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Monthly Archives: March 2017

What Are Phytochemicals? Discovering Their Health Benefits

Study[1] after study[2] after study[3]has shown that a diet high in fruits and vegetables is especially beneficial to human health and can even reduce the risk of many serious health conditions.[4, 5]Phytochemicals may be one of the reasons why.

Phytochemicals are chemical compounds produced by plants. They are commonly found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains. Phytochemicals are frequently confused with phytonutrients. Whereas phytochemicals include plant compounds that are beneficial as well as those that are detrimental, phytonutrients specifically refers to compounds that have a positive effect. In other words, all phytonutrients are phytochemicals, but not all phytochemicals are phytonutrients.

The distinction between phytochemicals and phytonutrients is an important one, as not all phytochemicals are beneficial. Technically, cocaine, codeine, oxycodone, and nicotine are all phytochemicals. Even ricin, one of the most deadly and potent poisons in the world, is a phytochemical.[6] This doesn’t mean that all phytochemicals are bad, quite the opposite. Some phytochemicals offer incredible health benefits.[7]

Types of Phytochemicals

There are thousands of different phytochemicals. Here are a few that are of particular interest from a dietary perspective.

Carotenoids

Carotenoids are plant pigments responsible for the yellow, orange, and red color of many fruits and vegetables, including red peppers, papayas, paprika, tomatoes, and watermelon. There are more than 750 types of carotenoids, the one you’re probably most familiar with is beta-carotene. Beta-carotene gives carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes their rich orange pigmentation. Beta-carotene also offers a number of health benefits; the human body even converts it into vitamin A. Other carotenoids include alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin, and lycopene.[8]

Carotenoids are strong antioxidants.[9] Antioxidants can help reduce the oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Epidemiological studies have shown a link between dietary intake of carotenoids and a reduced risk of many diseases.[8]

Carotenoids are why carrots are credited as being good for the eyes. One of the reasons eyesight gets worse with age is because absorbing short-wave blue light (tablets, smartphones, and televisions are a major source of short-wave blue light) causes oxidative damage. Lutein and zeaxanthin filter blue light and protect the eyes like tiny, internal sunglasses.[10, 11]

Polyphenols

Polyphenols are the largest group of phytochemicals with over 8000 identified compounds.[12] Like carotenoids, polyphenols are powerful antioxidants. Polyphenols can be split into several subgroups, including flavonoids and lignans.

Flavonoids

Flavonoids are a subgroup of polyphenols, and a large family of phytonutrients themselves. There are over 4000 individual flavonoids and several subclasses of flavonoids, including anthocyanins, flavonols, flavanols, flavanones, flavones, and isoflavones.[12]

Of these, flavonols are the most common in the human diet.[13] They’re found in apples, apricots, beans, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, chives, cranberries, kale, leeks, pears, onions, red grapes, sweet cherries, and white currants.

The similarly named flavanols (not to be confused with the previously mentioned flavonols—note the a and the o) are another subgroup of flavonoids. To avoid obvious confusion, flavanols are sometimes referred to by their less elegant name flavan-3-ols. They can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and lower blood pressure.[14] Dark chocolate is an excellent source of flavanols.

Anthocyanins

Like carotenoids, anthocyanins are plant pigments. They are responsible for the rich reds, blues, and purples found in fruits and vegetables. High concentrations of anthocyanins are found in blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, eggplants, grapes, red cabbage, and red apples.

Anthocyanin-rich plants have been used in folk medicine for centuries and we’re just now rediscovering their benefits. Anthocyanins are strong antioxidants that can help protect the liver, improve eyesight, reduce blood pressure, and even reduce the risk of many serious diseases.[15]

Lignans

Lignans are another type of polyphenol. They’re found in seeds, grains, legumes, fruits, berries, and veggies. Flaxseeds are the richest dietary source of lignans and crushed or milled flaxseed is the most bioavailable source.[16] A diet heavy in lignan-rich food seems to have beneficial, protective effects on the body. Animal studies have found that lignans may have anticarcinogenic effects.[17]

Indole-3-carbinol

Indole-3-carbinol (I3C) is a phytonutrient that’s highly concentrated in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, and cabbage.[18] A diet high in cruciferous vegetables has long been associated with a lower risk of several types of cancer.[19] I3C may be the mechanism behind this defense. Animal tests have found that I3C supports normal cell development and protects against DNA damage.[20]

Isoflavones

Isoflavones are phytoestrogens—plant compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen in the human body. Soybeans are an especially rich source of isoflavones sometimes referred to as soy isoflavones.[21]

Because they mimic the effects of estrogen, isoflavones can cause hormonal disruptions in both men and women. They can bind to and block the body’s natural estrogen receptors. Isoflavones can inhibit thyroid function,[22] and even increase the risk of breast cancer.[23]In my opinion, it’s best to limit your intake of isoflavones, soy, and soy products.

