Saturday, August 31, 2013

Confessions of a State Fair Junky

It's the end of August. The days are hot, summer's nearly over, and Minnesotans have gathered once again for the Great Minnesota Get-together... a.k.a. the State Fair.

Who can resist?

In my past life, the Fair experience always included eating lots of really bad food, mostly fried and on a stick. My favorites have included cinnamon buns, corn dogs (of course), cheese curds, roasted corn on the cob, copious amounts of sugary drinks, ice cream, and the famous bucket of cookies. Every year the vendors add some new fried or exotic food. It seems to be a contest to see who can come up with the most crazy or bizarre new food. This year the fried fruit stand had breaded and deep-fried cream cheese-stuffed olives. They sounded really good, but I resisted. I couldn't get past the deep-fried part.

Two years ago, I went low-carb, and yet I was still able to find some tasty meat offerings-- turkey drumsticks, grilled pork chops, "bull bites," and even alligator...on a stick. However, since swearing off of processed foods, trying to enjoy the food side of the fair is a challenge, to say the least.

This year I started out with the best intentions. My daughter and I love to go on opening day, as we did again this year. I know it's bad, but I bought the too-large caramel cinnamon roll. And I ate the whole thing. Then we had to have the sweet corn. You just can't go to the Minnesota State Fair and not have sweet corn dipped in butter. Supper was a turkey drumstick and I was feeling pretty proud of myself for not succumbing to the fried foods. Water replaced soda pop (pats on the back...pat pat pat). But then we wandered past the Heritage Square ice cream stand where they make real milkshakes with real milk and real ice cream-- not organic, but at least it doesn't come from some powdered mix loaded with artificial ingredients. Okay, the ice cream probably had its share of artificial ingredients, but I'm chalking it up to impending heat stroke. I caved in and got myself a mocha shake. Go ahead and call me a hypocrite now because I'm just getting started.

Today, I went back to the fair a second time-- this time with my husband, Mark. Now, as much as much as he loves me, Mark is not very good at keeping me accountable. Being an early bird, he's up at the crack of dawn (sometimes before) and wanted to beat the heat by going early. I, on the other hand, drag out of bed in the morning because I have to, and don't usually eat for a couple hours thereafter, so I didn't have breakfast before we left the house. So I arrived hungry. My first food stop was a place called the French Meadow, an organic pastry shop. I had their peach filled scone - yum. Points for me in the organic category, but not so much in the carbs and sweets category. Then came the sweet corn, some wine tasting, and finally a grilled pork chop. Not too bad considering the general Fair fare, but in the end, I was unable to resist the chocolate chip cookies. I did NOT buy the bucket, but I did get a paper cone overflowing with the little two-inch cookie treats and Mark and I shared them on the bus ride home.

I was a bad girl. There, I admit it! My name is Cathy, and I'm a State Fair junky.

We all fall off that proverbial wagon from time to time. As penance, I made steamed broccoli (with butter) and hamburger patties for supper. The fair is over for another year and I have promised to give my body a chance to recover before I punish it again with bad food.

Fortunately, the good Lord designed our bodies with the capacity to recover from minor and short-lived abuses.

In all Fair-ness, the Fair was not entirely bad for me. I did walk and walk and walk. Twice! Walking is good. I visited the Health building and had my blood pressure taken. It was down! All that saturated fat I've been eating has been helping. My weight is stable. That made me happy. And today, the guy who was using his innovative new machine to measure my AGEs (Advanced Glycation End-products) so he could sell me his expensive product guessed my age at six years younger than I really am-- who doesn't love to hear something like that?! 

In a few days, the Fair will close up shop for another year.  I have washed off the sweat, scrubbed the Fair dirt off my feet, and forgiven myself for my dietary indiscretions. Next year I'll have another chance to make good choices. Frankly, every day I have another chance to make good choices, as do you.

Have a fabulous Labor Day weekend. There's still time to get to the Fair ...and I hear the weather for the next two days will be beautiful!  No judgment from me on your food choices... just this once.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The "Healthy Fat" Debate

Google "healthy fats" and you will get a wide range of opinions of what is healthy and what is not. But
you will certainly see a trend, even among the "natural foods" people, warning against the dangers of saturated fat. A very few nutritionists/health experts are willing to go out on a limb and give a complete and hearty thumbs-up to saturated fats like butter, lard, and tallow.

