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.

Inflammation – Are you on fire?

You have certainly experienced acute inflammation that occurs when an injured body part turns red, hot, and swollen. Inflammation is a natural defense against infections, irritations, toxins, and foreign molecules. It is your body’s first line of defense against infection and injury. This process normally shuts down when the injury starts to heal. However, trouble can arise when the inflammation process gets stuck “on” and doesn’t know when to stop. This can happen when your immune system is out of balance.

Instead of protecting your body, chronic inflammation attacks healthy cells, blood vessels, and tissues. Chronic inflammation has been dubbed a “silent killer”. 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, auto-immune diseases (such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis), depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. 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. 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 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. Eat a large variety of colorful fruits and vegetables which are loaded with anti-oxidants. Choose carbohydrates that are complex including beans and seeds. Complex carbohydrates are 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.

Having problems with your memory? Your diet may be contributing.

Eating too much sugar and simple carbohydrates are known to be bad for your health. A diet loaded with sugar, bread, white rice and pasta have been shown to lead to diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Can eating too many simple carbohydrates also affect your brain function and lead to memory loss?

In a study, published in the journal Neurology, researchers in Australia studied the effect of sugar on the health of the human brain. In the study, 266 non-diabetic men and women in their early 60s with normal cognitive function were studied. Blood sugar levels were in the normal range: below 110 mg/dL. All appeared to be healthy, with no signs of obvious memory problems or Alzheimer’s disease.

The study participants were given brain scans at the start of the study, then again four years later. After controlling for factors like age, smoking, drinking and lifestyle, the researchers found that those with the highest blood sugar levels had shrinkage in two areas of the brain critical for memory processing – the hippocampus and the amygdala. Brain shrinkage in these regions is also commonly seen in those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

When a large amount of sugar and simple carbohydrates are consumed, insulin levels become chronically elevated, which leads to weight gain. Furthermore, prolonged exposure to sugar (hyperglycemia) leads to increased levels of inflammation throughout the body including the brain. Inflammation can directly lead to damage of cellular function.

This study serves as a warning: if your blood sugar is high, you risk losing brain function. The hippocampus and amygdala are necessary for memory and emotion. As people age, they often experience cognitive decline, but consuming large amounts of sugar and simple carbohydrates makes things worse. So stay away from both sugar and simple carbs; avoiding both is good for both the heart and the brain.

More fiber = less heart attacks.

If you’re like most Americans, you likely consume less than the recommended amount of fiber each day. This may be a big mistake. The latest study of heart attack survivors shows that people who ate the most fiber had a 25% lower chance of dying nine years later from any cause compared to people who consumed less. Every increase of 10g of fiber each day was on average linked to a 15% lower risk of dying over the study period.

This is the first study to suggest that heart attack patients benefited from adding fiber (found in whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables) to their daily diet. An earlier study found that people at risk of heart disease, but who hadn’t yet experienced some kind of a heart event, could lower their chances of having a heart attack by eating more high fiber foods. Studies show that fiber-rich foods can decrease inflammation, a potential trigger for heart attacks, as well as lower levels of LDL cholesterol, which can contribute to atherosclerosis in your arteries.

Interestingly, the findings suggest that fiber may also be helping more than the heart, since those eating higher amounts were able to lower their risk of dying from any cause, not just heart disease. It also helps to lower the risk of colon cancer by reducing the time that potentially cancer-causing toxins spend in the intestines. Fiber helps regulate blood sugar levels by slowing the absorption of sugar in diabetics, reducing their risk of complications. Fiber also plays an important role in fighting obesity and its unhealthy consequences. Increasing fiber intake fiber helps the body feel less hungry and cuts down on overeating.

There are two types of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Both soluble and insoluble fibers are undigested. They are not absorbed into the bloodstream. Instead of being used for energy, fiber is excreted from your body. Soluble fiber forms a gel when mixed with liquid, while insoluble fiber does not. Insoluble fiber is good for the GI tract and can help prevent colon cancer. It adds bulk to the diet, helping prevent constipation. Since insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, it passes through the gastrointestinal tract relatively intact, and speeds up the passage of food and waste through your gut.  Therefore, it helps remove toxic waste through colon in less time. A mixture of soluble and insoluble fiber every day is important. Click this link for a list of foods which contain soluble and insoluble fiber: https://drjeffgreenberg.com/2012/10/24/guide-to-fiber-in-food.

