Category Archives: Monday Morning Tutor

The Vitamin that keeps us together

Most animals make their own Vitamin C, humans do not.  And no one knows why.  A curious little fact about one of our most  well-known vitamins.  So, what do we know?  We know Vitamin C is incredibly important to several body functions.  Read on to find out why, among other things, we’d be shapeless blobs
without it.

Collagen formation

Collagen is the main component of connective tissue in our bodies.  Connective tissue does just what says, it connects and holds together different parts of our body.  This is the stuff of tendons (linking bone to muscle) and ligaments (linking bone to bone).

Vitamin C is necessary for collagen formation.  Without Vitamin C we couldn’t hold ourselves together.  Rendering us shapeless bags of bones and flesh.  At least you could save on a gym membership.  No need to keep in shape when you lack it altogether.

Body chemicals

Vitamin C is also important for the manufacture of several chemicals the body needs to function properly.  Here are three of the main players:

  • Cortisone.  This hormone from our adrenal glands helps our body manage stress.
  • Norepinephrine.  A key neurotransmitter in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord).
  • Carnitine.  Helps our cells move sugar into the mitochondria where it can be turned into energy.

Take with iron

One of the most common types of anemia is due to insufficient iron intake.  When taken with an iron supplement for treatment, Vitamin C helps the body absorb more iron.

Immunity

You’ve no doubt been told to drink lots of orange juice when feeling sick.  That’s because Vitamin C plays an important role in our immune system.  It helps our white cells attack and kill invading bacteria. Adequate amounts of Vitamin C keep our immune system functioning at its peak.

Here’s the thing though, AFTER you get sick, downing copious amounts of OJ will likely not make you feel better quicker.  Still, you’ll be less likely to get sick with a fully functioning, Vitamin C boosted immune system.

Antioxidant

If you follow this blog regularly, you know I’m a big fan of antioxidants.  It’s safe to say I’m a pretty big fan of Vitamin C.  It is our most important water-soluble antioxidant.  On Friday I’ll discuss it’s antioxidant role and examine how much we need for proper body function and optimal antioxidant benefits.

Why you wait at the doctor’s office

Today, we’re going a bit off the diet and nutrition norm and giving some insight into a common gripe about our healthcare system, waiting at the doctor’s office. 

We’ve all spent too long sitting in the uncomfortable brown upholstered chairs with the wooden arms reading 3 month old issues of TIME Magazine.  If the wait is long enough we may even curse that the puzzles in the Highlights magazine were already completed

We shouldn’t have to wait 30 minutes before being taken back to an exam room, only to wait 15 more minutes until the doctor arrives.  It’s aggravating.  Especially if you took time off work or have a sick kid with you.  So what’s the deal?  Is the doctor’s office just that badly mismanaged? 

Well, maybe.  But most likely it’s other factors.  And although it may not help calm the seething frustration, it can be useful to know exactly what is causing the delay.  The delay is caused by….sick people. 

Ok, duh.  There’s sick people in a doctor’s office.   But it’s not just sick people, it’s actually sick people not knowing how sick they are.  Let’s first look at how a typical doctor’s office sets appointments:

  • A typical office appointment schedule works like this.  For each type of appointment (i.e. wellness exam, acute illness, chronic illness checkup)  a certain number of minutes is allotted.  Say, 15 minutes for a chronic illness exam, 30 minutes for acute illness, 45 minutes for wellness exam (full physical).
  • Each doctor’s office sets its own allotments and appointment ratios.  For example, in a typical day there may be allotments for 5 chronic illness exams, 2 physical exams, and 10 acute illness exams.  They may also leave time for emergency appointments.  Each office is slightly different, but most follow this general pattern.

So, if the doctor’s office has allotted 15 minutes for a chronic illness and the time spent with the patient runs over, the next scheduled appointment will be late.  Why does an appointment run late?  Well, as we said the patient doesn’t know how sick they are.

          An Example: Farmer Dave comes in to see the doctor for his twice yearly blood pressure check.  Typically this appointment is for the doctor to check Farmer Dave’s blood pressure, ask questions about how he’s feeling, or maybe review the log of his blood pressure readings the doctor asked him to record since their last meeting.  Everything looks fine. 

But, while performing his usual exam, the doctor notices something strange about Farmer Dave’s heart sounds.  Since Farmer Dave is only there for his blood pressure check (a 15 minute allotment), he’ll have to schedule another appointment to address the potential heart issues, right?  Of course not.  Now a 15 minute appointment may turn into an hour exam.  And, you’re left sitting in the waiting room discovering an artery-clogging recipe for Chicken a la King in a really old issue of Southern Living. 

