New Dietary Guidelines from USDA – Clarification about Cholesterol/Fats and Key Recommendations

Every five years, US Dept of Agriculture (USDA) releases dietary guidelines for Americans based on the latest research.  The guidelines for 2015-20 were recently released.   One of changes in the new guidelines is that the intake of dietary cholesterol is no longer considered as a parameter to be tracked in a healthy diet.  However, total fat intake and saturated fat intake do have to be tracked and kept within limits.  Due to this change in the recommendation for dietary cholesterol tracking, many misleading emails, articles and messages have appeared in the electronic media.  So, I thought about writing this article to clarify some important points related to cholesterol and fats and to share the key recommendations contained in the new guidelines.

About Cholesterol and Fats

There are some misleading emails and messages floating around, with claims such as “new USDA guidelines have removed all restrictions on consumption of cholesterol and fats” and “cholesterol and fats are no longer considered bad”.   This is not true.  The new guidelines simply say that dietary cholesterol need not be tracked separately, since high LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels in the blood are caused more by the excessive consumption of saturated fats, rather than by consumption of dietary cholesterol.  Moreover, most foods that are high in cholesterol are also high in saturated fats, so restriction on consumption of saturated fats automatically puts a restriction on cholesterol consumption too, so there is no need to track cholesterol consumption separately.

Here is a paragraph on cholesterol, reproduced verbatim from the new guidelines document:

“The Key Recommendation from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines to limit consumption of dietary cholesterol to 300 mg per day is not included in the 2015 edition, but this change does not suggest that dietary cholesterol is no longer important to consider when building healthy eating patterns. As recommended by the IOM, individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern.  In general, foods that are higher in dietary cholesterol, such as fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, are also higher in saturated fats. The USDA Food Patterns are limited in saturated fats, and because of the commonality of food sources of saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, the Patterns are also low in dietary cholesterol.”

So, remember that it is still important to maintain cholesterol levels in the recommended range, for which limiting saturated fat intake is very important.   You need not worry about consuming foods such as eggs and shellfish, which are high in dietary cholesterol, as long as you consume them in moderation and also limit your intake of saturated fats.

Key recommendations on healthy eating patterns

The following recommendations are reproduced verbatim from the new USDA guidelines:

  1.  Consume a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level.
  2.  A healthy eating pattern includes:
    • A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
    • Fruits, especially whole fruits
    • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
    • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy
    • beverages
    • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
    • Oils
  3. A healthy eating pattern limits: Saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium.
  4. Key Recommendations that are quantitative are provided for several components of the diet that should be limited. These components are of particular public health concern in the United States, and the specified limits can help individuals achieve healthy eating patterns within calorie limits:
    • Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars
    • Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats
    • Consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium
    • If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men—and only by adults of legal drinking age.

Key recommendations on Physical Activities

In addition to healthy eating, physical activities are also important for good health.  The following key recommendations for physical activities are reproduced verbatim from the guidelines.

Age 6 to 17 years

  • Children and adolescents should do 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of physical activity daily.
  • Aerobic: Most of the 60 or more minutes a day should be either moderate- – or vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity, and should include vigorous-intensity physical activity at least 3 days a week.
  • Muscle-strengthening: As part of their 60 or more minutes of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include muscle-strengthening physical activity on at least 3 days of the week.
  • Bone-strengthening: As part of their 60 or more minutes of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include bone-strengthening physical activity on at least 3 days of the week.
  • It is important to encourage young people to participate in physical activities that are appropriate for their age, that are enjoyable, and that offer variety.

Age 18 to 64 years

  • All adults should avoid inactivity. Some physical activity is better than none, and adults who participate in any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits.
  • For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week.
  • For additional and more extensive health benefits, adults should increase their aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity. Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond this amount.
  • Adults should also include muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.

Age  65 years and older

  •  Older adults should follow the adult guidelines. When older adults cannot meet the adult guidelines, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions will allow.
  • Older adults should do exercises that maintain or improve balance if they are at risk of falling.
  • Older adults should determine their level of effort for physical activity relative to their level of fitness.
  • Older adults with chronic conditions should understand whether and how their conditions affect their ability to do regular physical activity safely.

Moderate-intensity physical activity: Aerobic activity that increases a person’s heart rate and breathing to some extent. On a scale relative to a person’s capacity, moderate intensity activity is usually a 5 or 6 on a 0 to 10 scale. Brisk walking, dancing, swimming, or bicycling on a level terrain are examples.

Vigorous-intensity physical activity: Aerobic activity that greatly increases a person’s heart rate and breathing. On a scale relative to a person’s capacity, vigorous-intensity activity is usually a 7 or 8 on a 0 to 10 scale. Jogging, singles tennis, swimming continuous laps, or bicycling uphill are examples.

Muscle-strengthening activity: Physical activity, including exercise that increases skeletal muscle strength, power, endurance, and mass. It includes strength training, resistance training, and muscular strength and endurance exercises.

Bone-strengthening activity: Physical activity that produces an impact or tension force on bones, which promotes bone growth and strength. Running, jumping rope, and lifting weights are examples.

Further Reading

You can view the complete guidelines at  http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/ or download them in PDF form from http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/2015-2020_Dietary_Guidelines.pdf.

Conclusion

The new guidelines reiterate most of the currently believed scientific principles for healthy eating and physical activities.  They are consistent with most of the information contained in my earlier articles.  The implication of the removal of the restriction on the consumption of dietary cholesterol is that you can consume foods such as eggs and shellfish without worry, as long as you do not consume them excessively and maintain the total intake of sugar, saturated fats and trans fats in the recommended range.

Disclaimer

This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. You must consult a qualified health care provider before making any decisions about any lifestyle changes including changes in your food or physical activity habits. The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of making any lifestyle changes as a result of reading this article.

Posted in Healthy eating, Healthy Lifestyle, Physical Activities, USDA Dietary Guidelines | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

The Role of Phytochemicals in our Body and Strategies for their Adequate Intake

We have already seen in the last two articles that plant foods are very rich in vitamins and minerals, and hence are very healthy.    Recently, scientists have discovered that plant foods are also rich in another category of chemicals called “phytochemicals” or “phytonutrients”, which play a significant role in the maintenance of our health by protecting us against diseases such as cancer, heart disease and neurological diseases.  In this article, I will explain the role of phytochemicals and discuss strategies to ensure their adequate intake in your diet.

What are phytochemicals?

Phytochemicals or phytonutrients are chemicals found in plants that are considered beneficial for health.  Phytochemicals are not considered “essential nutrients”, since they are not essential for life and their deficiency is not directly linked to any diseases or symptoms.  However, their inclusion in diet is considered healthy because they play preventive role against several diseases.

Phytochemicals – history and reasons for recent interest from scientific community

Plant foods including fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, herbs and spices have always been considered healthy.    Moreover, traditional medicine in all ancient cultures such as India and China depended heavily on herbs.  The herbal doctors developed a system of healing and prevention by trial and error of various plants.   Gradually, traditional medicine was replaced by modern medicine because of its effectiveness in treatment of diseases.  Modern medicine is primarily based on identifying disease fighting molecules, which are mostly synthesized in laboratories.   For a long time, the scientific community had little interest in studying the chemicals that occur naturally in plants. This has changed recently.

In recent times, several studies were conducted that revealed a strong link between eating patterns and prevalence of various diseases.    For example, people eating “Mediterranean diet” were found to have less incidence of heart disease and cancer.   The French were found to have less incidence of heart disease despite consuming high fat food, which was referred to as “French paradox”, and it was linked to their consumption of red wine.   India and Asian countries, where the spice turmeric is consumed regularly were found to have low incidence of Alzheimer’s and cancer as compared to western countries.  This led scientists to study plant foods deeper and isolate the chemicals that might be responsible for these healthy effects.  Scientists were keen to isolate the specific “active ingredients” in various plant foods that caused the disease prevention effect.  This research led to very positive results.   For example, a chemical called “curcumin” was identified as the active ingredient in turmeric, which was found to have protective properties against cancer and neurological diseases in laboratory tests.   “Resveratrol” was found as the main active ingredient in red wine.   Likewise, many such phytochemicals were identified.  There are thousands of phytochemicals, but only a few hundred have been studied so far.    It will take a long time before all the phytochemicals are studied and analyzed.

Since this field is new, scientific evidence of benefits of phytochemicals is still very limited and based mainly on laboratory tests conducted on animals.  Lot more scientific trials are required to clearly establish their benefits.  However, the initial evidence is quite encouraging, due to which phytochemicals are being taken very seriously by scientists and nutritionists.

How phytochemicals help in disease prevention?

Studies have shown the following biological actions of phytochemicals, which contribute to their disease prevention effects:

Antioxidant activity:  We need oxygen to survive, but the chemical process of oxidation also results in some undesirable products called “free radicals”, which can cause damage to our cells.  Normally, these free radicals are neutralized by antioxidants formed by our body, but if there is an imbalance in the generation of free radicals and their neutralization, it results in gradual damage to the tissues, which has been linked to several diseases including heart disease and cancer.  Antioxidants from food can help in the process of removal of free radicals.  Several phytochemicals are powerful antioxidants.

Anti-inflammatory activity:   Inflammation is body’s normal response to any injuries or infections.  It generally causes pain/swelling/redness, which prompts us to take some action to treat the injury or infection.  The inflammation goes away after the injury or infection is cured.  However, in some cases, there is low grade, persistent inflammation (also called chronic inflammation), which does not have any symptoms and can continue unnoticed for a long time.  Such chronic inflammation can cause silent damage to body’s tissues and can even lead to diseases such as heart disease and cancer.   Phytochemicals such as curcumin have anti-inflammatory properties that can help in prevention of such chronic inflammation and its ill-effects.

Enhance immunity:  Some Phytochemicals stimulate the immune system, thus enhancing the natural disease fighting abilities of our body.

Prevent DNA damage and induce DNA repair:  The DNA in our cells can get damaged due to various factors.  If this damage is not prevented or repaired, it can lead to several diseases, including cancer.  Our body has its own mechanisms to prevent DNA damage and to also repair it when it happens.  Some phytochemicals have the ability to induce and strengthen body’s ability to prevent DNA damage and to repair DNA damage.

Detoxify carcinogens:  We are constantly taking in harmful chemicals (toxins) through the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.  Some of these chemicals are cancer causing and are called carcinogens.  Our body removes these chemicals from our system through various mechanisms.  Liver plays a crucial role in this detoxification.  Some phytochemicals are found to induce and support the activity of enzymes that perform this detoxification.

Inhibit cancer cell growth:  Phytochemicals such as curcumin, garlic, flavonoids, isothiocyanates and resveratrol are found to inhibit growth of cancer cells.

Cholesterol reduction:  High LDL cholesterol in our blood is associated with increased risk of heart disease.  Some phytochemicals such as phytosterols  and garlic are found to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol.

Prevent blood clotting:  Formation of blood clots can lead to blocking of blood flow, causing serious conditions such as heart attacks and strokes.  Some phytochemicals such as flavonoids, garlic and resveratrol are found to inhibit blood clotting, thus playing a preventive role against diseases cause by blood clotting.

Induce Nitric Oxide production, which dilates blood vessels:   Nitric oxide is a chemical naturally produced in the lining of our blood vessels.  Its function is to dilate the blood vessels, thus allowing a better flow of blood in them.  Some pytochemicals such as flavonoids and resveratrol are found to induce nitric oxide production.

Promote neurogenesis:  Neurogenesis is generation of new nerve cells.  Some phytochemicals, such as resveratrol are found to promote neurogenesis, thus playing a role in improvement of memory and cognitive function.

Promote eye health:  Phytochemicals such as lutein and zeaxanthin are found in retina and have light filtering properties.  This makes them protective against eye diseases such as cataracts and age related macular degeneration.

Types of Phytochemicals

There are thousands of different phytochemicals, which are often classified into various classes or categories.   Only a few have been studied deeply and have received serious attention from nutritionists, medical professionals and consumers.    The list keeps on expanding as more research is conducted in this area.  In the table below, I have tried to include the most widely known phytochemicals.  I have not included alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, since they convert to vitamin A, and hence have the same benefits as vitamin A, which we have already covered.

