Got fat? Appreciate it!

Fat is not popular. We don’t want it on our body because it’s unsightly, and we don’t want it in our food, because it makes our bodies fat and sick. Or so we thought. Lately, fat has had bit of an image makeover, and that’s a good thing.

We need fat inside and around our bodies and in our diet. ‘Essential’ fats are called that, because they need to be part of our diet. The body cannot manufacture them. (The same is true for proteins: Proteins consist of varying combinations of 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential. Before you ask: No, there are no essential carbohydrates.)

But where does fat actually go?

Let’s start with the fat that we can see and feel, or some of it at least: adipose tissue. It is distributed around our bodies in different ways, depending on whether we’re male or female. In women, it tends to be distributed around the thighs and bottom, in men it tends to accumulate more around the middle and abdomen, but this is not necessarily written in stone. Where we accumulate fat matters to our health as well: Abdominal fat (the fat around the middle) and visceral fat (the fat around the organs) are now known to be detrimental to health whereas fat around the thighs and bottom is considered benign. In other words: Being pear shaped is healthier than being apple shaped. But we need some fat! Adipose tissue insulates us, protects our internal organs and cushions our bones.

Fat cells also store energy for us. If necessary and depending on the amount of fat we carry, we can survive on those energy stores for quite a long time. For many years scientists thought that that is all it does, and it’s a function that we should appreciate. We need to store calories in order to be able to sustain our greedy brains. Our brains are very large in comparison to our size, and to sustain a human brain requires a large amount of calories. Throughout most of the history of humanity, there was never a guaranteed safe calorie supply, and our adipose tissue is there to keep us going in lean times.

It was only fairly recently, in 1987, that research revealed that fat cells don’t just sit there doing nothing much (apart from the above), but that they actually manufacture steroid hormones (including oestrogen and testosterone). In 1994, it was discovered that adipose tissue also makes hormone-like substances called adipokines, which can act no only inside the cell they were made in and its immediate vicinity, but also around the whole body including the central nervous system. Together, hormones from adipose tissue and adipokines influence appetite and energy balance, insulin sensitivity, immunity, blood pressure, blood vessel formation, lipid metabolism, bone health and even reproduction. Adipose tissue is now recognised as an endocrine (ie hormone-producing) organ, and considering how many bodily functions are influenced by the hormones made in fat cells, it is not surprising that carrying too much or too little body fat has profound effects on our health. For more on those health effects, read Nutrilicious News, my newsletter which is due out tomorrow. It is not too late to subscribe!

Body fat is necessary to sustain life and the ability to reproduce. The ideal body fat percentage varies according to sex, age, and activity level. It can be measured using calipers, bioelectrical impedance analysis, a Bod Pod (a machine used at health centres) or DEXA Scanning, an X-ray method. All of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. The last two are the most accurate, but are also the most expensive and least accessible. I offer bioelectrical impedance analysis at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, so if you are curious about your body fat percentage, why not book in with me?

Fat’s other essential jobs

The brain consists of 60% fat, 25% of which is cholesterol. Fat also coats all other nerve cells around the body, forming the Myelin sheath, which acts like the insulation around electrical cables, making sure nerve impulses can go where they are meant to go and not all over the place. But fat does not only make up the insulation, it is also an essential part of every cell wall. That is every cell wall, not just the walls of nerve cells.

The better the quality of fats you put into your body, the better the material your body has to work with. Unsaturated fats enhance the flexibility of cell walls, and flexible cell walls are what you want, because there is a lot of traffic into and out of cells. Flexible cell walls are what keeps your skin supple, your hair shiny, your heart beating strongly, your joints moving, your gut wall healthy, and much more. Having said that, cell walls can’t be too flexile either, or the cell might fall apart. Cholesterol has the job of keeping cell wall fluidity just right. Fats are not only a vital component of the membranes that form cell walls, but also the membranes of cell organelles, tiny structures inside each cell which perform vital functions, including the nucleus and mitochondria.

