Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review: What to Eat

Spring break is over and its back to the grind. One of the luxuries I cannot really afford during school is fun reading, so during my break I took the time to dive into Marion Nestle's latest book “What to Eat”. I have read a lot of book on nutrition, food education and politics. And I can honestly say this book is one of the most interesting and unbiased books on food I have ever read. Now I am not saying it is completely unbiased, I doubt such a thing exists. But Marion a Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, Public Health, Sociology and Nutritional Sciences really knows her shit and she does a great job of informing without pushing an agenda (other than do what is best for you).

I am only about half way through the book, but have really enjoyed that her ideas about food and health dovetail my own in that everyone is different, your nutritional needs are different, so a blanket nutritional path isn’t going to be the best advice for everyone. She also points out that eating can sometimes be a case of picking your battles. It’s been said many times, but every time you buy food you are voting with your fork.  Conventional, free-range, organic, GMO free, vegan, vegetarian, no hormones, no pesticides, the possibilities are truly endless. Instead of making things more confusing she has complied a great summary of information regarding all of these choices and leaves each chapter open, allowing the reader to consider who they want to vote and what is best from themselves.

Some of the biggest problems with conventional food production is the hidden costs that consumers don’t see. In an attempt at brevity lets run with the cow example. Conventionally raised cows are fed a combination of soy and corn meal. Soy and corn are subsidized by government funds which in reality is the tax money that each of us pays out of our paycheck each month (hidden cost number one to consumers). Corn and soy used for animal feed is rarley organic because heavy farming of the same crop over a number of years depletes soil nutrition, the plants are pumped full of commercial and chemical fertilizers which then seep into surrounding areas leeching chemicals into wildlife(hidden cost number two). It takes about 220 gallons of oil to raise a 1200lbs cow, most of this energy is paid for by farmers and passed onto consumers in every rising beef and dairy costs (hidden cost number three).  Cows kept in close proximity have an easier chance of passing on infections and diseases which means they are treated more often with antibiotics, the more often cows are treated with antibiotics the less their bodies break down the drug and the more is passed onto you (hidden cost number four). Cows are kept in close proximity to cut costs but this poses a problem of how to clean up waste and where to dispose of it, the people are hired to do this are hired at the absolute minimum wage and exposed to obscene working conditions, conditionas are very dangerous and also they are exposed to any number of infections that are being passed around between cows via close feeding, and waste producing proximity (hidden cost number five). Last but not least conventionally raised cows are allowed to be treated with rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) go to the link if you want to read more about the possible dangers of this growth hormone, whether or not it is truly harmful to humans the fact that it is produced by the Monsanto Corporation which makes 300 billion a year off its sales, this in itself is enough to make me want to run for organic (hidden cost number six). Most of these problems are at least addressed and reduced in going organic. But the point is there is a lot to think about when choosing foods, and a lot that goes into a simple product like a steak.

There are even more companies, and special interest groups go to great lengths to keep this information from consumers.  There is a lot of conflicting nutritional information out there, and Marion’s book does a great job touching on why this is. Mostly its meant to be that way. Each base product has a special interest group, lobbyists and large corporations with large stakes invested in commercial farms. When you see a cereal box boasting that three servings of milk a day will help promote a healthy life style there are a lot of things going on here that most people don’t think about. Number one, why is a cereal box advertising for milk? Chances are the parent company behind that cereal box also owns a portion of a large dairy farm, buy a box of cereal you have to buy a carton of milk. Double profit. Number two you may want to check any disclaimers on that box, you may learn that the actual eating of said advertized milk and cereal don’t actually promote a healthy life style but eating them with a healthy life style (lots of veggies and exercise will help you lose weight) it’s not the milk and cereal that’s making you healthy it the exercise and veggies should you chose to make those changes as well. Number three the company that is promoting the cereal pays about 36 million in a year is “education and development” which is just  fancy way of saying testing groups and industry research to find the best ways to appeal to their target audience.  Number four these companies pay absurd placement dues to groceries stores to have their produced placed in prime locations to get you as a consumer to ditch your shopping list and pick up impulse buys. The average shopper takes home two impulse buys to every one premeditated buy. Number five any scientific claims boasted on packaging may be very true, deep down. But take a look at who funded the research, it will be those who profit off the sales of the product and a lot of money goes into putting a positive spin on nutritional studies in an attempt to pass off food at healthy.  

