Archive | January, 2013

The Great Cholesterol Debate

25 Jan

The Great Cholesterol Debate

by Tim Skwiat, MEd, CSCS, Pn1

I have frequently been asked by folks who are serious about their health, fitness, and vitality on how they can improve their cholesterol. While I hesitate to call it a myth, it does seem that we have been deluded in our understanding of cholesterol and what causes “high” cholesterol. The aim of this article is to offer a clarification on what may lead to these high blood levels of cholesterol, as well as strategies to improve this marker of health.

In a nutshell, I would say that we have been misinformed as consumers by the media and health experts alike when it comes to cholesterol. That’s not to say that their intentions aren’t good, not at all. However, research really tells us that high cholesterol and high-fat diets are really NOT the cause of heart disease.

As a matter of fact, well-respected nutritionist and health advocate Dr. Jonny Bowden recently named the following four factors as far greater causes of heart disease that he labeled “The Four Horsemen of Aging.” They are: Inflammation, Oxidative Stress, Sugar, and Stress. In addition, Dr. Bowden recently co-authored a book recently titled, “The Great Cholesterol Myth.” May be worth looking into.

Did you that the high-cholesterol/heart disease “connection” began more than 100 years ago when a German pathologist theorized that cholesterol led to the development of plaques in your arteries? Did you know that his theory was later supported by a Russian scientist who fed cholesterol to rabbits and determined that it led to atherosclerotic changes?

Unfortunately, not too many people questioned the fact that rabbits are herbivores and do not naturally consume cholesterol:) Anyway, that breakthrough information started the notion that eating cholesterol leads to plaque deposits in your arteries, and at that time, it was believed that all cholesterol in your blood was due to dietary sources. But…

Did you know that your liver actually produces about 75% of your body’s cholesterol? That is indeed correct. So, even if you didn’t eat a single drop of cholesterol in your diet, you’d still have cholesterol in your body. And, that’s actually a good thing because cholesterol is needed by your cells to produce the cell membranes

My intention is to help you realize how little of an impact that dietary cholesterol has on blood levels of cholesterol. There are, arguably, studies that do connect cholesterol levels to cardiovascular disease — although we could pick those apart.

It seems that there are several reasons why health professionals would want to look at cholesterol in such detail. One, it’s relative easy to measure and monitor. Two, the cholesterol-lowering drug industry is highly profitable. And, three, it’s been imbedded in our heads.

Interestingly, while the goal of statin administration is to lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, a task at which it is markedly effective, research suggests that one’s risk of a cardiovascular event is only improved 25%:

Despite aggressive statin treatment to achieve target LDL-C levels, a residual risk for cardiovascular events of 65% to 75% is reported in statin studies. Factors contributing to residual risk other than LDL-C levels include components of non–HDL, such as very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), chylomicrons, VLDL remnants, and lipoprotein (a).

Going back then, what are the factors that really impact our cholesterol and how can we best manage our blood levels?

Metaphorically speaking, cholesterol accumulation on the walls of arteries can be compared to firefighters battling a blazing fire. Along those lines, we don’t accuse those brave men of arson because they’re at the scene of a fire. Rather, they are responding to a problem.

Cholesterol actually acts in the same way, as it is sent to repair damaged arterial walls. Cholesterol is sent in to “patch up” the damage induced by factors like smoking, chronic inflammation, metabolic disease, high blood pressure, etc. In a sense, elevated cholesterol may be “guilty by association,” as the body is simply responding to damage induced by these other factors.

Nutrition and lifestyle factors are the biggest, controllable factors in the battle against cholesterol. Wait, didn’t I say that dietary cholesterol has very little impact on blood cholesterol? I did indeed. But, that doesn’t mean that other food choices and nutrition habits don’t have an impact.

Dietary fiber has significant cholesterol-lowering properties. Fiber can interfere with the amount of bile — which is necessary for the breakdown of dietary fats — that is reabsorbed in the intestines. To make up for this loss, the liver must produce new bile salts, which are composed of cholesterol. So, increasing your fiber intake through vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, etc., can have a cholesterol-lowering effect.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve HDL cholesterol levels and reduce triglycerides. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce levels Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha, which is a marker of inflammation. What’s more, low levels of Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be closely related to high levels of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a marker of chronic inflammation, which implies that increasing Omega-3 fatty acid intake may reduce CPR (and systemic inflammation).

