Thursday, August 25, 2011

As Above, So Below. Part 2

Girls as young as six years old have indicated having a greater fear of being fat than of nuclear war, cancer, or losing a parent. When faced with the ultimatum, the majority of people responded that they would rather lose a hand than gain 100 pounds and one third of American adults are classified as obese. It is clear that we have been on an increasing trend towards bigger waistlines and the culprit is both the adjective and the noun: fat.

We equate the cellulite on thighs, the love handles and the belly rolls with butter, oil, whole milk and other foods classified as having high fat contents. It's a rather simple, linear equation; fat goes in, fat gets put on. The body, however, is far from simple, and such an uncomplicated representation of it's function is bound to be not only incomplete and untrue, but also dangerous.

What does fat do? Well, in more visibly obvious terms, it provides protection-cushion, if you will, both for bones and joints but also for internal organs. Body fat, mostly subcutaneous (below the skin) also serves as insulation from the harsh elements. Less visibly obvious, fat stores in the body called visceral are found surrounding the organs in protection. These fat stores have a great job to do beyond simple cushioning though. Subcutaneous fat is energy storage and manufacture units for important messenger chemicals like leptin, which helps to regulate hunger cues. Stores of fat in the body are also involved in the production of sex hormones, necessary for normal development and healthy functioning of an adult body. Plus, butter makes food taste good.

So why have we become so fat-phobic? One reason often cited is that large studies have shown a correlation between high fat diets and disease risk (cardiac implications are most often the focus, but others have Bren suggested as well). What HASNT been taken into account in these studies until relatively recently, is the TYPE of fat. More recent and comprehensive studies have found that the correlation stands for saturated fat (animal fat mostly, and some plant based fats) more than for unsaturated fat, like olive oil, and so plant-based diets and low-fat options for milk and yogurt, "lean cuts" of red meat and a preference for white meat, poultry and fish have been touted as the keys for optimum health by a number of doctors as well as diet "gurus." But this also is incomplete information. The body NEEDS all kinds of fat (except trans) for proper and optimum functioning. While reducing carbohydrate sources of energy in the body forces the body into ketosis, a highly inefficient and liver-stressing process of breaking down fat and protein into sources of sugar sources of e nervy that the brain can use, limiting dietary fat intake poses a number of important concerns. For one, there is no way of obtaining fat-soluble vitamins without consuming wholesome fats in proper quantities. Vitamins A, D, E and K aid in vision, immunity, calcium absorption and usage and number of other important functions in the body. Taking these vitamins in supplement form can help, but they won't reabsorbed (compromised bioavailability) as well as if they came from food, and they are expensive. Fats also insulate neural pathways and so inadequate fat intake readily alters brain function and is needed to build serotonin. Low dietary fat has thus been linked with depression (more on this and it's effect on eating disorders from Dr. Greenblatt). Further, when low fat intake yields depressive tendencies, one's body image and self perception will be negatively impacted, and often causes a person to further limit either one or both calories and fat, simply perpetuating this vicious cycle.

I myself grew up on 2% reduced fat milk, and then switched to "skim" milk in middle school. It wasn't until this year that I started drinking (raw) whole milk for the first time since being a toddler. The reason for my switch, in the midst of many people around me making the switch in the opposite direction, is due to the processing of the milk. Another big secret is that Big Dairy adds skim milk powder to skim milk. Here’s an excerpt from “Dirty Secrets of the Food Processing Industry” from the Weston A. Price Website:

"A note on the production of skim milk powder: liquid milk is forced through a tiny hole at high pressure, and then blown out into the air. This causes a lot of nitrates to form and the cholesterol in the milk is oxidized. Those of you who are familiar with my work know that cholesterol is your best friend; you don’t have to worry about natural cholesterol in your food; however, you do not want to eat oxidized cholesterol. Oxidized cholesterol contributes to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, to atherosclerosis. So when you drink reduced-fat milk thinking that it will help you avoid heart disease, you are actually consuming oxidized cholesterol, which initiates the process of heart disease."

