Friday, October 30, 2015

Toxins, toxins everywhere


Sometimes, when I have a meal with others, I experience the Nutritionist Dilemma: should I tell them that the food they are eating is utterly unhealthy? Examples include fast food, chips and treats loaded with tons of refined sugar, colorants, hydrogenated vegetable oils and soy lecithin. Up to the allegedly healthy options like zero-fat cheese cream, soy yogurt, tofu, pasteurized fruit juices, crackers with 7-cereals, roasted nuts, meal-replacements, etc.

With all my good intentions of course, I don't want to be condescending or sarcastic. I just want to help people. And the response is the most frustrating and disarming claim a nutritionist can hear:

If you pay attention to everything, you don't eat anymore

Case closed, eat your healthy stuff, let me eat my poison.

One of my professors said that "doing lectures in social events is not efficient anyway". In his long experience as a nutritionist he knows what I am getting used to, little by little.

The mindset problem

We live in a polluted world. Some toxins are 100% natural (just think about the Amanita phalloides), some are man-made. Some substances are healthy in moderation and toxic in excess (Vit-A for example). In short, we cannot eliminate all types of pollution and toxins from our lives. Even now, most of you are sitting in front of a laptop (WiFi network), and probably have one or more cellphones within meters, if not in their pockets (microwaves).

Speaking about food, even an iceberg salad from the most organic produce contains toxins, both natural and artificial. How does this situation fit in the "frustrating and disarming claim" above? Easy: since we are already getting our daily load of toxins unwillingly... we should do the best choice possible in the cases were we have control of the situation. The good things we choose to eat should be good enough to counterbalance what we are not in control of.

I prepared a short (pun intended) list of common sources of toxins. It is obviously not complete, these are just examples. The goal is to raise awareness, stimulate the curiosity and have the reader do their own researches.

Let's start with the...

Ingredients, of course

Some food is not suitable for human consumption. Again, think about poisonous mushrooms or those delicious-looking red berries you saw in the woods: some food can kill you in days if not even hours. Some toxins are more vicious and kill you very slowly, in years. Surprisingly enough (well, to be honest I am not surprised anymore), some of them have even been promoted as health food.

I'll go now through a quick list, I think there is little-to-no need for explanations and everybody will pretty much agree on it. If not, just let me know.
  • Soy and derivatives (how could I not mention it...). Even if you don't eat tofu, fake-meat, soy milk or soy yogurt, this legume is found everywhere in pre-packaged food, either in the form of oil, flour or just lecithine.
  • Grain-fed meat from animals which should be fed grass. These animals are often filled with antibiotics to cope with the diseases to which they are easily subject due to their awful diet.
  • Rancid vegetable oils, just check my post on fats in case you missed it.
  • Plastic bottles, technically not an ingredient, but may leak into the water we drink. Plastic bottles are a source of xenoextrogenes and BPA. Choose glass whenever possible.
  • Styrofoam and plastic cups, plastic spoons, again can become ingredients by leaking cancerogenic molecules into your hot coffee.

Some healthy food may be/become toxic if not properly prepared or just eaten in excess. Notable examples are:
  • Some cereals (wheat, rye, oat, barley), proper preparation include soaking, fermenting or sprouting in order to eliminate phytic acid, lectins and to start breaking down gluten. Pasta, biscuits, pizza, grissini and white bread are the wrong way to eat cereals. Sourdough and oatmeal soaked overnight are the traditional and healthy ways.
  • Meat, charred meat is in fact cancerogenous, that's the bias of almost every study that proves how bad red meat is. Proper cooking techniques include stewing, boiling and slow roasting. Btw, meat can even be eaten raw if you trust the source.
  • Fish, due to the delicate ω-3 fatty acids, should never be cooked too long of too violently.
  • Cruciferae (broccoli, bruxelles sprouts, cabbage, ...) contain goitrogens, which impair the absorption of Iodine, thus causing thyroid issues in those people predisposed to. While most people can safely eat moderate amounts of them raw, for some others it is imperative to cook those vegetables to get rid of the goitrogenic effect.
  • Nuts and seeds, as I keep repeating, are not suitable for roasting. This is particularly true for nut flours, where the surface in direct contact with the air is augmented. Eat them rigorously raw. Further improvements include soaking them overnight to eliminate phytic acid.
  • Pulses (beans, chickpeas, green peas, lentils) are a great food which has unjustly been banned from the paleo diet because they contain phytates and saponins. Proper preparation includes soaking and cooking. Hint: never start from the fresh seeds, they must be dried and re-hydrated in order for the trick to work. As for nuts and cereals, the seed must think it's time to sprout.
  • Pseudo-cereals like quinoa, and amaranth contain saponins: again, soaking or at least pre-washing them before cooking will improve their health benefits (and their taste...). Unfortunately not many people know it.
  • Liver, is such a superfood with so many vitamins and bioavailable iron that eaten in excess may be toxic. In the same way you can overdo seaweed (iodine) and brazilnuts (selenium).
  • Red wine, I consider drinking a personal choice, however everybody with few exceptions agrees on the health benefits of the occasional glass. One thing people must realize is that the benefits of resveratrol have a upper limit, on the contrary the damages of ethanol are unlimited. Try not to reach the break-even point (translation: drink only one glass and occasionally). 

Food additives

When you buy prepared meals you can be sure of one thing: there are food additives. Colorants, preservatives, plenty of added sugar for sure, emulsifiers (often soy lecithin) and of course flavor enhancers, with MSG being probably the less dangerous.

I have been working on a list of food additives and their safety for my own use. I think that this subject is big enough for a dedicated post and probably even a printable handout that I will share with pleasure once I am done.

Cookware

I am always surprised how surprised people are when I tell them that anti-stick cookware is not safe. I think that everybody already digested the fact that teflon is pretty much toxic, some people (including me...) even digested their share of teflon chips. Why should the new generation of cookware made with the same polymers used to make teflon... be any less unhealthy? That's the sad truth: silverstone is another name for teflon, what changed is the process to produce it, which justified the change of name. Ah, the power of patents...

Silicon has become a recent favorite, especially for cookies, muffins, cakes, etc. Flexible, non-stick, easy to wash, my grandma would have loved it. However from a health point of view silicon is very controversial and despite my researches I still do not have a clear opinion on its safety. In doubt, I prefer to avoid it, anyway I don't bake that much...

Aluminium cookware. Neurotoxic. Enough said.

Plastic containers in microwave oven... self-evident.

Ok Alex, once again: what should we use?

I am a big fan of cast iron cookware and through the years I replaced everything in my kitchen. According to me there is hardly a better choice: they can be used with any type of heat source including the oven. They distribute heat evenly and keep food hot long time on the table. They are not non-stick and if you try to cook fat-free you'll immediately notice it but that should not be a problem: after reading my previous articles you should not fear fats anymore. Last but not least... they will literally last centuries, if properly used of course.

Stainless steel is a good choice for an all-purpose frying pan or cooking pot. Definitely cheaper than cast iron, it is also thinner and may not deliver heat as evenly, but in general works very well for soups or for making bone broth (I want to see somebody lifting a 10 liters cauldron made of cast iron full of boiling water). It tends to leak iron, which may be good for some people, but also nickel, especially when in contact with acid food like tomatoes. And some people are sensitive to nickel.

Glass is a 100% safe and relatively cheap choice if you cook in the oven. Great for baked potatoes à la provençale, tartiflette, ratatouille, but also lasagne, moussaka, eggplants alla parmigiana, stuffed peppers, roasted fish... Sorry I have to stop here, I'm getting hungry.

Ceramic... that's a tricky one. In my opinion that's the best choice for cooking in the oven. It is refractory so it cooks food evenly without the risk that it stitches on it. The enamel however must be certified to be lead free.

Earthenware pots... oh yes! Crockpot, gwetch, tagine. Terracotta is another excellent choice for slow cooking. The lack of enamel and thus the porosity of the surface keeps the food moist and prevents a lot of flavors from being dispersed. I believe everybody seriously interested in cooking should own at least one (I have five). Again, the risk is lead poisoning, so don't use the first cheap crockpot, only quality products.

Skin products

Toxins, toxins everywhere... not just in our dishes. Let's talk about balms, creams, shampoos, shaving foams and soaps. Quick question first:

Would you eat your moisturizer or drink your shampoo?

As obvious as the answer is, the fact is that you are already eating it. The skin is one of our lines of first defense against pathogens and chemicals, however some chemicals are able to leak through. Just think about cortisol creams and nicotine patches. Why shouldn't it be the same with any other product you put on your skin?

Objection: they tested the creams and they are safe. I wish I could be so optimist. Tests don't last enough to show the side effects of prolonged use. The ultimate guinea pig is always the customer.