But setting aside opinions for the moment, let's look at the science... because science doesn't have an agenda.

Dr. Mary G. Enig has been a renowned expert in the field of lipid (fats & oils) research for over 30 years. Her book, Know Your Fats, is among many published works, which include numerous journal publications, dealing with the effects of fats and oils on health and nutrition. And she's not connected to any special interest groups whose purpose is to promote one type of fat over another. I believe we are safe to accept Dr. Enig's definition of a healthy fat:
"Healthy fats and oils are the ones that don't oxidize readily, or that are usually consumed before they can oxidize."(1)
Simple and to the point. She goes on to say that oxidized oils are no good because they "are either (1) not available for use as energy or for structural purposes because they are either in a polymerized unusable form; or (2) they contain toxic components." In other words, when fats and oils are damaged, the worst case is they are toxic; the best case is they are useless. In either case, the body has to struggle to get rid of them.

The job of nutritionists and health experts is to translate the available scientific information into advice on what foods we should be eating. That's why they go to college to become food "experts." So then if the benchmark of a healthy oil is that it doesn't oxidize readily, presumably those are the fats and oils the experts should be telling us to eat. Right? More on that later.

There are essentially four kinds of fats. They are
  • saturated fat
  • monounsaturated fat
  • polyunsaturated fat
  • trans fat
These fats are defined primarily by their molecular structure. It's all very scientific. Fats are made up of three fatty acid molecules attached to one glycerol molecule. This collection of molecules is called a triglyceride and the triglyceride is the form in which fat molecules travel around in our body to be deposited in the cells where they're needed.

The first thing to get straight is it doesn't matter whether these fatty acids come from plants or animals, the molecules are the same. (Translation: Just because a fat comes from an animal doesn't make it bad.)

The next thing to understand is that fatty acids are formed from carbon(C), hydrogen(H) and oxygen(O) molecules. Stay with me -- I promise not to get TOO technical. The fatty acids are defined by the length of the carbon chain and the number of carbon bonds in the carbon chain. The atoms that form the carbon molecule portion of the fatty acid connect to each other by means of a carbon bond. The carbon bond is the sharing of one, two, or three electrons. A carbon bond that shares only one electron is called "saturated." A double or triple carbon bond is "unsaturated." And finally, triglycerides may contain both saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids. The number of carbon bonds in a fatty acid determine how stable the molecule will be. When there are extra carbon bonds, the molecule is susceptible to damage because the extra ones make it unstable. Dr. Enig explains it this way...
"...since the unsaturated bonds are up for grabs, another element could come and 'steal' one of those electrons and form a new bond. this makes unsaturated bonds relatively reactive and chemically unstable. If a fatty acid molecule has several unsaturated bonds it is called polyunsaturated and is generally very reactive chemically."(2)
These are the chemical reactions that break down the fatty acids making them useless or toxic. (I promise...this is the end of the science lesson.) Since saturated fats have only one carbon bond, that would make them the most stable of all the fatty acids and the least susceptible to oxidation.

So what are healthy fats, again?

"Healthy fats and oils are the ones that don't oxidize readily, or that are usually consumed before they can oxidize."

Remember that old logic axiom? "If A equals B, and B equals C, then A must equal C." If saturated fats are the most stable, and stable fats are the healthiest, then saturated fats must be the healthiest.

But what about the fact that saturated fats contribute to heart disease? As it turns out, there is no such fact. Believe it or not, there is no evidence to support this very popular, but wrong, idea. The studies done years ago implicating saturated fat were skewed by a number of things, including the practice of combining trans fat, which does contribute to heart disease, in with saturated fat in their data. No studies using only saturated fat have ever been able to show a cause-connection to heart disease. The most famous study that started the whole fat-is-bad-for-you theory was done by Ancel Keys in 1953 (out of the U of M)-- known as the Seven Countries Study, wherein he took data from seven out of twenty-two countries, created a graph that supported his hypothesis and proceeded to convince the government that animal fat (which is all mostly saturated) causes heart disease. We can refer to another well known saying - "garbage in, garbage out." If the data is bad, the results will be bad. Mr. Keys chose to disregard any data that didn't fit his hypothesis and somehow, all challenges to his faulty results were summarily ignored. He must have been a heck of a salesman!

