Top Foods to Avoid Until 2018 (And Maybe Forever)

Pop Secret Trans Fat

Partially hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats, have been declared unsafe for human consumption by the FDA, and will be phased out of our food supply by 2018. This is both good news, and sobering news.

First the good news: trans fat has been shown to be very hazardous to our health, so this ban is estimated to save thousands of lives each year. The sobering news is twofold: First of all, the history behind this ban reinforces the fact that we cannot trust the FDA or USDA to make scientifically-sound nutrition recommendations that will protect our health. Second of all, the replacements that the food industry has developed to replace partially hydrogenated oil have their own set of problems. These problems include human rights and environmental issues, as well as health issues– that may actually turn out to be just as serious as those from trans fats. There is a lot going on with this ban, so let’s dig a little deeper so that we can be better prepared to make informed decisions at the grocery store.

Let’s start with a quick overview of what partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) and trans fats are. PHO begins its life as a liquid oil (eg. soybean oil) that is then transformed into a solid fat through an industrial chemical reaction. In this reaction, hydrogen atoms are forcibly attached to the fat molecules with the help of high pressure, high temperatures, and chemical catalysts. Some of the resulting fat molecules in the partially hydrogenated oil have a structure that is called trans— these are the trans fats.* PHO is a desirable ingredient in processed foods because it is shelf-stable, it is cheap, and the hydrogenation level can be controlled to yield the perfect texture in the final product. Continue reading

What Is Gluten Sensitivity? (part 1)

Bread for Ducks is Death for Ducks

Gluten is a big buzzword right now. More and more people are avoiding gluten, the gluten-free food industry is booming, and there are more gluten-free options than ever at restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores.

Public opinion has often come down against this movement, claiming that the majority of people going gluten-free are misguided and foolish. A couple of months ago there was a flurry of headlines claiming that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is “Just In Your Head“,  “Completely Fake”, “BOGUS”, and even “Bullshit”.  These stories are sensational and clickable, and quickly made the rounds on social media. Yet, they are examples of frankly terrible news reporting. They misrepresent the study being reported, while displaying both a lack of knowledge of the facts and a lack of consideration for people dealing with health problems.

The truth is, non-celiac gluten sensitivity has not been disproven, and to claim that it has been is simply wrong.

Those particular headlines were in response to one recent study that did not find a link between gluten and digestive symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients. This was one study, that only examined one specific question about symptoms in IBS patients– thus it did not disprove the fact that a variety of diseases and harmful effects are still linked to gluten, as seen in a huge body of peer-reviwed scientific research and clinical results. In fact, only a couple of weeks after the study was published, the very same research lab published another study that found a connection between gluten and depression. As the head of the research group Peter Gibson said:

“we know that a lot of people go on gluten-free diets, [and] feel better. And that’s not imagination, that’s real.”

and:

“The story is ongoing. We produced a piece of evidence to say that gluten is being overly blamed, but we have patients who we still believe have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”

This does not sound like someone “saying he got it wrong” about the existence of gluten sensitivty, as the media claimed. Rather, he is saying that this study is one piece in the puzzle of the various effects of gluten, and that there are still many more pieces to look at.

Let us set this study aside for the moment and take a look at one glaring issue: even if this study’s implications are correct and the role of gluten in IBS has been overstated, gluten sensitivity is not just associated with IBS, and it is not even simply a gastrointestinal issue. In fact, one of the main ways that gluten affects the body is through the brain and nervous system, and gluten sensitivity is often exclusively neurological, with no digestive symptoms. Neurological disorders such as migraines, ataxia, dystonia, and peripheral neuropathy are all linked to gluten sensitivity. Psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD  are also tied to gluten sensitivity. Gluten has been strongly linked with autoimmune diseases, which I will talk more about in my next post. It has also been tied to other disorders such as fibromyalgia. This is not to say that gluten is necessarily the sole cause of all of these, but it is at least found to be a contributing factor.

Here are a few examples of recent research into gluten sensitivity:

  • Fibromyalgia is an elusive syndrome that is often associated with gut problems. In a recent study, 20 patients with fibromyalgia experienced remission from the disease on a gluten-free diet. They were all confirmed not to have celiac, thus the researchers concluded that non-celiac gluten sensitivity may be a cause of the disorder.
  • Depression has been shown to be much more common in those with celiac, and conversely, people who are depressed are more likely to have undiagnosed celiac. As I mentioned above, a recent study found that gluten caused depression even in people without celiac. There is also a recently published case study of a girl who had been on a gluten-free diet and suddenly became severely depressed after beginning to eat wheat daily. She did not have celiac disease. After going back to a gluten-free diet, her depression resolved.
  • Scientists have been exploring the links between wheat, gluten, and schizophrenia for decades, and many studies have shown that a gluten-free diet is effective for many patients. One recent fascinating discovery is that even after controlling for other variables, mothers who have a greater than normal immune reaction to gluten have greatly increased odds of having children who develop schizophrenia. The same did not hold true for an immune reaction to milk casein.
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is tied with gluten sensitivity in multiple studies. It has been found that those with ADHD are much more likely to have celiac disease, and when the celiac disease is treated by a gluten-free diet, ADHD symptoms also improve.
  • Autism spectrum is a complex condition with many factors, but many children with autism are greatly helped by a gluten free diet. For example in one study that questioned 387 families with autistic children who were on a gluten-free and casein-free diet, those that reported the closest adherence to the diet also experienced the best improvement in symptoms. From a more biochemical angle, another study found that gluten causes a greater immune reaction in children with autism than in children without autism. Research is ongoing, and shows that gluten-free dietary interventions are promising for improving both symptoms and development in many patients.
  • Type 1 diabetes has been  linked to gluten in multiple studies. One recent study found that for diabetic mice, the risk that their offspring would develop type-1 diabetes was dramatically less when they ate a gluten-free diet during pregnancy and nursing. It has also been shown that if started early enough, a gluten-free diet can cause remission of the disease in humans: one recent case study described a young boy who was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes but was able to put the disease into remission with a gluten-free diet.

