further still, unsaturated fats are critical anti-inflammatories that keep the body from attacking itself. 

Fat - saturated or unsaturated - is not the enemy. They are produced by nature for the reasons listed above - to fuel life, when paired with the other nutrients the body evolved to need and use: vitamins, minerals, fiber, carbohydrates, protein and water. The fats that do cause damage are man-made fats, which are called trans-fats. We have covered these extensively in Week 3's post, and won't duplicate that discussion here. 

Besides the profusion of illnesses that inadequate fat intake promotes, the loss of this fuel source chemically tells the body to signal the brain to replace it. But with what? Since the 1977 release of the McGovern report, the 40-year trend in the United States - and subsequently elsewhere - has overwhelmingly been to substitute fats with carbohydrates. Besides fueling vastly different functions in the body, carbohydrates in their most common form - the refined starches, flours and sugars found in nearly every boxed, bagged or bottled item in your supermarket - are not just nutrient poor: they are overwhelmingly responsible for the raft of chronic diseases we as Americans - and those who mimic our dietary habits - are experiencing: heart disease, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, to repeat a few here, conveniently packaged in a human host. A good article by Harvard's School of Public Health on the subject is linked here.

So we can see here that the two most common approaches to dieting: 'eat less' and 'reduce fat intake' are destined to fail and moreover can and do cause severe damage to the people implementing either.

A proper diet - defined in one entry by Miriam-Webster as 'habitual nourishment' - not dieting - defined by M-W in another entry as 'a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight' - must be the foundation of any approach to improved physical and bio-chemical health, if it is to have any chance of success. And a proper diet, if you've not guessed by now, begins with the selection, preparation and consumption of quality, whole, natural, 'unimproved' foods as found in nature. That means eating foods from all nutrient groups that are high in nutrient density and variation, and are as fresh as possible to avoid spoilage and the deterioration of nutrient quantities and qualities. These are the foods with which we evolved, and with which we coexisted almost exclusively until the recent past.

There are other considerations besides food that greatly influence one's health beyond diet. These are obvious, but are worth repeating in brief here because when we speak about diets we are essentially talking about returning to a state of optimal health that supports happiness, longevity and vigor. Adequate sleep is one. Reduction of stress is another. A third - the focus of much ink and in itself a multi-billion dollar business - is exercise.

What we need to remember is that exercise is the expenditure of energy - energy that comes from foods. The more we use, the more we deplete our resources, and the more we need to eat in order to replace what has been lost. At rest, without moving, our bodies use up roughly 1200-1600 calories per day to feed its automatic processes, such as pumping blood, producing cells, operating lungs and other organs; repairing itself, etc. This is called your basal metabolic rate, and you can calculate yours here. From a purely caloric standpoint, if you slept for 24 hours, your body would use that amount to fuel itself. 

Calories ingested beyond these are either stored as fat or used to feed voluntary processes that are the sum total of our physical activity: walking, talking, working, playing or exercising. So you'd expect that what follows is the simple need to consume only as many calories as you use - simple math. Right? Well, yes in mathematical terms. But as Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, writer and Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine says, "food doesn't just contain calories, it contains information. Every bite of food you eat broadcasts a set of coded instructions to the body - instructions that can create either health or disease." He illustrates this point in a web posting here, in which he compares the consumption of 750 calories of soda with 750 calories of broccoli. In terms of size, the first is a 'Double Gulp' from Seven-Eleven, while the latter is 15 servings, or 15 cups / 5 lbs., of broccoli - unlikely as your stomach cannot hold that much volume. Regardless, the theoretical comparison is an important one. Both sources are predominantly carbohydrates, but here again, to paraphrase, a carbohydrate is not a carbohydrate. The results of our consumption of each, in brief: the soda promotes what he calls 'biochemical chaos', including unchecked fat production, inflammation, bad cholesterol and blood pressure - delivered via 46g of sugar. The % of your daily requirement of vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats that the soda delivers? ZERO. Not a single vitamin, mineral, fat, fiber or protein. On the other hand, an equivalent caloric intake of broccoli - however unlikely - contains from 100% to 3,000% of your daily need of eighteen different essential vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and omega-3s, which is astounding and what makes broccoli one of the plant world's most super superfoods, even in one serving. There is essentially no relationship between the two 'foods'. Dr. Hyman quips that a kindergarten class knows this, and yet 'every major governmental and independent organization has bought into [this] nonsense' - that a calorie is a calorie. 

Which brings us back to exercise. Michelle Obama has spent much of her professional life as First Lady promoting a campaign called 'Let's Move', aimed at reducing obesity, particularly in young children. The term was originally meant to provoke a call to action (the movement), and she regularly addressed underlying causes of obesity, namely the foods that caused them. However, the candy, soda and processed food lobbies saw the potential loss of control over their marketing message, and banded to 'partner' with Let's Move in providing corporate sponsorship. Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Nestle, General Mills... all of them now in control of the marketing message and opportunities for yet more food product to be introduced to 'address the issue'. The result: over the past few years, Let's Move has gone from attacking obesity sources (i.e.: dangerous food-like substances) to addressing its symptoms - namely getting outside more and moving your body, in a perversion of its original name. While exercising is positive for anyone and critical to holistic health, look again at the numbers: Americans are exercising twice as much as they did 30 years ago, while in the same time the rate of obesity has also doubled, as conveyed in the informative documentary, Fed UpSomething doesn't add up. And that something is what people are choosing to consume.

To wit: since joining Let's Move, the food industry in principle has taken no products off of shelves, but rather have added new products to address a new market: the 'healthier snack alternative'. In just one example, partner Nabisco created a new product: the low-fat Oreo. At 150 calories, it's 9% less caloric than 'regular' Oreos. The accompanying reduction in sugar: zero. A three-cookie serving contains the same whopping 56g of sugar as its 'original' version on the shelf. You'd have to eat twenty plates of pasta (another carbohydrate) to glean the same amount of sugar contained in three oreos. 

In short, Let's Move has been neutralized; industrialized food product companies have gained market share; and nothing has been done to reduce the underlying cause of obesity, which would necessitate the reformulation or better yet removal of scores of products from store shelves. We will leave the discussion there, but to read more, here's a good article on the subject.

