Nutrition Buzz Words and What You Need to Know
Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s.
You’ve heard about them. They seem to be mentioned everywhere. Omega 3’s and 6’s are simply essential fatty acids (remember, that means the body can’t make them itself) involved in the body’s ability to synthesize hormones. Sources of omega-6 fatty acids are numerous. Soybean oil alone (um…that would be big ag) is now so ubiquitous in fast foods and processed foods that it is estimated that 20 percent of the calories in the American diet come from this single source.
In modern diets, there are few sources of omega-3 fatty acids. The primary source comes from the fat of cold water fish (though some nuts and seeds can be a source as well). Many nutrition experts believe that before we relied so heavily on processed foods, humans consumed omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in roughly equal amounts. The typical American diet now tends to contain 14 – 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. It is thought we should strive for between a 1:1 and 1:4 ratio.
In general, hormones derived from these two classes of essential fatty acids have opposite effects. Those from omega-6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation (an important component of the immune response), blood clotting, and cell proliferation, while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions. Both families of hormones must be in balance to maintain optimum health. Omega-3s appear to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. They may also protect against irregular heartbeats and help lower blood pressure levels.
It has been found that pasture finished beef (no fattening up on corn and soy at the feed lot) and other animals raised on pasture (pork, chicken etc.) have a more optimum ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. This is also true of pasture raised eggs. Think about it. When, exactly, did a cow evolve to eat corn and soy beans. The answer? It didn’t.
OK, in an ideal world, you would have retrained your palette to appreciate the subtle sweetness in a cup of plain yogurt and not be reaching for sugar, or an alternative. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes we just want the taste of something sweet that isn’t going to go to our waist line. Here’s a quick summary. You could spend all day reading the pros and cons of each via Google.
- Acesulfumate-potassium. Mediocre testing (in the 70’s). Not available straight to the consumer, but found in a LOT of “low calorie” products from soda to yogurt.
- Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal – blue packet at the diner). Recent studies show slight increase in cancer risk. More studies should be conducted. Personally, it gives me a headache and so is not an option.
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low – pink packet at the diner). Causes cancer in animal studies. My step-mother consumed massive quantities of the liquid version in her endless cups of instant coffee every day. She died of lung cancer, most likely from her two pack a day 50 year smoking habit.
- Stevia (actually, its derivative Reb A – Truvia, green packet when you find it). Appears to be safe, though independent testing is warranted. In the past, FDA protocol required repeated testing in two separate animal species prior to approval, but in this case it didn’t. The whole plant has not been approved, just Reb A.
- Sucralose (Splenda – yellow packet at the diner). Appears to be safe, though not much independent testing has been done. Sucralose is made from sucrose (sugar) whose molecular structure has been modified with chlorine.
I personally find stevia to be a bit too bitter, so default to Spenda when making no-sugar chocolate pudding or no-sugar lemonade. It works for me, but I don’t use a lot of it.
The recommended daily value for fiber is 25 grams. Both soluble and insoluble fiber go undigested when consumed and are then excreted. Soluble fiber forms a gel when mixed with liquid, while insoluble fiber does not. Insoluble fiber passes through our intestines largely intact. Soluble fiber lowers total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the Bad cholesterol) therefore reducing the risk of heart disease. Soluble fiber can also helps regulate blood sugar for people with diabetes. Insoluble fiber helps your system “move” faster. If you start reading labels you will realize that you are probably not getting 25 grams per day. Beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables are your best sources. Look for 4 grams or more per serving on packaged foods.
Beware of products claiming to be a “good source of fiber”. If you read the labels you’ll find that often the fiber doesn’t come from traditional sources — whole grains, bean, vegetables or fruit — known to have health benefits. Instead, food makers are adding something called “isolated fibers” made from chicory root or purified powders of polydextrose and other substances that haven’t been shown to lower blood sugar or cholesterol.
Salt (i.e. Sodium).
Salt is a necessary part of everyone’s diet, but how much is too much? The maximum recommended amount of sodium is 2,300 mg per day, or about 1 teaspoon. The average American gets about 4,000 mg, 3/4 of this estimated to come from packaged foods. It is predicted that by reducing sodium intake by 1,200 mg per day (putting us at 2,800 mg/day, still above the recommended amount) 92,000 deaths and 66,000 strokes could be prevented every year.
Note that salt and potassium in the body are basically two sides of the same coin. They both are involved in the acid-base balance (maintaining proper internal pH), water body balance (hydration) and nerve function. It is speculated that the problems with our high salt diet are really an issue with high salt/low potassium. Good sources of potassium are cantaloupe, bananas, oranges, grapes, grapefruit, blackberries, yogurt, dried beans, leafy greens, potatoes and sweet potatoes. If you are primarily eating homemade minimally processed foods with a good dose of fruits and veggies, the salt/potassium problem probably isn’t as much of an issue.