PhytochemicalClassFood SourcesProperties/functionsDiseases it may help prevent
LycopeneCarotenoidsTomatoes, WatermelonAntioxidantProstate cancer
Lutein and ZeaxanthinCarotenoidsSpinach, Kale, Turnip Greens, Collards, Mustard greensLight filtering functions. Components of retina.Cataracts, Age related macular degeneration
Chlorophyll A, Chlorophyll B, ChlorophyllinChlorophyllsAll green, leafy vegetablesDetoxification of carcinogens, antioxidantSome types of liver cancer
Curcumin-TurmericAntioxidant, anti-inflammatory, inhibits carcinogen effect, inhibits cancer cell growthCancer, Alzheimer’s disease, inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
Allicin and other compounds in Garlic-GarlicDecrease synthesis of cholesterol by liver cells, inhibit blood clot formation, antioxidant, blood vessel relaxation, blood pressure reduction, carcinogen detoxification, inhibit cancer cell growth, antibacterial, antifungalCardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, gastric cancer
Isothiocyanates/ GlucosinolatesIsothiocyanatesCruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, kale. Watercress, garden cress, mustard greens, turnip, kohlrabi, cauliflowerCarcinogen detoxification, inhibit development and growth of cancer cells, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterialCancer
Phytosterols-Vegetable oils (rice bran, sesame, corn, canola, olive), whole grains, nuts, Brussel sprouts, legumes. Phytosterol enriched foodsInhibit intestinal absorption of cholesterolCardiovascular diseases (LDL reduction)
Resveratrol-Grapes, red wine, peanutsAntioxidant, detoxification of carcinogens, inhibit cancer development and growth, anti-inflammatory, stimulate production of nitric oxide, inhibit blood clot formation, stimulate neurogenesis and new blood vessel formationCancer, cardiovascular diseases, cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s, etc.), aging effects.
AnthocyanadinsFlavonoidsRed, blue and purple berries. Red and blue grapes. Red wineAntioxidant, Detoxification of carcinogens, , inhibit cancer cell growth, anti-inflammatory, support nitric oxide formation (which helps in relaxation of arteries), inhibit blood clot formationCardiovascular diseases, cancer, Neurological disorders(cognitive decline, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease)
CatechinsFlavonoidsGreen/white tea, chocolate, apples, berries, grapesSame as aboveSame as above
Theaflavins, thearubiginsFlavonoidsBlack teaSame as aboveSame as above
ProanthocyanadinsFlavonoidsChocolate, apples, berries, red grapes, red wineSame as aboveSame as above
FlavononesFlavonoidsCitrus fruits and juicesSame as aboveSame as above
FlavonolsFlavonoidsOnions, scallions, kale, broccoli, apple, berries, teaSame as aboveSame as above
FlavonesFlavonoidsParsley, thyme, celery, hot peppersSame as aboveSame as above
IsoflavonesFlavonoidsSoybeans, soy foods, legumesSame as aboveSame as above
IsoflavonesFlavonoidsSoybeans, soy foods, legumesSame as aboveSame as above

Tips for consuming various plant foods for maximizing benefits

Fruits

Fruits should be consumed fresh and raw, and along with skin whenever the skin is edible.  Canned and processed fruits lose a lot of nutrients and should generally be avoided.  Fresh fruit juices or smoothies are also a good option.

Vegetables

Some vegetables can be consumed raw.  All the nutrients are best preserved in the raw form, so it is best to consume them that way, whenever possible.   However, many vegetables cannot be consumed raw and must be cooked.    In some cases, cooking improves the availability of some nutrients.  Here are some helpful tips for vegetable consumption:

  • If you like them raw and can digest them well in raw form, then that’s the best way to have them.
  • When vegetables need to be cooked, it is best to cook them for as short duration as possible, and at as low temperature as possible. If water is used for cooking e.g. in boiling,  then it is best  not to discard that water, since many nutrients get transferred to water in the cooking process.
    • Steaming has been found to be the best cooking method from nutritional perspective. Steaming should be done for as short duration as possible, and if any water gets condensed after steaming, it should be consumed.
    • If you boil the vegetables, then consume the water used for boiling instead of discarding it. Moreover, boil for as short duration as possible.
    • If you stir fry your vegetables, then do it for a short duration, using as little oil as possible.
  • For the following vegetables, the availability of some nutrients improves with cooking:
    • Tomatoes:  It is found that lycopene availability in tomatoes improves substantially after cooking.  So, for maximizing lycopene intake, it is best to cook the tomatoes.  This is good news, because cooked tomatoes are used in several cuisines and they generally improve the taste of the food.   Tomato sauces and ketchup are all rich in lycopene.  However, some other nutrients in tomatoes are better available in raw form.  So, one should have both cooked and raw tomatoes.
    • Carrots: The availability of beta carotene is found to be more in cooked carrots.

Herbs and spices

There are various ways to consume herbs and spices.  We will just describe the best way to consume two of the herbs covered in this article.

  • Garlic.  It is best to take it raw, because cooking reduces the availability of the active compounds such as allicin.   However, if you do need to cook it, then there is a way to maximize the availability of active compounds.  Scientists have found that if you let garlic stand for 10 minutes after chopping or crushing it, and then cook, the availability of allicin and other active compounds improves substantially.
  • Turmeric. Since curcumin is fat soluble, it is best to cook turmeric in oil.  This is a very common practice in Indian cooking.  Another common practice is to boil turmeric in milk and then consume that milk.

Peanuts

It has been found that boiled peanuts have a much higher content of resveratrol than in raw or roasted form.

Strategies for optimal intake of phytochemicals

  1. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Have at least 5 portions, and try to have even more, where each portion is about half a cup.  Include as many different colors as possible, including green, yellow, orange, red,  purple, blue and white, since different colored fruits/vegetables typically have different phytochemicals.
  2. Add a variety of herbs and spices to your food. This will make your food tastier and healthier.  Particularly include garlic and turmeric.
  3. When using oil for cooking or in salads, use a variety of oils including rice bran, sesame, canola and olive. Each of these oils has unique benefits.  Rice bran oil and sesame oils are high in phytosterols, canola oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids and olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids
  4. Make tea, particularly green tea as your preferred beverage.
  5. If you take alcohol, give preference to red wine. Otherwise, try to consume red grapes or grape juice.  Boiled peanuts are another source of resveratrol.
  6. If you like desserts then make dark chocolate as your preferred dessert.

About Supplements

Several phytochemicals are available as supplements including garlic, curcumin, resveratrol, sterols,   lutein, etc.   Phytosterol fortified foods (such as juices,  margarines, etc.) are also available in some countries.  However, the best strategy is to consume a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and not rely on supplements.    The main issues with phytochemical supplements are:

  1. No recommended daily allowances (RDAs) or upper limits have been established by any authorities for phytochemicals.   So, one cannot be sure about the effectiveness or the safety of the amounts taken through supplements.
  2. A supplement would give you only a few phytonutrients, whereas direct consumption of plant foods will give you a whole package of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. Since only a few phytonutrients  have been studied and understood by the scientists,  I believe that it is wiser to consume plant foods directly and get the benefit of the complete package of nutrients in them

 Conclusion

Phytochemicals in plant foods are found to be preventive against heart disease, cancer and neurological diseases.    These preventive effects are due to various properties including antioxidant, anti-imflammatory, carcinogen detoxification, inhibition of cancer cell growth,  immunity enhancement, cholesterol reduction, blood clotting prevention, neurogenesis promotion, dilation of blood vessels and DNA damage control.  The best way to get enough phytochemicals is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, use herbs and spices (particularly garlic and turmeric),  use variety of vegetable oils and  have green tea.  If you like to drink, then take red wine.  If you like to have a dessert, then have a piece of dark chocolate.

(Disclaimer:   This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. You must consult a qualified health care provider before making any decisions about your food habits or supplements.   The information on phytochemicals in this article is based on credible sources such as research articles from reputed institutes, but we make no claims about the accuracy of the information.   Moreover, the scientific interest in phytochemicals is fairly recent, the data available is limited, and the claims of their benefits are not fully validated.  Moreover, each individual’s needs are unique and you must consult a qualified professional to understand your unique needs.  The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of making any dietary changes or using supplements as a result of reading this article.)

 

Posted in Healthy eating, Healthy Lifestyle, Micronutrients, Nutrition, Phytochemicals, Phytonutrients, Plant foods | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Role of Minerals in our Body and Strategies for their Adequate Intake

There are three types of micronutrients that are required in our food – vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.  In my previous article, I discussed the role of vitamins and strategies for their adequate intake.  This article covers similar details about minerals.

What are minerals?

Minerals are inorganic substances such as calcium, potassium, iron, etc. that are found in the earth.  They cannot be made by any living being.  Plants get them from the soil.  Animals get them by feeding on plants or other animals.   We get them from various plants and animal foods.   The water we drink also contains some minerals.  The types and amounts of minerals found in water, soil and plants vary greatly from place to place.

The role of minerals in our body

Minerals are very essential for our survival and for the proper functioning of our body.  They play the following major roles:

  • As major structural components: Our body is held together by our bones, which are made primarily of minerals.  Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our bones, the other two being phosphorus and magnesium.  Deficiency of calcium can lead to weakness of bones and proneness to fractures.  Calcium is also the major component of our teeth and is important for maintaining strong and healthy teeth.  Moreover, minerals are an essential component of each and every cell of our body.
  • As electrolytes:  An electrolyte is a substance which when dissolved in water makes it an electrically conducting solution.  Our body has fluids in all cells and also in the space in between cells.  These fluids need to be electrically conducting, because our brain communicates with the various parts of our body by sending electric signals, which need to pass through the body fluids.   Sodium and potassium are the two main electrolytes in the body.   Whenever there is huge fluid loss from the body due to reasons such as diarrhoea, etc., doctors prescribe electrolytes, which are essentially salts of sodium and potassium.  Potassium is the main electrolyte inside the cells and sodium is the main electrolyte outside the cells.  The concentration of sodium and potassium in the cellular and intercellular fluids is very tightly controlled by the body.
  • As components of proteins and enzymes: Several proteins and enzymes of the body contain minerals as components.  For example, haemoglobin, the protein molecule in the blood responsible for transport of oxygen, has iron as its important component.
  • As enzyme co-factors: Many enzymes need some additional chemicals as catalysts in order to complete their reaction.  Several minerals play the role of enzyme cofactors, similar to vitamins.   In this role, minerals control several important functions of the body including metabolism, protein synthesis, nervous system function, heart function, muscle function, etc.
  • As antioxidants: Some minerals such as manganese and selenium act as antioxidants.
  • As ph level balancers: ph is a measure of acidity or alkalinity of a fluid.  Pure water has a ph level of 7, acidic fluids have a level lower than 7 and alkaline fluids have a level higher than 7.  Different body fluids have to be maintained in a very narrow range of ph level for proper functioning of our body.  Most of the body fluids are slightly alkaline.  Blood has a ph level in the range of 7.3 to 7.4.  If it gets out of this range, it can lead to serious issues – significant variation can even be fatal.  Minerals play a role in maintaining this balance.  Salt solutions of some minerals are alkaline while those of others are acidic – the body draws upon the appropriate ones as required to maintain the balance.

Storage of minerals in the body

The body maintains reserves of some of the minerals for use in times when the supply of those minerals is deficient in our food.

Our bones have many functions and one of them is to serve as a reservoir of some minerals such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.   These minerals are required for many body functions (besides being components of the bones).  So, whenever enough quantity is not available for other essential functions, required amounts are drawn from the bones.  If this happens regularly due to consistent deficiency in the intake of calcium or magnesium, one’s bones can become weak and porous leading to a condition called osteoporosis.

Liver also acts as a long term reservoir of some minerals such as iron and copper.

Although these reservoirs help us tide over some short term deficiencies, they need to be replenished as soon as possible.   Therefore, it is important to get adequate quantities of all minerals from our diet to avoid any deficiencies.

Functions, Food Sources, Recommended Daily Allowance and Maximum tolerable amount of minerals

The table below summarizes important details about each mineral and can be a good reference.   Please take a quick look at this table and move to the conclusions that follow.

NameMain FunctionsFood sourcesUS RDA for adultsMaximum tolerable amount for adults
CalciumBuilding and maintain healthy bones and teeth. Regulation of several proteins, including enzymes. Control of blood vessel contraction, nerve signal transmission, muscle contraction and hormone secretion.

Deficiency can cause bone loss, osteoporosis.
Yogurt, milk, cheese, bok choi, kale, oranges, figs, canned fish with bones, tofu, beans, broccoli1000 mg
1200 mg for females over 51 years and males over 71 years
2500 mg

2000 mg for over 51 yrs
ChromiumSupports insulin function for blood sugar regulation.

