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A question of nutrition - Part 6

Eine Frage der Ernährung - Teil 6

Q: What's the final word on saturated fat?

A: As with many topics, the answer to this question depends a lot on who you ask. Since you asked me, I'll give you my opinion on the subject, but you can be sure that if you ask a Stepford Wife Dietitian, you'll get a completely different answer. Of course, you probably wouldn't be reading my column if you were the type of person who listens to these idiots.

For years, the main argument against saturated fat has been that it raises cholesterol levels, which in turn causes heart disease. But the importance of cholesterol as a primary risk factor for heart disease is increasingly being questioned. And the fact is that saturated fats sometimes raise cholesterol levels and sometimes don't, and it may well be that they ultimately play no role at all.

In 2008, there was a two-day conference organized by the American Society of Bariatric Physicians in conjunction with the Metabolism Society in Arizona on the topic: "Saturated Fat and Heart Disease: What's the Evidence?" I attended this conference, which featured some of the brightest scientists studying this topic, and I can summarize the answer to the question "What is the evidence?" in a few words: "There isn't much."

In my opinion, the "fate" of saturated fat in the body depends entirely on what else you eat. If you're on a high-carb diet, the consequences of saturated fat can indeed be devastating, but if you're on a low-carb diet, it's a completely different story.

"When carbohydrate intake is low, insulin levels are low and fat is processed more efficiently," says Jeff Volek, PhD, RD - one of the leading scientists in the field of nutritional comparison. "When carbohydrate intake is low, you burn those saturated fats to fuel the body and produce less saturated fat."

So eat less carbohydrates and a lot less sugar and it could be that the amount of saturated fat you consume doesn't matter. One reason I think saturated fats have been demonized is that a lot of the research on diet and disease has lumped saturated fats in with trans fats. Trans fats were not an issue until recently, and for decades scientists conducting nutrition studies did not differentiate between saturated fats and trans fats. But why does it matter? Because man-made trans fats really are the devil's spawn. They clearly increase the risk of heart disease and stroke and are responsible for 30,000 premature deaths a year, according to Harvard professors Walt Willett and Alberto Ascherio.

Another reason that saturated fats have such a bad reputation is that many of the saturated fats people consume come from unhealthy sources. Fried foods are not a particularly good way to "enrich" your diet with fat. The same goes for highly processed, hormone-treated meat. The saturated fats from healthy animals - like grass-fed cattle or lambs - or the saturated fats in organic butter or egg yolks are a whole different story.

I have yet to see any convincing evidence that saturated fats from whole food sources like the ones I just mentioned have even a single negative effect on heart disease, health or mortality - which is especially true when these foods are consumed as part of a diet rich in plant foods, antioxidants, fiber and all the other good stuff you can eat as part of a diet with controlled carbohydrate intake. What's the verdict? While there may be certain cases where saturated fat can be a problem - people with the ApoE4 gene, which makes them more susceptible to Alzheimer's, seem to benefit from avoiding too much saturated fat, for example - most people who follow a healthy diet with moderate calories that is low in sugar should have no problems with saturated fat from whole food sources. Of course, this won't stop these diet dictators from continuing to tell us that a low-fat diet prevents heart disease, but new facts have rarely interested the American Dietetic Association until now!

Is honey really that healthy?

Q: Some people claim that honey is a very healthy food. Is it really that good for us or is honey just sugar?

A: Well, those are two separate questions:

  1. Is honey good for you?
  2. Is honey just sugar?

I'll deal with the second question first. From your body's perspective, honey is just sugar.

In terms of glycemic impact - how quickly a particular food raises your blood sugar levels - it doesn't make much difference whether you eat regular table sugar, unprocessed raw sugar, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, honey or any other variety of sugar, which incidentally includes the latest craze in the supposedly healthy food market called agave nectar syrup, which is even worse than high fructose corn syrup in terms of its composition. So if you're trying to reduce your sugar intake, honey counts here. The first question - is honey good for you? - is a bit more complicated and also depends on your definition of honey.

If by honey you mean the junk you buy in the supermarket in those cute little plastic bottles that look like a teddy bear, then the answer is almost certainly 'no'.

