Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Don't Eat That!

Do you ever find yourself fighting an irresistible urge to shout, "STOP! Don't eat that! It's poison! Well, more like a slow poison...that takes actually years to kill you. But still, pay no attention to how good it tastes-- just don't eat it!" This is the script (more or less) that plays out in my head every time I see someone make a sandwich out of grocery store bread, or order a Coke--or worse yet, a Mountain Dew--at the restaurant (or french fries that have been cooked in week-old carcinogenic-laden vegetable oil), or reach for a carton of soy milk in the dairy section (it really ought to have it's own section...labeled "Hormone Disrupter Aisle"--it's not really dairy, after all).

And then there are those who are so proud of themselves because they choose skim milk over whole, or pretzels over candy, or diet Coke over regular... and it's all I can do not to burst their satisfaction bubble.

But I find myself resisting the urge more often than giving in to it, even though the more I learn about nutrition and the food choices we have, the more frustrated I get. I'm finding that people generally don't want to be told there's something wrong with their food choices. And, they have the mainstream nutrition "experts" supporting their choices more often than not.

Still, I carry my soapbox wherever I go, just in case.  And given the opportunity (such as, someone brings up nutrition in a conversation), I step on up and preach the gospel of healthy eating to whomever will least until they make it clear they've had enough. (Apologies to my family, who get the worst brunt of it.)

Speaking of food choices, the world of "science" is about to give us yet another one: man-made meat. Sort of. It starts out with God-made cells, and goes downhill from there. I give you "test-tube burger," grown by scientists using stem cells from cattle. From an article in this week's online publication,, entitled The £250,000 Hamburger...
"A four-step technique is used to turn stem cells from animal flesh into a burger.
  1. First, the stem cells are stripped from the cow’s muscle.
  2. Next, they are incubated in a nutrient broth until they multiply many times over, creating a sticky tissue with the consistency of an under-cooked egg.
  3. This ‘wasted muscle’ is then bulked up through the laboratory equivalent of exercise - it is anchored to Velcro and stretched.
  4. Finally, 3,000 strips of the lab-grown meat are minced, and, along with 200 pieces of lab-grown animal fat, formed into a burger.
The process is still lengthy, as well as expensive, but it could take just six weeks from stem cell to supermarket shelf."
The kicker was this:  according to Professor Mark Post, the researcher heading up this project,
"It comes down to the fact that animals are very inefficient at converting vegetable protein into animal protein. This helps drive up the cost of meat."
Apparently, in Professor Post's world, growing 3,000 strips of fake meat in a laboratory for a 5 ounce burger is more efficient and less costly than a cow grazing on a field of grass for a year and then providing two to three hundred pounds of meat. I'm sure God is shaking his head at the absurd nature of Professor Post's thought processes...I know I am. 

What drives up the cost of meat is the unnatural method by which the cattle are raised, and the government regulation that surrounds the meat industry. Cattle know how to turn cheap green grass into meat. They have a lot more trouble with corn, but that's another story.

And then there's that other problem-- persuading people to actually eat the stuff. Is this fake meat tasty? Well, it is described as being grey and slimy (like octopus meat). It probably looks a little bit like that raw hamburger that languished in the back of the refrigerator for two or three weeks before being discover, and promptly discarded. Not only that, but the good professor suggested it was possible to add fatty tissue and nutrients to make it "more palatable" to the public. In other words, their science experiment doesn't really resemble hamburger in its current form. Go figure.

If we thought genetically modified food was bad (and it is!), THIS has got to be exponentially worse. Meat in its natural form has the input of a very complex biological system. How can a sterile stem cell tricked into becoming meat muscle in some scientist's petrie dish possibly provide anywhere near a comparable food?

But never fear. The "Food Standards Board" will still need to sign off on it, once the manufacturers "prove" that it's nutritionally equivalent to real meat, and safe for the public to consume. And they can count on it. There will be studies that document the health of those guinea-pig volunteers over a very long period--three, maybe four weeks!--with no adverse results. "No difference!" they'll declare. And besides that, it has the backing of PETA! No animals were injured during this process.

Where's my soap box?! Really! Please! Don't eat that!

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Not so healthy "healthy" sweeteners

What are your alternatives if you want to avoid sugar? Simple answer: don't eat sugar.

But of course, you and I both know that's not going to work...for long, anyway. If you're like me, you probably grew up eating cake and pie and cookies, not to mention candy bars, soda pop, and Kool-Aid. They were part of life. They were the reward for eating our vegetables! We see them as a psychological necessity. A pathway to happiness.