Deficiency can cause impaired glucose tolerance.
Broccoli, grapes, apples, bananas, potatoes, grains, meats, fish35 mcg for males
25 mcg for females
30 mcg for males over 51 years
20 mcg for females over 51 years
Not determined
CopperEnergy production, connective tissue formation, iron metabolism, nervous system function, melanin formation, antioxidant, regulation of gene expression.

Deficiency may cause anemia.
Beef liver, shellfish, spinach, cashews, sunflower seeds, almonds, Peanut butter, lentils, mushrooms, chocolate, whole grains900 mcg10,000 mcg
FluoridePrevents dental caries.Tea, fruit juices, seafood, rice, chicken4 mg for males
3 mg for females
10 mg
IodineThyroid function – required for growth, neurological development and metabolism.

Deficiency can cause mental retardation, goiter and hypothyroidism.
Iodized salt, Fish, shellfish, milk, grains, potatoes, beans, eggs, seaweed150 mcg1100 mcg
IronEssential component of several proteins and enzymes including hemoglobin. Oxygen transport, electron transport.

Deficiency can cause anemia and resultant symptoms such as fatigue.
Beef, Chicken, Seafood, prunes, raisins, Potatoes, lentils, beans, tofu, cashews, green leafy vegetables8 mg for males
18 mg for females
8 mg for females over 51
45 mg
MagnesiumCo-factor for hundreds of enzymes. Involved in energy production and synthesis of DNA, RNA and proteins. Structural component of bones, muscles, and all cells. Ion transportation across cell membranes.

Deficiency can cause low levels of calcium, potassium and neurological symptoms.
Whole grains, fish, spinach, nuts, beans, okra, milk, banana420 mg for males
320 mg for females
350 mg from supplements (does not include intake from food)
ManganeseConstituent/activator of multiple enzymes. Role in antioxidant activity, metabolism of carbohydrates/amino acids/cholesterol, wound healing, bone development.

Deficiency can cause impaired growth and bone loss.
Pineapple, nuts, brown rice, whole grains, beans, spinach, sweet potato, tea2.3 mg for males
1.8 mg for females
11 mg
MolybdenumCofactor for enzymes responsible for metabolism of sulfur amino acids, drugs and toxins and also antioxidant activity.

Deficiency can cause intolerance to proteins containing sulfur amino acids.
Beans, lentils, peas, grains, nuts45 mcg2000 mcg
PhosphorusEssential component of cell membranes, nucleic acids and bones. Required for energy production. Several hormones, enzymes and cell signaling molecules depend on phosphorus. Required for ph balance, by acting as an important buffer. Regulates oxygen delivery to tissues.

Deficiency can cause loss of appetite, anemia, muscle weakness, bone loss, increased susceptibility to infections.
Fish, meats, milk/dairy products, lentils, nuts, eggs, whole grains700 mg4000 mg
3000 mg for over 71 yrs
PotassiumOne of the main electrolytes. Sodium-Potassium concentrations inside and outside cells (called membrane potential) need to be maintained in a range for right functioning of body. Cofactor for several enzymes, including those required for carbohydrate metabolism.

Deficiency can cause fatigue, muscle weakness, cramps. Severe deficiency can lead to muscle paralysis.
Banana, Potato, orange, prunes, plums, tomato, spinach, lentils, beans, almonds4700 mgNot determined
SeleniumPart of an amino acid found in about 25 proteins (selenoproteins) which are involved in antioxidant activity.

Prolonged deficiency can cause Keshan disease ( a heart disease) and Kashin-Beck disease ( a type of arthritis).
Seafood, meat, Brazil nuts, garlic, brown rice, whole wheat, milk, sunflower seeds55 mcg400 mcg
SodiumMain electrolyte in intercellular fluids, including blood plasma. Maintenance of cell membrane potential, nutrient absorrption and transport, maintenance of blood volume and pressure.

Deficiency may cause headache, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, fatigue, disorientation, and fainting.
Table Salt, Processed foods. Also found in small quantities in unprocessed foods including fruits, vegetables, beans and grains.1500 mg (equivalent to 3.8 g salt)
1300 mg for over 50 years (equivalent to 3.3 g salt)
1200 mg for over 71 years (equivalent to 3 g salt)
2300 mg (equivalent to 5.8 g salt)
ZincAbout 300 enzymes depend on zinc. Role in growth and development, immune response, neurological function and reproduction. Structural role in proteins and cell membranes. Regulates cell function and plays a role in nerve impulse transmission.

Deficiency can cause Impaired growth, impaired immune system, skin rashes, diarrhea, blindness, etc.
Meat, seafood, eggs, milk/yogurt, nuts , beans11 mg for males, 8 mg for females40 mg

Some of the conclusions that can be drawn from the above table are:

  • If you consume enough fruits and vegetables, most of the minerals can be obtained from them.
  • Consumption of milk/dairy products, whole grains, beans/legumes and nuts further helps in getting enough minerals.
  • So, an overall balanced diet automatically takes care of the mineral requirements.
  • There is a big gap between the RDA and tolerable upper limit for most minerals. Therefore, the risk of overdose of minerals is not there under normal circumstances.  However, there is one exception, i.e. sodium.  The gap between recommended daily allowance and upper limit is quite narrow in case of sodium.  It is very easy to get an overdose of sodium because we are accustomed to adding salt liberally to our food.  We will discuss the importance of controlling sodium intake in more detail in a later section.

Mineral deficiency and overdose

If you are consuming the required amount of calories from a balanced diet, the risk of mineral deficiency or overdose is normally not present.  However, in special situations such risks do exist.   Some of the common causes of mineral deficiency are poor diet, dehydration (due to diarrhoea, excessive sweating, etc.) or local factors such as lack of certain minerals in local soil.   Common causes of mineral overdose include consumption of high doses of supplements and excessive consumption of salt.  We will discuss some common conditions of deficiency and overdose below.

Common deficiency conditions and their effects

Calcium:  Calcium deficiency is fairly common.  It often goes unnoticed because the body carefully regulates the amount of calcium in the blood by drawing it from the bones if it is lacking in the diet – so often there are no obvious symptoms but gradual bone loss occurs.  Consistent deficiency can lead to osteoporosis. It is a good idea to get tests such as bone density test to reveal whether you are consuming enough calcium.   To ensure enough calcium intake, take 2-3 servings of milk or yogurt every day.  If you do not take dairy products due to any reason, you will need to have more of other calcium rich foods such as figs, green leafy vegetables, calcium fortified soy milk,  finger millet (ragi), etc.  If you are not able to get enough calcium through your diet, you may consider taking calcium supplements after consulting your doctor.   For proper absorption of calcium, Vitamin D and magnesium are essential – therefore one also has to ensure sufficient consumption of these along with calcium.

Iron: As per WHO, iron deficiency is the leading micronutrient deficiency in the world.   Iron deficiency can lead to anemia with symptoms such as fatigue, impaired development and impaired body functions.  Women are at a particular risk because of the loss of blood during menstruation.  Meat, beans, lentils and green leafy vegetables are good sources of iron.  Supplements are not generally required, except for known cases of deficiency or for special conditions such as pregnancy.   Too much iron can be toxic, hence iron supplements should be taken only under medical supervision.

Iodine: Iodine deficiency leads to malfunctioning of thyroid function.  This deficiency has been effectively addressed in many countries by adding iodine to common salt.  However, several countries do not have this practice and iodine deficiency is prevalent in those countries.  If you are not consuming iodized salt, then make sure that you get it from other sources such as seafood and seaweed.

Magnesium:  Magnesium deficiency is also quite common and is associated with symptoms such as fatigue and muscle cramps.  Magnesium deficiency can also lead to low levels of calcium and potassium.   Consumption of whole grains, nuts, legumes, fruits and vegetables is important to avoid magnesium deficiency.  Supplements may also be taken in consultation with your physician

Potassium:  Potassium is an important electrolyte and is also required for several other functions.  RDA for potassium is about 4700 mg per day, which is more than 3 times of sodium RDA (1500 mg) per day.   Potassium deficiency is not common, but can occur due to conditions such as dehydration (due to diarrhea, etc.).  Moreover, since we normally take heavy doses of sodium (because of the addition of salt in practically everything we eat), it causes the sodium/potassium ratio to go haywire, which may lead to conditions such as high blood pressure.  So, it is important to increase potassium consumption by consuming potassium rich foods such as bananas, potatoes, oranges, lentils, spinach etc, while also reducing consumption of table salt.

Zinc:  Zinc deficiency can cause impaired growth, impaired immune system and other conditions.  One needs to consume meats, beans, dairy products and nuts to get enough zinc.

Possible overdose and imbalance conditions

In a healthy person, any mineral intake in excess of body’s requirements is excreted by the body.  So, risk of any toxicity due to overdose does not exist under normal conditions.  However, if the intake is very excessive, it can be toxic.  Such excessive intake is normally not possible if you are eating a balanced, healthy diet and drinking water from well regulated sources.  If you are taking supplements, then ensure that the total intake from supplements and food is well within the tolerable upper limit.

Another point to be noted is that mineral intake has to be balanced, because some of the minerals are dependent on each other for proper functioning.  Excessive intake of one relative to others can cause some issues.  For example, if one consumes a high amount of calcium while not consuming corresponding amount of magnesium, the additional calcium may not cause any improvement in the bone mass, but may be either excreted or get deposited in other tissues.  Another example is the balance between sodium and potassium.   If one consumes excess sodium as compared to potassium, it can lead to unhealthy conditions such as high blood pressure.  Moreover,  if there is excessive intake of one mineral and the body works to excrete that excess, some other minerals may also get excreted with it, causing possible deficiency of those minerals.   So, it is important not to consume any one mineral excessively, except under special conditions under medical supervision.

Drinking water and minerals

Drinking water always contains some minerals in varying amounts from place to place.  Most common mineral salts in drinking water are salts of calcium and magnesium.  The more the content of these salts, the harder the water is.   Some other minerals may also be present in the drinking water including sodium, selenium, iron, chloride, fluoride, phosphorus, copper and potassium.

Some regions of the world attribute their good health to the quality of their water, which essentially means the mineral quantity in the water.  For example Nicoya, in Costa Rica is a “blue zone”, i.e. a region known for extraordinary longevity.  Nicoya’s water has very high calcium content, which is attributed as one of the reasons for their good health and longevity.    On the other hand, some regions have abnormally high levels of some minerals, which are dangerous to health.  For example, the ground water in some parts of Bihar in India has toxic levels of iron content, which can be very harmful if consumed without processing.

In most places, public water supply is governed by regulations, and is processed to ensure that any toxic minerals are removed from the drinking water.  Sometimes, some mineral salts are also added to the water supply during this processing.  There are strict regulations for bottled water too.    However, if one consumes unprocessed ground or surface water, there could be a risk of mineral toxicity. It is better to get such water tested and use appropriate filters to get the mineral levels in acceptable range.  In any  case, it helps to be aware of the mineral content of the water that you are drinking, so that you can account for it in your mineral intake strategy.

Importance of controlling sodium intake

We normally get most of our minerals by food.  Even if we take mineral supplements, the doses are quite small, well within the recommended range.  However, we tend to consume common salt (sodium chloride) indiscriminately.  This has several undesirable effects.  Sodium is the primary electrolyte in the intercellular fluid.  Its concentration has to be maintained at a certain level for the body to function properly.  When the body detects excessive sodium in the blood, it responds by excreting the excess sodium and also by retaining more water.    This increases body fluid volume, including blood volume.  This in turn leads to increased blood pressure, which is bad for cardiovascular health.  That’s why cardiologists recommend reduced salt intake for keeping our heart healthy.   Moreover, when body excretes sodium, it also ends up excreting some calcium along with it, which can lead to bone loss over a period of time.  So, excess salt intake is bad not just for your heart but for your bones too.

Potassium performs a balancing act to sodium, because it helps in removing excess sodium and in reducing blood pressure.  Our body needs far more potassium (4700 mg/day) as compared to sodium (1500 mg/day).  However, due to our eating habits, we typically end up consuming far more sodium than potassium.  Fresh fruits and vegetables typically have much more potassium than sodium.   On the other hand, processed foods are very high in sodium content and are low in potassium content.  So, one goal we should have is to increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and reduce the consumption of processed foods.