Resveratrol

You’ve probably heard of the so-called “French Paradox”—the phenomenon of low rates of heart disease in France despite a diet relatively high in saturated fats. Many speculate it’s influenced by daily, moderate consumption of red wine. Resveratrolmay be the primary agent responsible for the healthy effects of red wine.[24]

Plants produce resveratrol to help protect against harmful organisms and environmental challenges, like drought. Resveratrol offers many benefits to humans as well, includingheart-protective effects[25] and defense against many degenerative health conditions because of its antioxidant action.[24]

While the incredible benefits of resveratrol appear to be real, the hype behind red wine is less so. When studies about resveratrol made the news a few years ago, media outlets went crazy with headlines like “Can Drinking Red Wine Help You Live Forever?” These hyperbolic headlines turned out to be more sensational than fact. While certain red wines do contain resveratrol, the amount varies by quality and grape variety.

The publicized health benefits of resveratrol have also resulted in the market being flooded with low-quality wine by those hoping to cash in. There was a report a few years ago that found dozens of wine brands were contaminated with arsenic.[26] Even if you find an excellent red wine, be sure to exercise moderation. Alcohol can upset your gut microbiome, disrupt your hormones, and damage your liver.

Fortunately, red wine is not the only source of resveratrol. Resveratrol is found in grapes, peanuts, pistachios, blueberries, cranberries, mulberries, lingonberries, and even dark chocolate.[27]

Getting the Right Phytochemicals

Phytochemicals are not a magical health elixir but they are something to consider when planning a healthy diet. When combined with regular exercise, a balanced, plant-based diet that provides a variety of beneficial phytochemicals and phytonutrients can contribute greatly to your overall health. Currently, there is no official recommended daily allowance for phytochemicals but regularly consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables will ensure you receive a steady, diverse supply.

Plant-based food is the best way to get valuable phytochemicals into your body and, in fact, plants are the only natural source of phytochemicals. Some nutritional supplements contain phytochemicals that have been extracted from plants (and some contain synthetically produced versions, which I prefer to avoid). It’s always best to talk to your trusted healthcare professional who can evaluate your individual needs before taking any new supplements.

What Is the Glycemic Index ?

The glycemic index (GI) is a way to measure the impact specific types of food have on blood sugar.[1] GI values range from zero to one hundred. Food with a high GI value will make blood sugar levels rise (and fall) quickly, food with a low GI value will have a more slow and steady effect.

A GI value under 55 is low; foods that have a low GI value include beans, cruciferous vegetables, grapefruit, and tomatoes. A GI value between 56-69 is moderate; examples include pasta, green peas, sweet potatoes, orange juice, and blueberries. A GI value over 70 is high;[2] examples include refined sugar, potatoes, white bread, dried fruit, carrots, and watermelon.

Why Are Glycemic Values Important?

Paying attention to the GI values of the food you eat allows you to exert a level of control over your blood sugar; there are many reasons why this is desirable.

Persons with diabetes struggle with maintaining balanced blood sugar.[3] It’s a disease that’s reached epidemic proportions. Over 29 million Americans have diabetes, almost 90 million more are prediabetic. A diet centered around foods with a low GI value can help keep blood sugar under control.

You don’t have to suffer from diabetes to experience the benefits of regular, balanced blood sugar. Studies suggest consuming low GI food may help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer;[4] and that barely scratches the surface when considering the revelations uncovered by research into the effects of a low GI diet:

  • A low GI diet may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.[5]
  • A high GI diet is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.[6, 7]
  • A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in January 2016 suggests that following a high GI diet increases the risk of depression.[8]

The Relationship Between Blood Sugar and Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are a primary source of energy for the human body[9] and there are two basic types — simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbohydrates, also known as monosaccharides or disaccharides, are digested quickly and have an immediate effect on blood sugar.[10] Common examples include refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup, as found in soft drinks.[11] In general, foods high in simple carbohydrates have a high GI value.

