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Bacteria, metabolites, and a big juicy steak

Here we go again.

The “what to eat and why” plot thickens. So do our artery walls if we’re not careful.

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US for both men and women. Back in my exercise physiology days, I had a fascination with heart disease. I wrote my thesis paper on the effects of exercise on coronary collateralization, worked in cardiac rehab, helped develop an outpatient exercise program, watched up-close-and-personal heart procedures, and was convinced I’d make an awesomely fantastic cardiac surgeon (some of the docs back then were alpha males and not the best listeners). If not for that sternal saw thing, I might have given it more thought.

What I did learn from that experience, though, is that heart disease is a complex condition and doesn’t always follow a direct line to diagnosis or treatment. Researchers are now questioning some of the basic assumptions about causes, lab biomarkers (blood chemistry), nutrition protocols, drug therapies, and invasive surgeries. Some in the medical community are even rethinking our obsession with low cholesterol and statin drugs. I’ll resist picking up that rope, but suffice to say, there’s no easy answer. Throw in genetics and lifestyle choices and there’s a lot to consider.

And now, like there’s not enough to think about regarding heart health and that all-too-common side effect known as sudden death, researchers have discovered those pesky gut bacteria are also playing a role. It appears there’s a type of meat- and egg-loving microbe that produces a substance, which in turn, increases the risk for heart disease. It’s a convoluted pathway, but these microbes convert carnitine (in meat) and choline (in eggs) into a chemical the liver quickly converts to TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide). TMAO ends up in circulation and is associated with an increased risk for atherosclerosis. That’s not good.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve never been much of a meat fan. I’ve always felt we’re better off sticking to a diverse, plant-based diet. If I eat red meat at all, it’s on very rare occasions and in condiment-sized portions. Plants high in beneficial fiber encourage the proliferation of good gut bacteria. Those are the microbes I want on my disease-fighting team, not the carnitine-fueled, gas-belching, TMAO-producing critters. There’s also growing evidence that carnitine and choline supplements promote higher TMAO levels. Beware.

The conclusion from the scientific and medical community might be (is) to develop antibiotics to eliminate these microbes. If we wipe out the bacteria that play a part in TMAO production, we solve the problem, right?

Hmmm? I wonder what the unintended consequences of that will be? How about we support the magic of our own innate healing power and skip the drugs?

Bottom line (in my humble opinion)? Eat more plants and rethink the use of supplements and energy drinks.

If you’re on a meat-laden Paleo diet, you might want to read the research.

For more information about plants, fiber, and gut bacteria, check my last post.
Plants, peels, fiber, and gut bugs

If you’re still with me, thank you. I’ll post some recipes that promote good bacteria later this week. No science talk, I promise. Just good food.

We’re all in this together. Peace, love, and plant power.
Melissa

References:

Husten, L “Researchers Find New Path Linking Heart Disease to Carnitine.” Forbes, online. http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryhusten/2013/04/07/researchers-find-new-pathway-linking-heart-disease-to-carnitine/ (accessed April 7, 2013)

Kolata, G “Culprit in Heart Disease Goes Beyond Meat’s Fat.” The New York Times, online. http://www.nytimes.com/pages/health/index.html (accessed April 7, 2013)

Wang Z, et al. “Gut flora metabolism of phosphatidylcholine promotes cardiovascular disease.” Nature 472, 57-63 (April 2011).

Willyard, C “Pathology: At the heart of the problem.” Nature 493, S10-S11 (January 2013).

plants, peels, fiber, and gut bugs

Whole Foods

Do you peel lemons before tossing them into your morning smoothie? How about beets, cucumbers, or kiwis?

The peelings provide added nutrition; no reason to toss them out. I’m also a big fan of fiber, so I don’t peel most fruits or veggies. Plus, my personal entourage of microbial critters, the hundreds of thousands of bacterial species (gut flora, AKA microbiome) that call me home, thrive on this diet as well. Yes, my body is a temple, complete with a bazillion little symbiotic worshipers.

At least that’s the idea. We need a healthy, diverse, and thriving microbiome as part of our internal ecology. That helps keep the immune system strong, autoimmunity in check, and may reduce the risk of some forms of cancer, especially those associated with the GI tract. We’re bombarded today with chemicals our grandparents weren’t exposed to. Many of these toxic substances (pro-carcinogens) become genotoxic (mess up our DNA) upon metabolic activation by our gut bacteria.

Huh?

Our world is toxic. We eat, drink, breath, and expose ourselves to harmful substances on a daily basis, many of which are in our food supply. Research indicates that a large percentage of known carcinogens require enzymatic activity to trigger malignancy. The bacterial composition of the gut microbiome (good bugs vs bad bugs) and the metabolic byproducts from all those critters can either protect us or do us in.

The idea is to encourage the good bugs to flourish. It’s also important to keep things moving along, if you know what I mean. A plant-based, high-fiber diet not only provides nourishment for our friendly bacteria, it also helps fight disease and prevents us from being full of poo.

The role of the gut microbiome is a hot research topic these days, and although the findings are intriguing, they can also be confusing. Or weird, especially when you throw cootie genomics into the mix. It’s not just our DNA floating around in the gene pool, it’s also the genetic elements of our personal collection of microbes. We’re one big complex ecosystem. Hopefully our microbiome is living in harmony with the rest of us. Food choices, pre- and pro-biotics, and how much fiber we consume can shift the bacterial composition to either enhance our well-being or encourage disease. Here are a few details.

Microbiome: the interaction of all the microscopic organisms, including their genomes, in one specific environment.

* In this post, I’m focused on the human gut microbiome. If you’re interested in the skin microbiome and you’re not germaphobic, check out this article on women’s flat track roller derby in which the skin microbiome of individual contestants was analyzed and matched to team membership. Each team had its own specific microbe community. Not only did they have team colors and team mascots, they had team cooties. Very cool. And weird.

Prebiotics: Nondigestible food ingredients (fiber) that encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics are food for microbes. Feed your microbes well.