One of the most important messages I have taken from Marion’s book so far is that food is an industry, a big industry in America and there are a lot of passionate people with a lot of varying  ideas on the subject vested in it. You can’t forget that it is a corporate and political machine that doesn’t always have the consumers best interest in mind. But what I truly like best about Marian’s book is that all of this information is presented very simply with the idea that, here is the information now go chose your own battle. There are plenty here to fight, large corporations, special interest groups, humane treatment of animals, humane treatment of workers, environmental costs, unnecessary use of oil, personal dietary needs, personal health, food allergies and consumption of unnecessary and sometimes harmful bi-products to name just a few. So think about this when you read nutritional information or health claims. It’s all relative to the battle that you chose to fight.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Frankie Says "Relax"

If your idea of relaxation is wild nights of debauchery and gay night clubs then go for it. I think is it safe to say most of us have slightly more traditional needs when it comes to relaxation. But regardless of how we seek our escape we all need it.

I have many friends that are of the social sort. Seeking large gatherings and friendly interactions to recharge their batteries. I myself am a lone charger, the more secluded and quieter my environment is the more I can begin to collect my sanity. Depending on what sort of person you are you will probably require different methods to calm yourself. For instance for those active people out there Yoga would probably only make you more anxious, for me however it is the perfect way to end or begin any day.

Regardless of how your batteries are recharged they do need recharging. Daily if it can be helped. Stresses cause cortisol levels to raise in the body which triggers growth hormones and a variety of other chemicals to keep your body functioning under duress. Crying is one of our bodies natural mechanisms to releases stored cotisol which in turn lowers blood pressure and return the body back to a normal resting state. As adults it can be hard to allow ourselves to submit to such a perceived childlike response to stress, but without admitting it I bet we have all felt the need from time to time. Whether or not you are holding back waves of tears in your board meetings you probably still have a great deal of stress. Managing these levels depend on allow yourself time to release the pressure and refocus your thoughts.

The best thing you can do if you starting from the ground level, is pay attention to how you feel at different periods of the day. I myself dread unnecessary social interactions of any kind, being in the elevator with someone I work with but have no reason to talk to kills me, small talk is the bane of my existence. So when feeling stressed do you feel like fleeing and finding a nice downy hole to burry yourself into (me) or do you find yourself wishing you were at a big party surrounded by social interactions (best friend K). When you get home at night do you immediately want to go find people to chat with (best friend K) or do you find yourself relieved and hoping no one will call you for at least an hour (me). Recharging needs are important to know of one’s self, for the sake of your own sanity and at times I am sure for the wellbeing of those around you. But there are some other things that are important regardless of what kind of person you are.

A)    Get some exercise, whether it be a long walk or a decathlon make sure you are getting fresh air, light exposure and increasing your serotonin levels.
B)    Eat well, we crave junk foods when our bodies are stressed because stressed out bodies need more energy. Even though you may be craving the chocochunk cake eat a well balanced meal of veggies first, protein second, and whole grains third.
C)    Have a drink every now and again. Not every time you feel stress, that would just land you a category that all to many of my coworkers are hazing through.
D)    Do something just for you each day (advice from my favorite fictional law enforcement officer Dale Cooper).
E)     Take 10 minutes out of the day and don’t talk to anyone. It takes a lot of brain power to construct language, it’s important to let your brain refocus.
F)     Remember to breath. Deep steady breaths regulated blood flow as oxygen is taken in and released in long even bursts, this will regulate blood pressure and reduce anxiety.
G)    Walk away. Having insurmountable problems with something or someone? Just walk away. Removing yourself from a situation often allows your brain to refocus and if the problem is another person, removing yourself will keep you from saying things in the heat of the moment that will only escalate a problem.

It’s been a busy week for me and it’s not officially over until Monday after finals. I have had to implement a lot of walking away and deep breathing to keep from going kung-foo on some coworkers, but its Friday and regardless of the mountain of studying I have to do I plan on relaxing as much as possible and enjoying some much needed down time with boyfriend. I hope the weekend proves rejuvenating for you all.


*Photos from unknown sources, if you know, do let me in on the secret. Would love to give due credit.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Brains Need Grains

All cells in the body require glucose for energy. The cells that make up the human brain (neurons) require twice as much energy than any other cells in the body. And if anyone else has ever been set to a task of arduous problem solving knows that thinking makes you damn tired. But what sorts of fuel is really needed to power the brain? Like anything to do with the complex machines we call our bodies the answer is complicated.

Glucose is the energy needed for cellular metabolic reactions. In short glucose its self is a simple sugar chain consisting of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen. The energy that cells get from this elemental cocktail is hidden in its design. The bonds that hold the compound together are strapped to laws of physics, breaking bonds releases potential energy, energy which cells use to fuel everyday cellular needs and in turn keeps the entire machine (your body) functioning. There are two types of sugars, simple and complex.