One of the most frequent statements I get when I talk "healthy eating" with people is, "I could never give up my sweets." Okay, what if you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the sweets were the cause of your disease? Would you give them up then? If society in general is any indication, the answer is probably "no." There is plenty of research being done trying to find answers to our national fat problem, and most of the fingers are pointing at sugar. Sugar consumption, in this country and much of the Western world, has increased nearly a hundred fold over the past hundred years. Even since the 1960s, when the low-fat diet agenda took hold, we continue to get fatter and fatter. Dietary fat is still very much misunderstood, but it's pretty much settled that sugar is bad for us.

People who are concerned about their health or their weight know, intuitively, that they should "cut back" on sugar. But it's very hard to do because sugar is addictive. It functions on the brain exactly like a narcotic.

Isn't it odd that the first thing most people do when, for whatever reason, they can't eat something is to look for a substitute. People with wheat allergies figure out how to make bread with almond flour or coconut flour or rice flour. It never ever really tastes like bread, but they eat it anyway. People who stop eating meat suddenly start eating pretend meat made out of soy beans. And an entire industry has arisen to provide diabetics with all of their favorite desserts -- sugar free.

Why do we need these foods? We don't, of course, but we think we do. And now I'm going to step on the toes of the foodies-- you know, the ones who are adamantly opposed to processed foods, white sugar, white flour, chemicals, and so on... people like me!

Those people will cringe in horror at the thought of putting a cup of white sugar in their favorite dessert recipe, but for some reason, they're okay with
  • Agave (16g sugar per Tbsp)
  • Honey (16g sugar per Tbsp)
  • Concentrated fruit sweetener (10g sugar per Tbsp)
  • Brown rice syrup (11g sugar per Tbsp)
  • Coconut nectar (13g sugar per Tbsp)
  • Maple syrup (12g sugar per Tbsp)
  • Raw sugar (12g sugar per Tbsp)
  • Sucanat (12g sugar per Tbsp)
  • Date sugar (9g sugar per Tbsp)
  • Molasses (10g sugar per Tbsp)
...and the list goes on.

But as the poet said, "a sugar molecule, by any other name, is still a sugar molecule"...or something like that. Sugar, in any form, behaves badly in our body and really isn't good for us.

I was grabbing a supposedly natural chicken salad at my local Chipotle's not too long ago and I noticed a big sign promoting their margaritas, now sweetened with agave. Lovely, I thought. Instead of sugar going straight to fat in my body, it's going to my liver first...and then to fat. Great plan! My liver is already trying to detoxify my body from the alcohol (in the margarita), and now it also has to process all that fructose, too.

Don't be fooled into thinking that fructose is healthy because it comes from fruit. Too much fruit sugar is really worse than too much cane sugar. This is also true of high fructose corn syrup or any high fructose sweetener-- like agave. Fructose is metabolized in the liver. When we eat more than our liver can process, we're in trouble. We hear a lot about the "Glycemic Index" these days because it relates to how fast sugar is metabolized-- a major concern for those with diabetes. Foods with a low GI induce a slower, milder insulin response. Since fructose does not go straight into the blood, but must first bypass through the liver, it has a lower GI and is typically approved for diabetics. But this is deceptive thinking and doesn't take into account the toxic load put on the liver, particularly when we eat large amounts of it.

It would be incomplete of me to wind up this post without mentioning the newest favorite zero-calorie "natural" sweetener, stevia. Who hasn't heard about this gem?!  Call me a skeptic, but I've never really trusted the claims of this new product. Mark and I tried it and neither of us really liked the taste. But aside from taste, my biggest beef with stevia is the same one I have for every other processed food -- it's processed.

Of course, not all processing is bad. We process food when we prepare meals in our kitchens. Some foods, like spinach and broccoli, are better digested if they've been lightly cooked, as the heating process helps to release nutrients. But when manufacturers process food, it always involves one of the following:

  • Cooking the life out of it (literally destroying most or all of the nutrients)
  • Extruding (sending through a high-pressure press, which destroys nutrients)
  • Removing offending colors or flavors using chemicals like bleach or hexane gas
  • Removing naturally occurring fats and replacing them with sugars and/or chemicals
  • Removing naturally occurring sugars and replacing them with chemicals
  • Adding back artificial colors or flavors to make the product palatable (chemicals)
  • Adding back artificial nutrients (synthetic vitamins, which are only fractions of whole, natural vitamins)

It's no different with Stevia. Food Babe has a great post on this topic, Food Babe Investigates Stevia: Good or Bad?, and I would encourage you to check it out.  If they have to go to THAT much trouble to create a sweetener out of a leaf, it really is a stretch to call it "natural." Yes, the stevia leaf is natural.  So is corn. But I would no more throw a stevia leaf in my tea to sweeten it than I would throw in a teaspoon of corn. The most unprocessed sweetener on the planet is honey...straight from the beehive into the teacup! Honey is natural - stevia is not.

