Omega-3 Healthy Fats

A frequent topic on my blog is the Omega-3 content of food and its affect on the human body. Many studies and articles regarding nutrition also discuss the value of Omega-3. Foods and products in the market are even advertised by drawing attention to their Omega-3 content.

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid. This means it cannot be made by the body and must be consumed through diet.

Omega-3 falls under the polyunsaturated group of fats. The chemical structure of these fats have multiple double bonds and are the least stable, putting them at risk of oxidation and rancidity. For this reason, Omega-3’s are best consumed fresh, with minimal heating, processing, or storing.

One of the most important roles of Omega-3 is in the development of the brain. They also contribute to proper functioning of cell receptors within cell membranes; signaling hormone release; change in artery wall consistency; and inflammation levels throughout the entire body.

Recent studies suggest that adequate Omega-3 intake may protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer, and improve cognitive functioning throughout life.

There are two main forms of Omega-3:

  1. DHA / EPA. These are the optimal and most essential forms of Omega-3. They are found predominately in fish and other marine life, but are present in any living creature. They are also present in dairy and eggs.
  2. ALA is a form of Omega-3 found in plants, including seeds, nuts, and legumes. Unfortunately, humans convert less than 5% of ALA to the DHA form necessary for our bodies.

The distinction between these forms is crucial as it can lead to deficiencies and negative health consequences.

Very often, products with nut or seed oils are marketed as having a certain amount of Omega-3’s. Heck, I have a bag of ground flaxseed in my fridge right now that boasts “2800mg Omega-3 per serving”. Flax, along with other nuts and seeds, may be an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, but ultimately provides no useable Omega-3 for my body.

The purpose of ALA, in nature, is to be converted to EPA and DHA by other creatures with different digestive systems. For example, pigs and chickens that eat nuts and seeds will contain more EPA and DHA than grain fed animals. Eggs and dairy from animals consuming a diet rich in ALA will provide more active Omega-3 as well.

The sun provides energy that only plants can use. Plants provide certain nutrients only animals can use. After the animals have played their role in converting these nutrients, humans are left with the most bioavailable nutrients in a tasty, healthy, and natural package.

For all you vegans out there – don’t fear! There is one plant source of Omega-3 EPA: algae. Fortunately, EPA can be converted to DHA, thus providing the essential Omega-3 fatty acids the human body needs. My favorite brand for Omega-3 supplements is Nordic Naturals…here is a link to their Algae Omega oil.

A final important role of Omega-3 is to counteract the inflammatory effects of Omega-6.

Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 are essential, polyunsaturated fats that, when consumed fresh and unprocessed, help maintain optimal health. However, the foods we eat most often in this country (seeds, grains, and processed oils) are exponentially higher in Omega-6 than Omega-3.

Below is a list of a few common foods, and how much wild-caught salmon would be necessary to counteract the inflammatory Omega-6 content of each.

Oatmeal (1 cup) = 2.5 ounces salmon

Canola Oil (1 tablespoon) = 4 ounces salmon

Quinoa (1 cup) = 7 ounces salmon

Soybean Oil (1 tablespoon) = 10 ounces salmon

Walnuts (1 ounce) = 15 ounces salmon

This is one of the primary reasons I recommend replacing most grains and processed oils with vegetables and healthy proteins. Salmon, grass-fed beef, and butter from grass-fed cows, will provide far more Omega-3, with less Omega-6, than modern, man-made alternatives.

Hopefully this summary of the importance of Omega-3 provides yet another reason to return to eating whole foods in the proportions nature intended. On weekends I usually go out for sushi so I know I’ll be enjoying a sashimi platter tomorrow!

Sashimi

Meal Comparison, Part 3: Dinner

Today’s post will be the last side-by-side comparison of a Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) meal and a grain-free, unprocessed meal.

For Part 1, a breakfast comparison, click here. For Part 2, a lunch comparison, click here.

