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!

Coconut Oil

CoconutDue to the positive feedback on my recent post about gluten, I decided to tackle another food that is very popular right now: coconut oil.

Coconut oil is entering the mainstream at the moment because it has numerous health benefits and is one of the best oils to cook with.

Coconut oil is pressed from the flesh of a coconut. It is a solid, white substance below room temperature and turns into a clear liquid as temperatures rise over 70° F.

The consistency changes because it is over 90% saturated fat. Remember, saturated merely means that it is completely stable chemically. It won’t go rancid when stored or oxidize when cooked. These properties also hold true after consumption – it is the least likely, of all fats, to oxidize in the blood…oxidization being a precipitating factor in cardiovascular disease.

Not only is the fat content of coconut the safe saturated variety, but 66% of it is in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).

MCTs are interesting because they don’t require digestion to be converted to fuel. Therefore, it is very unlikely they will be stored as fat. They also ramp up the body’s ability to burn calories and fat. For these reasons, MCTs are often used by individuals trying to lose weight.

MCTs aren’t only a useful energy source for those looking to reduce body fat. They also produce ketones which are extremely therapeutic fuel for the brain. Ketones can protect against, and improve symptoms from, neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and epilepsy.

All fats are made up of many different acids. One such acid that makes up most of the saturated fat in coconut oil is Lauric Acid (usually only found in breast milk). Lauric acid helps increase HDL in the body, once again protecting against cardiovascular disease. Finally, lauric acid has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties, thereby protecting the body in many other ways too.

Due to the high concentration of chemically-stable fats in coconut oil, it is the most useful oil for high temperature cooking (above 300°F).

Vegetable and nut oils are predominately polyunsaturated fat, prone to oxidization when heated. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat which is still not optimal for cooking.

Oils that are not very stable (poly and mono fats) will sacrifice their phytosterols in an attempt to prevent oxidization. Since coconut oil is almost purely saturated fat, its phytosterol content will remain even after cooking.

Life cannot exist without sterols – animals have cholesterol while plants contain phytosterols. It is believed that phytosterols improve cardiovascular health and act as antioxidants.

The oil certainly has a coconut-scent but most people find that the flavor dissipates quickly while cooking and has no effect on the taste of the final meal.

Coconut oil is often used as a moisturizer, lip balm, and in soap or other hygiene products.

Coconuts provide many other amazing foods too!

Coconut flour is an excellent alternative for sugar-laden grain flours. Coconut water is a more balanced, natural form of a sports drink. Coconut milk is a perfect substitute for animal milk. You can even buy coconut butter (pure raw coconut flesh) to spread on other foods…although it’s so rich and tasty that I’ve even eaten it straight out of the jar! And of course, you could just buy a whole coconut and make all these products yourself.

Now that we know the value of such a food, it’s time to throw out the rancid vegetable oils, save olive oil for salads, and start using coconut oil for your cooking endeavors!

3 News Articles

I know I reviewed a news article just last week, but this week I wanted to try something new and discuss multiple articles at once.

My hope is to provide more information at a time. Reviewing multiple articles also means I won’t get into the same level of detail – but this may make my postings easier to get through (I know not everyone is as interested in the scientific details and mechanisms).

The first article is about the updated F.D.A. guidelines recommending women that are pregnant or breast-feeding consume at least 8 ounces, or half a pound, of fish a week. This is a major shift in our nation’s guidelines.

Some fish, such as albacore tuna, have high levels of mercury that can be dangerous to women and infants. However, sardines and salmon (that happen to have the highest omega-3 content), will have much lower mercury because they simply do not live as long. As previously mentioned, mercury binds with selenium (found in high amounts in fish) so our bodies will not absorb the mercury.

An interesting thing I learned back in college: in the U.S., we recommend women avoid alcohol and eat vegetables while they are pregnant. However, in France, pregnant women used to be told to consume wine and to avoid certain vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.

As with everything, our knowledge is constantly changing and food producers are powerful enough to influence health recommendations.

