Donate Blood!

I am always offering ways to improve health and performance. Improvement in these areas is an admirable goal for any individual.

My number one recommendation for everyone is to first improve their diet –replacing packaged foods with vegetables, fruits, and local meat and eggs.

However, an ideal diet, high in nutrient density, can have one unfavorable outcome: elevated blood iron levels.

High iron levels become an issue when an individual starts eating adequate protein but doesn’t participate in activities that result in bleeding. Historically, we would risk injury during hunting, defending ourselves from prey, or just living life with fewer comforts than we have now.

This is more problematic for men than women, as women have a natural method for disposing of excess iron through blood on a regular basis.

High iron levels in the blood can pose as an oxidative stress for the body. And, if you recall the concern of fats becoming oxidized, you’ll remember that it’s the process of oxidation that causes most of our health problems.

Many studies that claim red meat causes cancer, actually examine iron levels in the blood. It is well accepted that unnaturally high iron levels can indeed be a precipitating event in the formation of different cancers.

So, if we are shooting for one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, and understand that grass-fed beef is the second healthiest protein source after seafood, what can we do to avoid the risks of over consuming iron?

Donate blood regularly!

This is something I have started recently and recommend for most healthy individuals, particularly men.

Not only can you help an individual that may be in dire need of blood, but you will also reduce the oxidative stress in your own body.

The American Red Cross allows you to donate blood once every eight weeks. This is because most donations will take about one pint of blood, which takes the body four to six weeks to fully replace. However, the plasma in your blood will be replaced within 24 hours so symptoms of fatigue should not last longer than this.

Donating blood is a stressor for the body, so you will need to curtail your exercise schedule accordingly. I usually donate blood on the Saturday before a recovery week. This means that I won’t have any scheduled exercise within 2 days of donating blood, and even when I do return to the gym on Monday, my workouts will be at half intensity for the following week.

Even though eating after giving blood can be beneficial, make sure you are still making healthy choices! Some donation sites still offer juices, cookies, or candy. I would recommend coming prepared with a piece of fruit or a protein smoothie.

Anemia, often caused by low iron levels, is common in our country and may be more problematic than “high-normal” levels. For this reason, I recommend getting a ferritin blood test before donating blood on a regularly basis.

On average, 10% of women nationally have anemia, while only about 2% of men have it. Because of this, I believe a regular blood donation schedule is far more beneficial for males.

Take a look at the effort you put into exercise. Consider how much time you spend shopping, cooking, and eating. Add up how much you spend on health insurance. Now ask yourself: is donating blood every few months to improve your health and possibly save a life, worth 30 minutes of slight discomfort?

Not every step we take to improve our health will directly help a fellow human – but this one will!

Blood-Donation

Meal Comparison, Part 1: Breakfast

Over the last year, news headlines showcased that saturated fat is not dangerous, animal products are not inherently unhealthy, and most of our health problems stem from over-consumption of refined carbohydrates.

However, change takes time. For the last 50 years, the public has been taught to fear fat and cholesterol, and to eat meals built around dense sources of carbs – particularly grains.

The science is now widely available showing that grains disrupt healthy gut function, provide an enormous carb load with few nutrients, and are inflammatory. But even with this information, many people are bewildered by recommendations to choose healthier options.

I can post in-depth articles discussing anti-nutrients, biological mechanisms, and studies…but sometimes a side-by-side comparison is more effective.

So, today I will post part 1 of a series comparing the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) with a grain-free approach. Each post will compare two meal options, starting with breakfast!

Since I clearly favor a grain-free approach, I have taken the following steps to ensure objectivity:

I picked the healthiest standard breakfast options doctors and dietitians recommend. This includes:

oatmeal1 cup of oatmeal (not instant; fortified and enriched)

1 cup of orange juice (not from concentrate; fortified)

½ cup of skim milk (fortified with vitamins A & D)

1 handful of raisins

For the grain-free breakfast, I picked foods that conventional wisdom would classify as too “high calorie” or “unhealthy”, including:

omelet1 omelet made with 4 whole eggs, spinach, and sweet red peppers

1/2 avocado

1 tomato

2 slices of bacon

Both meals provide 600 calories and take less than 15 minutes to prepare.