We've seen that calorie reduction, fat reduction and exercise alone do not promote health or weight loss, and that we need to change what we eat in order to truly be healthy and lean. But what about the proliferation of so-called fad diets? Atkins. Paleo. Juicing. Low-carb. These are just 4 of the more recent fads created to move product and make someone money. The key problem? They all emphasize one food or food group. They ignore the entire point: that variety is key to health. This includes fats, carbs, fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein - all present in the body and all present in nature - for the reasons we've explored in this and our other posts. Juicing? We need the fiber that juicing removes in order to regulate digestion and nutrient absorption. Paleo? (High-quality) cultivated carbohydrates that Paleo forbids provide critical nutrients that allow us to ensure food supply over a larger population and broader nutrient access. Low-carb? Ditto. Atkins? It's the pre-Paleo Paleo Diet. Beyond being unhealthy, diets ignore human psychology, which as we saw at the beginning of this post creates hunger - in this case, psychological hunger for what we can't have, and leaves us with the overwhelming feeling that we are denying ourselves, whether or not our bodies are receiving adequate nutrition. Thus, they are doomed to fail like calorie reduction: the body will produce enough hormones to eventually overcome our willpower. So what may work in the short term will invariably fail over time. Unless we change our habits, starting with an education like this one.

If there were a diet that worked, we would not keep inventing new ones. Nature devised a successful diet from which we evolved into being. Start trusting her instead of business executives.

Stop eating junk - all of it. Eat real food - the kind grown by nature. Eat for nutrient density, completeness and balance - in the right amounts. Keep tabs on what you've eaten. Prepare it at home when possible and practical; and make the healthiest choices at food stores and restaurants when you cannot. 

And Let's Move... on.

Week 4: Food Words - Science or Snake Oil?

What's in a name?

Aside from being one of Shakespeare's most famous lines, it's also one of the most vexing questions for a modern eater who is looking beyond the price tag for food that best supports their family's health.

Let's start with eggs. Farm fresh. All Natural. Cage-Free. Free-range. Vegetarian Diet. No antibiotics/hormones. Omega-3 enriched. Organic. Pasture-Raised. All of these terms can be found on egg cartons, alongside friendly fonts, colorful logos, photographs of hens on lawns and even 'personal letters' written by farm owners, folded and inserted into the carton, like a message in a bottle. The underlying message: We're family farmers. You can trust us. 

So which words matter, and which have been devised simply to move product?

The truth is likely murkier than you think, so the first order of business is to help parse words dreamt up in a boardroom from those that are legally regulated. The fact is that in all cases, regulation is minimal. As a result, a large contingent of poultry farmers who practice a holistic, pre-industrial approach to their craft have established their own grass-roots terms to distinguish the trade's highest quality product - to the benefit of health-minded eaters - at least for the time being. More on that shortly.

Let's start with a statistic. According to the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, 95% of all eggs sold in the US are from chickens raised in so-called battery cages that provide 67 square inches of floor space per bird - roughly the size of an iPad. In their lives, these chickens never see sunlight; will never walk or spread their wings; are fed a mixture of cornmeal and animal byproducts (the heads, intestines, gizzards and feet of of other chickens) and live in 'houses' numbering tens of thousands of birds, amid the roar of giant fans whose job is to minimize the overwhelming stench of ammonia and feces. Unlike their cage-free friends, chickens that cannot move do not need to be de-beaked, since they can't reach around to attack one another. Thus, according to Janice Swanson, an animal scientist at Michigan State University, 'only' 5% of egg-laying hens die prematurely in battery cages, versus 11% in cage-free environments.

Let's visit the life of the typical US commercial chicken. Those raised as meat are commonly referred to as broilers, portending their end state. PETA cites a 2006 Consumer Reports study in which an overwhelming majority - 83% - of grocery store broilers tested positive for salmonella, campylobacter or both - which is not surprising, given their living conditions. This is in spite of the fact that each broiler is given ungodly amounts of antibiotics during its short 5-7 week life in an attempt to minimize risk of dying from the diseases caused by their 'living' conditions before reaching optimal slaughter weight. Each 5 1/2 lb. broiler is administered four times the dose that is typically given to a 150 lb. human or a 1,200 lb. steer. The comparison is staggering, and the high percentage of bacteria-infected grocery chickens is yet more troubling. Egg-laying hens don't fare much better. On average, the comparatively longer-lived laying hens spend a year in similar conditions to broilers, unable to move, before being slaughtered and fed to other hens. From a human health standpoint, we needn't worry about males: they neither lay eggs nor become food. Thus the 250 million that are born each year to hens are thrown upon hatching into large grinders called macerators and thus efficiently culled, alongside slow-hatching or defective eggs of either sex.

The conditions listed above, and the bacterial risks passed from chicken to meat or chicken to egg - and from them to us - makes sourcing this food and understanding the different labels they wear all the more pressing. Let's start with eggs.

Farm FreshPaul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society, says "It literally means nothing." Ditto All Natural, which he says is ironic, "because conventional chickens live in the least natural conditions imaginable."

Cage Free and Free Range. The first of these two designations mandates removal of the battery cages and doubles the space available per hen - to that of a large laptop. This gives hens just enough room to stand, move, spread wings and peck at each other, which accounts for the 6% increase in deaths of cage-free hens when measured against caged birds. The conditions within the thousands-strong hen houses are no different from conventional ones: full of disease, ammonia, feces, feathers, dust and dead birds. The term Free Range is, in practice, no different. It is not regulated by the US Government for egg-laying hens, apart from the need to provide them with access to the outdoors. According to Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, the vast majority of hens never go outside, because of the wind tunnel effect at the hen doors caused by the industrial fans we have already discussed.

Eggs from hens fed a Vegetarian Diet are fed corn - often fortified with amino acids. Given that chickens are natural omnivores, getting much of their nutrition from worms and insects in addition to grasses and seeds in the wild, the term is perplexing, and doesn't provide the optimal diet for hen or egg. Omega-3 enriched eggs are from hens whose corn feed generally includes a flaxseed supplement, since flaxseeds are Nature's single best source of these important anti-inflammatory nutrients, or krill oil. This provides dietary advantages to us, since a chicken's feed does influence the nutrient composition of its eggs, the benefits of which we reap when we eat them. However, let's keep in mind that 95% of hens whose eggs carry these labels alone live in the conditions described above. Thus, to our minds, without additional classifications like organic or pasture-raised (see below), it's a small leap to say that we should be concerned about how the rampant disease, ammonia-laden atmosphere, industrial feed and antibiotics affects the eggs that we consume, and in turn our own health, omega-3's or otherwise.