Shortly after World War II, Americans started to abandon butter and cream because of the belief that saturated fat was linked to the growing number of heart disease cases in America. However, atherosclerosis was virtually unknown prior to the mid 1920′s when Americans drowned everything in cream and butter. Something else had been introduced into the food supply of the time that was causing this worrisome increase in heart disease. Of course, this “something” is partially hydrogenated fats which were introduced around 1921. These hydrogenated oils and trans fats, heavily present in processed and fast food is the ONLY fat I ever worry about anymore. As for the rest, I opt for the foods that are closest to their sources: grass fed, local, organic, raw (or as many of those as I can, when I can... $$). While you don't want to GORGE yourself on fats, you certainly don't need to obsess over counting grams as long as you have variety and are mindful about your eating patterns. You're better off eating more satisfying and wholesome fat than you are eating empty calories and processed carbohydrates. Plus, it's about time that we start migrating back to that happy medium, accepting the curves of our bodies and enjoying pleasures in moderation.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

As Above, So Below. Part 1

I used to hold fast to the idea that you are what you eat, and that mentality wreaked havoc on my health, both physically and emotionally. I, and many people involved in various diet plans as well as those struggling with eating disorders categorize foods into "good" and "bad," labels that are often in tandem with particular categories of macronutients, i.e. carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. For individuals with eating disorders, and also commonly in popular fad diets, the "bad" foods are designated by their membership in a particular macronutrient family, i.e. the nearly national fear of fat and/or avoidance of carbs. The most common rehabilitation protocol for individuals with eating disorders is fairly straightforward and consists of cognitive behavioral counseling in conjunction with nutritional rehabilitation. The typical nutritional rehabilitation is hallmarked by it's emphasis on caloric intake and specific percentages of macronutrient makeup in the diet. It is a rigid sdiet structure with little to no room for individual considerations, depending of course on the particular rehabilitation program. The focus on adequate intake of those food groups is undoubtedly of vital importance particularly in severely undernourished patients as is typical of an Eating Disorder Unit at a hospital or a rehabilitation facility, however, the energy contained in those food groups in the form of calories is not going to be absorbed for optimal function in the body without various micronutrients. This is particularly true for malnourished patients, again, as is always the case for eating disordered patients. The distinction between undernourished and malnourished is a subtle, but important one. Undernourishment refers specifically to quantity, while malnourishment refers specifically to quality, both factors of vital importance in one's health.

So let's go over some basic chemistry. Carbon is the cornerstone element of life. A carbon atom can make 4 bonds and is happiest when it is making those 4 bonds. Hydrogen is also pretty ubiquitous. Hydrogen is what we call a diatomic element because it is most often found bonded to another hydrogen atom- designated as H2. Now, back to carbon. Carbon will happily bond to itself and readily creates carbon chains. The electrons that are not participating in a bond with another carbon will readily bond to hydrogen, creating what we call hydrocarbons.

Carbohydrates are chains of carbon bonded to hydrogen and oxygen (another, very obviously vital element for life) with hydrogen and oxygen existing in a 2:1 ratio. There are various designations within the overarching macronutrient group of carbohydrates, however, that you may be familiar with with the common diet lingo of "good carbs," and "bad carbs." These labels refer to the carbohydrate categories of monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides, aka, simple sugars, and complex carbs. Recently, simple sugars have gotten a bit of a bad rep, but studies haves shown that overall, there is no significant difference between the two categories in terms of their effect on blood sugar and insulin. What we know, is that the more slowly digested a food is, the more stable blood sugar and insulin levels remain and the longer satiety lingers. Some simple sugars are digested slowly, and others more quickly. The same is true for complex carbohydrates. The glycemic index (G.I.) is a measurement of a foods effect on blood sugar and insulin levels in the blood as an indicator of digestion speed in comparison to pure glucose. (By th way, blood sugar spikes are followed by a release in insulin to transport the glucose. High levels of exposure to insulin in the body are linked to the development of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.) High glycemic index foods are digested more quickly, have a more rapid and destabilizing effect on blood sugar and insulin levels, and tend not to produce long lasting satiety, and vice versa for low glycemic index foods. Nutritionally speaking we want to include more low G.I. foods and less high G.I. foods. However, because of the methodology of measuring G.I., certain foods are classified as high G.I. when their effect on blood sugar is fast and destabilizing, but only when eaten in large quantities. The carrot and beet, for example are classified as high G.I. foods, but you would have to eat about 1-1.5 POUNDS of them to actually achieve the negative and destabilizing effects on blood sugar and insulin levels. In short, don't cut out beets and carrots just because they are labeled as high G.I. foods, there are always other considerations to be made. One good rule of thumb, however, is to eat minimally processed, whole, and carbohydrates that are closer to the earth rather than the factory or processing plant.