Farmer Dave is just one example.  There are dozens of other reasons an appointment may run over.  A doctor getting called to the hospital for an emergency is another common schedule busting problem.

This info may serve as little comfort when you’re being inconvenienced.  So check back for Friday Focus when I’ll give ways to minimize your time spent in the waiting room.

All Calories are Not Created Equal

To lose weight the common advice is to cut calories.  This is misleading at best, and counterproductive at worst.  Certainly, you can lose weight by cutting calories.  (As this professor did eating only Twinkies) But ONLY counting calories will always lead to un-sustained weight loss and a misunderstanding of what constitutes a healthy diet.

The Law of Thermodynamics doesn’t apply

In case you slept through chemistry class in high school, the law of thermodynamics says energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form.  Basically, it means whatever you put in, you get out.

This is the idea behind eat fewer calories than you burn and you lose weight.  Which, mind you, isn’t an ENTIRELY wrong way of thinking.  But the law of thermodynamics doesn’t exactly apply in the human body.  We’re too complex.

Those wacky hormones

Hormones don’t just make us crazy teenagers.  They’re regulators of bodily functions from growth and appetite, to sex drive (you knew that one).  And, almost all hormones play some role in our body’s use of energy, ie calories.

For example, the hormone estrogen is why women tend to carry their fat cells around they’re thighs and buttocks.  As men age, testosterone levels drop and the result is more fat deposited around the midsection.

But the hormone that does the lion share of regulating how we use the energy in our food is insulin.  Insulin’s role is utterly paramount to understand how our body burns energy, and thus, how we maintain, lose, or gain weight.  Check back Friday for a full discussion on how insulin works.

Dr Adkins was right

Not that you should go to Burger King, order a whopper and throw away the bun.  But Dr Adkins was right in stating the main culprit for weight gain was the refined carbs in the bun, not the fat in the meat.

Refined carbs cause insulin to get out of whack by causing skyrocketing blood sugar.  When insulin gets out of whack it stores too much of the sugars as fat, causing you to gain weight.  And, cruelly, make you crave carbs.  Which causes more fat to be stored, which causes you to crave carbs, and so on. It’s a vicious cycle.

I’m not an advocate for the Adkins diet particularly because I don’t believe radical diet changes and the avoidance of whole food stuffs is a positive way to diet.  But, ultimately, Dr Adkins was right in determining the main cause of weight gain was the ingestion of refined carbohydrates.

As an aside, if you get a whopper as a cheat meal.  Enjoy it.  Bun and all.

Take home message

When making food choices, consider the type of calories you’re taking in before how many you’re eating.  As is always my rule of thumb, the more processed (i.e. longer list of ingredients), the worse it is for you.  Eat whole foods and avoid the refined carbs that are the driving force behind weight gain.

Ultimately, calories do count.  You just don’t have to count them.

To learn more, check out these books by Gary Taubes: Good Calories, Bad Calories or Why We Get Fat. (Why We Get Fat is written in more user-friendly, lay person style)

5 Facts about GMOs

Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, have become a flash point in the organic/anti-food industry fight.  So much so that a group of activists visited a Chicago Whole Foods Market recently wearing hazmat suits to protest the grocery’s stocking of products made with GMOs.  Such a severe response begs the question, “Um, so what are GMOs?”

Five Facts about GMOs

  1. GMOs are seeds in which genetics have been purposefully adulterated in a lab to produce a plant with a specific characteristic.  This is different from selective breeding.    Selective breeding is “mating” two strains of plants to produce a hybrid with desired characteristics.  For example, breeding a strain of super juicy tomatoes with cherry tomatoes to produce small, juicy delights.  This kinda stuff has been happening for centuries.  GMOs first appeared in 1998.
  2. The primary goal of GMOs is to alter plants to be more resistant to pesticides.  They’re designed to make conventional farming easier.  By creating a plant that is resistant to pesticides and herbicides, farmers can use more chemicals and only kill weeds and bugs, not their crop.
  3. GMOs are amazingly common. Over 70% of processed foods are made with GMOs.  Some of the most common crops are almost exclusively GMO products:
        1. 93% of soy  
        2. 86% of corn
        3. 88% of cotton
        4. 93% of canola seeds
  4. Farmers sign binding contracts to use GMOs.  The same companies that make the chemicals farmers use on their crops develop GMOs.  Therefore, to use conventional farming methods farmers are forced to use a specific GMO.  Farmers then become beholden to price changes.
  5. The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not require products to be labeled as containing GMOs.  This the center of the fight over GMOs in the United States.  Check back for this week’s Friday Focus for a full discussion of the debate over GMO use and labeling in the US.