If by honey you mean raw, unfiltered, unheated, unpasteurized organic honey, then the answer is "maybe".

Even though both types of honey will spike your blood sugar levels to the same extent, this does not mean that they are nutritionally identical. Raw, unprocessed honey that comes straight from the comb contains a range of nutrients and enzymes and is a wholesome, albeit very sweet, food. If you don't have problems with your blood sugar, you can use honey wisely for sweetening. In general, "the harder the better" applies to honey. The extent of crystallization (the hardness) determines the level of active nutrients and heat-sensitive enzymes. Some types of honey are even sold with parts of the comb in the jar. Real honey contains flavanones, flavones and flavonols, which are known for their antioxidant activity.

Remember that processed honey, like the stuff from the bear bottle, is just another highly processed food that has been stripped of all the good ingredients and is nothing more than a sweet, golden-colored liquid that's about as good for you as sugar-coated cornflakes.

Fake "Health" Foods

Q: What is a food that dedicated athletes eat, but are better off not eating? In other words, I would like to know what widely available, supposed health foods are.

A: I thought this was an excellent question to ask my panel of experts and not one of them hesitated to offer an opinion on this - all of whom are good, by the way.

Gregg Avedon, who is one of the most successful fitness models in the world, mentioned sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade. "These drinks are designed for endurance athletes and professional athletes who are burning calories like crazy and depleting their muscle glycogen stores very quickly and in a big way, and yet average fitness enthusiasts who train in the medium to low intensity range drink these drinks without thinking twice."

Nutrition expert and exercise physiologist JJ Virgin, PhD, singled out energy bars that are often overloaded with chemicals and sometimes even trans fats and high fructose corn syrup. Gina Lombardi, host of the Discovery Channel program Fit Nation and author of the book Deadline Fitness picked baked chips. "High in sodium, chemicals and processed carbs!" she noted.

Top New York fitness trainer, model and personal trainer Angie Lee chose fruit juice. "Way too high in calories and sugar and makes it harder for people to control their liquid calories," was her observation. In my opinion, the judges' award for junk with purported health benefits goes to Jamba Juice's smoothies.

Most of these high-carb, high-calorie, high-glycemic nightmares will send your blood sugar levels skyrocketing faster than a border collie on methamphetamine. Example: The banana berry smoothie with 112 grams of carbohydrates and 480 kcal. Don't be misled by these fake fitness foods!

The truth about coffee

Q: Is coffee good or bad. It seems like the experts can't make up their minds!

A: It's not that we can't agree on the facts about caffeine, it's that reasonable people can come to different conclusions about what those facts mean. It's much like any other area of life from politics to economics. So let's take a look at some of these facts. There are some interesting facts about coffee: Coffee is a very good source of antioxidants. In a comparison of the antioxidant properties of different beverages, coffee was ranked in the top tier along with tea and grapefruit juice (1).

A 2001 study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry concluded that coffee contains significantly more total antioxidants than coconut, green tea, black tea or herbal tea. A study published in 2006 concluded that coffee could inhibit inflammation and thereby reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and other inflammatory diseases in postmenopausal women. Two of the antioxidants responsible for the health benefits of coffee are chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid. Both are powerful antioxidants and coffee beans are one of the richest sources of chlorogenic acid in the world.

More facts: Caffeine increases exercise tolerance in patients suffering from heart failure. According to the Nurses Health Study, two to three cups of coffee could reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease. Coffee reduces the formation of gallstones in men and could protect against alcohol-related liver disease. And let's not forget the social benefits of coffee: what would all those people who meet online do without meeting for a coffee to get to know each other in real life?

So is coffee good for you? Let's look at some more facts. Scientific research has shown that even one or two cups of coffee can increase the risk of early miscarriage during a normal pregnancy. Three or more cups of coffee a day can seriously exacerbate PMS symptoms and the amount of caffeine contained in two to three cups of coffee can increase systolic and diastolic blood pressure for at least one to two hours.

So what are the conclusions? Many of my friends in the health world seem to think that coffee is one of the big bad wolves of the modern diet and claim that it can contribute to adrenal burnout, inner restlessness and reduced sleep quality and can seriously increase blood pressure in people susceptible to this.