You may be wondering: how could gluten be a factor in all of these seemingly unrelated diseases? It is because gluten affects two very integral and vital parts of our bodies: our guts and our immune systems.

Continue reading

Book Review: The Wahls Protocol

TerryWahlsKale

The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine.
By Terry Wahls, M.D.

This is an extraordinary book. More specifically, what Dr. Wahls has done is extraordinary. She has confronted a degenerative, incurable disease and discovered a way to reverse its course, first for herself, and now for her patients and research participants. She went from being confined to a reclining wheelchair, to being able to go on long bike rides with her family, and she has helped her patients make similar recoveries. I would highly recommend The Wahls Protocol, especially to people affected by multiple sclerosis, other autoimmune diseases, or indeed any chronic condition.

Early on in the book Dr. Wahls makes a guiding point: “What your cells use to fuel the chemistry of life comes directly from what you feed yourself.” She points out that the designation of “healthy” foods is not an abstract idea, rather, what makes something healthy is that it contains the substances that your cells literally need for the chemical reactions that make up life. If your cells cannot function properly, your body cannot function properly, which means that it cannot resist nor recover from disease.

Another related insight that Dr. Wahls describes is that our conventional medical system is much more focused on fighting symptoms than on actually getting to the root cause of disease. Diseases are described not based on the unseen biochemical workings that have gone awry, but rather on symptoms, which are readily apparent. Billions are spent on medical research to find drugs that control symptoms, but very little money or attention is paid to how to actually restore the underlying biochemistry, which is the actual foundation of health. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system, whose role is to attack invading dangers such as viruses, begins to attack the body itself instead. Conventional Western medicine deals with this by prescribing drugs which weaken the immune system, so it cannot attack the body as aggressively. However, in doing so the drugs weaken or harm other parts of the body as well, leading to often severe side effects. In addition, blocking the immune system does nothing to address WHY it is attacking the body in the first place, and so it cannot truly solve the problem. As Dr. Wahls’s MS continued to worsen, even as she pursued the best conventional medical care, she realized that she needed a better solution. Continue reading

Rethinking fat. (It’s actually healthy, really!)

Donald-Brun_Beurre There’s been a lot in the news lately about fat, and a lot of it has been contrary to standard beliefs. Our government, organizations such as the American Heart Association, and our medical professionals have drummed into all of our heads that:

  1.  saturated fat should be avoided, and replaced with “heart-healthy” polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and
  2. that cutting dietary fat will keep us from being fat.

The trouble is, these are based on strikingly outdated theories. The problems with our ideas about fat, as well as the fascinating, largely political stories behind their development, have been thoroughly described, for example by journalist Michael Pollan. The good news is, it seems like public opinion is shifting, and these long clung-to ideas may slowly be crumbling.

  • NPR reported on a couple of studies about full-fat dairy in February. They both found that higher dairy fat consumption was associated with a lower risk of becoming obese.
  • In March, a major meta-analysis reviewing dietary fat studies was met with both happiness and head-scratching in the media; the study found that saturated fat is not associated with increased heart disease risk, while polyunsaturated fat is not shown to decrease risk.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported on multiple recent studies about the health benefits of (highly saturated) coconut oil.

So what’s going on? Continue reading

Kenyan Fruit Salad

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Elephant munching grass.

Years ago I had the wonderful experience of going to Kenya on a school trip. One moment that for some reason has always stuck with me is one of our particularly whimsical Kenyan teachers sharing with us a song to the tune of the French nursery rhyme “Frère Jacques”, a.k.a. “Are You Sleeping”. It actually had a little dance that went with it, and went like so:

Avocado, Avocado

Papaya, Papaya

Lemons and oranges, lemons and oranges

Fruit salad, Fruit salad

I never found out whether this was a common song, or if he had just come up with it himself, but I was intrigued by the combination of fruits and curious to try it. Also the song would always get stuck in my head… so recently, I finally made it, and it is delicious! The mild creaminess of the avocado and papaya is perfectly offset by the citrus, making a salad that has a lot more texture, richness, and contrast than most fruit salads. And of course it’s super easy- just four ingredients to chop up and mix together! You can do whatever proportions seem good to you, but don’t be afraid to use a lot of lemon: the avocado and papaya temper its tartness.

 

Kenyan fruit salad

This salad is not only delicious but is also super nutritious… it has lots of potassium, magnesium, copper, folate, and vitamins A, C, and K. Papaya has enzymes in it which are known to support digestion. Avocado is full of awesome monounsaturated fats, balancing the sugars in the other fruits. Citrus such as lemon and orange are not only a great source of vitamin C, but also of disease-fighting flavonoids…

Inaladha = YUMMY in Swahili… Enjoy!