After running all the foods through a nutrient spreadsheet, here are the total offerings of each meal:

Meal Carbs Fiber Protein Sat Fat Mono Fat Omega 3 Omega 6
Standard Breakfast 136 9 15 1 1.5 50 2000
Grain-Free Breakfast 25 13 35 10 20 1300 3500

The oatmeal breakfast provides a major carb bolus, with very little fiber or fat to mitigate the resulting blood sugar spike. At over 100 grams of sugar per meal, it’s no surprise that almost 30 million Americans suffer from diabetes.

These carbs also increase small, dense LDL, causing atherosclerosis. Meanwhile, the grain-free breakfast provides 13 grams of fiber, along with 10 grams of saturated fat and 20 grams of monounsaturated, both raising HDL, or “good” cholesterol.

I included a column for omega 3 and omega 6. These are both essential fats, but O-3 has an anti-inflammatory affect while O-6 causes inflammation, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Historically, humans consumed a 1-to-2 or 1-to-4 ratio of O3-to-O6. The oatmeal breakfast skews this massively, with a ratio of 1-to-40, while the omelet and guacamole is more ideal (1-to-3).

Clearly the grain-free breakfast is healthier in terms of cardiovascular function, inflammation levels, and blood sugar control. But what about vitamin content?

Meal Vit A Vit C Vit D Vit E Vit K Vit B6 Vit B12 Folate Choline
American Breakfast 2700* 125 50* 0.4* 3* 1 0.5 280 70
Grain-Free Breakfast 10000 250 70 8 184 2 3 330 560

Once again, the omelet, bacon, and guacamole trump the oatmeal and fruit in every category!

You’ll also notice an asterisk in the vitamin A, D, K, and E categories. The oatmeal breakfast offers less of these vitamins but also lacks the fat and cholesterol necessary to activate and absorb these 4 fat-soluble vitamins.

The American breakfast offers far less B vitamins, and folate, which is problematic since carbohydrates use up B vitamins in their processing. It is common for Americans that don’t consume enough animal products, yet eat a large amount of grains, to require vitamin b supplements and sometimes even injections.

Finally, let’s look at the minerals offered by each meal:

Meal Calcium Magnesium Phosphorus Potassium Zinc Copper Manganese Selenium
American Breakfast 500* 160 590 1300 2.9 0.5 2 24
Grain-Free Breakfast 170 120 600 1700 4.4 0.8 0.8 75

The oatmeal and fruit offers more in 3 categories! Grains are an excellent source of magnesium and manganese, while dairy provides a substantial amount of calcium.

I have once again put an asterisk next to calcium. Dairy and grains create a very acidic environment in the body, potentially leaching calcium from the bones.

The omelet and guacamole offer more minerals in total…but a daily serving of nuts may help shore up the few shortcomings.

As evidenced by this side-by-side comparison of a Standard American Diet breakfast, and a breakfast based around plants, animal products, and healthy fats, grains are not necessary.

There are a few minerals that are more abundant in grains which may support an argument for their occasional inclusion, but the idea that we should eat 6 to 11 servings a day is ludicrous.

Whether we look at carbohydrate load, inflammatory factors, or nutrients, grains clearly are not the “heart healthy” option we have been told.

Next time you’re contemplating what to make for breakfast, crack a few eggs and fry up some bacon – I’ve never heard someone complain that these foods aren’t more tasty…and now we know they are healthier too!

Epidemiological Studies

I spend hours every day reading studies, articles, and researching health-related matters. When I find a new publication or exploration of a topic, I get excited to dive in. That being said, some studies and articles are more useful than others.

One type of study that is used frequently to make health claims and guide public policy is an “epidemiological study”. Epidemiology is the study of a set population, or group of people, to develop correlations or inferences.

The problem is that these do not prove anything. When we find a strong correlation between factors, we should use that as a starting point to conduct further research. An epidemiological study, by itself, should never be the basis for making health policies.

Let me give some examples.

Epidemiology suggests that soy is a healthy incorporation in a diet. This is due to the fact that Asian countries consume high amounts of soy on a regular basis and don’t experience the same health problems as Western nations.

However, no other factors are taken into account.