Not surprisingly, supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to reduce C-Reactive Protein and improve insulin sensitivity. This latter improvement also seems to be important to managing cholesterol. Thus supplementing with a high-quality fish oil may have significant cardiovascular health benefits. (Recommendation: BioTrust’s OmegaKrill 5X.)

Certain herbs and spices like garlic, cumin, and ginger can have a cholesterol-lowering effect by blocking cholesterol uptake in the gut. Further, dark chocolate that’s high in cocoa (70% or more) has been shown to lower LDL while increasing HDL cholesterol.

Exercise and lifestyle (i.e., stress management) also play a significant role in lowering cholesterol.

The last point I want to come back to is that the liver is the predominant producer of blood cholesterol and nutritional factors — outside of dietary cholesterol — play a huge role.

One of the most-overlooked factors is actually blood sugar management and insulin control. That’s right, the hormone insulin actually plays a significant role in the liver’s production of cholesterol — that’s one reason why we actually see BETTER cholesterol numbers in low-carbohydrate studies. It’s also why we see increased risk for heart disease in low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets. Shocker!

Insulin resistance is actually an underlying cause of heart disease and cholesterol manufacturing (especially of the LDL variety). Insulin resistance results, ironically, from a diet high in carbohydrates — especially processed carbohydrates, sugars, and fructose.

Ironically, I say, because most people are prescribed a low-fat diet when they are diagnosed with high cholesterol. When you can’t eat fat, you are told to eat more carbohydrates. More carbohydrates result in chronically high levels of both blood sugar and insulin, which result in insulin resistance and high cholesterol.

Hmmm, interesting. Here is one of many studies that implicate insulin sensitivity as governing factor over cholesterol production:

Insulin sensitivity regulates cholesterol metabolism to a greater extent than obesity: lessons from the METSIM Study.

So, it’s likely that the very foods that you’ve been told NOT to eat are actually better for you — and your cholesterol levels — than the foods that you have been told to consume.

Food for thought =)


Gut Check — Part 4

21 Jan

This series of articles is dedicated to the discussion of your gut flora and the significance that it plays in your overall, digestive, and immune health. We are learning more and more every day about the significance of the bacterial population of your gut. This series will help pronounce that importance and inform you how you can build the optimal city that is your own gut. 

In sum, here are some helpful tips to help you rid your diet of gut-killing foods:

  • Focus your nutrition on whole, minimally processed foods.
  • Minimize your sugar intake — shoot for 30 grams or less per day.
  • Avoid trans fats at all costs.
  • Opt for organic sources of dairy (i.e., no antibiotics) and choose yogurts that specify “live cultures.”
  • Steer clear of farm-raised salmon and other fish — instead, choose wild varieties.
  • Choose organic produce, especially when it comes to the Dirty Dozen.

The good news is that there are foods that contain probiotics and actually increase the number of good bacteria in your gut. Let’s talk solutions! Traditional fermented or cultured foods are a terrific source of good bacteria.

Before sanitation and modern-day preservation techniques, our Paleo ancestors employed fermentation as a technique to preserve foods. As a matter of fact, the fermentation process preserves food by allowing good bacteria to destroy bad bacteria. Humankind has long known the significance of good bacteria!

The word “traditional” is very important here because, sadly, many of today’s versions of these foods are pasteurized (see above) or otherwise acidified enough to kill any viable probiotic cultures.  Probiotics are living microorganisms and many conventional methods of processing render these volatile bacteria dead.

So, what are the BEST sources of probiotics?

#1: Yogurt

Remember that most yogurts are not only made from pasteurized milk (i.e., “dead” food), but also many of them have added artificial sweeteners as well as high sugar counts. If you’re a baseball fan, you’ll know that’s another strikeout. Yogurts made from organic, raw milk and whose labels say “live cultures,” on the other hand, are excellent sources of probiotics. You can eat your yogurt plain, add fruit to it, add it to your smoothies, and even use it in a variety of recipes.

