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 2: gluten and autoimmune disease)

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This is my second post in a series assessing the effects of gluten and the value of gluten-free diets. In my last post I mentioned the promising research about gluten-free diets to fight type-1 diabetes. Type-1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, and in this post I will elaborate on the relationship between gluten and autoimmune diseases. Many of those with an autoimmune disease are helped by a gluten-free diet, and it is important to understand why, so that the treatments for these diseases can be improved.

(For reference, the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) has an extensive list of autoimmune diseases. A handful of well-known examples are rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Hashimoto’s, psoriasis, and lupus.)

Rates of autoimmune diseases have been increasing at a brisk pace, although it is not fully understood why. Autoimmune diseases are complex, and have been tied to genetics, viruses, environmental toxins, and more. They are all caused by the immune system attacking parts of the body instead of protecting it. They are often closely associated, i.e. someone with one autoimmune disease has a much greater chance of developing additional ones. Also, family members often have an assortment of different autoimmune diseases between them. Yet, the diseases vary so greatly in symptoms that they are difficult to diagnose, and any common underlying causes can be difficult to see.

According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, it takes on average about five years and five different doctors to receive a diagnosis of  an autoimmune (AI) disease. In addition, 45% of people who are diagnosed with a serious AI disease were originally labelled as hypochondriacs or complainers. Even after diagnosis, current treatments are inadequate to say the least, and the drugs used often have severe side effects

The widely ranging symptoms of autoimmune diseases make them difficult to diagnose, yet it is also notable that 3 out of 4 sufferers of autoimmune disease are women. (This is due to differences in the immune system and in hormones.) In some diseases, such as lupus, 9 out of 10 sufferers are women, and predominantly minority women as well. Especially judging by our medical track record, this is undoubtedly part of the reason why these individuals are not always taken seriously, and it is a great reason to think twice before dismissing those who are gluten-free as hysterical fad-followers.

So what exactly ties autoimmune disorders to gluten?

We do not yet have a complete understanding, but one thing we do know is that a leaky gut is a common factor in all of the various autoimmune diseases, and may be the most universal of all factors. In fact, it has been shown to precede autoimmune disease, so it seems to be involved in the progression of the disease, and is not just a side effect that comes later. As described in my last post, gluten is particularly good at triggering a leaky gut, which leads to a heightened immune response (inflammation) as the gut wall is damaged and foreign particles enter the body. Autoimmune diseases are diseases of inflammation: inflammation directed at the body.

Gluten fragments also directly trigger the immune system, contributing to chronic inflammation. The impact of gluten on our gut health and microbiome (mentioned in Part 1) is also significant because our symbiotic gut microbes play a huge role in regulating our immune systems. The connection between our microbiomes and autoimmunity is a huge area of current research.

Another factor tying gluten to autoimmunity is that there are many protein segments in gluten that are very similar to proteins in the body. Thus, if the immune system begins to attack gluten protein fragments, it can then be “confused” and go on to attack similar proteins in the body as well. Other fragments of bacteria, viruses, food, etc., can also be similar to our own cells, and gluten can help these particle escape the gut and thus become a target of the immune system. This process, whereby our immune system learns to attack a protein and then also attacks other similar proteins, is called “molecular mimicry”  or “cross-reactivity” and is one of the leading theories about how autoimmune diseases develop.

Thus even though gluten is certainly not the only cause of an autoimmune disease, nor even the only cause of a leaky gut, it can be a powerful contributor. For people with autoimmune disease, who are already struggling with a medical system that generally does not know how to help them, it is important not to dismiss the potential of a gluten-free diet. It is troubling to think that misguided public opinion could keep people from ever trying what for many is an effective and safe treatment.

In my next post, I will talk about some of the problematic aspects of the gluten-free diet, and talk a bit about why it could be that gluten is becoming a bigger and bigger problem for people’s health.

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