What is your Health IQ?

I took a Health Literacy class in grad school. The class taught me how to explain complex health information to people that don’t have a lot of health knowledge. For example, how do you explain how to control blood sugar to someone who doesn’t know the difference between carbohydrates and protein? And who doesn’t know anything about the pancreas or insulin?

Health literacy is a concept that’s different than medical literacy – i.e. can you read a pill bottle and take your medication properly. Health literacy requires knowledge of health topics and the understanding of the relationship between lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise, and various health outcomes.

Until today, there hasn’t really been a way to measure health literacy. But today marks the launch of the Hi.Q app, two years in the making! The app is the first comprehensive health IQ test that measures how health conscious a person is, with the goal of increasing the world’s health literacy.

download

The app includes more than 10,000 questions in 300 categories. You answer questions in a timed, quiz-like format that prevents you from “googling” the answer – and that is apparently pretty addictive!

The questions were written and certified by 30+ experts from various fields of medicine, nutrition, and exercise – including me! Yup, that’s right. I was asked to be an expert reviewer for this project a few months ago. It was kind of hush hush, and I didn’t know many details, beyond “this is going to be big, do you want to be involved?” I’m so glad I said yes, as I think this app has the potential to inform MANY people about the basics of health and how to take care of yourself. (And can I just say how excited I am to be on a team that includes people like Kristin McGee, one of my favorite celebrity yoga instructors?!)

The questions are very different than a health assessment, like what you might take at work. Instead of “How many times do you workout?” or “How many times should you workout?”, questions get at your real knowledge by asking you for answers you would only know if you were well-versed in a health subject.

For example:

“How do you get rid of saddle sores when bike riding?”

“How many cups is this (photo of rice)?”

Hi.Q users can compare their overall score and topic level scores to known experts and other members of the Hi.Q community. Users can see how their knowledge of nutrition compares to the average Walmart shopper, the average Whole Foods shopper, the average farmer’s market shopper, or an organic farmer. They can also see how their Hi.Q score compares to the state or city average.

The categories of questions cover a broad range of health areas:

Hi.Q_Site_Topics

And many more. See what I mean when I say broad?!

During preliminary testing, 250,000 people used the app, and it was determined which health facts and skills are the most important to long-term health maintenance. For example, Hi.Q found that knowledge of how to eat at parties was more predictive of long-term health than how to manage stress. They used this type of information in the scoring.

In terms of the type of impact this app can potentially make, Hi.Q found that people who have high health literacy, as measured by their Hi.Q score, were 50 percent less likely to have visited the hospital in the past year, and have a lower chance of being obese than those with lower health IQ scores.

Pretty cool. I’m excited to see if this takes off.

I encourage you to test your Health IQ and try out the app. For now it’s only available in the Apple store (booo for us Android users!). But it’s free! Let me know what you think.

Here is some media coverage from the launch today if you’re interested in learning more:

http://blogs.wsj.com/venturecapital/2014/12/15/health-literacy-startup-hi-q-emerges-from-stealth-with-funding-and-app/

http://venturebeat.com/2014/12/15/this-app-uses-clever-quizzes-to-rev-up-your-health-iq/ 

The Problem With Multivitamins

I wrote an article for the Frederick County Guide. See page 36, or I’ve reposted below.

Forty percent of Americans take a multivitamin, according to data analyzed from the national NHANES 2003-2006 survey. I would say that ten years later, that number is even higher, at least in my client population. People keep buying multivitamins, even though the research is all over the place as whether or not they do anything. Actually, much of the recent research has pointed to the detrimental effects of taking a multivitamin! But I think the majority of people feel a “why not” or “it can’t hurt” attitude when it comes to multivitamins. Well, I’m here to tell you that “yes they can hurt!” Let’s go over the specific reasons why I’m not a fan.

1. They typically contain cheap, poorly absorbed ingredients and binders. Most consumers shop just on price, so many companies who manufacture supplements look for the cheapest ingredients, not the ones that perform best in humans. Ever wonder why your stomach hurts after taking a multivitamin? Ingredients like magnesium oxide are notorious tummy busters.

2. Most contain folic acid, the synthetic form of folate. Understandably, since folic acid is a much cheaper ingredient than folate. But it’s speculated that up to 50 percent of people have a gene defect where they cannot convert folic acid to folate, the more usable form (1). This could be why researchers have found that high intakes of folic acid may contribute to an increased risk of certain cancers. And given that folic acid is also added to grain products in the U.S., people who take a multivitamin might be getting too much.

