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Peanuts - a mixed bag

Peanuts may not be the first thing that comes to mind if one was asked to list some healthy foods. They do, however, always top any list of highly allergenic foods, because peanut allergy is the most common food allergy in the UK: 1 in 50 people suffer from it. For those who are allergic, peanut consumption – even in minute quantities – can cause anaphylactic shock and even death. Strict avoidance is absolutely crucial. It is due to this prevalence of peanuts allergy that airlines have stopped handing out peanuts as a snack on planes. But even aside from allergies, peanuts are not getting much credit, because they’re fattening and unhealthy. But is this true? Just to clarify – and I’m sure you already know this – peanuts are not as much nuts as they are peas: They are classed as pulses, just like peas, not that it matters all that much to the consumer, really. Originally at home in the South American Andes, they were discovered by the Spanish conquerors who took them to Africa. They grew so popular there that they soon formed a staple in many African cuisines and were later taken back to America with the slave trade. Today, Americans consume approx. 5.5 kg of peanuts per person per year, whereas in the UK we eat only about 1 kg.

Half of a peanut consists of fat, a quarter is protein and the remaining quarter are carbohydrates. This and the fat phobia of the last 60 years or so play a big part in the peanut’s poor reputation. Now that we know that fat is not what makes us fat – hooray – we can eat peanuts again! Or shouldn't we?

Group of lumbermen trying to open a peanut
Group of lumbermen trying to open a peanut

What's good about them?

Half of the fat is monounsaturated, and peanuts also contain magnesium, folic acid, fibre, copper, vitamin E and arginine, all of which help prevent heart disease, and indeed research has been able to confirm that daily consumption of peanut butter or peanuts helps reduce the risk for cardio-vascular disease as well as diabetes II. Those who ate peanuts had double the benefits of those on a low-fat diet. Yet again, high-fat wins! Monounsaturated fats are plentiful in the Mediterranean Diet, which is very well researched and known to reduce the risk of heart disease. The nuts contain an antioxidant called p-coumarin, which (in rats) helped prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol (and that, by the way, is the cholesterol that contributes to heart disease: oxidised cholesterol). Peanuts are not the antioxidant powerhouses that blueberries and kale are, but they can compete with strawberries and blackberries, which isn’t bad. Peanuts are also rich in B vitamins, which help maintain good energy levels and nourish the skin, digestive system and nerves.

Any downsides?

Yes, unfortunately there are some, apart from their allergenic potential. One problem that affects all nuts to an extent, but peanuts in particular, are aflatoxins, a type of toxins produced by a fungus called aspergillus. Aflatoxins are invisible and you can’t taste them. They have been found to cause liver cancer in rats and correlation has been found between high peanut consumption and liver cancer in humans. As peanuts are not nuts, their shells are not so much shells but pods, which are much softer and more porous than nutshells and easier for aspergillus to penetrate.

Peanuts also contain a type of proteins called lectins, which might be harmful, and they are rich in omega-6 fats, the second most abundant type of fat in peanuts after mono-unsaturated fat. Most of us consume way too much omega-6 in comparison to omega-3 already, and peanuts contain none of the latter.

So, should you eat peanut butter or not? Yes, but … make sure to get a good one and don’t eat it every day.

It should contain nothing but peanut butter. 100%. It can be called ‘peanut butter’ if it contains at least 90% peanut butter (don’t even think about ‘peanut spreads’). But why should you accept less than 100% peanuts? There is no requirement for any other oils – which are likely to be ‘hydrogenated’ (trans-fats), sugar or salt.

It should be organic. The porous pod soaks up pesticides and fungicides liberally sprayed on conventional peanut crops to protect them from the dreaded aspergillus and pests.

Buy it in a glass jar if you can. It is always worth avoiding single-use plastic, but also to keep fatty foods (in particular) away from BPAs and phthalates.

I use Meridian Peanut Butter, which consists of 100% peanuts, is organic and tested for aflatoxin.

Are you an ‘abstainer’ or a ‘moderator’?