Strategy for ensuring adequate intake of all minerals

Most good sources of vitamins are also good sources of minerals so the strategy for adequate intake of minerals would not be very different to the strategy for vitamins.  Here are some points which can be helpful in making your own strategy:

  • Make fresh fruits and vegetables an important part of your meals. Consume at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables of different kinds every day, where one portion is approximately half a cup.  Try to consume even more, say 7 portions.   Include one or two portions of dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale because they are very rich in a number of minerals (including calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium).    For additional tips on increasing fruit/vegetable intake, please refer to my previous article on vitamins.
  • Consume at least two cups of milk (or equivalent dairy products), to ensure adequate intake of calcium. If you have lactose intolerance, consume yogurt or lactose-free milk,  if available.  If you do not take milk or milk products at all, then ensure consumption of other calcium rich foods such as figs, finger millet (ragi), green vegetables, calcium fortified soya milk,  fish with bones, etc.
  • Make beans/legumes/pulses such as lentils, kidney beans and chick peas a part of some of your meals, since they are a good source of several minerals including iron, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese and molybdenum.
  • Consume whole grains instead of refined grains, as far as possible. Whole grains are rich in several minerals, including magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus and selenium.
  • Consume iodized salt instead on non-iodized version. If iodized salt is not available then take foods containing iodine such as seafood, seaweed, milk and eggs.
  • Have a handful of nuts and seeds every day – almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, etc. They are a good source of several minerals, including iron, potassium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese and molybdenum.
  • Reduce intake of salt. In particular, avoid processed and packaged foods (junk food) since they are generally loaded with salt.  If you stick to fresh and home cooked foods, you will naturally avoid excess salt intake.
  • Consume water from a well regulated source. It is even better to be aware of the mineral content of the water that you consume and account for it in your mineral intake strategy.

Should Mineral Supplements be a part of your strategy?

The prime source of minerals should be food, so it is important to consume mineral rich foods as described above.  However, some supplements may be useful in special situations such as:

  • If you are a vegan or due to any reason do not take milk, then you may not be getting enough calcium and may need calcium supplements. Calcium deficiency is quite common and it is a good idea to get regular check-ups of your bone density to determine if you are taking enough calcium.  In case of deficiency, your doctor may also prescribe magnesium and vitamin D supplements along with calcium supplements.
  • Since iron deficiency is quite common, it is a good idea to get a blood test to see if you have iron deficiency. In case of deficiency, your doctor may prescribe  some iron supplements.
  • In today’s busy lifestyle, it may not be possible for everyone to get the variety of fruits/vegetables and other foods to cover the daily requirements of vitamins and minerals. So, a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement may be a good insurance policy to get all the essential vitamins and minerals.  Most of the supplements cover less than or upto 100% of the RDA.  Since the maximum tolerable limit is generally several times more than the RDA for most, the risk of overdose is generally not there if you take a regular supplement.   However, if you are also consuming mineral fortified foods, then there could be a risk of overdose if you take supplements.  You need to read the labels carefully and be aware of how much of each mineral are you consuming from all sources and whether it is close to RDA and well within the upper tolerable limit.  It is best to consult a physician before you start any supplement.  This is particularly important if you are taking any prescription medicines or have any sickness.
  • One needs to be extra careful in taking iron supplements, since excess iron taken over a period of time can be toxic. Most general multivitamin/multi-mineral supplements contain an amount which is within the RDA limits for pre-menopausal women, but fairly above RDA limits for men and post-menopausal women.  Moreover, for adults over 65, excess iron in the body is found to be more common than iron deficiency.  That’s why there are different multivitamin/multi-mineral formulations available for men and women, and most formulations for older adults do not contain any iron at all.  In general, it is better to get iron from food and not from supplements.  Men and older adults should generally avoid iron supplements unless there is known deficiency.
  • Expectant mothers and children have special requirements and are generally prescribed required supplements by their doctors.
  • It is best to consult your doctor before taking any mineral supplements.

Conclusion

Minerals are essential for proper functioning of our body and play several important roles including that of structural components, electrolytes, protein/enzyme components, enzyme cofactors, antioxidants and ph level balancers.   Therefore, it is important to have a strategy for ensuring adequate intake of each mineral.

A meal comprising of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, milk/dairy products, nuts and beans/legumes can easily fulfil the required needs.

However, if one’s lifestyle is such that the required variety of foods cannot be consumed, then a daily supplement can be a good insurance policy to ensure adequate intake.   Since calcium and iron deficiency are fairly common, it is a good idea to get yourself checked for these and take corrective action, by changing food habits or taking supplements.  One should take supplements only after consulting a doctor.

It is important to avoid overdose of minerals, since excess can be harmful to health.  Today’s lifestyle is prone to excessive salt intake, which can cause problems such as high blood pressure and bone loss.  So, it is important to avoid excess salt intake.  Most processed and packaged foods contain excess salt and avoiding them is a good strategy for reducing salt intake.

(Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. You must consult a qualified health care provider before making any decisions about your food habits and before deciding to take any vitamin or mineral supplements.   The data and information in this article is based on credible sources such as USDA, but we make no claims about the accuracy of the information and you are advised to do an independent check of the data and information.   Moreover, each individual’s needs are unique and you must consult a qualified professional to understand your unique needs.  The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of making any dietary changes or using supplements as a result of reading this article.)

 

Posted in Healthy eating, Healthy Lifestyle, Micronutrients, minerals, Nutrition | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Role of Vitamins in our Body and Strategies for their Adequate Intake

In my previous articles, I covered the role of the three macronutrients in our food – carbohydrates, proteins and fats and some strategies for their adequate intake.   Although bulk of our food comprises of these three macronutrients, we also need several micronutrients for proper functioning of our body. They are called micronutrients because they are required in much smaller quantities as compared to macronutrients.  However, they are very important for our health and their deficiency can result in serious illnesses.  There are three main categories of micronutrients –  vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.  In this article, I will focus on vitamins and cover the other two in subsequent articles.

We will first try to understand the importance of vitamins and then look at some strategies to ensure their adequate intake in our diet.

The role of vitamins in our body

Facilitate body’s chemical reactions as Co-factors/Co-enzymes:

In my article on proteins (https://www.360wellnesscare.com/blog/?p=60), I talked about enzymes,  a  class of proteins which act as catalysts that facilitate various chemical reactions in the body, such as reactions during the digestion and metabolic processes. Some of these enzymes work independently, but others need the presence of some other molecules called co-enzymes or co-factors to work.  Most of the vitamins act as co-factors or co-enzymes, including all the B-vitamins, Vitamin C and Vitamin K.

As antioxidants:

Some of the vitamins act as anti-oxidants, i.e. they prevent our body from the potential damage from the free oxygen radicals.  Vitamins B-2 (Riboflavin) Vitamin C and Vitamin E have antioxidant functions in addition to other functions.

Special Functions:

Vitamins A and D have some very special functions which cannot be classified in the above two categories.  Some of these functions are similar to hormone function, i.e. as chemical messengers that perform regulatory functions in the body.

Vitamin A is present in three different forms: retinal, retinol and retinoic acid.  It is required for the proper functioning of retina, and its deficiency can result in night blindness and even total blindness.  It regulates the expression of several genes and helps in normal functioning of the immune system.

Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium in our blood and also plays several other roles including immune system function, insulin secretion and blood pressure regulation.

Storage of vitamins in the body and effects of excess consumption

The ability of the body to store vitamins is different for different types of vitamins.  All B-Vitamins  and Vitamin C are water soluble and any excess is generally excreted by the body through urine.  Therefore, excess consumption of most of these vitamins is generally considered safe.  However, excess consumption of even some of the water soluble vitamins is considered unsafe and there are limits set for these.  Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble.  Any excess of these vitamins is stored by the body tissue along with fat deposits.  Since the excess of these vitamins is not excreted, it can get toxic beyond a certain level.  Our liver has the ability to store Vitamins A, D and B12 (although it is water soluble) in large quantities, which can supply the body’s requirements for a long period (several months) without any deficiency symptoms related to these vitamins.   That’s why, sometimes doctors prescribe shots with very high doses of vitamins B12 and D in case of deficiency.

Functions, food sources, recommended daily allowance and maximum tolerable amount of all vitamins

The table below summarizes important details about each of the vitamins and can be used as a reference.  At this point, I suggest a quick browsing through it and then looking at the main conclusions that follow the table.

Vitamin NameFunctions/ Benefits/ Deficiency IssuesNatural SourcesUS RDA for AdultsTolerable Upper Limit
Vitamin AVision, gene expression, immunity, growth/ development, red blood cell production.

Deficiency can cause night blindness and susceptibility to infectious diseases
Liver, Cod liver oil, eggs, whole milk, Carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, kale, cantaloupe900 mcg (3000 IU) for males, 700 mcg (2333 IU) for females3000 mcg (10,000 IU)
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin)Metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats

Deficiency can cause beri-beri
Lentils, Orange, Pork, pecans, milk, brown rice, wheat germ1.2 mg for males, 1.1 mg for femalesNone
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)Energy production, antioxidant activity,  Iron absorption

Deficiency can cause Ariboflavinosis
Milk, egg, meats , fish, spinach, broccoli, almonds1.3 mg for males, 1.1 mg for femalesNone
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)Energy production, enzyme reactions

Deficiency can cause Pellagra
Chicken, fish, turkey, beef, lentils, lima beans, cereals, peanuts, whole wheat bread16 mg for males, 14 mg for females35 mg
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid)Essential to many biochemical reactions that sustain life

Deficiency can cause Parethesia
Beef liver,  sunflower seeds, fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, avocados, lentils, mushroom, peanuts, sweet potatoes, broccoli5 mgNone
Vitamin B6Nervous system function, hemoglobin synthesis, tryptophan metabolism, hormone function, nucleic acid synthesis.

Deficiency can cause  neurological diseases
Potato, banana, plums, chicken, turkey, salmon, avocado1.7 mg for males, 1.5 mg  for females100 mg
Vitamin B7 (Biotin)Supports functioning of several enzymes and DNA replication

Deficiency can cause rashes, hair loss and neurologic diseases
Yeast, bread, egg, cheese, liver,
salmon, avocado, cauliflower
30 mcg5000 mcg
Vitamin B9 (Folate/ Folic Acid)Metabolism of nucleic acids and amino acids

Deficiency can cause Anemia, fatigue and weakness
Lentils, chick peas, asparagus, spinach, Orange juice400 mcg1000 mcg
Vitamin B12Synthesis of important enzymes

Deficiency can cause anemia, neurological diseases and gastrointestinal diseases
Milk , Salmon, beef, eggs, chicken, crabs, mussels, clams, turkey2.4 mcgNone
Vitamin CAntioxidant activity, cofactor for important enzyme reactions, e.g. for synthesis of collagen

Deficiency can cause Scurvy
Orange juice,  Grapefruit juice, strawberries, tomatoes, sweet red pepper, broccoli90 mg for males, 75 mg for remales2000 mg
Vitamin DRegulate expression of hundreds of genes in skeletal and other biological functions.  Essential for bone mineralization. Also affects immune, CVD and endocrine systems

Deficiency can cause Rickets, bone softening and osteoporosis
Sunlight, Salmon, fish liver oil, fortified milk, egg yolks15 mcg (600 IU)100 mcg (4000 IU)
Vitamin EAntioxidant activity

Deficiency can cause neurological diseases
Olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, almonds,  peanuts,  avocado15 mg (22.5 IU)1000 mg (1500 IU)
Vitamin KBlood coagulation, bone metabolism, prevention of vessel mineralization, regulation of cellular functions

Deficiency can cause easy bleeding, hemorrhage
Kale, Parsley, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, Fermented foods - natto, curds, cheese120 mcg for males, 90 mcg for femalesNone

Some of the conclusions that can be drawn from the above table are:

  • If you consume a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, you will cover most of the vitamins, including vitamin A, most B-vitamins, vitamin C and vitamin K.  Consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, including green leafy vegetables such as spinach, yellow vegetables such as carrots, citrus fruits and other different fruits/vegetables is the key to fulfill your daily vitamin requirements.
  • Furthermore, consumption of whole grains, nuts, beans/legumes, dairy products, fish, shellfish, eggs and meats helps in completing the vitamin requirements, since some of the vitamins are not covered by fruits and vegetables.
  • Vitamins B12 cannot be obtained from plant sources and is obtained mainly from animal sources.  Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get it from milk and eggs.  But vegans may need to get vitamin B12 supplements.
  • Vitamin D is obtained either from exposure to sunlight or consumption of animal based foods such as fatty fish, liver and egg yolks.  In some countries, vitamin D fortified foods are available. If you do not get enough sunshine exposure and are not consuming any vitamin D fortified foods, you may need vitamin D supplements.
  • There is a big gap between the RDA and tolerable upper limit for most vitamins.  Many of them do not even have an established upper limit.  Therefore, the risk of overdose of vitamins is not there under normal circumstances.  It can happen only if someone takes very high doses of vitamin supplements or fortified foods.