3. Most contain calcium. Calcium supplements, in the wrong context, can wreak havoc. Without certain nutrients to shuttle calcium into the bones and teeth, excess calcium can often end up in the body’s tissues, contributing to increased risk of heart disease and arthritis, among other health issues (2).

4. Most contain copper. Like calcium, copper in the wrong context can cause problems. Excess copper, especially in relation to zinc, is associated with many mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Copper levels often are increased considerably in women using oral contraceptives (3). So, a multivitamin combined with birth control pills, could be a recipe for disaster.

5. They don’t address nutrient synergy. Vitamins and minerals interact with each other. Raising the levels of one in the body can cause the levels of another to rise or drop. Multivitamins throw copious amounts of nearly EVERY vitamin and mineral at you, with no respect for that powerful synergy.

It’s not that I’m against supplements in general; I use them often in my practice. I just think ultimately, multivitamins aren’t targeted at individual needs. I use easy and affordable functional medicine testing in my practice to target those individual needs.

Instead of taking a multivitamin as insurance against nutrient deficiency, eat a varied whole foods diet and get tested for any specific nutrient deficiencies you may have.

*Addition: Depending on the situation, I will have some people take a prenatal. The only brands I recommend are Thorne and Designs for Health.

1. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/vitamins/fa/

  1. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/thinking-twice-about-calcium-supplements-2/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1

3. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09323.html

 

Pink Friday Sale

Tomorrow, November 21, 2014 I’m celebrating Pink Friday! Pink Friday is a fundraiser for Sophie and Madigan’s Playground, a cause near and dear to my heart. I never met Sophie and Madigan Lillard, two little girls killed in a house fire in Myersville, MD in January 2013. But many of my new friends and colleagues in the Frederick area knew the family, so I feel like I knew Sophie and Madigan too. The family is going to build a magical, fantastic playground in honor of the girls and I want to help them in any way I can.

Tomorrow I will be offering all my services at 10% off, with an additional 10% going to Sophie and Madigan’s Playground. Just use the code PLAYGROUND when checking out of my online store anytime on Friday, November 21st.

Nutrition counseling and all my packages are on sale, and so are mineral analysis kits! I’m really excited about this test and the results I’m seeing in clients. The test tells me information about various minerals, mineral ratios, and heavy metals, and how they affect endocrine function. Clients call me a “fortune teller” because I can pretty much tell them how they’re feeling or what kinds of health issues they’re dealing with before I even talk to them! I recommend this test for anyone dealing with:

  • Thyroid or adrenal issues
  • Heart disease
  • Infertility
  • Blood sugar issues or diabetes
  • Arthritis/joint pain
  • Migraines
  • Excessive cavities
  • Anxiety/depression

It’s a test you can do at home. I send you the kit with instructions and you send your hair sample to the lab. 1-2 weeks later, I get your results and send you an email interpretation with recommendations. Combine it with nutrition counseling in a package for even more positive health effects!

I can send a kit to anyone in the world (with some exceptions), making mineral analysis a great holiday gift.

Check out the list of other businesses participating in Pink Friday. There are some amazing sales tomorrow – some as big as 50% off! Happy shopping!

The Health Benefits of Gelatin

I often look at other cultures for inspiration on how to live a long, healthful life. I think there are some common practices that healthy people around the world have in common. I commented on Facebook recently about how I must come across as a Francophile – someone obsessed with French culture. My last two posts had me praising cheese and liver as health foods. Now I’m writing about gelatin, a staple in French cuisine. But the truth is, all these foods are more common all over the world, not just France. And they used to be common in the U.S. too. Look at cookbooks from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s and you’ll find lots of recipes that include gelatin and liver!

I’ve written in the past about how our food supply in the U.S. has changed drastically over the years. It’s not just the amount of packaged, processed foods that we now have available to us, our supply of whole foods and their quality has changed as well. Let’s look at meat. Americans used to go to the butcher and have access to various parts of the whole animal. Now, in the average supermarket, we have access to this:

IMG_1526.jpg (2592×1936)

Rows of skinless muscle meat. Unfortunately, there was a big push to avoid certain types of fat for many decades and lean, skinless, muscle meat became what American consumers wanted. Think skinless chicken breast, flank steak, ground turkey, etc.

These cuts are brimming with methionine, tryptophan, and cysteine, amino acids which are inflammatory, inhibit thyroid function, depress immunity, decrease the body’s ability to withstand stress, and are associated with many problems of degeneration and aging (1). No wonder there are many research studies on meat that are negative!