Objection: I don't want wrinkles. Neither do I. Skin health is important and that's exactly the reason why it should be approached the correct way.

Let's get practical Alex, no moisturizer, no soap, no shampoos. What then?

Products like Alep's soap or the original Marseille soap are made with three ingredients: oil of olive, oil of bay and lye. Both are extremely efficient for cleaning skin and hair and work wonderfully as shaving foam, too.

For skin care, one thing people are missing is that the skin is the mirror of what happens inside your body. If you don't fix the root cause you'll never get rid of the effects.
  • Dry skin is an indication of chronic dehydration and/or essential fatty acids deficiency. It may also be that you are using a soap that is too aggressive or just take too many showers.
  • Adult acne often reveals SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth). I would check this first, before using hormones based creams...
  • Wrinkles, while it is true that they cannot be prevented indefinitely, they can be postponed: nutrients like glycine (bone broth, collagen, chicken skin, ...) and Vit-C all contribute with surprising efficiency to keeping the skin young, brilliant and healthy looking. The side effect will be healthy joints, tendons and ligaments, and.... tastier meals!
The subject is very big and can't be fully covered here (for example, butter and coconut oil are good moisturizers and I personally don't mind eating them). I hope I conveied the Big Idea.

I am not an expert of skin care products but I am a nutritionist and I like working inside-out. I promise I will dedicate a post on this, maybe with the help of somebody.

Antiperspirants

This is an interesting one. Sweat is one of several pathways our body employs to eliminate toxins (the others are urine, feces and the breath). Important centers are the lymph nodes which are located under the armpits, which incidentally is also a place where we sweat a lot.

I won't develop this topic any further, I'll just leave you with some food for thought: does it really make sense to prevent your body from sweating and thus from detoxifying? What would be instead a better solution?

Dish cleaning products

Sometimes you do indeed eat soap, this happens if you wash your dishes and don't rinse them carefully. It has been calculated that, over a lifetime, the average person drinks a couple of liters of the stuff, drop by drop and day after day of course. Still, this is yet another poison we deliberately add to our diets when in fact we have the choice not to.

Sometimes, the best way to convey an idea is irony. One comic situation I always have in my mind is a mother screaming in a high-pitched voice:

Oh my goodness there is still some food on the dishes!
Let's wash it away with a petroleum-based poison!

And by the way, if you wash your dishes with bare hands, chances are that you are absorbing some through the skin, too.

Ok, Alex, we got it. So we leave the dishes dirty until next meal?

I never said that, there is in fact an alternative: cleaning them with edible products. My favorite cleaning agents for dishes and cookware are cheap vinegar and lemon husks (also good for brushing, very useful for the cast-iron grill). People are often skeptic about their effectiveness until they try. Then it is just a matter of making it an habit.

Volatile compounds

I skip tobacco if you don't mind, because that one is obvious.

The quality of the air we breathe is very important and just the fact of living in cities already gives us a decent daily dose of toxins (particulate matter, benzene, etc). We can't do much to fix it, except building a hut in Tibet and live like a hermit eating yak butter and potatoes until we reach the age of 120: it is proven to work, it is just not my ideal lifestyle, I believe it isn't yours neither.

We are not looking to be perfect, we are looking to do our best. The best we can do in this case is to avoid supplementing with additional toxins where we are in control. Examples of daily toxins most of us deliberately add to their air are:
  • Insecticides: those sprayed in the air are clearly the most dangerous. For a micro-droplet you actually need to kill a mosquito, you disperse a consistent quantity of the product. Guess who is breathing it? My take: run after the mosquito and kill it by physical means: the benefits are that you will be doing some cardio, too.
  • Eau de toilette, air scents: this one may not be obvious because people think that those products are tested and therefore safe. They are not. The fact that they don't kill you on the instant doesn't mean they are 100% harmless. Think of allergies, asthma, migraines... why are they becoming more and more diffused? For perfumes the problem is double since it is put directly onto the skin (see above: creams, soaps, shampoos...).
  • Hair spray: those copolymers of polyvinylpyrrolidone and polyvinyl acetate stitch to your hair, what do you think they do to the mucosa of your respiratory tract? With all my heart: stay away from it.
  • Nail polishers and thinners: they easily melt a crust that could bravely tolerate water, alcohol, vinegar, bleach and other solvents for one entire week. It is also very volatile so chances are you are inhaling every drop of it. Acetone and methanol are both extremely toxic, there are however alternatives which don't contain them. I found some products but won't list them here because I don't like doing ads, just be informed that they exist. I let the pleasure to find them to those interested, it's a girl thing anyway ;)
  • Cleaning products: although green alternatives exist (I manage to clean 99% of my house with just water, vinegar and alcohol), sometimes something stronger is needed. In these cases, make sure you wear gloves and possibly a surgeon mask. You may feel funny at the beginning but it is better than feeling sorry at the end.
  • Fabric softeners: I wasn't much a believer of this but after I read some studies of how conditioners stay in the tissues of clothes and bed sheets after the spin phase, how they keep sublimating for days, and their potential effects on heath, I am seriously considering not using them anymore.
  • Paraffin candles: cheap (and sometimes scented with chemicals) they are in fact made with a derivate of petroleum, so nothing I would breathe happily. Good alternatives, although more expensive, are beeswax candles. Think it this way: candles are great to create a warm and romantic ambiance... use the real thing!
  • Incense... I understand the charm of those exotic smelling scents and the feeling of enlightenment many New Agers get from burning them in their bedrooms or even at the office but... get real: fumes they are, therefore cancerogenic.
  • Paint thinners, glues and other solvents: many people like DIY. That's fine, it is a great hobby. Unfortunately it comes with a price and I am not referring to the costs of the materials and tools. Fumes of paint thinners and solvents are toxic and potentially cancerogenic, moreover the proximity to the source and the fact that often bricolage is done in a poorly aerated location makes you inhale quantities of it. If you really like bricolage and can't renounce to it, consider doing it outdoors.

Done? No way. The list is obviously an example, it could be much longer but again: it is the concept that is important. Smart people can figure out the missing bullet points just by looking around in their living rooms, while stupid people won't change their habits no matter how complete my list is.

Conclusions

The post is over, now I can finally ask:

How many of you removed the cellphone from their pockets
while reading this article?

But why? Anyway we live in a polluted world!

Exactly: the fact is that keeping a source of microwaves close to the reproductive organs is a choice, and we can choose not to. Shouldn't it be the same with the food we eat, the cookware we use, the creams we spread on our skins and the volatile compounds we deliberately release in the air?

Stay healthy and... stay tuned!




Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Replacements



I have been asked explanations on my reluctancy to use nut flours as a replacement to traditional flours in preparations such as muffins, bread, pizza-crust, etc. As well as alternatives to milk such as white concoctions based on soy, rice, almond, coconut, etc. Topic what I intended to develop anyway, so it is with pleasure that I satisfy the request.

Just one recommendation: feel free to share your perplexities, approvals, disapprovals, etc in the comments area, not because I don't like being asked in the corridor or via email, it is just that this way it will be possible to animate an open discussion. If you feel embarrassed, remember: there are no stupid questions... and even for the almost-stupid ones, you can still post as anonymous ;)

Let's begin...

Nut flours

I already mentioned in one post that I am not an avid grain eater and I recognize that modern wheat has some problems. Notable problems of modern wheat are: higher gluten content (compared to the wheat of 100 years ago), and pesticides of course. Additionally, the way wheat is prepared today does not follow the traditional preparations (sprouting, soaking, lacto-fermentation).

Although my take is that gluten allergy and gluten intollerance are a bit exagerated by the media and often even by people pretending "to have it", the problem stays: gluten is inflammatory.

Let's face it, who right in their mind wakes up in the morning and says:
  • "I want to start the day inflamed"
... and eats some food that inflames? It is not a joke, it is a serious question and the answer is: anybody having bisquits or slices of white bread for breakfast.

Another problem with cereals are phytates. Phytic acid is a compound that binds some essential minerals (calcium, iron, zinc, ...), thus limiting their absorption in the gut. In short: bread may have iron and zinc, but you won't absorb them, bringing to a silent epidemic of mineral deficiencies.

In the health movement, and in particular in the gluten-free and paleo, wheat has been abolished. And that's fine, you can live without bread, pasta, bisquits and pizza. I do very well with just two or three homemade rye sourdoughs per year and I confirm that cereals are not such an important brick in the food pyramid.

The problem is that some people can't psychologycally get rid of the cravings for the treats and commodity foods they are leaving behind. Check any blog about paleo recipes and you'll see that nine dishes out of ten are treats with alternative paleo-approved ingredients. Enter nut flours.