Up to this point, no term we've looked at establishes a healthy living environment for hens, a healthy diet for their eggs, and therefore optimal nutrition for us.

Which brings us to the first term that carries a legal definition - OrganicOrganic is regulated by the USDA and requires hens to receive organic feed - itself free of synthetic pesticides, receive no hormones and receive no antibiotics. This implies - although not legally mandated - that their living conditions that are less prone to rampant bacterial infection that would require antibiotics. In practice, Kastel says, organic hens are subject to similarly crowded densities, since farmers are free to determine their own practices, as long as they comply with these three criteria. Thus, while certainly better from a chemical standpoint, organic poultry farming is a bit of a Wild West, in terms of health, organic is an important term but on its own is no guarantee of a quality product.

Our final term - Pastured (or Pasture-Raised) - comes closest to what we all imagine when we think of eating eggs (or for that matter, hens): chickens exhibiting natural characteristics, in a natural environment and density, eating what they evolved to eat. Nicknamed beyond organicthis is a purely grass-roots term and carries no regulation, though it is endorsed by the American Pastured Poultry Producers' Association (APPPA). The term was championed by 'star' farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms who is heavily featured in Michael Pollan's seminal book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Since then, it has been adopted broadly by other farmers hoping to emulate pre-industrial practices: by rotating crops and livestock across poly-cultured landscapes in a symbiotic relationship of 'eat, clear, fertilize, grow'. A phenomenal resource exists here - courtesy of the Cornucopia Institute, in which egg producers across the country have been rated on a number of practices and given a star - or egg - rating. You can find out exactly what your favorite egg producers are doing at the farm, and find out whose eggs carry the least risk and greatest benefit to your health - to say nothing of humane treatment of the animals.

The bottom line: if you can afford them, seek out and buy pastured eggs. They're tastier than conventional eggs (we've done our own side by side taste tests), their yolks more colorful, and their nutrient and micro-nutrient levels higher. In fact, according to this study, pastured eggs trounce conventional eggs with 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta-carotene. For the cost of a single Starbucks latte, you can eat good eggs for a week. So drink water. Skip the overpriced brew. And eat good eggs. 

No fat, low fat, full fat... raw fat? 

It won't become a new Dr. Seuss book anytime soon, but it's a good starting point to explore these terms from the standpoint of marketing and successful infiltration into the American diet. We've already seen in Week 3 that fats are essential to your health, and that without an adequate intake of both saturated and unsaturated fats we would (or do) suffer from significant health problems.

In 1976, Senator George McGovern called a hearing to 'raise awareness to the links between diet and disease'. Two of the luminaries he summoned - a longevity guru and a Harvard Professor - suggested that lowering intake of dietary fat could reverse heart disease. The latter claimed in their 1977 'McGovern Report' that ever-increasing amounts of Americans were gorging on fat-rich, cholesterol-rich and sugar-rich meals, thereby increasing their waistlines. These observations posted a direct threat to the egg, dairy, sugar and beef associations, which for the first time banded together and rejected the findings, demanding a rewrite. The US Government caved to the pressures, removing the words 'reduced intake' from the report's recommendations. Instead, they advised Americans to buy more food that was lower in fat. Two things resulted: first, the creation of an entirely new market: the low-fat, fat-free and other variants of existing food product that drove sales up; and second, the widespread substitution of fats by the now fat-averse American consumers with carbohydrates, which were lower in calories and still provided us with fuel. Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fatsays, "In retrospect, it's kind of amazing, but this was the thinking at the time."

Food companies began researching ways to remove saturated fats - which are solid at room temperature - from their products. They turned to unsaturated fats from vegetable oils, but these weren't solid and didn't provide the same mouthfeel or taste, so the process of hydrogenation was applied in order to (semi-) solidify them as suitable alternatives for the processing of food product. Thus trans-fats were born. Trans-fats, as we now know, raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower the HDL (good). They're found in baked goods, fried foods, most snack foods, margarine and commercial dough. But since trans-fats still don't adequately substitute the mouthfeel of animal fats on their own, large amounts of sugar and salt are often added to trans-fats foods to augment their taste. The combination of these - and their market saturation in the United States and abroad - is perhaps the single greatest cause of the increase in obesity rates and epidemic chronic illness we face.

The reality of saturated fat is much more nuanced. Often, they are present in animal-based foods that contain other important nutrient sources like vitamins B12 and D, choline, protein and calcium. Thus, the avoidance of saturated fats in non-engineered foods robs your body of important nutrients.

Take milk. For a period of over fifteen years at the dawn of the 20th Century, no less than the co-founder of the Mayo Foundation (the future Mayo Clinic) - Dr. J.R. Crewe, M.D. - regularly prescribed raw milk (AKA unpasteurized) as a cure for a host of conditions, from cancer to weight loss to allergies to kidney disease to many, many more. He noted in a 1929 article how diseases that had no similarity improved rapidly on raw milk. His patients loved it because it worked and obviated the need for drugs and other medical procedures. Eventually, he stopped treating patients with it, because his colleagues were overwhelmingly in favor of 'modernizing' our approach to health. In his own words, "The chief fault of the treatment is that it is too simple... and it does not appeal to the modern medical man."

A word on raw milk. Almost all commercially available milk today is pasteurized to remove risk of harmful bacteria like E. Coli, lysteria and salmonella. Raw milk is illegal to sell across state lines, and each state sets its own rules for intra-state sale, both in retail stores and on farms, listed here. Raw milk is what was being prescribed by Dr. Crewe, from cows that fed on pasture before the invention of pesticides.  According to Dr. Mercola in a great web entry on the subject, several studies show that the consumption of raw full-fat milk may reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, bowel and colon cancer and may help prevent weight gain - a claim that comes up time and again with regard to unsaturated fats, since fats feed metabolic processes and muscle production. He goes on to say that saturated fats are the preferred fuel for your heart, and that different acids contained in full-fat, raw milk lower one's overall cholesterol, are anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-plaque, and prevent some cancers. Lastly, raw milk is high in omega-3 and low in omega-6 fatty acids, helping to restore your body's balance of these essential nutrients. A good resource for finding raw milk is here.