Calorie restriction made a splash in the news a few years ago as a potential way to live longer (2). It’s speculated that the same life-extending benefits of calorie restriction could be attained with methionine restriction, without the hunger, and lowered metabolism and fertility. But here is the twist:

“A fascinating but woefully little-known study in 2011 showed that in mice, supplementing with glycine—an amino acid found abundantly in connective tissue and gelatin and bone broth—had the exact same life-extending effect as restricting methionine. Without reducing calories or other amino acids, glycine supplementation increased the rodents’ lifespan, reduced fasting glucose and insulin, decreased IGF-1 levels, and nearly halved their triglycerides—the very perks that’ve variously been attributed to calorie restriction, protein restriction, and methionine restriction.” (3)

Many experts think this research translates into humans, meaning that if you eat more gelatin, connective tissue, and bone broth – all brimming with glycine – you potentially get all the PROs of meat consumption (fat-soluble vitamins, micronutrients, bioavailable iron, complete protein, digestible protein), while minimizing the CONs.

Another reason this is a good idea besides health? Gelatin makes up about 50% of the protein in an animal. We’re literally throwing away 50% of the animal when we eat only muscle meat. From an environmental standpoint, this really sucks! Nose-to-tail eating – eating the whole animal – is more respectful to the animal and the planet, and healthier for the humans consuming it.

Potential benefits of eating more gelatin:

  • Anti-inflammatory.
  • Helps balance blood sugar by working with insulin to help the body use glucose properly.
  • Supports healthy hair and nail growth.
  • Good for joints and can help injury recovery.
  • Can help tighten loose skin (Gelatin is a great source of dietary collagen. Collagen is too large to be absorbed by the skin, so don’t waste your money on fancy skin creams).
  • Can improve digestion.
  • Heals damaged intestinal lining (a.k.a. “leaky gut” and allergies).
  • Improves stomach acid insufficiency.
  • Helps improve cellulite.
  • Glycine helps balance estrogen and progesterone.
  • Can suppress appetite.
  • Improves sleep.

Adding gelatin to the diet is easy:

  • If you eat meat, eat more on-the-bone cuts of meat like shanks, short ribs, and ox tails.
  • Make your own bone broth (ever wonder why homemade chicken soup is so good at curing colds?!). No time to watch a pot on the stove? It’s easy to throw chicken bones and water in a slow cooker overnight.
  • Snack on homemade Jello, homemade fruit snacks, panna cotta, and other gelatin-based desserts.
  • Use a supplement. Great Lakes is a great brand from grass-fed cows. The red can can be used to make gelatin-based desserts and thicken sauces. The green can (collagen hydrolysate) dissolves in cold liquids and can be added to juice, coffee, tea, or smoothies. Purchase from www.greatlakesgelatin.com or Amazon..
  • When you do eat muscle meat, supplement with gelatin, either in a sauce or as a side.

1. http://raypeat.com/articles/articles/gelatin.shtml

2. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/magazine/11Calories-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

3. http://rawfoodsos.com/2014/03/09/new-animal-protein-study/

Facts and Myths Regarding Vitamin A

If you ask the average kid (or even nutritionist!) which foods are high in Vitamin A, they are more than likely going to tell you carrots and other bright orange vegetables. Everyone knows that!

Except they’re not high in Vitamin A…

Vitamin A comes from eggs, whole dairy products, fish liver oils, and beef, calf, and chicken liver (1). Carrots and other bright orange fruits and vegetables are a good source of beta carotene, and beta carotene is NOT Vitamin A (1). Beta carotene must be converted to Vitamin A in the body. Unfortunately, research shows that this conversion process is extremely inefficient (2). Most people absorb only a tiny fraction of the beta carotene they consume, and only a fraction of that ever becomes vitamin A, even if you’re stuffing your face with “pumpkin everything” this time of year.

Why care about this? Well, first of all, Vitamin A is crucial for healthy bones and calcium metabolism, vision, healthy skin, immunity, proper hormone function, making healthy babies, and carrying a healthy full-term pregnancy, so making sure you’re getting enough is important.

Second of all, as a consumer, you should be annoyed. Beta carotene is included as Vitamin A on the Nutrition Facts panel of food and supplements. This is confusing for consumers. This leads people to believe one cup of carrot juice contains a whopping 700 percent of their daily intake.

carrot juice

Not only is that wrong given what we know about absorption, it’s wrong because those Nutrition Facts panels amounts are based on erroneous calculations that are way too high (3).

Food and supplement companies can voluntarily declare the portion of vitamin A derived from beta carotene on a label, but many do not. The FDA has proposed that the labels change to reflect the new unit of vitamin A measurement – mcg RAE (mcg’s of retinol activity equivalents). That will help deal with some of the confusion, but it won’t help with the next issue.