The soy that Asians consume has not been genetically modified to the same extent as ours, nor has it been grown in soils depleted of minerals. Also, most Asian dishes use fermented soy or the bean in its natural state.

Asian cultures consume more wild-caught fish (high in anti-inflammatory omega-3s), sea vegetables (loaded with vitamins and minerals), and opt for white rice, with less anti-nutrients and gut-damaging proteins than typical “heart-healthy” whole grains such as wheat and oatmeal.

Historically, Asians don’t consume as much processed food as Americans. They don’t cook in corn or canola oil, they don’t have packaged foods at every meal, and they don’t go out to eat as often.

And finally, they are far more active – walking, biking, and taking the stairs as part of daily life.

Because of these factors, we cannot confidently say that the consumption of soy in Asian countries is the cause of their better health.

When we look at soy mechanistically, we find phytoestrogens that have the potential to skew hormone levels, leading to fat-storage and growth of cancer cells. It is extremely high in inflammatory omega-6s. Take into consideration our growing practices, extensive refinement process, and consumption of soy byproducts, and soy consumption in the US no longer seems as safe.

Another example of epidemiology lacking substance:

In March of this year, there was a headline stating: “Animal protein-rich diets could be as harmful to health as smoking”. These news reports were based upon two studies: one epidemiological study of over 6000 adults and one study of mice in a laboratory.

The results of these studies suggested that a high protein diet (over 20% of calories) was “positively associated with diabetes-related mortality”. When you look at the numbers, one person in the “high-protein” group (consisting of over 1000 individuals) died from diabetes.

The lead researcher running this study owns a plant-derived protein supplement company…explaining the claim that only animal-protein is dangerous.

Some other issues:

There was no way to control for protein quality. There has never been a study showing negative outcomes from consumption of wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, or eggs from pasture-raised chickens.

The mice that experienced growth of cancer tumors were implanted with melanoma cells before the study began. Plus, the study found that high protein consumption was “not associated with all-cause, CVD, or cancer mortality”. Therefore, the protein-cancer correlation was in fact disproved.

Finally, diet was self-reported. The average participant reported consuming 1,800 calories a day…30% lower than the national average. This suggests major under-reporting.

So, even though the study was riddled with flaws, and actually found no increased risk from animal-protein consumption, the results were phrased to dissuade individuals from consuming meat.

To get back to my original point – epidemiology is used too often to prove a pre-existing belief, promote a political agenda, or increase profits.

By itself, epidemiology is no different than trying to claim that the number of birds flying over a particular region somehow determines cancer rates in that area.

Certainly we should use any research tactic available to ask questions and form a hypothesis…but ultimately, we need to examine issues in every way possible.

Once we’ve investigated mechanisms, done cohort studies and some “food-diary” studies with pictures, it’s time to form a hypothesis and conduct a blinded, crossover, metabolic ward trial to draw some real conclusions!
correlation

Improve Your Hormone Levels

As I promised a few weeks ago, I’ll provide some simple steps you can take to improve your hormone levels.

Just to reiterate, your hormone levels dictate a large part of your health, performance, and body composition.

For the actual details about healthy hormone levels and effects, please refer to my post about testosterone.

Without further ado, here are the safest and most effective tactics to manage healthy hormone levels:

• Make sure you are consuming a nutrient rich diet.
Any nutrient deficiency has the potential to negatively impact hormones, but the biggest culprits will be zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, and magnesium. I’ll do a post explaining which foods have the most nutrient value later on but, for now, I’ll just recommend oysters, liver (if you can stand the flavor and have a high-quality source), avocados, eggs (particularly the yolk), and plenty of naturally-raised, well-treated meats, full of the fats and proteins your body needs to manufacture testosterone.

• Consume dietary cholesterol on a regular basis.
The best sources are eggs, shrimp, and fattier cuts of beef (grass-fed of course!). Cholesterol is a precursor to testosterone production. Keep in mind, the cholesterol you eat will only raise your HDL a little and have hardly any effect on triglycerides (the “bad” cholesterol in the blood).

• Avoid over-consuming carbohydrates.
Starches and sugars will cause insulin spikes in the blood. Your muscles can only store so many carbs before the insulin forces carbs to be stored in fat cells. This insulin will also disrupt normal hormone signaling.