#2: Kefir

Not to be confused with Jack Bauer, kefir is a cultured milk product that is low in lactose and abundant in good bacteria. The strains of bacteria that kefir contains are different from those in yogurt, and its probiotics tend to have a better survival rate through the stomach. After all, we need those little bacteria to make it all the way to the finish line. Watch out for many commercially available kefir products that contain added sugars. You’ll be better of opting for the “plain” varieties. Kefir provides a great probiotic boost to your smoothies.

#3: Kimchi

Kimchi is a traditional spicy Korean condiment that is made of cabbage or other vegetables like radishes, cucumbers, or scallions, and seasoned with salt, garlic, ginger, and peppers. As Korea’s national dish, kimchi is to Korea as pasta is to Italy. As with other fermented foods, kimchi provides a different strain of good bacteria. Kimchi can be eaten as condiment, as a stew or soup, or even used in recipes.

#4: Miso and Tempeh

Of Japanese descent, these soy-based foods are filled with good bacteria, which stems from the mold that’s produced during the fermentation process. That’s right, we’re here to tell you that not all soy is evil. Tempeh is actually a form of fermented soybean, which is generally found in a patty or cake-like form. It is most often used as a meat analogue (i.e., veggie burger). Miso is a Japanese seasoning that is created as a thick paste-like substance. It is most often found in miso soup.

#5 Natto

This is one pungent, sticky mess packed with probiotics. Don’t let that deter you. Natto hails from traditional Japanese cuisine, and much like miso and tempeh, it is a fermented version of soybeans that often appears like a sticky web. Natto is often served on top of rice, and in the Japanese culture, is a popular breakfast food.

#6: Lassi

Not your average yogurt, lassi comes from Indian cuisine. Lassi is a yogurt-based drink that is made by combining cultured milk with Indian spices. The drink can range from savory (seasoned with cumin or turmeric) to sweet. The latter versions are generally blended with fruits, telling us that the Indian culture was on to healthy smoothies long before us.

#7: Sauerkraut

Directly translated from German as “sour cabbage,” sauerkraut is made from fermenting…you guessed it, cabbage! Be sure to find fresh sauerkraut, or make your own. The canning process often requires high heat, which kills off the majority of the good bacteria that you would hope to find in your sauerkraut. The Germans, known for their beer and bratwursts, knew how to keep their guts in proper balance.

#8: Kombucha Tea

This tea originated in China and is made from the kombucha culture, which contains a series of beneficial bacteria and yeasts. The health benefits associated with kombucha are numerous. Kombucha tea can be found in various flavors at your local grocer. You can also easily obtain the ingredients needed to ferment your own tea, which can be flavored with many different herbs and spices; for example, ginger makes for a tasty tea.

Pro-X10™: The Key to Optimzing Your Gut Health

Here’s the downside to these probiotic foods: you have to eat a lot EVERY day. And how much sauerkraut can you REALLY eat? I’m guessing not much.

It’s also important to realize that fermented foods are like dog breeds. That is, each fermented food contains a very specific strain of good bacteria and each strain serves a specific task in the body. As a result, you’d be best off eating a variety of fermented foods on a regular basis, as opposed to the same one daily.

Clearly, there are limitations when it comes to populating your gut with good bacteria. To say that consuming fermented foods is an acquired taste would be an understatement. On top of that, you have to find reliable sources of these foods — or make them yourself. What’s more, you have to eat a pretty fair amount to get the pure number of probiotics that you need. Lastly, you have to consume a wide variety of these foods to populate your gut with the most diverse and effective bunch of good bacteria.

Fortunately, there’s an even easier, more efficient, and more highly effective way you can optimize your gut flora every day: Pro-X10™.

Pro-X10™ is the most powerful probiotic supplement available to you today, and it’s one of the smartest supplements that you can invest in to fix your digestive system and optimize your immune system.

To enhance your gut flora and overall health, eliminate those foods that kill your gut health, add in some of the fermented, probiotic-rich foods listed above, and begin supplementing with a high-powered probiotic supplement like Pro-X10™. Cheers to your optimal gut and overall health!

