If you’ve been endlessly scouring labels since my last post number one enemy: trans fats, you may have come across something interesting. Certain meat and dairy products contain trans fats even though there are no added partially hydrogenated oils. How can this be?
Look at the trans fat content of some beef patties. Granted, these are HUGE.
Check it out though. 3.5g of trans fat per 8oz patty! If I saw a cookie with that amount of trans fat, I’d be running for the hills. So, why did I buy these?
Isn’t all trans fat bad?
There is one form of trans fat that gets a hall pass. Conjugated linoleic acid or CLA is produced in the gut of ruminant animals (ya know, the animals with those crazy 4 compartment stomachs – think cattle, sheep, goats, bison, etc). Ruminants naturally forage on grasses and greens, therefore consuming a ton of fiber that requires this special stomach (and special bacteria) to digest it all. During digestion, bacteria ferment the plant matter and produce CLA as a by-product. Ruminants that are grain-fed, however, do not produce much CLA. Yes, the diet that animals consume effects the probiotics in their gut, just like humans. Shocking. The wrong food feeds the wrong bacteria and produces the wrong by-products, or at least does not produce much of the good by-products.
Anyways, back to CLA. It has been extensively researched and may prevent or even help treat cancer, aid in weight loss, and reduce abdominal fat. The supplement industry has tried to capitalize on the weight loss research, however the forms of CLA in supplements is not always equivalent to what is found in foods. Supplement companies synthesize CLA in a laboratory and end up with slightly different isomers than what is produced within an animal’s gut. One of these isomers has been shown to increase oxidative stress (think free radicals, that’s bad) and reduce DHA in the heart (increasing likelihood of heart disease, also bad). So, if you want to get the benefits of CLA without the risks, eat real food!
Your best food sources are:
- grass-fed beef, bison, lamb, and meat from other ruminants (grass-fed animals contain 300-500% more CLA than grain-fed animals)
- eggs (more in pasture-raised chickens that eat grass and bugs)
- milk from grass-fed cows (whole milk contains the most, since CLA is a type of fat!)
There are few foods and I absolutely, positvely, will not eat. The ubiquitous “partially hydrogenated oil” is one of them. Rich in trans fat (also called trans fatty acids), this stuff is hiding away in many processed and fried foods just waiting to clog up your arteries, give you diabetes, and fatten you up.
Over the past 70 years heart disease, obesity, and diabetes have risen significantly. This is frequently blamed on our high intake of saturated fat. Ironically (or obviously), saturated fat and butter consumption have been steadily declining during this time period, while margarine intake has taken center stage (margarine contains partially hydrogenated oil). A 21 year study found that margarine was strongly linked to heart disease, while butter was not (and, by the way, in the same study butter consumption was actually protective against it).
The Process: How The Hell Do They Make That Crap?
Partially hydrogenated oil is the result of a complicated only-in-a-chemistry-lab process which converts liquid oil into solid fat. Originally created early in the 20th century, partially hydrogenating oils did not become popular until WWII, when butter supplies were scarce and we turned to chemists get us a cheap substitute.
It all starts with the hydrogenation tank, where liquid oils are pumped in, the vessel is sealed, and pressure and temperature increase. Add in a nickel catalyst and some hydrogen and the molecular structure of the oil starts to change. What was once a liquid is now a grey, lumpy, partially hydrogenated, foul-smelling, semi-solid mass. In the process, certain chemical bonds in the oil have been changed from their natural state into a trans form, one that is not seen in nature (at least not in this way).
Grey, lumpy, and stinky is not appealing, so the fat undergoes further manipulation. It is bleached and deodorized, which essentially gives you shortening (mmm mmm, love me some Crisco). Then, simply color and artificially flavor the stuff, and voila you’ve got yourself some “all-natural” margarine.