• Get 8-9 hours of sleep a night.
During the first few hours of sleep, your body will release the largest amount of human growth hormone, allowing your body to recover from the day. I know everyone says they can get by with 6 hours…but your body composition, mental performance, and energy levels will always be better with a proper 8 hours of sleep.

• Lift something heavy a few times a week.
This will stimulate the body to produce testosterone to recover from the stimulus. Again, keep in mind that heavy lifting isn’t what produces bulky muscles…that would be higher repetitions (8-15) for multiple sets (3-4) with very little rest (30-90 seconds).

• Do some high intensity interval training.
Refer to my post from a few weeks ago. This has the potential of benefiting hormones more than any other exercise.

• Avoid alcohol.
Or at least try to moderate your intake. Alcohol will convert testosterone to estrogen within the body.

• Avoid stress.
This might be the most difficult but cortisol, released when you’re stressed, will lower testosterone levels. Some of the easiest things you can do are to limit your caffeine intake and take time during the day to stare off into nature or distract yourself from the stresses of our modern lives.

One final method for increasing testosterone levels is to supplement directly with hormones (a.k.a. steroids). However, this is a much more controversial and potentially unsafe method that I’ll save for another post.

Give all these things a try and see if you notice an improvement in body composition, strength, recovery, or just general mood and energy on a daily basis!

Cholesterol

This week, I’d like to discuss a topic that, like dietary fats, is surrounded by a great deal of confusion and fear – cholesterol!

First, what is cholesterol? It makes up cell membranes and travels through blood plasma. Its major roles in the body are as follows:

  • Transports fats to be used as energy
  • Allows the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K, E)
  • Helps maintain healthy hormone levels
  • Encases and protects neurons
  • Builds and maintains cells

Cholesterol is essential for life and therefore, the body has its own mechanisms for maintaining healthy levels. It is estimated that the body produces 1,000 to 1,400mgs of cholesterol a day.

An important detail is that very little of the cholesterol you consume actually makes it to the blood, meaning it has little effect on cholesterol levels in the body. However, if you consume enough cholesterol to affect levels in the blood, your body will simply create less, and vice-versa.

It may also be beneficial to list the different forms of cholesterol within the body.

HDL, commonly referred to as “good cholesterol”, carries cholesterol, after its work is done, to the liver to be excreted.

LDL is where a great deal of confusion lies. LDL comes in two forms, large puffy particles or small dense particles. The large puffy LDL carry cholesterol to the areas in the body as needed. One of the major needs for LDL is to cover up lesions caused by inflammation on the walls of arteries. The purpose is to protect the artery from further damage and, if the inflammation ends, the HDL will clear out the LDL. However, if the inflammation continues, the LDL becomes oxidized and hardens, forming a buildup that can lead to clotting…a major cause of cardiovascular disease.

In the early 50’s, research was done on individuals that had suffered cardiovascular events such as heart attacks. The research showed that there was cholesterol present in the inflamed areas of the body so immediately, medical organizations started “educating” the public about the dangers of cholesterol.

Interestingly, the lead researcher realized that cholesterol was merely a symptom, and not a cause of cardiovascular problems, and retracted his findings in 1959. However, the pharmaceutical companies and food industry, in response to the medical community, had already invested too much to reverse their campaign against cholesterol.

In the coming weeks I’ll write a post discussing how to manipulate cholesterol levels as well as how to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. However, I wanted to simply touch upon the importance of cholesterol and dispel any fears regarding its consumption.

My anecdotal experience: I eat 4-6 eggs and almost a pound of beef a day…about 2000mg of cholesterol total. I have eaten this way for over two years now, five days a week, and my HDL has continued to rise as my triglycerides (carried by small, dense LDL particles) and inflammation markers have stayed unbelievably low.

I will continue to track all markers of health and, like everything, will adjust accordingly as necessary. But, at this time, I have no plan of avoiding foods I enjoy due to cholesterol content.

See you all again soon!

Protein

Today’s post will be much more straight-forward than the one last week about fats. The science and function of protein within the body is just as complex but protein can easily be summed up as the “building blocks” of life.