Gut Check — Part 3

18 Jan

This series of articles is dedicated to the discussion of your gut flora and the significance that it plays in your overall, digestive, and immune health. We are learning more and more every day about the significance of the bacterial population of your gut. This series will help pronounce that importance and inform you how you can build the optimal city that is your own gut. 

#7: Frozen “Weight Loss” Dinners

If you eat these, you’re a victim. You have to give the companies credit for their marketing savvy. How in the world they could get you to believe that these pre-packaged, heavily processed “meals” are good for you is amazing.

If you have one of these sitting in your freezer right now, go get it. Look at the back of the box and examine the ingredients section. You’ll likely find over 40 ingredients listed in the typical “meal,” many of which don’t even sound like real food.

Among the head-scratching ingredients, you’ll frequently find high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, sugar, corn oil, soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, some form of heavily refined white carbohydrate, and a list of preservatives for which you’d have to have a chemistry degree to understand.

The first three listed above are basically various forms of sugar. As outlined before, sugar is a haven for bad bacteria and destroys your gut health.

Corn oil, soybean oil, and other vegetables oils are prominent sources of the highly inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Speaking of vegetable oils, guess what oils your favorite restaurant is most likely using to cook your meal?

While on the topic of vegetable oils, another item that sits next to margarine on the list of “worst foods ever” is mayonnaise, which is typically filled with inflammatory soybean oil. Avoid vegetable oils like the plague; instead, use extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil.

Going back to our supposedly lean cuisine, those partially hydrogenated oils are simply trans fats in disguise. You already know that trans fats are literally the worst ingredients for your overall health and well-being.

When it comes to your gut health — really, your overall health and weight loss goals — these frozen dinners are absolute strike-out material: added sugar, high in inflammatory fats, and hidden sources of trans fats. Three strikes and you’re out! There is no reason to include these convenient resemblances of food in your nutrition plan.

#8: Non-Organic Meats

When you’re sick with an infection, one of the first things your doctor prescribes is an antibiotic. Antibiotics kill off the bacteria that are compromising your immune system. But, those same antibiotics kill off a fair share of your good bacteria.

Animals are also treated with antibiotics. A sick cow is not going to put on much weight, and an underweight cow is certainly not going to make much money. How do you avoid a sick cow? Pump all of your cattle with antibiotics to stave off infection.

Guess what? Those antibiotics have the same effect on the cattle as they do humans. What’s more, those antibiotics build up the animals’ systems and are directly passed along to you when you enjoy them for dinner. You can expect the same effects on your gut health.

In addition to antibiotics, these cows are also fed a steady diet of grains and supplements to promote rapid weight gain. Again, plumping the animals up faster means greater profit. It also means less nutritional value to you.

Grain-fed animals are loaded up with corn, soy, and other grains (not to mention growth hormones) that dramatically affect the amount and types of fat in the meat as well. These grains, which are completely unnatural to a cow’s digestive system, result in a much higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.

As you learned previously, this is another very important ratio to overall and digestive health. These highly inflammatory fats — when out of balance with the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids — can wreak absolutely havoc on one’s overall health by damaging blood vessels, the heart, lung and joint tissues, skin, and the digestive tract.

It’s not just beef that’s the culprit. All animals that are fed that corn — from chickens to cattle — are jam-packed with omega-6 fats and deficient in omega-3s.

Choose organic grass-fed beef and free-range chickens. Going local is even a better option for your beef and poultry. This includes your eggs as well, which will include a boost of omega-3 fatty acids to boot.

#9: Breakfast Cereals

Not only are these foods sources of empty calories, they often result in damaged intestinal lining and inflammation that ruin your gut health. These heavily processed foods are void of nutrients and fiber. In addition, they are often loaded with added sugar and artificial ingredients.

Let’s not put all the blame on breakfast cereals either. Other foods in this category include nearly all store-bought breads (not just “white” bread either), pastas, baked goods, and instant hot cereals.

As a matter of fact, the heavily refined grains that make up the biggest components of these products contain wheat fragments like gluten that can do a number to your gut lining. What’s more, these refined flours result in a rapid increase in blood sugar that makes sugar look well-behaved.