Ok, let’s step back and think about this. How do you make butter? Humans have been doing it for thousands of years. Whether you start with cow milk or that from sheep, goat or even yak, the process is the same. (the following is best read in Tarzan voice):
- milk animal
- skim fat
- mix/churn fat until solid
Even in massive dairy processing plants, the process is relatively unchanged. You can even make it in your own kitchen by shaking heavy cream in a jar (or while zoning out when you attempt to make whippped cream… oops).
Why are we so afraid of butter? It is rich in vitamins A, D, E, and K, conjugated linoleic acid (potentially anti-cancer and aids with weight loss), and butyric acid (which is immune protective and antimicrobial). Of course, assuming your cows are eating what they are supposed to (i.e. grass). Margarine is a hodge podge of cheap, processed vegetable oils. It is rich in trans fats, not vitamins.
Why You Should Not Eat Trans Fat:
- replacing 4 teaspoons of butter with margarine increases your risk of heart disease 66%
- raises your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowers the good stuff (HDL)
- linked to insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and diabetes
- interferes with cell signaling (aka, your body’s walkie talkies)
- they make you fat (because of #3 and 4)
- passes into breastmilk, resulting in stunted growth and immune dysfunction in babies
- causes tissues to lose valuable omega-3 fats (dietary saturated fats conserve omega-3s)
- linked to infertility (in both men and women)
- increases inflammation (C reactive protein)
- damages immune system (they take the place of our body’s natural anti-viral and anti-bacterial saturated fats)
- ruin your vision (linked to age-related macular degeneration)
Next Time You’re At the Store
Don’t fall for fancy label claims in the butter/margarine aisle. Get the real stuff, ideally organic and from grass-fed cows, or at least from cows not given hormones. Good butter is rich yellow (that’s the vitamin A!) and has a distinctive silky texture and nutty flavor. I like Kerrigold, Strauss, and Organic Pastures best. If there are good dairies in your area, by all means, buy local!
Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;63 Suppl 2:S5-21. Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence. Mozaffarian D, Aro A, Willett WC. ..and another 50 references or so from my files…
I was reading through a recent issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (JADA) and stumbled upon a letter to the editor questioning the logic of labeling solid fats and added sugars (termed SoFAS, pun clearly intended) as empty calories.
The 2011 Dietary Guidelines state that SoFAs are empty calories which should be minimized. Everyone can agree that added sugars are unhealthy. I also think everyone can agree that processed vegetable oils which have been chemically altered (partially hydrogenated) to become solid shortening are unhealthy, especially considering they are the primary source of man-made trans fats in our diets (one of very few things that I avoid like the plague).
However, the Dietary Guidelines definition of solid fats refer to any fats that are solid at room temperature, including saturated fat and trans fat, added or naturally occurring in foods.
Wait a second, since when are foods that naturally contain saturated fats empty calorie? (Empty calorie meaning that they are rich in calories but provide little in terms of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or other healthy compounds). The authors of the Dietary Guidelines are still under the impression that saturated fats are evil, therefore any other nutrients that occur within saturated fat-rich foods are not worth risking your health to eat. Unfortunately, this is outdated information.
So, according to the Dietary Guidelines, we should limit eating the following empty calorie foods:
- Nuts and seeds
- Meat, Poultry, Fish
- Dairy (except low fat)
And, according to the Dietary Guidelines, the following foods are nutrient dense:
- Whole Grains
I beg to differ. First of all, saturated fats are nutrient dense, and not just in calories. Foods that contain them are often rich in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, the cancer-preventative CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), and numerous antimicrobial fatty acids (such as butyric and lauric).
