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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Five Worst Dietary Trangressions

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that my "body hates me" because I don't generally eat pastured chicken. Because of the amount of food that I eat to support my body weight and activity level, it would be very expensive for me to eat $2/lb chicken everyday. So I grab antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken from the local grocery store at $.69-.99/lb on sale (wait until it's about a week from going out of date, then stock up the freezer). While the chickens are fed grains, they are not pumped up on hormones. I can shore up the poor omega-3:omega-6 ratio with some extra fish oil, which I do.

In light of that conversation, I want to touch on what I consider to be dietary indiscretions that will make your body hate you.

1. Refined Sugar
Number one on my list is sugar. Sugar hits the body with unbelievable metabolic damage. The glucose surge, the corresponding insulin surge, insulin receptor damage leading to insulin resistance, insulin resistance leading to Type II Diabetes...the list goes on. Sugar is just flat-out bad stuff. Encompassed in "refined sugar" is plain white sugar, brown sugar, and the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), possibly the worst food mankind has created. Fructose is the sugar found in fruit and also found in super-concentrated form (HFCS) in soft drinks and other junk (not "junk food", remember that there's no such thing. It is also the sugar that scientists use to induce insulin resistance (diabetes) in lab rats. Is there any question why America has become The Land of the Fat and Home of the Diabetic? High circulating glucose also damages arterial linings, which causes cholesterol to have to do its work to repair them (for which it gets the blame), and is a huge contributor to heart disease and stroke. While it is theoretically possible to screw yourself up with fruit, the average person is not going to eat enough fruit to really do so. Avoiding refined sugar is tied for #1 on my list of foods to avoid to improve your health. That doesn't mean you can never have a cookie or a slice of chocolate cake. It just means that sugar should be a treat, not a dietary staple.

An extension of this one is organic junk foods. The use of organic snack foods has also become a big thing these days. Whole Foods and Wild Oats are common household names and people assume that anything sold there must be healthful. Not so friends! Organic junk food is still junk food, albeit in a slightly more healthful wrapper. Replacing white sugar with an equivalent amount of honey or agave nectar does not decrease the sugar content, nor does it cause any considerable decrease in the effects on your blood sugar and insulin levels. Again, an occasional indulgence is fine and in that case, the organic or natural stuff is probably more healthful, in the same way that smoking one cigarette is more healthful than smoking five cigarettes. However, one should not assume that organic snack foods are dramatically better for you than nonorganic ones. Would you consider an organic Chips Ahoy to be a solid dietary addition?

1. Trans fats
I couldn't decide between sugar and trans fats for top billing as the worst foods in the American diet, so I made them both #1. How's that for indecision? Trans fats have been in the news a lot lately. They are a man-made fat that was intended to replace saturated fats, yet as with every other time man has tried to best Mother Nature, the cure ended up being far worse than the poison. Trans fats damage cell membrane rigidity, reducing their permeability to necessary nutrients, and damage arteries, contributing to atherosclerosis. Luckily, avoiding both refined sugars and trans fats is easy as they tend to come packaged together in the form of bakery items like cookies, cakes, muffins, and scones, and store-bought junk "food" like Twinkies and Pop Tarts. And you can't believe packaging that says "0g of trans fat". You have to check the package to see if the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" appear in the ingredients. If they do, then the product contains trans fats and the manufacturers are using the "round down if below 0.5g" loop hole.

3. Too few fruits and vegetables
The average American eats very few fruits and vegetables. As this USDA link shows, 27% of vegetable consumption is in the form of fried potatoes (French fries, potato chips, etc). Fifteen-percent of our tomato consumption is in the form of ketchup. And 1/3 of all pickles consumed are eaten on fast food sandwiches or as relish, probably on a hot dog. My quick search didn't turn up any raw numbers on average fruit and vegetable consumption, but I'm willing to bet that the average would not be promising. In the summertime, I eat a huge salad, along with a heaping mounds of vegetables at my other meals. When I say huge salad, I mean a 10" round by 3-4" deep "family sized" serving bowl, heaped with greens (usually an entire head of lettuce or bunch of spinach), carrots, cucumbers, celery, radishes, hardboiled eggs, some form of meat, ground flax seeds, walnuts and pecans, and home made salad dressing with herbs and/or spices. Heaping mounds of vegetables might encompass an entire family-sized bag of frozen vegetables or some other form of steamed vegetables that require care not to have them falling all over the table and floor. And I eat fruit on top of that. When you're taking in that many phytonutrients, a multi-vitamin isn't even a necessity. In the winter, I'm quite a bit lower carb due to seasonal eating. Regardless, I don't consider eating a half-cup of broccoli or a few peas with dinner to be a serving of vegetables. And even at the paltry intake recommended by the USDA Food Pyramid, most people fall short. If people would shore up their fruit and vegetable intake, the antioxidant content would excuse many of their other dietary transgressions, the fiber would help keep them "regular," and the bulk would keep them from eating donuts after dinner. Let's not forget the some other benefits of a high vegetable intake: protection against an enlarged prostate, improved workout performance, and improved mental function.