Simple sugars are simple short molecular chains, which the body breaks down quickly and easily.  Simple sugars are broken down and absorbed through the stomach wall and instantly reaches the blood stream. Before you get all excited about simple sugars being the fasts way to feed your body read on. Simple sugars (processed foods, sugary snacks and soft drinks) provide a quick spike in blood sugar levels. This sugar concentration signals your pancreas to secrete insulin, insulin triggers the cells in your body to pull the glucose out of your blood stream and store it for later use. This sudden drop in glucose levels is your body crashing after the sugar high, but what it is really doing is starving your neurons which are the only cells unable to store glucose, the feeling of disorientation and lack of concentration is called hypoglycemia and if sustained for too long can lead to unconsciousness.  Years of rushed sugar exposure and then sudden starvation swings blood sugar levels to a point at which the body can no longer regulate and respond properly to insulin, hormone receptors become insulin resistant and Type 2 diabetes is born.

Whereas, complex sugars or carbohydrates are long chains of sugar molecules that are taken to the liver and broken down piece by piece, time released energy. Complex carbohydrates and foods with low glycemic index are gradually broken down and released over time to the bloodstream. A steady stream of energy for all cells in your body means no storing followed by starvation and  the result is optimal brain function. This is not a golden ticket to run off and stuff your face with white breads and power bars because despite what you may have been taught these items are NOT healthy and certainly not low on the glycemic index. Because so much of the “food” found in grocery stores are nutritionally designed to be exactly what our bodies crave and manufactured by companies looking to turn a profit choosing the right brain food can be complicated. Luckily nature was kind enough to supply us with foods over the history of gradual crawl out of the primordial ooze in perfect packages for our survival. Or more accurately we co-evolved with our environments which provided necessary sustenance for our survival.

Grains for brains might have been a misleading, albeit it witty title.  Grains are one good options for time released healthy energy, but they aren’t the only one. And some people’s ideas of grains are very different from others. When I say grains I mean whole chunky unprocessed real grain foods like, buckwheat, millet, chickpeas, barley, brown rice, and quinoa. Not whole wheat bread found on a non refrigerated shelf in the grocery store (you know why it doesn’t mold, it doesn’t have enough nutritional value to grow fungus). Whole wheat bakery bread (especially rye and pumpernickel) that will get stale if you don’t eat it that day is good bread. Other foods to consider for optimal blood sugar levels are things like; sweet potatoes (not sweet potato fries), fibrous fruits such as apples, bananas, kiwis and cantaloupe (there are many more and fruit juices don’t count because the fiber has been removed and all you are drinking is the fructose), beans of all kinds, veggies of all kinds. Now the truly great thing about these non grain foods is that they contain other little miracles, like vitamins and minerals that your body also required to maintain normal healthy function. Beans provide protein, fruits and vegetables contain vital vitamins and minerals as well fiber which is necessary on many levels which I will not touch on here for brevity sake, let’s just say though your colon and digestive track will thank you later. Has the message sunk in yet?

If not here it is in short, your brain like any other part of your body is made of cells, highly specialize signal transmitters. Without proper energy they start to shut down, then you start to shut down, and deprivation of energy leads to all manner of late in life diseases. Oh! And long periods of starved cells will start to pull energy from any source available for your neurons that happens to be the fatty tissue that makes up your surrounding brain mass. Think microscopic cannibalism, now go eat yourself an apple.

Forgive the totally lame image, not alot of sexy pictures of complex carbs out there.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Biological Vignettes PT2

AIDS has got to be one of the most feared, and most concerning health topics of the last 30 years. The virus’ ability to take over a person’s immune-response system is astonishing, and leaves a patient without any natural ability to fight the infection. It has been found however that a allele mutation on CCR5 if inherited as a homozygous trait a person is resistant to HIV-1 infections.

AIDS starts as an HIV infection, a virus that is thought to have been acquired from monkeys in the late 19th to early 20th century. HIV or  Human immunodeficiency virus is a type of retrovirus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).  In a nut shell, the virus enters the blood stream, is taken into white blood cells to be killed, hijacks the cell, then the entire immune system, a person’s body is then unable to fight even the most common of flu germs.

The CCR5 or Delta35 mutation is through to have occurred in correlation to the Black Death in Northern Europe. Individuals tested in African and Asian populations showed no Delta35 mutations but 5-14% of Northern Europeans tested did. This mutation also seems to show protection against West Nile Virus as well as mediating response to Smallpox.  It seems likely that the mutation plays a role in infection response however the exact function is unclear.

While to complete understanding of this human gene mutation in unclear, the responses to it seem very clear. An AIDS patient in 2007 was diagnosed with Leukemia, a bone marrow transplant from a Delta32, within 600 days of transplant there were no traceable sings of the HIV virus in the person blood stream. Today the patient is still HIV free.

Careful testing is being done on Delta32 and AIDS, scientists working on these experiments are hoping they can find a use of the mutation and understand how quickly if at all the virus can evolve past the Delta32 block.

* please forgive grammer mistakes, i had to write these for a class and the turned in version had to be hand written, the vingnettes are just hasty drafts.