Butter is Better! (sometimes)

Photo by Casey Hussein Bisson

Cook with the right kind of fats

Fats & oils are some of the most misunderstood nutrients in today's health community. Conventional wisdom teaches us to cook with 'light' polyunsaturated oils, while saturated fats have been all but demonized. Yet heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in the US, and chronic inflammation has been identified as a contributor to diseases like arthritis, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's.

New research suggests that perhaps not all the blame lies with the type of fats we're eating (saturated or not), but their quality and chemical stability. Free radicals contribute to inflammation, so fats that are susceptible to oxidation are particularly dangerous.

To understand which fats are most easily oxidized, a quick chemistry refresher: each type of fat (saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated) has a different chemical structure. Saturated fats are structurally rigid because every carbon molecule is "saturated" with a hydrogen molecule. Monounsaturated fats have one "unsaturated" carbon, which forms a double-bond to the next carbon atom on the chain. Polyunsaturated fats have more than one double-bond.

Fats are most susceptible to oxidation at double-bonds. Therefore, the more double-bonds a fat has - the more unsaturated it is - the more easily it will oxidize and create free radicals. And when you eat rancid fats or oils, their free radicals create oxidative stress in your body, contributing to aging, damaging blood vessels, increasing inflammation and setting the stage for many degenerative conditions and diseases.

Exposure to heat, light, and air hastens the rancidification process, so cooking with unsaturated oils just increases the likelihood that those oils will oxidize and cause health problems. Some unsaturated oils are rancid before you even buy them: processing techniques can heat them before they’re bottled, and clear packaging may allow further damage from light. Saturated fats, on the other hand, are more stable and can withstand higher heats. Perhaps this is why Great-Grandma always cooked with butter or lard.

We tend to forget that some saturated fats are healthy and necessary for good health. According to Dr. Jeffrey Bland, “all saturated fat is not the same. …Short-chain fatty acids (like butyric acid, which is highly concentrated in butter) play such a critical role in supporting the healthy of the intestinal cell lining” (Bland et. al., 2004). That said, moderation is key. Saturated fats stiffen our cell membranes and affect their permeability. This is important because cell membrane function directly affects health or disease. According to Dr. Michael Murray, “Alteration in cell membrane function is the central factor in the development of virtually every disease. … Without the right type of fats in cell membranes, cells simply do not function properly” (Murray, Pizzorno & Pizzorno, 2005).

Now, this doesn’t mean that I advocate removing unsaturated fats from your diet. They have many health benefits, such as the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood, chia, flax and walnuts. I recommend getting healthy unsaturated fats from whole foods like avocados, nuts and seeds. And personally, I buy extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle on my salads.

The bottom line: if you’re going to purchase unsaturated oils, ensure that they’re cold-pressed and packaged in dark containers - and don’t use them for cooking. Otherwise, rely on small amounts of saturated fats for cooking, and ensure they're organic to avoid added hormones, pesticide residue, and antibiotics.

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Bland, J., Costarella, L., Levin, B., Liska, D., Lukaczer, D., Schiltz, B., … Lerman, R. (2004). Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach. Gig Harbor, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine

Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., & Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Atria.

Four Important Nutrients For Pregnant Women

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Many (but not all) daily nutrient requirements increase during pregnancy. Whether you’re choosing a prenatal vitamin or selecting a snack to curb your pregnancy cravings, keep in mind that your body needs more of these four when you’re eating for two:
  • B-vitamin complex - especially folate: While the recommended intakes for most B vitamins increase during pregnancy, the DRI for folate (Vitamin B9) in particular jumps dramatically. Folate is a crucial component of any mom-to-be’s diet, as it may prevent autism. Beware the synthetic form called folic acid - studies have shown that it is associated with maternal infection and an abnormally slow fetal heart rate (Hudson, 2008). It’s safest to supplement with a whole-foods source (look for “folate” on the label) or get the proper intake through food sources like leafy greens (think: foliage), black-eyed peas, brewer’s yeast, liver, or beans.

  • Magnesium: The RDA of magnesium is between 350-400 mg/day for pregnant women, but many nutritional experts feel it could be even more, and insufficient intake is common (Murray, Pizzorno & Pizzorno, 2005). Deficiency is associated with preeclampsia and poor fetal growth. You can try an absorbable supplement form such as magnesium glycinate, or you can simply add lots of magnesium-rich foods to your diet such as pumpkin seeds, sea vegetables, almonds, cashews, brewer’s yeast and leafy greens.