The really stunning part is that the health professionals swallowed his garbage hook, line and sinker. And for the past sixty years we have been suffering from it in the form of rising chronic illness.

Saturated fat not only does not hurt you, but in fact your body requires quite a lot of it.
  • Human milk from a well nourished mom contains about 54% fat, nearly 26% of which is saturated (that's about half), and roughly 21% is monounsaturated-- leaving only 6.5% or so as polyunsaturated. Babies and children need a high fat diet to support their rapid growth and brain development. 
  • Fat plays a very important role in maintaining the structure of all the cells in our bodies. 
  • Fatty acids also regulate our hormones.
  • The fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) are transported through the body and absorbed by way of fatty acids.
  • Saturated fats aid the immune system and many have antimicrobial properties.
  • Fats are more satiating than carbohydrates because they are more slowly digested. You're not as likely to overeat on a diet high in fat (and low in carbs).
The body will make its own saturated fat by breaking down (digesting) the fatty acids we consume in our diet. If all we eat is low fat food consisting mainly of polyunsaturated and trans fats, we are depriving it of the building blocks it needs to nourish the cells!

Why aren't we being told these important facts about the role of fat in our diet? Good question. I wish I knew. You would think by now, the brainiacs in the CDC and the FDA and the universities that keep pumping out new batches of nutritionists would get a clue that there must be something wrong with their assumptions.

Perhaps it has something to do with the food industry. Most of the vegetable oils we eat are made up primarily of polyunsaturated or hydrogenated fats-- shortening, margarine, corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and canola oil. These are the most unstable of all the fats and the most susceptible to damage. Anything that says "partially hydrogenated" on the package contains trans fats, which are known to be toxic.  Food industry lobbies have a powerful influence on the government, and the government (along with industry) funds the research. There is very little in the way of independent research in our day and age.

Humans have consumed mostly saturated fats like tallow (beef lard), pork lard, butter, coconut and palm oils, along with that very healthy monounsaturated olive oil, for thousands of years with little or no heart disease--until old age, at least. Only since the advent of commercially produced oils that are mostly polyunsaturated has cancer and heart disease skyrocketed. It doesn't make any sense to attribute these chronic illnesses to the consumption of saturated fats.

We have been indoctrinated into believing a lie about our diet. Low fat diets are not healthy. Saturated fats are not "bad fats." And polyunsaturated fats are not "good fats." The healthiest diet will be higher in the stable saturated and monounsaturated fats, low in polyunsaturated fats, and will contain little or no trans fats.

Next time you hear or read something about "healthy fats," remember this and use it as your guideline:  "Healthy fats and oils are the ones that don't oxidize readily, or that are usually consumed before they can oxidize."

For more information on truly healthy fats, see the Weston A. Price website.
More about saturated fats by Dr. Mercola.
Fats: The misunderstood food group.

(1)  Enig, Mary G., Know Your Fats, p. 104
(2)  Enig, Mary G., Know Your Fats, pp. 9-10

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Alphabet Soup Additives

Today I almost ate a Reece's Peanut Butter cup. Then I read the ingredient label and decided instead to have a piece of organic dark chocolate I keep at my desk for just such moments as these.

In my former junk food days I used to devour these sweets mindlessly! But these days the first thing I do when I pick up a food item is to check out the ingredients. Have you noticed a new trend in labeling? Instead of distressing us needlessly with all those unpronounceable chemical names, they have resorted to short, non-intimidating pseudo-acronyms. Two ingredients jumped out at me-- PGPR and TBHQ. Seeing these innocuous abbreviations immediately triggered an alarm in me and I decided to do a little investigating.