Nut flours are nuts (very popular is the one from almonds) which are ground and used for preparations as a replacement for traditional flour: bread, muffins, pizza crust.

Why do I keep saying that they are not a healthy replacement? Let's analyze the content (100g, bleached almonds):

Proteins21.9 g
Carbohydrates19.9 g
Fats, total50.6 g
Saturated fats3.9 g (7.7%)
Monounsaturated fats32.3 g (63.8%)
Polyunsaturated fats ω-30 g (0%)
Polyunsaturated fats ω-612.1 g (23.9%)

If you have read my post on fats it should be obvious where I am going: the fats contained in almonds are easily oxidized with heat. Rancid fatty acids are inflammatory and potentially cancerogenic, to which I prefer gluten that is just inflammatory.

Even unroasted, the obvious unbalance between ω-3 and ω-6 does not really make it a good food to abuse, unless you are also eating plenty of cold water fish.

Will almond flour at least save you from phytates? Not even that: in the same amount of ground flour, almonds contain three times the phytic acid as wheat.

So, what's the solution?
  • The first is obvious: don't bake at all. There are literally dozens of thousands of recipes that do not involve baking, theoretically you can eat a different recipe every meal for the rest of your life and enjoy variety in the process.
  • Bake with other replacements. Some people claimed success with tapioca (cassava flour) as well as with plantain. In my quest to speak only about things I know, I tried both: tapioca makes a very gummy texture, not something I will ever become a fan of. However, tapioca is an excellent replacement to wheat flour in pancakes or to thinken sauces. The texture from plantain is more acceptable but won't inflate much, expect a very compact bagel from it.
  • Follow the traditions. Ditch refined modern wheat without much regret and use instead whole rye from organic produce. Take your time to knead a sourdough, let it lacto-ferment for 36-48 hours and bake it. Rye contains a milder type gluten and the lacto-fermentation process makes it more digestible even for people with REAL gluten intolerance. Rye also contains much more phytase than any other cereal, seed or nut: phytase is an enzyme that is activated with soaking and destoys phytic acid (yes: you absorb iron and zinc from rye sourdough).

Alternatives to milk

This is not the long awaited post in defence of dairy. Not yet. Today I am speaking about milk replacements and why I would be very careful with them.

Milk replacements are juices from nuts, cereals or pulses that are write or ivory in colour and have a ratio of proteins, fats and carbohydrates that mimics that of animal milk. There are also cheese and yogurt replacements, examples are: tofu, soy yogurt and almond feta... these too have a P:F:C ratio that looks appealing.

In our culture we have been brainwashed to believe that what matters are the macronutrients and some milk/dairy replacements look pretty fine from this point of view. Unfortunately it is not the way it works, nutrient density is what really matters.

Some considerations about alternative milks:
  • Vegetable milks don't contain Vit-A, Vit-D3, Vit-K2 and Vit-B12 (all of them are of animal sources and milks are no exception).
  • Even when fortified with calcium, the same cannot be absorbed and utilised by the body due to the lack of liposoluble vitamins.
  • Even considering milk from grain-fed cows, the balance ω-3:ω-6 is still better than vegetable milks. Grass-fed milk is clearly an even healthier choice.
  • CLA is only found in animal milk (traces are found in some mushrooms).
  • Raw milk also contains enzymes and natural probiotics that are not found in milk replacements. These enzymes play an important role in the digestion of milk and in gut health.
  • Rice milk is high in sugars and pretty low in proteins.
  • Coconut milk is a fairly good replacement for heavy cream and I use it a lot in South-Asian recipes and curries. It is however just this: a thickener for sauces with plenty of medium chain triglycerides which lacks fundamental micronutrients. In other words: don't drink a cup of coconut milk for breakfast thinking "it does a body good".
  • Soy and all its products deserve a dedicated article, the health issues coming from its consumption will make you think twice before having a single serving of it ever again.

Should everybody start drinking gallons of raw full-fat grass-fed milk right away? Obviously no, I don't do it neither. My point here is that people should not drink gallons of vegetable milks thinking that they are healthier that raw milk from grass-fed animals or traditional aged cheeses (parmesan, pecorino, gruyère, asiago, cheddar, gouda... just to name a few).

One important point I cannot discuss here (but I will, in a dedicated article) regards caseins allergy, lactose sensitivity and milk intolerances in general. They exist, although much less widespread than we have been led to believe. Obviously, for those people, both milk and some types of dairy products are definitely taboo, but that should not be a green light to nut milks for the reasons I mentioned above.

Conclusions

I realize that my posts are getting longer and longer. If you arrived to the end of this: thanks, sincerely. It costs me time and effort to write them but as I see the increasing number of visits, I know I am doing a good job helping people to get oriented in the confusion that reigns in today's nutrition.

In fact I'll tell you something: you didn't need to read it all, the picture on the top is already a good summary: the food pyramid should be about eating real food, replacement are not. That's the core message of the whole article and what I hope stays after you read it.

Eat well and... stay tuned!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Approach to nutrition


Warning: this article is a bit... boring. But I feel it is required both to introduce my future posts about myth busting, and also to justify my position against those diets that are based on dogmata.

The Big Idea

Nutrition is a science which studies the interactions of living organisms and their food, the metabolic processes involved in the phases of digestion and assimilation, and finally: the ability of the body to utilise the nutrients. If everybody involved in nutrition and dietetics stitched with this, we would be doing great and reliable research in this field.

Unfortunately this is not what is happening nowadays.

There are many reasons why research in the field of nutrition keeps bringing contradictory results. Some are political, some are economical. Often money is not even involved and that's probably the most sad of the reasons: people choose a dogma and try to justify it by tweaking the researches (if they are researchers) or pretending it works if they are just adopters of a particular diet.

Why do I say that dogmatism is the saddest of the reasons? First of all exactly because there is no money involved: were they at least getting an economical advantage!!! Ok, seriously now: the problem with dogmatism is that people are lying to themselves, that's why I find it sad.

Inconsistencies of the results

Nutrition is the most controversial of sciences. There are so many ways to alter the conclusions of a study that you can prove... basically anything:
  • cherry picking of data: just decide in advance what you want to prove and choose the data that support your thesis. Notable examples are the Seven Countries Study or the more recent China Study, the manifesto of vegetarians and vegans.
  • ignoring alternatives: this is when the proponents take in consideration the current way and their way, no alternatives. The risk is that some of the alternatives are better than what is being dogmatized, so must be ignored a priori. An interesting example is the comparison between CAFO and a plant-based diet which depends on agriculture: the quality of food and the environmental impact of the second is obviously better. The proponents forget to mention that holistically managed livestock have an even better impact on the environment. Another example is how we came to the conclusion that salt causes high blood pressure (hint: the quality of salt matters).
  • bad comparisons: any diet is better than the Standard American Diet, this is matter of fact. When you read that people on a plant-based diet are healthier, the comparison is always with fast food... ever wondered why the claim isn't: people on a plant-based diet are the healthiest (hint: it is not true). The same critique can obviously be done for any other diet.
  • biases, the most common is the healthy person bias. When people decide to follow a particular regimen for health, independently which one, that's definitely not the only radical change they will do in their lifes, for example: ditching junk food, stop smoking, reducing coffee/alcohol, doing sport. Most researches are highly biased because of this, with the result that any diet do in fact provide benefits. Some researches claim that "proper adjustent have been done to take into account blah blah...". I personally find that with a pool of 30 subjects, adjustment is just another word for messing around with statistics...
  • messing around with statistics and mathematics in general: this is the most difficult to debunk and requires some analytical skills. In general, playing with numbers permits to achieve incredible results. In case you were wondering how is it possible that in order to produce 100 grams of hamburger you need to waste 2300 liters of water.
  • generalizations, this is another interesting one: saturated fats and trans-fatty acids cause cardiovascular disease. True, I myself agree. What about saturated fats alone? This is also the way milk has recently become the number one villain. I promised I was going to dedicate a post on this, and I renew my promise.
  • concentrating on the benefits while ignoring the side effects, one example is the study of the Seventh Day Adventists, they may in fact have less heart problems, but alas... have higher rates of cancer.
  • studies too short, sometimes the side effects arise after years, I am thinking for example of the hormonal imbalances caused by prolonged low-carb diets, or the deficiencies in vitamins and essential fatty acids of a 100% vegan diet. Paleo diet itself hasn't been around long enough to test its validity in the long run.
  • the case study, taken as an example that the dogma works and everybody should do the same. I already mentioned that everybody is different, and I am pretty sure that in this world there are people with genetic adaptations who can do extremely well on a high-fat diet (Inuit), or a 100% animal protein diet (Masai), or a grain-based diet (European Alps), or the grandma who lived to 116yo eating bacon every day. Even a plant-based diet may work sometimes: rare but existing, some Freaks of Nature don't become insulin resistant despite a high-carb diet, can efficiently convert carotenoids into Vit-A and ALA into DHA, and have soil bacteria in their guts that produce Vit-B12. Isolated cases are not the proof that it works for everobody.
  • relying on outdated and wrong results just because they support what we want to prove now, like considering dietary cholesterol the direct cause of high blood cholesterol and a risk factor for CVD, and come to the conclusion that butter and yolks are bad (hint: butter and yolks are healthy).
  • bad raw data... this is usually the case of studies that base their sources on phone calls or questionnaires: questions difficult to understand, question with double senses (do you eat dairy, yes I eat cheeseburgers and cheesecake), weird aggregation (do you eat red meat, bologna, pepperoni, sausages), etc.
I could probably write an endless papirus of examples (observational studies, lack of double-blind, placebo effect...), but I stop here. I wanted to present some common fallacies just to make you, the reader, aware that: yes, indeed it is possible to manipulate a research and trust me, it is done regularly.

