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Health Foods Reconsidered

Last month, the Reader published an article from the National Cooperative Grocers’ Association that included helpful encouragement to increase fresh produce, vary protein sources, and reduce refined flours and processed fats. The article also included outdated advice promoting whole grains and discouraging us from eating saturated fat andt he Co-op asked me for an update. As the role of inflammation in disease becomes clearer, an increasing number of health experts are recognizing that too many carbohydrates (including whole grains) can be hurtful to our bodies and that saturated fats are beneficial in unanticipated ways.

Fruits are helpful; just don’t eat too much
As stated in last month’s article, fresh vegetables are an important foundation for well-being. What about fruit? Most health conscious people are aware of the negative effects of processed fructose like high-fructose corn syrup. In Dr. Richard Johnson’s book, The Sugar Fix, he explains that too much natural fructose can also have harmful effects by raising uric acid levels and increasing the risk for metabolic syndrome. In an apple, for example, there is water and fiber with small amounts of fructose. However, fruit juice can be harmful as it is concentrated sugar without the fiber. This can have similar impacts on our body’s insulin response as a can of soda with the equivalent amount of processed fructose. For example, eight ounces of apple juice contains 28g fructose and the same amount of soda contains 29g. Due to the negative impacts of high amounts of fruit sugar on the body, many experts now limit that range from 15 to 50g of fructose daily (that’s a range of 1 to 4 pieces of fruit or 4 to 16 oz. of juice).

Take another look at grains
One of the biggest recent turnarounds in the field of holistic nutrition addresses whole grains. Few people would argue that a piece of whole grain bread is not preferable to a piece of white bread when considering nutrition. However, where we previously touted the health benefits of grains as a prominent staple, many experts are pointing out that grains may not be as good as we thought. A Mayo Clinic study in the 2012 Journal for Alzheimer’s Disease found that a diet with high levels of carbohydrate increased an individual’s risk factor for cognitive impairment by four times while diet with relatively more protein and fat reduced the risk for such diseases. Others like Dr. Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain, agree that diets high in fat and low in carbs make us smarter and less prone to inflammation and disease. Some of the underlying reasons to take another look at grains, even gluten-free ones, are discussed in the books The Perfect Health Diet, Wheat Belly, Grain Brain, and Gut and Psychology Syndrome. Their reasons include:

  1. Grains contain highlevels of lectins and phytic acid which make them difficult to digest and more likely to trigger immune responses andinflammation.

  2. Because of their high carbohydrate content, even whole grains can result in a strong insulin response. This can potentially push blood sugar out of range, leading to an inflammatory response.

  3. The high carbohydrate content also may perpetuate an existing imbalance in gut flora and prevent healthy assimilation of nutrients.

  4. Many grains contain gluten, a protein that is difficult to break down in the digestive system. Gluten appears to be resulting in immune responses in a growing percentage of the population.

Pre-soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains are ways to lessen the impacts of these foods and improve their assimilation. Whole grains like rice can be soaked in water (at room temperature for 6-8 hours or in the refrigerator for much longer) and then drained and rinsed prior to cooking. Pairing whole grains and other carbohydrates with sea salt and fats like butter will also balance the blood sugar response following their digestion say the authors of the Perfect Health Diet, Paul and Shou-Ching Shih Jaminet.

If you are considering reducing your whole grain intake, I encourage you to add fiber to make up for what you might remove. Nourishing alternatives to grains include carrots, beets, squash, sweet potatoes, baby red potatoes, seeds, legumes and nuts.

Fats are necessary
Last month’s Reader article included a valuable message to avoid trans fats and read labels carefully. It also repeated the familiar message to reduce saturated fat and emphasize seed oils. As I mentioned above, current research is saying that we should have more fat in our diet than we thought, but which fats are right?

The best fat is one close to its natural state. Olives, coconuts, meats, and fish are the perfect packages for delivering fat to a body. When choosing a cooking oil, remember: the more processed an oil is (heat, chemicals and extra pressings may be applied to maximize the yield), the more destructive to our health it becomes because oils tend to be unstable once pressed from their source. This instability is mostly attributed to the polyunsaturated fat component. (High polyunsaturated fats include seed oils like canola, corn, soy, sunflower oil, flax, etc.) The polyunsaturated fats are quick to react with oxygen unless they are carefully pressed and kept frozen or refrigerated. This oxidation is dangerous as it generates highly toxic compounds in our bodies say the Jaminets. There are popular oils like fish oils that have a high polyunsaturated content and careful handling is key to the efficacy of these superfoods. At a minimum, please check the label of an oil to be sure it says “unrefined.”

Saturated vegetable oils like unrefined coconut and palm oils are gaining recognition for health benefits and have relatively lower component of polyunsaturated fats. With its high saturated fat content, red palm oil has surprised researchers by reducing oxidative stress in people with chronic disease including heart disease and cancer according to a 2009 study in the British Journal of Biomedical Science. Whole eggs from a free-range source provide beneficial fats as do milk, and grass-fed meats say Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon, authors of Eat Fat, Lose Fat.

Quality protein is important
Eating a range of protein is important for obtaining a range of omega-rich fatty acids. For example, fish and grass-fed meats are high in omega-3 while other proteins like pork and poultry tend to have more omega-6, say the Jaminets. Nuts, seeds, and beans all provide protein and omega fatty acids though they have lectins and phytic acid like the grains. Pre-soak and rinse these foods to obtain the greatest benefits. Nuts and seeds can be blended into smoothies or dehydrated or roasted to dry them out again.

Protein drinks have become increasingly popular and can be good on-the-go choices. Look for those protein concentrates that containfat such as medium chain triglycerides (MCT) or coconut oil for best results. In contrast, isolated proteins can cause stress to your system because they are the result of intense processing that strips valuable amino acids and nutrients from the food.

Soy is a controversial food. Critics like J.J. Virgin interviewed at the 2013 Gluten Summit claim that soy’s estrogen, phytates and lectins can negatively affect brain health and hormone levels. On the other hand, proponents claim its estrogenic effects can be protective. Soy consumption in Chinese women reduced heart disease in a 2003 article in the Journal of Nutrition. My understanding of soy from a training with Paul Pitchford, author of Healing with Whole Foods, is that it is difficult to digest if it has not been fermented. Furthermore, it is the fermented forms that are commonly used in the studies demonstrating soy’s benefits. Foods like tempeh, miso and natto would be superior sources.

Keep an open mind and cultivate self-awareness in the midst of change
Despite our wealth of knowledge about food, health experts will never know every health impact of a food. Varying approaches to nutrition leave room for new ideas and allow for flexibility to address the diverse needs of individuals. One take-home message is: do not rely on just one food for the basis of your diet as each food has benefits and trade-offs. You’ll gain the most benefit if you eat a variety of foods and keep an open mind as you cultivate awareness of how food affects you.

Katy Wallace founded Human Nature in 2006 ( She is a traditional Naturopath with a special interest in the use of food to address health issues. Katy is the Willy Street Co-op’s Nutrition Consultant.

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