Cholesterol – a fatty substance, which really deserves its own blog post one day – is secreted by glands in our skin, which ensure that we remain waterproof, protects us from drying out when exposed to sun and wind and strengthens the skin’s barrier function that keeps undesirable microbes out.

So, be thankful for your fat. It provides essential functions without which we could not live.

There’s much more to say about fat. Today’s post was about fat in our anatomy. Watch this space for further posts about fat in our physiology, fat in our diet, and fat in our kitchens.

 

Grandma didn’t need to know

We have so much information on nutrition available to us today. Newspapers, books, television, and of course the internet are full of it. Much of it is conflicting, much of it confusing. It seems incredibly hard to stay on top of things, and to know what’s best. Which sometimes make you wonder: Why do we need to know all this? For centuries, people didn’t know, yet they managed. Even our own grandparents didn’t know much about diet and nutrition, and they were absolutely fine. Why do we need to know?

It’s true, my grandparents probably didn’t know an awful lot about nutritional requirements or the nutritional properties of different foods. I was told to eat my carrots for better vision (true!), and to clear my plate for better weather (not true!). After that, there wasn’t much to say.

But then they didn’t need to know. When my grandmother was growing up, all food was organic. Pesticides and factory-farming where yet to be invented. Eggs came, of course, from free-range hens. All food was seasonal and local, fresh from the garden or field. Produce didn’t have to travel very far and so it stayed put to be harvested when ripe and ready, having accumulated plenty of vitamins and phytonutrients in the process. My grandmother didn’t care whether her carrots were wonky or the apples different sizes.

My family preserved the summer and autumn harvests of fruit and veg by canning, making jam and apple sauce, sauerkraut and pickles. Potatoes were dug up and kept in the cellar, where we slowly worked our way through the pile until it was almost gone by the time the next harvest came along.

Yes, sugar was in their lives – not least as a preservative for some foods – but if they wanted cake, waffles or biscuits, they had to make them. Such things were not available in the shops, and there wasn’t any spare money to spend it on such frivolities anyway. So they made their own cake, one a week, shared with the family on a Saturday or Sunday, birthday cakes as required, and once it was gone it was gone.

In her youth, my grandmother never saw a pineapple, avocado or coconut. Didn’t know tofu, soya sauce, miso or quinoa. But she also didn’t see crisps, bottled salad dressings, ready meals, pot noodles, chocolate spread and multi-coloured breakfast cereals.

Our culinary horizons are much wider, but so are our opportunities to make poor choices. My grandmother’s diet contained organic meat from grass-fed cattle, pork from pigs she had known in person, lashings of butter, lard and bacon, lots and lots of superfresh fruit and veg from her own garden. The food she cooked was stodgy and fatty and abundant – apart from wartime meals of course. And yet she was not overweight. Not everyone was slim back then, of course, but overweight and obese people were few and far between. Yes, people died from heart disease, diabetes and cancer then, too, but numbers have been growing consistently since the introduction of factory-farming, grain-fed cattle, hormone and antibiotic use in animals, pesticides, herbicides, environmental pollution, modern preservation methods such as radiation, high-fructose corn syrup, food processing on a large scale …

I grew up just when all that was changing. My grandmother carried on growing, preserving and eating food as she had always known how, so I still saw how it once had been done. But I have always known the shops to be full of convenience foods and as many sugary treats as I wanted. My mother – a young housewife in the Fifties – was thrilled when convenience foods became available. Not only was she not a keen cook, she also loved the modernity of it all. Cooking was so pre-war!

So, growing up I had my fair share of ready meals, fried and deep-fried foods, sugar and fizzy drinks. I always struggled with my weight, but I always had an interest in food and nutrition, so I read and learned and cooked and eventually got an education in diet and nutrition. Over time, I retrained my tastebuds, and most junk food doesn’t appeal anymore – no willpower required. That was quite a liberating experience. I am no stick-insect and never will be, but yo-yo dieting is a thing of the past.

