Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Leave a comment

Diet and Doctors?

Medical schools are notorious for not teaching future physicians much if anything about diet and nutrition. This problem has been a frequent topic for decades and change comes slowly if at all.  It has long been known that patients will listen to their doctor’s advice more than conventional nutritionists (registered dietitians, for example) and insurance coverage for their services has been limited. In my opinion and experience, many doctors would feel more comfortable referring their patients to qualified diet programs if they were covered by insurance.

If we are ever to curb the effects of poor nutrition in our food  environment that includes obesity, doctors and other health care practitioners (with legitimate nutrition education) must become more involved in helping to solve the problem. More innovative ideas and diet programs that are medically supervised are greatly needed.


For an interesting idea:


Leave a comment

Personalized Nutrition: Is It a Waste of Time and Money?

Can we rely on the newest field in nutrition science to lead us to better health? The field of nutrigenomics (how our diet choices affect our health) promises us these benefits. So, are these claims valid?

The following article discusses this possibility. Research has suggested that genetic testing may provide slight benefits, but this evidence is weak. Another thought is that in our current food environment, the biggest beneficiaries  may be the food and supplement industry and will take this opportunity to  create and sell, for example, breakfast cereals and diet supplements touted to prevent certain diseases. But we still need the science to back up these claims.  Another aspect is that food is not just about health but also about pleasure, culture, sociability, identify, and beliefs.

Some day we may be able to have our genes analyzed and have specific foods and dietary supplements prescribed to prevent diseases.  By then our knowledge of the gene/diet interaction may be accurate enough to predict our chance of chronic disease.  But until then, save your money or don’t take the results too seriously (my opinion).


Leave a comment

Athletes, Football and Protein

An interesting approach to why having inadequate protein in our diets can have short-term and long-term detrimental effects, maybe even on our favorite football team records. Why? Simply check out these examples of functions of protein in the body (and don’t forget the vitamin B12):

  • Serves as a structural material in muscles, connective tissue, organs, and hemoglobin
  • Maintains and repairs protein-containing tissues
  • Serves as the basic component of enzymes, hormones, and other biologically important chemicals
  • Serves as an energy source
  • Helps maintain body fluid balance
  • Helps maintain acid-base balance in body fluids

Complete proteins are found in animals and do provide all nine essential amino acids needed for protein synthesis.

Animal products such as meat, eggs, and milk provide all of the nine essential amino acids as well as soy proteins.

Some combinations of plant foods that provide complete protein(all 9 essential amino acids):

  • Rice and black beans
  • Hummus and bread
  • Corn and black-eyed peas
  • Bulgar (whole wheat) and lentils
  • Tofu and rice
  • Corn and lima beans
  • Tortilla with refried beans
  • Pea soup and bread

Source: Judith Brown, Nutriiton Now, 7th Edition


Leave a comment

Is Fish Brain Food? Examining the Omega 6 and Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 and Omega-3 and Brain Health

Fat is a key nutrient in our diet and is often the first thing you may note on a food label. Most foods contain a mixture of many different types of fat: the commonest are saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats. Are some good and some bad.? This conundrum is often debated among nutritionists and still a definitive answer remains elusive.

What kind of nutrients are best for keeping our brains healthy?

Can lifestyle factors including diet help to prevent or alleviate the signs of dementia and neurodegenerative disease? Lately there has been an interest in examining some imbalances in the U.S. diet that may be influencing the onset and/or severity of these diseases.

Recently there was a major published study that looked at the effects of certain foods and food components on cognitive functioning titled “Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function and MRI measures of network efficiency in the aging brain.”  A group of elderly Americans (n = 116 heathy adults with an average age of 69) underwent cognitive testing, MRI scans to assess brain function, and blood tests to assess nutrient status.

The Results: The results identified five categories of plasma nutrients associated with enhanced cognitive performance that measured general intelligence, executive function, and memory. The plasma nutrients associated with improved cognitive performance included carotenoids (like lycopene), homocysteine-lowering vitamins (folate, B6, B12), Vitamin D, and a healthy balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.

MRI imaging revealed enhanced brain network connectivity in those with higher plasma carotenoid status and healthy balances of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids.

Conclusion of the Authors:

These findings contribute to “the development of novel nutritional therapies for the targeted treatment and clinical management of cognitive and neurological impairments in the aging brain”.