Third, it’s estimated 45 percent of adults don’t convert ANY beta carotene into vitamin A at all (4, 5). That’s a BIG deal!

What are some signs of vitamin A deficiency? Keratosis pilaris (“chicken skin” on the backs of arms), impaired immunity (getting sick all the time), rough/dry skin, acne, and dandruff.

Bottom line? People with restrictive diets excluding certain types of food might be at risk of vitamin A insufficiency, even in developed countries. Sufficient vitamin A intake cannot be reached by consuming only beta carotene alone (6). Your best bet would be to eat foods containing BOTH beta carotene and vitamin A, and focus on practices that are known to improve beta carotene conversion, such as:

  • Eating beta carotene-rich foods along with some fat, such as an olive-oil based dressing on a salad, increases the amount you absorb.
  • Treat your gut nicely. So many of my clients suffer from food allergies, low stomach acid, or other manifestations of compromised gut health, all which can hinder absorption. Contact me for more on this.
  • Iron and zinc are critical in converting beta carotene to vitamin A. If you’re deficient in them, your vitamin A status will probably be impaired (1).
  • Lightly cook your vegetables to break down fiber and improve absorption.

A special note for anyone interested in fertility and lactation: vitamin A needs go up during pregnancy and nearly DOUBLE during lactation (1), yet pregnant women or those considering becoming pregnant are often advised to avoid the intake of liver, based upon unsupported scientific findings (7).

“The American Pediatrics Association (err.) cites vitamin A as one of the most critical vitamins during pregnancy and the breastfeeding period, especially in terms of lung function and maturation. If the vitamin A supply of the mother is inadequate, her supply to the fetus will also be inadequate, as will later be her milk. These inadequacies cannot be compensated by postnatal supplementation. A clinical study in pregnant women with short birth intervals or multiple births showed that almost 1/3 of the women had plasma retinol levels below 1.4 micromol/l corresponding to a borderline deficiency.” (7)

We’ve been somehow conditioned to believe that vitamin A supplements and/or eating liver during pregnancy is associated with birth defects. It’s a myth that won’t die. The World Health Organization (WHO) reviewed the research and concluded that even retinol dosage levels of 20,000 to 30,000 IU daily did not reach the level that could theoretically cause birth defects (8). The WHO recommends  that all pregnant women take vitamin A as retinol (8). They also say vitamin A may REDUCE the risk of birth defects! Oh the irony.

I always bring up liver with my fertility clients.  I estimate about 50 percent are game to try it weekly, especially if they grew up eating it. The other 50 percent recoil in horror. I’m fine with that. I don’t like it either! I can’t seem to acquire the taste for it no matter what I do. I sometimes buy liverwurst from U.S. Wellness Meats, but I mainly get my Vitamin A from a mix of eggs, dairy, and vegetables.

A note on supplementing: many in the nutrition and health community are wild about cod liver oil as a vitamin A supplement. It’s good for the majority of people, but for those with low calcium levels, it could be detrimental. I don’t recommend any supplements anymore without mineral analysis first.

  1. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/vitamins/vitaminA/
  2. http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2001/010323.htm
  3. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/4/1067.1.full
  4. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/75/5/900.long
  5. http://www.lmreview.com/articles/view/common-genetic-variants-and-other-host-related-factors-greatly-increase-susceptibility-to-vitamin-a-deficiency/#fn-ref-113-3
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21957049
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17665093
  8. World Health Organization Micronutrient Initiative. Safe vitamin A dosage during pregnancy and lactation. World Health Organization 1998 WHO/Nut/98.4

Killer Calcium?

I’ve been thinking a lot about calcium lately. Our bodies need this mineral to build and maintain bones and teeth. Calcium also helps with blood clotting, muscle function, and regulation of the heart’s rhythm.

We’ve had it hammered home since we were in grade school that increasing calcium intake will prevent osteoporosis, the weakening of bones. We’ve been told to take calcium supplements if we don’t get enough calcium in our diet.

Yet, we have a very high calcium intake in the U.S. and also high osteoporosis rates, plus, calcium supplements are linked to heart disease (1). What gives?

It has to do with calcification, calcium buildup in the body’s tissues. Along with reduced metabolic rate, calcification is a hallmark sign of aging.

Examples of calcification:

  • Atherosclerosis: calcification of blood vessels
  • Osteoarthritis: calcification of joints
  • Tartar: calcification on the teeth
  • Gallstones/kidney stones: caused by calcium deposits
  • Infertility: sometimes caused by endometrial calcification
  • Alzheimer’s: evidence is mounting brain calcification contributes
  • And so many more!