What our grandparents ate is not a million years away. Instead of turning up our noses to the old-fashioned ways, maybe it would be worth looking at their menu with a fresh eye, give it a modern twist and enjoy the foods of our childhood again. Maybe it’s not necessary for everyone to go quite as far back as Paleo. Start by eating real food again. It’s a huge step in the right direction.

Does your gut talk to your brain?

Sometimes, we have a “gut feeling” that maybe we shouldn’t be doing what we’re about to do. Sometimes, when we’ve been very scared we admit to our friends that we’ve been “shi***ng ourselves”. When we’re in love, we experience “butterflies in the stomach”. Some of our decisions are not thought through, but “gut reactions”, which doesn’t mean that they are bad decisions. They may be just the right thing to do. Our language has many such figures of speech, referring to the relationship between our emotions and the digestive system. But that’s all they are: figures of speech. Or are they?

In the last few years, science has rediscovered the gut-brain relationship as an area of research. The brain is one of our most secure organs, encased in bone, shielded by a membrane – the blood-brain-barrier – to protect it from undesirable substances that may be circulating in the blood. Via the nervous system, it collects information transmitted by our senses and reacts accordingly.

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Continue reading “Does your gut talk to your brain?”

Is the Paleo Diet the only diet that is right for humans?

 

A lot is being written and said about the blessings of the “Paleo Diet”, aka Stone Age Diet, Hunter-Gatherer Diet, Caveman Diet. Supporters claim that this is what we evolved to eat and that this is the path to follow, if we want to lead a long and healthy life.

So, what is the “Paleo Diet”? The idea is, in a nutshell, that our genes haven’t had time to adapt to a diet based on agricultural product. We evolved as hunter-gathers, and the foods available to us for millions of years were meat, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and occasionally wild honey. With the advent of agriculture, grains and dairy were added to the human diet and have become staples, meat from domesticated animals largely replaced game. However, if we squeezed the history of humans into 24 hours, agriculture has only been around for mere minutes.

It makes sense then, that going back to the roots, relying on fresh meat, fish, seafood, eggs, fruit, veg, nuts, and seeds, will do us good. And indeed it does: A lot of research has been done on the Paleo Diet, and the results sound promising. Subscribers to the Paleo Diet reportedly feel great, and many have been able to improve chronic conditions or even reverse disease. It seems that the Paleo Diet has a lot going for it.

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But (of course there’s a ‘but’) I have a few issues with it – before even going into whether or not the health benefits are real (I think they are, but that’s beside the point). Because the thing is: It is not sustainable. Even now our planet is struggling to provide the huge amounts of meat we are asking for. Even now, while many cultures around the world have a diet that is not based on meat – largely because they cannot afford it -, and even with factory-farming and mass-produced meat, Earth is struggling. If we were all to switch to the Paleo Diet, as allegedly we are designed to, this planet would definitely not be sufficient to feed us. For now though, this is the only planet we’ve got.

At the moment, of course, we’re ok. Rich Westerners can afford all the meat they want – but for how much longer? And isn’t it rather selfish to adopt this ‘natural diet’ at the expense of everyone else and ultimately the future of the planet?

These were the thoughts that were on my mind when I first read about Paleo. Although the concept sounded convincing, it also sounded all too simple. Did hunter-gatherers really eat meat every day? Where they always lucky enough to catch something? Did everyone, no matter where on Earth they lived, eat a similar diet? I was thinking of the Inuit today, whose diet is very low in fruit and veg, but high in meat and fish, because the Arctic climate doesn’t have much else to offer. Surely, the diet of mountain tribes would have differed greatly from those living in coastal areas

As it turns out, there never was one paleolithic diet. And even if we decide to go Paleo, it is impossible for anyone today to recreate the Stone Age Diet.

1) What they ate does not exist anymore

Everything available to us today is a product of agriculture, perhaps with the exception of game (even that is not necessarily as wild and un-tempered with as it was then). We have enhanced the size, shape, flavour and nutritious value of fruit and veg through cultivation and lately genetic modification. We get our meat from domesticated animals that are largely grain- or soya-fed, which has an impact of the fatty acid composition of the meat. We have to rely on fish from polluted oceans, we pasteurize honey.