A Vegan’s Most Important Vitamin

 A vegan diet prohibits consumption of any animal product.  This includes not only meat, but also eggs and dairy products.  A vegan diet is a personal choice and is to be respected as such.  However, vegans must be aware of a potential deficiency in one of our most important vitamins, which is only available from animal products.

Unlike all other vitamins, plants cannot synthesize Vitamin B12.  Vitamin B12 comes from bacteria that live in the guts of plant-eating animals (ruminants), most commonly cattle.  Therefore, the only dietary sources of Vitamin B12 are animal products.

Vitamin B12 is critical to several body functions and a deficiency has been linked to cognitive dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, infertility, and anemia.  Read on for five important roles it plays in your body. 

Cell growth and division

Vitamin B12 works in concert with another B vitamin, folic acid, to help cells in our body divide and grow properly.  This is especially important for our blood cells which are manufactured in bone marrow.  All of our various types of blood cells start out the same (called stem cells) and as they grow they’re shaped into what is needed.  This process can go haywire without adequate Vitamin B12.

Insulating nerve cells

Vitamin B12 is vital for the production of a substance called myelin.  Myelin sheaths and protects nerve cells.  Without myelin, nerve function is impaired.  This can effect everything from sensation and reflexes to cognitive function.

Synthesis of DNA & RNA

 As you’re likely already familiar, DNA and RNA are the blueprints of our cells, and therefore, our bodies.  Vitamin B12 is essential in their formation during cell division.  A misstep here can lead to abnormal cell division and cancer.

Turning fat into energy

Our body needs Vitamin B12 to aid in breaking down fat into forms that can be easily used for fuel.  This doesn’t mean taking a high dose of Vitamin B12 while allow you to burn fat faster and lose weight.  Vitamin B12 is simply one of several important factors for this normal body function.

Elimination of Homocysteine

Homocysteine is a byproduct of normal body function.  However, homocysteine can accumulate in the body and cause damage similar to free radicals.  High homocysteine levels are a risk factor for heart disease. Along with other B vitamins, Vitamin B12 plays an important role in converting homocysteine to a safe substance.

Vitamin B12 plays other roles in our body, such as being used as a building block for amino acids.  Clearly, not getting enough Vitamin B12 has the potential to be disastrous.  On Friday I’ll discuss Vitamin B12 deficiency, what foods are high in the vitamin, and recommended and optimal amounts to consume.

As a final note, if you are a vegan, make sure you’re taking a B12 supplement.  (Of course, I advocate for everyone to take a multivitamin anyway).  And vegans can rest assured that supplemental Vitamin B12 is not made from animal products.

Cooking and Basketball

The centerpiece of healthy diet is preparing your own meals at home.  The more you eat out, the less healthy you’ll eat.  Period.  So this week I’m dedicating the blog to posts about cooking at home.

 I’m no chef.  More like a marginally average home cook.  But I’ve learned how to feed myself at home without ordering in or burning down the house.  To start the week, I present how cooking is like basketball (or soccer, or tennis, or football, or golf, or…..).  Please forgive the metaphor overdose.

Dribble, Pass, Shoot (Learning the Basics)

As in sports you have to practice the fundamentals to get better.  If you were thrown into a full fledged game without being able to shoot or dribble you’d be, well, me in freshman basketball.  In short, you’d look like a fool.  Same thing applies to cooking. 

Oftentimes we jump right into a complicated dish without laying the groundwork first.  Cooking, like basketball, is something you learn by building a base of strong fundamentals that guide you when you try something new.

Rhythm is King (Timing is Everything)

Being in rhythm on the basketball court is often called being on fire.  Understanding how time and heat work to cook your food keeps you from actually being on fire.  I used to crank everything up to the max (stovetop, oven) when I cooked.  I figured, the higher the heat, the faster it cooks, the sooner I’ll eat.  I was certainly right.  I learned to love blackened grilled cheese.

Rarely is max heat the way to go. Managing your heat source and the time your food stays on that heat source is the most important part of cooking food to the correct doneness.  Learn the timing of these two influences on food and your meals will always be in the zone.  