PGPR - Polyglycerol polyricinoleate
  • PGPR is a chemical fat replacement made from castor beans (think caster oil). It replaces cocoa butter in the mass production of cheap chocolate because...well, it's cheaper. More to the point, chocolate manufacturers can make more money pulling off the cocoa butter and selling it to the cosmetic industry for much more money than they could ever get leaving it in the chocolate candy. 
  • Producers of PGPR extol the virtues of this product as a good solution to "control flow properties [of chocolate] and reduce fat content...allowing smooth, problem-free production for [their] customers." Wow! They're thinking of us. And we can all be relieved that the FDA has signed off on it as "generally regarded as safe" (GRAS), even though no long-term testing has ever been done on it. 
  • But of course PGPR, however safe it might be, is not cocoa butter. PGPR is made up primarily (80%-90%) of ricinoleic acid. Ricinoleic acid is a man-made polyunsaturated Omega-9 fatty acid. Cocoa butter on the other hand, is a naturally occuring element of the cocoa bean, comprised of a unique blend of palmitic acid, stearic acid, and oleic acid. It is 59% saturated fat and 38% monounsaturated (from Know Your Fats, Mary G. Enig). Keep in mind that fatty acids are not interchangeable in the body. The body uses each type of fatty acid in different ways in our metabolism. Replacing one type with another will always have different results. The only redeeming factor of PGPR is that it is not hydrogenated, and therefore is free of transfat. If you're worried about saturated fat, you shouldn't be-- your body needs it, loves it, and makes it from scratch when it has the available materials to do so. On the other hand, you need very little polyunsaturates.
TBHQ - Tertiary Butylhydroquinone
  • TBHQ is a chemical preservative used to keep fats from going rancid. It is an antioxidant derived from petroleum. While it takes a whole gram to be considered "toxic" by the FDA, it is in fact an unnatural chemical that the body has no use for and must figure out how to get rid of when we consume it. The FDA allows 0.2mg per gram of fat in the food. So in other words, you would have to eat 500 grams of TBHQ-preserved fat before a toxic effect would be felt. How much fatty processed food do you eat? Don't forget to count things like McDonald's (and every other brand) chicken nuggets. If you're wondering what products this chemical is in, there's a short list on the Healthy Tips website. If you start looking, you'll probably find it in many other products as well.
  • The reason TBHQ is used in Hershey's candy in the first place is that the stable saturated fats naturally occuring in the cocoa beans are removed and replaced by unstable vegetable oils. It wouldn't be necessary if they left the cocoa butter where they found it. Other processed foods, like cookies and popcorn, are subject to oxidation (rancidity) when they are made with vegetable oils instead of more stable saturated fats like butter or coconut oil. Without an added stabilizer like TBHQ, they would go bad fast.
  • If you're worried about the environment, oils treated with TBHQ, such as frying oils used by restaurants and then discarded afterward, have significantly reduced biodegradability. A .02% concentration results in a 25% loss in biodegradability; and a 2% concentration results in a 56% loss in biodegradability.
  • Is this substance as safe as we're led to believe? There doesn't seem to be much in the way of documentation dealing with the cumulative effects of TBHQ in the body. I did find one Canadian study that found detrimental effects in some test animals at higher doses, but the results were not clearly stated in layman's terms. The conclusion was simply that .02% should be safe. As with every additive in our food, harmful effects are always dealt with as a fraction of a single food. Once the additive is declared safe, manufacturers put it in food after food after food. And before you know it, it's in everything and no longer a fraction of a single food. Cumulative effect is rarely addressed by the food industry. This is why it is so important to take control of what you eat by reading labels and being aware of all additives--even the supposedly "safe" ones.
Moral of the story? Neither one of these ingredients will kill you ... immediately. But a regular diet of unnatural foods will ultimately take its toll. I'm reminded of the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden. God told them they would die if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent said, "You won't surely die." And so they ate the fruit. And they didn't die-- that day, anyway. It actually took over 900 years in their case. But the point is, they died, though they were meant to be immortal.

The wrong food will damage your health and kill you prematurely. Your body has wonderful healing powers, but a habit of eating all the wrong things will take its toll in illness and misery. We see this happening all around us. When we should be living well into our 80s and 90s, more people are dying of heart disease, cancer, and a host of other chronic illnesses before they ever reach the moderate age of 60.

We're all going to die, of course, but we don't have to be miserable on the way there. Chronic illness can be avoided by avoiding the foods that promote it.

We can all take back our health by choosing to eat foods that are as close to nature as we can get. If we don't buy it, they won't make it!