Some words on dogmata, and conclusions

Political and economic interests drive the research in nutrition. Diets also fall victim of dogmatism.

Ethics and love for animals is a very noble thinking, but unfortunately the lack of reliable science behind a vegan choice make it a very questionable option from a nutritional point of view. I often read studies on the alleged benefits of a plant-based diet because I still want to believe that it is possible. My great disappointment is that all the researches are flawed, so the question is: if a plant-based diet is so good... why cheating?

Ditching grains and dairy a priori for dogmatic reasons is an insult to the hundreds of generations that subsisted on them, and opens the door to grotesque substitutes like breads from nut flours or nut milks, both definitely less healthy than the food they are meant to replace. But apparently that's ok, as long as the dogma is honoured.

Personally, as I already mentioned, my choice falls on Traditional Diets. I believe that, with an eye to their biochemical individuality and before trying the latest fads, everybody should first attempt to honour the diets of their own ancestors which is, just to be clear, 150 years ago.

I hope my position is clear and understood, although I don't expect everybody to share it. I wanted to publish this post anyway so that I can link back to it in future ones when I'll speak about myth busting or I will present my analysis of researches.

If you are a regular reader you probably guessed already that the post ends with a friendly: stay tuned!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

How to strengthen your immune system

"Let food be thy medicine"
(Hippocrates of Kos)

Today I'd like to write a special post dedicated to the food, herbs, spices and the behaviors which help improving the immune system. Autumn has come, and with it the first people with couch, flu, cold, etc... which is really unfortunate: if you get sick for a drop of temperatures from 25°C to 16°C, what will it happen when they drop to -10°C?

The following list has been compiled during the last two years (exactly, I didn't make it up for this occasion). I took ideas from other blogs and from some "heal yourself with plants" books. I also analyzed the contents of some naturopathic supplements for the immune system.

Clearly, I checked the evidence behind them and discarded those which weren't supported: you won't read many homeopathic advices in my blog. I hope it works for you just as fine as it is working for me.

Let's begin. First and probably most important point:


Heal your gut

You probably read it already, but it is worth repeating that 80% of your immune system is in your gut. People never take this seriously. If you have an unhealthy gut, you can't expect to be one-hundred-percent healthy. Let's say (ok, this is just to make a joke) that you can expect to be 20% healthy at best.

Seriously now: these foods have shown to improve the immune system and should become regular in your weekly rotation.
  • Fermented dairy, preferably from raw milk. Consider learning how to ferment milk at home and make it an habit, trust me: you don't look back anymore after it becomes an habit. Don't focus on one specific strain, you want to enjoy a variety of different fermented dairy products:
    • Yoghurt (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Steptococcus thermophilus)
    • Bacteria from the Bifidum family
    • Milk kefir
  • Sauerkraut: that's another home made probiotic that you definitely want to learn to prepare yourself. Not only it is fun and tastes great, but it is also the real thing (what you find in supermarkets is likely to be boiled cabbage in vinegar). Fermenting cabbage and making fermented pickles with shredded roots was our grandparents' way to preserve vegetables during winter. They didn't know, but they were also keeping their guts healthy and turning on their immune system to face the cold season. There was no such thing as paracetamol, at the time.
  • Kombucha: it has recently become a trend, and I believe for a reason. My take is that, once again, you should learn to prepare kombucha at home to be sure of the final result. I personally tested some kombucha drinks I bought in health stores and tried continue their fermentation at home. I didn't succeed, meaning that the bacteria and yeasts in the bottle were pretty dead: it was just a bottle of sugary tea that, maybe, had some living organism inside. Homemade stuff is also cheaper by the way.
Good healthy bacteria don't just need to be regularly re-introduced in your GI tract, they also have to be properly nourished in order to thrive. This is were a low-carb diet or a no-carb diet shows its fallacy: you need a proper source of prebiotics, like resistant starches or soluble fiber (see my post on carbohydrates).

Bone broth

Once again, grandmothers knew it better. Bone broth is one of the foods that should become regular in your kitchen, at least during autumn and winter. Bone broth is an excellent source of:
  • Glycine (an aminoacid that is fundamental to heal the gut and maintain it healthy)
  • Easily absorbable proteins
    • they don’t stress the digestive tract and the liver, thus saving more energy to dedicate to the immune functions
    • don't forget that antibodies are made of proteins
  • Easily absorbable minerals
One error you can do with bone broth is to prepare it when it is too late, when you are already sick, that's what people usually do. Bone broth works on prevention as well and that should be your focus.

And before anybody asks me: no, dissolving gelatin sheets or chemical broth cubes in hot water is not the same. You have to start from the bones. Get you hands dirty!!!
 

Shellfish

Here is an interesting super-food. Shellfish contains ready and easily absorbable:
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (ALA, EPA, DHA)
    • Omega-3 are essential precursors of PG3, a water soluble hormone that fights inflammation
  • Zinc: it plays an important role in several metabolic reactions in the body, including digestion and the modulation of the immune system of course
  • Vit-B complex (especially B12)

Liposoluble vitamins (A, D3, E, K2)

Liposoluble vitamins are fundamental for maintaining a working immune system (and not only the immune system... but that's the focus of today). They act as anti-oxidants and immunoregulators. Vit-E also contributes to the conjugation of fatty acids into anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.

Sources that should never be missing in your weekly schedule are:
  • Eggs, with yolks of course
  • Grass-fed dairy products (especially butter), unless there are known allergies or sensitivities
  • Oily fish (mackerel, sardines, herrings, anchovies, salmon, tuna)
  • Vegetables containing beta-carotene (carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, ...)
  • Oil of olive
  • Liver, as I said in my last post, liver is the ultimate superfood

Spices, herbs and other anti-viral food

Sometimes the best defence is the attack. The following are powerful disinfectants that also taste good. It shouldn't be difficult to include some or even all of them in your recipes or daily habits.
  • Raw garlic (kills virus, bacteria, protozoa and even worms, nature's true antiseptic for excellence)
  • Ginger (another excellent anti-viral, use it pickled, tea or freshly squeezed on an indian curry)
  • Horseradish (food for though: why is sushi paired with wasabi?)
  • Propolis (a formidable anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-mycotic, it also modulates the immune system)
  • Hot chili peppers
  • Celery, raw
  • Green tea
  • Turmeric
  • Fresh (not dried) mushrooms: maitake, reishi, shiitake
  • Raw honey

Minerals

  • Iodine, is proven to support the immune system and is also an anti-bacterial and anti-viral agent
    • Seaweed (preferred)
    • Iodine supplements 
  • Selenium, supports the iodine and helps chelating heavy minerals (mercury in particular)
    • Brazilnuts
    • Kidneys

Fresh fruits and vegetables

Although I am a huge proponent of locally grown and seasonal produce, I must admit that sometimes you need to accept the compromise and buy imported food. Fresh fruits and vegetables are irrenunciable sources of essential and non-essential nutrients that support immune functions.
  • Coloured fruits and vegetables, they contain
    • Flavonoids
    • Polyphenols
  • Sources of Vit-C
    • Freshly squeezed juice of lemon, orange, grapefruit
    • Bell peppers
    • Kiwi
    • Persimmon (a late-autumn/early-winter fruit, so technically "in season")
At this point you may be tempted to get Vit-C supplements. This is a huge mistake, BigPharma knows it is a huge mistake, but has interests in having you believe that Vit-C supplements are a great idea.