Surprised to see “hot cereals” make this list? You shouldn’t be. The oats and other grains in these cereals are mere resemblances of their once whole grain status. In addition, they are often loaded with sugar. Talk about turning something healthy into a gut-destroying nightmare.

Despite the fact that many people view grains as evil, they don’t have to be completely eliminated. Instead, choose minimally processed whole grains like oats (steel cut), quinoa, barley, millet, amaranth, rice, buckwheat, and spelt. Sprouted grain bread is a vast improvement for many over the typical store-bought bread.

#10: Margaritas

Who doesn’t love a ‘rita? Well, you already know that sugar is a belly-buster, and cocktails like margaritas, cosmopolitans, and other fruity drinks are loaded with simple syrups that are full of simple sugars.

Sure, you could request an authentic version of the popular cocktail that removes the sugar, but the booze can still have a negative impact on your gut flora. As a matter of fact, consumption of even the slightest amount of alcohol can have an impact on gut health.

Research from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic suggest that even moderate drinking — one drink per day for a woman and two for a man — can lead to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which results in negative symptoms like stomach upset, cramping, gas, and bloating.

In contrast to the large intestine, the small intestine normally contains a relatively low number of bacteria. In patients with SIBO, the abnormally large numbers of bacteria in the small intestine use many of the nutrients (for their growth) that would otherwise be absorbed.

As a result, a person with small bowel bacterial overgrowth may not absorb enough nutrients and become malnourished. In addition, the breakdown of nutrients by the bacteria in the small intestines can produce gas as well as lead to a change in bowel habits.

While the occasional consumption of alcohol has been shown to have some health benefits, it’s becoming apparent that regular consumption can challenge your gut health. You would certainly be well-advised to eliminate the consumption of brightly-colored, sugary, fruity drinks and perhaps limiting your alcohol consumption entirely to a single drink — preferably red wine or light beer — to a couple nights per week.

#11: Water

Bleach is a household chemical that is used to remove color and stains, whiten, and overall disinfect things. Chlorine is the basis for most bleach products. Can you imagine bathing in bleach? Well, many of you do on a regular basis as your water is chlorinated. That chlorine can seep into your skin and wipe out good bacteria just like it wipes out stains.

Use a filtration system to filter all of your drinking water. Showers are not as bad as taking a bath — imagine bathing in a tub of bleach. You can test your water for chlorine levels. If they are of concern, then you can purchase a nifty add-on to your shower head that will filter the majority of the chlorine out of your water.

Speaking of chlorine, did you know that’s how Splenda is made? While marketed as being made from sugar, those little yellow packets are derived from the same chemical that’s outlined above. No wonder it absolutely wreaks havoc on your gut!

Take Your Gut Health to The Next Level

Now, all of this information is not shared to prevent you from ever eating again, although it is pretty scary. Instead, we simply want to educate you and to help you understand that what you’re putting into your body may actually be doing serious harm to your digestive system and your overall health. In the next article, we’ll discuss exactly how you can work on increasing the good bacteria in your gut.

Gut Check — Part 2

15 Jan

This series of articles is dedicated to the discussion of your gut flora and the significance that it plays in your overall, digestive, and immune health. We are learning more and more every day about the significance of the bacterial population of your gut. This series will help pronounce that importance and inform you how you can build the optimal city that is your own gut.

Building a thriving city depends greatly on increasing the good while simultaneously decreasing the bad. When it comes to optimizing your gut flora, the very same is true. That is, optimizing your gut health depends on the combination of reducing “bad” bacteria (aka pathobiotics) while increasing “good” bacteria (aka probiotics).

You’ll be surprised just how many foods — and other lifestyle and environmental factors — you come in contact with and consume daily that are putting a damper on your optimal health and vitality.

Without further ado, let’s talk about those foods and factors that need to be eliminated from your diet and lifestyle as they are currently throwing your gut flora completely out of whack.

#1: Granola Bars

This may sound like a no-brainer, but the real evil here is SUGAR. And, as you’ll see, this gut-killing ingredient runs abundantly even in unsuspecting supposedly healthy foods.