  • Iron: Even a slight deficiency can lead to learning disabilities in the developing child, but don’t take an iron supplement unless your doctor recommends it (Murray, Pizzorno & Pizzorno, 2005). Excess iron isn’t easily excreted, and just like iron rusts when it’s left outside, it can also oxidize in the body to create free radical damage and inflammation. You can easily get sufficient iron from eating animal products like clams, steak, shrimp, turkey and chicken.

Hudson, T. (2008). Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. Pregnancy. McGraw Hill: New York.

Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., & Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods.Designing a Healthy Diet. New York: Atria.

Obseity Prevention Begins in the Womb

From my latest article on DietsInReview.com:

Nearly 10% of infants in the US are overweight. As they get older, this percentage grows along with them: almost 70% of US adults are overweight or obese. But weight gain is largely preventable - and prevention begins in the womb.

Mama-to-be? Keeping your blood sugar steady can prevent your baby from having an excessive birth weight. It can also help your baby stay lean throughout his life. High maternal blood sugar prompts the fetus to develop more fat cells, which can make it easier to become fat later in life. ...(Read the full article here)

A Nutritionist's Take On the Stanford Organic Study

Photo by Josh Moody
By now, you've probably heard all the hubbub about the Stanford study that showed organic food to be no more nutritious than conventional food. And you've probably seen the subsequent backlash of scores of bloggers and health advocates defending organic food as a means to avoid toxins. 

Of course, avoiding toxins is important, but as a nutritionist, I couldn't help but step back and re-examine the study's basic claim that organic foods aren't as nutritious. 

Because it's total bullshit.

America is stuck in a cycle of denial when it comes to health, and this study just contributes to a completely whacked lack of perspective. 

Let's examine the actual study and I'll give you some examples.

Firstly, this wasn't a study in the sense that the authors actually went into the fields, picked some organic apples and some conventional ones, and measured nutrition content. It was a "systematic review" of 240 previously conducted studies. The 240 actual studies that were reviewed were conducted as far back as 1966 and were sourced from groups such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's database. 

I mean, you can almost stop right there. Studies conducted in the 60s, 70s, 80s or even the 90s don't tell us much about the nutrition content of conventionally-grown foods today. Conventional farming technologies have changed drastically even in the past 10 years. And it's not unreasonable to wonder whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a vested interest in funding or aggregating studies that 'prove' that conventional produce is as nutritious as organic. If organic was proven to be more nutritious, taxpayers might be dismayed that their money was subsidizing low-quality food and thereby potentially contributing to malnutrition, chronic illness and rising health care costs.

For lack of a better word, it really is a clusterfuck.

But for the sake of this blog post, let's assume that the data that was aggregated was current and that it came from wholly unbiased sources.

6 of the reviewed studies measured blood and urine for antioxidant levels (carotenoids, polyphenols, vitamins E and C content) and found no difference between subjects on an organic diet versus those on a conventional diet. They were randomized, controlled trials - the best kind - so the data may be valid. Let's look closer at one, just for fun. I didn't look at all of them, I just chose this one randomly, so maybe I just got lucky. But here's an actual statement from the abstract of one of these 6 studies:

"When results were expressed as fresh matter, organic tomatoes had higher vitamin C, carotenoids, and polyphenol contents (except for chlorogenic acid) than conventional tomatoes." (Caris-Veyrat, C. et. al, 2004)
That sounds like more nutrition to me!

The abstract of this study goes on to reveal that the scientists then took these tomatoes, pureed them, and fed them to two groups of subjects - one organic, one conventional (I couldn't find any information as to how big the two groups were - larger sample sizes always equate to more reliable research findings). After 3 weeks of consumption of 96g/day of the tomato puree (about 3.4 oz, or less than half a cup), "no significant difference ... was found between the two purees with regard to their ability to affect the plasma [blood] levels of the two major antioxidants, vitamin C and lycopene."

Aha - so the organic tomatoes are actually more nutritious, but after 3 weeks of eating less than 1 serving per day, no difference could be determined in blood samples. OK, wait. I have a few questions: what else were the study subjects eating? Were they all eating the same diet every day to maintain consistency so that the tomato puree was truly the only variable? And is 96g really a large enough serving to see a significant difference? How long was the tomato puree stored before it was consumed? Different diets could conceivably confound the results of the study, and exposure to oxygen could have denatured the antioxidant content in the tomatoes before they even got to the subjects to eat.