Peanut butter is moreish, and some of us find it difficult to put the jar down. So, if you find that you struggle to ignore it when it’s in the house and to stop once you have started. Some people find it easier to not even buy such foods ('abstainers'). Others, however, are much happier if they can have a little bit of something than none (‘moderators’). You’ll know yourself best, but peanut butter is best eaten occasionally.

Plugged up?

It’s not something that is discussed much in circles of friends and colleagues – for obvious reasons – but constipation is common. In the UK, approx.12% of the general population suffer from chronic constipation. Twice as many women than men struggle with it, and the over 65s are most affected: 25% of free living older people experience constipation, but a shocking 80% of the elderly living in nursing homes. Because bowel habits are not a popular topic of conversation, it is hard to know what is normal and what isn’t. If you can answer ‘yes’ to two or more of the following, you are probably constipated:

  • Do you ‘go’ less than three times per week?
  • Do you often strain (at least 25% of the time)?
  • Are your stools often hard or lumpy (at least 25% of the time)?
  • Do you often feel that you haven’t been able to excrete everything (at least 25% of the time)

A comparison with the Bristol Stool Chart may also help you see where you are.

Man sitting on toilet bowl
Man sitting on toilet bowl

Why does it matter?

Not being able to ‘go’ can be extremely uncomfortable, but not everybody feels that way. Some people have infrequent bowel movements and feel fine. In fact, according to the (official) diagnostic criteria just emptying the bowel three times a week is ok. However, the ideal transit time for food is 12 to 24 hours. Defecating three times a week constitutes an average transit time of 56 hours, which really is too slow. A bowel movement at least once a day is what we should all strive for.

If you are not sure, you can test your transit time: Eat three or four whole beetroots and make a note of when you ate them. Wait and see when the beetroot comes out the other end. It should dye your faeces crimson. If you don’t like beetroot, try it with a generous amount of corn on the cob.

Having faecal matter sit in the colon for too long is undesirable for several reasons. Bile acids contained in it can irritate the gut wall, if faeces aren’t excreted swiftly, causing damage. The colon’s main function is to recycle nutrients and water back into the system and to eliminate waste products. In order to do this job properly it needs a healthy gut microflora. Chronic constipation can upset the balance of good and bad bacteria, and an imbalanced gut flora can lead to constipation – a vicious circle. If waste remains in the colon for too long, putrefying bacteria start working on it, releasing toxins, which then cause damage to the intestinal lining with potentially serious long-term consequences.

Old oestrogen, which was meant to be excreted, gets attached to a protein called sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG) in the liver. SHGB is the vehicle to see the oestrogen out. However, some strains of bad bacteria have the ability to uncouple hormones from SHBG, thus enabling those hormones to get reabsorbed. This can contribute to oestrogen dominance and related disturbances and diseases (e. g. PMS, fibroids, breast cancer). The slower your transit time, the more time bacteria have to send old hormones back into circulation.

Straining to excrete hard stools is the most common underlying cause for haemorrhoids (piles): enlarged, swollen blood vessels around the anus. Once formed, they can make defecation even harder and very painful, and they often cause rectal bleeding.

Other health issues linked to constipation are bad breath, body odour, depression, fatigue, flatulence, food sensitivities, headaches, indigestion, joint pain and dark circles under the eyes.

What causes constipation?

The most common causes by far are a sedentary lifestyle, dehydration and a low-fibre diet. The vast majority of sufferers get rid of the problem by increasing exercise, increase fluid intake and change to a diet high in fibre, eg from vegetables, beans and pulses, as well as wholegrains.

You can add extra soluble fibre by taking linseeds (flaxseeds) or chia seeds. These seeds soak up water and form a gel, which makes stools soft and easy to pass, but make sure to always have them with lots of water otherwise they can make the problem worse. Prunes, too, are excellent helpers. Not only does the fibre they contain help bulk up the stool and move things along, but they are also food for the good bacteria. Bacteria convert the fibre from prunes into short-chain fatty acids, which become fuel for the cells of the gut wall.

