Week 14: Enzymes and Food - Foundational Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But.

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

Heat

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

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

But enough about dairy and pasteurization.

Digestive Enzymes

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

Copyright FFFL

Copyright FFFL

Raw Foods

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fermented (Cultured) Foods

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

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

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

Nuts, Seeds, Grains and Legumes

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

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

Cooking

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

Packaged Foods

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

Week 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 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...