Now, take a look at some nutrition facts comparing equal weight portions (100g) of chicken liver, whole wheat bread, and kale. As you can see, liver, which is usually thought of as some evil high fat animal product, contains the highest concentrations of most nutrients. The whole wheat bread has more calories and is lower in vitamins than liver (opposite of nutrient dense). And, liver even fares better overall than kale, often touted as the most nutrient dense of all vegetables (don’t get me wrong, I still love kale, but aside from vitamins A and C, it’s not that nutrient dense compared to liver).
|3.5oz chicken liver_________||3½ slices whole wheat bread____||kale, raw, 1½ cups____|
|calories 116||calories 247||calories 50|
|fat 5||fat 3||fat 1|
|carbs 0||carbs 41||carbs 10|
|fiber 0||fiber 7||fiber 2|
|protein 17||protein 13||protein 3|
|vitamin A 222%||vitamin A 0%||vitamin A 308%|
|vitamin E 4%||vitamin E 3%||vitamin E 0%|
|vitamin C 30%||vitamin C 0%||vitamin C 200%|
|iron 50%||iron 13%||iron 9%|
|vitamin B2 105%||vitamin B2 13%||vitamin B2 8%|
|vitamin B3 49%||vitamin B3 24%||vitamin B3 5%|
|vitamin B6 43%||vitamin B6 10%||vitamin B6 14%|
|folate 147%||folate 12%||folate 7%|
|vitamin B12 276%||vitamin B12 0%||vitamin B12 0%|
|pantothenic acid 62%||pantothenic acid 7%||pantothenic acid 1%|
|choline 194mg||choline 26mg||choline 0mg|
|selenium 78%||selenium 58%||selenium 1%|
When compared to animal foods, plant foods are most definitely NOT nutrient dense.
But, it’s hard to know what they mean by nutrient dense and it probably needs a clearer definition. Are we talking calorie-dense or vitamin-dense or antioxidant-dense or mineral-dense or macronutrient dense (i.e. high in carbs, fats, or protein)? It’s just way too vague. If we’re simply talking calorie dense, fats are at the top of this list. Fat is a nutrient after all…
Anyways, here’s my definition: Nutrient dense foods are minimally processed, grown without chemicals in nutrient-rich soil, fed a diet they would naturally choose if out in the wild (i.e. cows eat grass; chickens eat bugs, greens, and seeds). They are not altered to change their composition (i.e. removing fat from dairy, skin from chicken, or hydrogenating oils).
Nutrient density is not always a number game. Who really decided that certain numbers are bad or good? And how do we know that a fruit low in vitamin C is not astronomically high in a yet undiscovered antioxidant? How do we know that our nutrition tables are accurate when it’s been proven that nutrient levels are directly related to growing conditions, soil fertility, weather patterns, and pesticide use? We don’t!
The answer is to eat real food, including nutrient dense animal foods (that come with their naturally occuring fat!) to balance out nutrients that do not occur (at least not in large amounts) in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains.
I do not use microwaves. I have actively avoided using microwaves for over 10 years. I know when I eat outside of my home, chances are some things are microwaved without my knowing and chances are a lot of my food comes in contact with radiation at some point, but I do my best to avoid it.
Why? Exposure to radiation, be it humans, animals, or plants, causes damage on a cellular level. The less damage there is to my body and the food I eat, the less work I have to do to repair it. We are bombarded enough with pesticides, pollutants in our air and water, toxins in personal care products. I may as well make the choice to cook my food as safe as possible.
I remember being shocked to read in one of my basic nutrition texts (while obtaining my bachelors in nutrition) that microwaving food actually resulted in less nutrient loss than other forms of cooking. I never fully agreed with that statement and proceeded to dig my way through some reasearch to find more answers.
As usual, the scientific community was split. On one hand microwaving is purported to be safer than high temperature cooking methods (frying, broiling), longer cooking methods (especially boiling food to death), and cooking over an open flame (BBQ). The main reason behind this argument is that microwaving cooks food very rapidly and does not require that they be submerged in any medium (such as boiling in water, where nutrients leach out), thus reduces cooking time and saves nutrients. BBQing, especially when the food is charred black, creates countless carcinogenic chemicals.
