Are all calories equal?

Since we were children, we’ve been taught that weight loss comes down to the simple idea of “calories in versus calories out.” This equation is simple and easy to understand. If you want to lose weight, you must take in fewer calories than you consume. This can be achieved by creating a calorie deficit via a reduced-calorie diet, an increase in physical activity, or a combination of both. The weight-loss industry makes billions of dollars each year trying to cash in our desperate attempts to curb this obesity epidemic that has plagued America, but is it possible that it’s more complicated than the old adage, “eat less and exercise more”?

Employing simple, basic strategies to reduce total calories has been a common method used to lose weight. The strategies include watching portion sizes, limiting high-calorie foods, and increasing exercise. While it’s still true that a calorie is a calorie regardless of what food it came from, not all calories are created equal in the sense that foods will have different effects on your body – even if two foods are identical in their calorie contents.

For example, compare 500 calories from gummy candy and 500 calories from broccoli. When you eat the candy, your gut quickly absorbs the fiber-free sugars in the candy. The sugars spike your blood sugar, starting a domino effect of high insulin and a cascade of hormonal responses that kicks bad biochemistry into gear. The high insulin increases storage of belly fat, increases inflammation, raises triglycerides, lowers HDL, and raises blood pressure.

Your appetite is increased because of insulin’s effect on your brain chemistry. The insulin blocks your appetite-control hormone leptin. You become more leptin resistant, so the brain never gets the “I’m full” signal. Instead, it thinks you are starving. Furthermore, your pleasure-based reward center is triggered, driving you to consume more sugar and fueling your addiction.

You can see just how easily 500 calories of candy can create chaos in your body. In addition, the candy contains no fiber, vitamins, minerals, or phytonutrients to help you process the calories you are consuming. These are “empty” calories, devoid of any nutritional value. Your body doesn’t register candy as food, so you eat more all day long.

Now let’s look at the 500 calories of broccoli. As with the candy, these calories are made up primarily (although not entirely) of carbohydrates — but let’s clarify just what that means, because the varying characteristics of carbohydrates will factor significantly into the contrast I’m about to illustrate.

Carbohydrates are plant-based compounds comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They come in many varieties, but they are all technically sugars or starches, which convert to sugar in the body. The important difference is in how they affect your blood sugar. High-fiber, low-sugar carbohydrates such as broccoli are slowly digested and don’t lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes, while table sugar and bread are quickly digested carbohydrates that spike your blood sugar. Therein lies the difference. Slow carbohydrates like broccoli heal rather than harm.

Those 500 calories of broccoli make up 14 cups and contain 44 grams of fiber (the average American consumes less than15 grams of fiber a day). Broccoli is 23 percent protein, 9 percent fat, and 68 percent carbohydrate, or 340 calories from carbs. The “sugar” in 14 cups of broccoli is the equivalent of only one teaspoon; the rest of the carbohydrates are the low-glycemic type found in all non-starchy vegetables, which are very slowly absorbed.

What happens when you eat broccoli? Broccoli contains so much fiber that very few of the calories would actually get absorbed. Those that did would get absorbed very slowly. There would be no blood sugar or insulin spike. Your stomach would distend (which it doesn’t with candy), sending signals to your brain that you were full. There would be no triggering of the addiction reward center in the brain. You’d also get many extra benefits including lower cholesterol and reduced inflammation. The phytonutrients in broccoli are anti-inflammatory and protect against cancer and heart disease.

The key is that all calories are NOT created equal. The same number of calories from different types of food can have very different biological effects.

Some calories are addictive while others are healing. When thinking about calories, think more about the quality of the calories versus the quantity. Consider what other nutrients are you getting besides just calories. Are there vitamins, phytonutrients, or fiber? Your goal with every bite is to get the most nutrition possible.

My blood pressure is mildly elevated – is this harmful?

 

Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of your arteries. Blood pressure rises and falls during the day. Blood pressure tends to be higher in the morning and lower in the late afternoon and evening. When blood pressure stays elevated over time, it is called hypertension. Hypertension is dangerous because it makes the heart work harder and contributes to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). It increases both the risk of heart disease and stroke. A blood pressure level of 140/90 mmHg or higher is considered high. If your blood pressure is between 120/80 mmHg and 139/89 mmHg, then you have prehypertension. Historically, prehypertension was not felt to be harmful and ignored. A new study in the journal Neurology shows that this thinking is incorrect. It demonstrates that people with prehypertension have a significantly increased risk of stroke. They found that those with blood pressures in the prehypertensive range were 66% more likely to have strokes than those with ideal blood pressures, below 120/80. The risk rose as the numbers did, nearly doubling at levels above 130/85. The link showed up whether or not people had other risk factors, such as diabetes and smoking.  Multiple studies have showed that the higher the blood pressure, the higher your risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure and kidney disease. The good news is that high blood pressure can be reduced naturally. The number one way to lower blood pressure naturally is by losing weight. Even losing small amounts of weight such as 10-20 pounds can significantly lower your blood pressure without medication. Exercise is also a great way to lower blood pressure naturally. Regular aerobic exercise (20-30 minutes 4-5 times a week) has been shown to have beneficial effects in lowering blood pressure. Finally eating a healthy diet low in salt and high in fruits and vegetables can also help lower blood pressure naturally. Hypertension has been called the silent killer. Now we know even mildly elevated blood pressures are dangerous. If your blood pressure is high, take action now before damage has been done.