While it's obviously better not to overstimulate yourself by consuming 19 cups at Starbucks a day, I think that coffee is a perfectly acceptable beverage to consume within reason and has more benefits than drawbacks. The slight increase in blood sugar from caffeinated coffee is a bonus for athletes who can use that blood sugar as an energy source for their muscles. This is one of the reasons that small amounts of coffee before a sporting event are considered performance enhancing. One thing to think about: coffee is one of the most heavily pesticide-treated crops. If you have the choice, you should go for the organic variety. But as with most things, the dose makes the poison. If you need coffee to stay awake, it's probably not so good for you. If you drink a few cups of coffee and it doesn't keep you awake unintentionally or make your hands shake, then you have nothing to worry about.

Natural appetite control

Q: Are there any foods that can help control appetite while dieting?

A: There are two ways that I know of that can help control appetite naturally. One is careful control of blood sugar fluctuations and the other is eating high-volume, low-calorie foods.

Cravings are the biggest enemy of any diet and nothing increases cravings more than a roller coaster of blood sugar. You know what it feels like: you eat something high in carbs, your blood sugar shoots up, insulin is released and removes the sugar from your bloodstream until your blood sugar is lower than when you started and now you're ready to kill someone for a bagel.

Interestingly, you never get those cravings when you eat steak and broccoli, do you? That's why choosing really low-glycemic foods is so important. I had a breakfast that consisted of beans and I wasn't hungry for hours afterwards. Anything low-glycemic - vegetables, eggs, beans, etc. - should work. And make sure you're getting enough fat in your meal. This will keep you fuller for longer and is a surefire way to control your appetite (who wants to eat when they're full?). If you stick to the lower end of the glycemic scale, this should help you control cravings and excessive appetite.

High-volume foods are things that fill you up while providing very few calories. These foods usually contain a lot of water. These include foods such as watermelon, cucumber and, of course, soup. For reasons not yet fully understood, the combination of liquid and the typical hearty taste of soup is an appetite killer.

You can combine the best of both worlds - low-glycemic, high-volume meals - by choosing soup that's loaded with vegetables, meat or beans. Other appetite-reducing, high-volume foods include pumpkin and guava, both of which are loaded with fiber and will fill you up very well. There's no great science to back this up, but drinking green tea throughout the day can also help. In addition to having a thermogenic effect, there is anecdotal evidence that around five cups a day can significantly help with weight loss.

Eating for bigger muscles

Q: What is your personal favorite high-protein recipe that would be good for a bodybuilder?

A: I asked my friend Gregg Avedon this question. Gregg has been on the cover of Men's Health more times than any other fitness model and he's also a much better cook than I am. He gave me one of his favorite recipes from his book Muscle Chow.

Post-Workout Egg Salad Sandwich

  • 6 hard-boiled eggs (2 whole eggs and 4 egg whites) *
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of mustard
  • 1 portion of fish oil
  • A pinch of black pepper
  • Some smoked paprika
  • 2 slices of Ezekiel bread
  • 50 grams of raisins (only for after training)

Preparation:

  1. Mix the eggs, egg whites and mustard in a large bowl. Use a potato masher to break everything into small pieces.
  2. Add pepper and paprika and mix well.
  3. Spoon the egg salad mixture onto a slice of bread and place another slice of bread on top.
  4. Serve the raisins as a side dish to help replenish your muscle glycogen stores more quickly.

* You can increase the amount of protein(and calories) by using 6 whole eggs instead of 2 whole eggs and 4 egg whites.

And if you insist, here's my own (much less creative) favorite high-protein snack:

  1. Pour a can of tuna into a bowl
  2. Add a stick of diced celery
  3. Add a handful of whole or chopped almonds
  4. Season everything with lemon pepper, sea salt and turmeric and mix well

References

1 Pelligrini, Seafini, et al "Antioxidant capacity of Plant Foods, Beverages and oils Consumed in Italy Assessed by Three Different Assays", Journal of Nutrition, 133: 2812-2819, September 2003.

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