OK, I get it. The quicker a food cooks, the more nutrients are saved. Burnt food probably = cancer. But, I still wasn’t convinced. Continue digging…
Microwaves are not the perfect cooking method either. Microwaves work by sending microwave radiation through food. This super heats and “excites” the water molecules and other chemical components of food causing friction among the molecules and thus heat (and steam). This causes the temperature of microwaved foods to rise rapidly (especially compared to other cooking methods). Most people use microwaves for that reason alone – they are fast.
And what about nutrient retention and safety? One study linked high intake of microwaved food to oral cancer. Other studies confirm that microwaves cause significant nutrient loss. One such study found that microvaving transforms at least 30-40% of vitamin B12 to the inactive form, rendering it unavailable for absorption. Microwaved fats and oils rapidly lose vitamin E and build up high levels of dangerous oxididation by-products such as conjugated dienes and the notorious free radicals. Free radical formation is accelerated with microwave cooking. Oxidation from microwaving is the worst in unsaturated fats, such as flaxseed oil (especially!), canola, soy, corn, cottonseed, sunflower and olive oil. The production of free radicals during microwave cooking also corresponds with the destruction of valuable antioxidant compounds.
Of course, all of this depends on how you cook. If you cook broccoli for a very short period of time in a microwave (say <1 min) and compare it to boiling broccoli for 30 minutes in a full pot of water, this may be a different story… There is just something creepy about using radiation (no matter how “safe” they say it is) to cook my food.
Microwave technology has evolved over the years making studies inconsistent and controversial. The time, power, and amount of water used during cooking will inevitably effect results. A 2007 study in J Agric Food Chem which compared the effects of microwaving conditions on bioactive compounds in broccoli (glucosinolates, phenolic compunds, minerals, and vitamin C) summed it up nicely:
The results show a general decrease in the levels of all the studied compounds except for mineral nutrients which were stable under all cooking conditions…
In general, the longest microwave cooking time and the higher volume of cooking water should be avoided to minimize losses of nutrients.
What I Do:
- I still don’t use the microwave, unless there is no other option. I find microwaved food has a lot of off-flavors, but maybe that’s just me.
- I try to cook most foods at a low temperatures on the stove or in the oven/toaster oven.
- I cook with saturated fat (Yep, you read that right. Saturated fats are more stable for cooking and result in fewer free radicals and carcinogens than cooking with unsatured fats. Think coconut oil and butter.)
- I do not deep fry. (OK, I do enjoy the occasional order of In N Out fries – who doesn’t?!)
- If I’m gonna eat BBQ’d or broiled food, I try to pair it with something fresh and colorful to provide some antioxidant protection (like arugala salad, blueberries, red bell peppers, heirloom tomatoes, kale, etc). Antioxidants are natural enemies to free radicals and carcinogens.
Someone asked me about Egg Beaters today. Can you guess my answer? Are Egg Beaters ‘real food’?
First, look at the ingredients in Egg Beaters: Egg Whites, Less than 1%: Natural Flavor, Color (Includes Beta Carotene), Spices, Salt, Onion Powder, Vegetable Gums (Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum), Maltodextrin. Vitamins and Minerals: Calcium Sulfate, Iron (Ferric Phosphate), Vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol Acetate), Zinc Sulfate, Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin B12, Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (Thiamine Mononitrate), Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Folic Acid, Biotin, Vitamin D3
So, Egg Beaters are just the egg whites with a ton of fake flavors (the word ‘natural’ has no true definition), colors, thickeners/gums, and some starch. Oh, and some fake vitamins.
The company claims that they “add vitamins and other nutrients that would otherwise be lost when the yolk is removed.” At least they are admitting that removing the yolk is compromising nutritional value. But, they aren’t fortifying ALL of the lost nutrients. Some of the ones they aren’t replacing (which are found in the yolk):
- choline – needed for your brain and nervous system health
- coQ10 – for energy, heart and liver health, metabolism
- lecithin – for fat digestion, liver function, and normalizing cholesterol levels
- omega-3 – a fat critical for brain, heart, joint, and skin health
- lutein – a potent antioxidant
- zeaxanthin – an antioxidant well-studied for eye health
The yolk, by the way, contains more than half of the protein found in the egg (approximately 4 grams of protein in the yolk and 3 grams in the white), so really, it’s a complete waste to throw it out.
