Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Brain Food - #1 Complete Proteins

We know that the foods we eat affect the body. But they may have even more of an influence on how the brain works—it's general tone and level of energy and how it handles its tasks. Mood, motivation and mental performance are powerfully influenced by diet.

The brain is an extremely active organ, making it a very hungry one, and a picky eater at that. It's becoming pretty clear in research labs around the country that the right food - specifically, the natural nutrients that they contain - can enhance mental capabilities—help you concentrate, keep you motivated, magnify memory, speed reaction times, defuse stress, perhaps even prevent brain aging.

The best brain foods are:
  • complex carbohydrates (those with a low glycemic index)
  • complete proteins
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • antioxidant rich fruits and veggies

Let's look at complete proteins first.

Complete Proteins:
A complete protein (or whole protein) is a source of protein that contains an adequate proportion of all of the essential amino acids for the dietary needs of humans or other animals.
Nearly all whole foods contain protein, and nearly all forms of protein contain all twenty protein-forming amino acids in some quantity. However, proportions vary, and some forms of protein are partly lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids. Meals prepared with a mix of protein foods can provide a better balance of the essential amino acids and therefore a more complete protein source.

Eight amino acids are generally regarded as essential for humans: phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine, methionine, leucine, and lysine. Cysteine (or sulphur-containing amino acids), tyrosine (or aromatic amino acids), histidine and arginine are additionally required by infants and growing children. Essential amino acids are so called not because they are more important to life than the others, but because the body does not synthesize them, making it essential to include them in one's diet in order to obtain them.

Proteins in the diet affect brain performance because they provide the amino acids from which neurotransmitters are made. Think of neurotransmitters as biochemical messengers that carry signals from one brain cell to another. The better you feed these messengers, the more efficiently they deliver the goods. Some neurotransmitters are neuron turn-ons that perk up the brain. Others have a calming or sedative effect. The two important amino acids, tryptophan and tyrosine, are precursors of neurotransmitters (e.g., the substances from which neurotransmitters are made).

These two amino acids influence the four top neurotransmitters - serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that relaxes the brain; it is made from tryptophan. Serotonin is sometimes called our ‘satisfaction’ brain chemical because, in addition to giving us a sense of well-being, a natural anti-depressant. Tryptophan rich foods may be helpful to relax the body for sleep. By eating tryptophan rich foods we can naturally boost levels of serotonin. Tryptophan is not as widely distributed in our foods as other amino acids, and it is found mainly in: turkey, chicken, fish, pheasant, partridge, cottage cheese, bananas, eggs, nuts, wheat germ, avocados, milk, cheese and the legumes (beans, peas, pulses, soya).

The other three, collectively known as catecholamines, are neurotransmitters that rev up the brain. Two factors influence whether the brain perks up or slows down following a meal: the ratio of protein to carbohydrate, and the ratio of the amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine. High protein, low carbohydrate, high tyrosine foods that are likely to jumpstart the brain are seafood, soy, meat, eggs, and dairy.



Sunday, March 29, 2009

One Oil You Should Add to Your Diet - Olive Oil

In many parts of the world, a high fat intake is associated with degenerative diseases such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, asthma, colon cancer, and arthritis. But in some parts of the world, a high fat intake is actually associated with lower rates of these conditions. A closer look at the foods eaten in these places reveals that the high fat intake is actually due to the generous use of olive oil. Comparing these areas, such as the Mediterranean, where olive oil is the main fat used, to other regions, like the United States, where other fats such as animal fats, hydrogenated fats and vegetable oils like corn oil dominate, turns up some very interesting data. It turns out that people who use olive oil regularly, especially in place of other fats, have much lower rates of heart disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes, colon cancer, and asthma. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat, a type of fat that researchers are discovering has excellent health benefits.

We're big suuporters of olive oil because the research is so compelling!

Overall Longevity
In a prospective study (one in which participants are chosen and then followed forward in time) involving 5,611 adults 60 years or older, adherence to a Mediterranean style dietary pattern - characterized by high consumption of olive oil, raw vegetables, soups, and poultry - was associated with a significantly lower risk of death from all causes.
After 6.2 years, those most closely following a Mediterranean 'olive oil and salad' dietary pattern had a 50% reduced risk of overall mortality.