This study was published in NeuroImage, Volume 188, March 2019, Pages 239-251.

What exactly are the omega-6 and omega 3 fats?

We have to begin with the polyunsaturated essential fatty acids, linoleic (omega-6) (LA)  and alpha linolenic acids (omega-three) (ALA). They are called essential because they cannot be made in the body and must be acquired from the diet.

Linoleic acid (LA) is required for growth, healthy skin and normal functioning of the reproductive system and is a structural part of cell membranes.  Foods high in omega 6 fats include unhealthy foods like processed snacks, fast foods, cakes, fatty meats, and cured meats. Other omega 6 foods are healthy including tofu, walnuts, and peanut butter. They are also prevalent in vegetable oils, like corn oil, safflower, sunflower and soybean oils. Linoleic acid is converted in the body to another fatty acid called arachidonic acid (AA). Food sources of AA include meat, poultry, and eggs. The adequate daily intake (AI) for omega 6 foods is 17000 mg per day.

Alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is also a structural compound of cell membranes and found in high amounts in the brain. Alpha linolenic acid is found in walnuts, dark, leafy green vegetables, flaxseed and chia seeds, canola and soybean oils.

ALA is converted in the body to two more fatty acids called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DHA). This conversion rate of ALA to EPA can be slow and may depend on many factors, one being the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.

EPA and DHA are found in fish, krill, and algae oil capsules as well as in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring and trout. The AI for omega-3 fatty acids is 1.6 grams (men) and 1.1 g (women).

Arachidonic acid and EPA are necessary for making hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids that participate in regulation of blood pressure, blood clotting, inflammation, and a host of other important body functions.

So, the major players so far are: LA, ALA, AA, EPA, and DHA.

What is the omega-6/omega-3 ratio?

It is not enough to consume adequate levels of omega-3 fats but to avoid over-consumption of omega-6 fatty acids. Most modern diets contain excessive amounts of omega-6s and insufficient amounts of omega-3s. Americans regularly eat vegetable oils but eat fish infrequently, so we end up with many more omega-6s and fewer omega-3s.

The optimal 6 to 3 ratio approaches 4:1 that may be difficult for some people in our current food environment to achieve, so we try for 4:1 in hopes of realistically attaining less than 10:1. On average in the U.S., the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is a disastrous 16:1. Soybean oil is so ubiquitous that an astounding percent of calories in the American diet (especially processed foods) are estimated to come from this single omega-6 source.

How Do Eicosanoids Affect Health?

Omega-6 fatty acids produce eicosanoids that tend to favor higher blood pressure, more blood clotting, and inflammatory compounds in the body.  They are often referred to as “bad” eicosanoids.

Omega-3 fatty acids produce eicosanoids with opposing effects, i.e., lower blood pressure, less blood clotting, and anti-inflammatory effects.  They are often referred to a “good” eicosanoids.

Eicosanoids from omega-3 EPA can diminish the effects of the “bad” eicosanoids by producing opposing compounds that will help tip the ratio back to a more favorable eicosanoid environment in the cell.

Another way to improve the fatty acid ratio is to help block excess arachidonic acid formation. By making sure your body has an adequate amount of EPA that acts as an inhibitor of the enzyme that can produces the “bad” eicosanoids.   The higher the EPA in the diet, the more the enzyme is inhibited, and the less “bad” eicosanoids are produced.

The problem with vegetable oils

Vegetable oils that turn rancid easily have been used since lard was designated as having a high saturated fat content when the low-fat craze to prevent heart disease was in full swing. The troubled history of these oils has never been resolved.  In a series of workshops in the 1980’s, it was observed that using diets high in soybean oil showed subjects dying of cancer at very high rates. Gallstones were also associated with diets high in vegetable oils. Subsequent research demonstrated that these oils that are high in omega-6, compete with the healthier omega-3’s found in fish virtually at important spots in every cell membrane throughout the body, including those in the brain. (Nina Teicholz, The Big Fat Surprise).

The vast amount of omega-6 that has entered our food supply via vegetable oils appear to have literally swamped the omega-3’s (the supply of which has remained relatively constant over the past century. (Teicholz,  page 275-6). Conversely, the American Heart Association encourages Americans to eat more vegetable oils due to their ability to lower LDL-cholesterol (the bad cholesterol.) So the debate on “healthy” oils will continue to the confusion.