* Gluten-free sources of foods containing prebiotic fiber include Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, asparagus, banana, dandelion greens, onions, leeks, garlic, raw oats (make sure they’re certified gluten-free), chicory root, and yacon. Unrefined wheat and barley are also good sources, but those foods are off limits for those of us with gluten intolerance.

Probiotics: live microbes that provide health benefits to the host (you) by augmenting beneficial intestinal bacteria.

* Probiotics can be found in supplement form. I don’t take supplements, so I try to get my dose of probiotics from fermented foods like miso, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir.

Fiber: The nonstarch polysaccharides found in plant foods that are not broken down by human digestive enzymes, although some (prebiotics) are digested by GI tract bacteria. Fiber is often categorized as soluble or insoluble.

Insoluble fibers are called “bulking agents.” They help keep us regular (poo-wise). This is the fiber most people refer to when they talk about constipation. It literally sweeps out the GI tract, which is a good thing. Remember the Elvis story?

Soluble fiber helps that process, but it also has therapeutic effects. Soluble fiber delays the absorption of glucose (insulin response), helps us feel full, and decreases cholesterol levels. There’s even research suggesting soluble fiber may help reduce blood pressure and improve the absorption of minerals.

That last part is especially interesting. Some people avoid grains and legumes because of the phytic acid (phytate) content. Phytic acid isn’t classified as fiber, but is common in fiber-rich foods. It’s a non-nutrient, found in the husk of grains, legumes, and seeds. It can bind with certain minerals (zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium) and decrease their absorption.

But — researchers have also demonstrated that rats absorb more calcium, iron, and magnesium when fed a diet rich in soluble fiber, which is found in those same plants. We’re not rats, but these are interesting findings. Another article suggested that when soluble fiber ferments in the colon, it enhances the absorption of minerals. We eat the plants that contain both phytic acid and soluble fiber and what happens? Beats me, I’m not a biochemist, but the type of fiber appears to be important when it comes to mineral absorption. Soluble fiber that promotes intestinal fermentation and an increase in beneficial bacteria has a positive effect on mineral bioavailability. It’s a convoluted puzzle with lots of variables and depending on what you want to prove, you could cherry-pick data from either side to make your case. Having said that, I’m not convinced phytic acid is anything to worry about, especially if your diet is based on whole foods (lots of plants) rich in micronutrients and fiber.

Soluble fiber in the form of prebiotics is the stuff our gut microbes call dinner. The names don’t really matter, but if you’re interested — inulin, fructooligosaccharides (FOS), arabinooligosaccharides (AOS),  and to some degree, pectin, are soluble fibers with prebiotic properties. As mentioned above, they help increase good bacteria at the expense of bad bacteria.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. You’re fascinated by all this, right?

You’ve probably heard of leaky gut (intestinal permeability), especially if you have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, Crohn’s disease, IBS, or any other autoimmune or GI related condition. We don’t know all the causes of leaky gut, but one thing is clear. The “Standard American Diet” (processed food, low fiber, high animal product diet) compromises food transit and waste elimination.

In other words, if stuff doesn’t move along at the right speed, you end with a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam.

When that happens, it alters nutrient availability to good gut bacteria and stimulates an overgrowth of bad gut bacteria. The bad bugs start partying, produce icky byproducts, and our intestinal cells take a beating. That abnormal balance alters gut permeability and allows funky stuff to slip through the cracks and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Security is breached, alarms go off, and every system in the body becomes a potential target for invaders (antigens). Antigens are substances that invoke an antibody response, but sometimes our antibodies, which are produced to protect us, get confused and target our own tissues (autoimmunity).

Does that sound familiar? Who’s had antibody testing for this or that?

Is this making sense?

Here’s how it all ties together.

See the smoothie ingredients pictured above? They include a mixture of fiber types, along with a rich assortment of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. The American Dietetic Association’s daily recommendation for fiber is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. After age 50, the ADA recommendations drop to 21 grams for women and 30 grams for men.

YIKES, in my opinion, that’s way short of what we should be consuming. I’m over 50 and that smoothie of mine alone contains close to 17 grams of fiber. I’m almost at my daily recommendation before 6 AM. Twenty-one grams is not enough to encourage and support a healthy gut microbiome. Not even close.

Recent archeological findings suggest that at least a few of our hunter-forager ancestors consumed up to 135 grams of prebiotic fiber per day. Whoa, I’d call that high-carb, optimal foraging. Not exactly most modern day versions of the Paleo diet. Although 135 grams of fiber per day is a bit much (don’t try that at home, you’ll explode), American’s are definitely short-changing themselves when it comes to fiber — and overall health.

In a nutshell. Eat more plants.

Prebiotic, plant powered smoothie

* Use organic vegetables and fruit, especially if you’re eating the peels. Scrub the peels well before using (see my little veggie scrubber shown above).
2 cups raw greens (add some dandelion greens)
1 medium pear, seeded and chopped
1 medium celery stalk, chopped
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
2 dates, pitted and chopped
1 lemon (with peel), cut into wedges (pick out the obvious seeds) *
2 tablespoons raw oats, finely ground in a coffee grinder *
4 walnut halves, chopped
2 to 4 cups filtered water

Options: I also use raw beets, jicama, burdock root, broccoli stalks, asparagus, bananas, berries, and whatever else I can think of in my smoothies.

Place all ingredients in a high-powered blender (VitaMix, Blendtec, etc.) and blend until smooth.

Nutrition and health bonus

* Retaining the lemon peel doubles the fiber and significantly increases the vitamin C. The peel also contains a phytochemical called d-limonene, a component of the essential oil in citrus. Studies show this substance is chemopreventive and chemotherapeutic, meaning it helps fight against cancer.

