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 52.7ยตg 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!