The laundry list of sugar’s health-robbing qualities seems never-ending. In addition to spiking your blood sugar, packing on a spare tire around your waist, and wreaking hormonal havoc, sugar is arguably the worst offender in causing your gut flora to be completely out of balance. Not only is sugar completely void of any health-bearing properties, it is truly a haven for pathobiotics and bad bacteria.

Pretty much everywhere you look — and even many places you don’t — sugar is rearing its ugly head. Sugar is disguised in many ways: it’s not just the powdery white stuff used in baked goods. There’s fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, white sugar, and the list goes on.

Of course, you have your usual suspects of sugar-laden foods that you know are bad for you — junk foods like candy bars, cookies, and a long list of others. What’s more, you’ll find it in condiments, sauces, and dressings, as well as cold cereals, instant hot cereals, granola bars, canned and packaged fruit, fruit juices, and many low-fat wannabe health foods (just to name a few).

Limit your overall sugar consumption to 30 grams per day or less. Your best bet is to focus on whole foods that are minimally processed.

#2: French Fries

Oh, the beloved French fries. Thomas Jefferson preferred his potatoes be served to him in a French manner. There’s a pretty good chance that today’s French fries don’t look nutritionally anything like those that were conjured in the early 1800s.

As a matter of fact, today’s French fries that are deep fried in vegetable oil/shortening are loaded with calories, high-glycemic carbohydrates, and saturated fats. What’s worse, you can expect a wallop of health-desecrating trans fats in your next serving of fast food fries.

If you thought sugar’s evils were well-documented, just wait. Trans fats are linked to an increased risk for coronary heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and lymphoma. Trans fats also lower “good” cholesterol while simultaneously elevating “bad” cholesterol.

As a matter of fact, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine tracked the nutrition and exercise habits of 80,000 women over 14 years. The researchers found that the most important determinant of heart disease was the amount of trans fats in the diet.

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers attempted to correlate trans fat intake with gut health. Researchers examined the nutritional habits of 622 people who also underwent routine colonoscopies.

Compared to those participants who ate the least trans fats, people who consumed the most trans fats were 86% more likely to develop colorectal adenomas — small growths, or polyps, in the colon and rectum that, if left untreated, can result in colorectal cancer.

Regarding the health of the American diet, Walter Willett, MD, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Medical said, “The worst single specific problem is trans fats.” And based on results of an earlier study, Dr. Willett concluded that trans fats represent “the biggest food processing disaster in US history.”

In addition to French fries, trans fats are commonly found in items such as margarine, chips, crackers, cookies, donuts, pastries, and other convenience foods. As a matter of fact, margarine is arguably the worst food of all time.

Your goal should be to COMPLETELY eliminate trans fats from your diet. Even as little as 1% of your daily caloric intake from trans fats can wreak havoc on your gut and overall health.

#3: Diet Sodas

Think you’re doing yourself a favor by cutting back on sugar and empty calories? Sounds good in theory, but remember that calorie-free sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal), and saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low) are ARTIFICIAL. At some point, you have to think, “Is something that’s artificial actually good for me?”

Artificial sweeteners — along with other artificial ingredients, flavors, and preservatives — are linked to increased calorie intake, obesity, and storing more body fat. What’s more, researchers from Duke University published a study in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health that suggests that Splenda significantly depresses the number of good bacteria in your gut. In addition, research from the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology suggests that artificial sweeteners are to blame for the rise in inflammatory bowel diseases.

Diet sodas are an easy culprit to spot, but what about sugar-free chewing gum? Toothpaste? Artificial sweeteners run rampant in “light” and “fat-free” diet food items as well. Another obvious source of these sweeteners is the little packets that you add to your coffee, tea, and other beverages.

Chances are that the “diet” products that you currently eat are loaded with artificial sweeteners and ingredients. While they resemble food, they are mere food-like substances. Ditch those foods and opt for whole, minimally processed real foods.

A great option to sweeten your beverages — and even baked goods — is stevia. Stevia is derived from plant leaves and is an all-natural zero-calorie sweetener. A stevia blend — which combines stevia leaf and another all-natural zero-calorie sweetener called erythritol — is a great option (i.e., Steviva). Raw honey and real maple syrups are additional choices to use in recipes to sweeten things up.