Strategy for ensuring adequate intake of all vitamins

Based on the above knowledge, it is not difficult to come up with a strategy for ensuring an adequate daily intake of vitamins.   Here are some points which can be helpful in tailoring your own strategy:

For All:

  • Make fresh fruits and vegetables an important part of your meals:
    • Consume at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables of different kinds every day, where one serving is approximately half a cup.  Try to consume even more, say 7-8 portions.
    • Include one or two portions of dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale because they are very rich in a number of vitamins (including vitamin A,  several B-vitamins and Vitamin K).  Include some yellow vegetables/fruits such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and cantaloupe, which are high in vitamin A.  Include some citrus fruits, which are high in Vitamin C.  Include other fruits/vegetables of as many different colors as possible – yellow, orange, red, purple, green.
    • For vegetarians, the above is not hard to follow.  Most vegetarians may already be consuming adequate fruits and vegetables.  For non-vegetarians and for anyone not habituated to consume fruits and vegetables, here are some practical tips
      • Have at least 1 fruit in the morning. If you do a morning workout, then consuming a fruit such as apple of banana before and after workout is a very good idea.  You can also have it with breakfast along with cereals.
      • Have at least 2 vegetables with every main meal.  They can be had in the form of main course, side dishes, soups and salads.  Look for delicious recipes from various cuisines, which will motivate you to consume them.
      • Have smoothies made of fresh fruits, vegetables and fat free milk or yogurt for breakfast or as a snack in between meals.
      • Instead of having a dessert with high fat and sugar, consider having a slice of a fresh fruit.
      • You can also have freshly squeezed juice of fruits and vegetables.  Although consuming whole fruit is more beneficial, sometimes it is fine to have them in form of juice (but don’t add any sugar!).
      • The key to success is taste.  So, it is important to choose preparations that you find tasty.
  • Consume whole grains instead of refined grains, as far as possible.   The refining process removes most of the vitamin B and E content of whole grains, as well as its fiber content.  Whole grains options are available these days not just while buying grains and flours, but also in prepared foods and in restaurants. It is just a matter of making the right choice every time.
  • Have a handful of nuts and seeds every day – almonds, peanuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, etc.  They are a good source of vitamin E as well as some B-vitamins.  You can make it a habit to consume nuts as a part of breakfast.   You can also keep them handy with you and consume them as snacks when you feel hungry in between meals.
  • Make beans/legumes/pulses such as lentils and chick peas a part of some of your meals, since they are a good source of some B- vitamins and are also rich in protein, fiber and minerals.
  • Expose yourself to sunshine at least 15-20 minutes for at least 3 times a week.  It is said that for a light skinned person, this much exposure is enough to produce the required amount of vitamin D.  For darker skinned persons, the time of exposure required is longer (40 to 90 minutes, depending on the darkness of the skin).  There are several other factors to consider, i.e. how cloudy is the weather, the latitude and altitude of the place and time of the day.   However, too much exposure to the sun can also have harmful effects on the skin.  Moreover, many dermatologists recommend total avoidance of skin exposure to sunlight and take vitamin D from foods and supplements instead.   So, each individual needs to work out one’s own vitamin D strategy.

 

For lacto-vegetarians:

  • In addition to all the points above, have at least 2 portions of milk/dairy products every day.  Milk provides many vitamins, including vitamin B12, which is not present in plant sources.

For lacto-ovo vegetarians:

  • In addition to all the points above, take one egg a day, because the egg yolk contains many vitamins, including vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

For non-vegetarians (omnivores):

  • In addition to all the points above, take some fatty fish such as salmon and other seafood such as clams and mussels a few times a week, which are rich in several vitamins, including vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

Should Vitamin Supplements be a part of your strategy?

The primary source of vitamins should be food, so it is important to consume vitamin rich foods as described above.  However, some supplements may be useful in special situations such as:

  • If you are a vegan, then you may need vitamin B12 supplements, since all the food sources for this vitamin are non plant sources.
  • If you do not get enough exposure to sunshine, then you may need vitamin D supplements or vitamin D fortified foods.
  • If you are over 50, then you may need vitamin B12 supplements since the ability of the body to absorb B12 from foods declines after 50.
  • In today’s busy lifestyle, it may not be possible for everyone to get the variety of fruits/vegetables and other foods to cover the daily requirements of vitamins and minerals.  So, a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement may be a good insurance policy to get all the essential vitamins and minerals.  Most of the supplements cover upto 100% of the RDA.  Since the maximum tolerable limit is several times more than the RDA for most vitamins, the risk of overdose is generally not there if you take a regular supplement.   However, if you are also consuming vitamin fortified foods, then there could be a risk of overdose if you also take supplements.  You need to read the labels carefully and be aware of how much of each vitamin are you consuming from all sources and whether it is within the upper tolerable limit.  It is best to consult a physician before you start any supplements.  This is particularly important if you are taking any prescription medicines or have any sickness.
  • Expectant mothers and children have special requirements and are generally prescribed required supplements by their doctors.

Conclusion

Vitamins are essential for proper functioning of our body.  There are 13 different vitamins and each one of them is essential for health.  Deficiency of any one can lead to serious health consequences over a period of time.  Therefore, it is important to assess your food habits and have a strategy for ensuring adequate intake of each vitamin.

A meal comprising of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, milk/dairy products, nuts, beans/legumes, eggs and fish with regular exposure to sunlight can easily fulfil the required needs.

However, if one’s lifestyle is such that the required variety of foods cannot be consumed, then a daily supplement can be a good insurance policy to ensure adequate intake.  Moreover, vegans may need B12 supplements, and people with insufficient exposure to sunshine may need vitamin D supplements.  Adults over 50 may also need vitamin B12 supplements.  It is best to see your doctor and get an assessment of your diet/lifestyle and decide whether you need supplements.

(Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. You must consult a qualified health care provider before making any decisions about your food habits and before deciding to take any vitamin supplements.   The data and information in this article is based on credible sources such as USDA, but we make no claims about the accuracy of the information and you are advised to do an independent check of the data and information.   Moreover, each individual’s needs are unique and you must consult a qualified professional to understand your unique needs.  The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of making any dietary changes or using supplements as a result of reading this article.)

 

Posted in Healthy eating, Healthy Lifestyle, Inspirational, Micronutrients, Nutrition, Vitamins | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Mental Wellness – a scientific perspective

Our mental wellness is as important as our physical wellness – so, I thought of writing an article focused on mental wellness.  Our mind is very complex and intriguing and has been the subject of exploration of philosophers, thinkers and scientists ever since the beginning of mankind.  Such a complex and vast topic is impossible to cover in one article, but I will try to cover some important points from a scientific perspective.

 

What is meant by mental wellness?

By mental wellness, I mean a state of mind characterized by overall happiness and peace.  There may be episodes of stress, worry, anxiety, sadness or anger, but the person gets over them quickly and is overall happy, peaceful, friendly, positive and energetic.

On the other hand, an unhealthy state of mind is characterized by ongoing negative states of stress, anxiety, sorrow, anger, worry, sadness, irritability, anger, envy, jealousy, aggression, lack of enthusiasm, etc.   Although everyone experiences these feelings at times, but if it happens constantly, then it can take a toll on one’s health, performance and relationships.   Moreover, in many cases, a person may go through life in a seemingly normal way, but suffer a constant, background sense of anxiety and discontentment.

It is natural to want less of these negative feelings and more of happiness.  In this article, we will explore how to achieve that.  To understand the causes of these different mental states, and what can possibly be done to control them, let us first try to understand how our brain works.

Learn the science of happiness: How our brain works? What can you do to achieve happiness and peace?

How our brain works?

Our brain is a very complex machine and cannot be described in a few paragraphs.  We will restrict our discussion to only some aspects of brain functioning that are relevant to this article.

Three layers of mental activity

Our brain controls our body’s functions and our interaction with the environment around us.  We all experience three different types of mental activity:

  • Automatic, “hard wired” activity: Much of brain’s activity happens automatically, below our consciousness level, and we are generally not even aware of it.  This includes control of all life functions such as breathing, digestion, blood circulation, etc.  Moreover, activities that we perform repeatedly start happening automatically, without requiring any conscious control.  Examples of such activities include walking, cycling, driving, etc.   The brain seems to have the power to “hard wire” any activity that happens repeatedly.  This is essentially a layer of pre-programmed activities required for our survival, and activities that get programmed later because of repetition.  This layer is known by various names in the literature, such as “autonomous nervous system”, “system 1”, etc., but we will call this layer as the “hard wired” layer.
  • Emotional, “limbic system” activity:  “Limbic system” is a part of our brain that drives us to avoid threats or pursue opportunities by alerting us through various emotions or feelings.   It is actually a part of the hard wired layer, but is being discussed separately because it plays a crucial role in our mental wellness. The limbic system gets continuous inputs from all our senses and monitors them for any signs of threats or opportunities.  If it senses a threat, it triggers the commonly known “fight or flight response”.  This is accompanied by feelings such as fear, anger and anxiety.  If it senses an opportunity (e.g. for food or for mating), it triggers motivation to pursue the opportunity, which is accompanied by feelings such as excitement and passion.This layer is the emotional and motivation center of the brain and corresponds to the “heart” in common phrases such as “head and heart conflict” or “follow your heart”.  It energizes us for action and plays a crucial role in our life.  At the center of the limbic system is a part called Amygdala, which is sometimes used synonymously with limbic system.  We will refer to this layer either as “limbic system” or as “emotional brain”.
  • Conscious thinking, “neocortex” activity: This is the layer of conscious thinking and analysis.  This layer is found only in mammals and is far more advanced in humans as compared to other animals.  This layer is the main distinguishing factor between us and the animals, and is responsible for the vast progress of humans as compared to animals.  This layer requires conscious, voluntary effort.  This is our rational mind and is responsible for activities such as setting goals, making plans, pondering and reflecting.  It can also control emotions by inhibiting the limbic system.  This layer is called by various names in the literature, such as Neocortex , Prefrontal Cortex, System 2, etc.    We will refer to it as “neocortex” or “thinking brain”.  It corresponds to the “head” in the common language.  As we shall see, learning to use this layer effectively is the key to our long-term happiness and success.

How our actions are driven by the above three layers?

Let us now understand the main drivers of our actions.  There are three main drivers of our actions.

Threat detection and response

Since survival gets priority over anything else, the most powerful driver of our actions is to guard against an imminent threat, which works as follows:

  • Our senses constantly scan the environment around us and send signals to the limbic system as well as to the neocortex.
  • If the limbic system senses a threat, a “fight or flight” response is immediately triggered, which draws all possible resources to deal with the situation.  This includes increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and increased blood flow to the muscles of the limbs, etc.
  • In the mean time the neocortex also does an independent evaluation and decides whether it is a real threat.
  • However, if the limbic system has already determined a threat and declared an emergency, then the neocortex may not get a chance to intervene.  In literature, this is sometimes referred to as “hijacking of the brain” by the limbic system.
  • Limbic system’s response is a “quick-and-dirty” response designed to act fast in a life threatening situation.  It is crucial for survival in the animal world.  But in today’s human environment, such responses can have harmful consequences.
  • When the limbic system is responding to a threat, one can “feel” what’s going on, i.e. feelings of “fear”, “anger”, “terror”, etc., which make one feel miserable.
  • In the mean time, the neocortex analyzes the situation and may determine a more analytical, judicious and correct response.  If the neocortex is able to control the situation, it can calm down the limbic system, sort of telling it that “I’m in control now, so take it easy”.   Here,  the conflict between the “head” and “heart” can also arise.
  • In animal world, a response based on limbic system is good enough, since when faced with a life threatening opponent, there are really only two choices – to fight or to run away.  However, in human environment, most threats are not life threatening and there are several other techniques available to deal with them e.g.  yield, appease, persuade, plead, stall, apologize, negotiate, threaten, trick, call for help, etc.   Using these techniques requires work by the neocortex.  So, in human context, it is better to have the neocortex involved in determining a better response than relying purely on the limbic system response.

Opportunity detection and response

If there is no threat, then the next priority is to look for opportunities to satisfy the immediate needs, mainly the primal needs of food and mating.  This works in a manner very similar to the threat detection, the only difference is that it has lower priority than threat response, and it is accompanied by pleasant feelings that make us feel good.