Complex carbohydrates, also known as oligosaccharides and polysaccharides, are metabolized more slowly and do not have a dramatic effect on blood sugar. Foods high in complex carbohydrates include whole grain bread, vegetables, and legumes. Complex carbohydrates usually have a low GI value and, additionally, accompany other nutrients (such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals) that further reduce digestion time.

What Is Glycemic Load?

It’s easy to think that all high GI value foods are best avoided since high blood sugar is associated with so many problems, but portion size needs to be considered as well.

For example, carrots have a high GI value but a typical serving of carrots only contains about 6 grams of carbohydrates; probably not anywhere near enough to upset the blood sugar of the average person.

This is where glycemic load enters the picture. The glycemic load provides a more thorough consideration of the impact food has on blood sugar because it takes into account the GI value as well as the grams of carbohydrates (fat and protein are not considered as they do not affect blood sugar) in a serving.[14]

Calculating Glycemic Load

Glycemic load is calculated by multiplying the GI value by the grams of carbohydrates in a serving and dividing by 100. A glycemic load value of 10 or less is low; 20 or above is high.[15]

Watermelon, for example, has a GI value of 72 although a typical serving of watermelon only provides 6 grams of carbohydrates; a quick calculation reveals a glycemic load of less than 5.

A can of soda, on the other hand, may have a GI value of 65 but if a single can provides 40 grams of carbohydrates that means the glycemic load is 26, which is very high.

Is it any wonder that steady, daily consumption of soda and other sugary beverages contributes to so many health problems?

Factors That Affect Glycemic Index Values

Keep in mind that the GI value is just a starting point and can be affected by a number of factors. Processing and refining, for example, will result in a higher GI value. A whole baked potato has a lower GI value than instant mashed potatoes; processed orange juice has a higher GI value than fresh squeezed.[16]

Eating different foods together can affect GI values. Research has shown that the negative effects of a high-carbohydrate diet are lessened when consumed with fiber.[17](Just to ensure there’s no confusion — no, eating a pound of lettuce won’t cancel out eating a pound of sugar.) The more ripe a fruit or vegetable, the higher its GI value. And, individual physiology–age, metabolism, health conditions–affect the way blood sugar is influenced.

Incorporating a Glycemic Diet Into Your Life

When constructing your diet, glycemic index and glycemic load values are great tools for guidance but need to be balanced with fundamentally sound principles of nutrition:

  • Eat a variety of real, whole, organic food.
  • Avoid junk food, refined sugar, and empty calories.
  • If you splurge, do so in moderation.
  • Quench your thirst with purified water.

Have you made a concerted effort to consume more low GI value foods and fewer high GI value foods? What tips can you share for designing a meal plan? What benefits have you noticed? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts with us.

Sweet and Savory Vegan Buddha Bowl

If you’ve scrolled through your social media in the last year, you’ve probably come across a slew of veggie-filled dishes called “Buddha bowls.” They are usually deep, round bowls filled with healthy cooked and raw vegan ingredients that fill you up and keep you sustained for hours. The easiest way to throw these bowls together is to prepare a few different ingredients one evening during the week, particularly the cooked ingredients, and use them to make quick and fresh meals throughout the week.

You can follow the original Nutrition Stripped recipe, but Buddha bowls are an infinitely flexible concept. All you have to do is arrange some vegan protein, complex carbohydrates, and a healthy source of fat on a bed of raw leafy greens. I like to add a few odds and ends to bump up the flavor and texture of my Buddha bowls, and it’s a fantastic way to use up leftovers, like sweet potatoes.