Pasteurization, on the other hand, requires that raw milk heated (161°F) for at least 15 seconds to neutralize its bacteria. Beyond its bacteria, heat 'impairs the biological value of the food, destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamins, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamin B12 and vitamin B6, kills beneficial bacteria, and actually promotes pathogens,' according to Dr. Mercola. In his opinion, there is no reason to consume pasteurized dairy, ever. Beyond destroying many of milk's vitamins and our ability to absorb the few that remain, pasteurization deactivates enzymes that assist in the absorption of calcium in your bones as well as those that help you to digest it (aka tolerance). These enzymes break down above 120°F and are almost fully inactive at 150°F. To wit: lactose intolerance, which affects about 65% of us, may well disappear in those who consume raw dairy products in place of pasteurized ones, according to Dr. Mercola. 

Read this article for a 1938 British piece on the subject - before industrial farming existed.

With all of the foregoing said, there is an equally vociferous lobby on the side of pasteurization that includes no less than the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as popular food sites such as chef Marcus Samuelsson's Food Republic, which aggressively promotes pasteurization in this web article. The chief argument is one of safety from bacterial infection. Like any form of artificial processing, heat treatment kills those bacteria. What we also know is that while some bacteria are harmful, many others are helpful or invaluable, such as lactobacillus and acidophilus, to name just two. These are commonly added to yogurt and kefir, or found naturally in fermented foods like kimchi and pickles, and produce 'good' micro-flora in your gut. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition here, these bacteria 'show promising health benefits for certain gastrointestinal conditions, including lactose intolerance, constipation, diarrheal diseases, colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, heliobacter pylori infection, and allergies.' These bacteria are also completely absent in pasteurized milk, though plentiful in raw milk. Mark McAfee, CEO of Organic Pastures Dairy and internationally recognized expert on raw milk production and safety, has continued to petition the CDC to recognize both raw milk's safety and nutritional superiority, which he and others believe is highly vested in the protection of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations - AKA industrial milk production farms). Raw milk producers often pasture their cows (you know this by the label grass-fed), adopt stricter safety standards than CAFOs and product both healthier animals and milk. The CDC's (and FDA's) chief concerns derive from industrial farming practices, which lead to diseased animals, which may in turn produce contaminated milk. Says McAfee in a 2012 letter to the CDC:

"As a grade A producer of retailed-approved raw milk in California, I find your raw milk page filled with highly erroneous and very misleading information... In California, we have legal retail-approved raw milk in 400 stores consumed by 75,000 consumers each week. This retail legal raw milk is tested and state inspected and far exceeds pasteurized milk product standards without any heat or processing.

It is clean raw milk from a single source dairy. There have been no deaths from raw milk in California in 37 years. Two years ago, I submitted a FOIA request to the CDC to request data on the two deaths that the CDC database claims were from raw milk. The data I received back from the CDC showed that in fact there had been no death from raw milk at all.

The two deaths had been from illegal Mexican bath tub cheese and not raw milk from any place in America. Why does the CDC persist in publishing this erroneous information? ...The last people to die from milk died from pasteurized milk at Whittier farms in 2007, not from raw milk."

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Wherever the truth lies, research, empirical evidence and nutritional chemistry all favor the healthfulness of raw milk, but that milk also carries risks, since as with all raw foods, its 'prime' consumption period is highly limited. In short, it spoils, and must be consumed in an unspoiled state. Raw milk is also extremely hard to find in some states, though easier in others - as it is in Europe, where it is legal across the European Union and even sold in vending machines.

Leaving the debate aside for a moment, let's examine the sub-category of whole vs. low-fat or non-fat, which is unsurprisingly related. All three products are in abundance in the typical American supermarket. Time Magazine published an article this past March that largely echoes an overwhelming number of scientific studies and related articles: that full-fat dairy is in fact better for you than low-fat or lack thereof. A key reason, which should sound familiar by this point: dairy's fatty acids play a [positive] role in hormone regulation and metabolism, which govern how much fat your body stores. Studies have shown that the fewer fats we eat, the more carbohydrates we consume to make up for it. This is consistent with a 50-year trend toward eating more carbohydrates in place of fats (remember Senator McGovern?). When that happens, insulin levels rise. Insulin regulates nutrient partitioning, telling nutrients where to go. Lowering insulin levels allows your body to access fat stores and use them up as energy. 

Our recommendation for dairy: include raw milk/cheese products in your diet if you can find them from a clean, reputable source in lieu of pasteurized, and use them dligently, as you would with other highly perishable foods - like fish. If you cannot or prefer not to 'eat raw', opt for full-fat, organic, grass-fed (pastured) dairy, since low-fat or non-fat anything strips these dietary sources and our bodies of key nutrients.

If there is a consistency to food's story here, it is a simple one: the more that scientists alter a food source - whether an animal's natural habitat (in the case of hens) or its byproduct's chemical make-up (in the case of milk) - the more we are upending that which millions of years of natural selection kept in balance and deemed successful, allowing both consumer and consumed to thrive in a closed loop. In no way does this suggest that farming per se - the practice of creating favorable growing environments to maximize yield - is bad. In harnessing nature, agriculture has broadened the human diet and allowed both our number and our longevity to increase. But when a food is consistently exposed to controlled chemicals, an unnatural habitat and/or compositional manipulation, we are the ones left paying the price for the experiment - an experiment designed to drive business profits, our waistlines and our medical expenses ever upward.

Week 3: The Modern Diet and Disease

Our diet is quite literally killing us.

The vast majority of those of us living in industrialized nations have outsourced our nutritional health to people we will never meet: people whose boardroom decisions carry 'life and death' consequences for us, while their agricultural, factory and laboratory practices - if we could see them with our own eyes just once - would forever change what we choose to eat and how we view our food supply for the better.

As is widely discussed in books, newsrooms and living rooms, our rate of obesity has more than tripled in just half a century - to 36% - and is projected to hit 50% by 2030. Those whose BMI qualifies them as overweight is almost double that amount: 69%. As one would expect, our rate of calorie consumption has also increased, to 2,700 per day - up 20% since 1970 - which is cause for alarm. This is due in large part to the widespread proliferation of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods that leave us less satiated. They often trick our brains' reward centers into craving - and eating - more than we should, thus making us more likely to purchase yet more of the same food-products in order to fill our ever-hungry bellies.

Yet in spite of consumers' dogged focus on counting and reducing calories, I will argue that the number of calories we ingest is not dietary disease's primary cause - not by a long shot. Astoundingly, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), the vast majority of our dietary calories - two thirds of it - comes from just four sources: Dairy (10.6%), Refined Grains (20.4%), Refined Sugars (18.6%), and Refined Oils (17.6%). It is far and beyond what we eat - not how much - that determines overall health and the prevalence of so-called modern illnesses, from cancer to cardiovascular disease to diabetes to hypertension to osteoporosis and beyond. Consider the following statement from AJCN: "In the United States and most Western countries, diet-related chronic diseases represent the single largest cause of morbidity and mortality. These diseases are epidemic in contemporary Westernized populations and typically afflict 50-65% of the adult population, yet they are rare or nonexistent in hunter-gatherers and other less Westernized people."