The healthy American dinner consists of:

Pasta1 cup whole wheat pasta (enriched)

1 cup generic tomato sauce

2 ounces low-fat ground turkey

1 cup skim milk (fortified & fortified)

1 brownie (using a recipe recommended by Ellie Kroger, Registered Dietician)

The whole foods meal contains:

Burgers

8 ounces ground beef (grass-fed)

½ avocado

1 cup asparagus

1 large sweet potato

Both meals provide 650 calories.

First, let’s look at the macronutrients and fatty acid profile:

. Total Carbs Fiber Net Carbs Protein Sat Fat Mono Fat Omega 3 Omega 6
S.A.D. Dinner 90 10 80 25 5 5 250 12500
Whole Foods 45 15 30 45 10 17 500 2000

As we saw in the previous comparisons, the S.A.D. meal provides almost 100 grams of carbs with only 10 grams of fiber and very little healthy fat. Even adding sweet potato to the grain-free dinner results in only 30 net carbs, fewer than half the carbs in the Standard American dinner.

The whole foods dinner offers a more adequate amount of healthy fat, particularly saturated and monounsaturated, aiding in absorption of vitamins, providing a stable energy source, and maintaining healthy cells.

Finally, the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, which should ideally be close to 1-to-2, is 1-to-50 in the Standard American Diet meal. The tomato sauce and “healthy” brownie both contain canola oil, molecularly the same as corn oil, causing inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

Next is the vitamin content of both meals:

. Vit A Vit C Vit D Vit E Vit K Vit B6 Vit B12 Folate
S.A.D. Dinner 4500 20 0 3 30 0.5 1 50
Whole Foods 27000 42 0 7 83 2 5 180

No surprise here! Vegetables, meats, and healthy fats provide far more vitamins than refined grains, diary, and oils.

Finally, the mineral content of each meal:

. Calcium Iron Magnesium Potassium Zinc Copper Manganese Selenium
S.A.D. Dinner 570 5 150 1500 4 0.5 2 55
Whole Foods 130 10 150 2000 13 1 1 36

If you recall the previous comparisons, you’ll remember that grains and dairy provide more of certain nutrients.

The Standard American Diet provides more Manganese and Selenium, and ties for Magnesium. However, just a handful of nuts would close this gap and set the whole foods meal ahead in all categories.

In conclusion, the dinner based on whole foods provides more for the body, with less detriment, than the S.A.D. dinner.

I will do one more follow up post totaling the days’ worth of macro- and micro-nutrients. In the meantime, feel free to ask any questions about particular values, foods that may address shortcomings, or if you’d like me to analyze your own meal options.

Thanks for reading!

Meal Comparison, Part 2: Lunch

This week I continue my series comparing meals from the Standard American Diet to grain-free alternatives.

Today will compare a healthy USDA-approved lunch, consisting of the following:

A sandwich made with:

2 slices whole wheat bread (enriched & fortified)

2 leaves of lettuce

2 slices turkey

2 slices ham

2 tablespoons honey-mustard dressing

1 8-ounce container of yogurt with fruit

1 medium apple

Sandwich

The grain-free meal will contain:

8 ounces salmon

1 ounce of walnuts

A salad made with:

2 cups mixed greens (spinach, romaine, lettuce, etc)

1 carrot

½ onion

Salad

Both meals total less than 650 calories and take less than 15 minutes to prepare.

Here is a macronutrient breakdown of the two meals, including a comparison of the fatty acid quality (omegas) of each.

. Total Carbs Fiber Net Carbs Protein Sat Fat Mono Fat Omega 3 Omega 6
Standard Lunch 111 8 103 23 1.8 2.2 225 2250
Grain-Free Lunch 36 12 25 50 5 9 8700 11300

The sandwich and fruit results in over 100 grams of sugar released into the bloodstream! Carbs are not inherently bad, but if this pattern is repeated regularly, for 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, diabetes and cardiovascular disease can result.

Even though “whole grains” are known for their fiber content, we see that a meal based around vegetables will provide far more fiber content. Fiber mitigates blood sugar spikes and maintains healthy gut function.