4. Grain products (bread, pasta, cereals, etc)
Next up is processed carbohydrates, which are invariably grain-based products. Foods like bread, pasta, cereal, and rice are generally considered to be healthful because they are low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. These foods are high in carbs and highly, but incorrectly, processed. I say incorrectly processed because grains require fermenting or sprouting to neutralize their phytic acid content. Phytic acid pulls calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron out of the body and can cause deficiencies. I include whole grains in this discussion too. While whole grain bread is better than white bread, it is still a highly processed food and one that doesn't fit into a hunter-gatherer diet. The body quickly breaks down all of these products into glucose, bringing up blood sugar quickly, and driving up insulin. As we've discussed before, insulin puts the body into fat storage mode and too much of it causes insulin receptor burnout and Type II Diabetes. I've also mentioned before that bread consumption and kidney cancer are linked. Furthermore, grains are very high in omega-6 fatty acids, which throws the omega-6:omega-3 ratio off drastically. So in the end, the order of preference with grains, we have "no grains", then "whole grains", then "white grain products". Oh, and don't forget to check the ingredient labels of most of the breads in the store to see the high fructose corn syrup and the vitamins that are added for "fortification" to improve the vitamin and mineral content of these deficient foods.

5. Artificial sweeteners
Instead of eliminating bad habits, many people just switch one bad habit for another. One huge bad habit is a constant daily infusion of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, acesulfame K, and Splenda. I see several problems with swapping your six-cans-a-day Coke habit for a six-cans-a-day Diet Coke habit. First, I'm not convinced that these artificial sweeteners are healthful in the long-term. Saccharine has already shown itself to be a carcinogen and humans don't have a promising track record of trying to best Mother Nature (see also: trans fats and Olestra). Second, while you may be avoiding the calories, you are not avoiding the sweet stimulation. Many people, including me, can go long periods of time without something sweet. But as soon as those taste buds are stimulated, watch out. The tongue doesn't recognize that artificial sweeteners are artificial. If it did, they wouldn't serve their purpose. The goal of a proper nutrition plan should be to reduce and eliminate the craving for sweets, not fool the tongue. Note that the tongue does more than simply taste food - it also alerts the body to what is coming down the pipe. When it senses "sweet," it alerts the body to prepare for "sweet". This preparation takes place whether the calories show up or not and likely involve some insulin secretion. If it is an occasional indulgence, the artificial sweetener is probably a better option. If artificial sweeteners are part of your daily intake, however, it is probably time to reevaluate your goals.

The Last Word
You'll notice that my list of what I consider the five most offending foods does not include grain-fed meats nor fruits and vegetables raised inorganically. The first step is getting someone to focus on meat, vegetables, nuts, oils, fruits, tubers, and squashes. It would be wonderful if everyone could afford grass-fed meats and organic produce. Unfortunately, that is not the reality of our food production system. I would rather see someone consume grain-fed meats (even those with antibiotics and hormones) than sugar and trans fats. If you're lucky, you can find organic or antibiotic- and hormone-free meats at your local supermarket for a reasonable price, which is a better choice than the standard commercially raised stuff. Obviously the best choice is grass-fed and grass-finished meats and poultry, but don't just throw up your hands and say "Too expensive," and then go back to gnoshing on Oreos. The same goes with produce. Organic is best, but I'd rather see someone eat truckloads of inorganic vegetables than no vegetables. I'm trying to balance what's best (organic produce and grass-fed meats) with what is reasonable for most people.

The beautiful thing is that taking care of the first four issues is pretty simple. Eliminating sugar and trans fats is first and foremost in any dietary change. Luckily, they usually come together in the same package, along with some form of processed grains. How's that for killing three birds with one stone? Cut out the pastries, donuts, Twinkies, Pop Tarts, and muffins and replace them with fruits and vegetables. See how easy it was to take care of numbers 1, 3, and probably 50% of 4? Of course, removing grains requires more than just cutting out junk, but it's a huge step in the right direction. You can cut out the breakfast cereals by going back to an old school breakfast of bacon (hopefully nitrate-free) and eggs or some of last night's leftover meat and vegetables. There is no rule that breakfast has to be made up of different foods than lunch and dinner.

If you have those five areas taken care of, a few other areas to focus on are reduction of polyunsaturated oils due to their knack for immunosuppression and their high omega-6 content, elimination of soy, and getting plenty of sleep. Soy has permeated the nation's food supply and is found in nearly all packaged foods. Luckily, you're aiming for a whole-foods based hunter-gatherer diet, which doesn't include packaged foods. Just like that, most of your soy and polyunsaturated oil intake is gone. Replace your vegetable cooking oils with olive, palm, and coconut oils. Sleep is one of the most important aspects of health, but I didn't include it in the list because it isn't a food.

If you respect your evolutionary roots, focusing on a forager's diet, you'll have no problem with losing fat, gaining muscle, feeling energetic, and being healthy. Meat, vegetables, nuts, oils (olive, palm, and coconut), fruits, tubers, and squashes.