The truth is, when we put desserts and sweets of every kind in their rightful place--as an occasional treat, eaten in tiny portions-- we won't have to worry about what kind of "sugar" is in them.

Cutting back on sweets is the best gift you can give your body. And learning to give up what's unhealthy without looking for a magic substitute is a pretty nice gift, too.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Second Opinions and Risk

"Always get a second opinion!"

How many times have we all heard this with regard to our health, and yet how many of us actually do it? A little over five years ago I went under the knife for a very serious surgery called a bowel resection-- in my case, of the small intestine. Did I take the time to get a second opinion? Like many of you, I wager, the answer is No

Here are a few usual reasons, in no particular order, why we don't.

1)  We trust our doctor (particularly, if they've been treating us a long time-- they know best)
2)  There's no time (we are pressured into a quick decision, like our appendix just exploded)
3)  It's the only option (or, the only safe option, or the only reliable option, or the only accepted option)
4)  It's too expensive (every opinion comes with a requisite office visit co-pay, and we just don't have the money)
5)  Fear of making decisions (if the second opinion is different, then I'll have to choose)
6)  Laziness (it's too much trouble, another doctor is just going to tell me the same thing anyway)
7)  Risk of getting worse while we look around for another opinion (sometimes this idea comes from our diagnosis-- like cancer, for instance)
8)  Ignorance (nobody every told us we should get a second opinion)

Sometimes it's a mix of reasons. With me, it was a combination of 3, 4, 6, and 7. The exploratory testing discovered lesions in my small intestine. What were they? Anybody's guess without doing a biopsy, which (it turns out) is major surgery of its own. The only way to find anything in the intestinal tract is to cut you open, pull it out and inspect it inch by inch! And without that biopsy it would be impossible to determine whether or not the lesions were cancerous (reason 3). When I consulted with the surgeon and asked him about waiting until after Christmas... well, the good doctor cautioned me that waiting could be very risky. If it was cancer, it could spread to who knows where by then (reason 7). So, no point in waiting-- as a matter of fact, I could be dead by Christmas. Okay, he didn't actually SAY that, but emotions have a way of exaggerating everything. Reason 4 came into the picture since I was living on a pretty tight budget at the time (and planning for a wedding); and reason 6 came into the picture because, well, I guess I'm just naturally lazy.

There are a couple of real dangers with not getting a second opinion. The main one is that doctors don't know everything--even those things related to their specialty. For example, my cancer surgeon told me there was nothing I could have done or changed in my diet or lifestyle to prevent the sarcomas from developing. It was a well-meaning encouragement-- no doubt intended to remove any sense of guilt I might have had about my eating habits, but totally misguided. Just because he doesn't know of anything I could have done doesn't make it true. As it turns out, researchers are discovering a significant link between sugar and cancer in, it's the major food supply of cancer cells and they die if they don't get any. And for the record, at the time, my diet was about 75% sugar (give or take).

Not only do doctors not know everything, but very often doctors don't tell you everything. It's very difficult to make an informed decision without information, but unfortunately, sometimes doctors don't explain to us the full consequences of the treatment or surgery they recommend. Recently, a young woman who is a friend of the family was diagnosed with a glandular cancer that had attacked her cervix. Her doctor told her she needed a radical hysterectomy. I suggested to her that before she underwent such a drastic life-changing procedure, she research the ketogenic diet (the one that starves cancer of its sugar-food). Her reply was that she trusted her doctor, his diagnosis and his remedy "completely." Did he explain to her how miserable this procedure would make her? Did he tell her she would be immediately thrust into menopause at age 32? Did he give her a less radical option? Did she ever even seek a second opinion? At this point, I don't have the heart to ask because what's done is done. But, she trusted her doctor completely (reason 1) and likely believed the hysterectomy was the only available solution (reason 3). Her life will never be the same. And there's no guarantee the cancer won't come back somewhere else in her body later on in life.

Sometimes doctors deliberately disregard alternative treatments, to the point of warning us off from them (such as this example regarding the Gerson Therapy, which has a very high success rate in curing cancer in patients who were given up on by their cancer doctors). In our modern medical establishment, doctors have been programmed to reject any treatment that doesn't include a procedure or a drug-- for example, food! Or better put, nutrition. As a rule, they have very little nutrition training. And the training they do get is flawed in that they are indoctrinated by the mythology that low-fat, low-calorie diets are the key to good health when there is absolutely no evidence to support it. Most doctors never bother to research diet any further, though occasionally a brave soul comes along who steps over the line and asks the question... is our food making us sick? ...and then writes a book about it.