The most apparent difference is in the protein content. The sandwich and yogurt provides just over 20 grams of protein while the salmon salad weighs in at an impressive 50 grams. Imagine the benefits to cognitive functioning, physical performance, and body composition one could reap with such an adequate supply of amino acids!

Finally, we see that the omega 3-to-omega 6 ratio is about 1-to-10, risking an inflammatory state within the body. However, the salmon salad provides a much more balanced 1-to-1.3 O3-to-O6 ratio. A ratio in the range of 1-to-2 to 1-to-4 can help prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, and certain neurological disorders.

Next is the vitamin comparison of the two meals:

. Vit A Vit C Vit D Vit E Vit K Vit B6 Vit B12 Folate
Standard Lunch 130 15 0 2 6 0.4 1.2 43
Grain-Free Lunch 34410 135 0.2 2.6 940 30 7.2 400

There’s really no need to examine any particular column. The numbers show that vegetables and healthy protein provide far more essential vitamins than refined grains, processed dairy, and “low-fat” deli meat.

Last is the mineral content of each meal:

. Calcium Iron Magnesium Potassium Sodium Zinc Copper Manganese Selenium
Standard Lunch 400 2.8 85 975 1500 3 0.1 0.7 48
Grain-Free Lunch 300 7.5 235 2825 700 3.8 1.5 2.6 108

Since the Standard Lunch includes yogurt, it will provide more calcium…but also a more acidic environment which may leech calcium from the bones.

The salmon salad still wins in every other category but we still see that grains are a decent source of minerals. As I mentioned last time however, a small serving of nuts will provide certain nutrients that aren’t found as abundantly in vegetables.

In conclusion, this side-by-side comparison of a “well-rounded, heart-healthy American lunch” and a salmon salad showcases the benefit of opting for more vegetables and healthy proteins.

Save the bread for the birds and start eating what nature provides!

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!

The Most Nutritious Foods

As many of you know by now, I try to consume the most nutritious foods possible. However, I’ve never listed exactly what foods provide the most nutrients per serving.

Advertisements claim that certain foods are important nutritionally. Markets assign numbered scores to various products. Most of these rating systems, such as NuVal and ANDI, are inaccurate for a number of reasons.

First, they look at nutrients that are not essential for life, and conversely, overlook nutrients that are necessary for life. Second, they draw from disproved nutritional norms, such as dietary cholesterol and saturated fat being “bad”. Thirdly, they are designed by agricultural companies or individuals with a bias.

Scientists, such as Loren Cordain and Mat Lalonde, have done extensive work in the last few decades to redesign nutrient rating systems. They set aside non-essential nutrients in food and focused purely on what the body must consume from outside sources.

The body cannot produce the following:

Fatty Acids: Omega 3 and Omega 6

Amino Acids: isoleucine; leucine; lysine; methionine; phenylalanine; threonine; tryptophan; valine; histidine

Vitamins: A; Bp (choline); B1 (thiamine); B2 (riboflavin); B3 (niacin); B5 (pantothenic acid); B6; B7 (biotin); B9 (folic acid); B12; C; D; E; K

Minerals: calcium; chloride; chromium; cobalt; copper; iodide; iron; magnesium; manganese; molybdenum; nickel; phosphorus; potassium; selenium; sodium; sulfur; zinc

These nutrients were plugged into the following formula to determine nutrient density:

(sum of essential nutrients per serving) ÷ (weight per serving)

I’d like to make a few points before posting Mat’s nutrient density list.

First, the database he drew from did not have complete data for certain nutrients.

The database did not differentiate between preformed vitamins and their final form. Vitamin A, “beta-carotene”, in sweet potatoes and carrots, must be converted to “retinol”, found in egg yolks and liver. Vitamin K1, found in green leafy vegetables, requires conversion to K2, found in grass-fed dairy.

There was no way to account for bioavailability of nutrients. Most grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain high levels of phytates which prevent absorption of nutrients and minerals.

Finally, and most importantly, the diet, age, and lifestyle of animals were not specified. Grass-fed beef, raised on open pastures, is much healthier than corn-fed beef, raised in stalls that restrict movement. Also, mature ducks having more nutritional value than baby ducks.