 

Do you have a sweet tooth? A new study suggests it may be killing you!

A new study released suggests that your sweet tooth may be killing you. A study of more than 40,000 people published in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that those with the highest sugar intake had a four times increase in their risk of heart attacks compared to those with the lowest intakes. This study showed that your risk of heart attacks doubles if sugar makes up 20 percent of your calories. Just one 20-ounce soda daily increases your risk of a heart attack by about 30 percent.

For years, we’ve been taught that sugar is harmless except as a source of empty calories. They are not empty calories. As it turns out, sugar calories are deadly calories. Sugar causes heart attacks, obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, cancer and dementia. Unlike the natural sugars existing in fruits and some vegetables, added sugars are introduced to foods during their processing and preparation. Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda are the leading source of added sugar consumption in the U.S., followed by grain-based desserts, like cookies and cake.

High levels of sugar consumption lead to elevated insulin levels, insulin resistance, high triglycerides, lower HDL (good) cholesterol and dangerous small LDL (bad) cholesterol. It also triggers the inflammation we now know is at the root of heart disease. Lowering overall sugar intake is a great natural way to lower your inflammation levels. Remember, simple carbohydrates such as flour, most breads, pastas, and white rice are quickly turned into sugar by our bodies and are just as dangerous as eating regular sugar.

It is time to cut down on your sugar and simple carbohydrate consumption to improve your health. A healthy diet includes lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates – carbohydrates with a large amount of fiber, which slows the release of sugar into the intestine. (See previous articles)  This diet or lifestyle is the best way to eat to keep your insulin levels low, to lose weight, and to help prevent heart disease.

Insulin resistance – What is it and why is it so bad?

Insulin resistance is a condition characterized by an inability of the body to utilize the hormone insulin properly. When you eat, food is broken down into glucose to be used for energy. Insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas, tempers the amount of sugar in the bloodstream by helping glucose get into muscle, fat and liver cells. Insulin is a “key” that opens doors to the body’s cells, so glucose can enter. With insulin resistance, it’s like having locks that do not work. The keys won’t turn, and glucose can’t get into the cell. The pancreas, alarmed by the increase in blood sugar, cranks out more insulin. This cycle then feeds on itself, leading to higher and higher inulin levels in your blood.

 

People who have high levels of circulating insulin (hyperinsulinemia) in the body are called insulin resistant. This is because their pancreas continues to pump out more and more insulin in an effort to lower rising blood glucose levels. When an individual can no longer produce enough insulin to compensate for the rise in blood sugar, type 2 diabetes develops.

 

For those of you having difficult losing weight, high insulin levels make it very hard to lose those extra pounds because it “locks” the doors to fat cells.

 

Excess insulin is also highly inflammatory. As noted in previous articles, high levels of inflammation can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and cancer.

 

An estimated one in three Americans is insulin resistant, a condition that puts them at high risk for developing type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease, and stroke.  Insulin resistance can be diagnosed based on medical history, risk factors, and lab tests. Abdominal obesity is a significant risk factor for insulin resistance. It is defined as a waist circumference of 102 cm (40 in) or more in men and 88 cm (35 inches) or more in women.

 

The following lab results suggest a diagnosis of insulin resistance syndrome:

 

  • A fasting glucose level between 100 and 124 mg/dl
  • Triglycerides of 150 mg/dl or higher.
  • HDL cholesterol of < 40 (men) or < 50 (women).
  • A blood pressure of 130/85 mmHg or higher.

 

The good news is that insulin resistance is reversible. Losing weight is the best natural way to treat insulin resistance. Many people think they need to lose large amounts of weight (50lbs or even 100lbs) to reverse insulin resistance. This is not necessarily true. Losing even small amounts of weight (15-20lbs) can significantly lower blood sugar levels and insulin levels. The best long-term diet or life style is one that is low in sugar, simple carbohydrates, and processed foods. Simple carbs such as bread, rice, flour, pasta, and cereals are quickly turned by the body into sugar and thus raise insulin levels. Eating complex carbs such as fruits, vegetables, and beans are slowly digested and do not raise insulin levels. Complex carbs tend to have a lot of fiber, which will help lower blood sugar and insulin levels. Your daily goal should be at least 30 grams of fiber a day. (See prior article on fiber.) Combining protein and healthy fats with your meals will also slow down digestion of sugars and help keep your insulin levels from rising too much. Finally, aerobic exercise is also a great way to burn off extra glucose in your blood stream and lower your insulin levels naturally. Regular aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, swimming, bicycling, and rowing for 20-30 minutes at a time 4-5 times a week can significantly lower both blood sugar levels and insulin levels.