Sweet Potatoes: Delicious and Nutritious

Feel free to omit or add any ingredients to this recipe, but don’t skimp on the sweet potatoes. In terms of nutrients per dollar, sweet potatoes provide an excellent return on your investment. They’re exceptionally nutrient dense and are a rich source of potassium, manganese, vitamin A, and vitamin C.[1] Unlike white potatoes, sweet potatoes have a low glycemic load, so you get the benefit of sustained energy when you choose sweet potatoes over other simple starchy foods.[2]

Sweet potatoes might actually contribute to a long, healthy life—if you’re willing to eat enough of them. The traditional diet of Okinawa, a Japanese prefecture, is almost 70% complex carbohydrates and characterized by foods that have a low glycemic load but are exceptionally high in antioxidants, like leafy green vegetables and the Okinawan purple sweet potato.[3]

This traditional diet may help the people of Okinawa live remarkably long lives; the average lifespan is about 80 years for men and 87 years for women.[4] In one study, blood tests of Okinawan centenarians revealed they had less oxidative stress than the control group of adults in their 70s.[5]

You might be able to find purple sweet potatoes locally. They have a bold purple flesh, but the color of the skin may differ depending on which variety you find in your area. In the U.S., you’re more likely to find Stokes Purple sweet potatoes, which have a dark maroon skin. The rich color of the skin and flesh is due to the concentration of anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant. These antioxidants are actually more effective at trapping free radicals (and preventing oxidative stress) than the anthocyanins in red cabbage and grapes.[6] Look for these deep-hued potatoes at your local farmer’s market or organic grocery store in late summer through April. Try to use them within 2 weeks as they won’t last as long as white and yellow potatoes.[7] When cooked, purple sweet potatoes maintain their gorgeous color and they look absolutely incredible in this Buddha Bowl recipe.

I also took the opportunity to include one of my favorite autumnal foods—lightly crisped, roasted Brussels sprouts. You only need a few for this recipe, and they taste great tossed with minced garlic, fresh rosemary, and olive oil.

Sweet and Savory Vegan Buddha Bowl

  • Prep time: 20 minutes
  • Cook time: 30-45 minutes
  • Total time: 65 minutes
  • Serves: 1

Equipment

  • Roasting pan
  • Parchment paper
  • Medium-sized mixing bowl
  • Large salad bowl

Ingredients

  • 2 cups loosely packed organic field greens
  • 1 cup organic arugula or baby kale
  • 1 large roasted organic sweet potato, purple or orange, cubed and tossed in olive oil
  • 5-10 fresh Brussels sprouts, halved and tossed in olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons organic olive oil
  • ½ cup organic carrots, julienned or spiralized
  • ¼ cup organic cucumber, halved and thinly sliced
  • ¼ of organic avocado, peeled and cubed
  • 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons of organic hemp or flax seeds
  • 2 tablespoons of your favorite hummus
  • 1 ½ tablespoons fresh-squeezed organic lemon juice, or to taste
  • 2 tablespoons organic apple cider vinegar
  • Himalayan crystal salt to taste
  • ¼ teaspoon black or mixed ground pepper, or to taste
  • Dash of cayenne pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Line a roasting pan with parchment paper.
  2. Toss diced sweet potatoes in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, coating evenly. Set bowl aside for Brussels sprouts in step 4.
  3. Roast the sweet potatoes for 30-45 minutes at 375° F.
  4. Toss Brussels sprout halves in remaining oil from the bowl, coating evenly.
  5. Spread raw, halved Brussels sprouts on a separate, parchment-covered pan. Roast for 25 minutes. (If you want to save on dishes, you could also add them to the sweet potato pan once the potatoes only have 25 minutes remaining on the timer.)
  6. Fill a large salad bowl with greens and combine.
  7. Allow roasted veggies to cool for a few minutes before adding them to the greens.
  8. During in this time, stir hummus, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, and nutritional yeast together for a thick dressing.
  9. Top your Buddha bowl with the roasted vegetables and remaining ingredients (for the best presentation, carefully arrange ingredients into their own sections).
  10. Add salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

What Other Nutrients Does This Buddha Bowl Provide?

The dark leafy greens in this recipe are a rich source of fiber, folate, and vitamins A, C, E, and K.[8, 9] Conveniently, the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat from the avocado, olive oil, and flax seeds[10] will help your small intestine absorb vitamins A and K from the leafy greens and carrots, since the vitamins are fat soluble. The apple cider vinegar, which offers a multitude of benefits, will help emulsify the fats for absorption.

Have you ever tried a Buddha bowl? Do you have any tips? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts with us.

The Benefits of Manganese

Many people know that vitamin B-12 supports normal energy levels and that vitamin C can help the immune system, but what do you know about manganese? It doesn’t have the star power of other nutrients like calcium, iron, or potassium, but it’s still essential and vital to your health. Manganese, which is stored in the bones, kidneys, and pancreas, is a trace mineral, meaning your body needs very small amounts of it, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Rather, the human body requires it for many important functions.