When you consume calcium, regardless of if through food or supplements, you hope it will be deposited in the bones and teeth, right? Well without a critical vitamin in your diet to direct calcium, it often winds up in the body’s tissues instead. So you could conceivably have a high dietary calcium intake or take calcium supplements, and still wind up with osteoporosis and heart disease to boot. Sucks, right?

So what’s this critical vitamin? Vitamin K2, not to be confused with the Vitamin K1 that is found in dark leafy greens. K1’s main role is in blood clotting, while K2’s main role is calcium metabolism. K2 activates certain proteins that guide calcium into bones and teeth where it belongs. And even cooler? K2 will activate other proteins that sweep calcium OUT of other tissues where it is potentially harmful. So you could potentially REVERSE heart disease just by getting enough of this crucial vitamin (2).

Other potential benefits? Better teeth. Weston A. Price (3) was a dentist who embarked on an medical anthropology trip around the world in the 1930’s to study how diet and lifestyle affected dental health. He found cultures with straight, beautiful, healthy teeth and deduced what they had in common. He has been called the “Charles Darwin of Nutrition,” since much of what he discovered looks at how food and food quality affect health in general. If you haven’t read his 1939 book, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,” a nutrition classic in my opinion, pick it up for the photos alone! Anyways, Price is credited with discovering Vitamin K2, although at the time, he had no idea what it was. He called it Activator X.

He realized that humans are capable of thriving on very diverse diets. However, he did find one thing in common: they all ate some amount of animal-derived fat-soluble vitamins. Even the near-vegetarian groups ate insects or small animals that were rich in pre-formed Vitamin A, Vitamin D, and what we now know is Vitamin K2. And here’s the kicker for my fertility clients: many of the foods high in these nutrients were fed preferentially to pregnant or reproductive-age women in the groups he studied.

Depending upon your current understanding of fats and the causes of heart disease (see here and here), you either will be pleasantly surprised or horrified by the list of foods high in Vitamin K2:

  • Butter from grass-fed cows
  • Organ meats
  • Shellfish
  • Fish eggs
  • Cheese from grass-fed cows
  • Natto (a fermented soybean popular in Japan)
Butter from grass-fed cows vs butter from the grocery store

Butter from grass-fed cows vs butter from the grocery store

Now, think about the French Diet and the above list of foods. Health experts have been talking about the “French Paradox” for years – the confusion over France’s rich, fatty diet and their low heart disease rates. What if the French Paradox isn’t such a paradox after all? What if it’s not the red wine that’s protecting them, but all the foie gras, quality cheese, and butter?

Now think about the Japanese diet. What if it’s not the green tea that’s protecting them from cancer and heart disease, but all the fish eggs and natto?

Previous thinking on Vitamin K2 was that our gut bacteria can make what we need from Vitamin K1. Does the typical American’s damaged gut do this? Who knows. I’ve seen evidence for and against the claim that we get enough from eating dark leafy greens.

But logically, when I think about the modern American diet, our current rate of disease, and compare it to someplace like France that has loads of K2 in their diet, it makes sense to me to eat more foods with K2.

As a side note, my latest obsession in my nutrition practice is mineral analysis. I find it most useful for determining tissue calcification. I would say that about 80 percent of my clients have high calcium levels in their tissues and would benefit from more K2 in their diet, either from foods or supplements, to help “sweep” it out of tissues. For those few who actually do need more calcium, K2 would also be beneficial in guiding that extra calcium into bones and teeth.

I see lots of potential in Vitamin K2 and I think you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it in the future. Vitamin K2 has potential benefits for nearly every major health concern of our time. K2 might be the ‘missing link’ that explains many of our modern health woes.

So eat your pastured dairy, organs, fish eggs, and shellfish! And if you have arterial calcification, as determined by a heart scan, or tissue calcification as determined by mineral analysis, you may want to consider supplementing with additional K2 (also called menaquinone-4 and menatetrenone).

For more information on Vitamin K2, “Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox,” by Kate Rheaume-Bleue, is a great place to start.

1. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/thinking-twice-about-calcium-supplements-2/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

2. http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2008/11/can-vitamin-k2-reverse-arterial.html

3. Trolls: I am not a lacky for the Weston A. Price Foundation. Stop trying to label me. I’m anti-dogma and support many different types of diets.

Good Food/Bad Food

Note: I wrote this post for pasta company Jovial’s “Win a trip to Italy” competition. That was before I realized nearly every submission dealt with gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease. Oops! In my defense, they do sell non gluten-free pasta and flour! Anyways, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written and I’m very proud of it.