As you can see, evaluation of these studies is trickier than it looks. If I had all the time in the world, I would love to go through each one of the reviewed studies, email the scientists and get answers to all my questions. But while that would be interesting and educational, I could also simply rely on all the other evidence that eating organic is more nutritious - and save myself a lot of time.

The Rodale Farming Systems Trial, a 30-year ongoing comparison of organic and chemical agriculture, found that organic soil is better equipped to hold onto and store nutrients. The Rodale Institute stops short of claiming that organic produce is more nutritious, but reason suggests that it must be if it's grown in soil that's more nutritious.

Michael Murray and Joseph Pizzorno, naturopathic doctors and leading health experts, claim in their book The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods that there are more nutrients in organic food and soil: 
"In a 1988 review of thirty-four studies that compared organic with conventionally grown foods, organic food was found to have higher protein quality in all comparisons, higher levels of vitamin C in 58 percent of all studies, and 5 to 20 percent higher mineral levels for all but two minerals. ... Organically grown foods also contain higher amounts of plant-protective compounds, such as flavonoids and caotenoids, which are highly desirable for human consumption."
In addition, they suggest that free-range animal products contain less fat overall, more omega-3 fatty acids, and "ten times as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) as grain-fed animals." CLA is an anti-cancer compound and may also reduce the risk of heart disease. (Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., & Pizzorno, L., 2005).

And despite the headlines to the contrary, the Stanford review did find several organic items to be more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. The study reports that "organic milk may contain significantly more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids" and "organic chicken contained higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional chicken." In addition, organic foods were shown to contain significantly more phosphorous (essential for growth, bones, detox, energy & DNA) and phenols (antioxidants that prevent against free radical damage, chronic illness and degenerative disease).

And the Stanford review found other benefits - for example, "children who consumed dairy products of which more than 90% were organically produced had a lower risk for eczema at age 2 years than children who consumed dairy products of which less than 50% were organically produced." Regardless of nutrition content, we want our kids to be healthy, right?

Then there's the problem of antibiotic resistance, which the CDC calls "one of the world's most pressing public health problems" and the WHO calls an urgent "growing threat." According to the study, "Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposures to ... antibiotic-resistant bacteria." 

To make a very, excruciatingly long story short (by the way, thanks for reading this far), it is this nutritionist's belief that, based on the research, eating organic actually IS more nutritious. In addition, eating organic is known to protect against disease, lower your toxic load, and be more environmentally sustainable.

Which brings us to the final barrier: cost. Organic can be SPENDY! But don't fret - I have some helpful tips. First, the Environmental Working Group publishes an excellent resource called the "Dirty Dozen" that will help you prioritize which foods to buy organic. In addition to the produce they list, meats and dairy products should be at the top of your list, since conventionally-raised animals not only eat non-organic feed, but may have been treated with hormones and antibiotics too. You might also consider a Community-Supported Agriculture share. CSAs will deliver local produce to your doorstep at prices much lower than those you'll find at Whole Foods. Find one near you here. And don't forget about your local farmer's market. Talk to the farmers - even if the food there isn't certified organic (it's a lengthy, challenging and costly process to become certified organic), the farmers will tell you if they grew it without pesticides. Sometimes if you go at the end of the day, you can get great discounts on the food that didn't sell that morning. You can also become an advocate for organic food - if U.S. agriculture was truly a free market, it's less likely that organic foods would cost so much more than conventional. You can "vote with your fork" by buying organic, but remember that you can also vote with your vote by supporting legislators who will help make healthier food accessible to everyone.

Bottom line: don't be fooled by poor journalism. Eating organic will always be a powerful step towards a healthier you. Mangia!

Murray, M., Pizzorno, J., & Pizzorno, L. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Designing a Healthy Diet. New York: Atria.

4 Healthy Ways to Curb Pregnancy Cravings

From my article on DietsInReview.com:

Chips, crackers, doughnuts, bagels, candy … these easy-to-grab comfort foods are a quick way to relieve pregnancy’s hunger pangs. But caving to your cravings isn’t necessarily healthy for your baby. Processed foods in particular are some of the most unhealthy and potentially dangerous options for moms-to-be, because they make your baby more likely to have health problems. According to Dr. Weston A. Price, your baby is at risk for health problems even if you ate processed foods before conception, even if it wasn’t you but the baby’s father who ate them, and even if you ate well but the foods you consumed were grown in depleted soil (Singer, 2004)...(Read more)