The fact is that proper utilisation of Vit-C by the body requires a number of co-factors, usually found in the food containing Vit-C itself. Taking isolated Vit-C without the co-factors depletes the body's stores of these co-factors, thus making Vit-C unusable in metabolic processes.

Herbs and supplements which support the immune system

This is probably what you already read every year in the magazines and what your pharmacist will try to sell you as the panacea that will grant you total immunity against all seasonal ailments.
It is not that they don't work, they do indeed have some role in reinforcing the immune system. However that's what they are: supplements. Optimal health is always supported by the nutrients found in everyday's food, not some magic pill.
  • Echinacea
  • Astragalus
  • Codonopsis
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Catnip
  • Elder flower
  • Liquorice

Avoid things that weaken your immune system

As one of my teachers keeps saying (I hope he is reading): most of the results are from what you remove, not what you add. Here is a list of things that you may reconsider in your diet.
  • Processed food
    • Process food is deprived of nutrients; as we saw before, a working immune system cannot prescind from the nutrients that support it
    • Your focus should be on nutrient-dense whole foods, properly grown and prepared 
  • Seed oils rich in omega-6
  • Bad fatty acids
    • Trans-fatty acids
    • Hydrogenated fatty acids
    • Rancid fatty acids, for example baked seeds and nuts, especially nut flours
  • Alcohol
    • The immune-depressor action of alcohol works in multiple ways, stay away from it if your objective is avoiding cold and flu
    • The myth that some grappa "disinfects the throat" is just an excuse to drink one extra shot; not only it doesn't work, it irritates and inflames the throat even more
  • Insulin spikes
    • And therefore sugary treats, I always wondered why they are so popular during winter despite their nefast effects on the immune system...
  • Gluten
    • Inflammatory. Enough said.
  • Soy
    • This will always be in the list when I mention things to be avoided

Lifestyle changes

Some changes are everyday life's tips, some are pretty obvious but as they say in Latin: repetita juvant.
  • Wash your hands frequently
    • Although some sources advise to eat dirt to train your immune system, I definitely don't buy it
    • Not washing hands is usually the flagship of people following a primal/paleo lifestyle. I have good news for you: chimps have been seen washing their hands and I am pretty sure they are more paleo than any human has ever been ;)
  • Reduce stress, get good sleep, learn to relativize
    • The way stress impacts the immune system is very complex and  really goes beyond the scope of this already long post
  • Get a moderate and adequate amount of exercise
    • Both no exercise and excessive exercise weaken your immune system
  • Spend time outdoor
    • Pathogens thrive in closed environments, especially crowded places. Enjoy time outdoor even in cold weather: fresh, pure and oxygenated air is less likely to harm you than warm, humid and stagnating air.

Remember: it is a lifestyle

A important thing to remember is that a strong immune system is something that is cultivated all year long. You can't expect to achieve stainless-steel health in one week, just because you heard a co-worker coughing and want to avoid contagion in a desperate last-minute effort, this is not the way it works. That's why I am publishing this article in advance so that you can be ready for winter.

It is a lot of stuff and it takes some organization and some change of habits to be put it into practice... but in my opinion the reward is totally worth the effort.

More cool stuff coming soon, as I always say: stay tuned!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Recipe: liver the venetian style



After speaking about macronutrients, micronutrients, biochemical individuality, food cravings and nutrient density, the question is... how to achieve it? Some philosophical moments first.

In our society, there is a common misconception:

Food is either tasty or healthy

That's a big lie, nutrient dense food can taste good. Like in today's recipe, where the nutrient content is so high that I recomment to prepare it no more than once or twice per week to avoid an overload of vitamins.

The main protagonist is liver. Despite the bad rap, liver is the ultimate and most nutritious food you can ever imagine to introduce in your diet. Common critiques to liver include:
  • it is a filter
  • it stocks toxins
  • it contains too much Vit-A
I'll discuss better these and other common wisdom fallacies in my future articles on myth-busting. For the time being just remember this: liver is a superfood.

The recipe

This simple and quick (10 minutes max) recipe is a crossover of the liver the venetian style - a dish my grandmother used to prepare for me - and a lebanese liver recipe, which I discovered in a restaurant not long time ago.

How to proceed:

  • butter or ghee, or tallow: enough to sauté the onions
  • finely chopped shallots or onions: 2 medium or one big
In a large frying pan, sauté the onions in the fat of choice.

  • dry white wine: 1/3 glass
Add white wine and keep sautéing the onions.

  • liver (veal, rabbit, chicken), in pieces: 600 grams... makes for 3-4 servings
  • balsamic vinegar: 3 tablespoons
While the onions are frying, cut the liver into pieces. If you chose to prepare rabbit or chicken livers, it will take more time so my suggestion is to cut them in advance.

Add the liver, mix with the onions. Keep mixing in order to cook the chops from all directions.
As the liquids evaporate, add the balsamic vinegar to keep the recipe moisty. A good one is generally quite expensive, but a cheap one is just plain vinegar with added sugars and colorants: choose the good one.

  • cognac or brandy: 1/6 glass
  • lighter (???)
Pour the cognac over the liver and... flambé! (optional: you don't have to if you don't feel at ease with open flames in your kitchen, just add the cognac and let it evaporate).

  • sumac: ½ or 1 teaspoon
  • salt: to taste
  • freshly ground black peppercorn: to taste
  • freshly ground parsley: for decoration, (and for the Vitamin-C)
  • extra virgin oil of olive: for taste (and Vitamin-E, of course)
When the flames are extinguished, add the last ingredients.

To be served immediately, this recipe is not good re-heated.

Notes

As I mentioned, this dish truly is a vitamin bomb, in its disarming simplicity it is so well designed that no vitamin is missing (grandmothers knew better). I have it once or twice per week.

If you are not accustomed to eating organ meats, the best options are chicken liver or rabbit liver, thanks to their milder taste and softer consistence. In the picture I used duck liver, another excellent choice if you manage to find it. Veal and lamb liver are still good and possibly "pass the customs" of everybody. Beef and pork liver have definitely a stronger taste and fibrous consistency, I myself reserve them for other recipes (to come).

Liver, just like some other organ meats such as sweetbread or kidneys, should not be cooked too much: if you do, you destroy thermolabile nutrients and the texture becomes horrible (and that's why most people think they don't like offal meat). For this reason it is important to cut the liver into pieces so that it is possible to cook it rapidly and efficiently.

The flambé part is optional but has such a playful aspect I can't renounce to it. The advantage of doing it is that the short, but intense heat will lightly caramelize without burning the external layer of the liver chops, while keeping the core soft... yet cooked.

Sumac is a difficult spice to find but I really invite you to look for it, it has as very distinct acidic flavor and I use it in almost every middle-east recipe I do. A tagine, a hummus, just don't taste the same without it.

You'll notice that, when the recipe calls for them, I always add parsley and EVOoO at the end, to preserve their nutritional values. Peppercorn is also added at the end, in order to maintain its impressive anti-oxidant properties. Cooking peppercorn  also disperses its aroma, one additional reason to add it at the very end.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Food cravings



After having briefly discussed the concept of Nutrient Density and the need to maximise the quantity of nutrients in food beyond the mere calculation of calories, it is almost a natural consequence to discuss about food cravings, but first...

Inner Intelligence

I am a strong believer in Inner Intelligence. Before losing any single reader I want to reassure you: this has nothing to do with eclectic metaphysical ideas, New Age guff, abuse of quantum-physics buzzwords, midi-chlorians and such.

Inner Intelligence is a concept to refer to the totality of fine tuned reactions in a living organism that keep it safe and alive. These mechanisms are of this world (not metaphysical or spiritual) and are based on ordinary chemical reactions (no need to look for exotic not-yet-discovered quantum particles that even the CERN doesn't know about).

With some luck I didn't lose any reader and probably got some referrals.

The organigram

To make inner intelligence simple, imagine your body like a overly organised multinational company of which the brain is the Chief Executive Officer. As CEO, the brain takes fundamental strategic decisions, based on the information sent by the several layers of managers and workers from the same company. It also communicates with other CEOs and discusses the strategies to survive in the industry, this is what I am doing right now.

The brain alone cannot manage the immense complexity required to maintain the whole organisation healthy, so what it receives is a continuous executive summary of the situation, instead of a whole book of details it is just a couple of powerpoint slides that explain what happened and the gravity.

Sometimes an action is required from the CEO. If the action is not taken, the message becomes more insistent.
For other stimuli, and action is already taken by the autonomic nervous system. Again, if you are familiar with big companies, this is an escalation for a Priority-1 issue which requires immediate solution and is managed by middle layers of management. The brain is notified almost immediately and can decide whether to continue with the current solution or change strategy.
Most of the times it is just a message to make the chief aware that something is going on.