Taking this unavailable data into consideration, we can assume that most animal products would move up a few spots. This is because most plants have limited amino acids and fatty acids, and the vitamins found in vegetables must be converted or activated.

Without further ado, the ranking of nutrient density averages for the food groups:

1.) Organ Meats and Oils
2.) Herbs and Spices
3.) Nuts and Seeds
4.) Cacao
5.) Fish and Seafood
6.) Pork
7.) Beef
8.) Eggs & Dairy
9.) Vegetables (raw & unprepared)
10.) Lamb, Veal, and Wild Game
11.) Poultry
12.) Legumes
13.) Processed Meat
14.) Vegetables (cooked, canned, blanched, pickled)
15.) Plant Fats and Oils
16.) Fruit
17.) Animal Skin and Feet
18.) Grains and Pseudocereals (cooked)
19.) Refined and Processed Fats and Oils
20.) Grains (canned)
21.) Processed Fruit

Many people will be surprised by how low grains appear on the list. The nutrient value of raw grains would place them in the top 5. However, our bodies cannot digest raw grains. Taking nutrient loss during cooking and expansion of grains (1/4 cup raw rice = 1 cup cooked rice) into account, their value decreases dramatically.

I was quite surprised to see herbs, spices, and cacao near the top of the list. I always considered these foods to be enjoyable additions to a healthy diet, but not the most valuable sources of nutrients.

Two final notes regarding this list:

It is not a requirement to eat the most nutritious foods all the time. Certain nutrients, such as activated vitamin A (retinol) and selenium (abundant in Brazil nuts) are actually toxic in high doses.

Second, as previously mentioned, this rating system only looks at essential nutrients. Many vegetables contain antioxidants and fiber that can improve health, even though they are non-essential for life.

I would recommend consuming foods higher on this list and keeping your meals full of vegetables.
For Mat Lalonde’s complete presentation, follow this link to YouTube.

Matheiu Lalonde has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and a postdoctoral degree in Inorganic Chemistry from Harvard. He teaches, lectures, and is the Science Safety Officer at Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. I have to give him credit for the motivation behind, and information in, this post.

I hope this sets aside all confusion of what is best to eat.

Keep in mind that human-run studies can be flawed, correlations from epidemiological studies can be weak, and research can be conducted to prove a point, rather than discover the truth, but the actual make-up of foods cannot be disputed!

How To Improve Your Cholesterol Levels

As promised, this week I’ll give you a few easy tips to improve your cholesterol levels. Before I start though, I want to remind everyone that “improving” cholesterol levels does not necessarily mean lowering them.

If you remember my post about cholesterol, you’ll remember that the body creates and uses LDL as a temporary bandage that, once the threat to the body is resolved, HDL will transport back to the liver to be excreted. It is only when inflammation persists in the body that LDL becomes oxidized, hardening and risking blockages in the arteries.

In fact, low total cholesterol levels in the body have been linked to shorter lifespan! Therefore, for this post, we’ll talk about how to adjust your cholesterol levels to the optimal zone…as opposed to the range statin companies usually promote.

First off, the easiest number to alter is your HDL. This is what carries cholesterol back to the liver after it has served its purpose.

The best way to boost your HDL is to consume more monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil and avocado. Consuming these in a raw form, as opposed to cooking them, will be more beneficial. Also, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) found almost exclusively in grass-fed beef and dairy, will help raise HDL.

In addition, weight training and moderate aerobic activity are shown to increase HDL.

Now, on to LDL. To reiterate, high LDL is not necessarily a bad or dangerous thing. However, LDL can become oxidized in the blood so I understand why people may want to lower their LDL numbers.

To lower LDL, be careful when consuming other saturated fats. Saturated fat is actually the safest to consume, and most stable source of energy for the body, but make sure you’re consuming it from natural sources. This would include coconut products (again, with minimal processing), grass-fed beef, and other humanely raised animals fed a natural diet, with plenty of space to roam and forage.

Exercise may also help control LDL levels since low-level aerobics will improve the body’s ability to metabolize fats for energy.