Nonetheless, excessive intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6, has several risks. The double bonds in the fatty acid molecules are very reactive. They tend to react with oxygen, forming chain reactions of free radicals. These free radicals can cause cell damage, which is one of the mechanisms behind aging and the onset of cancer.

If you want to improve your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, it’s probably a bad idea to eat a lot of omega-3 to compensate. Having a relatively low, balanced amount of each is best. Using olive oil in salad dressings and coconut oil for cooking is recommended. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fat and coconut oil is more stable since it has more saturated fat content.

What to Take Away from all this:

Linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid, and α-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, are considered essential fatty acids because they cannot be made in the body by humans.

Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are important structural components of cell membranes, serve as precursors to eicosanoids and provide a source of energy. Long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in particular exert anti-inflammatory effects; it is recommended to increase their presence in the diet.

The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), can be synthesized from ALA, but due to low conversion efficiency, it is recommended to consume foods rich in EPA and DHA or consume fewer omega-6 foods.

Some but not all observational studies using supplements have found fish intake to be associated with lower risks of cognitive deterioration and Alzheimer’s disease, but it is not yet clear whether supplementation with marine-derived omega-3 PUFA can help prevent cognitive decline. There is a great need for intervention studies, especially with DHA to determine if improvements in brain health will occur. The Rancho Bernardo Study of Healthy Aging found a protective effect of DHA from diet on various aspects of cognitive decline and/or dementia.

Best to cut down on omega-6 foods (processed and junk foods), add a couple of fish meals a week, use olive oil for salads, coconut oil for cooking.

Top 10 Foods with the Highest Omega 3 to Omega 6 Ratio

Food Ratio of Three to Six 
Snow crab (3 oz) 61:1
Atlantic cod (6 oz) 29:1
Tuna (6 oz) 25 :1 
Mussels (3 oz) 25:1
Broccoli Rabe (1 cup) 7:1
Spinach (1 cup) 5:1 
Flax seeds (1 oz)  4:1
Mangos (1 cup) 3;1
Lettuce (1 cup) 2:1
Kidney beans (1 cup) 2:1


Judith E. Brown. Nutrition Now Seventh Edition, 2013.

Life Extension, October 2019

Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University





Leave a comment

The 2020 Dietary Guidelines : What Can You Believe?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide science-based recommendations to promote health and to reduce the risk of major chronic diseases through diet and physical activity. Due to the focus on heath promotion and disease prevention for the public, they form the basis of federal food and nutrition programs and policies. The first edition was published in 1980 and are updated every five years. But there are always debates and controversies associated with their content and the next edition will more than likely fulfill that promise.

Is it not almost impossible to solve a problem when we continually bury our heads in the sand and not look at the reality of the problem? Of course, and that appears to be what may happen again when the advisory committees for the new 2020 Dietary Guidelines are concluded and the guidelines established early next year (hopefully).

Most developed countries have some form of Dietary Guidelines.

Country Example of Dietary Guidelines
Japan Eat 30 or more different kinds of food a day.
China Eat clean and safe food.
United Kingdom Encourage and support the production of lower saturated fat foods.
Mexico Eat more dried beans and less food of animal origin.
South Africa Enjoy a variety of foods. Be active.
Cuba Fish and chicken are the healthiest meats.

The following article contains a link to the list of 80 questions facing the committees.

Another link of interest from the Washington Post is entitled “How the Trump administration limited the scope of the 2020 dietary guidelines.”

Putting politics aside, it will be an interesting process to watch in the coming months. It goes without saying that the food industry will be having their lobbyists in full swing as it is reported that the 2020 committee consists of 20 people with 12 of them having worked closely with the food industry. Some members have ties with the industry that include the National Potato Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the trade association of the snack food industry. Nine were nominated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which has in the past received funding from McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Mars. I think that Coca-Cola recently broke some ties with this organization, however.

The article follows with all the links mentioned. For more on this timely topic and for future knowledge, CLICK HERE.




Leave a comment

Following a Plant-Based Diet? Simplified

The recommendation to follow a plant-based diet has been applauded as a  way to cut your risks of chronic diseases (heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity and diabetes). The truth is that following this type of diet is healthy for our environment as well and many maintain that if we do not, we may not be able to sustain a high meat diet for the entire planet.