Some (oversimplified) examples:
  • I am hypoglycaemic, let's eat something (action required, the CEO can decide to delay it but the message is likely to become more insistent)
  • it burns, let's remove the hand from the hot water (action already taken, but the CEO can decide for an alternative solution like being stoic and put the hand back into the hot water or look for cold water)
  • the ankle is itchy, look down... it is also red and swelling, I must have been bitten by a horsefly (just a message that there is a reparative inflammation going on, the workers will take care of it)
  • I just had lunch, but I feel bloated and sick, worst lunch since years (just a message, don't eat in those cheap pubs again, apparently it is not good for your health, we told you so we did our job, now do yours and please don't eat here anymore)
Then there are the good news, the CEO seems to particularly appreciate them...
  • I just had lunch, I feel really satisfied, the food tasted good and it seems to be light, easily digested and invigorating (this restaurant is worth a mention to my other CEO friends)

Finally, some messages are not worth being sent to the CEO at all. Like in a big company, this gives the CEO the false impression that everything is working fine and that there are no problems, while actually the underlings are fighting like crazy to keep everything safe and functional.

Food cravings

As you probably guessed already, food cravings belong to the action required category, the body cannot solve it through internal metabolic processes alone and needs some help. The CEO must look for a source of food, order to the arm to grab it, bring it to the mouth, hopefully order the mouth to chew it dutifully, swallow it and wait for a status update.

Food cravings are generally seen as something negative, for some it even makes sense: food cravings for sugar threats are very probably a sign of blood sugar dysregulation. This includes for example the unprocrastinable need to have a dessert after a oversized meal (the body lacks the energy for digestion and sends confusing messages to the CEO).

Some food cravings are more interesting as they are a cry from the body to a chronic malnutrition for one or more nutrients. This links directly to the previous post, you can experience food cravings if your diet is not nutrient dense, either:

  • because of processed food (depleted from nutrients but rich in calories),
  • the choice of food sources is limited to a restricted number of ingredients,
  • in the case of hypo-caloric diets or frequent fasting,
  • or simply a specific augmented need that is not promptly satisfied by an otherwise good diet (pregnancy, stress, overtraining, recovering from illness, recovering from a bad diet...).

Before, I did a parallel between food cravings and the executive summary a CEO receives. Now, let's be honest: the management of a living organism is complex beyond our imagination, how can two powerpoint slides explain what is going on?

It would be wonderful if the message exchange were:
  • "Required 52.7µg of Se and 88.5mg of Fe in heme form! Over!"
  • "Roger! Wilco!"
Unfortunately it doesn't work like that, CEOs do not understand technical details. We crave something and the reason is not clear most of the times but one thing is sure: the major root cause is a diet which is missing fundamental micronutrients or which has them but in a form that is not bioavailable.

Below is a list of food cravings. It may not be the perfect tool to access nutrient deficiencies, but it can give some indications.

If you crave thisWhat you really need isFood sources
Chocolate
Magnesium

  • Raw nuts and seeds
  • Legumes (pulses)
  • Fruits
Sweets
Chromium

  • Broccoli
  • Grapes
  • Cheese
  • Fried beans
  • Calves liver
  • Chicken
Carbon

  • Fresh fruits
Phosphorus

  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Liver
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Grains
Sulfur

  • Egg yolks
  • Red Peppers
  • Muscle protein
  • Cranberries
  • Horseradish
  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • Kale
  • Onion
  • Garlic
Tryptophan

  • Cheese
  • Liver
  • Lamb
  • Raisins
  • Sweet potato
  • Spinach
Bread, toast
Nitrogen

  • High protein foods (meat, fish, nuts, beans)
Oily snacks, fatty food
Calcium

  • Mustard and turnip greens
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Legumes
  • Cheese, dairy
  • Sesame
Essential Fatty Acids

  • Fatty fish
  • Flaxseeds
  • Chia
  • Nuts
Coffee, tea
Phosphorus

  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Liver
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Grains
Sulfur

  • Egg yolks
  • Red Peppers
  • Muscle protein
  • Cranberries
  • Horseradish
  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • Kale
  • Onion
  • Garlic
NaCl (salt)

  • Sea salt (fleur de sel)
Iron

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Seaweed
  • Greens
  • Black cherries
  • Lentils
Alcohol, recreational drugs
Proteins

  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Dairy
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
Avenin

  • Oatmeal
Calcium

  • Mustard and turnip greens
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Legumes
  • Cheese, dairy
  • Sesame
Glutamine

  • Mustard and turnip greens
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Legumes
  • Cheese
  • Sesame
Potassium

  • Sun-dried black olives
  • Potato peel broth
  • Seaweed
  • Bitter greens
Cold food (ice lollies)
Iron

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Seaweed
  • Greens
  • Black cherries
  • Lentils
Burned food
Carbon

  • Fresh fruits
Soda, carbonated drinks
Calcium

  • Mustard and turnip greens
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Legumes
  • Cheese
  • Sesame
Salty foods
(or add salt to dishes before tasting)
Chloride

  • Raw goat milk
  • Fish
  • Sea salt (fleur de sel)
Acid foods
Magnesium

  • Raw nuts and seeds
  • Legumes
  • Fruits
Preference for liquids
(e.g. smoothies, juiced vegetables, etc)
Water

  • ... more water of course
Preference for solid food
(little thirst)
Water

You have been dehydrated for so long that you have lost your natural sense of thirst. Drink more

Cool drinks
Manganese

  • Walnuts
  • Almongs
  • Pecans
  • Pineapple
  • Blueberries
Pre-menstrual cravings
Zinc

  • Red meats (especially organs)
  • Seafood
  • Leafy vegetables
  • Root vegetables
General overeating
Silicon

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
(avoid refined starches)

Tryptophan

  • Cheese
  • Liver
  • Lamb
  • Raisins
  • Sweet Potato
  • Spinach
Tyrosine

  • Lemon juice
  • Red fruits and vegetables
Lack of appetite
Vitamin B1

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Liver (organ meats in general)
Vitamin B3

  • Tuna
  • Halibut
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Pork
  • Seeds
  • Legumes
Manganese

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Pecans
  • Pineapple
  • Blueberries
Chloride

  • Raw goat milk
  • Fish
  • Sea salt (fleur de sel)
Tobacco
Silicon

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
(Avoid refined starches)
Tyrosine

  • Lemon Juice
  • Red fruits and vegetables

Conclusion

I agree, sometimes chocolate cravings may also indicate a deficiency of hugs, just like alcohol, sugar and tobacco cravings may indicate an addiction. The table is just a reference, what I wanted to show is how the food in the right column is just what you should be eating daily in the optic of a nutrient dense diet.

If you nourish your body with proper nutrient dense food, you'll experience less cravings and following a diet (especially for weight management) will be much easier. The CEO will always think the body needs more food as long as the nutrients quota hasn't been reached.

With regard to the need to break the rules (also called 80/20 rule) sometimes the missing nutrient may just be taste. This is why it is important that a diet is not only nutrient dense, but also capable of producing tasty meals: your daily recipes must not have such poor organoleptic expressions that you crave junk food to feel satisfied!

I will start sharing some recipes from the next posts. I will of course continue with the theory, and start debunking some nutrition myths as well. Thus... stay tuned!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Introducing the concept of Nutrient Density


In some of the previous posts I briefly introduced macro and micro nutrients. There is still a lot to say but that's enough to start speaking about nutrition in a more constructive way than the outdated eat less move more.
Nutrients are fundamental for health, if you still have doubts of if you are starting reading this blog only now I recommend you take your time to check my introductory articles on carbohydrates, fats part 1, fats part 2, proteins, vitamins and minerals.

In our society an excessive importance has been put on the macronutrients. How many times per day a vegan is asked where he gets his proteins from? A question to which he correctly replies by presenting a list of pulses and nuts that (on dry weight) have more proteins than meat. Paleo-dieters are asked if they aren't eating too much in terms of meat and fats, remembering that the base of the infamous pyramid are the carbs.
I don't yet want to go into the detailed analysis of those two diets, which I don't follow but from which I take a lot of interesting ideas. For the time being I just want to underline what they have in common: they both put emphasis on the concept of nutrient density over the mere calories count, and this is why they look so strange to the public. This is also the reason why both perform better than many other diets.

Nutrient density

I chose a bowl of white rice as a counterexample of nutrient density to represent this article. I had a large list to choose from, but everybody pretty much knows already that fast food, sodas, luncheon meats, snacks, etc are not good choices. There is even an increased awareness on the dangers of soy, so many people started realising that tofu is not a health food at all. But that would have been too easy and I like to provoque. So I chose a bowl of white rice. What is wrong with white rice? After all it is the staple food of billions of people around the world.