2) We reject large parts of our ancestors’ diet

When it comes to food we – especially us in the Western world – are incredibly spoiled. We can go and buy what we want, when we want. And we can afford to reject what we don’t want. 50,000 years ago, humans would first have to catch something. They would then eat all the edible parts of the animal – including the intestine, thus enriching their own gut microbiome. If they weren’t able to catch anything, they might have had to rely on the scavenging of whatever the lions left behind or on meat from animals that had just died. They would have picked insect larvae from behind tree bark, and dug up bugs from the ground. None of that appeals very much to us today (although insects are coming back into the shops now).

3) They did actually eat wild grains and pulses

Stone tools – mortars and pestles – have been found that are 30,000 years old. Fossilised plaque from teeth shows abundant evidence of plant matter, including starches from fruits, grains, barley, tubers, and pulses.

4) There never was the Stone Age Diet

Just like I assumed before I read up on it, there were indeed multiple diets, as people had to make do with what they found wherever they lived. Our great advantage as a species is our flexibility and adaptability, which allows us to thrive on all sorts of different diets.

What’s the bottom line?

There is no doubt that the paleo diet has its merits, particularly for people suffering from chronic illness, especially auto-immune diseases. If you are sick, it is worth a try and it can be very beneficial. But it certainly is not the only road to good health: Studies find again and again, that people on vegetarian and vegan diets are at lower risk of chronic diseases. The Mediterranean Diet, too, gets very good reviews and results, especially – but not solely – in the prevention of heart disease and high blood pressure.

What those diets have in common is that they all rely on natural, whole foods – or at least as natural and unprocessed as they can be in this day and age. It is important to eat a varied diet with as many different foods as possible. The wider your variety of foods, the wider the range of nutrients you are getting from them.

Eat fresh! The whole point of preserved foods is to prevent bacterial growth. Might such foods then have an impact of the good bacteria in your gut? They may well do.

All of these diets – paleo, vegan (or even ‘pegan’, a combination of the two), vegetarian, Mediterranean or other natural, wholefood diets – are rich in fibre. Low-fibre diets are associated with digestive disorders, diabetes and obesity.

Yes, the paleo approach works, but it isn’t the only one that works. If you need to eat paleo to be healthy, then by all means do it, but you may not need to. You may be able to live a long and healthy life on a diet that the planet will be able to deliver. For ALL of us, not just the rich countries, and FOREVER, not just now.

For more on the real paleo diet, watch this TED talk by archeogeneticist Christina Warinner.

Interesting articles here from The Guardian, National Geographic and Scientific American.

 

 

Enjoying the processed?

When asked what ‘processed foods’ are, most of us would probably think of ready meals, biscuits, crisps and other snack foods, chips, pizzas, fizzy drinks and the like.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “processed foods” are “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.”

This definition seems to include pretty much anything we eat. Even if we do own a farm or garden, we never really eat anything completely unprocessed, even if we are consuming our food raw: We’ll wash and chop lettuce, we’ll shell and chop nuts, we’ll crack and whisk an egg. Usually our home-processing would go further than that: We’ll chop, whisk, blend, cook – and yes, we might also can, freeze, dehydrate or mill at home and throughout history, home-processing did not seem to cause any major health problems.

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Such problems arose only once we started processing foods on an industrial scale. Additives are now used to save money, prolong shelf life, preserve colour and texture despite processing, make sure that the same brand of food always tastes the same – and this doesn’t apply just to packaged food, but also restaurant chain foods. The food industry invests a lot of time and money into research to make sure that they find the “bliss point”: the right combination of sugar, salt and fat that will make the product irresistible to consumers.

Why do we like them?