Another common contributor to constipation is magnesium deficiency. (Remember last week’s post on vegetables?) Magnesium is involved in the proper function of muscles. The entire digestive system is surrounded by smooth muscle, which contracts in stages (like a Mexican Wave) to move intestinal contents along, a process called peristalsis. For peristalsis to work, magnesium is required. Food processing causes the loss of 75% of the magnesium contained in food, and deficiency is very common. Yet another good reason to move away from junk food – which is also low in fibre! - and start cooking your own.

Putting off going to the toilet can also lead to constipation. If you continuously postpone a bowel movement, the nerves of the rectum become less sensitive to the rectum being stretched and stop sending the message to the brain. If you think that you may already have lost that sensitivity, you can retrain your nerves: Sit on the toilet for 20 minutes every morning and relax. Your colon will soon learn to relax again, too. And stop putting off your trip to the loo: You may not like to go and empty your bowels when you’re not at home, but at work or travelling, but you need to get used to that. It’s what people do.

Other reasons

There are many more reasons why someone would develop chronic constipation. It is, for example, a very common side effect of medication. If you suspect your prescription drugs, take out the leaflet and have a look. If constipation is listed, speak to your doctor. Maybe there is a similar drug that you can tolerate better.

Constipation is also part of a number of diseases, such as stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, illnesses that affect the nervous or muscular systems (eg multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries), over- or underactive thyroid. Stress or depression, pregnancy, high calcium levels, iron supplements and the long-term use of laxatives can be behind the problem. Constipation is very common in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticulosis and colon cancer. If your bowel habits change for no apparent reason, you must tell your doctor.

For more on constipation and bowel habits and more tips on what to do, read tomorrow’s Nutrilicious News. It is not too late to sign up.

If you are experiencing digestive issues, why not come and see me in clinic at The Body Matters in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex? Contact me and we'll have a chat on the phone first to decide whether you would benefit from a personalised Health & Nutrition Programme with me. 

Vegetables are compulsory

If you regularly read my blog or newsletter or follow me on Facebook, you’ll know that I feel very strongly about “eating real food”, which of course includes vegetables, ideally in copious amounts and in great variety. For many years I was incredulous when I came across people whose diet does not include vegetables, but apparently it really is not uncommon even for adults to have a diet free of vegetables – in any shape or form.

We can get away with avoiding lots of things in our diets: meat-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, grain-free … This is our great advantage over most other animals. We can be very flexible with our diet, and this has allowed us to survive in all sorts of different climates. What we cannot do without, however, are vegetables. Cannot.

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“Ah,” I hear you say, “what about the inuit then, who surely don’t get much in the way of vegetables?” No, that’s true, they don’t. But that’s no excuse for us, who do not live near the Arctic Circle. This article gives a little more insight into how they manage, and you’ll find that the animals they hunt and the parts of the animals they consume do provide them with the nutrients that you and I usually get from vegetables. The meat and fish you by from the supermarket, accompanied by potatoes or chips, are just not going to cut it.

So, since we are not inuit, we are going to have to incorporate vegetables into our diets. In one of my older blog posts I touched on how everything that happens in tour body depends on chemicals, most of which it gets from the food we put in our mouths. Others are manufactured by our intestinal bacteria, but to enable them to do that they, too, need some raw materials to work with: fibre, for example, most of which comes from vegetables.

It would take a few more blog posts (and they might come in future, you never know) to list all the virtues of vegetables. In fact, there are entire books written about them. So let me just list a few here:

Vitamin C

Most other mammals – with the exception of guinea pigs, bats, monkeys, and primates – are able to synthesise vitamin C. Humans and the other exceptions to the rule lack a particular enzyme due to a gene mutation. We therefore have to get our vitamin C from food, and you won’t be getting any from meat (unless you want to eat it raw). Vitamin C is very sensitive and easily destroyed, so it is important to eat fresh fruit and veg, much of it raw, if cooked only lightly steamed.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral required for muscles and nerves to work properly. If you suffer from frequent cramping (anywhere, including headaches, intestinal or menstrual cramping), insomnia and anxiety, you may want to take a closer look at your intake of magnesium. Remember that the heart is a muscle, too, and magnesium is required for heart health. Cells also need it to generate energy, it is involved in cell division and gene expression, required for digestion and is a precursor for neurotransmitters. Without magnesium, calcium does not get absorbed into bones. If there are no vegetables in your diet, you are most likely deficient in magnesium. If you are very stressed, you’ll need extra as stress depletes magnesium. The best sources of magnesium (and calcium, a mineral it has a special relationship with) are dark green leafy vegetables such as Swiss chard, kale, spinach, and pak choi, and seaweed. Beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, and avocado contain magnesium, too