* I always add a source of protein to smoothies. Hemp, chia, various nuts and seeds, or raw oats are favorites of mine. Raw oats provide carbohydrate, but the kind I use are also high in protein, iron, and soluble fiber, which in turn provides prebiotic fuel for beneficial microorganisms like bifidobacteria. If you’re worried about phytic acid, some oats have no hull, lessening the content. At least that’s my assumption, although I couldn’t find any research to back this up. My Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition book defines phytic acid as: a non-nutrient component of plant seeds; also called phytate. Phytic acid occurs in the husks of grains, legumes, and seeds and is capable of binding minerals such as zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, and cooper in insoluble complexes in the intestine, which the body excretes. If phytic acid is found in the husk and there is no husk, it makes sense that there’s less (none?) phytic acid in hull-less oats.

I get my certified gluten-free, high protein, hull-less oats from Montana Gluten-Free Processors or Gluten-Free Prairie.

Some people with celiac disease don’t do well with oats, even gluten-free oats, so ask your healthcare provider if oats are a good choice for you.

For a little background and a list of what good bacteria do for human health, check out this past post of mine (How much of you is really you?). Check this post for some plant magic, (Talking bacteria and disease-fighting veggies).

I signed up for the American Gut Project to determine my gut microbial makeup. It will be interesting to see how those of us with celiac disease compare to the rest of the participants. I’ll keep you posted. If you want to know what you’re made of, check out the open source, community driven effort to characterize the microbial diversity of the American (and global) gut. Let’s compare bugs!

Peace, love and gut checks!
Melissa

References

Chadwich RW, George SE, Claxton ID (1992) “Role of the gastrointestinal mucosa and microflora in the bioactivation of dietary and environmental mutagens or carinogens.” Drug Metabolism Reviews. Vol 24, Issue 4, 425-492.

Crowell P. (1999) “Prevention and Therapy of Cancer by Dietary Monoterpenes.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol 129, No 3, 775-778.

Jenkins et al. (1999) “Nutritional and Health Benefits of Inulin and Oligofructose: Inulin, Oligofructose and Intestinal Function.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol 129, No 7, 1431-1433. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/129/7/1431S.full.pdf+html

Kolida S, Gibson G (2007) “Prebiotic Capacity of Inulin-Type Fructans.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol 137, No 11, 250-256. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/137/11/2503S.full

Leach JD, Sobolik KD. (2010) “High dietary intake of prebiotic-type fructans in the prehistoric Chihuahuan Desert.” British Journal of Nutrition. 103(11):1558-61. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20416127

Lopez HW, et al. (1998) “Intestinal Fermentation Lessens the Inhibitory Effects of Phytic Acid on Mineral Absorption in Rats.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol 128, No 7, 1192-1198. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/128/7/1192.full

Meadow JF, et al. (2013) “Significant changes in the skin microbiome mediated by the sport of roller derby.” Peer J 1:e53. http://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.53

Vigsnaes LK, et al. (2011) “In Vitro Fermentation of Sugar Beet Arabinooligosaccharides by Fecal Microbiota Obtained from Patients with Ulcerative Colitis to Selectively Stimulate the Growth of Bifidobacterium spp. and Lactobacillus spp. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Vol 77, No 23, 8336-8344. http://aem.asm.org/content/77/23/8336.full

Whitney EN, Cataldo CB, Rolfes SR. Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. Belmont, CA. 2002.

Wong et al. (2007) “Carbohydrate digestibility and metabolic effects.” Journal of Nutrition. Vol. 137, no. 11, 2539-2546. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/137/11/2539S.full

Paleolithic musings

Have you noticed the deluge of Paleo books flooding the market today? Do you know what Paleo nutrition is? Did our hunter/gatherer ancestors do more hunting than gathering? Were they hyper-carnivores? Did a large percent of their daily energy needs come from meat? Should we eat like that today?

Yes? No?

Maybe?

Holy mastodon, what are modern humans to do? It’s confusing.

Channel your inner-caveman, grab a drumstick, and let’s unleash the past. On second thought, grab a bowl of baked beans or some goat yogurt, because I’m going to propose we’ve overestimated Paleolithic meat consumption and that, long term, the Paleo diet isn’t the best choice.

But first, a disclaimer and a friendship flag. I’m no evolutionary biologist. I can’t tell you the historical time-lines of different populations, or even who the populations were. Neanderthals, sapiens, upper-lower-middle Paleolithic, pre-Neolithic?

Or who was where? Northern Europe, west Asia, the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan Africa, the Bronx?

In order to propose a specific behavior (archeologically speaking), you need to know what you’re talking about. You also need to have a sound understanding of historical perspective and some scientific evidence. Like cave drawings of ancient BBQs, stone-age meat cleavers, or a well-preserved Neanderthal clutching a mastodon femur. I don’t have any of the above. No artifacts, no fossils, very little knowledge of the time period.

I’m also of the notion that one-sized diet doesn’t fit all. Now or 200,000 years ago, so each to their own.

But, if we’re honest, our fragmented knowledge of the Paleolithic era doesn’t clearly indicate who ate what when. There’s a wide range of possibilities with a zillion variables. If we sift through the research, there’s evidence of fossilized plant particles and starch grains embedded in Neanderthal dental plaque, meaning they ate a variety of plants, including legumes and tubers. Ancient encampments are often littered with animal remains (bones), which gives the impression that early humans ate a lot of meat. But if you think about it, there’s not much evidence to leave behind if you’re a plant. Bones survive thousands of years, plants don’t — they decompose. It’s like searching for an ice cube after it melts. How do we know the Paleo diet wasn’t predominately plant-based, with a little meat thrown in on rare occasions? Recent research is suggesting that theory might be closer to fact than all the hoopla about the caveman diet.

My ancestors ate a plant-based diet, with a little meat when they happened upon fresh road kill, a slow rabbit, or whatever else was around during that time period. I doubt meat was a major source of energy. Since I can’t text my ancestors and ask, this is obviously speculation. For an older post I wrote on this and my thoughts on Paleo and how HLA DQ2 genes add to the mix, please read “Confessions of an HLA DQ2 Cave Woman.”