Olive Oil Protects Against Heart Disease
Relying only on olive oil may cut your risk of coronary heart disease almost in half, show results from the CARDIO2000 case-control study, published in Clinical Cardiology (Kontogianni MD, Panagiotakos DB, et al.). "Exclusive use of olive oil was associated with a 47% lower likelihood of having coronary heart disease. "

Studies on olive oil and atherosclerosis reveal that particles of LDL cholesterol (the potentially harmful cholesterol) that contain the monounsaturated fats of olive oil are less likely to become oxidized. Since only oxidized cholesterol sticks to artery walls, eventually forming the plaques that can lead to a heart attack or stroke, preventing the oxidation of cholesterol is a good way to help prevent atherosclerosis.

It's likely the abundance of polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil, rather than its monounsaturated fatty acids, are responsible for its well-known cardiovascular benefits. In a recent in vitro study also showed that polyphenolic compounds present in olive oil, including oleuropein, inhibit the adhesion of monocyte cells to the blood vessel lining, a process that is involved in the development of atherosclerosis. In addition, when people with high cholesterol levels removed the saturated fat from their diets and replaced it with olive oil, their total cholesterol levels dropped an average of 13.4%, and their LDL cholesterol levels dropped by 18%. Note, however, that these benefits occured when they used olive oil in place of other fats, rather than simply adding olive oil to a diet high in unhealthy fats.

The phenols in olive oil have very potent antioxidant effects and anti-inflammatory effects. By reducing both inflammation and free radical damage to cholesterol, dietary olive oil protects the endothelium, the lining of our blood vessels, helping to maintain its ability to relax and dilate (thus preventing high blood pressure). By protecting LDL against oxidation, olive oil short circuits the process through which atherosclerotic plaques form. (Only once oxidized does LDL adhere to the endothelium, attracting immune cells (monocytes) that try to clear it out, turn into foam cells and begin plaque formation.)

Research conducted by Dr. Juan Ruano and colleagues at the Reina Sofia University Hospital, Cordoba, Spain, and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, investigated the effects of virgin olive oil on endothelial function in 21 volunteers with high cholesterol levels.
The endothelium, although just a one-cell thick layer of flat cells that lines the inner wall of all blood vessels, may be the critical player in cardiovascular health. Among its many functions, the endothelium orchestrates the mechanics of blood flow, and regulates blood clot formation and the adhesion of immune cells to the blood vessel wall (one of the first steps in the formation of plaque).

Normally, after a meal, endothelial function is impaired for several hours. Blood vessels become less elastic, and blood levels of free radicals potentially harmful to cholesterol rise. But when the subjects in this study ate a breakfast containing virgin olive oil with its normal high phenolic content (400 ppm), their endothelial function actually improved, blood levels of nitric oxide (a blood vessel-relaxing compound produced by the endothelium) increased significantly, and far fewer free radicals were present than would normally be seen after a meal.

When they ate the same breakfast containing the same type of virgin olive oil with its phenolic content reduced to 80 ppm, the beneficial effects were virtually absent, and concentrations of cholesterol-damaging free radicals increased.

I don't know if we're ready to start recommending olive oil on your cereal, but the results are staggering. Find some simple ways to add olive oil to your diet:

Replace it instead of butter on breads
Drizzle it on your salads with some vinegar and oregano
Drizzle olive oil on your veggies and your pasta
Replace corn and vegetable oils in cooking with olive oil


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How SWEET it is

Our two year old just loves to eat anything sweet. The problem is that much of the time processed foods taste sweeter than natural ones. I am not sure if it is the taste or his blood sugar levels, but there is a definite appeal of sweetness to the palette. Desserts are often called sweets. In fact, I often enjoy something sweet after meals. I even call my wife "sweetie", so there is an emotional connection and appeal to sweetness.
I have also noted that after fasting for a period of time, foods with processed sugars taste aweful to me. Thus pointing out the truth that not all sweeteners are created equal. My hunch is that there is a detoxification and purification that happens during the fasting process. Then, once the body is burning clean, it craves good clean nutrition as fuel. Hence, I am sensitized to the good and bad sweeteners by amplification of the needs of my body.

That being said, when a sweetner is desirable, what are the options available?

  1. Granulated white sugar - First, we have granulated white sugar. This is probably the most common and most widely recognized sweetener. It is basically sucrose from natural sugar cane, which has been purified. Interestingly enough, sugar has been replaced in many processed foods by high fructose corn syrup. However, after a lot of bad press on high fructose corn syrup, and good taste of sugar. Sugar is rebounding in popularity and showing up on labels of brands you know. This time, it is coming back positioned as a natural ingredient in many packaged foods. In fact, there was an article today in the New York times today regarding the use of sugar by consumer packaged goods marketers as a natural ingredient.