In other words, it is not human to die of cardiovascular disease and many cancers. It is largely industrial - and results from our food choices.

None of the food categories listed above - not one of them - was available to our pre-agricultural ancestors. That said, we are in no way advocating a return to Paleolithic dietary habits which, beyond being impossible, is inadvisable from the standpoint of health. A great article in Scientific American highlights the fallacies of the Paleo-diet fad here It's incontestable that great gains in human health - and hence longevity - have been made on the back of Agriculture, such as the introduction of high-nutrient foods like whole grains and legumes, both of which must be cultivated; or the increase in yield and reliability of most foods whose presence and volume are otherwise variable. Further, the still-nascent field of nutritional science has begun to help us understand how our choices in food preparation greatly affect a food's value to our bodies. Take tomatoes, for instance. Touted for the presence of the anti-oxidant lycopene, which helps to eliminate free radicals that damage our cells, many people readily include them as part of a so-called healthy, balanced diet. However, we now know that cooking tomatoes increases the content of lycopene significantly - by up to 164% after a half-hour of cooking according to a 2002 study by Cornell University - over its raw state. Moreover, the bio-availability of the lycopene in a tomato - that is, our body's ability to use it - is influenced by the presence of other foods, as is its activity level once it is absorbed into our bloodstream, which increased by 20% in the presence of olive oil, says a 2000 study at the Northern Ireland Centre for Diet and Health. 

What we are advocating is a return to eating whole, high-nutrient foods that have been minimally - or knowledgeably - processed, and eating them in the proportion and combination that are of greatest value to our bodies' overall health. Generally, the more processed a food is, the more stripped it is of its nutrients. Paradoxically, the more a food has been engineered, the less nutritious it often is. Week 7's blog covers this subject in depth, with startling facts about GM corn - the US's biggest crop. A great New York Times article on the subject, called 'Breeding the Nutrition of of of Food', can be found here. Beyond science, the longer it's been since a food was 'living' (i.e: when harvested), the more its nutrient profile declines. Ditto various methods of storage, preparation and consumption. A good blog entry by fellow New Yorker 'Sweet Beet' here offers good rules of thumb. 

In short, the less healthy our diet is, the less our bodies are able to carry out their key functions: feeding our brains, organs and tissue; digesting the good and expelling the bad; and repairing itself so that you live longer, in better health - which is what this site is about to begin with.

So while is wholly unrealistic to expect any of us to pick up a farm implement on a daily basis, let alone a spear or a blow dart, there are others whose business it is to do exactly that in our stead, whose food product supports our health, and which is readily available in every supermarket - or better yet farmer's market - in the United States. Here is just one of countless resources for finding a market near you.

In its research, the AJCN goes on to list 7 characteristics of our ancestral diet, and how our shift to industrial agriculture has thrown every one of them off its evolutionary equilibrium: glycemic load, fatty acid composition, macro-nutrient composition, micro-nutrient density, acid-base balance, sodium-potassium ratio and fiber content. As we outlined in Week 1, the body needs all nutrients listed in our graphic in balance, in order to function optimally. Let's explore one important characteristic - fatty acid composition - in which the 'modern' diet has paved the way for chronic illness to proliferate.

To do so, we need to understand the differences between fats and why they're important. No food topic has been the subject of more ink over the past 30 years than fat, and no nutrient more vilified. An entire, highly profitable sub-market has opened up in which foods are re-engineered or processed to reduce the amount of fat they contain. Low-fat and fat-free are just two monikers you hear regularly. [Week 4's blog entry covers these terms in detail, here] In reality, however, fat is an extremely complex and varied set of nutrients. Some fats do in fact harm us. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils - aka trans-fats - are in overwhelming numbers of highly processed foods in stores and restaurants alike, from cookies and chips to baked goods and french fries. These fats raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides, while lowering levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. A caloric intake containing just 2% trans-fats increases our risk of heart disease by 23%, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Most alarmingly, trans-fats - as well as an imbalance of dietary fatty acid composition (more on that below) - create an environment friendly to inflammation, which is at the root of the diseases that claim the most dollars and lives in industrialized nations today: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and many cancers. As is broadly known in the scientific community, chronic inflammation can 'lead to environments that foster genomic lesions and tumor initiation' - i.e.: cancer, as summarized in a highly detailed 2006 entry in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine here. Put in plain English: cancer cells feed on inflamed tissue, while the reverse - a reduction in inflammation - starves the cancer cells of the nutrients that allow for their proliferation in our bodies. A key source of inflammation reduction is... other fats.

To wit: without certain types of fats, we would not just get sick; we would likely die, as did the rats in Burr & Burr's seminal 1929 study, when they were deprived of essential dietary fats - so-called because the body cannot produce these and must find them in the foods we eat. Burr & Burr's subsequent experiments were key to the recognition of both linolenic and linoleic acids as essential fatty acids, outlined here. These unsaturated fats, which are mainly found in plant-based foods and oils, nuts and fatty fish - are absolutely central to the basic health of our cells. Their introduction into our diets has the opposite biological effect of saturated fats: they lower our levels of bad LDL and triglycerides while raising levels of good HDL. A sub-group of these - polyunsaturated fats, comprised of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids -  is used by the body to tremendous and varied benefit: building cell membranes; coating nerve endings, promoting blood clotting and the formation of muscular tissue; reducing blood pressure; and reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Moreover, paradoxically and in direct contravention to popular dogma about fats, regular ingestion of unsaturated fats helps the body shed excess (stored) body fat by boosting its basal metabolic rate. In short, eating foods high in unsaturated fats helps you lose weight.

Of special interest to us, however, is the fact that Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are Nature's best form of inflammation control.