  • When the limbic system detects an opportunity, it triggers a rise in the levels of a chemical called dopamine, which produces a motivating sense of desire to pursue the opportunity.  This sensation is quite pleasant and powerful and is responsible for passionate pursuit of opportunities.  It enables you to focus your attention on the opportunity and align the body’s resources towards that pursuit.
  • If the opportunity is successfully pursued, it results in release of chemicals that create a sensation of pleasure, such as endorphins, oxytocin and norepinephrine.
  • When you get this reward, it builds those memories in the limbic system, which prompt you to pursue those rewards again.
  • The opportunity signals also go the neocortex, which does an independent evaluation and can decide to either go along with the limbic system and pursue the opportunity or overrule the limbic system and not pursue the opportunity.
  • Here again, the conflict between the “head” and “heart” can arise.  While in the animal world, a pure limbic system response is adequate, in the human world, it is better not to pursue an opportunity unless the neocortex is in sync, since all opportunities that provide immediate gratification may not be beneficial or be even dangerous in the long term.

Pursuit of long term rewards and higher goals beyond survival

Neocortex, the thinking part of our brain is the one that distinguishes us from animals. It has enabled us to establish dominance over much stronger animals and create countless wonders including language, machines, tools, cities, art, etc.  It enables us to keep improving our lives by building on the cumulative knowledge of all past generations and indulge in several higher pursuits beyond survival.

Neocortex has several capabilities, including

  • Logical analysis – capability to analyze situations from a long term perspective based on the knowledge gained through one’s own experiences as well as others’ experiences.
  • Problem solving – which enables us to find our way through new, challenging situations.
  • Creativity – create new solutions, works of art and technology.
  • Long term planning – plan sequences of actions that lead to long term rewards.
  • Visualization and simulation – can imagine situations, simulate scenarios and play them as if they were real.
  • Exercise control over the limbic system.

However, we need to exercise our will to use the above capabilities effectively.  This is really the only part of our mind under our control, and doing so effectively determines our success as well as happiness to a large extent.

When we are not willfully using our thinking brain, it goes into a default activity of running simulations of past and future.  It is important to understand this behavior, so let us discuss it a little more.

Simulation – the default activity of neocortex

Neocortex is called upon for action in two situations: when it receives signals from the environment that require its attention or when we willfully decide to do something.  At other times, when it is supposedly left idle, it does not really stay idle but engages in simulating events, which play like short video clips in our mind all the time, creating our own “inner world”.  This simulation is so powerful that it seems like real and creates the same reactions as if those events were real.  The simulated events are generally either re-enacting some past events or creating imaginary future events.

These simulations perhaps evolved to help us in our survival by simulating scenarios based on our past memories of threats and opportunities, in order to prepare us better for similar threats and opportunities in the future.  Sometimes, these simulations help us in discovering solutions to problems that we are struggling with.  However, most of the time, these simulations are wasteful and add to our misery because of the following:

  • The simulations pull us out of the present, which may deprive us of a potential satisfying and enriching experience at this very moment.
  • Hurtful experiences of the past keep on playing again and again, causing us to suffer the same pain again and again.  Often, such pain gets even amplified after such repeated playbacks.
  • Simulations are often based on limited information and wrong beliefs which end up in simulating a situation which may be far from reality.   Many future situations forecast by such simulations never really materialize, but cause unnecessary alarm.
  • The simulator works with a negative bias and often creates a scenario which is far more pessimistic than the real situation. 

Therefore, it is important to keep our thinking brain focused on a beneficial activity, rather than leaving it on its own.  If we leave it alone, it is likely to get into a negative simulation mode.  As the old saying goes, “An idle mind is the workshop of the devil”.

Our brain is constantly changing – and we have the power to sculpt it

Our brain is a constantly changing organ.  This is called as neuroplasticity in literature.  Moreover, new neurons are also formed throughout life, which is called as neurogenesis.  Any mental activity changes the brain, which implies that if we can control our mental activity, then we can sculpt our brain to make it work better for us.  So, just as we can sculpt our body through systematic physical activities, we can also sculpt our brain through systematic mental activities. Here are some important points in this context:

  • Our thinking brain is the only part of the brain directly under our conscious control.  So, the key lies in deliberately focusing our thinking brain on beneficial activities.  Scientific studies have also shown that focused attention makes physical changes in the brain and causes more development in the neocortex area.
  • Any repetitive activity gets hardwired in the brain.  So, if we focus our attention on practicing the skills beneficial to us, we can become very adept at them.  Even difficult and complex actions can become automatic and easy with repetitive focused attention.  That’s how masters of any profession are able to perform their tasks with ease.
  • Human brain changes throughout the lifespan.  So, even in old age, it is important to engage in focused mental activity in order to have a fruitful, happy life.
  • It has been found that neurogenesis, the process of generation of new neurons – is aided by proper sleep and by physical exercises.  So sleep and exercise are important not just for our physical wellness, but for our mental wellness as well.
  • One technique that helps in training our mind to stay focused is meditation.  Scientific studies have found that people who practice meditation have a better control over their thinking brain and can control their emotional responses better.

Inherent issues in the default functioning of our brain vis-a-vis modern life

Our ancestors lived in a dangerous environment with threats to life looming all the time.  The default functioning of our brain is most suitable for ensuring survival in such a life threatening environment.  However, in the modern, relatively safe environment that most of us live in, this default functioning can cause us a lot of mental suffering.  Some of the main issues in this context are:

  • Strong negative bias:   Since any threat to life clearly has to be given priority over anything else, our brain is designed to detect, remember and respond to any threats much more powerfully than to any opportunities.  However, the same brain circuitry responds very similarly to much softer threats in our current environment, such as a negative comment or criticism by someone.  Even one negative experience from a person or place sticks in our mind much more powerfully than several positive experiences, thus creating a permanent negative bias towards that person or place.
  • Imaginary suffering:  Much of human suffering is fabricated by our brain.  We keep on remembering negative events from the past and keep simulating future negative events.  Our limbic system triggers the same “fight or flight” response to even such imagined negative events.
  • Preference of immediate gratification over long term benefits:  The motivation for pursuing short term benefits is much stronger than for pursuing long term benefits.  This leads to procrastination of any tasks that require careful planning and effort but do not offer any immediate rewards.
  • “Heart” versus “Head” Conflict.  Since both the limbic system (“the heart”) and neocortex (“the head”) get a chance to respond to events in the environment, their responses are often not in agreement.  The emotional response is often very different from the rational response. This “Heart versus Head” conflict can cause a lot of mental stress, while delaying our decision making.
  • Laziness and distractibility of the thinking brain:  It is a challenge to motivate the thinking brain to do some useful work proactively.  It works well when the motivation is driven reactively by the limbic system.  At other times, it goes into the default simulation mode.  There is a tendency to procrastinate any proactive task, anything that requires effort.  Even when the thinking brain is engaged in a task that requires concentration, it is distracted frequently by the limbic system, which is always active and looking for stimulation.

Consequences of the above problems

  1. Frequent arousal of the limbic system and the “fight or flight” response can have negative effects on our physical and psychological health.  Physically, it can impact all our vital systems, including our cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, endocrine system and the immune system, making us prone to a variety of diseases.  Psychologically, it can cause anxiety, depression, poor concentration and an overall feeling of distress.
  2. If the thinking brain fails to intervene in a high arousal situation and the limbic system gets to hijack the brain, it can have disastrous consequences such as physical violence, verbal abuse, destruction, or other extreme actions.
  3. Preference of pursuing short term gratification over long term benefits can cause us to suffer in multiple ways.  It can prevent us from attaining our full potential in life. It can lead to harmful addictions, since most addictive substances provide short term pleasure at the expense of long-term ill-effects.

What is the solution?

The solution lies in using our thinking brain effectively to guide our actions.  Our thinking brain, if focused on the right activities, has the power to change the hard wired brain, control our limbic system and make us much more competent in dealing with the environment as compared to the uncontrolled, default functioning of the brain.

However, the thinking brain cannot stay focused easily since the limbic system is always trying to distract it.  Moreover, the main center of motivation is the limbic system; hence we need its support to bring energy and enthusiasm into what we are doing.  So, ideally, the thinking brain and the limbic system (head and heart) have to work together to bring the best in us.  When they are really working together in perfect synchronization, one experiences a state of “flow”, when one works at peak performance almost effortlessly and with a joyful feeling.  In this state, one is so focused on the activity that one loses track of everything else, including that of time, oneself and the environment.  Most of the top performers in their fields experience this state very often.  Perhaps, you have also experienced it some time.  Our goal should be to reach that state as often as we can.

Although, it is hard to keep our thinking brain focused, with practice one can become progressively better at it.  Let us now look at some ways of improving that focus.

How to do it?

In this section, we will cover some practical tips for better utilization of our brain, as compared to its default functioning, in order to improve our happiness and well being.

1. Have a purpose. We all need to have a purpose in life to drive our actions – a purpose beyond survival, beyond the primal needs common to all animals.  Having a purpose automatically brings some focus in your life.  It leads to definition of goals and a roadmap to achieve those goals.  Without a clear purpose, you won’t know what to focus on and your mind can go haywire and get you into a negative spiral.

The purpose can change with time, go but at every stage of life, one must be clear about one’s primary purpose at that stage. For example, someone’s purpose could be “bring up my children in the best possible way”, which would lead to goals such as earn money, give a good education to the children, live in a good neighborhood, etc.

It has been found that people living in all the “blue zones” (the regions of high longevity) have a strong sense of purpose even in their advanced years.  Okinawans call it “ikigai”, which means “a reason for being”.

If you don’t have a sense of purpose, then make an effort to find it.  For most people, it is not hard to find, since most of us have responsibilities of family, profession and society that defines our purpose.  It could be just a matter of stating it clearly.  You may also define a new purpose, such as learning a musical instrument or a new skill to give yourself a sense of purpose.  You could also become a part of a higher purpose such as “remove poverty”, “remove  illiteracy”, etc.  But do spend some time on getting a good sense of your purpose, something that excites you to wake up every day.

2. Motivate yourself fully by bringing your head and heart together. Once you have a purpose and have defined your goals, then you need to pursue your goals and keep yourself energized to do so.  We have two main centers of motivation in the brain. One is proactive, deliberate and reasoned motivation, driven by our thinking brain, our “head”.  Such motivation is generally based on long term benefits and can make you sacrifice short term rewards in favor of long term benefits.  The other is reactive and passionate motivation, driven by the limbic system, our “heart”. It is generally driven by short term rewards.  For best performance, both of these should be in sync.  If driven purely by head, the experience of doing a task can be dull and unexciting and hence one may not be able to put one’s full energy into it.  If driven purely by heart, the experience can be pleasant in the short term, but the effects may be harmful in the long run.  So it is better to get them in sync. Otherwise, your efforts are likely to be “half-hearted”.  Here are some techniques to get them in sync:

a. When the motivation for an action is driven primarily by the head, you can bring the heart (emotion) into it by visualizing the long term benefits from that action.  For example, suppose your head has determined that a morning workout is good for you, but your heart is not into it.  If you force yourself to go for a workout without getting your heart into it, you may feel bored, your effort may be “half hearted” and you may not enjoy doing it.  However, if you remind yourself about the benefits of the workout and visualize yourself in a fit and healthy state, your heart may get into it and make you energized to do it.  In that case, you would have achieved full motivation, your effort will be “full hearted” and you will also enjoy doing it.

b. When the motivation is driven primarily by the heart, do check with your head about it.  If the head gives a green signal, then there is no problem and you can proceed with full enthusiasm.  If the head raises some objections, then it is better to change your action plan in a way that gets the head into sync.  For example, if your heart tells you to go for a movie with your friends and your head tells you that there is an important task pending, then it would be better to plan your schedule in a way that the important task is taken care of before you go for the movie. Then, you will have both your head and heart in sync, and be able to really enjoy the movie.  Otherwise, even if you go for the movie, the pending task will be at the back of your mind and you may not be able to fully enjoy it.

3. Accept some basic truths, including inevitability of some pain and suffering.  We need to accept some basic truths in life.  We need to accept that most things in life are really not under control and hence will not always go the way we would like them to go.  Life is inherently difficult and requires constant effort.   New problems come up all the time and you have to deal with them.  Certain things are inevitable, such as old age and death.  Things are generally not ideal or perfect.  You cannot win all the time. There is no place that is completely safe or secure.  You cannot be fully sure about anything, life in inherently uncertain.  There will always be some losses, including loss of things very dear to you.  This also means that worry, anxiety, stress, fear and grief are inevitable as we move through life.  You are not alone in this.  Everyone has all these problems, even the richest and the most powerful ones.   Once you accept these fundamental realities, you will start enjoying the struggle of life.