  2. Molasses The heavier darker sugars from the purification process are sometimes sold as molasses, which has more nutrients and flavor than white granulated sugar.

  3. Brown sugar - So, what about brown sugar? Is this another unique variety? Actually, it is another of the cane sugar cousins. It is white granulated sugar disguised with a thin coating of molasses on the outside.

  4. Honey - Honey is the first of our all natural sweeteners with a real health benefit built in. Honey, since it is the product of the nectar gathered by honeybees, is naturally loaded with pollen. This pollen can provide a benefit to your immune system, especially if it is harvested in your local geographic area.

  5. Maple Syrup - Maple syrup is another great all natural sweetner, although, it can be a bit pricely. Maple syrup is, as you likely know, the concentrated sap from the sugar maple tree. It is condensed by boiling off the excess water. Because it is harvested from individual living trees only in the fall, it is one of the most expensive sweeteners.

  6. Stevia - Stevia is probably one of the most healthful sweeteners available. It is, designed by nature, rather than scientists in a lab. So lets see what Stevia has going for it. Although it is very sweet tasting, it has very low caloric content.

  7. Xylitol - Xylitol is similar to Stevia, in that it is very sweet, but has a low caloric content. Xylitol is the sweetener that provides the cooling sensation you find in some chewing gums.

  8. High fructose corn syrup - This is one of the players in the sweetner world that has been criticized most heavily as of late due to many alleged health risks. According to an article in wikipedia, high fructose corn syrup" is ubiquitous in processed foods and beverages, including soft drinks, yogurt, cookies, salad dressing and tomato soup." The reason being, is that is has relative sweetness very similar to that of granulated sugar.
  9. Brown rice malt syrup - Brown rice malt syrup is a much more natural and healthful sweetener than high fructose corn syrup. In fact brown rice malt syrup is oftentimes made in small batches using enzymes to break down the carbohydrates of the rice grain into its sugar building blocks.
  10. Artificial sweeteners: Due to the large amount of sugars that are common in North American diets, it is no wonder that we have an obesity epidemic. It should also be of no surprise that there is an interest in reducing the calories while maintaining the sweet taste of sugared foods and beverages. And, that is exactly what artificual sweeteners deliver. They are sweeter than sugar, so you can get the same level of sweetness by adding less sweetener, and thus less calories. Examples of artificial sweeteners are Aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. Regarding the potential health concerns related to artificual sweeteners, an article from the Mayo Clinic claims that there is not yet any conclusive evidence.
  11. Fruits and fruit juices - Fruits and fruit juices are amongst the safest and healthiest choices for sweeteners.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Essential Vitamin K - Round 2

Atherosclerosis is the leading cause of disability and death in the developed world. While many factors are involved in its initiation and progression, I'll highlight one. Homocysteine can damage the inner arterial lining called the endothelium when present in high concentrations. Homocysteine is an abnormal protein that is created when a specific amino acid called methionine is metabolized. In most people homocysteine is quickly cleared out of the arteries and therefore does not create a problem. Studies have shown that high levels of homocysteine are caused by a lack of nutrients in the diet, particularly the B group of vitamins. Without these essential vitamins your body is unable to produce the enzymes necessary to remove homocysteine efficiently from your blood.

To repair the damage, the endothelium produces collagen that forms a "cap" over the injuried artery site. These collagen caps attract calcium that eventually accumulates (calcified) and forms a hard material similar to bone (aka "hardening of the arteries"). Calcification of the arteries is a significant risk factor for heart attacks. Vitamin K keeps calcium in your bones and can prevent buildup in the arteries. Studies show that an insufficient level of vitamin K accelerates arterial calcification.

Here what researchers in a recent issue of Blood medical journal stated: "In the last 10 years we have learned that Vitamin K-dependent proteins are directly involved in the inhibition of vascular calcification, and that Vitamin K2 is necessary to activate these proteins. This study demonstrates a significant potential role for Vitamin K2 in cardiovascular health. High-vitamin K intake (both K1 and K2) not only blocked the progress of further calcium accumulation but also lead to a greater than 37 per cent reduction of previously accumulated arterial calcium precipitates within six weeks."