To make this information easier to “digest,” I’m simply going to compare the modern Paleo diet to what people who currently live the longest eat (Blue Zone communities, see below for details and references). Yes, you could say this is simplistic, misleading, and doesn’t do justice to the Paleo diet. I agree to some extent, but there are too many variables (individual biochemistry, unique gut ecology, genetics, lifestyle, outlook on life, activity levels, food quality, etc.) and not enough accurate historical information to give the Paleo diet a science-based thumbs up or thumbs down. Having said that, I’m not a fan.

Sample 1-day 2200 kcal Paleo menu (“The Nutritional Characteristics of a Contemporary Diet Based Upon Paleolithic Food Groups.” Loren Cordain, PhD, Department of Health and Exercise Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado)

Breakfast
Cantaloupe, broiled Atlantic salmon

Lunch
Vegetable salad with walnuts (shredded Romaine lettuce, sliced carrot, sliced cucumber, quartered tomatoes, lemon juice dressing, walnuts), broiled lean pork loin

Dinner
Vegetable avocado/almond salad (shredded mixed greens, tomato, avocado, slivered almonds, sliced red onion, lemon juice dressing), steamed broccoli, lean beef sirloin tip roast

Dessert
Strawberries

Snacks
Orange, carrot sticks, celery sticks

According to Loren Cordain, macronutrient percentages for a contemporary (2200 kcal) diet based on Paleo food groups (meats, seafood, nuts/seeds, fruits, vegetables) should be:
38 % Protein
23 % Carbohydrate
39% Fat
Food groups not included in Cordain’s version of the Paleo diet are: grains, dairy, dried beans, legumes

Sample 1 day 1900 kcal Blue Zone menu (this is an estimated compilation of several global Blue Zone diets, which are all similar in content)

Breakfast
Herbal tea with honey, corn bread, fruit, goat milk or yogurt

Lunch
Rice and beans, garlic, onions, large green salad

Dinner
Stir fried vegetables, sweet potatoes, spicy curries, red wine

Snacks
Vegetables, orange, nuts/seeds

According to Dan Buettner, longevity researcher and author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, the typical food groups of Blue Zone inhabitants include: grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, nuts/seeds, limited dairy (from local goats, for example), small amounts of meat or fish on rare occasions, red wine.

Although neither way of eating includes processed foods, junk food, or fast food, they are quite different in macronutrient composition. One is animal protein heavy (Paleo) and one is unrefined carbohydrate heavy (Blue Zone). Paleo doesn’t include grains or legumes, Blue Zone meals regularly include beans, corn, rice, lentils.

There’s a lot more to the longevity story than diet alone. I’ll focus on that another time, this post is about food alone.

So, what do you think? Paleo or plant-based?

Peace, love, and each to their own.
Melissa

References (aside from my own way of intuitive eating)

Blaser, Martin, et al. “What are the consequences of the disappearing human microbiota?” Nature: Reviews Microbiology, December, 2009.

Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Society, Washington DC, 2012.

Cordain, Loren. “The Nutritional Characteristics of a Contemporary Diet Based on Paleolithic Food Groups.” JANA, Vol. 5, No. 3.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 2005.

Hardy, Karen, et al. “Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus.” Naturwissenschaften Journal, Vol. 99, Issue 8.

Henry, Amanda, et al. “Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets.” PNAS, November 12, 2010. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/2/486.

Image credit: WikiMedia Commons

Old news and hot trends for 2013

I’ve been contemplating a post on the highlights and lowlights of 2012 and what I think the hot trends in health, nutrition, and food will be for 2013, but I’ve had trouble putting it all together. It’s not easy to take internal chit-chat and make it into a concise list. Plus, I don’t like conflict and many of my lowlights are “in vogue” and my predicted trends aren’t all that trendy. I probably can’t call them “trends” if I’m alone on the bandwagon.

What to do?

We made it through another presidential election and we survived the Mayan Apocalypse, so I’m guessing you (my loyal readers) can endure my non-objective, totally biased, opinionated views of what’s going on in the world of food and health.

Here’s what I consider the highlights and lowlights of 2012 and my trends for 2013. This is the abridged version. If there’s anything you’d like me to expand on, please let me know in the comment section and if there’s enough interest, I’ll do a whole post on it.

Highlights of 2012 in no particular order
1. Gluten-free becomes mainstream
2. Increased awareness of non-celiac, gluten sensitivity
3. Pressure to label genetically modified foods
4. Research indicating the importance of a diverse and healthy microbiome (check here for details)
5. The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition & Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance & and Active Gluten Free Life is released (obviously a highlight for me)
6. An appreciation and focus on farmers, sustainability, and local food
7. Increased awareness of unhealthy food industry practices and factory farming
8. Perceptions are changing regarding cholesterol levels and the importance of healthy fats
9. Lots of choices when it comes to food and nutrition philosophies, one size doesn’t fit all
10. Hearty greens take center stage

Low-lights of 2012 in no particular order
1. Gluten-free becomes mainstream (the good, the bad, and the ugly)
2. Dr. Oz and his over-the-top, magic, fat-busting claims
3. Dr. Mercola and his scary, hyped-up marketing tactics
4. Dr. Davis (Wheat Belly) goes too far with his “wheat equals crack” campaign and becomes joke fodder for Stephen Colbert
5. American’s consumed 1 billion pounds of beef at McDonald’s in 2012
6. Hospital food — my mom was served white bread, this sherbet, and Ensure upon admission (she had diabetes)


7. Dunkin’ Donuts test markets gluten-free donuts
8. Lance Armstrong
9. Too many supplement choices, drug options, ridiculous diets, and “super foods”
10. Low-quality, fast food on every corner, marketing to kids

Food and nutrition trends for 2013
1. Increase in personal genetic testing: epigenetics, nutrigenomics, and a focus on how genetics influence individual health traits, disease risk, carrier status, reactions to medications, ancestry, food likes and dislikes, etc. (I had this done, very interesting)
2. Consumers seek organic, non-GMO, local food
3. Less meat, more plant-based eating
4. The “bacon in everything” trend is over
5. The US has plenty of its own super foods, no need to resort to exotic Himalayan or Rainforest plants
6. Old fashioned oats (certified gluten-free) and dried heirloom/heritage beans make a high-protein comeback
7. Made-from-scratch food is in, processed food is out
8. Chefs take charge of their own health, lead by example
9. Gardening, walking, nature, exercise, quality sleep, whole foods, and a good attitude are in, whining about what you can’t eat is out
10. Basic “recipes” for longevity are in, exaggerated health claims are out

Next up, a recipe and the winner of a big bag of gluten-free oat bran from my farmer friends in Montana. If you haven’t entered to win, check out my “oat bran power bar and giveaway” post and leave me a comment.