Finally, the only truly problematic form of cholesterol found in the body is triglycerides. Anytime you see claims that cholesterol in the blood is dangerous, I will guarantee the samples were people with extremely elevated levels of triglycerides and low HDL.

The best way to decrease your triglyceride count would be to avoid processed or heated polyunsaturated fats which are highly unstable and prone to oxidization.

I’m not saying to fear nuts and seeds and every food containing high amounts of omega-6 (the primary inflammatory constituent of poly-fats). Just avoid foods that are high in this AND have been processed or altered. Examples of foods to avoid would be corn oil, soybean oil, and other vegetable oils.

Finally, limit your sugar and refined carb intake. Again, no need to fear fruits, sweet potatoes or other whole foods; instead, skip the center aisles of the market made up of processed and packaged food.

Please keep in mind that all my suggestions of what to eat more or less of are based on the assumption that we already know things like candy, chips, ice cream, and soda are unhealthy. Fortunately, our health and nutrition systems have not yet become so infiltrated by major corporations that McDonalds and pizza is labeled as healthy.

Nonetheless, as exemplified by my own past food choices, there is still a great deal of confusion regarding what is optimal for our bodies. Just last month Mazola ran a massive marketing campaign (and must have spent billions of dollars) to convince researchers and doctors to claim that corn oil is “safer for the heart” than extra virgin olive oil!

And with that, we should all have a decent level of knowledge regarding what to consume and not consume to maintain the most beneficial cholesterol levels in our bodies.

Hope it helps!

Two Interesting News Articles

Over the past week, I came across two news articles that I’d love to share with all of you.

The first article is from MSNBC.

This article reveals that billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies goes towards producing and distributing unhealthy food. The reason I want to share this is not solely to point towards archaic food subsidies as a major barrier to health…but to exemplify the conflicts of interests involved in allowing the USDA to dictate dietary guidelines.

The United States Department of Agriculture was created to sustain adequate food production for our country’s growing population…it now exists to ensure its agricultural endeavors remain profitable. As the USDA was able to invest more resources, they were also able to start dictating policy and recommending what Americans should and should not eat.

And guess what studies, research, and information dissemination they funded? Anything that even remotely suggested complex carbs and unsaturated fats are best for human consumption. And guess what the USDA produces best? Corn, dairy, soy, and wheat – all foods that are high in carbs, polyunsaturated fats, and low in protein.

And now, even though humans are consuming more of these foods than ever, the organizations are still searching for any means to increase sales and profits. Thus, they have started using subsidized foods to create a “value-added” product that they can market and package…and oh yes, genetically modifying foods to override hunger-signaling and light up the pleasure-centers of our brains!

The second article I found on NBC.com.

This article discusses how organic milk is more healthful than regular milk. Again, my motivation for sharing this article is not just to convey the direct message but rather to discuss the reasoning that they gloss over…the fact that cows are meant to eat grass!

They discuss organic milk as being optimal as if it’s the label organic that ensures a better nutritional profile. However, for milk to be labelled organic, the cows must consume grass for a certain number of months out of the year. This article does mention that grass-feeding, as opposed to grain-feeding, is what results in a better product…but why is it discussing organic milk rather than local, 100% grass-fed milk?

It also mentions that 2% or full-fat milk is preferable because of the healthy fat content. Again, I have to ask why the article is focused on organic versus conventional milk while local, raw milk will be grass-fed AND contain its natural fat profile, seeing as it is not manipulated or processed.

The answer is that organic milk is a marketable product that results in greater profits. The profits that federal agencies receive from small family farms are far less, or, at times, nonexistent.

These issues of subsidizing the corn, soy, and dairy industry, as well as the value of dairy in general, are both topics I’d like to discuss in greater depth down the road. However, I’ll wrap up here because sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I get emotional or frustrated with our current food and healthcare system.

The positive takeaway is that these issues are coming to light! The general public now has easy access to the concept of omega-3 vs omega-6 content in milk and the power of food production conglomerates. And remember the old adage: “Knowledge is power”!