And those efforts do indeed pay off. We struggle to resist donuts, crisps, chocolate, cheese or our favourite brand of lasagne. In part, this is due to our brain’s “reward system”. For our species to survive and prosper, we need to eat and procreate, so when we eat or have sex, we feel pleasure and are encouraged to do that again. Sweet and/or fatty foods are rich energy sources, so we evolved to particularly like them. When we eat sweet or fatty foods, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine causes us to feel pleasure. It is, in fact, the same neurotransmitter that is released when we use recreational drugs and plays an important role in addiction. The problem is that when we evolved, sugar was hard to find. It’s not anymore.

Another reason why we struggle to say no to our favourite processed foods is that we grew up liking them. Taste preferences begin to form in the womb, are transferred through breast milk after birth – influenced by what the mother is eating – and then by what we are fed as babies and toddlers. Once formed, they become habits that are hard, but not impossible, to break.

Why shouldn’t we like them?

Industrially processed foods are thought to be at the root of most of our common chronic health problems today. They contain more salt and sugar than we are designed to tolerate, trans-fats, which we are not meant to be consuming at all, and a mix of additives that may perhaps have been tested and passed as safe individually, but nobody could ever test for all possible combinations.

Obesity, ADHD, heart disease, auto-immune diseases (including diabetes II, coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and cancers have been associated with processed foods.

 

What is ‘processed’ to you?

The American writer Megan Kimble decided that an acceptable level of processing for her is what she could – at least in theory – do herself. People who decide to “eat clean” may not eat anything that has a nutrition label, some don’t buy products with more than five ingredients (all of which they can pronounce). The German doctor Max-Otto Bruker said: “Do not eat anything that is being advertised.” And if you think about it, when did you last see a commercial for apples, nuts, or cauliflower?

Despite our evolutionary predisposition and our early childhood experiences, we can learn to love real foods by forming new habits. Strangely, we seem to think that the food industry provides a lot of choice, but really it doesn’t. Processed foods focus on satisfying our reward system by supplying sweetness, saltiness and fat, paired with a certain texture that researchers have found is well received. The world of real foods offers actual variety, and frequent exposure will help appreciate it and form new healthy eating habits.

People who prefer healthy foods (which doesn’t mean that they never eat chocolate or ice cream) don’t feel deprived and they don’t need willpower. Fruit and veg, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses, eggs, yoghurt, fresh fish, seafood and meat are their preference, which makes healthy eating effortless. Anyone can achieve that by retraining their taste buds. Just keep trying new, nutrilicious foods. Why not look at it as an adventure that will broaden your horizon?

For more on food processing and convenience, read my tomorrow’s newsletter, Nutrilicious News. There is still time to subscribe. Of course it’s completely free!

Have a glowing 2016!

The festivities are over, and here we are with a brand new year! The New Year is a great time for fresh starts, and in January most of us don’t even mind giving our bodies a break after all the indulgences of Christmas. Maybe now would be a good time for a gentle detox.

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We don’t think about our liver very much, least of all in December, and yet it is such a busy and efficient organ. It is the body’s chemical factory that builds and recycles substances we need and breaks down those we don’t. About 4 pints of blood pass through the liver every day, and a healthy liver is able to filter up to 99% of bacteria and toxins from the blood. Said toxins do not just enter the body from the air, water and food we take in, but also occur as normal waste products generated by a healthy metabolism. Continue reading “Have a glowing 2016!”

Fresh into 2016

With Christmas and the Christmas Party Season behind us, most of us have by now had their fill with rich food and alcohol. But one great party night – New Year’s Eve – is still ahead of us. Yes, most of us will have a few drinks – again -, but armed with a few tips, you may be able to welcome 2016 as fresh as a daisy anyway.

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Probably the most common symptoms of a hangover are headache and thirst, closely followed by tiredness, listlessness and sensitivity to light and/or noise. Many feel nauseous and dizzy, some experience diarrhoea. Other possible symptoms are anxiety, depression, moodiness and irritability, not to speak of the very common ‘blackout’ – alcohol induced temporary amnesia. Altogether not a pretty picture. Nobody wants to feel like this, and yet we keep inflicting this avoidable condition on ourselves time and time again. Continue reading “Fresh into 2016”