With regard to inflammation, it's worth revisiting our Paleolithic ancestors. While all unsaturated fats are important for maintaining good health, the hormones derived from the two types of polyunsaturated fats - the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids - provoke opposite responses in the body. Those from omega-6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation (an important component of the immune response), blood clotting, and cell proliferation, according to health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions

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In pre-agricultural societies, it is widely accepted that the levels of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods in our diets were roughly in balance - a 1:1 ratio. In modern Western diets, however, overwhelmingly comprised of dairy, refined sugars, refined grains and refined oils - all inflammatory foods - that ratio has become disproportionate in favor of omega-6s. The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health lists that ratio as between 15:1 and 16.7:1. The result, in brief: a rampant increase in incidents of cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases... the hallmarks of an industrialized diet, and the very things that are killing scores of Americans each year.

It's worth sharing the statistics: 64 million Americans suffer from cardiovascular disease; 50 million are hypertensive; 11 million have type 2 diabetes; and 37 million have an at-risk cholesterol level of over 240 mg/dL. Finally, an estimated 1/3 of all cancer deaths are due to nutritional factors, including obesity.

So what can you do - right now - to begin reducing your intake of inflammatory, nutrient-poor, disease-promoting foods? The answers - in great detail - will begin to fill this website over the next 49 weeks. In the meantime, a few rules of thumb:

  1. Stop eating snack foods, immediately. Instead, snack on nuts - especially walnuts, one of nature's greatest sources of omega-3s - as well as seeds, crunchy vegetables and fruit.
  2. Stop drinking soda. Drink water, copiously. And green or herbal tea. For that matter, replace juice with blended smoothies. Stripped of its fiber, juice is a sugar bomb and sends the liver into overdrive producing fat cells to store the oversupply of sugars.
  3. Replace squishy breads in plastic bags with breads made with sprouted (whole/live) grains and legumes whose germ is intact. Stripped of key nutrients, refined flour breads are quickly converted into glucose once digested, raising risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Sprouted/whole grains have the opposite effect.
  4. Eat varied salads, often, that include wild grains and small servings of protein, and skip nutrient-poor, high-calorie dressings. Opt for a balsamic vinaigrette, which is low in calories and contains monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil, or skip the mustard and vinegar and substitute fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
  5. Avoid low-fat, lite or non-fat anything. Period. We've demonstrated the need for fats. Avoid the bad ones; embrace the good ones. Don't be fooled by jargon; it's there to get you to spend money.
  6. Unless you live in a state that allows access to raw milk products, cut back on the dairy products. They are good sources of calcium but are high in saturated fat, and pasteurization likely increases the risk of some cancers, like ovarian and prostate. Further, stripped of its digestive enzymes due to pasteurization's high heat, some 65% of us exhibit degrees of lactose intolerance. Dark, leafy greens like spinach can provide almost as much of calcium as yogurt; tofu almost 2.5 times that amount.
  7. Stock your pantry and refrigerator with easy-to-store-and-snack omega-3 rich foods, like walnuts and canned sardines. Consume cold-water, fatty fish like Pacific Sardines, Atlantic Mackerel and Alaskan Salmon. Either Sockeye or Coho, wild Alaskan salmon's populations are extremely well-managed, contain the species' lowest levels of mercury and other contaminants; is abundant thus easy to find; and is extremely high in omega-3s.
  8. To wit: cook more. Take the time. Restaurants are businesses and there to make money, or they go under. Unless you spend a fortune on fine dining at health-focused, farm-to-table establishments, your kitchen is your friend, and allows you to control what goes into your belly.
  9. Proportion size: reduce it. A serving of meat is 3-4 ounces - the size of a deck of playing cards - whereas the smallest restaurant steaks are typically 8 oz.
  10. Skip the seconds. To feel satiated longer, opt for foods with a low glycemic index, like oatmeal, lentils, fresh fruit, barley, and sweet potatoes, to name a few. 
  11. Eating vegetables means more than salad. Pasta recipes offer countless source of vegetable intake; likewise, roasting vegetables in the oven, drizzled in olive oil and exotic spices are both simple and delicious. Whomever says vegetables are boring is either lacking in imagination or simply lacking in recipes. Books like 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes prove the point.
  12. Skip the supplements. Get your nutrients from their source - not a drug company. Fish oil? Eat salmon. D3? Eat pastured eggs or get 20 minutes of sunlight. Vitamin C? Eat an orange, or squeeze a lemon into some water for a curative, thirst-quenching drink.
  13. Take everything in moderation, including moderation. The occasional (which means occasional) departure from the straight-and-narrow may not be good for you, but it's good for your sanity, is practical when you're dining out, and underscores the point that eating healthfully is about small choices over the long term - not one meal or immediate results. Make good choices, often, and your body and loved ones will be thankful.

For more rules of thumb, visit our Food Rules web tab here.

Week 2: The Food Pyramid and Food Policy - Big Business

Everyone’s a food expert.

In the Information Age, there are few things more difficult than divining truth from opinion on the internet – or just as commonly and more insidiously, willful deception buoyed by companies with a vested interest in swaying your beliefs, and earning your dollars. The proliferation of accessible online nutritional data means that companies can be highly selective in what they present, and find an abundance of ‘studies’ that support their agenda.

Just try Googling food pyramid. There are as many versions of it as there are individuals and companies vying for your food and nutrition-related dollars. Often these companies masquerade as independent institutes – institutes that upon closer inspection are funded by companies with vested interests in the outcome, or whose executive body has (or will have) ties to those companies. [A separate post will cover the alarming and complex ‘revolving door’ relationship between the USDA, FDA, Monsanto, the dairy industry and other cash crops.]

 From Dr. Oz to the mighty USDA itself and every author and health-related commercial business in between, everyone has a pyramid.

The worst of them are aimed at moving unhealthy product, little better than thinly veiled advertisements. Let’s take just one example. The USDA's most recent pyramid recommends 2-3 servings of dairy per day, depending on which version you read. Pasteurized dairy does provide a valuable source of calcium and is often fortified with vitamin D; however, there are many other sources of both. Moreover, current science overwhelmingly shows the link between consumption of pasteurized dairy and a host of risks and illnesses: osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer, diabetes, Vitamin D toxicity and so on [the second half of Week 4's blog explores raw vs. pasteurized dairy in detail}. Yet unless you prepare your own food with an eye toward vigilance, dairy is almost unavoidable and is present in an overwhelming percentage of both processed and prepared foods across the United States - ultimately because of the USDA and its pyramid. In commercial breakfast dishes, salads, sandwiches, burritos, pasta sauces and coffee - just to name a few - dairy is nearly unavoidable without a special request to 'leave it off'. 