Wishing you peace, love, and good joo-joo in 2013!
Melissa
Image of Evgenia Antipova still life painting from WikiMedia Commons

Celiac disease, anemia, and a book giveaway

Ladies, do you ever feel like this (minus the bodice drama)? Guys, do you ever nod off mid-sentence? Do you spend half your life asleep on the couch?

There are lots of reasons for feeling tired, run-down, and chronically exhausted, but the one I’m going to focus on is iron-deficiency anemia. Anemia is one of the most common adult presentations of celiac disease and the prevailing symptom of that type of anemia is overall fatigue—as in reduced physical work capacity, impaired athletic performance, and a funky attitude.

Who wants to shuffle through life bleary-eyed and drained of energy (not to mention unaware of potential wardrobe malfunctions)?

Not me.

In order to have the energy you need to enjoy life and thrive, you need healthy, functioning red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs contain an oxygen-carrying protein called hemoglobin, which is the pigment that gives blood its red color. Heme is the iron-containing component, globin is the protein. Unlike most cells, mature RBCs have no nucleus. That way there’s more room to cart around the oxygen you need to work, chase your kids, climb mountains, play tennis, and walk the dog. RBCs only last about 120 days because of the wear and tear they take zipping around the body, squeezing through capillaries, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide, and supplying all our cells with nutrients.

Capillaries are the microscopic blood vessels between arteries and veins. They’re called exchange vessels and are found near almost every cell in the body, but their number varies depending on the oxygen and nutrient needs of the tissue. Muscle tissue has lots of capillaries because of the high metabolic demand, especially if you’re an athlete. The same goes for your hard-working liver. If all the capillaries in the human body were placed end to end, the collective length would be about 25,000 to 30,000 miles. Now, imagine how busy your little RBCs are and how many miles they put in each day keeping you upright and functioning. Incredible, isn’t it?

As I mentioned before, RBCs wear out after about 120 days. In order to maintain healthy numbers, we need to be cranking out new mature RBCs at the rate of at least 2 million per second. Yes, you read that right. TWO MILLION PER SECOND. And each RBC contains about 280 million hemoglobin molecules (no typo, 280 million). Each hemoglobin molecule can carry up to 4 oxygen molecules.

Seriously, tell me you’re not totally impressed with yourself. Aren’t we amazing?

Here’s the deal, though. We need to provide our bodies with stellar building blocks to make all this magical stuff happen as planned. Plus, we need to make sure we don’t have something sabotaging our good intentions. Something like celiac disease, which when undiagnosed or unmanaged, can cause nutrient malabsorption so we don’t get the proper building blocks (like iron and animo acids) we need to make all these red blood cells.

Bottom line (short-story version)? If you’re not absorbing your iron, you can’t replace your lost RBCs. If you can’t replace the high rate of RBC loss, you’ll end up with a reduced number of RBCs, a decreased amount of hemoglobin, and less oxygen-carrying capacity. In other words, you’ll be chronically fatigued, have a bad attitude, and simply getting through your day will be a monumental effort. That’s no fun.

First off, find out if you have iron-deficiency anemia. Poor absorption of iron (could be celiac disease), excessive loss of iron, increased iron requirements, or insufficient dietary intake can cause the condition. Celiac disease fits into that scenario, so make sure to consult a medical professional and get tested before taking supplements. Too much iron is toxic and can accumulate in body tissues and organs after normal needs are met.

Getting your nutrients from food should be your priority unless you have a verifiable deficiency. Here’s a list of iron-rich foods. If you’re an athlete, especially one with celiac disease, your iron-related concerns may be compounded. Add foods from this list to your diet and if you want to know more about athletically-induced, iron-deficient anemia, leave me a comment at the end of this post. Your reward for sticking with me to the end of this post is a chance to win a copy of my book, The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition and Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance and an Active Gluten-Free Life, co-written with endurance athlete, cookbook author, and good friend Peter Bronski of the blog No Gluten No Problem. We go into great detail about nutrient absorption, iron loss, and the critical role deficiencies play in overall health and athletic performance. I’ll choose one winner in a random drawing. This book is a great guide for anyone who wants to “gain an edge” in life and in sports by going gluten-free. Plus, it makes a great Christmas present.

A Sampling of Iron Rich Foods (courtesy of The Gluten-Free Edge)
Animal sources
organ meats (liver, giblets)
clams
bison and beef
pork
eggs
lamb
poultry
fish

Plant sources
kelp
blackstrap molasses
pumpkin and squash seeds
sunflower seeds
millet
oats (make sure they’re certified gluten-free*)
parsley
almonds
dried prunes
beet greens

* My favorite sources for uncontaminated, certified gluten-free oats are Montana Gluten-Free Processors and Gluten-Free Prairie (same oats). These oats are rich in iron and protein, making them good building blocks for RBCs.

Are you curious if you get iron from using a cast-iron skillet. Check this post of mine for the geeky details: Heavy Metal Skillet Breakfast.

Peace, love, and the Gluten-Free Edge.
Melissa
PS Leave a comment for a chance to win and make sure to add your email address (it won’t be seen), so I can contact you if you win. You can also check in with Pete and me on Facebook and/or Twitter. We share lots of good information.
Melissa: Facebook, Twitter
Pete: Facebook, Twitter

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cheesecake

You know how bloggers have those long titles that indicate everything that’s missing from a recipe?

