Thursday, 11 April 2013

Synopsis of a recent nutrition talk

To those of us on the outside, the field of nutrition seems to be somewhat contentious and often filled with a confusion of information due to conflicting interests. However, what I will do is outline in simple form some of the more useful bits of information from a recent nutrition seminar I went to. I would like to stress that this is all information imparted by the speaker so, although I am relaying it matter-of-factly, feel free to independently verify all of it.

Don't believe everything you hear or read
The USDA food pyramid we all recognise was developed in the early 90's. It places an overwhelming emphasis on carbohydrates. Some suggest that this emphasis and the USDA's relationship with the agricultural industry is no coincidence. The British Nutrition Foundation is the equivalent organisation in the UK, and it is not without it's detractors. Again, associations (in the form of sponsorship) with the food industry are touted as reasons why not all the information they distribute should be taken at face value. Ultimately we all have to do our best to educate ourselves and to try and understand what it is we are putting into our bodies. Do your own research.

Refined Sugar
If you can do only one good thing for your health, do not eat sugar. Full stop. Refined sugar offers no nutritional value whatsoever. It is present in pretty much any processed food we buy, and is disguised using all sorts of different names (fructose, dextrose/maltodextrin, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high fructose corn syrup etc). It is pretty much solely responsible for the rapid rise in type 2 diabetes over the last decade or two, along with our increasing waistlines. Sugar also triggers the same receptors in the brain that respond to heroin and other addictive substances. Suggested related reading materials are 'Pure, white and deadly' by John Yudkin and 'Sugar Nation' by Jeff O'Connell.

Single ingredient foodstuffs
If we try and stick to single ingredient foodstuffs we can control what enters our body. They can, of course, be combined to create meals, but this way you know what is on your plate and have  direct control of the quantities. The 'Paleo' diet is a good loose framework around which to base your eating.

Do not be afraid of the right types of fats. Animal fats are not terrible for you.  In fact they are necessary for the body to function properly. They provide energy, are building blocks for cell membranes, help keep our hormones balanced, slow down nutrient absorption, assist mineral absorption, are a requirement for the lining of the lungs and carry vitamins A, D, E and K. A lot of the vitamins and minerals contained in meat are held in the fatty tissue (along with toxins, which is why it is important to source your meat carefully). 

Fatty Acids
Modern Western diets have an imbalance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids, mainly brought about by our excess consumption of fats and oils that are by products of the agriculture industry. The ideal ratio should be around 2:1, however the modern reality is in excess of 15:1. Excess Omega 6's can account for chronic inflammatory disease by irritating and chafing the lining of the blood vessels. Excess Omega 3's can also cause it's own set of problems, but this scenario is a lot less likely given our diet. Maintaining the ratio balance as much as possible is the key. Vegetable based cooking oils and margarine are not recommended as they have high levels of Omega 6 fatty acids, with corn oil being the worst at a ratio of 46:1. Stick to extra virgin coconut oil and beef dripping for frying. Use olive and flax oil for salad dressings and do not be afraid to use butter. Top sources of Omega 3's are egg yolks, extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil, chicken skin, beef dripping, lard (sparingly) and avocados. 

Eggs are great, and don't bother ditching the yolks. Egg white protein on its own is not readily absorbed by the body and most of the nutrients are in the yolk. Mix up the types of eggs you consume - duck eggs are higher in protein than chicken eggs. A light 2 minute poach is the most healthy way to cook them.

There are 20 amino acids found within proteins, 9 of which are essential (Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan and Valine). 'Essential' in this context means that they cannot be synthesised by the body so must be included in the diet. In addition, cysteine, tyrosine and arginine are required by infants and growing children. It is therefore important to vary your protein intake as much as possible in order to encompass as many amino acid sources as possible. Look to fish, beef, poultry, dairy and quinoa (pronounced 'key-nwa' and is a south american grain that looks a bit like couscous). 
  • Beef - look for grass fed 
  • Poultry - free range, not corn fed. The birds are healthier and are higher in Omega 3's. Intensively reared chickens have as much fat as beef and minimal omega 3's. You are essentially eating 'couch potato', obese chickens if you eat these types of birds.
  • Fish - cod and the oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines etc) are good choices. Whilst most fish are beneficial, it is a question of trying to strike a balance between their beneficial qualities and minimising ingestion of mercury. The predatory 'big boys' like swordfish, shark and Ahi tuna are best eaten sparingly as their mercury counts tend to be higher due to their diet of smaller fish and the cumulative effects of mercury ingestion.
  • Dairy - don't over do it, but if you eat it don't eat low fat. Go for full fat, as the fat helps to delay the absorption of the carbohydrate content that can cause a blood sugar spike. Same for milk. Don't bother with the skimmed stuff. Drink semi skimmed or full fat.
  • Bison, Elk, Deer, Turkey and Ostrich are also good. If you like organ meats they are excellent and cheap sources of protein.

Rice and Grains
Don't believe the hype around brown rice. It is inflammatory, acidifying and a digestive irritant. If you want rice you are better off eating Basmati. Quinoa is the best grain to incorporate into your diet. They can both be cooked in stock for extra flavour and nutrients should you so wish.

My overarching conclusion is that the field of nutrition is not a simple one, both in terms of competing theories and the scientific complexity of the individual body's requirements. The lesson is monitor and adapt the diet to suit the individual, do your homework and always be skeptical about data released by the food industry and special interest groups. Above all, listen to your own body.

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