And for the cholesterol-phobic… Concerns about cholesterol are unfounded because eating cholesterol does not raise your cholesterol levels in your blood stream (contrary to popular belief). There is actually NO link between egg consumption and heart disease.
Ok, so back to the original inquiry. The person responded “Yeah, I agree with you. I don’t use Egg Beaters. Instead, when I make my eggs, I usually use 1 whole egg and 2 whites.”
Bottom Line: If you are going to eat eggs, eat the whole damn egg. Don’t only eat the white. It is wasteful and unnecessary to throw away nutrient-dense egg yolks. Lastly, don’t eat fake eggs.
I am frequently asked about raw food diets. I have personally debated their benefits, risks, feasibility, and whether or not they are ‘the answer’ to preventing aging and chronic disease. I have even experimented with eating only raw foods (and boy is that a challenge) and I’ve read the original raw food bible, Enzyme Nutrition by Edward Howell. Dr. Howell was a noted enzyme researcher and one of the pioneers of the raw food movement. It is certainly a fascinating read and he presents some convincing theories about the role of enzymes in human health.
Raw food diets (and I’m referring to those that aim for 100% raw food here) focus on food that has not been heated above 118 degrees, the temperature at which enzymes begin to break down. That temperature is not exact – strict raw foodists will not eat food heated above 100 degrees, lenient ones may allow up to 150 degrees. Keeping food at a low temperature means enzymes, vitamins, phytochemicals, and other unidentified food chemicals are preserved (even the light energy, or biophotons survive).
Enzymes run every single chemical reaction in the body – from breaking down our food (digestive enzymes), telling it when to release insulin, speeding up or slowing down inflammation, clearing plaque out of the arteries, turning on or off certain genes, to sloughing off old skin cells. Literally every reaction in the human body uses enzymes. Dr. Howell theorized that humans have a set amount of enzymes (an ‘enzyme bank’) and that the human body only begins to age and breakdown when our enzyme bank has been depleted. He suggested that the average diet of over-cooked and processed food was speeding up aging (probably true). He suggested that people consume more raw foods (which come with built-in enzymes to break them down) to preserve our enzyme bank for things other than digestion (like tissue repair).
Science has no idea how long human beings could live if their tissues never suffered the chemical abuse of unnatural food. Eighty years might just be a starter. – Dr. Howell
What I love about raw food diets is the focus on fresh food. I also love experimenting in the kitchen to make raw salsas, soups (cold), homemade almond milk, etc. Raw food diets really force you to explore the vast array of vegetables, nuts and seeds we have available. I also love how raw food diets automatically reduce the quantity of grains consumed, since so many people have undiagnosed or subclinical issues with gluten or simply over-do the bread, pasta, cookies, cake and crackers.
Eating only raw foods can be difficult. It automatically restricts your food intake and I believe this can lead to disordered eating or a full-blown eating disorder. Common social situations, like enjoying a meal out with friends can be challenging, as long as you don’t mind salads (hold the non-raw cheese, croutons, salad dressing, candied pecans, etc…) or if you live in an urban area that has raw food restaurants. And, unless you plan to prepare all of your foods yourself (super time consuming), be prepared to pay a lot at the health food store – really $9 for a bag of kale chips?. I know that bunch of kale only cost $1.50!