I want to tell you about a common scenario I encounter every day as a registered dietitian. After introductions, when I ask about their typical diet, many of my clients declare that they’ve recently “given up bread and pasta” in their quest to be healthy and lose weight. They obviously feel virtuous. Apparently bread and pasta are the dietary villains du jour? I can’t keep up anymore with what’s considered “good food” and “bad food” these days.

That’s partly because I don’t believe there are good foods and bad foods. I believe in food neutrality. There is no perfect food; each comes with give and take <- Remember this line! It’s life changing when you really let it sink in.ch~

It’s taken me fifteen years to get to this point. Yes, fifteen. When I first started studying nutrition in 1999, my professor would say, “there are no good foods and bad foods,” and talk about the importance of moderation, blah blah blah. I would roll my eyes and think, “of course there are good foods and bad foods!”

I saw all sorts of bad foods in the world around me: fast food, soda, cakes, French fries, sugary cereal…they’re all definitely bad foods, right?

I got older and I became a registered dietitian and a voracious reader. I read every nutrition best-seller and health blog I could find in my spare time. I seemed to get caught up in every dietary theory. I was vegetarian for a year. I gave up gluten for a year. I went low-carb for a few months. While some of these practices may have given me short-term health gains, in the long-run, simple practices like, ahem, moderation and intuitive eating have served me more.

It’s not that I don’t care about food quality. I do. In fact, I own a farm and produce much of my own food because I believe so strongly that eating mostly whole foods grown close to home will better anyone’s health.

However, it’s the constant media attention on dietary villains that’s gets me riled up. The term food neutrality is sometimes used in eating disorder treatment and that’s what I think we have in the U.S. – disordered eating! People hear differing nutrition messages from the media, bloggers, doctors, and alternative health care providers:

  • “Sugar is a toxin!”
  • “Carbs are what’s fueling the obesity epidemic!”
  • “No one can digest gluten or lactose.”
  • “Humans don’t need animal foods.”
  • “Saturated fat will clog your arteries.”
  • “Kale is a super food!”

These ideas change like the the wind! Remember in the 80’s when cholesterol was the bane of human existence? Now we have a whole generation of people who think Egg Beaters and margarine are healthy, when in reality, butter and whole eggs can be incorporated into a healthy diet. Focusing on one food or nutrient as “THE problem” or “THE solution” has a really poor track record when it comes to actually improving nutrition and health.

Another problem with the good food/bad food dichotomy? Where do you draw the line? You can’t. When is bread or pasta a good food and when is it a bad food? Some people may in fact eat too much bread and pasta or have Celiac disease, a condition that warrants complete elimination. But for my average, busy client, bread and pasta can be incorporated into their diet occasionally, just like any other food. People seem incredulous when I give them meal plans that include these foods. They think that in order to improve their health, they have to give up all their favorite foods.

People often talk about Europeans and their appreciation and enjoyment of food. I doubt most French people sit down to a butter croissant and cafe au lait and worry about the saturated fat and sugar content. But Americans? We obsess. We worry. We don’t enjoy. Sit down with a big group of women at a social event with food and you’re likely to hear worry, guilt, and shame, and obsession over calories, fat, carbs, sugar, or whatever other nutrient is trending at the moment. You probably won’t hear appreciation and enjoyment.

Food should never have morality attached to it. Food is fuel. Food is nourishment. Food is joy. Food is never good or bad.

Another note: please don’t use my previous post against me. People should be able to enjoy fried food occasionally (if they want) and not feel guilty, just like pasta. I’m all about educating people and creating awareness, not fear mongering.

The Biggest Dietary Change in American History

Okay, take a stab at it. What do you think is the biggest dietary change in American history over the last 100 years?

Increase in refined sweeteners?

Increase in refined flour?

Increase in soft drinks? Fast food? Saturated fat? Carbs? Calories?

I think the biggest, and arguably most significant change in the American diet over the last century has been the development and mass adoption of seed and vegetable oils.

Think about your current diet. How many foods did you eat today that contained some sort of seed or vegetable oil? Corn, soybean, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, canola oil…If you ate anything in a package or box, it likely contained one of these oils. If you ate at a restaurant, it’s likely your food was cooked in one of these oils. These oils have worked their way into nearly everything we eat, often even so-called health foods.

Before 1900, these oils were scarcely used. People used fats that could easily be extracted from food, like tallow, lard, butter, olive oil, and coconut oil. Seed and vegetable oils were used in paints and as furniture polish, until the development of chemical extraction methods made them cheaper and easier to obtain.