Cholesterol is required to build and maintain cell membranes and it regulates the cells flexibility over the range of physiological temperatures. It is also critical in the synthesis of some hormones. Your body makes its own cholesterol, and we (unless we are vegan) also get it from our diet. All foods containing animal fat contain cholesterol to varying extents. (My step-mother’s first husband had a medical condition where his body overproduced cholesterol. This was long before the days of cholesterol reducing drugs like Lipitor. The only partial remedy was to try to eliminate cholesterol from dietary sources. I remember my step-mom explaining how she had “cut every bit of fat off of any meat she cooked” and mentally cringing, as the only real way to eliminate cholesterol from the diet is to become a vegan. He eventually passed away from a massive heart attack, which was probably unavoidable regardless of diet.)
Since cholesterol is insoluble in blood, it is transported in the circulatory system within lipoproteins. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) helps remove fat from the body by binding with it in the bloodstream and carrying it back to the liver for disposal. It is sometimes called “good” cholesterol. A high level of HDL cholesterol may lower your chances of developing heart disease or stroke. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) carries mostly fat and only a small amount of protein from the liver to other parts of the body. It is sometimes called “bad cholesterol.” A high LDL cholesterol level may increase your chances of developing heart disease.
A note on eggs and cholesterol, from Harvard Health: Eggs, even though high in cholesterol, are a good source of nutrients. One egg contains 6 grams of protein and some healthful unsaturated fats. Eggs are also a good source of choline, which has been linked with preserving memory, and lutein and zeaxanthin, which may protect against vision loss. For most people, only a small amount of the cholesterol in food passes into the blood. Saturated and trans fats have much bigger effects on blood cholesterol levels. The only large study to look at the impact of egg consumption on heart disease—not on cholesterol levels or other intermediaries—found no connection between the two. In people with diabetes, though, egg-a-day eaters were a bit more likely to have developed heart disease than those who rarely ate eggs.
Pasture raised eggs have been found to have 1/3 less cholesterol than conventional eggs. I eat a lot of eggs, and my cholesterol/HDL/LDL levels have so far all been fine. This is what works for ME.
The body makes its own Vitamin D, which is really more of a hormone than a vitamin, when the skin is exposed to UV rays from the sun. It is needed to maintain strong bones by helping the body absorb calcium. Your muscles need vitamin D to move and your nerves need it to carry messages between the brain and the body. The immune system needs it to fight off invading bacteria and viruses. Together with calcium, vitamin D helps protect older adults from osteoporosis. Vitamin D is found in cells throughout the body.
It is estimated that 60% of people in the U.S. get too little vitamin D. This is partially attributed to the increased use of sunscreen, and the fact that we spend most of our day indoors, and that even if you are outdoors, if you live north of the midsection of the country, it is difficult to get enough sun exposure due to the sun’s angle. Adults also don’t consume a lot of milk, which is fortified with vitamin D to prevent rickets in children. The recommended daily allowance for vitamin D was recently upped to 600 IU’s.
There is a lot of debate about vitamin D in nutrition and research circles. We’ll have to wait and see how it all shakes out. But to me, it makes sense that we would have evolved with a lot more sun exposure than we get now, and since it is difficult to get enough vitamin D from diet alone, I do take a 400 IU supplement daily. Some people have reported a lessening of depression symptoms with vitamin D supplementation.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, known for building strong bones and teeth. Calcium helps muscles contract, nerves transmit signals, blood to clot and blood vessels to contract and expand. These functions are so important that your body will extract calcium from your skeleton if you aren’t getting enough from your diet. (My grandmother had three children, while living on a dry land farm in wind-swept southern Idaho. She was lactose intolerant. Carrying these three children to term robbed her body of enough calcium that she lost most of her teeth. There are literally almost no pictures of her smiling, anywhere, and she lived into her 90’s.) It is recommended that adult women get 1,000 mg per day.
The primary source of calcium in the diet is dairy products. I must admit, I struggle with the recommended dosages of calcium for the exact reason I DO take a Vitamin D supplement. I don’t think we spent 50,000 years of evolution consuming dairy. So I doubt that our ancestors consumed 1,000 mg of calcium a day. But then again, our age expectancy was probably only in the 30’s way back when, and pregnant women have been known to crave eating dirt for the minerals it contains…so I try to get some calcium from dairy sources (milk, cheese, yogurt) and take 1 calcium pill a day (not the 3 that the bottle recommends).
Our bodies are about 60% water. We use it to cool ourselves with sweat, to circulate oxygen and to bring fuel to our cells and take away waste products. It’s critical for our body’s function. So, we need to drink 8 8-oz glasses of water a day (64 oz or two quarts/two liters), right? Turns out that amount was totally made up and probably started circulating in the 1940’s. I LOVE this kind of story! An interview with Heinz Valtin, a physician who looked into this common myth in-depth, was in Nutrition Action in June 2008. His advice? “Drink what you usually drink with meals and in between meals plus when you’re thirsty. As long as the concentration of blood remains normal, that’s the gold standard for our being property hydrated. And population studies show that blood concentration is normal whether we drink 15 liters a day or only one or two liters a day.”