“Gluten-free, grain-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, soy-free, corn-free, nut-free, nightshade-free, pesticide-free, GMO-free gingersnaps.”

I’m not criticizing, as I’ve been guilty of my own version of this, I’m just pointing out how “free-from” obsessed we’ve become.

Or, maybe I’m just preparing you for — cue scary music — sugar-full, egg-full, dairy-megeddon cheesecake.

But first, this is my mom, back in her “salad days.” She had unusual and clever terms for everything from being young and beautiful (salad days) to dying (stepping off). She was funny, brilliant, beautiful, and feisty—right up to the moment she stepped off, which she did in typical fashion (full of grace and humor) last month. Margaret was 96-plus years old when she died. Hers was definitely a life well-lived.

I grew up eating whole foods. My mom was an amazing cook. She never relied on processed food, TV dinners, or store-bought cookies. Ever. She made everything from scratch and didn’t shy away from butter, bacon fat, eggs, cream, or sugar. We also ate fresh beets, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, beans, quinoa (where she found quinoa all those years ago, I have no idea), wild and brown rice, and a host of other fresh vegetables and whole grains. We didn’t eat much meat because she was frugal, but the meat she did buy was the good stuff and she made it last by using a small amount to make a big meal. Ham and lima bean soup that lasted for days. Beef stew with a ton of vegetables. Brown rice, vegetable, and chicken soup. She made bread and biscuits from scratch and delighted in serving over-the-top desserts when we had guests. Margaret was famous for her creme brulée, cheesecake, chocolate peanut butter cake, brownies, and lemon meringue pie, but she refused to share recipes. Absolutely refused.

When my mom stepped off, the first thing I put “dibs” on was her recipe box, which I found tucked away in the back corner of a rarely-used cabinet. Along with her recipes were several vintage cookbooks and old kitchen utensils. I sat on her kitchen floor for at least an hour, thumbing through recipes, flipping through cookbooks, playing with utensils. Tears running down my face.

I have a sign in my kitchen: Love people. Cook them good food.

I’m blessed to have been taught that. Thank you, mom.

And now (drum roll, please) I’m sharing Margaret’s cheesecake recipe, of which, we served at her “stepping off party.” Please bake it with joy and share it with love. This cheesecake is a Thanksgiving tradition at our house, but this year I’ll be making it instead of my mom. Sniff, sniff. But life goes on, so let’s be thankful for family, friends, and cheesecake.

Margaret’s Cheesecake (gluten-free, but full of dairy, fat, and sugar)

What you need
2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
2/3 cup, plus 3 tablespoons sugar
3 extra large eggs
1 & 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 carton (8 ounces) sour cream

What you do
Beat together until smooth — cream cheese, 2/3 cup of the sugar, eggs, and 1/2 teaspoon of the vanilla. pour the mixture into a buttered 9 & 1/2 inch glass pie plate. (This Pyrex pie plate works the best. It’s a touch bigger than traditional pie plates.) Bake in preheated, 350° oven for 25 to 35 minutes, or until puffy and lightly brown around the edges. When done, it should spring back when lightly touched in the center. Cool cheesecake at room temperature (will sink slightly). Whisk together sour cream, remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar, and remaining 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Spread over cheesecake 1/2 inch from edges. Continue to bake at 350° for an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate. Top with fresh fruit or fruit compote if desired (optional, it’s just as good plain).

Several people from the assisted living home where my mom lived came to her “celebration” service. An elderly man came up to me after the service, took both my hands in his, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Your mother really liked me. She brought me the best homemade cookies and brownies.”

I love the fact that this elderly, hunched over, little gentleman said, “Your mother really liked me.” What a gift to give someone. Good food and a warm heart.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I’m grateful for all of you.

Now, go, cook good food for those you love and be thankful for the fact that you can.

Peace, love, and cheesecake.
Melissa
PS If you’re worried about the fat and sugar content in this cheesecake, keep in mind that my mom lived to be 96-plus years old and she often ate cheesecake for breakfast. Nourishment is about more than just food.

Take the inner space test (dare you)

Heart anatomy

Gil Hedley calls himself a somanaut. Like an astronaut who navigates outer space, a somanaut is dedicated to exploring the inner space that makes us the magical human beings that we are. I’ve taken workshops from Gil in the past and he’s an off-beat, charming, and brilliant anatomist. Check out “fuzz, food, inflammation, and movement” for a blog post I did on Gil, inflammation, and inner space several years ago. That post includes his famous Fuzz Video, which is definitely worth watching.

My last two posts were on bacterial inner space (see links below) and this post tops off the series with a test to see how good your interoceptive skills are. In other words, how well you know your inner space.

Ready?

Grab yourself a stopwatch and a calculator (unless you’re a math wizard and can do this in your head). Sit quietly in a comfortable chair with your hands resting in your lap or on your thighs. Don’t cross your legs. Take a few deep breaths and relax. Start the stopwatch and count your heartbeats by feeling your heart’s rhythm for one minute. Don’t touch your neck (carotid artery), your wrist (radial artery), or your heart—just sense when your heart beats and keep track of the number. Write the number down.

Now, using your fingers (preferably your index and middle finger), find your pulse on the inside of your wrist. Don’t use your thumb, as it has its own pulse. You can also find your pulse on either side of your neck. Use whichever one works best for you and count the beats for one minute in the normal way (using your fingers). Wait a couple of minutes and do it again for one minute using your fingers. Average the two measurements in which you used your fingers to monitor your pulse.

Calculate the difference between your heartbeat estimate and the average of your two pulse counts using your fingers. Take the absolute value of the difference—you don’t need to know whether you overshot or undercounted, just the amount by which you missed the mark. Then divide by your average pulse and subtract that result from 1. Here’s the formula.

Interpreting your score:

If your result was 0.80 or higher, your interoceptive abilities are awesome. A score of 0.60 to 0.79 means you have a moderately good sense of your inner space. A result below 0.59 indicates that you need to work on getting to know yourself a little better.