Fibre

A diet devoid of vegetables will be devoid of fibre, which is bad news for the digestive system, especially the gut flora. Fibre was once thought to be a useless component of food, because we cannot digest it, but that we had to put up with as it comes with fruit, veg, grains and pulses. “Refining” grains removed that useless bulk: white rice, white pasta and soft white bread are very low in fibre. We now know that fibre is required after all: Insoluble fibre bulks up stool and helps it move along our digestive system. Soluble fibre dissolves in water and turns into a gel (soak some flaxseeds/linseeds or chia seeds to watch the process), which makes stool soft and easier to pass. While we cannot digest fibre, our gut bacteria can, and they synthesize valuable nutrients for us, which we then absorb through the gut wall. Our gut flora needs fibre, and we need our gut flora.

These are three good reasons to eat vegetables, lots, every day. If you want to stay healthy and active for as long as possible, look good and be happy, you’ll need vegetables. Forget 5-a-day, that’s not enough. The new BANT guidelines recommend 7-a-day (max. 2 of which should be fruit) and even that is conservative.

Eat a whole rainbow of vegetables, try veg of all colours to get the greatest variety of plant nutrients. Make sure to have something dark green at least twice a day. You can increase your intake by having a green smoothie every day - just make sure to rotate your greens (i.e. don't have spinach every day, use different ones). Soups, too, are a great way of increasing your vegetables intake. You can enhance the nutritious value of veg by fermenting them.

If your range of vegetables is limited, push your limits out a little bit all the time. Try something you’ve never tried before, it could be delicious – you never know? Start with a small piece. Try it raw, steamed, roasted, pickled, fermented, dehydrated … every one of those way of processing your veg can make the same thing taste very different, change its texture. You might love one of them. Or even all of them. There could be a whole world out there!

Does your gut talk to your brain?

Sometimes, we have a “gut feeling” that maybe we shouldn’t be doing what we’re about to do. Sometimes, when we’ve been very scared we admit to our friends that we’ve been “shi***ng ourselves”. When we’re in love, we experience “butterflies in the stomach”. Some of our decisions are not thought through, but “gut reactions”, which doesn’t mean that they are bad decisions. They may be just the right thing to do. Our language has many such figures of speech, referring to the relationship between our emotions and the digestive system. But that’s all they are: figures of speech. Or are they? In the last few years, science has rediscovered the gut-brain relationship as an area of research. The brain is one of our most secure organs, encased in bone, shielded by a membrane – the blood-brain-barrier – to protect it from undesirable substances that may be circulating in the blood. Via the nervous system, it collects information transmitted by our senses and reacts accordingly.

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The most overlooked informer of the brain is most certainly the gut. Technically, the lumen, or cavity, of the digestive system, from the mouth to the anus, is still the outside world. Anything that’s in there does not really enter the body until it is absorbed. The digestive system therefore has a huge responsibility in protecting us, and in fact 80% of the immune system is situated in the gut. Anything that comes through is scrutinized before it is allowed in, and in a healthy gut this screening system works really well. Gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve. In comparison to the brain, the gut receives a lot more information form the outside world, and consequently a lot more information travels up than comes down. If gut health is in any way compromised, however, it is not uncommon for patients to experience mental health issues as well.

During foetal development, the brain, central nervous system (CNS) and enteric nervous system (ENS) are created from the same type of tissue. The vagus nerve runs from the abdomen to the brain stem and is the primary route for information from the gut, mainly provided by gut bacteria. The brain consists of neurons, but there are also neurons in the gut. Neurons produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter, which plays a role in emotions like happiness, contentedness, depression, and aggression. It is a precursor for melatonin, a neurotransmitter required for a good night’s sleep. 95% of our body’s serotonin is in fact produced in the gut. Little wonder then, that chemical imbalances and/or treatment of one have an effect on the other: Side effects of common antidepressants include nausea, diarrhoea and constipation. Likewise, antidepressants don’t just lighten a patient’s mood, but can also improve digestive problems, and addressing imbalances in the digestive system can impact on their mental disposition.