Me, I am a big water drinker (no calories) and probably do average about 2 liters a day, counting herbal and black tea. Bottoms up.
Concerned about added sugar? Ingredients on food labels are in order by quantity. So if the first ingredient (or the top 3) is sugar, there is more sugar in the product (by weight, unless it’s a liquid) than anything else. Look for sugar under its other names too: high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrose, any kind of syrup or malt, fructose, honey, molasses etc. Avoid products that have sugar or other sweeteners high on the ingredient list.
Meaningless Food Labels
Fortified, enriched, added, extra, and plus. Code for highly processed. This means nutrients such as minerals and fiber have been removed and vitamins added in processing.
Fruit drink. This means there’s probably little or no real fruit and a lot of sugar. Instead look for products that say “100% Fruit Juice.”
Made with real fruit: Often code for mostly sugar and high fructose corn syrup. The “real fruit” is found in small quantities and sometimes isn’t even the same kind of fruit pictured on the package.
Made with wheat, rye, or multigrains. Usually code for mostly refined white flour. These products usually have very little whole grain. Look for the word “whole” before the grain to ensure that you’re getting a 100% whole-grain ingredient.
Made with whole grains: Also usually code for mostly refined white flour. Many products make a whole grain claim even though they often contain refined flour as the first ingredient and the amount of whole grains are minimal. Sometimes these products actually contain more sugar than whole grain. Look for the words “whole wheat” (or “whole rye” etc.) listed first in the ingredients to ensure the product is mostly whole grain.
Natural. This means the manufacturer started with a natural source, and then likely processed the heck out of it. Once it’s processed the food may not resemble anything natural. Look for “100% All Natural” and “No Preservatives.”
All natural. Although the F.D.A. has issued several warning letters to firms making misleading “all natural” claims, the agency has never issued formal rules about the term, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). As a result, some products containing high fructose corn syrup claim to be “all natural.”
Organically grown, pesticide-free, or no artificial ingredients. Trust only labels that say “Certified Organically Grown” unless you know the farmer personally.
Sugar-free or fat-free. Don’t assume the product is low-calorie. The manufacturer compensated for the loss of sugar/fat with unhealthy ingredients that don’t taste very good and, here’s the kicker, have no fewer calories than the real thing. Reduced fat mayo…pretty good. No fat mayo…disgusting.
Lightly-sweetened: Cereal packages often contain the phrase “lightly sweetened” to suggest less sugar. The Food and Drug Administration has regulations concerning the use of “sugar free” and “no added sugars” but nothing governing the claims “low sugar” or “lightly sweetened.” The phrase is meaningless.
Strengthens your immune system: Through “clever wordsmithing,” food companies can skirt F.D.A. rules about health claims and give consumers the impression that a product will ward off disease, notes CSPI. As we’ve learned from previous discussions, these claims are often not based on conclusive science to begin with, and the “active” ingredients are often miniscule compared to those used in the study.
No Nitrites Added or Uncured. Here’s the deal. Nitrates (found naturally in many fruits and vegetables) turn into Nitrites in our guts. Nitrites are anti-microbial agents. This is a good thing. Nitrites (and Nitrates) are added to preserved meats to keep them from 1) going rancid and 2) prevent bacteria, most importantly the one that causes botulism, from growing 3) enhance flavor and 4) preserve color. In the 1970’s studies found that at high temperatures, nitrites could form nitrosamines, cancer causing compounds. This was bad, so everyone freaked out over nitrites added to food. Food marketers took note.
But here’s the truth. Those “no nitrites added” foods? They add nitrates, usually in the form of celery powder. The food is cured with the naturally occurring nitrates found in the vegetable. So it isn’t that you aren’t eating nitrites. It’s just that you are getting them from a natural source (just like if you ate a spinach salad). There is nothing wrong with this, other than the sleight of hand on the part of the manufacturer, which is downright dishonest (Applegate Farms, Trader Joe’s).
There is growing evidence that vitamin C (ascorbic acid) enhances the effect of nitrites while prohibiting the development of nitrosamines in cured and cooked foods such as bacon. Glass of orange juice with breakfast anyone? My approach. Don’t burn the bacon, or ham, or bratwurst, eat cured meats in moderation (because of the fat content, not the nitrites), and don’t be fooled by labels on packages in the meat cooler. For a much longer discussion on this, read “The No Nitrites Added Hoax” blog post by author Michael Ruhlman, and the many many well thought out and linked comments that follow. Much of the above information came from there.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Does it now seem like no matter what you eat, it’s the wrong thing? What’s a girl (or guy, or family) to do? Just remember:
- Calories in > calories out = weight gain
- Everything in moderation. You’re looking for a healthy sustainable lifestyle here, not deprivation followed by binge.
- Eat a large variety of minimally processed foods that your grandmother would have recognized
- Try to get your nutrition from your food, not from a pill
- Try new things so you don’t get bored
- And to repeat Michael Pollan once again, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2012, where we’re miles away from having covered everything you need to know about diet and nutrition, but feel like our brain is wrung out, so we’re done for now.