A good daily goal of fiber intake is 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. Fiber is a miracle nutrient. Not only will it help keep you regular, it also appears to significantly reduce your risk of having a heart attack and stroke.

Diabesity – the leading cause of most chronic disease.

Diabesity is a term that describes the continuum of metabolic abnormalities that ranges all the way from mild blood-sugar elevation to insulin resistance to full-blown type II diabetes mellitus. It is during this time period that a large amount of damage is taking place. Nearly all people who are overweight already have pre-diabetes, which is an early stage of diabesity that carries significant risks of disease and death. Interestingly, even those who are not overweight can have diabesity. These are the “skinny fat” people. They are “under lean”, not enough muscle, instead of overweight and often carry a little extra weight around the middle.

Diabesity and insulin resistance are the leading causes of most chronic disease in the 21st century. Those with diabesity are at an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, cancer, high blood pressure, and kidney failure.

Before a person becomes a diabetic, they go through a stage called insulin resistance. This means that their cells require more insulin than usual to force sugar into the cells. This problem is caused by lifestyle factors including physical inactivity, eating too many calories, high sugar and high starch snacks and meals, and a lack of dietary fiber. People in the insulin resistance stage usually complain of getting tired after meals, craving sweets, and having trouble losing weight. When the insulin receptor becomes over-saturated, due to inflammation or insulin resistance, sugar cannot get into the cells and the glucose/sugar level in the blood begins to elevate. In essence, the root problem in pre-diabetes and type II or adult-onset diabetes is not too little insulin in the bloodstream, but actually too much circulating insulin.  In fact, elevated insulin levels can be the earliest detectable sign of developing abnormalities.

While there are some predisposing genes, pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes are almost entirely caused by environmental and lifestyle factors. Therefore, a search for the diabetes gene and the magic-bullet drug or gene therapy to treat it are useless. While understanding our genes can help us personalize our approach to metabolism and weight loss, it can also shift our focus away from the most important target: the modifiable lifestyle and environmental factors that are driving this epidemic.

Nutrition is the most important modifiable lifestyle factor. When your diet is full of empty calories and an abundance of quickly absorbed sugars such as liquid calories including sodas, juices, sports drinks or vitamin waters and refined or starchy carbohydrates including bread, pasta, rice and pastries, your cells slowly become numb to the effects of insulin. Your body thus needs more and more of it to balance your blood-sugar levels. This leads to insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and eventually full-blown diabetes.

Elevated insulin levels and insulin resistance are the most important factors leading to rapid and premature aging and all its resultant diseases. Increased levels of insulin, the fat-storage hormone, tell your body to lose muscle and gain weight around the belly. High insulin levels also drive inflammation and oxidative stress. This combination leads to a multitude of downstream effects including increased weight in the mid-section, inability to lose weight, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglycerides, low libido, erectile dysfunction, infertility, joint aches and pain, hair growth in women, poor sleep, increased risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. These conditions are all directly caused and worsened by elevated levels of insulin and inflammation. 

Since insulin resistance and diabesity are a direct result of poor diet and lifestyle, the condition is reversible in the majority of cases. Most people just need to eliminate the things that are sending their body out of balance and include what’s needed to help the body rebalance itself. For most, the interventions required are extremely simple and extraordinarily effective. Simply, eliminate sugar and processed carbohydrates, include whole real foods, like lean protein (chicken or fish), veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. It is also important to incorporate regular aerobic exercise into your regimen.

You are responsible for taking back your health. No single change will completely allow you to take back your health. Pharmaceutical companies continually promise the next breakthrough on diabetes, obesity and heart disease, although we inevitably end up disappointed. Furthermore, the food and diet industry peddles quick fixes and gimmicks, but they are never completely effective or permanent. It is the hundreds of little choices you make every day that will transform your overall health and make a difference. Start making changes today and take back your health and save yourself a couple dollars in the long run.

Carbs? Protein? Fat? What am I supposed to do? I am so confused!