Just consume the foods humans were meant to eat, in the quantity that is realistic in nature, and be aware of food sources. This way you will know if it contains more of something (mercury) or less of another (magnesium) than it once did.

The next article goes along with the typical understanding we are slowly coming around to – that saturated fat has no correlation with heart disease.

By now, we know that the science to vilify saturated fat and cholesterol was falsified:

“But as Tiecholz and other critics point out, Keys cherry-picked the seven countries he visited: the United States, the Netherlands, Finland, Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece and Japan.
Noticeably absent? Countries well known for their rich fatty foods but without high rates of heart disease, like Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany.
Based on his study, Keys promoted the Mediterranean diet: a diet high in fruits and vegetables, along with bread, pasta, olive oil, fish and dairy. But Teicholz pointed out that Keys visited Greece during Lent, a time when people abstain from eating meat, which in turn skewed his data.”

But, I also wanted to share this article for another quote:

“Take the 30-year follow-up to the landmark Framingham Heart Study, for example. It is one of the largest epidemiological studies evaluating the roots of heart disease in our country.
In the follow-up, scientists found that half the people who had heart attacks had below-average cholesterol levels. In fact, scientists concluded that “for each 1% mg/dL drop of cholesterol, there was an 11% increase in coronary and total mortality.””

This shows that lower total cholesterol levels increases ones risk of death!

I still think triglycerides, carried by oxidized (small and dense) LDL particles, can be a good predictor of inflammation and cardiovascular risk. However, high total cholesterol, with high HDL and fluffy and benign LDL, is actually protective for the body.

And, finally, the last article I’ll share with you today is comparing the sugar content of fruit juice and sugar.

Sound familiar? Scroll back a few months on my blog and you’ll see a post I had detailing how drinking orange juice is the same as drinking a coke, taking a fiber pill, and a multivitamin. Well, now the mainstream is coming around!

I always stay open to new information, and love to learn when I’m wrong, because it means I’m learning something new…but I do have to pat myself (and my “nutrition guru” peers) on the back occasionally.

Not that staying more up-to-date on research and delving into biological and chemical mechanisms more often than CNN, New York Times, and NPR is any amazing feet – things only make the news when there’s a catchy headline, photo, or agenda!

Well, I hope these 3 articles were interesting and helped provide just a few more reasons to move away from a diet based on processed foods and towards a lifestyle based around nature.

See you next week!

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!

Fats

My last post touched upon the 3 macronutrient groups – fat, protein, and carbohydrates. This post will cover fats, the most misunderstood macronutrient.

The major confusion regarding fat stems from the word itself. There are fats you eat (dietary fat) and there is body fat (adipose tissue). Consumption of dietary fat does not directly increase body fat but, since both phrases contain the word fat, people worry that one affects the other.

Fats are found frequently in nature. They are in animals and fish, nuts and seeds, fruits such as avocados and coconuts, and oils.

One thing worth mentioning is that fat is more calorically dense than carbs or proteins. Fats have 9 calories per gram while the latter only have 4. This is great if you only have time for two or three meals a day and want to keep your energy steady, but, calories in versus calories out will affect body weight.

As mentioned in the last post, fat is essential for life. It is necessary to assimilate vitamins A, D, E, and K. It is one of only two fuels that power the body efficiently. Fats are used for the construction and maintenance of cells within our bodies.

Let’s look at the different forms of fat to understand where the beneficial features lie and where the fearful stigma may come from.

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First, a quick chemistry note: fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms bonded together.

Saturated fats are named because every carbon atom is “saturated” with hydrogen; there are no double bonds. This makes them very stable, meaning they are the safest for cooking and the least likely to oxidize. Another interesting fact is that they make up half of our cell membrane structure.

These are found predominately in animal and fish products but are also in coconut and palm oil.

Monounsaturated fats contain one double bond between two carbon atoms meaning they are fairly stable but still subject to oxidization.  Maybe you’ve noticed when cooking with olive oil, if you turn your back for a moment, it will start to smoke. Similarly, if you leave a cut avocado out, it will start to turn brown. If consumed in a raw form, in a timely fashion, these can improve cholesterol levels within the body.