Actually, there is nothing wrong in white rice per se, if not for the fact that it is a source of empty calories.  Proteins are very poorly represented in white rice, fats are basically non-existent, which made rice the official choice of people looking forward to losing weight. Depending on the cooking technique, minerals may be thrown away with the water (this is why I steam my rice). Finally, vitamins are either destroyed by heat or thrown with water.

What stays is a concentrated source of soaked carbohydrates which have the privilege of being at the top of the list of foods which raise blood sugar levels quickly. White rice can make you feel satiated (or better, bloated), it definitely provides calories. It is feeding billions of people, but it is not nourishing them.

Don't get me wrong: I myself eat white rice on occasions, but far from being my main course, it is instead and additional source of starches when I need them more (for example a meal after an intense workout). The provocative idea to use white rice as an example of bad choice when it comes to nourishing was to show that, if what we think is healthy has some drawbacks, imagine fast foods, sodas, luncheon meats, snacks and processed food in general. I used what in mathematics is called The Squeeze Lemma.

Using the limited space in our stomach and its ability to digest food with something that is missing essential nutrients (proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins) is obviously not a winning choice, not in the long term at least. What is winning are diets that have proven to be sustainable for millennia, this is where I can finally speak about my favourite subject: traditional diets.

Nutrient density in traditional diets

Introducing nutrient density in the ambit of traditional diets wouldn't make sense if I didn't mention Weston A. Price.


Weston A. Price was a dentist who first started considering dietary factors as the cause of tooth decay. His most important work is a 10 year research in the beginning of the 20th century that brought him to visit dozens of primitive and isolated cultures around the world, just mention some: native americans, polynesians, inuits, pygmies, aborigines, gaelics as well as isolated villagers in the Alps in Switzerland.
His objective was to understand how those people could maintain optimal health and although his research first addressed cavities and crooked teeth, the observations and the analysis of their diets found more than he was actually looking for.
I personally believe he was the right man at the right time: he had the unique opportunity to compare healthy traditional diets with the raising Western Diet. Fifty years earlier or fifty years later his researches would not have been possible.

To cut short, his findings revealed that, although there are consistent differences (think the diet of eskimos and that of masai), they all shared a common philosophy, nutrient density: no food was "just for calories". There was also a particular attention to the preparation of food, either through lacto-fermentation or soaking. Many foods were eaten raw, people did not know why, they had just done like that since ever, today we know: most vitamins are thermolabile.

He also reported that none of the groups he studied could thrive on a plant-based diet and the cultures using some form of dairy (raw and full-fat) had an even superior health compared to the individuals of the same genetic pool that didn't. These are important points on which I will return.

Examples

- "First biochemistry, then philosophy, mathematics, history... Alex!!! We are reading your blog because we want to know WHAT TO EAT!"

And you're right! Here comes the pragmatic paragraph of this post. I tend to spend a lot of words on the theoretical part because for me it is more important that people understand the rules behind the choices that are made.

I have been thinking long how to close this post, and that's the reason why I waited so much before publishing it. I wanted to make it easy so that it conveys a message, it doesn't need to be exhaustive, it must on the contrary leave some open questions and stimulate the intelligence of the reader.

Some food for thought below:


Poor choice Good choice Non plus ultra
Vegetables

  • French fries
  • Chips

(that's it...)

  • Salads
  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Beet greens
  • Low Glycemic Load roots


  • Same as "Good Choice", preferable in-season, local produce, raw or lightly cooked
  • Seaweed


Fruits

  • Tropical fruits
  • Dried fruits with added sugars
  • Roasted nuts

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Watermelon
  • Pumpkin
  • Raw nuts

  • Berries
  • Stone fruits
  • Avocados
Meat

  • Luncheon meats
  • Salami
  • Bologna
  • Bacon

  • Beef Filet
  • Chicken breast

  • Organ meats
  • Bone broth
Fish

  • Fried fish

  • Canned fish (if of good quality)

  • Fresh wild-caught cold water fish
  • Roe
Dairy

  • Cheesecake
  • Cheeseburger
  • Cheese slices
  • Skimmed milk

  • Yoghurt
  • Fresh cheese
  • Butter

  • Aged cheese
  • Homemade yoghurt/kefir
  • Full fat diary
  • Grass-fed butter
  • Heavy cream
Cereals Pulses

  • Pasta
  • Pizza
  • White bread
  • Biscuits
  • Crackers
  • Cakes
  • Boxed cereals



  • White rice
  • Whole cereals
  • Pseudo-grains
  • Chickpea
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Green peas

  • Properly prepared whole cereals, pseudo-grains and pulses (soaked, lacto-fermented, sprouted...)




I sense a disturbance in the Force. You may not like what is in the list, it is not my fault: I didn't invent the rules, I just know them.

Some paleo readers will be surprised to see pulses, grains and dairy in the Non Plus Ultra column. They are there with a caveat: they must be properly prepared according to traditional ways. Also: dairy is grass-fed and is either aged or fermented.
Paleos will also complain that bacon it in the list of Poor Choices. Get real my friends: cavemen were eating spleens and lungs, not bacon ;)

Although I can't imagine everybody kneading sourdough right away and eating tripes and kidneys by tomorrow on a regular basis, one good initiative for health could be to remove everything from the poor choice, use more of the things from the good choice column and try to introduce step-by-step some elements from the NPU column.

It is not easy, especially when it comes to organ meats. I have two more articles to go then in one week or more I will start publishing the first recipes. Thence... stay tuned!


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Micronutrients: minerals


The second class of micronutrients to be introduced is the minerals. Minerals can improperly be referred to as atoms: they are chemical elements as found in the periodic table, the main picture of this post which some people may be familiar with from chemistry classes.

Don't worry, I won't be doing a chemistry lesson today...

Although they come in molecules (sometimes organic molecules) minerals themelves cannot be synthetized by our bodies and must therefore be introduced regularly through the diet.

Macrominerals and microminerals

Minerals can be further classified into macrominerals and microminerals, based on the daily requirement and their role in the body.

Macrominerals often take part to the building structure of our body itself, notable examples are Calcium and Phosphorus (our bones are mainly made of these two minerals).

Micromineals are required in extremely small amounts, they are required only to trigger some metabolic reactions. Microminerals are also called trace minerals.

MacromineralsMicrominerals
CalciumIron
PhosphorusBoron
PotassiumChromium
MagnesiumIodine
SulfurManganese
SodiumMolybdenum
ChlorideSelenium

Silicon

Vanadium

Zinc

Lithium

Germanium

Rubidium

Minerals deficiencies

It would be utterly unrealistic to think of fitting everything about minerals deficiencies in one paragraph of a blog. Our health depends on a good balance of minerals in the diet, some deficiencies are more widespread that usually believed.

People are mostly familiar with iron deficiency (which causes anemia), iodine deficiency (hypothyroidism) and calcium deficiency (rickets, bone health).
Just to mention some others:
  • Zinc plays a role in several metabolic processes especially the production of hormones, it is required to produce HCl in the stomach. Most people are zinc-deficient to some degree
  • Magnesium is required to produce serotonin, optimizes digestion, needed in order to produce ATP (the energy molecule of muscles)
  • Selenium, potent antioxidant, it helps with thyroid health and supports the kidneys, protects against the toxicity of other minerals (for example mercury)
  • Chromium, originally considered toxic, is needed for the metabolism of glucose
  • Sulfur enters into several metabolic pathways. It is also required for liver detoxification
  • Chloride: ever wondered what the Hydrochloridric Acid is made of?
List again is far from being complete. With time I'll dedicate special posts for each mineral, their roles and the preferred food sources.

Roles of minerals in the body

As with other nutrients, minerals have multiple roles in the body.
  • Act as cofactors for enzyme reactions
  • Maintain pH balance of the body
  • Facilitate the transfer of nutrients across cell membranes
  • Maintain proper nerve conduction
  • Contract and relax muscles
  • Regulate tissue growth
  • Regulate osmotic pressure of fluids in the body
  • Provide structural and functional support

So far so good

We completed the list of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, fats again, proteins) and the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). These are the bases on which we can seriously start discussing about nutrition.
In the next post I will speak about nutrient density, it is the very starting point to healthy eating. It will also help create a "nutrients awareness" that will help in evaluating everyday's choices and (why not?) build some critical thinking towards diets that forbid some foods, usually for dogmatic reasons, or restrict calories for weight loss or for the alleged health benefits of eating less (partially true, but...).

How food is prepared is very important to get the most out of every ingredient. Needless to say: stay tuned!