Beyond the general health risks associated with pasteurized dairy, much of what is available today contains rBGH (also known as rBST), a synthetic growth hormone created by Monsanto to increase milk production by 11-16% and approved by the FDA in 1993, in spite of the fact that independent international studies have shown that its use raises the risk of mastitis in both the cows and the humans who consume it significantly. Beyond the reach of the USDA and FDA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Israel and the European Union have banned the use of rBGH since 2000. In the Back in Washington, DC, the dairy lobby is making headway toward legislation that would make it illegal for dairy farmers to label their milk 'rBGH-free', even though producers currently do so of their own free will - whether out of health concerns or market differentiation - since doing so would suggest that rBGH was in fact harmful. 

Even the best food pyramids don't fully explain the picture (though imperfect, Dr. Weil’s is a good one). For example: the nutritional difference between spinach and iceberg lettuce – both leafy greens – varies greatly per nutrient, but is on average ten-fold higher in spinach with respect to vitamin and mineral content. In other words, you’d have to eat ten heads of iceberg to glean (some of) the nutritional benefits in one serving of spinach. So telling someone to ‘eat your veg’ is frankly like telling them avoid getting hit by a truck. A good idea, surely, but success is in the details.

Moreover, even among those who eat the healthiest of foods, how is one to know if one’s diet includes, for example, enough omega-3 fatty acids, folate or iron? And how does one account for the differences in men's and women’s nutritional needs, which certainly vary? Or how should one adjust nutrient intake with regard to a specific health issue, like anemia or osteoarthritis? As good as they are for general guidance, food pyramids have limits.

In short, some pyramids are misleading and outright harmful to health, as we’ve seen. Others offer useful rules of thumb for those of us who want to avoid the pitfalls of highly processed or engineered foods, which are everywhere. But in the end, the optimal resource is one that takes into account the full spectrum and quantity of nutrients that your body needs – not just food types and numbers of servings – and uses it to determine whether you are in fact feeding your body properly. 

Easier said than done.  

So let’s start with what we know.

We know that we, like all living creatures, evolved over millennia alongside the rest of the planet and its food resources – in fact, because of it. We evolved to eat what grew naturally eons before we began to act on it, manipulate it, and sell it. We learned what made us stronger through trial and error, what to avoid, and we passed that knowledge on through the generations so that our progeny could flourish. In short, nature and humans are symbiotic, both biologically and evolutionarily. Our ancestral food pyramid looked something like this:

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Although agriculture has been practiced for roughly 10,000 years, it is only since the Second Industrial Revolution, which began in the 1850’s, that we who live in industrialized nations began the short transformation from largely producing our own food (or buying it from someone we knew, personally) to relying fully – as we do today – on the post-industrial food production complex to fuel us. The United States has led this revolution, owing in part to a desire to stabilize crop production and related costs, which ultimately translates to what shoppers pay at the checkout. Beginning with the 1960’s, as told by Greg Crister in his wonderful book Fat Land, President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz struck two historically consequential deals insofar as industrializing food. The first was with the Japanese, who had recently managed to create a new sugar-replacement from corn: high fructose corn syrup. This stabilized and dramatically lowered the price of sugar. The second deal was with the Malaysians, who had found a way to produce a cheap preservative and flavor-enhancer from palm trees: palm oil, which as Crister says, has a saturated fat content equal to that of 'pig lard'. Between the two, food became cheap, tasty, and longer-lived, paving the way for the fast food industry to flourish. Crister argues that the birth of that industry was a turning point in our relationship to food. Cheap, quick food led the increasing outsourcing of food preparation from our own kitchens to those of food businesses.

Beyond these two historic deals, Butz was known for his ‘get big or get out’ policies towards farming, which initiated the paradigm shift from small family-run farms to commodity mega-farming. The 'Henry Ford of crops' did for farming what the assembly line did for the auto industry. Butz incited farmers to plant corn ‘fencerow to fencerow’, and created the subsidies that moved growers away from their traditional produce toward commodity crops like corn, soy and wheat to maximize production and drive prices down. Butz, more than any other individual, is ultimately responsible for the demise of the small farm and the rise of Big Ag, the according shift from food to commodity and the resulting plunge in the price of food production, with Big Ag companies overtaking the whole business of feeding the nation.

To wit: in the 1980’s, Monsanto shifted from its historic focus on creating and selling some of the world's deadliest chemicals (Saccharin, PCBs, DDT and Agent Orange, to name just four) to re-engineering nature, and in 1994 began to sell product to farmers through its acquisition of Calgene, the first company to market a genetically modified (GM) food: the slow-to-ripen, rot-resistant Flavr Savr tomato. Since then, through a series of acquisitions and mergers, Monsanto has grown over the past 30 years into the world’s largest producer and seller of crop seeds, holding 27% of the global market. With its competitors and occasional collaborators – Dow Chemical Company, Dupont and Switzerland's Syngenta – these companies create the seeds, chemicals and processes that in turn grow the vast majority of the world’s food resources. Said another way, these companies sell the source ingredients to the world’s largest retail food production companies: General Mills, Kellog, Mars, Coca-Cola, Danone, Kraft, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever and Mondelez, who between them create and sell the vast majority of things we buy from the shelves of our supermarkets. The graphic below lists names of individuals who have held positions - including top leadership roles - with both Monsanto and the USDA, FDA and US Government - often multiple times.

Okay. Back to our stomachs. 

Nature created synergistic relationships between that which eats and that which is eaten. Grazing animals such as cows and sheep have rumens which break down otherwise indigestible grasses. Salmon are carnivores and eat other sea creatures, such as plankton, small fish and shrimp. Chickens are foraging omnivores and eat berries, insects, worms and seeds. In addition to photosynthesis, fruit and vegetable, plants pull nutrients directly from the soil and water beneath them, osmosing whatever directly lands on, or is dissolved in, those two nutrient sources.

Nowhere in the past 2.3 billion years, when the Earth’s atmosphere shifted from a methane to oxygen base and nature as we know it began to evolve, were there plants who fed on weed killer and industrial sludge; cows and chickens who ate brewer’s spent grain, silage, and pesticides (or spent lives in an atmosphere of ammonia and fecal matter); or salmon who ate corn, soy and canola, or chicken feathers, necks and intestines.

Likewise, we did not evolve to ingest any of those byproducts either, through the source foods we eat, to say nothing about the proliferation of sugar, salt, oils and grains that we ingest daily, unlike our ancestors.

And yet here we are.  