It has been previously shown in the Journal of Nutrition click here that high Vitamin K2 consumption was linked to lower coronary heart disease, less aortic calcification and lower all cause mortality. In this study, 4,800 elderly subjects with no history of heart disease were followed for 10 years, and it was found that 45 micrograms/day of natural vitamin K2 resulted in 50% decreased arterial calcification and a similarly decreased cardiovascular mortality risk.

Reference Studies



Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Lost Vitamin....Essential Vitamin K

I don't know about you, but in the alphabet soup of vitamins (A, B, C, E...) I've never heard much about vitamin K. It turns our that vitamin K is essential for regulating calcium balance in our body. A deficiency in vitamin K can be related to brittle bones and hardening of the arteries due to arterial calcification. Let's talk about bones first....

Osteoporosis Assist
Vitamin K provides two benefits to the bone. In our bones, calcium is constantly undergoing adsorption and degradation (resorption). Vitamin K helps to prevent excessive calcium degradation which leads to brittle bones. Vitamin K also supports new bone formation by pulling calcium from our blood and causing it to stick to our bones. Vitamin D acts with K to assist calcium in bone protection.

Epidemiological studies have demonstrated a relationship between vitamin K and age-related bone loss (osteoporosis). The Nurses' Health Study followed more than 72,000 women for ten years. In an analysis of this cohort, women whose vitamin K intakes were in the lowest quintile (1/5) had a 30% higher risk of hip fracture than women with vitamin K intakes in the highest four quintiles (23). A study in over 800 elderly men and women, followed in the Framingham Heart Study for seven years, found that men and women with dietary vitamin K intakes in the highest quartile (1/4) had a 65% lower risk of hip fracture than those with dietary vitamin K intakes in the lowest quartile (approximately 250 mcg/day vs. 50 mcg/day of vitamin K).


A recent study from the University of Toronto found little difference in bone mineral density and vitamin K supplemention. My hunch here was that vitamin K was not supplemented with other nutrients essential for bone building. It's like having one great player but no team. It's also highly probable that food sources of vitamin K are what the body utilizes, not synthetic supplements. [This is becoming a comon theme in nutrition - synthetic supplements are the same as nutrient from food!] Despite this finding, there were two surprises: "compared to placebo group women, women who took vitamin K over the four-year period had fewer fractures (9 vs. 20 women) and fewer cancer incidences (3 vs. 12 women)."


Great food sources of vitamin K for your diet include: dark leafy veggies, seeds (sesame, sunflower, pumpkin), eggs.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Super Spices

Perhaps your mother told you to eat your fruits and vegetables. But, did she ever tell you to eat you spices? It turns out that many spices have a very high concentrations of health promoting, protective antioxidants. In fact many spices have medicine like properties to heal and protect. It should not be a surprise that spices have long been part of Chinese and Indian medicine. Some of their properties are actual more powerful than over the counter and prescription medicines. An example is that the anti-inflammatory functionality of turmeric is more powerful than the anti-inflammatory capacity of aspirin. Some doctors prescribe turmeric capules for those with chronic arthritis. Another example is that oregano oil contains thymol and is a more effective antimicrobial, than some synthentic preservatives used to keep food fresh, like BHA, and BHT. It is also more effective at killing bacteria than some prescription antibotics. Of course, you need to make sure to see your doctor if you are sick.

Spices are a great way to add flavor and zest to foods without adding a lot of calories. Additionally many spices provide a significant dose of beneficial phytonutrients. Here is a list of some of the most beneficial spices, that we like to refer to as Super Spices.

  1. Turmeric
  2. Ginger
  3. Cinnamon
  4. Oregano
  5. Rosemary
  6. Thyme
  7. Paprika
  8. Red peppers


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Super Foods

There is an increased amount of talk about Super Foods these days in the media. Although foods have been around for thousands of years, science is just emerging which is identifying some of the chemical compounds and health benefits they can have for the body. This trend seems to be moving from the periphery to mainstream. In fact today, a new advertising campaign launched by Quaker Oats talks about oats as a "super grain".
So, what is a superfood? A superfood is a food that provides high nutrient density. They have significantly higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and other health promoting compounds, like phytonutrients than regular foods. And, superfoods deliver these unusually high levels of nutrients in two or more classes of nutrients. So basically, you eat a little, and get a lot!