So, let’s keep learning and hopefully, we can reverse our spiral of steadily declining health in the modern world.

Reducing Cardiovascular Disease Risk

As a logical follow-up to last week’s post, let’s look at what we can do to reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease.

So far, we learned that eating cholesterol does not increase the risk of cardiovascular events. In fact, 75% of people that suffer a heart attack have normal or low cholesterol levels in the body. Furthermore, taking cholesterol-lowering medications (such as statins) does not reduce the risk of heart attacks in 98% of the population.

So, if cholesterol consumption is irrelevant, what is causing our nations deterioration in cardiovascular health?

One word – inflammation!

It is the process of inflammation that damages the arteries, signaling the body to send cholesterol to protect the area. And it is, once again, inflammation that damages the cholesterol in the blood, causing it to harden, leading to plaque formation and clogged arteries.

There are a few things that cause inflammation. The first is consumption of unstable, easily-oxidized fats . The worst is man-made trans-fats. These are found in most butter replacements and aerosol cooking oils. Another problematic fat would be omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. The biggest offenders here are corn oil, soy oil, and other modern vegetable oils.

Many natural foods, such as nuts and avocados, are quite high in O-6’s but, as long as they are consumed fresh and in moderation, without extremely volatile processing methods, they should not be problematic.

The second biggest cause of inflammation is excess sugar in the blood. If an individual consumes more carbohydrates than their muscles can store, the excess sugar will wreak havoc in the body until insulin forces it into fat storage. Sugar is toxic in very high amounts so it is no surprise that too much, idling in the blood, causes inflammation and damages the arteries.

The third biggest cause of inflammation is eating foods that are detrimental to the gut. Eventually I will have an entire post on gut health but, to put it simply, if you eat enough foods that have the potential to damage the gut lining, the offensive compounds will pass through the gut (a condition referred to as “gut permeability”) and cause inflammation elsewhere in the body. Grains and legumes contain many of these compounds…predominantly lectins. Lectin content can be diminished through extensive soaking, sprouting, and cooking but it’s still not wise to base a diet around such a problematic food.

So, man-made vegetable oils, excessive carbohydrate consumption, and grains cause inflammation…what does that leave?

Instead of using vegetable oils, try cooking at high-temperatures with coconut oil or grass-fed butter. Save your olive oil, avocados, and nuts for raw consumption.

No need to count every gram of carbohydrates; rather, focus on more nutritional sources such as vegetables and fruits (which will also have far less calories and sugar per serving than grains or legumes).

Finally, avoid grains when you can. I personally replaced them altogether with vegetables and locally, humanely-raised meat, but I know the idea of eliminating a food group we have grown up with can be daunting. So, maybe try only eating grains when you go out to your favorite pizza joint or restaurant.

Also, don’t forget to eat your healthy fats! Monounsaturated fats and even saturated fats will be far less inflammatory than grains and legumes. Since you’ll be limiting your intake of problematic carbs, that are high in calories and low in nutrition, a few extra calories from good fats will help keep you feeling satisfied and well-fueled.

As a personal trainer, I always have to mention to stay active as well! The more relaxing walks you can take the better. Throw in a couple weight-training workouts a week and an occasional high-intensity-interval-training session (sprints, rowing, etc) and you’ll be on the path to having a perfectly conditioned heart.

Best of luck!

Review of New York Times Article

How has your sleep been in the past week? Any of the tactics from my last post help?

This week I’ll review an article I came across on the New York Times website.

Initially, I wanted to post a lot more news articles. I also wanted to include a lot more in-line citations and references. I tried this in earlier posts but, ultimately, scrapped those attempts. I found it led to biased cherry-picking of studies and data.

Obviously I have my opinion, and I’m sure that comes through at times but, ultimately, I want to provide reliable and verifiable information for everyone…not convince people that what I do is best.

