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'

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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...