One good example of this is wheat, the staple crop for those of us with European ancestry. If we look at two loaves of bread sitting side by side on the same shelf at the grocery store, we can find remarkable differences. One is a package of sliced, white bread, and the other is a loaf of whole ground wheat bread. For one, the white bread has had to bleach the flour, strip the wheat of the germ and seed (where all of the protein and fat of the plant are found), and mill the wheat into very fine particles of flour under high heat and pressure, thereby destroying any enzymes held within the wheat that would help us to digest it, along with, of course, any bacteria that might harm us. Additionally, because this bread has been stripped of the natural antioxidants from the germ and seed, and will therefore break down faster, the bread company has to introduce preservatives into the bread to increase shelf life. (Several major studies show academic performance increased and disciplinary problems decreased in large non-ADD student populations when artificial ingredients, including preservatives were eliminated from school food programs.) The whole ground wheat bread uses the whole wheat, meaning, the germ and seed, and therefore cannot mill the flour as finely or under such high heat or pressure, which results in a heartier, doughier bread with more enzymatic activity.
Which bread do you choose?

These considerations are often not made in EDUs or other rehabilitation sites for those struggling with eating disorders and can aggregate the already difficult and painful process of refeeding. When the gut flora has been disturbed, as is almost always the case in both under- and malnourished patients, it is of utmost importance to reintroduce whole, intact foods that will encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria to aid in digestion, reduce bloating (a ubiquitous complain for refeeding patients), and support optimal assimilation of nutrients.

Furthermore, this information is almost completely invisible to the mass population. While it is, admittedly, incomplete information, and we are constantly learning new things in the field of health and nutrition, changes can and should be made in homes, in school food programs, and in governmental nutrition aid programs, to reflect the most up to date information about optimum nutrition for ALL. Good nutrition should not be a priviledge.

A post on fats and a post on proteins will be coming soon!

Friday, August 5, 2011

The National Eating Disorder

The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that nearly 11 million people are struggling with recognized eating disorders in the United States. According to the CDC, one third of adults in the US and approximately 17% of children are clinically considered obese. The millions in between these two extremes on the energy spectrum undoubtedly have countless body-image issues, fad diet influences, media manipulation that distracts from internal wisdom guiding nutrition, as well as increasingly prevalent unrecognized eating disorders such as orthorexia, binge eating and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). Additionally, the NIMH states that approximately 26% of adults in the US population are dealing with depression; 22% of those cases are considered "severe," and 46% of 13-18 year olds are diagnosed with depression with 21% of those cases being considered "severe."

Michael Pollan discusses in his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, our "national eating disorder;" the chasm between us and where our food comes from, the processes of growing, cultivating and harvesting, or genetically engineering, processing, importing and preparing food has created the space for uncertainty, insecurity, and manipulation, in the best of cases. Extremism and obsession, illness and imbalance and ultimately untimely and/or painful deaths are becoming ever more prevalent and can all be traced back to malnourishment.

While it is impossible to prove causation, especially in the context of the complicated and intricate human body, it is clear that the effects of diet impact both our physical well-being and our mental well-being, and it is being increasingly recognized that our mental well-being is linked to physical health.