The news article, titled “Dietary Report Card Disappoints”, discusses many of the shortcomings of our nation’s health. The real thing that stuck out to me (maybe because of my opinion! haha) was the following quote:

 “There’s been a huge increase in grains in the last 30 years — bread, cereal, pasta, rice, burritos, pizza crust, panini, muffins, scones — mostly made from white flour,” she said. “We’ve been blaming the obesity epidemic on sweets, and we are eating too much sugar, but we need to pay more attention to grains.

“It would not be great to simply replace refined grains like white flour and white rice with whole grains,” she added. “We need to cut back on grains, period.”

This is the first time I’ve seen a mainstream source acknowledge our nations over-consumption of grains.

This report also discusses over-consumption of sugars, primarily high-fructose corn syrup. The article recommends fruit which is a perfect, more nutritious alternative to fulfill a sweet-craving.

Early on in this piece, saturated fat is lumped into the same category as “heart-damaging trans fats” and lists margarine and shortening as sources of saturated fats. Fortunately, we all know that saturated fats may be the safest for the heart and that margarine is dangerous because of its trans-fat content (occurring through the process of hydrogenation).

Another flaw is when the nutritionist quoted in the article, Liebman, reports that consuming beef and pork, as opposed to chicken and fish, is a problem. Fish is certainly the best protein source but, believe it or not, beef is preferable to chicken. One ounce of chicken has 8 grams of fat (1500mg Omega 6 and 100mg Omega 3), while one ounce of grass-fed beef only has 3.6 grams of fat (120mg Omega 6 and 25mg Omega 3). Crunching these numbers, the O6/O3 ratio of chicken is 15/1 while beef is 5/1. Clearly beef is leaner and has an O6/O3 ratio closer to the optimal 2/1 range.

One protein source the article recommends is frozen fish and farm-raised mussels…a timely callback to my recipe post two weeks ago!

Dairy is discussed within this article but again, critical details are overlooked. Liebman approves of the “decline in whole milk consumption and the booming popularity of mostly low-fat yogurt”. However, dairy is problematic for many people due to lactose intolerance and the inflammatory nature of its primary protein – casein. Also, the majority of dairy in the U.S. is pasteurized and homogenized. This means that a raw food, with living enzymes, vitamins, and minerals, is heated and processed into a dead substance. Manufacturers must then add synthetic vitamins and minerals and stamp it with a short shelf life.

The final topic covered is portion sizes, particularly in restaurants. This is a very valid point. Restaurants, along with food processing companies, have increased the palatability of certain foods. By tinkering with man-made forms of sodium, sugar, and fat, they have found a way to completely override our bodies natural hunger signals. An interesting comparison: one 16-ounce soda contains the same amount of sugar as FOUR FEET of the sugarcane plant. Imagine how much fibrous and inedible plant matter you’d have to gnaw through to ingest that amount of fructose naturally.

To limit my intake of unhealthy portion sizes of processed food, I merely treat eating-out as an indulgence. Also, considering the cost of one meal at a restaurant, I cannot frequently justify going out to eat. By eating nutrient-dense, homemade meals 99% of the time, going out to eat every month or so is far more enjoyable and doesn’t negatively affect my health and performance.

Well, that’s all I have for my review of this New York Times article. If you ever see reports, studies, or anything else you’d like me to break-down for you, don’t hesitate to e-mail me directly…it’s always fun for me. Thanks!

Supplements

In last week’s post I touched upon the use of supplements to aid in recovery. I thought it may be helpful to discuss my professional opinion on certain supplements.

I always like to optimize my health and performance in the most natural ways possible – tinkering with diet, training, and recovery. However, I think some supplements are almost necessary due to our lifestyles and modern environment. There are other supplements that can push us beyond our genetic potential. Finally, there are supplements that are useless and sometimes dangerous.

Vitamin D – I believe this is necessary for anyone not living near the equator and spending 8 hours in the sun a day. Vitamin D appears to increase bone mineral density; decrease mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease; improve immune function; prevent multiple sclerosis; decrease inflammation; and play a role in almost every bodily function.

Have your vitamin D levels checked and supplement with 5,000-10,000 IU’s a day until your blood levels are above 60 nanograms per milliliter. At that point, maybe take 2,000 on the days you spend a significant time in the sun and 5,000 on the days you do not.