I say this often, but the more you understand what’s going on inside, the more likely you are to take good care of your inner space. Your body is a temple, go inside and check it out. It’s magical.

You might also like:
How much of you is really you
Talking bacteria and disease fighting veggies

Peace, love, and inner space.
Melissa

• Use of the above You Are Here letterpress print by Roll & Tumble Press courtesy of Street Anatomy (Anatomy & Pop Culture Gallery Store). Print available here.
• Interoceptive testing formula found in Scientific American MIND, May/June 2012.

Talking bacteria and disease-fighting veggies

Even though I have a blog category called Super Foods, I don’t believe the astonishing claims of “super food” products (powders, pulps, supplements, etc.). The açaí trend is an example. There’s no science behind the claim that açaí powder can reverse diabetes, defeat cancer, help you lose weight, or increase boy-part prowess in older men. Those over-the-top claims have all been made, but there’s no evidence to back them up.

Geez, like life isn’t tricky enough. Now we have to vet our food for false health claims. If it’s not açaí, it’s Tahitian noni juice, or Himalayan goji berries. Each one of these plants have “medicinal” health benefits, but they aren’t going to cure Alzheimer’s or stop the aging process. There are no magic potions. No silver bullets.

Having said that, I’m a big believer in plant power to help resolve biological imbalances, rejuvenate our inner space, and boost overall health. Processed food, environmental toxins, stress, and poor lifestyle choices increase the risk of disease. The more we understand what’s going on inside (up close and personal, on a cellular level) and the more we focus on the foods that promote vitality and mental clarity, the better we feel. The more radiant we become. Who doesn’t want that?

Did you read my last post? How much of you is really you? If not, check it out as that post, this one, and my next one will all be connected. Last week’s was about bacteria and the importance of keeping our inner bacterial garden healthy and balanced. This post will touch on foods that inhibit disease-causing bacteria and help the “knights in shining armor” keep the cooties in check.

Okay, ready? Put on your geek hat.

Quorum sensing is cell-to-cell texting between bacteria. It’s their version of using a “cell” phone (pun intended) to communicate. But rather than an expensive iPhone, they use chemical signaling molecules to pass information around and gather the troops to do good things or to wreak havoc. Bacteria have an amazing ability to engineer their environment and to impact human health. They’re innately smart, very communicative, and quite creative, so it’s important to have the good guys calling the shots. According to a study in the June 2009 issue of PLoS One, a peer reviewed science journal, the human gut is home to about 9 million unique bacterial genes and once we lose control of proper balance, the s**t hits the fan, so to speak.

Probably the most famous example of quorum sensing is the bioluminescence of fireflies. Did you play with fireflies when you were little? I did, although I had no idea how they turned their little tail lights off and on. Fireflies individually regulate their light, but they receive feedback from the other light flashes around them. Peer pressure encourages them to flash in unison. Photinus pyralis is the firefly bacteria that produces light via chemical signaling (quorum sensing). How cool is that? They definitely glow from the inside out and they do it as a community.

That’s quorum sensing and it’s also how super bugs join forces and discuss how to outsmart antibiotics. It’s how your inner garden becomes overrun by weeds. We don’t want that.

Smart plant guys and gals have discovered that vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, horseradish, garlic, and cabbage (among others) inhibit the growth of disease-causing bacteria. Pseudomonas aeruginosa, to be exact. MRSA (nasty staph germ) and pseudomonas aeruginosa are smart little critters. They’re becoming antibiotic resistant, which is not good.

Here’s the deal, though. If we eat right, avoid the over-use of antibiotics, and focus on health-promoting plant foods, we’ll at least be tending our internal garden in a positive way. We’re setting ourselves up to have an army of good bacteria working (quorum sensing) on our behalf. Go, good bacteria, go!

So, skip the expensive and exotic “super food” powders, supplements, and elixirs and go eat some broccoli. Plants can be potent therapeutic agents, but you don’t have to go to some far-off rain forest or spend a fortune to boost your internal fire power. Ride your bike down to the local farmer’s market and get yourself some green quorum sensing inhibitors.

Peace, love, and plant power.
Melissa
PS Stay tuned for a simple test to see how well you know yourself.

How much of you is really you?

And how well do you know the you that’s not really you? Or even the you that is you?

For the most part, we’re a highly developed species, but our interoceptive skills aren’t all that great. We’re fairly clueless when it comes to our own bodies.

First things first – the basics.

All living things are made up of cells. Some things, like bacteria, are made up of only one cell. Humans are made up of bazillions of cells and almost every one of those cells contains a complete recipe for making you the unique and quirky person you are. That cellular recipe card is encoded in your DNA, which is that long twisty, twirly, ladder-like molecule you learned about in high school biology. The ingredients for your DNA recipe are organized into 23 pairs of chromosomes, which are organized into genes. We each have about 20,000 genes. I have the gene that codes for green eyes and the one that codes for slightly wavy hair. I also have two genes that code for an increased risk for celiac disease and one that makes me a super taster. You may have the gene that codes for sparkling blue eyes and one that’s the marker for straight hair. Or, you may have hit the jackpot with ACTN3, the “I can run really fast” gene.

That’s us in a genetic nutshell.

Now, on to those one-celled, one-piece-of-DNA bacteria. Bacteria consume stuff (nutrients) from the environment and in some cases, that environmental banquet is us. We have WAY more bacterial cells in our bodies than our own cells – something like 10 times more bacteria cells. Simply put, we have (give or take a few) 100,000 bacteria cells (and genes) in and on us at all times.

Take that one step further and we can conclude that 90% of our cells are from bacteria. Yikes! There’s not much of me that’s really me. I’m just a green-eyed, over-grown petri-dish wearing a cute outfit.