Seed and vegetable oils contain mostly polyunsaturated fats, like linoleic acid, a type of omega-6 fatty acid. I’m sure you’ve heard of omega-3 fatty acids? The balance of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids to anti-inflammatory omega-3’s has changed from about 8:1 to about 20:1 in the past 100 years (1). In those years, saturated fat consumption has remained relatively stable, monounsaturated fat consumption increased by 54 percent, and polyunsaturated fat consumption increased a whopping 300 percent (2)!

And it’s not just from packaged, boxed foods either. These oils, in the form of corn and soy-based feed, are fed to pigs, chickens, and cows to fatten them up quickly. This changes the fatty acid composition of the meat, increasing the omega-6 fatty acids. However, grass-fed and pastured meat has fewer omega-6 fatty acids and more omega-3 than feedlot-raised meat.

As opposed to most other fatty acids, linoleic acid accumulates to a large degree in fat tissue, and over the past 50 years, it’s showing up in increasing quantities, including in breast milk (2,3).

Moreover, seed and vegetable oils are in nearly every store-bought beauty and personal care product you rub into your skin. Some interesting reading on that here.

So what’s the effect of eating all this linoleic acid day in and day out? Inflammation for one. Increased inflammation is associated with just about every disease, from heart disease, to diabetes, to autoimmune disease to cancer. Polyunsaturated fats are not very stable and go rancid (oxidize) easily when exposed to air, light, and warm temperatures. Think of the sticky neck of the vegetable oil bottle that you’ve had in the cupboard for while. Think of that in your body and on your skin.

These oxidative processes can damage enzymes and other parts of cells, and especially their ability to produce energy. The enzymes which break down proteins are inhibited by unsaturated fats, and these enzymes are needed not only for digestion, but also for production of thyroid hormones, clot removal, immunity, and the general adaptability of cells. The risks of abnormal blood clotting, inflammation, immune deficiency, shock, aging, obesity, and cancer are increased. Thyroid and progesterone are decreased. Since the unsaturated oils block protein digestion in the stomach, we can be malnourished even while “eating well.” ”  - Dr. Ray Peat (4)

Why do some experts recommend eating MORE of these fats? Studies show a substitution of saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats like linoleic acid can reduce cholesterol levels, but, this reduction in cholesterol levels does not translate into reduced mortality rates (5). And many experts are now questioning the widespread public health support for a high linoleic acid intake.

In a review paper on dietary fatty acids and heart disease risk that was published earlier this year that reviewed the the effect of dietary fatty acids on heart disease, the authors concluded:

the pattern of findings from this analysis did not yield clearly supportive evidence for current cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of saturated fats. Nutritional guidelines on fatty acids and cardiovascular guidelines may require reappraisal to reflect the current evidence.” (6)

So, what to do? You don’t have to move to a farm and become a hermit to reduce omega-6 linoleic acid in your diet. Here are some pretty easy, actionable steps you can take to change your health for the rest of your life:

  • Use olive oil, butter, and coconut oil at home, and quit buying and using vegetable oil, margarine, and shortening.
  • Cook more at home and eat out less. Eat fewer fried foods at restaurants.
  • Eat fewer packaged and boxed foods made with seed and vegetable oils. Be a label reader.
  • Don’t buy mayonnaise or commercial salad dressings – make your own.
  • If you eat meat, eat more grass-fed and pastured meats and vary your types. Many Americans OD on chicken, which can have a lot of linoleic acid, depending on how it was raised.

I believe there is enough evidence to reduce linoleic acid in my diet. If you need more convincing, Israelis’ high heart disease, diabetes, and cancer rates may be regarded as a population-based experiment of the effects of a high omega-6 diet (7).

Some food for thought.

1. http://chriskresser.com/how-too-much-omega-6-and-not-enough-omega-3-is-making-us-sick

2. http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2012/02/my-tedx-talk-american-diet-historical.html

3. http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2011/08/seed-oils-and-body-fatness-problematic.html

4. http://raypeat.com/articles/articles/unsaturated-oils.shtml

5. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/77/2/521.full

6. http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1846638&atab=7

7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8960090

The Whole Picture

When I was a health conscious teenager drinking skim milk, I remember I used to look at my grandmother drinking whole milk with a bit of self righteousness.

“Doesn’t she know any better?” I would wonder. “Whole milk is full of saturated fat and cholesterol!”

My, how times have changed! These days, I enjoy full-fat dairy, and I’m much more likely to tell my clients to drink whole milk, rather than skim or 1%. Especially my fertility clients!