The bottom line for achieving nutritional health is that we need to return to the nutrient sources we evolved to eat, in the proportions and quality levels of pre-industrial food. Doing so takes substantial effort in today's context of fast, cheap, industrial food product, but it is readily achievable, since real foods are still widely available, close to your home, at reasonable cost, that carry a minimal industrial footprint.

The blogs that follow will begin to dissect specific food groups, nutrients, common questions and misconceptions, and provide detailed charts of nutrient values in the world’s truly healthiest, naturally occurring everyday foods.

Stay tuned.

Week 1: Nutrients A to Z - An Introduction

We are what we eat.

There are no truer words to describe our relationship with food. Our bodies contain 14 vitamins, 7 macro-minerals and 9 micro- (or trace) minerals, as well as a number of carbohydrates (fiber, starch and sugar) amino acids (proteins) and fatty acids (saturated and unsaturated). 

The body needs every one of these nutrients to function, and as it uses each up, needs to replace it in order to support the body's living tissue - brain and body alike - as follows:

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As soon as we eat something, the body begins to break it down so that it can use its nutrients. This is called metabolism: a series of chemical reactions that transform food into components that can be used for the body's basic processes. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats move along intersecting sets of metabolic pathways that are unique to each major nutrient. Fundamentally - if all three nutrients are abundant in the diet - carbohydrates and fats will be used primarily for energy while proteins provide the raw materials for making hormones, muscle and other essential biological equipment.

Some nutrients - like carbohydrates - are used very quickly, and must be replenished accordingly. Others - like fats - can be stored by the body for later use. Fats that aren't used right away are packaged in bundles called triglycerides and stored in fat cells, which, according to Dr. Erika Gebel, PhD, have unlimited capacity. 

Vitamins fall into two basic categories: fat-soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K) and water-soluble (all B-complex vitamins, C and folate). Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in chylomicrons (fat globules), and what is not used is stored in the body's tissue, where it tends to remain. For example: in northern climates, adequate summer exposure to sun allows the body to create and store enough fat-soluble Vitamin D - used for bone health - to get you through the sun-starved winter months. Water-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, travel freely through the body and are absorbed by various tissue for immediate use. Excess amounts of these are usually excreted by the kidneys, in the form of urine. Accordingly, water-soluble vitamins - like Vitamin C - must be replenished more frequently - almost daily. Thus, from a dietary focus, we need to consume adequate fat-soluble vitamins over the long term, but replenish water-soluble vitamins continually.

Like vitamins, minerals fall into two basic categories: macro-minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium potassium, chloride and sulfur) and micro-minerals (iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, molybendum, selenium and bromine). Macro-minerals are thus named because the body needs them in larger doses than it does micro- (or trace) minerals. Food sources of these nutrients are as varied as the jobs they perform in keeping the body's bones, blood, organs and systems functioning properly. As with vitamins, the best way to ensure adequate intake of each is to adopt a very varied diet of both plant-based and animal-based foods, as some nutrients are almost exclusively found in one or the other. There is a reason we are called omnivores: it is not simply because we enjoy the act of eating food from both groups; it is because our bodies need them in order to function as we evolved to.

As we'd expect, the inadequate intake of any of these - or in the case of nutrients that the body stores, an excess - prevents the body's 'machinery' from functioning optimally. The result - very slowly or very quickly, but invariably - is illness. Moreover, there are several factors we need to consider with respect to foods: nutrient quantity (which generally declines over time, diminshes with an increase in factory processing, and is affected by preparation choices at home); nutrient quality (nutrients in fortified foods and supplements - while better than none - are not nearly as effective as those in real foods); and nutrient bio-availability (the absorption of which can either be enhanced or hindered based on the combination of the foods we eat - not just whether or not you ingested it.)

It may sound obvious, but the best source of these nutrients is food - real food, as found in Nature. We evolved because of it and with it; our genes have adapted - and continue to adapt - to use it; medically, we are uncovering bits and pieces about how it works and what it does to us; and we are just beginning to understand that the interactions between nutrients are far more complex and co-dependent than we previously understood. We also know that the human body has not evolved beyond needing any of its developmental nutrients - despite what food engineers, the multi-national agribusinesses that employ them and the shareholders who demand profit above all - would have you believe. We in 2015 are the product of a 50-year trend away from traditional modes of eating and a sprint toward consolidation and homogenization of nutrient sources, which poses a direct conflict with the body's evolutionary need for broad variety of real, high-quality foods. The good news is that nutritional science is catching up with food engineering, as is the consumer's awareness of our need for real food. Luckily, there are still myriad sources of quality produce containing everything your body needs, available at a market near you.

So what are these magical nutrients? What does each one do in detail? What happens to me if one is missing? How fast does the body consume each one, and how fast do I need to replenish it? How much of each do I need? What are the best food sources for each, and which do I avoid? What if I have a special condition or a particular sensitivity? How do I parse marketing-speak from truth amid a glut of information in books, ads and the internet?

In short, what do I need to know to eat well

These are the questions that this website proposes to answer over the next 52 weeks. Each week we will post another piece to the puzzle. In a year's time, we intend to have created a complete guide to nutrition: what you need and where to source it in the 'real world' where time, funds and access are sometimes limited. Finally, how to begin effecting change immediately.

Central to the health challenge is a daunting Goliath nicknamed Big Ag  - the agricultural monopolies whose practice of producing 'food-like substances' is anything but nourishing or varied, consisting primarily of infinite forms of the same basic cash crops that dominate the farming landscape and your supermarket: corn, soybeans and wheat. Generating over $110 Billion per year in cash sales in the United States alone, these three crops, like their parent companies, monopolize the shelves, from the obvious snack and packaged foods to the less obvious fruit and vegetables coatings - the latter made invariably from a corn starch derivative. With massive advertising budgets and even greater influence on Capitol Hill (the subject of a future blog), Big Ag have thoroughly saturated the consumer market. Their success has grown exponentially alongside an alarming human trend toward lower expenditure in both food dollars and time spent creating meals. Worst of all, Big Ag's food-like products are by most scientific accounts directly responsible for a dramatic increase the incidence of many, if not most, of modern society's chronic diseases, from cancers to diabetes to heart disease to cardiovascular disease to osteoporosis and beyond. According to a phenomenal paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, more than 280,000 people die directly from obesity each year in the United States alone; 38.5% of all US deaths are due to cardiovascular disease; and fully one-third of all US cancer deaths are due to nutritional factors.

If this sounds scary, it is. It's also the reason we have created this site. 

There are solutions. 

So here we go...