Stress strongly affects digestion, too, not only, but most notably in patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Even if you do not suffer from IBS, you may have experienced digestive irregularities – more indigestion, more bloating, lose bowels, constipation etc. – when under stress.

The gut microbiome (gut flora) is a fascinating area of research, and although science now knows a lot about it, it has only just scratched the surface. We have a lot of information already about what the microbiome does generally. A lot more is yet to be learned how everyone’s personal gut microbes affect their individual health and wellbeing.

The microbiome consists not just of bacteria, but also yeasts, moulds, and parasites. Those microbes can be good, bad or (apparently) not do anything. If they are ‘not doing anything’ that might just mean that we don’t yet know what they are doing, and interesting things might be found out about them in the future. Most research is done on mice, because it would be impossible as well as unethical to raise humans devoid of gut microbes for comparison. So, can the results be applied to humans? It’s early days, but there is no doubt that there is a connection between gut bacteria and the brain and that some kind of communication is happening.

We know that bacteria help train the immune system in distinguishing between “self” (own body cells) and “foreign”. During early development, gut bacteria influence gene expression, affecting learning, memory and behaviour. All through life, bacteria can influence the expression of genes involved in disease, which means they can affect whether those genes are switched on or off. The microflora is also known to play a role in diabetes, autism and obesity. If you are struggling to lose weight, consider restoring your gut flora. This week’s “Trust me I’m a Doctor” (BBC) showed an example about how one’s individual gut flora can affect the way we metabolise foods.

Gut bacteria do a plethora of other jobs as well: They are able to digest foods that are indigestible for us, and in doing so they provide extra carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Bacteria also produce vitamin B and K for us. Just by their presence, they crowd out harmful bacteria and yeasts, and they ensure proper digestive function. Without our microbiome, we would be in big trouble.

So how big is the population of bacteria inside us? Wherever you turn – even the most respectable sources -, you will find the number 10:1 quoted, meaning that we have ten times more bacteria inside us than own body cells. A very recent article on Science Alert disputes that and states that the real ratio is approx. 1.3:1. Still a lot, but much less than previously thought. You’ve read it here first. ;)

Nevertheless – regardless of their numbers – gut bacteria play a considerable role in our health as well as ill health. If you are suffering from depression and anxiety or other mental health issues, consider a gut healing programme with the help of a trained health practitioner alongside your psychiatric treatment, especially – but not only! – if you also experience digestive disturbances.

To learn more about the gut-brain-axis, click here.

Is the Paleo Diet the only diet that is right for humans?

  A lot is being written and said about the blessings of the “Paleo Diet”, aka Stone Age Diet, Hunter-Gatherer Diet, Caveman Diet. Supporters claim that this is what we evolved to eat and that this is the path to follow, if we want to lead a long and healthy life.

So, what is the “Paleo Diet”? The idea is, in a nutshell, that our genes haven’t had time to adapt to a diet based on agricultural product. We evolved as hunter-gathers, and the foods available to us for millions of years were meat, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and occasionally wild honey. With the advent of agriculture, grains and dairy were added to the human diet and have become staples, meat from domesticated animals largely replaced game. However, if we squeezed the history of humans into 24 hours, agriculture has only been around for mere minutes.

It makes sense then, that going back to the roots, relying on fresh meat, fish, seafood, eggs, fruit, veg, nuts, and seeds, will do us good. And indeed it does: A lot of research has been done on the Paleo Diet, and the results sound promising. Subscribers to the Paleo Diet reportedly feel great, and many have been able to improve chronic conditions or even reverse disease. It seems that the Paleo Diet has a lot going for it.