4. Understand that some stress is good for you. Stress drives us for action, gives us energy to face challenges and achieve our best performance.  One should not expect to be completely stress-free.  Do not get stressed by stress itself.  Rather, one should learn to channelize the energy generated by stress towards productive, beneficial tasks that address the root cause of stress.

5. Clean-up your memories, your inner world: Your past experiences determine your views, beliefs and behavior.  You carry two kinds of past memories: useful and harmful.  Because of the negative bias of the brain, the negative, harmful memories tend to accumulate much faster and become more voluminous than the positive, useful ones.  It is very important to correct this imbalance, in order to be happy and productive. By conscious effort, it is possible to reverse this tendency and have more positive memories stored. Take the following steps to increase the volume of useful memories and decrease that of harmful ones:

a.  Increase your awareness of positive experiences:  Since we are attracted more towards bad news than good news, one needs to pay special attention to good news.  Relish all positive experiences such as faces of smiling children, minor successes in your daily work, good time spent with family and friends, an act of kindness by someone, etc.  By being consciously aware of such experiences and not just taking them for granted, you can make them a part of your memory.

b.  Proactively recall positive experiences of the past: Recall your favorite vacations, past successes, time spent with people you love, compliments given to you by others, etc.  It may help to write down all your positive experiences that have a soothing effect on your mind.  Do this particularly when some negative memory is bothering you.

c.  Neutralize negative memories, particularly the ones that annoy you often by these techniques:

i. Attach a positive angle to that event.  For example, if it is a past failure for which you blame yourself, remember how that failure helped you to become a stronger person.  Over a period of time, the harmful effect of that memory will get reduced.

ii. Be kind and generous to yourself and anyone else involved in that memory.  Forgive yourself and any other person you blame for that negative experience.

iii. Recall opposite, good experiences that act as their antidotes.  If it is about a failure, recall successes, if it about mistreatment by someone, recall people who have loved and supported you.

iv. If you need to make amends for something, go ahead and do that to bring a closure to that memory – e.g. it could be simply be a matter of saying sorry to someone that you hurt.

6. Deal intelligently with your fears and other negative emotions: Fear and other negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and worry arise when your limbic system senses some threat in the environment.  These threats may be real or imaginary.  Even if they are real, the intensity of emotion generated may be disproportionate to the probability of the threat or its likely impact.  Therefore, it is important to involve your thinking brain when such emotions arise and deal with them after some rational evaluation rather than reacting as soon as the emotion arises.  This is also called as “emotional intelligence” in the literature.   Here are some tips for dealing with such negative emotions:

a. The first step is to calm down your limbic system, particularly if the arousal is high. Rational thought is best possible with a calm mind. Here are some possible ways to calm your limbic system:

i. Take deep breaths.  Relax your muscles that are getting tense. You may even lie down and progressively relax all your muscles.  By exercising conscious control of your breath and muscles, you send an “all is well” signal to the limbic system, causing it to cool down.

ii. Connect with people who support you – friends, family, mentor, etc.  If they are away, visualize them, because doing so will make you feel better and protected.

iii. Find shelter in an activity that makes you feel safe and protected.  It could be reciting a prayer, a chant or an inspirational poem.  It could be reading an inspirational book or a religious book.

iv. Provide support to yourself by assuming the role of your own mentor or parent.  Be reassuring, encouraging and kind to yourself.  Strongly counter any negative thoughts that are pulling you down.

b. Once you are calm, evaluate the source of fear realistically and objectively.  Ask yourself questions like:  What is the likelihood of its happening?  What is the likely damage if it happens?  How long will it last?  You may find that the event is very unlikely to happen or even if it does, it is not such a big deal.  This realization will have an immediate soothing effect.

If it is a problem that you really need to worry about, then start thinking about how to deal with it.  Do you have the information and the expertise to deal with it?  Can someone help you – a family member, friend or a professional?  Write down the problem and the possible solutions.  Choose the best course of action and start working on it. Doing something about the problem will make you feel better and will also improve the situation.

c. Do not try to numb your negative emotions by escape routes such as alcohol, drugs, etc.  They will just get you into a negative spiral, without solving the problem.

7. Nurture positive emotions of love, compassion, kindness, empathy: You will find yourself much happier and fulfilled by cultivating these positive emotions.  Here are some ways of doing so:

a. Spend more time in the company of friends, family and anyone you love and care about. It is very soothing to do so and it makes one’s life more meaningful.  People in all the “blue zones” have one thing in common – they give priority to family and friends.

b. Try to understand all situations from other person’s point of you rather than just your own.  Think of all possible reasons why a person is behaving the way he/she is.  This may bring compassion in you (rather than negative emotions) even when in an adversarial situation.

c. Focus on similarities with other people rather than differences.  This will enlarge your world; it will bring more people in the circle of “us”.

d. Be kind to people. Resolve to do some act of kindness every day.  Kindness can be expressed in several ways – wishing someone well, helping someone in need, saying nice things, etc.

8. Cultivate Hope and Optimism. They really help you move ahead in spite of failures, obstacles and miseries.  Being hopeful and optimistic is more than just believing that everything will work out fine.  It is believing in your ability to find a way to realize your objectives, in spite of all the problems. Hope and optimism enable you to keep yourself motivated, to explore alternative methods to accomplish your objectives, to learn new skills if required, to redefine the goals if required, but keep going forward.  When your own mind or people around you are trying to paint a negative scenario for the future, deliberately paint an alternate positive scenario, and work towards making that positive scenario a reality.

9. Be mindful. Being mindful means paying full attention to your current activity and not shifting this attention till you deliberately want to do so.  Opposite of “mindfulness” is “mindlessness” or “absent-mindedness”.  When you do any task mindfully, you do it well and also enjoy doing it.  Here are some ways to improve your mindfulness:

a. When you start an activity that requires focus, tell yourself that you are going to just stay focused on that activity till it is done and not get distracted by anything else.

b. Sit in an erect posture.  This sends a signal to your brain that you need to stay vigilant and alert.

c. Create an atmosphere in which distractions such as noises, calls, etc. are minimized.  Don’t take calls, don’t check emails or messages for that duration.

d. If distractions do happen, then tell yourself that you are currently committed to the current task and will come back to attend to other things when the current task is over.   I have found it very useful to simply write down the distracting thought and telling myself that I will come back to it later.

10. Practice meditation. Meditation is a great practice for strengthening your capability to focus your attention.  There are many different techniques of meditation, but they all center on deliberately focusing your attention on one single thing – your breath, a word, a person, or any other object for some period of time.  It helps in multiple ways.   It shifts your attention from stressful thoughts and hence soothes your mind.  It builds your capability to concentrate and be mindful.  Scientific studies have confirmed that meditation increases the gray matter of neo-cortex region and improves the psychological functions of attention, compassion and empathy.  Meditation is like a workout for your “attention muscle”.  Just as physical workout helps you in feeling physically well throughout the day, meditation helps you in being mindful throughout the day.  To reap these benefits, one needs to practice it regularly, even if it is just a few minutes in a day.  If you are new to meditation, it is best to learn it through a good teacher.  Look for a meditation class near you.

11. Reduce self importance. We create a lot of stress for ourselves by trying to enhance our importance and prove our superiority.   We would be much happier if we just focus on contributing our best, without being concerned about our importance.  See yourself as part of a bigger picture.  Each one of us is really a very small player in the entire scheme of things in this  universe.  When we go from this world, the gap would be very easily filled, just as it has been for so many people who have come before us and gone.  So, why waste any energy on self importance?  Just focus on your useful contribution to the world, and not on yourself.  You will feel much happier.

12. Eat well, sleep well and be physically active. These contribute not just to your physical wellness, but mental wellness as well.

Conclusion

The default functioning of our brain is most suitable for the dangerous environment that our ancestors lived in.  In the current environment, it causes us a lot of suffering through unnecessary arousal of our limbic system.  Our greatest asset, our thinking brain can help us not only in responding rationally to any challenges in the environment, but also in planning and doing things for our long term well being.   However, it is difficult to keep it focused because it is constantly distracted by the limbic system and by the simulations of past and future.  The inherent negative bias of the brain further complicates the situation.  However, by conscious effort, it is possible to train ourselves to keep our thinking brain engaged in beneficial activities that result in our overall happiness and well being.  We covered some of the techniques that help in achieving that:  having a purpose, bringing head and heart together,  neutralizing negative memories, cultivating positive emotions, being optimistic and hopeful, being mindful, practicing meditation, reducing self importance and taking care of your physical health.  I hope that you have found some of this information useful.   Do share your feedback and experiences.

(Disclaimer:   The article is for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. The content is based on scientific literature studied by the author and on his own experience, and is not intended to address any mental health issues.  You must consult a qualified mental health professional for any mental health issues.   The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of using any of the information or techniques mentioned in this article.)

 

 

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Be Mindful of Your Body Posture to Avoid Pains and Feel Energetic

Modern lifestyle is very sedentary for most people. Most people spend large part of their day in a sitting position, which can lead to a lot of health issues. In this article, I want to draw your attention to the importance of correct body posture in maintaining our overall wellness. Improper posture can lead to body pains, such as back pain, neck pain and headaches. It can also cause a feeling of tiredness and lack of energy. Understanding some basic principles of postures can help you to be free from many avoidable pains and enjoy your day with a feeling of freshness lasting till the end of the day.

Correct postures for daily activities for avoiding pains and feeling energetic

What is posture?

A posture is simply a position that our body assumes to balance itself and hold itself up against gravity. Gravity is pulling each part of the body down – so the body’s muscles have to work in order to counter those forces and hold the body up. There are multiple positions (postures) possible in accomplishing that, each causing different pressures and stresses on body’s different parts. Some of those positions are not good for our health, if we stay in them for a long time.

What are good postures and bad postures?

Let us understand this from a logical, common sense point of view. A good posture should not place undue and prolonged stress on any part of the body and should not obstruct any of the important body functions such as blood circulation or breathing. Excessive stress on any muscle, cartilage, tendon or nerve can lead to body pains. Prolonged bending and squeezing of abdomen can not only create pressure on all the organs in the abdomen, but also prevent full breathing by obstructing the diaphragm. A good posture would avoid such conditions.

Considering the above points, one can further conclude that a good posture should have the following features:

  • Even distribution of the body weight, with as perfect a balance as possible. Any uneven weight distribution would lead to excess load on some muscles, causing them to work more and get tired. Compare this to a car – if its wheels are not aligned and balanced, it leads to excessive wear and tear of the tires on one side, and the driver also feels a pull towards one side. Likewise, the body also needs to be aligned and balanced in order to function properly.
  • Vertical alignment of all the body parts – head, neck, torso and legs. Compare this to a building or a wall. If you have seen a mason constructing a wall, you must have observed that he is always making sure that the wall is straight by using a plumb line. Otherwise, the gravitational forces act unevenly on the two sides of the wall, making it unstable. The same principal applies to our body. Our spine (or backbone), the critical component in holding us up, is made up of vertebrae, that are stacked on top of each other, with cushioning disks in between.   Connecting tissues and muscles around the spine hold it together. In addition to providing support to the body, the spine also carries all the important nerves of the body. So it is extremely important to maintain the health of our spine and not abuse it. It is designed to be very strong and flexible, but can cause problems if abused. If the spine is not kept in its natural, straight position most of the time, it  can have several consequences, such as:
    • In a bent position, some of the muscles have to work extra hard to counteract the gravity.  This can cause them to get tired. This is OK if the bending is for a short time, but if this happens for a prolonged time, it can lead to soreness of the muscles.  If it is repeated day after day, your body can respond to it by uneven development of muscles, making you feel somewhat comfortable in that unnatural position.
    • Any bends in the spine for excessive time can cause uneven pressure on the vertebrae and the disks between them, which may cause damage to them if it happens for a prolonged period. It can also create excessive pressure on the nerves, leading to pain.
    • Any prolonged bend in the abdomen can create pressure on the abdominal organs, leading to their dysfunction. It can also obstruct the diaphragm and prevent proper breathing.
  • Carry loads as per the muscle’s load carrying capacity. An improper posture can cause major loads to be carried by minor muscles, putting them under great stress, which can even injure them. For example, the leg muscles have the capacity to carry heavy loads, while the lower back muscles have a far lower load carrying capacity. So while lifting a heavy object from the ground, one must use a posture that makes the leg muscles carry the load, not the back muscles.