These fats occur in plant foods such as avocados, nuts, and olive oil.

Polyunsaturated fats contain two or more double bonds meaning they are unstable and prone to oxidization and rancidity. It’s not a great idea to overheat or overfill our bodies with such an unstable substance. It’s not a particular macronutrient group but rather the process of oxidization that really damages our bodies.

So, eliminate all polyunsaturated fat, right? Again, when it comes nutrition and the human body, things just can’t be that simple.

Remember those essential fats I mentioned last time…Omega-3 in particular? That’s a polyunsaturated fat! The key is to balance your sources of polyunsaturated fat intake.

O-3 is essential for life so incorporate wild-caught seafood into your diet (algae and flax can be used by vegans but keep in mind that the type of O-3 provided by these plants sources, ALA, is only converted at around 6% to EPA and 0.5% to DHA, which are the forms our body needs).

Another polyunsaturated fat, Omega-6, is also essential but it is found abundantly in nuts, grains, soy, and oils (and any animals fed these foods too). O-6 is so prevalent the average American consumes 20 times more O-6 than O-3. This is problematic because, being an easily oxidized poly fat, the body can quickly accumulate too much O-6 leading to inflammation and increasing risks of cardiovascular disease. An optimal ratio for O-6 to O-3 would be 2 to 1.

For the sake of comparison, let’s look at two healthy foods – salmon and almonds. One ounce of salmon has 550mg O-3 while the almonds have 3500mg O-6. When I have almonds, I can eat 4 handfuls (one handful is about one ounce) before I even pour them into a bowl and sit down. This means, just in that one day, if I consumed nothing else containing O-6 (nearly impossible), I’d have to eat close to a pound of salmon.

I’m not recommending you count every milligram…just increase intake of certain foods (wild-caught fish or grass-fed beef), consume some in moderation (nuts, oils, avocados), and avoid others altogether (soy, corn, and other modern vegetable oils).

Trans fats are the most dangerous type of fat. These are formed through chemical modification and are unrecognizable to the human body. They will inevitably be stored as abdominal fat or fat around the internal organs (the deadliest form of fat in the body).

These fats are found in processed oils, butter-replacements, and other packaged goods. Basically, if the word “hydrogenated” is anywhere on the package, do not consume it under risk of death!

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I know that was a lot of information but, the point is, dietary fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet. Certain fats (poly fat O-6 and trans fat) may not be as optimal as others (saturated and mono), but, if it’s naturally occurring in nature, it is not inherently bad for you.

Now, let’s examine goals and activity levels to determine how much fat to consume.

If weight loss is the goal, higher fat and lower carb may be beneficial because fat is very satiating while carbs wreak havoc on blood sugar and leptin signaling (both tell us when we are full). Also, fats would be a wiser choice for those trying to reverse or prevent certain diseases or illnesses (I’ll talk about this more in the post about carbohydrates).

When the heart is working below 75% of its maximum, the body is using fat as its primary fuel. As the heart rate decreases to a resting rate, the body will naturally use 95% fats and 5% carbs as energy. So, if you work a desk job and don’t engage in intense physical activity daily, your body will naturally run leaner with adequate fat and lower carb intake.

To use myself as an example…on the days I lift heavy and want to gain muscle, I eat about 40% carbs, 30% fats, and 30% protein. On my recovery days, when the most I do is slow, steady walking, I eat about 60% fat, 10% carbs, and 30% protein. My carbs on lifting days come from raw goat’s milk, white and sweet potatoes, and fruit. On my recovery days, I’ll have a cup of milk and a banana in the morning and the rest of my meals will consist of fibrous carbs like vegetables. I tend to keep protein high on most days due to my strength focus in the gym…but the story of protein is best saved for the next post…

Hopefully this provides a basic understanding of the importance of fats. In future posts I’ll refer back to certain things I’ve discussed here and offer practical solutions to specific health and performance goals. See you all next week when we cover proteins – the building blocks of the human body!