I hear people complain to me that they are quite confused about how to eat. They hear conflicting information. Is a low carbohydrate diet the healthiest? Or is a low fat diet the healthiest? Am I eating too much protein?  First of all, there is no “diet” that works long term. None. Your goal should be a healthy lifestyle. What is a healthy lifestyle? The healthiest way to eat is a whole and unprocessed food lifestyle, avoiding sugar and processed foods. The biggest reason for our obesity epidemic is processed food. Processed food is loaded with sugar, simple carbs, and unhealthy oils. Foods that are loaded with sugar and simple carbs raise insulin levels, which cause weight gain and make weight loss very difficult.  (See prior article on this topic.) Processed foods contain large amounts of processed vegetable oils, which raise inflammation levels.  (See prior article on this topic.) They tend to have minimal nutrition. They tend to have little if any fiber, which helps in controlling insulin levels and promotes weight loss. Furthermore, processed foods tend to have minimal vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. These micronutrients help to keep you healthy and avoid illness including cancer. The majority of the foods you eat should be in their whole, natural form.  They should not have labels with ingredients that you cannot even pronounce. Eating whole, unprocessed foods will help you to lose weight and keep it off. The Mediterranean diet/lifestyle focuses on eating whole foods in their natural form. Research suggests this type of eating can be more beneficial in protecting your health than taking a statin medication. A whole foods, unprocessed lifestyle can lower your blood sugar, decrease your insulin levels, decrease your triglyceride levels, increase your LDL particle size, and lower your inflammation levels. So start changing you diet today. Clear out your pantry. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Avoid foods that are processed, they are not good for you. They will make you fat and promote illness. Eat whole, unprocessed foods for a healthier you!

Want to get healthy and lose weight? Reduce your insulin levels.

Food is medicine. I have said this many times. Is it really true? When it comes to losing weight and preventing disease – absolutely! Today we are going to talk about food, your insulin levels and your health.

 

First of all, what is insulin? Insulin is one of your body’s many hormones. The pancreas, in response to elevated blood sugar levels, releases insulin. Eating foods with sugar or foods that are easily turned into sugar, such as highly processed foods and simple carbs, elevate your blood sugar levels quickly. Insulin’s job is to keep your blood sugar level from getting too high. Insulin allows your body’s cells to remove the extra sugar in the blood. Without insulin, your cells would not have the ability to take in sugar (glucose). Your cells need insulin to be able to receive nourishment.

 

Eating excess sugar and simple carbs in your diet causes large amounts of insulin to be released into the bloodstream. Over time, your cells receive enough glucose (sugar), and do not need any more. If you continue to consume large amounts of sugar and simple carbs, the pancreas releases even more insulin. As a result, the pancreas is working overtime to push your blood sugar level back to normal. Unfortunately, it becomes difficult for even the increased levels of insulin to decrease the blood sugar levels back to normal. This continuous increased level of insulin in the blood is called hyper-insulinemia or insulin resistance. Eventually, if you still continue to consume large amounts of sugar and simple carbs, despite large amounts of insulin in your blood stream, the blood sugar level rises and you develop diabetes. The increased levels of insulin are ineffective.

 

Insulin is needed by everybody to keep his or her blood sugar levels in a normal range. A problem develops when insulin levels are chronically elevated. Insulin is the “get fat” hormone. Increased insulin levels directly lead to weight gain. If your insulin levels are high, you will be overweight. Increased insulin levels also lead to high blood pressure and to increased inflammation levels. Inflammation appears to be a greater risk factor for heart disease and stroke than cholesterol. Increased insulin may also lead to an increased cancer risk. Clearly, lowering your insulin levels is critical to good health.

 

How do you know if your insulin levels are high? If you have excess fat around your middle your insulin levels are probably high. Although, you may be tall or thin, short or fat or any combination and still have insulin resistance. If your fasting blood sugar level is greater that 100mg/dL, your insulin levels are high. If your fasting triglyceride levels are high, your insulin levels will also be high.

 

So how do you decrease your insulin levels? Here are some tips:

 

  • Stop eating flour and sugar products, especially high fructose corn syrup.
  • Don’t have liquid calories, like sugary sodas and juices. Your body doesn’t feel full from them anyway.
  • Stop eating all processed, junk or packaged foods. If it doesn’t look like the food it originated from, then stay away.
  • Slow the rate of sugar uptake from the gut through balancing your meals (low glycemic load) with healthy protein (nuts, seeds, beans, small wild fish, organic chicken), healthy carbs (vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains) and healthy fats (olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocadoes, fish oil)
  • Eat plenty of soluble fiber (at least 30 grams a day)
  • Eat smaller more frequent meals
  • Exercise – regular aerobic exercise (20-30 minutes at a time, 4-5 times a week) will help decrease your blood sugar and insulin levels

 

Remember, what you eat directly affects your health through hormones. You can decrease your insulin levels directly through good nutrition and exercise. Ultimately, by decreasing your insulin levels you can lose weight and keep it off, decrease your risk of heart attack and strokes, and finally, also decrease your risk of cancer.