So, we’re just one big tour bus for bacteria. We have some nice passengers and some not-so-nice passengers and it’s important for over-all health to keep this ratio in optimal balance. Our unique buggy environment is called a microbiome and includes all the microbes (and their genetic elements) that have become a part of our internal and external environment. These bacterial genes can profoundly impact the progression of disease – in good ways (protecting us from pathogens), or bad ways (causing infection, inflammation, and disease).

What do good bacteria do?
• Produce enzymes that help us digest, absorb, and assimilate food
• Synthesize vitamin K and other vitamins we can’t make on our own
• Break down carcinogens
• May help metabolize drugs
• Rev up the rate in which intestinal cells regenerate
• Boost immune function and metabolism
• Infants get protective bacteria during birth that help “educate” their immune systems
• Antibiotic use can kill off good bacteria, opening the door to disease

A healthy gut microbiome is akin to a functioning organ, carrying out all kinds of important immune system activities. People with digestive diseases and autoimmune conditions (i.e., celiac, colitis, Crohn’s, IBS, food allergies, environmental sensitivities, etc.) often have funky microbiomes, which can impact energy levels, overall vibrance, immune function, and aging. Researchers are even linking obesity and diabetes to bacterial imbalances.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health are sequencing the genomes of almost every strain of bacteria we have and are connecting them to the organs they inhabit (nasal-oral-lungs, skin, gastrointestinal, urogenital).  This new approach to wellness is called medical ecology. Think of your microbiome as a soil system. Without the proper balance of nutrients and microbes in the soil, your garden won’t grow. The more good bacteria we have, the harder it is for bad cooties to take hold and cause problems.

How do we tend the microbial garden?
• Don’t use broad spectrum antibiotics unless absolutely necessary
• Choose organic produce and hormone/antibiotic-free animal products
• Eat fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, etc.)
• Reduce stress, which can impact intestinal health
• Prebiotics (fibers in whole foods) stimulate the growth of good bacteria
• Avoid processed food, junk food, and sugary drinks
• Talk to your health-care practitioner about taking a probiotic supplement
• Eat cruciferous veggies *

* Next up: quorum sensing, broccoli, horseradish, and a test to measure your interoceptive skills. (I know, I apologize. I just can’t help it.)

I promise you a gluten-free donut if you stick with me. =)

Peace, love, and good bacteria.
Melissa

Photo credit: WikiMedia Commons

Food (scallions) as medicine

I’m sure you’ve all heard the famous Hippocrates quote, Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. He uttered those words in 400-something BC. Back in the day when food was actually—surprise—real food. That meant lots of plants and an occasional animal snack, but certainly not double-deep-fried, nacho-flavored, cheese-like chips; high-fat “Sunday” bacon; or 2-pound cinnamon rolls. When Hippocrates was talking about food as medicine, he was talking about plants. Whole foods.

See those scrawny little scallions in the above photo? Nothing all that special. They’re just onions, right? Well, those onions pack a powerful punch when it comes to health-promoting goodness.

I’ve been doing some research on foods that fight cancer, sometimes referred to as chemopreventive (or chemoprotective) foods and ran across an interesting, recently released (last week) study.

But first, a little background. The term chemopreventive was coined in the late 1970s and refers to the phytochemicals (plant chemicals) in natural products (fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices) that reduce the risk of disease. I mentioned Hippocrates because I figured most of you have probably heard the food as medicine quote. Here’s another similar, although more wordy, quote from a March 2010 Pharmaceutical Research Journal abstract on cancer chemoprevention.

Moreover, it has been recognized that single agents may not always be sufficient to provide chemopreventive efficacy, and, therefore, the new concept of combination chemoprevention by multiple agents or by the consumption of “whole foods” has become an increasingly attractive area of study.

Hmmm? Wow, the “new” concept of consuming whole foods as medicine? An “increasingly attractive area of study.” Very interesting (I say with a touch of sarcasm). Wasn’t Hippocrates the father of modern medicine? Back in 400-something BC?

Okay, so we’ve gone astray on many fronts when it comes to health and what we eat. I’ll save that rant for another day and get on with the exciting news about scallions, one of my favorite foods.

There’s an increased risk of intestinal cancers associated with celiac disease. The risk is small and if you’re on a seriously committed and healthy gluten-free diet (think whole foods), the increased risk is minimal. I’m not losing any sleep over it. But colon cancer is one of the most common forms of cancers in the general population, so it’s nothing to sneeze at.

What do scallions have to do with intestinal diseases and colon cancer? Well, according to a new study, scallion extract (scallions soaked in hot or cold water) suppressed key inflammatory markers and reduced the size of cancer tumors. Yes, in rats, but in some ways, we’re not all that different.

In summary, directly from the study: “We therefore suggest that scallion plant materials and their extracts may have the potential to be systematically developed as a chemopreventive agent(s) or medicinal food against specific colon cancers.”

Psst—you don’t have to wait until they’re “systematically developed.”

I say, load up on fresh, organic scallions right now. Chop them and add them to soups, stews, chili, whatever you can think of. Both the hot and cold extracts provided protection, but the hot (cooked) version topped the list. Sauté them and add them to raw salads. I do that all the time and they taste spectacular! Roast them in a medley of vegetables. Slice them length-wise and put them on pizza (check out this recipe: my new favorite pizza topping to see what I mean).

Here’s the good news about this study. It didn’t take much, just one scallion a day to provide the extra boost in protection. If that’s not enough, scallions impair genes that store fat. Yes! Okay, in obese rats, but still. Good news, don’t you think? Onions also help lower blood pressure and are anti-inflammatory.

What’s not to like about the scallion?!

Go, buy some now! Let food be thy medicine!

Melissa
PS Stay tuned for a roasted scallion pesto recipe. Oh my gosh! Delicious.

* P Arulselvan et al., “Dietary Administration of Scallion Extract Effectively Inhibits Colorectal Tumor Growth: Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms in Mice,” PLoS ONE 7(9), e44658. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044658, September 14, 2012.

Disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for informational and educational use only and should not be used for diagnostic purposes. Consult with your physician regarding any health or medical concerns you may have.
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