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But (of course there’s a ‘but’) I have a few issues with it – before even going into whether or not the health benefits are real (I think they are, but that’s beside the point). Because the thing is: It is not sustainable. Even now our planet is struggling to provide the huge amounts of meat we are asking for. Even now, while many cultures around the world have a diet that is not based on meat – largely because they cannot afford it -, and even with factory-farming and mass-produced meat, Earth is struggling. If we were all to switch to the Paleo Diet, as allegedly we are designed to, this planet would definitely not be sufficient to feed us. For now though, this is the only planet we’ve got.

At the moment, of course, we’re ok. Rich Westerners can afford all the meat they want – but for how much longer? And isn’t it rather selfish to adopt this ‘natural diet’ at the expense of everyone else and ultimately the future of the planet?

These were the thoughts that were on my mind when I first read about Paleo. Although the concept sounded convincing, it also sounded all too simple. Did hunter-gatherers really eat meat every day? Where they always lucky enough to catch something? Did everyone, no matter where on Earth they lived, eat a similar diet? I was thinking of the Inuit today, whose diet is very low in fruit and veg, but high in meat and fish, because the Arctic climate doesn’t have much else to offer. Surely, the diet of mountain tribes would have differed greatly from those living in coastal areas

As it turns out, there never was one paleolithic diet. And even if we decide to go Paleo, it is impossible for anyone today to recreate the Stone Age Diet.

1) What they ate does not exist anymore

Everything available to us today is a product of agriculture, perhaps with the exception of game (even that is not necessarily as wild and un-tempered with as it was then). We have enhanced the size, shape, flavour and nutritious value of fruit and veg through cultivation and lately genetic modification. We get our meat from domesticated animals that are largely grain- or soya-fed, which has an impact of the fatty acid composition of the meat. We have to rely on fish from polluted oceans, we pasteurize honey.

2) We reject large parts of our ancestors’ diet

When it comes to food we – especially us in the Western world – are incredibly spoiled. We can go and buy what we want, when we want. And we can afford to reject what we don’t want. 50,000 years ago, humans would first have to catch something. They would then eat all the edible parts of the animal – including the intestine, thus enriching their own gut microbiome. If they weren’t able to catch anything, they might have had to rely on the scavenging of whatever the lions left behind or on meat from animals that had just died. They would have picked insect larvae from behind tree bark, and dug up bugs from the ground. None of that appeals very much to us today (although insects are coming back into the shops now).

3) They did actually eat wild grains and pulses

Stone tools – mortars and pestles - have been found that are 30,000 years old. Fossilised plaque from teeth shows abundant evidence of plant matter, including starches from fruits, grains, barley, tubers, and pulses.

4) There never was the Stone Age Diet

Just like I assumed before I read up on it, there were indeed multiple diets, as people had to make do with what they found wherever they lived. Our great advantage as a species is our flexibility and adaptability, which allows us to thrive on all sorts of different diets.

What’s the bottom line?

There is no doubt that the paleo diet has its merits, particularly for people suffering from chronic illness, especially auto-immune diseases. If you are sick, it is worth a try and it can be very beneficial. But it certainly is not the only road to good health: Studies find again and again, that people on vegetarian and vegan diets are at lower risk of chronic diseases. The Mediterranean Diet, too, gets very good reviews and results, especially – but not solely – in the prevention of heart disease and high blood pressure.

What those diets have in common is that they all rely on natural, whole foods – or at least as natural and unprocessed as they can be in this day and age. It is important to eat a varied diet with as many different foods as possible. The wider your variety of foods, the wider the range of nutrients you are getting from them.

Eat fresh! The whole point of preserved foods is to prevent bacterial growth. Might such foods then have an impact of the good bacteria in your gut? They may well do.

All of these diets – paleo, vegan (or even ‘pegan’, a combination of the two), vegetarian, Mediterranean or other natural, wholefood diets – are rich in fibre. Low-fibre diets are associated with digestive disorders, diabetes and obesity.

Yes, the paleo approach works, but it isn’t the only one that works. If you need to eat paleo to be healthy, then by all means do it, but you may not need to. You may be able to live a long and healthy life on a diet that the planet will be able to deliver. For ALL of us, not just the rich countries, and FOREVER, not just now.

For more on the real paleo diet, watch this TED talk by archeogeneticist Christina Warinner.

Interesting articles here from The Guardian, National Geographic and Scientific American.