#4: “Light” and “Fat Free” Yogurts

You may have been told that eating dairy can actually increase the amount of good bacteria in your gut. However, what you may not have heard is that the pasteurization process that most commercially purchased dairy goes through actually completely destroys all of the probiotic bacteria in those foods.

Much of the commercially available dairy has gone through pasteurization or some related heating process. From milk to yogurt, nearly all of the healthy bacteria that you would want from these foods have been destroyed.

What’s more, many of the yogurts that are marketed as “healthy” on the grocery store shelves are packed with sugar. If they’re not, they’re loaded with artificial sweeteners. As you’ve already learned, these are robbing your gut of good bacteria.

You should opt for organic dairy sources that specifically state that the foods contain “live cultures.” Instead of “fruit on the bottom” options, get some fresh fruit from the produce aisle and add it yourself to some healthy, organic plain yogurt.

#5: Atlantic Salmon

You’ve probably heard about omega-3 fatty acids. Those are the “good” fatty acids that help protect your heart.

There are also omega-6 fatty acids that are converted by your body into arachidonic acid.

When the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is the correct balance — 2:1 — the small amount of arachidonic acid that results is healthful.

But when the ratio is unbalanced, this increase in the amount of arachidonic acid your body has to deal with causes an exaggerated inflammatory response. Prolonged inflammation is known to cause damage to blood vessels, the heart, lung and joint tissues, skin, and the digestive tract.

Salmon is a “super food,” right? It is packed with protein and massive dose of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, right?

As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.” It’s almost a guarantee that any salmon caught from the Atlantic and sold at your local grocer or offered at your favorite restaurant is farm-raised.

What does that mean? Well, it means that those poor fish are kept captive in a pen all day and fed a diet full of soy, corn, and a bunch of other stuff that has no resemblance to what these fish would actually consume if left alone to roam the seas wildly. The result: the diets of farm-raised salmon are significantly higher in omega-6 fatty acids, while dramatically lower in omega-3 fatty acids than their wild counterparts.

What’s more, these farm-raised fish are often plagued by pests and disease, which means they have to be treated with pesticides and antibiotics. Those chemicals are passed right along to you, and guess what antibiotics do? They kill bacteria, good and bad.

Here’s what you get when you eat farm-raised salmon: less omega-3s, more omega-6s, less protein, and exposure to pesticides and antibiotics. Your best bet is to opt for wild Alaskan salmon whenever possible.

And, it’s not just salmon. This caution extends to other farm-raised fish like tilapia. As a matter of fact, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in farm-raised tilapia is a shocking 11:1.

#6: Non-Organic Vegetables and Fruits

The benefits of adding more vegetables and fruits to your diet by now have been pounded into your head. You know these colorful, nutrient-dense foods are full of health-promoting vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, anti-oxidants, and fiber that all contribute to improving your health and reducing your waistline.

What you may not know is that the majority of commercially produced vegetables and fruits are heavily treated with agricultural and pesticides. Plants that have been treated with these dangerous chemicals carry them. These chemicals not only affect the bacteria concentration in these foods, the pesticide residue can also be passed along to you and destroy your own good bacteria.

Knowing the potential dangers of exposure to these chemicals and additives, each year the Environmental Working Group analyzes Department of Agriculture data about pesticide residue and ranks foods based on how much or little pesticide residue they have. The group estimates that individuals can reduce their exposure by 80% if they switch to organic, especially for certain produce.

The Environmental Working Group creates an annual list, aptly named The Dirty Dozen, which helps consumers decide which produce they would most benefit from purchasing organic. The latest list to make the notorious list includes:

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Bell Peppers
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Nectarines (imported)
  • Grapes
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Cucumbers
  • Blueberries (domestic)
  • Potatoes
  • Green Beans
  • Kale/Greens

Based on the data collection, the Environmental Working Group also compiles a list of what they call the Clean 15. Produce with the least amount of pesticides is included on this list: Onions, Sweet Corn, Pineapple, Avocado, Cabbage, Sweet peas, Asparagus, Mangoes, Eggplant, Cantaloupe, Sweet potatoes, Grapefruit, Watermelon, and Mushrooms.