Manganese Health Benefits

Manganese supports normal health in several ways. It is a cofactor that helps enzymes carry out their functions in the body. Manganese is essential for the metabolization of cholesterol, carbohydrates, and protein. As a component of the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD), it helps combat the damaging effects of free radicals by converting superoxide, a metabolic byproduct, into safer molecules that won’t cause cellular damage.[1]

There may also be a relationship between manganese and blood sugar. Studies have revealed that diabetes patients have low levels of manganese in their blood, but researchers have not been able to figure out whether diabetes causes manganese levels to drop or if inadequate manganese contributes to the development of diabetes.[1]

Manganese and Bone Health

Manganese is essential for bone health.[2] When combined with the right amounts of calcium, zinc, and copper, manganese encourages normal bone density, especially in the spine and legs.[3] This is particularly important for older adults who are at risk for osteoporosis, especially postmenopausal women. Fifty percent of postmenopausal women, and about 25% of men will suffer an osteoporosis-related break.[4]

There’s also evidence to suggest that manganese, when taken with glucosamine and chondroitin, may reduce osteoarthritis pain. In one study, 52% of the test population who took the combination reported improvement. Unfortunately, this benefit only seems to extend to those with mild osteoarthritis. No significant reduction was noted in persons suffering from severe osteoarthritis.[5]

Manganese Deficiency

Although true manganese deficiency is uncommon, experts estimate that as many as 37% of Americans do not get the recommended amount of manganese in their diet.[6]

Studies have shown that inadequate manganese intake is associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and epilepsy.[1] Because manganese is necessary for normal skeletal development, low levels may contribute to skeletal and postural abnormalities.[7]

Clinical studies suggest that people who suffer from seizure disorders have lower levels of manganese in their blood and hair.[8]

Manganese Toxicity

While the body requires manganese to function properly, excessive amounts can cause manganese toxicity. The following reflect the tolerable upper intake levels for humans:

  • 1-3 years: 2 mg
  • 4-8 years: 3 mg
  • 9-13 years: 6 mg
  • 14-18 years: 9 mg
  • 19 years and older: 11 mg

As the saying goes, “The dose makes the poison.” Even though it is essential in trace amounts, manganese is considered a heavy metal. In fact, zinc, copper, selenium, and iron are all nutrients that are also heavy metals. Too much of any of them, including manganese, can negatively affect health, especially brain health.[7]

Excess manganese is stored in brain tissue. If it reaches toxic levels, neural impairment and the neurodegenerative disorder manganism can result. Manganism, which has symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease, occurs when manganese accumulates in the basal ganglia.[9]

Manganese Toxicity and Children

Children are especially vulnerable to manganese toxicity (and heavy metal toxicity in general). Excess manganese negatively affects brain development, behavior, learning ability, and memory.[7] In one documented instance, a young boy with high levels of manganese experienced problems with verbal and visual memory, learning index, and general memory to such an extent that, among his peers, his test scores were in the lowest percentile.[10]

What’s the Best Source of Manganese?

A balanced diet comprised of whole, real, organic food is the best source for the complete spectrum of nutrients required by the body, manganese included. There are plenty of common foods that are a good source of manganese, such as nuts, legumes, seeds, tea, whole grains, and leafy green vegetables.[1] There is the usual caveat, however, that manganese content, as with all nutrients, can vary based on the soil and region where it was grown.[11]

Manganese Supplements

If your diet doesn’t provide enough manganese or other important nutrients, a multivitamin can help fill the gaps. Manganese is available as a standalone supplement but it’s best to consume manganese with the associated nutrients—like zinc, calcium, and copper—that all work together.

Drucker Labs produces a line of liquid, plant-sourced multivitamins that are easily absorbed and highly bioavailable. For adults, IntraMAX® contains 415 vital nutrients, including 71 carbon-bound minerals such as manganese. Formulated to meet the unique nutritional needs of children 4 and above, IntraKID® provides 215 vitamins, minerals, and nutrients and the liquid formula is easier to swallow than tablets; the raspberry flavor tastes better than chewable multivitamins.

What’s your strategy for making sure you receive complete nutrition? Have you structured a diet that provides everything you need from food or do you rely on a multivitamin? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts with the community.