 

 

Inflammation – The True Enemy

There are increasing amounts of research that suggest inflammation may be more important than cholesterol at elevating the risk of heart disease and stroke. Inflammation is also thought to increase the risk of other diseases such as cancer, rheumatologic diseases (such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis) and Alzheimer’s disease. So if inflammation is so important, what is it? Inflammation is quite simply your body’s natural defense to a foreign invader such as bacteria, toxins, or viruses. The inflammatory process is perfect in how it protects the body from these bacterial and viral invaders. However, if we chronically expose the body to injury by toxins or foods the human body was never designed to process, chronic inflammation will occur. Chronic inflammation is just as harmful as acute inflammation is beneficial. The goal is to prevent chronic inflammation.

 

How do you know if your inflammation level is high? A simple blood test known as C-reactive protein (CRP) can measure your inflammation level. The CRP test gives you a number. Less than 1 is considered good (low risk) and greater than 3 is considered bad (high risk). Your goal over the long term is to have a level less than 1.

 

What are the biggest culprits of chronic inflammation? Highly processed carbohydrates (sugar, flour, white rice and all the products made from them) and omega-6 vegetable oils like soybean, corn and safflower (which are found in many processed foods) are the biggest culprits in our diet. Several times a day, every day, these foods we consume create small injuries in your body compounding into more injuries, causing the body to respond continuously and appropriately with inflammation.

 

While we savor the tantalizing taste of a warm, iced doughnut, our bodies respond alarmingly as if a foreign invader arrived declaring war. How does eating a simple doughnut create a cascade of inflammation leading to sickness?  Imagine spilling syrup on your keyboard and you have a visual of what occurs inside the cell. When we consume simple carbohydrates, blood sugar rises rapidly. In response, the pancreas secretes insulin whose primary purpose is to drive sugar into each cell where it is stored for energy. If the cell is full and does not need glucose, it is rejected to avoid extra sugar gumming up the works. When cells reject the extra glucose, blood sugar levels rise, leading to more insulin production. The extra glucose is subsequently converted to stored fat. What does all this have to do with inflammation? Blood sugar is controlled in a very narrow range. Extra sugar molecules attach to a variety of proteins that in turn injure the blood vessel wall. This repeated injury to the blood vessel wall sets off inflammation.

 

Let’s get back to the warm doughnut. This innocent looking goody not only contains sugars, it is also baked in one of many omega-6 oils such as soybean. Chips, fries, crackers, and pastries are all soaked in soybean oil. Processed foods are manufactured with omega-6 oils to create a longer shelf life. While omega-6s are essential (they are part of every cell membrane controlling what goes in and out of the cell) they must be in the correct balance with omega-3s. If the balance shifts by consuming excessive omega-6s, the cell membrane produces chemicals that directly cause inflammation. Today’s mainstream American diet has produced an extreme imbalance of these two fats. The ratio of imbalance ranges from 15:1 to as high as 30:1 in favor of omega-6. In today’s food environment, a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio would be optimal and healthy. To make matters worse, the excess weight many Americans are carrying from eating these foods creates overloaded fat cells that pour out large quantities of pro-inflammatory chemicals that add to the injury caused by having high blood sugar. The process that began with a doughnut turns into a vicious cycle over time that leads to heart disease, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

 

There is no escaping the fact that the more we consume prepared and processed foods, the more we trip the inflammation switch little by little each day. The human body cannot process, nor was it designed to consume, foods packed with simple carbohydrates and sugars and then soaked in omega-6 oils.

 

There is but one answer to quieting inflammation, and that is returning to foods closer to their natural state. We need to eat more whole foods. Avoid processed foods. Choose carbohydrates that are complex such as colorful fruits and vegetables. Beans are also a good complex carbohydrate. These complex carbs tend to be high in fiber. Cut down on or eliminate inflammation causing omega-6 fats like corn, soybean, and safflower oils and the processed foods that are made from them. Instead, use olive oil. (You need to read labels!) By eliminating inflammatory foods and adding essential nutrients from fresh unprocessed food, you will reverse years of damage in your arteries and throughout your body from consuming the standard American diet.

 

7 Numbers Everyone Should Know About Themselves

There are many numbers everyone should know to help gauge their health. Here are 7 important numbers everyone should know. They are easily measured at home or in your doctors office. Some are simple blood tests. Remember that knowledge is power. If your numbers are less than optimum, start making changes to improve them and your overall health.