Why the 180? Eating full-fat dairy fits into my “eat real food” philosophy. This philosophy has been cultivated year after year, the more I study food and nutrition. And it’s reinforced year after year, as new research emerges that shows the foods my grandmother ate may be healthiest for us after all. Butter and whole eggs have both seen a healthy renaissance recently. Now it looks like whole milk may see a similar revival.

Consider two recent studies that conclude the consumption of whole-fat dairy is associated with reduced body fat. In a study published last year in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, middle-aged men who consumed high-fat milk, butter, and cream were significantly less likely to become obese over a period of 12 years compared with men who never or rarely ate high-fat dairy. (1)

In another paper, published last year in the European Journal of Nutrition, researchers reviewed 16 other studies and concluded that the evidence does not show that high-fat dairy foods contribute to obesity or heart disease. In most of the studies, high-fat dairy was actually associated with a lower risk of obesity! (2)

Moreover, full-fat dairy has been a recommendation for women trying to get pregnant since 2007, when research from the Nurses Health Study showed intake of high-fat dairy foods may decrease the risk of anovulatory infertility.

How can this be? Well, the fat in whole milk can curb appetite and slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream, reducing the amount that can be stored as fat. Also, fat-free dairy products can potentially disrupt hormone balance, an important factor in fertility and weight. The process of removing fat from whole milk removes estrogen and progesterone, which are bound to the fat. This leaves behind higher portions of androgens, insulin-like growth factor one (IGF-1), prolactin, and male hormones in the watery layer, therefore causing an imbalance. (3)

So does that mean you can go on an ice cream and cheese-eating bender? Not quite! It means you can stop feeling guilty if you keep whole milk in the house for the kids and you drink it too. It means you can enjoy the 2% Greek yogurt, instead of the 0%. It means cheddar and apples can be a balanced afternoon snack. Incorporate modest amounts, 1-2 servings, of full-fat dairy into your diet, even if you’re trying to lose weight. And let your grandmother tell you, “I told you so!”

1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23320900

2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22810464

3. Victoria Maizes, “Be Fruitful.”

Why we killed 48 chickens last weekend

When Karl and I moved out to this house on 33 acres nearly a year ago, we knew one of the first things we wanted to do was buy chickens. Not just for the eggs and for meat, but for the fruits and vegetables. Yes, that’s right – fruits and veggies. Karl and I are both very much influenced by Joel Salatin’s model of farming. We want to avoid monoculture – growing a single crop or focusing on a single animal year after year on the same land, in the absence of rotation through other crops. We love his ideas on polyculture, the traditional rotation of crops and livestock. It’s a symbiotic relationship of everything on a farm. It’s better for both the land and people. Polyculture, when done right, automatically replenishes what is taken out, which makes it sustainable with minimal effort. You have healthier animals, healthier soil, and easier to grow fruits and vegetables with little need for fertilizer and pesticides.

Karl built Salatin-style pens for the broilers (meat chickens). The pens protected the chicken from hawks, foxes, and other predators, while still allowing for sunshine, grass, and fresh air. They were moved to a fresh patch of grass daily so they could eat bugs and fertilize the ground. The patches of grass where they were moved over ten weeks are now noticeably super green and healthy! While Salatin is known for his meat products, he calls himself a grass farmer above all else. Everything he does, he does with the health of the grass in mind.

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The chickens grow super fast! We waited until they were about 4 lbs each, about 8-10 weeks. You’re allowed to process up to 1000 chicken on your property a year, and usually people rent the equipment. But Karl spent weeks prepping and he built an entire chicken processing set-up from scratch. Even an electric chicken plucker! Moving out here, I’ve seen an entirely new side of my husband, that’s for sure!

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Karl’s family raised chickens for meat and eggs when he grew up, so his parents came down to help supervise on processing day. We also had friends and family who are interested in food and agriculture come for the day/weekend to help out. Everyone watched videos and read the manual to get a general idea. But no manual is as good as Karl’s mom showing us exactly how to do it! We processed and packed 48 chickens into our deep freezer.

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I won’t go into the nitty gritty of how to process and butcher a chicken. I just wanted to write about WHY we did it and I hope this gave you a better idea. Someone at Karl’s school last week asked him why he should buy pasture-raised poultry over supermarket chicken. I gave Karl some talking points – fewer inflammatory fats, no hormones or antibiotics, soil health, happy chickens, blah, blah, blah. But ultimately, he needed a one-line, easy to understand answer. An elevator speech. What did Karl and I come up with?

“It’s healthier.”

Haha. Not very good, I know! We’re working on it :)