Protein is the second most abundant molecule in the body after water. Protein is necessary for the growth and maintenance of every cell in the human body.

As an energy source, protein has 4 calories per gram, the same as carbs but less than half that of fat. However, protein is only used as fuel in the absence of carbs. There are certain parts of the brain that require glucose (a carbohydrate) to function. A diet devoid of carbs for long enough will cause the body to convert protein to carbs via gluconeogenesis (an inefficient process compared to eating a piece of fruit or baking a sweet potato).

Protein is an interesting macronutrient because the body can survive with very little of it.  Of course, a diet too low in protein causes malnutrition and other serious conditions, slowly leading to death. This is seen in many developing nations that lack access to enough wild-game or fish.

Protein is made up of amino acids. Some amino acids are essential, some are non-essential, and some are conditionally essential (meaning they are only needed during illnesses or times of stress). A “complete protein”, such as meat, will have the necessary amount of all essential amino acids for the body to function.

Amino acids are building blocks for all bodily structures, but they also affect hormone levels and neurotransmitters. For example, the amino acid tryptophan is necessary for serotonin and dopamine production, affecting mental well-being.

So, protein is necessary for life, but how much should we consume?

Goals and activity levels will dictate what is ideal but I think a great place to start is 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. No need to count every gram; merely build a meal around a protein source that you can fit in one hand. For women, this may end up being about 4-6 ounces of meat or 2-4 eggs. For a large man, this may be more like 6-12 ounces of meat or 3-6 eggs.

Protein is very satiating. A lean cut of meat with a side of vegetables, cooked in grass-fed butter or coconut oil, will be far more filling than pizza or rice pilaf. This may be quite useful for those trying to lose weight.

Another thing to consider is your health history. If you have severe kidney issues, you may want to dial back to 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. For a 150lb individual, this would be about 100 to 140 grams of protein (assuming 10-30% bodyfat).  Perhaps you’ve heard claims that protein stresses the kidneys. Studies suggesting this were conducted on people that already suffer from renal impairment.

While on the topic of studies that are misinterpreted, or flawed to begin with, maybe you’ve also seen reports that meat consumption is unhealthy. Studies include pepperoni pizza or fast-food burgers (with refined flour buns) as meat products. In terms of meat causing cancer and other diseases – when meat is charred, the blackened portion contains cancer-promoting carcinogens…so avoid overcooking!

Also, studies do not control every aspect of diet or lifestyle. There has never been a study that only included naturally-raised meat, such as pasture-raised cows eating only grass or chickens with the freedom to peck in the dirt for seeds and bugs. No study has required participants to avoid refined carbs or engage in load-bearing activity while increasing meat consumption.

These flaws are the reason I will be using this blog to address studies as they appear in the news.

The best sources of protein are wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, free roaming chickens and pigs that forage for food, eggs from such chickens, and other wild game.

Optimal vegetarian sources of protein include eggs; dairy (local, raw, and grass-fed); tempeh (fermented soy); avocados (predominately fat but still a complete protein); and quinoa (rather heavy in starchy carbs but also a complete protein).

One common vegetarian food that is absent from this list is tofu. Fermented soy, and the miso bean that soy comes from, are fine sources of protein but soy products, such as tofu, are processed and contain elements that are detrimental to the body. Three of these elements would be phytoestrogens (aid in the growth of cancerous tumors), isoflavones (disrupt healthy thyroid function), and phytic acid (prevent absorption of minerals).

Clearly, I am a proponent of healthy intake levels of high-quality protein but, ultimately, you’ll have to experiment and find out what optimizes your health and performance. Try varying your intake every few weeks while keeping everything else the same. Most people notice improved recovery and lower body fat when they find the optimal level of protein consumption for their body.

I personally love eggs and beef, am trying to gain muscle, and have access to humanely-raised meat, so I consume more like 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. This is by no means necessary but, with my goals, and based on my health markers, consuming a moderately high amount of protein works best for me.

Well, that should do it for now! As I mentioned, whenever news reports come out claiming the dangers of meat, I’ll try to respond to them with a post.

Hope to see you all next week when we discuss carbohydrates, the third and final macronutrient group.