So, lets make a list of our thoughts on top SuperFoods, which we will discuss in this blog. This list is based on the nutrient density of these foods, that is the nutrition provided per calorie. The scope of the nutrition includes vitamins and minerals, but we will also take into consideration antioxidant capacity, omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients. As you will note, many of these superfoods have a bright coloration, which is an indicator of the nutrients that are within as we briefly discussed in the "color code" entry.
  1. Bananas - high in potassium and B6 vitamins
  2. Beans (red & black) - High in protein and phytochemicals
  3. Blueberries - High in anthrocyanins (an antioxidant phytonutrient)
  4. Broccoli - Rich in beta-carotene and vitamin C
  5. Cacao (raw chocolate) - Very high source of antioxidants
  6. Cranberries - High in vitamin C and antioxidant phytonutrients
  7. Flax seeds - Highest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids
  8. Kelp - oaded with wide array of minerals from the sea
  9. Oats - High in fiber, rich source of minerals and phytonutrients
  10. Papaya - Prodigestive enzymes, antioxidant carotenes, flavonoids, and vitamin C
  11. Pumpkin - Loaded with beta-carotene
  12. Spinach - Rich in folic acid and vitamin K
  13. Sweet Potatoes - High in fiber, Vitamins A, C, and B6, plus potassium & manganese
  14. Tea (green & black) - High in polyphenols, potent antioxidants
  15. Wheat Germ - rich in B vitamins, vitamin E, enzymes, and minerals
  16. Yogurt - High in protein, calcium, enzymes, and active bacterial cultures

Sunday, March 8, 2009


There is a whole lot more to oregano than just the rich warm flavor that it can add to foods. Oregano is a nutrient dense spice with many potential health benefits. First of all, did you know that oregano contains thymol, an oil which has been shown to have very effective antimicrobial properties. It is powerful enough to be a food that could be used as medicine.
Furthermore, oregano has high antioxidant properties. In fact in laboratory studies, it has been proven to have higher antioxidant capacity than the commonly used synthetic antioxidant preservatives BHA, and BHT.
If this were not enough, oregano is a good source of fiber, iron, manganese, calcium, vitamins A, C, and omega-3 fatty acids.
This, like many spices, is power packed with nutrition. No wonder that it is classified as a SuperFood.

Sea Vegetables

The sea is powerful in many ways. However, have you ever thought about the power of vegetables from the sea? Could green sea vegetables have superior nutrition to land grown vegetables ?

We don't typically think of sea vegetables or sea weed as part of the typical American diet, however, sea vegetables have long been part of the diet in some Asian countries, like Japan.

So, why eat seaweed? Why go to the sea, instead of the land? Well, sea vegetables have some of the highest vitamin and mineral content on an weight basis. Plus, they may be the most balanced mineral spectrum of all vegetables. In fact the mineral spectrum in seaweed is similar to the mineral spectrum of the sea itself and also similar to the mineral spectrum of the human body. Sea vegetables are contain calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, iodine, and phosphorus, as well as vitmans A, B, and C. Additionally, sea weed contains healthy concentrations of lignans, which may protect against cancer. This is good stuff!

The challenge, once again, is how to work a nutritious plant food like sea weed into you diet on a regular basis. More thoughts on that to come!

Saturday, March 7, 2009


We just started to talk about the linkage between color and nutrition in fruits and vegetables. Let's take a little closer look at the color green. So, is spinach the greatest of the green vegetables? Spinach was certainly the source of strenght for the cartoon character Popeye. But is it a source of strength in real life? Research shows that spinach may indeed be the greatest of the green vegetables. It is extremely high in phytonutrients (providing it's rich green color) and minerals.

Think about how you can work more spinach into your diet to help provide nutrients and nourishment the way nature intended, without the need to take synthetic multivitamins.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Color Code

It is amazing to see all of the brightly colored fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. They are particularly dazzling when they are fresh and in season at a farmers market. It may be surprising to some, that the the same substances that provide fruits and vegetables their color are also health promoting nutrients. In the book "The Color Code" by Dr. James Joseph and Dr. Daniel Nadeau
"One of the most exciting lessons to come out of new nutritonal research is the realization that the greatest number of healthful compounds can be found in the most colorful foods. " The Color Code reviews contemporary research on compelling reasons to eat colorful foods. For example, the simple blueberry contains nearly 100 phytochemicals - micronutrients contained in plants that protect it from diseases, solar radiation and microorganisms. The book provides substantial research on recommended foods by color classification.

In the next few postings, we will be taking a closer look at certain fruits and vegetables of intense color.