Dr. Greenblatt is an authority in the field of integrative medicine who has treated patients with mood disorders and complex eating disorders since 1988 with an extensive understanding of biology, genetics, psychology and nutrition. In his book, Answers to Anorexia, Greenblatt discusses the role in mental health of several micronutrients including zinc, magnesium, folic acid and the complex of B vitamins. In one of his radio lectures, Greenblatt drew a connection between the stripping of these minerals (zinc, in particular) from our soil (from monocultures!) and thus from our grain and food supply, and the increase in diagnosis of eating disorders. Further, research supports that patients with eating disorders have significantly lower serum levels of these vitamins and minerals. There are a few promising controlled clinical trials including zinc supplements as an adjuvant therapy in nutritional rehabilitation and psychoactive intervention in the treatment of anorexia. It is a young field of research, and there is much to be done, but it seems clear that the relationships between our food system and the health of our whole selves is of vital importance.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Chemistry of the Body... and the Land

I have an incessant need to rip and bite and pick apart my finger and toenails, the cuticles and the skin on knuckles. These are the parts of my body that enable me to act in this world- to reach out, step forward and carve my place in the world, and even when I've broken the habit a number of times of destroying my fingers, I can't seem to kick the toes. My feet are my foundation- my connection to the Earth. Perhaps this self-mutilation is a representation of my disconnection with my feet- my standing- that which supports me- the Earth, but I'm not the only one who has severed that relationship. And I'm not the only one trying to rebuild it.

Our agroindustrial-military complex stems from byproducts and excess raw materials of bombs from WWII that gave rise to chemical fertilizer and the government subsidies of the corn plant (not the farmer) and it wields the sword that has severed that connection between my feet and the Earth. We no longer walk on soil on farms, and the soil is no longer rich enough to supply the food it grows OR the vital nutrients that keep us healthy. Rather, monocultures, a mentality of "bigger, stronger, faster," and measuring the productivity of a farm (agribusiness) in yield-per-acre, along with the federal guarantee to protect corn from market pressures as well as environmental changes are the forces at work to strip value from the soil, diminish our health and break the connection between earth, plant, and human.

Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Why Some Like it Hot, discusses the role of place in our nutrition, and the relationship between our genes, culture and nutrition. These three factors influence the whole person in their development, mantainance, or destruction of health. Based on the evolution of our ancestors from hunter/gatherer societies to agricultural cultures with a settled sense of place and connection to local lands, plants and foodstuffs, the genes of our predecessors were shaped by the nutrient availablity in that place- be it Moldova, Italy, Greece, Peru, or the Americas. Where our families came from makes a difference in what we need, what we are susceptible to and what may be toxic for us.

For example, Nabhan looks in depth at the susceptibility of members of many Native American Indian tribes to alcoholism and diabetes. One major facet of the traditional Native diet includes a number of what are referred to as slow-starches, or complex carbohydrates that metabolize slowly and thus avoid creating a spike in blood-glucose levels typical of simple sugars (often processed, white sugars and flours, i.e. pastries, pasta etc.). Nabhan asserts that the regular consumption of these foods provided a kind of protection from the genetic predisposition of Native Peoples to insulin resistance (a pre-diabetic symptom) and alcohol sensitivity. When Native Peoples no longer had access to these traditional foods (being forced off of their own land and being made to rely on the US government for food and commodities on reservations), they were no longer protected from their genetic predispositions and thus experience highly processed sugars differently than do people whose ancestral genetic evolution did not include those sensitivities. Additionally, the advent of lactose TOLERANCE is a fairly new development in human genetics and nutrition and co-evolved with the domestication and use of animals as livestock. It became more efficient to contain the cows as livestock and harvest milk, butter and cheese from them than it did to follow the herds and hunt them for meat. This was simultaneous with the settling of groups of people in a single place and hence the development of a relationship with the place and the land. With milk available as a continuous source of fat and protein from the cows, gradually, some human genetics evolved to continue to produce lactase (the enzyme to break down the protein found in milk) into adulthood instead of slowly "turning off" that gene with aging. This coevolution of cow, place and human genetics, however, did not occur at the same time in all groups of people. Many Native American Indians were still engaging in hunter/gathering while other tribes and colonizers had already settled into place and habits of milk-drinking. This is an explanation for the many lactose-intolerant individuals, especially those of Native American Indian descent.

So there is this dialogue constantly happening between the places we've been (ancestrally speaking), the place in which we are, what our ancestors ate, and what we eat. That dialogue is written in our genes, and in the chemistry of our bodies- the constant flux and flow of biochemical interactions between our nutrition, our genes and our culture (which includes ways of thinking about food, bodies, history, and place- more on this in the next post!)

Long story short: There's a lot more involved in the health of our bodies and the health of the land- but it comes down to the relationship between those two.