While organic produce is often more costly than conventionally-grown produce, choose organic — especially when it comes to foods like the Dirty Dozen — to dramatically reduce your exposure to agricultural chemicals. [NOTE: the overall benefits of eating vegetables and fruits are so significant that even choosing conventional produce is better than eating none at all.]

Gut Check — Part 1

11 Jan

This series of articles is dedicated to the discussion of your gut flora and the significance that it plays in your overall, digestive, and immune health. We are learning more and more every day about the significance of the bacterial population of your gut. This series will help pronounce that importance and inform you how you can build the optimal city that is your own gut.

Russian Scientist Elie Metchnikoff is considered the inventor of probiotics. He theorized that aging was the result of the build-up of unhealthy bacteria in the gut. As a result, he consumed sour (fermented) milk daily. He ended up living until he was 71, which at the turn of the 20th century when he passed exceeded life expectancy levels. Surely he was on to something!

Indeed he was. While the gut is typically thought of as a digestion center, it is far more. As a matter of fact, the 25-foot long GI tract — which by definition starts at the mouth and ends at the colon — is colloquially termed the “second brain.” The gut literally has its own nervous system (i.e., the enteric nervous system) that extends well beyond digestion affecting everything from our mood to our health and well-being.

In addition, the gut is home to 80% of our immune system. Let’s put it this way. Our bodies are made up of approximately 10 trillion cells. That’s a lot. Now, multiply that number by 10. No need for a calculator — the answer is 100 trillion.

That’s the number of living bacteria that you have living inside of your gut. That’s right, 100 trillion bacteria in that 25-foot long digestive system of yours. Pretty impressive stuff, huh?

Well, more important than the number of the bacteria is the balance of the bacterial ecosystem. That is, we have both “good” and “bad” bacteria that populate our gut flora. Think of “gut flora” as a city in our GI tracts, and the bacteria are the inhabitants that make up the population.

The term probiotic stems from the Latin words “pro” (before, forward) and “bios” (life). Thus, probiotic means life-promoting. In this case, “good” bacteria are also known as probiotics.

To understand why probiotics are important, we first need to understand how valuable beneficial bacteria are to our health, and how prevalent they are in our bodies.

What do gut bacteria do?

In our gut, good bacteria can displace bad bacteria and influence our overall health, metabolism, digestion, and body composition. Gut bacteria are involved in immunity and help to ensure our immune system doesn’t have an itchy trigger finger (think food sensitivities).

Gut bacteria also:

  • Help synthesize B and K vitamins
  • Enhance gastrointestinal motility and function
  • Enhance digestion and nutrient absorption
  • Obstruct the growth of “bad bacteria” and other pathogens
  • Help metabolize other plant compounds/drugs
  • Produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and polyamines
  • Produce coagulation and growth factors
  • Produce cytokines (cell signaling molecules)
  • Help regulate intestinal mucus secretion and utilization
  • Help regulate blood flow to the viscera

Adequate consumption of probiotics can help to eliminate abdominal pain, gas, bloating, reflux, allergies, nausea, food poisoning and vomiting. Probiotics may even alleviate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and dermatitis. You guessed it – this means they are anti-inflammatory.

The ideal ratio of “good” to “bad” bacteria is 85% to 15% or 9 to 1, respectively. Unfortunately, due to lifestyle and environmental factors, the vast majority of the population is severely lacking when it comes to good probiotic bacteria, throwing their gut flora ratio completely out of whack.

These lifestyle and environmental factors include, but are not limited to, exposure to:

  • Sugar
  • Artificial sweeteners/ingredients of any kind
  • Processed foods
  • Chlorinated water
  • Antibacterial hand soap
  • Pollution
  • Agricultural chemicals and pesticides, and…
  • Antibiotics (from medications and/or antibiotics found in meat and dairy products that we ingest).

As you may have guessed by now, gut health and the proper ratio of bacteria in the gut flora are extremely important for overall health and play a critical role in immune function, prevention of many diseases, and optimizing body composition.