1. C – reactive protein (CRP) – This is a very important number everyone should have measured. It may be more important that your cholesterol number. This number is a measure of your inflammation level. Inflammation has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, stroke, and possibly even cancer. An optimal CRP level is less than 1.0. CRP is a simple blood test.

2. Total LDL particle number (LDL-p) – This is a better measurement of your bad cholesterol levels than LDL. LDL alone is a concentration level of the bad cholesterol and may misrepresent your risk of heart attack or stroke. LDL-p measures the total number of bad cholesterol particles. A large number of small and dense LDL particles contributes to atherosclerosis and heart disease. A high LDL-p along with a high CRP is especially dangerous. LDL-p is also a simple blood test. An LDL-p level below 1000 is optimal.

3. Glucose – This simple blood test measures the glucose or sugar in your blood. A high blood glucose level may mean that your are a diabetic. High blood sugar levels lead to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, eye damage, and nerve damage. A normal glucose level is less than 100. A glucose level between 100-124 is considered pre-diabetes. A glucose level of 125 and above means you are a diabetic.

4. Creatinine – This blood test checks your kidney function. A high creatinine level may represent kidney failure. Kidney failure puts you at increased risk of heart attacks and stroke.

5. Blood pressure – A normal blood pressure is 120/80 or less. A high blood pressure can lead to damage in the lining of your arteries and then to atherosclerosis. This can then lead to a heart attack or stroke. High blood pressure at any age is abnormal and should be treated.

6. Body Mass Index (BMI) – This number relates your weight to your height. It will help you decide if you are overweight. A normal BMI is less than 25. A BMI between 25 and 30 is considered overweight. A BMI above 30 is considered obese. A BMI greater than 40 is considered morbidly obese.

7.  Waist circumference – The size of your belly is actually a better predictor of heart disease than general obesity. People with central obesity tend to develop higher blood pressure, regardless of body mass index (BMI) than those who store fat in other areas of the body. A normal waist circumference in men is less than 40 inches and less than 35 inches in females.

Fiber – Nature’s Secret to Weight Loss!

Fiber is a miracle nutrient. It has many health benefits including: losing and maintaining weight, reducing risk of heart attack and stroke, naturally lowering total and LDL cholesterol levels, reducing risk of diabetes and helping to control blood sugar levels, reducing risk of several kinds of cancer including colon cancer, helping to maintain bowel regularity, and improving overall immunity. Fiber comes from a plant’s cell wall. It is the indigestible part of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. No animal products contain fiber including milk and meat products. Fiber has bulk, but no calories. It is a type of complex carbohydrate, but cannot be absorbed to produce energy (which is why it has no calories). It is a major reason certain foods have a low calorie density. High fiber tends to mean low calorie density. It fills you up with less calories. The main goal when trying to lose weight is to to eat less calories, and just as importantly, also to avoid hunger. You want to be full. Hunger will quickly kill any diet. There are two types of fiber – soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber absorbs water. It forms a thick gel. It will slow down stomach emptying time. Therefore, sugar is released and absorbed more slowly. This helps prevent a blood sugar spike in your bloodstream and also a spike in insulin release. By keeping blood sugar and insulin levels from spiking, fiber helps to prevent and treat diabetes. It will also assist in weight loss. Soluble fiber also helps to naturally lower your total and LDL cholesterol. Good sources of soluble fiber include: apples, carrots, lentils, oat bran, oranges, peaches, and peas. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water. It passes almost intact through the GI tract. Insoluble fiber helps to move bulk through the intestines. It helps promote regular bowel movements and prevent constipation, removes toxic waste from the colon, and helps prevent colon cancer. Good sources of insoluble fiber include: flaxseed, wheat bran, cauliflower, and fruit skins. Many people get very little fiber in their diet. A good goal would be 40 grams of fiber a day. Increase your intake slowly and drink a lot of water. Make it a habit to look at labels. Look for foods with the highest fiber amount. Look for pasta with a large amount of fiber. Look for cereals and oatmeal with at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. For extra fiber, add flaxseed or berries to your breakfast. Eat fresh fruits and vegetables for a snack. The more processed a food is, the less fiber it will have, and the less healthy it will be. Fiber from supplements is not nearly as good as fiber from whole foods. A high fiber diet is a marker of many anti-cancerous properties of whole foods, especially phytochemicals. Fiber intake from food is a good marker of disease risk. Some studies suggest that the amount of fiber consumed may better predict weight gain/loss, insulin/blood sugar levels, and other cardiovascular risk factors than does the total amount of fat consumed. Remember, fiber is only found in plant products and not in meat, dairy, or highly processed products. Slowly increase your fiber intake with a goal of 40 grams a day. It will help both your health and your waistline.