Sometimes doctors misdiagnose. Even the doctor you trust! More than 100,000 people die every year from adverse drug reactions and more than two million suffer serious injury. My dear mother lost 70% of her kidney function by taking ibuprofen every night for many years, on the advice of her doctor, to ease the pain of arthritis. The doctor never told her it could harm her. In the news just this week, a woman was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through months of chemotherapy and radiation, only to find out she never actually had cancer to start with. This kind of thing happens more often than you might think.

Always get a second opinion!

We must never forget that the medical establishment is neatly tied up in the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies. Research grants are never given to study something that has no potential to fatten the bottom line of some company or other...whether or not it has the bright promise of curing disease. If for no other, this reason (we'll call it "reason 9") should motivate us to seek a second opinion, and perhaps a third, when we are facing major medical issues such as being advised to take a prescription drug or have some surgical procedure done.

Every medical procedure and every drug involves risk. Every drug ever made has side-effects-- many of them worse than the condition they are meant to treat. You should never start taking a drug without first trying to correct the problem naturally.

The same goes for surgeries. Our bodies are complex biological miracles. They were designed as a unit, all parts--however obscure they may seem--serving a valuable purpose. You may be able to live without your appendix or your tonsils or your uterus...but you won't be functioning in optimal condition. The law of unintended consequences reigns supreme in the body. Changing the balance of even one hormone can wreak havoc in a domino effect.

Will we ever understand completely how the body works? Researchers are continually discovering new things about cell function, DNA, and metabolic processes-- often contradicting what we thought we know. In her book, Deep Nutrition, Dr. Catherine Shanahan and her husband discuss the science of epigenetics, or how our genes react to our behavior, particularly with regard to nutrition.
"The body of evidence compiled by thousands of epigenetic researchers working all over the world suggests that the majority of people's medical problems do not come from mutations, as previously thought, but rather from harmful environmental factors that force good genes to behave badly, by switching them on and off at the wrong time. And so, genes that were once healthy can, at any point in our lives, start acting sick."(1)
And the two broad categories that act upon our genes, she explains, are "toxins and nutrient imbalances such as missing vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, or other raw materials required to run our cells." Is it possible that what we eat really is that important?

Unfortunately, scientific studies will never be able to prove conclusively that eating or not eating certain foods will make you healthy and stave off cancer, heart disease, and all the other modern banes of our existence. One reason is that there are just too many variables. But that doesn't mean that strong evidence doesn't exist to support such a concept. Unfortunately for the average Joe, the scientific method is the only "approved" method for "proving" anything in the Scientific World. As long as that inflexible ideology remains entrenched, there will never be a consensus among our trusted medical professionals of what constitutes a healthy diet-- no matter how much evidence there is to support it. Evidence is not proof... to them.  But to you?
"Wisdom crieth in the streets:  'I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion...Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have insight, I have power.'" (Proverbs 8)
We don't need a scientist to tell us what we can discover through simply looking at the evidence. Call me crazy, but I've always believed God gave me a brain for a reason. Perhaps I didn't go to medical school, but I do have the capacity to educate myself...and I may actually know more about some things than my doctor does. He (or she) is not God and should never be the final word on anything that affects me.

Since my surgery, I've applied my mind to learning the truth about health. I've researched everything from vegan principles to paleo philosophy. And like a pendulum, I've settled back to a kind of center point that concentrates on eating foods that are closest to their natural state. I've eliminated chemicals, which means I read every label on every food product that contains one. This takes effort, but in today's world dominated by manufactured food, it is a necessary activity. As a result, I don't buy very much processed food-- though I do still buy some. I buy only foods labeled organic to protect my body from the unlabeled chemicals such as pesticides and foods genetically modified to create their own poison ("Roundup-ready"). I buy only clean meat and dairy-- pasture-raised and hormone/antibiotic-free. I try to keep my sugar and bread consumption very low. And finally, I avoid soy in any form due to its hormone disrupting nature (one of many negative health effects).

So, if I knew then what I know now, would I have gotten a second opinion? Moreover, would I have risked taking the diet route first to try to cure my possible cancer? I hope so, but it's hard to say what one would have done in other circumstances, and I hesitate to say dogmatically "YES."  I am no longer the person I was then. What I AM, however, is more informed and more aware-- a good combination for making better decisions.

I hope you always get a second opinion...but better yet, tackle your diet, get rid of the poisons and junk in it, and get healthy enough that you never have to visit the doctor in the first place. That's my new goal... wish me luck, and I wish you the same!

(1) Deep Nutrition, page 4