While raw foods certainly have benefits, there can also be downsides. Many plants come with built-in defense mechanisms to make them difficult to digest. Fiber is hard to break down when it hasn’t been pre-softened from cooking (our bodies do not make the enzyme to digest cellulose). Uncooked cruciferous veggies contain sulfur, which leads to gas, and goitrogens, which can lead to thyroid issues. Tomatoes keep their lycopene all to themselves unless you heat them up to release it. Grains, nuts, and seeds contain phytic acid to prevent premature sprouting, which binds up minerals in your GI tract (though, most raw-foodies will soak or sprout them to reduce the phytic acid).
If you plan to go 100% raw food, but are not willing to consume raw animal products (eggs, meat, dairy), there are certainly nutrient deficiencies that you could experience, notably B12, vitamins A, D, and K, iron, and protein. Though I never developed a taste for raw meat, raw dairy and eggs are a tasty addition (provided you get them from impeccably clean farms). Cleanliness during food production is even more important when eating raw.
My biggest issue with raw food diets is the insane quantity of carbohydrates that some raw foodists consume. Just because your apple and banana and beet and date and coconut water contain ‘natural sugar’ doesn’t mean it wont raise your blood sugar. Commonly, in an effort to make things taste good (since cooking can’t do that anymore), people turn to sugary foods and fruit to sweeten it up. This is especially a problem for raw food vegans, who generally have less fat and protein in their diet to help buffer the large quantities of sugar coming in. And, just to add one more rant, the glorification of agave nectar in the raw food community is ridiculous (since it’s not even raw, despite what the labels say- they must use heat to break down the inulin into fructose). And, even if they found a way to do it ‘raw’, it is incredibly processed and chemically the same as high fructose corn syrup regardless. Ok, enough about agave.
And finally, eating only raw food is not traditional in many parts of the world. In cooler climates, food cooked over a fire provided necessary heat. Also, how rational is it to eat entirely raw when you live in Maine or Alaska or Russia, where much of your food has to be shipped in the winter months – not very sustainable. In Chinese Medicine, some people need more ‘heating foods’ and others more ‘cooling foods’ depending on their constitution, so raw food diets may not be appropriate for all. If you have difficulty digesting foods, certain vegetables may prove to be too much for your intestines to handle.
We need more raw and unprocessed food in our diet, but going to extremes is never healthy (physically or psychologically). If you plan to add more raw food, focus on vegetables more than fruits (to avoid the sugar rush), observe your consumption of grains and see where you can reduce (lettuce wrapped sandwich?), and consider trying raw cheese (like a raw parmesan – tastes better and has no crap in it, unlike that junk in the green can). When you eat foods that are cooked or processed, consider taking a digestive enzyme supplement (ideally at the beginning of the meal) to help with digestion and preserve your enzymes for other more important tasks in the body.
Even Dr. Howell himself suggests enzyme supplements:
One or two units, usually capsules, at a meal is adequate to assist predigestion in the food enzyme stomach. This is a nutritional supplementation. You are replacing enzymes which are supposed to be in your food. - Dr. Howell
Some of my favorite raw foods – lentil salad (sprouted lentils, chopped veggies, lemon juice, olive oil, spices), raw salsa (tomatoes, onion, lime juice, salt, jalapeno), berries, jicama, sashimi, raw milk, raw cheese, nuts (soaked overnight in a salty brine and dehydrated until crisp), chia seeds, figs, celery with raw almond butter, kimchi, fresh herbs… Yes, I love raw food, but it’s not the only food I love.
I’m a foodie. There, I said it. But I’m not just in it for the flavor. Yeah, scientists can manufacture flavors in a lab, trying to recreate the stuff found in real food, but it’s just not the same. (Compare grandma’s chicken soup made with real chicken bones cooked for hours to the junk you get out of a can). I’m a foodie because real food tastes good and makes my body feel good.
So, what is real food? My definition goes something like this: Real food is minimally processed, close to the earth, and not full of chemicals. It is grown or raised as close to your home as possible (local!). It is prepared in a way that enhances it’s natural flavor without compromising nutrients (at least not too much). It is filling and satisfying (in a good way) and it talks to your body, telling you when you’ve had enough or when you need more.