Teamwork is King (Blending Tastes)

As you try new foods you’ll start to figure out what tastes good together.  Just like every team has different dynamic so does your impressions of how foods go together.  There is no one right combo of tastes that everyone will love.  Experiment and find what works for you.

When in Doubt, Run a Play (Follow Recipes)

When things get hectic on a basketball court, good teams slow things down and run a designed play.  Each person has directions on where to go and how to work together.  When you’re not sure what to do in the kitchen look up a recipe online (check back Wednesday for my favorite recipe sites).  Try it out.  It’ll give you a guide and likely teach you something new.

Just Play (Have fun!)

You’ve practiced the fundamentals, worked on your timing, developed team chemistry, and practiced running plays.  Now it’s time to play!  Relax and have fun!  Any athlete will tell you they’re at their best when just having fun.  Do the same in your kitchen.

And remember, unless you’re on the Food Network, cooking is not a competition.  Screwing up is ok, it’s how you learn.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Here’s where I’ll mention every kitchen should have a fire extinguisher within easy grasp…

Keep the Salt Shaker: A Lesson from Uncle Louis

Most likely you’re familiar with the association between salt in the diet and high blood pressure.  Even if it’s only from your Aunt Edna nagging your Uncle Louis about adding salt to his potatoes at Christmas dinner.
          “Louis you know the doctor says you can’t have salt! It raises your blood pressure!” 
           “Zip it Edna! It’s Christmas. And these potatoes your sister made are so bland it’s like eating water!”

Ok, perhaps not like that, or maybe, EXACTLY like that.  Either way, through the normal course of life the connection between salt and high blood pressure is something you’ve likely picked up.  What you may not have learned though is high blood pressure increases risk for cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and congestive heart failure.   

 These days, our salt intake is getting a lot more attention.  In the latest dietary guidelines from the USDA (updated every five years), a major recommendation was reducing salt intake. The average American takes in nearly twice the recommended daily amount of salt.  This is not good news.

A quick physiology lesson
“Salt”, as we commonly know it, is sodium chloride.  Sodium is one of our body’s significant electrolytes and is very important in regulating the amount of water in our blood stream.

Simply put, water follows sodium.  So the more sodium we have in our blood stream, the more water. The more water the higher our blood pressure.  Many older medicines for blood pressure are designed to remove this extra water through increased urination.

Sodium is also a positively charged ion (high school chemistry flashback!). The body uses this charge to regulate everything from muscle contraction, to cellular membrane permeability, and nerve impulses.  Pushing the balance of these charges out of whack can wreak havoc in our body.

The New Guidelines
Currently, the average American consumes 3,400 mg of sodium per day.  For perspective, one teaspoon of salt is 2,400mg of sodium.  The USDA now recommends that the upper intake limit for adults should be 2,300mg. 

Individuals at risk (children, African Americans, diabetics, high blood pressure patients) should aim for 1,500mg.  Most Americans would do well to shoot for this lower recommendation. 

A new study has created controversy by concluding high sodium intake does little harm.  I’ll cover this in Friday Focus this week.

Keep the Salt Shaker

image

My salt shaker. Actually a sea salt grinder from OXO. Try sea salt, it adds more flavor oomph.

If I asked you how to lower your salt intake you’d likely say something like, “Don’t add as much salt to my food” or “Throw away the salt shaker”.  In actuality, the added salt from our shaker is only a small portion of the salt we ingest in a typical day. 

Most of our salt intake comes from food we wouldn’t necessarily think of as salty.  Bread, deli meat, soup, frozen dinners, cereal, salad dressing, pasta, and condiments all contain high levels of sodium.   As do several sweet things, like pies and cookies.

Does this list have something in common?  Indeed.  All these items are packaged foods that have been processed.  Eating food that comes in a package has always been something to avoid for several reasons. Now add high sodium content to the list.

Uncle Louis was Right

When Uncle Louis grabbed the salt shaker he was actually not making that big of a dent in his daily sodium intake.  He would be fine adding salt to the bland potatoes (provided they were real potatoes, not processed stuff). What would have really gotten him was the rolls, salad dressing, gravy, and apple pie.

The bottom line is this:  To reduce your sodium intake eat as little processed food as you can (have I heard this somewhere before?).  Eat fresh veggies, unadulterated chicken, and other whole foods.   Feel free to use the salt shaker to add flavor to these foods. 

So, what Louis should have said,

“My darling Edna, thank you so much for your concern over my health.  I promise to eat plenty of fresh green beans, avoid the rolls, and skip dessert.  I love you so, my dear.  Please pass the wine.”