What does a plant-based diet really mean? Obviously eating more plants, but this important message needs more clarification. The following article simply tells us about some studies where a more vegetarian approach has resulted in some healthy outcomes. It even has some recipes (although I have not tried any).

There are some indications that even just cutting back on meat-based meals and increase healthier foods (less processed) can have benefits, even weight loss and maintenance. Many of the cultures studied around the world with the best health and longevity statistics occasionally eat some meat.



Leave a comment

The Truth about Nutrition Science

Dr. David L. Katz nails it for those of us who feel that nutrition science is full of myths and misinformation.  Dr. Katz, is the author of The Truth about Food.

The Standard American Diet in my opinion needs a lot of work and is full of imbalances to name a few:

  • Too little Potassium; too much sodium
  • Too many omega-6 fats; too few omega-3 fats
  • Too much animal protein; too few plant proteins
  • Too many refined carbohydrates; too few complex carbohydrates
  • Too many processed foods; too few whole foods
  • Too much meat; too few fruits and vegetables
  • Too many calories; too few nutrients


Leave a comment

Saturated Fat or Not?

Studies will support or refute almost any position about “what is the healthiest diet?” We have defamed almost any food or diet  at times including saturated fat, trans fat, sugar, salt, and total fat. The latest advice on the saturated fat debate has risen again from the American Heart Association.  Recently, the American Heart Association renewed its previous stand that saturated fats are not heart healthy and that switching to polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, soybean, safflower, etc) will be a better choice. This debate will continue until there is new information based on clinical trials involving thousands of people and that is unlikely to happen in the near future. It would also take years of follow-up for results to surface and the same flawed aspects of these studies of the past would probably still exist.

This debate is troublesome in several ways.  People are told to limit saturated fat, then it’s OK to  eat butter and bacon, and now it’s back to the vilification of saturated fat in the diet. This undermines any chance that the average consumer would believe anything they hear about nutrition, diet and health.  CLICK HERE.

Why is the AHA advice promoting polyunsaturated vegetable oils for heart health?  Research shows that these oils lower LDL cholesterol while saturated fats raise LDL. However has the hypothesis that these vegetable oils are heart healthy (lower coronary events or deaths) ever been thoroughly tested in a reliable randomized clinical trial? Critics claim methodology flaws in previous studies;  therefore, the evidence is weak.

At the same time many doctors are recommending following the ketogenic diet which promotes a very low carbohydrate, high fat diet often saturated fat as coconut oil.

No wonder the consumer seeking a healthy fat is confused. Stay tuned. In the meantime, the old advice is the best – everything in moderation. The upcoming Dietary Guidelines for 2020 should be interesting.




Leave a comment

What actually is fiber? The FDA will decide?


Fiber, some oligosaccharides, and resistant starch are carbohydrates that most of which are not broken down by human digestive enzymes in the stomach and small intestine and therefore pass into the colon largely undigested. These indigestible carbohydrates benefit health by increasing the amount of water and bulk in the intestine, which stimulates gastrointestinal motility, promoting the growth of a healthy microflora (the microbiome) and slowing nutrient absorption. Fiber foods contain both soluble (dissolves in water) and insoluble fiber (does not dissolve in water). Soluble fiber is broken down by bacteria in the large intestine.

How to Choose Fiber-Rich Foods:

  • Have your sandwich on whole-wheat, oat bran, rye or pumpernickel bread.
  • Switch to whole-wheat pasta and brown rice.
  • Fill your cereal bowl with plain oatmeal and add a few raisins for sweetness.
  • Check the ingredient list for “whole” or whole grain”.
  • Don’t forget beans like kidney beans, chickpeas, black beans.
  • Add berries, bananas, or dried fruit to cereal or desserts.
  • Pile lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, and peppers, on your sandwich.
  • Have more  than one vegetable at dinner, and try a new fruit.


Leave a comment

Vitamin and Mineral Absorption: Good Advice

Taking a vitamin/mineral supplement often does not seem to meet the claims of their intended heath benefits. (See previous post on calcium/vitamin D and bone health.)

Could taking a supplement with food or as part of a fortified food make a difference in the absorption of that specific nutrient rather than merely taking it in pill form alone? That remains to be determined by more research.

The following article covers some important points about nutrient absorption and how combining food sources or even preparation (cooking, e.g.) may make a difference in their combined outcome on health?