There are two challenges commonly encountered in nutritional counselling. The first was expected as I first began practicing, and the second was more of a surprise. The first was explaining what the concepts of healthy eating are and the second is helping people find ways to do it eating away from home. I was originally trained in the 1970’s when Americans consumed a minority, 25%, of their meals outside of the home. What has changed is that this figure in now about 50%, or as many meals out as at home.
To help with that we are reviewing restaurants and other sources related to healthy eating and will be posting them in this series as well as on our website. Our goal is not to favor any particular resources but to expose you to as many healthier ones as we can. If we have missed any, we would love to hear about them, review them and add them to our list.
But first to explain how we developed our list we must explain a little about our basis of understanding healthy eating. If one looks at the shift in our food supply that has negatively impacted our health, certain changes stand out as the “large offenders”. These include:
- Greatly increased carbohydrate consumption
- A shift to less healthy dietary carbohydrates and fats
- A large increase in the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio
- The heavy processing of grains
- Genetic modification of foods
Greatly increased carbohydrate consumption
The genetic makeup of the majority of western populations favors better metabolic suitability eating a lower carbohydrate diet. Although we have not changed genetically over the past few million years, the amount of carbohydrate has doubled in our diet. While this was a gradual shift over most of human existence, it accelerated dramatically over the past 100 years.
The excessive carbohydrate in the diet is now understood to be a primary driver of the obesity and diabetes epidemics. It is also currently understood that the total fat in the diet is less problematic than is the type of fat which is discussed below.
A shift to less healthy dietary carbohydrates and fats
Our ancient ancestors derived the carbohydrate energy in their diet primarily from vegetables and healthy nuts/seeds with less from fruits and none from grains or simple sugars. Grain and simple sugars are now the dominant source of carbohydrate energy in western diets. Grains have the highest glycemic load which is the stress a food places on our carbohydrate processing enzymes and hormones. Simple sugars greatly add to this and have been recently declared as a major driver of the obesity epidemic.
The fat in the Paleolithic diet was dominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. This was the result of higher consumption of nuts/seeds, vegetables and wild grazed animal product such as meat and eggs. The monounsaturated fats are a known generator of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
The shift to higher amounts of fat from grain fed animal products, and grain and legume oils has shifted this to a higher saturated fat profile. While some saturated fat in the diet is fine, higher amounts combined with higher carbohydrate intake generates inflammation in the body and is associated with disease risk. Dale Bredesen, M.D., an Alzheimer’s researcher at UCLA and developer of the MEND treatment program for Alzheimer’s, calls the high carb/high sugar/high saturated fat diet the “Burfooda Triangle” referring to the place where a lot of brains disappear.
The heavy processing of grains
The carbohydrate in grains has a very high glycemic load increasing blood sugar faster and longer than other carbohydrate sources such as vegetables. This increase in glycemic load is caused by the removal of about 80% of the fiber during refining. As the refining removes the essential oils which give grain much of its taste, taste is typically added back with sugar further increasing the glycemic load.
The negative effects of grain refining include:
- Removal of most of the fiber
- The removal of essential oils and taste
- The taste issue is compensated typically by added sugar
- Refining removes between 50-100% of all 23 essential vitamins and minerals
Too much grain is ill-suited to human metabolism and refined grain consumption worsens the problem.
A large increase in the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are used to make pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory generators respectively. The Paleolithic diet was dominant in omega-3 fatty acids as most come from healthy nuts/seeds and vegetable sources. The fat consumed from animal sources was high in omega-3s as the animals ate mostly green browse such as grass and leaves. Most animals in the food chain are now fed grain and legumes as it is cheaper and they fatten better and faster. This has caused the large increase in the percentage of saturated fat in these products but has also shifted the omega fatty acid content from animal product to mostly omega-6. The current western diet has an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 12:1 which is pro-inflammatory.
Genetic modification of foods
A whole book could be written about the health aspects of GMO foods. While the concept was developed with good intention, that of helping to feed the starving world, it has largely contributed to over-feeding the developed world. It has also been a major contributor to the grain dominance and of the shift in fat type and omega-3 fatty acid content in the western diet.
Just to mention some of the recent other major concerns about GMO crops three stand out; food based glyphosate exposure, food induced epigenetic changes and food toxicity. Glyphosate is the main active ingredient in the common herbicide used on GMO crops. Soybeans are genetically modified to be tolerant to glyphosate allowing growing fields to be sprayed to remove weeds. The newest version on GMO corn is also for glyphosate tolerance.
Glyphosate has been shown to injure the human gut lining and is thought to be a contributor to many functional digestive disorders, food sensitivities and perhaps autoimmune disease. There is also an open question regarding chronic low level exposure and cancer risk.
Food induced epigenetic changes refers to genetic material from the plant changing the pattern of gene activation in the person consuming it. All humans harbor some genes that when activated may trigger certain diseases. These genes are, however, protected as our DNA is rolled into balls called histones that don’t allow direct access to each gene inside. The epigenome consists of areas on these histones that environmental signals can flip allowing access to these genes.
Recently little pieces of genetic material called microRNAs from GMO foods were shown to flip on some of these areas causing ill effects. Lab rats fed a GMO rice meal tended to develop high LDL or bad cholesterol levels. A study examining this confirmed that in fact it does by 39% comparing to animals eating a non-GMO grain. The mechanism was the altering of the gene expression in the animals causing them to reduce the production of LDL receptors in the liver. These LDL receptors trap LDL circulating through the liver removing it for breakdown. A piece of genetic material found in the GMO rice called micro RNA 168a changed the animal genetic expression of the LDL receptor.
The herbicide and pesticide contamination comes largely from large commercial crops particularly GMOs as discussed above.
There are solutions to all of the above problems. Some are behavioral such as deciding to eat dominantly vegetables, fruits and nuts/seeds as carbohydrate rather than dominantly grain. The US serving ratio of grains to fruits & vegetables is 3:1. More ideally it should be reversed with 3 times more vegetables & fruits than grains.
This shift also helps two other imbalances, the fat type ratio and the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Vegetable based foods such as avocados, nuts/seeds and olive oil are dominant sources of the more healthy mono-unsaturated fats. Green plant foods are a source of alpha linolenic acid which the body converts to omega-3 fatty acids. Grains are rich in linoleic acid which is converted to omega-6 fatty acids. Animals eating green plants make omega-3s, while those eating grain make omega-6s. True grass fed beef contains 3-5 times greater omega-3 fatty acids than grain fed beef. We need to be careful what we eat but also what our animal source foods have been eating.
Vegetable and nuts provide greater satiety of the signaling of fullness which helps to reduce the cravings that drive high carbohydrate consumption. This pattern shifts to less carbohydrate and greater amounts of healthy fats.
As the vast majority of GMO foods and herbicide exposure come from grain and legume crops the above shift helps there as well. Simply refusing to eat GMO is the best answer. While we do not have GMO labeling requirements, certified organic products cannot contain GMO products so they are the best assurance of non-GMO.