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Micronutrients: vitamins


So far I have been speaking about macronutrients. In order to be healthy we need to introduce them in quantities that are in the order of hundreds of grams (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) on a daily basis.

Micronutrients are nutrients that are needed in smaller amounts (less than one gram) with some being needed in traces. Despite the small requirements, they are fundamental for optimal health. Some of them are essential, meaning we have no choice and need to introduce them regularly through a balanced diet. Deficiencies in some micronutrients are the root cause of diseases such as:
  • Beri-Beri (Vitamin B1)
  • Ariboflavinosis (Vitamin B2)
  • Pellagra (Vitamin B3)
  • Paraestesia (Vitamin B5),
  • Hypocobalaminemia (Vitamin B12)
  • Scurvy (Vitamin C)
  • Rickets (Vitamin A, D, K2 and Calcium)
  • Night Blindness (Vitamin A)
  • Hypothyroidism (Iodine)
  • Anemia (Iron)
  • Kesha disease (Selenium)
Some conditions don't have a specific name but are still caused by micronutrient deficiencies:
  • Vitamin K deficiency (difficulty in coagulation)
  • Biotin deficiency (Vitamin B7)
  • Zinc deficiency (several non-life threatening signs and symptoms, zinc deficiency is far more widespread than usually thought)
The two lists are obviously incomplete, I just wanted the readers to realize how important these small molecules are and maybe scare them a little: you wouldn't believe how many people in the civilized world are borderline with the intake of some vitamins: bleeding gums is the first stage of scurvy.

Micronutrients are either molecules (vitamins, bioflavonoids, phytonutrients, enzymes, co-factors, ...) or elements (minerals). Today I'd like to introduce vitamins, the most important amongst the molecule micronutrients for one simple reason: they are essential, meaning we can't produce them.

Water soluble and fat soluble

There are two classes of vitamin, the water soluble (or hydrosoluble) vitamins and the fat soluble (or liposoluble) vitamins. The first are dissolved in water or other watery liquids. The second in fats, this detail is important because without healthy fats in the diet their absorption is impaired.

Fat solubleWater soluble
Vitamin AVitamin B1, 2, ..., 15
Vitamin DVitamin C
Vitamin ECholine
Vitamin KInositol
Para-Aminobenzoic Acid

Where to find them

You may have noticed that the main picture of the post shows one egg religiously fried in butter from grass-fed cows, some grass-fed beef liver, organic blueberries and pickled olives. Normally, a blogger would have introduced the subject with a rainbow of exotic fruits. But this is not simply a blog about on nutrition, this is YET another blog on nutrition, my role is to inform with state of the art of science, go against dogmata and - where needed - against Conventional Wisdom and ethics (don't hate me).

Fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs and whole grains are excellent sources of vitamins, bioflavonoids, anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds... This is where vegans are totally right. Anybody trying to do the Inuit Diet (a 100% meat/fish based diet) is doomed to fail on the long run, despite the initial benefits. Paleo dieters attempting to live on coconut, almonds and bacon simply didn't get what the original idea of paleo itself is... moreover they are experiencing miserable meals from an organoleptic point of view, but this is not me to judge: de gustibus non est disputandum.

The other side of the medal is that several vitamins and other micronutrients which are not perforce vitamins (and therefore less popularized) are only found in animal sources. This is where traditional diets got it right, as Weston A. Price observed during his researches: there is no native culture thriving on a plant-based diet. I would add a corollary: if any culture in the history of mankind ever tried to become vegan they are not here anymore to tell us.

The table below is a not-exaustive list of sources for the most common vitamins.


VitaminSources
A
Egg yolks, liver, oily fish, dairy
B1
Pork, yeast, avocado, wheat germ, spinaches, cauliflower, most nuts, sunflower seeds, legumes
B2
Dairy, leavy vegetables, liver, kidney, legumes, yeast, mushrooms, nuts
B3
Liver, heart, kidney, chicken, beef, oily fish, eggs, avocados, dates, tomatoes, leafy vegetables, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, asparagus, nuts, whole grains, legumes, mushrooms
B5
Almost any food
B6
Meat (pork, turkey, beef), bananas, legumes, potatoes, pistachios, dairy, wheat germ
B7
Swiss chard, raw egg yolks, liver. Can be produced by bacteria in a healthy gut
B9
Almost any food, especially leafy greens, yeast, avocado, asparagus, dairy, meats, eggs
B12
Seashells, egg yolks, liver
C
Bell peppers, kiwi, lemon, lime, oranges, grapefruits, pine needles, bovine adrenal glands
D
Egg yolks, liver, oily fish, dairy
E
Most nuts and seeds, olives, some fruits (kiwi, mangoes, papayas, avocados)
K
Egg yolks, liver, oily fish, dairy, lacto-fermented food
Choline
Almost any food, especially: egg yolks, yeast, wheat germ, fish, meat

Usual question: confused? Some may be. Let's look in detail some of these vitamins to clear some doubts.

Vitamin A

Carrots, apricots, melons and pumpkins, with their wonderful orange colors, are usually considered good vegetable sources of Vitamin A. Unfortunately this is untrue: they are sources of carotenoids, which are not the true Vitamin A, whose real name is retinol.
Some people are good at converting carotenoids into retinol, these are the exceptions, not the rule. Most humans are inefficient in this conversion and some cannot convert it at all, just like the conversion of the ω-3 ALA into DHA and EPA.

In other words: you can binge on carrots and still be Vitamin A deficient.

Vitamin D

This is my favourite vitamin, and it is also the most misunderstood. I started my health journey from here several years ago.
A typical mistake is considering nuts, seeds and their oils as sources of Vitamin D. There are two natural forms: Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). The one that is active in the human body is the D3 and is only found in animal sources.
It is also produced in our skin from cholesterol when we expose ourselves to sun rays, unfortunately the sun-phobia, our indoor jobs and the use of sunscreens greatly limit this conversion. Finally, not all of us work as lifesavers in the tropics, the average civilized humans are able to expose themselves to the sun only a couple of weeks per year. Definitely not enough.

In other words: if you expose yourself to the sun only for a short period during the year (and use sunscreen in that occasion), and if you rely on vegetable sources for vitamin D, you can still be Vitamin D deficient, with a number of consequences of health, both short and long termed.

Vitamin E

Let's speak in favour of vegetables now: there are no reliable sources of Vitamin E from animal sources. The group of Vitamins E is definitely from plants, with olives and their oil being by far the most excellent, tasty and versatile source.

In other words: the Mediterranean Diet with its big salads generously flooded with Extra Virgin Oil of Olive wins again.

Vitamin K

Again, there are several forms, with Vitamin K1 and Vitamin K2 being the ones naturally occurring and both being essential for optimal health.
There are no vegetable sources of Vitamin K2 , however this vitamin is the byproduct of the process of lacto-fermentation of some bacteria. Good vegetarian and vegan sources of vitamin K2 are: natto, tempeh, and dairy (especially yoghurt and aged cheese, for lacto-vegetarians).

Vitamin C

This is another Vitamin that comes preferably from plants. It is also highly delicate to oxidation and easily destroyed with temperatures: exposure to 60°C is enough to get rid of it. Now, some food for thought: the bottled orange juice sold in supermarkets is pasteurised, therefore...?

There are sources of Vitamin C from animals, namely the lungs and the adrenal glands. Considering that Vitamin C is quickly destroyed with temperatures, unless you are eating raw lungs and adrenals from freshly butched animals, this is not working for you (it works for the Inuits).

In other words: Vitamin C deficiency is quite widespread and although nowadays nobody is developing scurvy in the western world, for most people the intake is just slightly above the lower limit to prevent diseases. That enough to survive, but with sub-optimal health.

Vitamin B12

This is a hot topic. There are two forms of Vitamin B12. One is from vegetable sources, the other from animal sources. Once again, which one do we, humans, need? The one from animal sources.

However: some studies claim that Vitamin B12 can be produced inside the organism by probiotic bacteria, this is naturally done in the rumen of ruminants.

Can this be replicated in the human gut? There is a certain controversy on this: healthy bacteria usually populate the large intestine, where the Vitamin B12 cannot be absorbed (it is absorbed in the small intestine).

There are cases of vegans with serious Vitamin B12 deficiency after just 5 years, on the other side there are long term vegans (35+ years) which are perfectly healthy. Biochemical individuality? Probably. The question stays open.

Conclusions?

Impossile to conclude here, there is still too much to say. I hope as usual to have answered some questions, but also to have stimulated your curiosity. Let me know in the comments your ideas.

The next topic will be the minerals, after that I will go back to practical examples and soon recipes. Therefore... stay tuned.