I recommend the NOW Foods brand. Vitamin D is fat-soluble meaning it must be suspended in oil. NOW Foods uses olive oil while most other brands use soy or corn oil (rather ironic considering the detrimental effects of these cheaper oils).

Magnesium – The Earths soil and waters have been depleted of magnesium over time, due in part to unsustainable agricultural practices. Also, calcium supplementation and fortification has skyrocketed over the past century, particularly in the United States. Calcium and magnesium interact to control blood pressure, muscle contraction and relaxation, and maintain healthy tissue (including bones). Most Americans now consume over 2 times as much calcium as magnesium when it should be the exact opposite.

The best sources of magnesium are green leafy vegetables, bone broth/chicken soup, small fish that still contain bones, and nuts. However, I have experienced such positive effects from a magnesium bath or teaspoon of Natural Calm before bed that I plan to continue supplementing. The only risk is, if you haven’t used it before, and consume too much, it will have a laxative effect.

Fish Oil – This has come under a great deal of fire recently. Fish is the best source of essential omega 3 counteract out the detrimental effects of a diet high in omega 6. We now know this is not the case.

If you recall my post about fats, omega 3 may be anti-inflammatory and essential for life but it is an unstable polyunsaturated fat. This means heating, transportation, storage, and exposure to light will risk oxidization and rancidity. For this reason, I consider fish oil a short-term option while people perfect their diet. I personally consume one teaspoon of Nordic Naturals fish oil on the days I don’t eat wild-caught fish and consume omega 6 rich nuts.

Digestive Enzymes – This is one supplement I still am on the fence about. The idea behind digestive enzymes is that they break down carbs, fats, and proteins. However, the breakdown of foods does not always increase assimilation.

People with legitimate digestive issues (GERD, gastroparesis, etc) may benefit from hydrochloric acid in digestive enzymes. I have not done enough research to recommend them for all, but I would suggest people with any issues review the anecdotal successes others have had.

On the days I am consuming excess calories, particularly from starches, I take NOW Foods Super Enzymes and have noticed far less bloating, gas, and trips to the bathroom.

Whey Protein Powder – The consumption of whey by athletes, particularly weightlifters, goes back decades. There are still debates regarding efficacy but, it is more insulinogenic and bioavailable than any whole food. This is useful for shuttling amino acids to fatigued muscles post workout. However, consuming anything that significantly spikes insulin on a regular basis is never a good idea.

For these reasons, I use one scoop of Optimum Nutrition whey after my workouts only during the months of the year I am trying to gain weight. The rest of the year, a meal of solid food, such as chicken and sweet potatoes, is perfect.

Creatine – This is another common “bodybuilder” supplement. Creatine is in every living animal and helps muscles function, particularly during short bursts of high intensity activity. It is formed in the body from 3 different amino acids and is also present, in small amounts, in raw meat.

Supplementing with creatine appears to increase power, strength, recovery, and intramuscular water retention. I am not using it at the moment because I want to get closer to my genetic potential first. But, this would be another sensible supplement to utilize in cycles.

There are some concerns amongst physicians regarding creatine but there are no proven risks associated with a 5 gram dose a day (except among those with renal impairment).

Amino Acids – These fall in the same category as creatine and whey protein powder. Amino acids are the foundation of protein and aid in muscle repair, neurotransmission, stimulation and relaxation, as well as many other functions.

I am currently relying on whole foods for amino acids but, certain combination of amino acids, particularly branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), seem to be beneficial for recovery and maintenance of muscle mass during periods of fasting.

This is by no means a complete list of available supplements…these are the ones I’ve experimented with and benefited from. There are many other things (high dose B vitamins, stimulant concoctions like Jack3d, and “mass gainers”) that are, at the best, a waste of money, and at the worst, very dangerous. If you have questions about a specific product, please post a comment or e-mail me requesting further evaluation.

In closing, I’ll quote a knowledgeable trainer I work with: “If one single element of your training or diet affects your performance a few percent, each single supplement will have a tenth of a percent affect.”