Good postures for common daily activities

If you apply the above principles to some of the common positions during the day, one can conclude the following about each of those positions:

Standing

Stand “tall”, with your head, neck, torso and legs in a straight line – aligned to an imaginary plumb line from your head to feet. Your weight should be spread evenly on both the legs. There should be no leaning on side, front or back. Your head should be up, looking forward, not looking up or down. A good test is to put an object such as a book on your head and see that it is balanced and does not fall, as in the picture below.

Some time ago, I started experiencing frequent soreness in my left leg . I observed that while standing, I was putting more weight on my left leg as compared to the right leg. I immediately corrected that mistake and the soreness disappeared.

Sitting

Even is sitting position, your upper body should be vertical, and you should be able to balance a book on your head, similar to the standing position. Your weight should be supported by your hips, not your lower back. Your feet should rest at the floor or on a foot rest. If you are sitting for a long period, your lower back should be supported by the back of the chair, preferably with an ergonomic design, with its back having curves matching the natural curves of the spine. We will cover sitting in greater detail later in the article.

Sleeping/Lying down

It is important to have a mattress that is hard enough to support your back without sinking. A mattress that sinks too much will cause your spine to bend, thus causing unnecessary stress on the muscles. It is also important to ensure that your neck stays straight in various sleeping positions. When sleeping on your back, it is best not to use a pillow, or use a very narrow pillow. A thick pillow will cause your neck to bend, strain the muscles, and you may wake up with a sore neck. When sleeping on the side, it is best to use a pillow of the height that covers the gap between the head and the bed, so that your neck remains straight. You may have to experiment with various pillow sizes and even use multiple pillows to ensure that the neck stays straight in the side sleeping position. I had sore neck problem a few years ago, which got resolved by making this change.

Lifting a heavy object

When lifting a heavy object from the floor, it is important to ensure that the load is carried by your leg muscles and not the lower back muscles. One common mistake that should be avoided is bending your back while lifting. This produces undue stress on your lower back muscles and can injure them, since they are not designed to lift heavy weights. On the other hand, your leg muscles are designed to lift heavy weights. So, you should bend at the knees while keeping your back straight, grab the object, bring it close to your body and then stand up, so that your leg muscles do the lifting. The picture below illustrates the correct lifting technique. Notice that the back is straight all the time through all the lifting steps.

 

Walking

The same rules apply as for standing. Your torso and neck should be straight and you should be able to walk with a book placed on your head, without it falling. If you are carrying any weights while walking, such as shopping bags, ensure that they are balanced on both the sides. It is best to carry two similarly weighing bags in each of your hands. If you are carrying only one bag, keep switching your hands frequently to maintain an overall even load on both the sides.

While using your smart phone

Today, you see people using their smart phones all the time – while sitting, standing and even walking. This “smartphone posture”, with neck bent downwards towards the phone can lead to neck and back pains over a period of time. You should hold the cell phone to your eye level, so that your neck remains straight. Never use the cell phone while walking – it not only spoils your posture, but is also dangerous and can lead to accidents.

No posture is good for a long time – you need to move frequently

After the above discussion on good postures, I think it is equally important to understand that no posture is good if you remain in it for a long time. Each posture engages a unique set of muscles to hold that position. Even in a good posture, the set of muscles involved in holding it would get tired after a while. One cannot hold a good posture indefinitely without getting tired. Conversely, no posture is bad for a short while. In fact, it is impossible to do your work during the day by remaining stiff in any one position. For example, we have to turn our neck in different directions while performing our daily tasks – it is impossible to always keep the neck upright and keep looking forward all the time. So, one has to use common sense and not apply the good posture principles so rigidly that they become counter-productive.

Movement is the key. Human body is designed to move. Our ancestors were moving for most of their waking time. Even today, children behave the same way – they are always moving and never sit still. It is only when they start going to school that they learn the habit of sitting still for long hours.

You need to keep changing postures to keep your muscles relaxed. Movement shifts the load from one set of muscles to other, thus relaxing some set of muscles in the process. Therefore, it is much easier to remain fresh and not get tired for a long period while moving than by remaining still. Look at small children – they are never still in any position throughout the day and are still bubbling with energy even at the end of the day. They don’t have to worry about postures. I really believe that if you bring more movement into your routine, you may not have to worry about postures at all, just like small children.

Sitting in a chair – the posture that needs most attention

Studies have shown that most people today spend more time sitting than sleeping. Whether we are working in our office, or driving a car, or watching TV at home, we seem to be in a sitting posture during most of our waking time. Some experts believe that sitting is a health risk that needs as much attention as some other health risks such as smoking. Prolonged sitting can cause not just pains in your body, but can also cause increase risks of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Therefore, we need to pay special attention to sitting.

Let us first understand the correct sitting posture. It is illustrated very well in the following picture:

You should start by examining your current workspace and adjusting it to match the above picture as close as possible. The most important thing is to adjust the height of your chair and the monitor/laptop, so that your back and neck stays straight. You may have to invest in a good quality, ergonomic chair and perhaps in a laptop stand to achieve the above.   This investment of your time and money will go a long way in improving your wellness. Once your workspace is properly aligned, you just have to remember to sit straight, with hips back and lower back supported by the backrest of the chair. Consciously examine your posture every now and then, including doing the “book on the head” test. Over a period of time, your body will learn to be in the proper posture automatically.

However, remember that movement is the key. While it is important to be in the proper posture while sitting, it is even more important to avoid sitting continuously for long periods. Get up every 20-30 minutes to stretch or move around. This will help relax not just your body muscles, but also your eyes. When we focus our eyes on an object such as computer screen for a long period, the eye muscles get strained, which can lead to several problems. Moving your eyes away from the screen at frequent intervals will help you maintain healthier eyes.

Some people are also experimenting with “standing desks” and initial reports have indicated that people feel much better by using them as compared to normal, sitting desks. This may be something worth experimenting.

What causes bad posture?

The main cause of bad posture is prolonged sitting and lack of activity, which eventually leads to weakening of muscles and a bad posture. We generally have proper posture as children. But as we grow up, we get into a sedentary lifestyle and start slouching.  If slouching becomes a habit,  your body will eventually respond to it by uneven development of muscles, similar to uneven wearing of tires of a misaligned car.  So, slouching can reinforce itself over a period of time and you may start feeling comfortable in a bad posture without realizing the gradual damage it does to your body.   So, be aware of the long term consequences of a bad posture and take steps to correct it.

Effects of bad posture

Bad posture leads to excessive strain on your muscles, joints and nerves. This leads to many issues such as back pain, neck pain, headaches, fatigue, poor concentration and stiffness of joints. Moreover, bad posture causes undue pressure on the abdomen and can lead to inefficient breathing, impaired digestive system and a potbelly.

Importance of strengthening your core muscles

The part of the body that connects the upper part of the body (chest and above) to the lower part of the body (legs) is known as body’s core. The muscles in this area – of the abdomen, back and pelvis – hold you up and keep your spine from collapsing. It is said that without the core muscles, your vertebral column (spine) would collapse with just 10 Kg. (20 lbs.) of weight. So, it is important to maintain the health and strength of these muscles. If these muscles are weak, you will feel it difficult to hold yourself in a proper sitting or standing posture for long, feel tired and experience pain.

Physical activities such as brisk walking, jogging/running, stair climbing, yoga, etc. help in building core muscle strength. There are several exercises meant particularly for strengthening your core muscles such as crunches, reverse crunches, leg lifts, V-sits, planks, side planks, “supermans”, push-ups, squats, lunges and hip lifts. If you exercise regularly and have an active lifestyle, you may be OK. However, if you are sedentary and do not have any planned exercise routine, your core may be weak, which may make it difficult for you to hold your posture. You may want to get advice from a physiotherapist or a fitness trainer to make a customized core strengthening exercise plan for you.

Importance of stretching

To keep your body flexible and to muscles relaxed, it is important to do stretching exercises. Some of the stretching exercises that you can do at your desk are illustrated at: https://www.360wellnesscare.com/OnlineConsultationApp/pages/content/az/BusinessProfessionals/BProfPhysicalActivities.jsp .
Whenever you feel soreness in your body, stretching the muscles will help you in relieving that soreness. One principle to remember is that of curve reversal: if your body has been curved in a particular way, then stretch in the opposite direction to relax the muscles and remove any soreness. For example, if you have been leaning forward for a while, then stretching your back backwards will help you release any tension in the back muscles. Develop the habit of getting up from your desk and stretching at regular intervals.

Conclusion

I would like to conclude my emphasizing the following points:

  1. You will feel much better physically by being aware of your posture at all times and following some of the basic principles discussed in this article. Some of the key points to remember are:
    1. The most important thing to remember is movement. If you are moving and changing your body position frequently, you may not have to worry about anything else.
    2. The most important posture to pay attention to is the sitting posture. Adjust your workspace and try to adopt a posture similar to that illustrated in this article.
    3. But remember that the best way to avoid most of the issues related to sitting is to avoid sitting continuously for more than 30 minutes. Just 2-3 minutes of getting up, walking or stretching will do you a lot of good and make you more efficient in your work. Don’t worry about losing concentration. Your overall concentration will actually improve if you are moving regularly rather than sitting still for long hours.
    4. In any position, remember the basic principles of keeping your body straight, particularly the back and the neck. While standing or sitting, you can test it by placing a book on your head as explained earlier. While sleeping, keep your neck straight by adjusting pillows depending on your sleeping position.
    5. Remain relaxed. Don’t be stiff in order to maintain a posture. Keep moving, changing postures. Listen to your body. A good posture should make you feel relaxed and you should be able to hold it effortlessly. If you are feeling tense in any part of the body, change to a position that makes you feel comfortable. A theoretically correct posture may not always be the most comfortable for you, so it is important to listen to your body and make adjustments accordingly.
    6. Be always vigilant about your posture. A bad posture can be corrected only through constant vigilance.
    7. Ensure the strength of your core muscles by appropriate exercising.
  2. Spread this knowledge in your sphere of influence. Some of the suggestions are:
    1. For school teachers/administrators: Teach proper postures and their importance to the children. Encourage them to stand up and stretch after each class. It would be even better to organize the class schedule in a manner that avoids continuous sitting for a long time. For example, the schedule can have each sit-down class followed with an activity oriented class such as lab work, project work, sports, etc.
    2. For employers: Teach proper postures and their importance to your employees. Provide them with ergonomically designed furniture, adjusted to each individual so that a posture similar to the one described above can be maintained. Encourage them to get up frequently from their chairs. This investment will definitely give you returns by having happier, healthier and more productive employees.

I hope that you have found the above discussion useful. Please do share your own experiences and comments.

(Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Each individual’s physical condition is different and general rules may not apply to everyone. You must consult a qualified health care provider before making any decisions about any lifestyle changes including any changes in your posture or physical activity habits. The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of making any lifestyle changes as a result of reading this article.)

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Alcohol – its good side and bad side. To drink or not to drink?

Why an article on alcohol right after articles on proteins, fats and carbohydrates?   All these are calorie contributors.   Alcohol is also a calorie contributor and should be considered in your calorie equation if you consume it.  However, alcohol is not consumed for its calories, but for its “feel good” effects.   Its consumption has been controversial ever since humans started consuming it.  Some cultures totally forbid it, while in others it is a part of life.  In this article, we will look at both the positive and negative effects of alcohol, which may help you to decide your own personal strategy about alcohol.

Alcohol - its good side and bad side

What is alcohol and why so many people consume it?

Ethyl alcohol or ethanol is a compound made by fermentation of carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and is found in beverages such as beer, wine, whiskey, rum, etc.  Although alcohol is made from carbohydrates, it is a totally different compound and is metabolized totally differently.   In fact, its glycemic index is zero since it does not end up as glucose in the blood.

Alcoholic beverages are consumed mainly because of their intoxicating effects on the brain, leading to a temporary feeling of relaxation, stress relief and euphoria.   So, alcohol is essentially a sedative and a mood enhancing drug.

How is alcohol processed by the body?

To understand the effects of alcohol on our body, let us first understand how alcohol is processed by our body.

Alcohol enters our bloodstream very quickly through the stomach lining and the intestines.   It is not broken down in the stomach or intestines, but enters the blood as it is.  It is then processed slowly by the liver.   Till the alcohol is cleared from the blood by the liver, the alcohol laden blood keeps on circulating to all the parts of our body, thus affecting all the organs of our body.  The higher the concentration of the alcohol in the blood, the more pronounced these effects are.

Liver processes alcohol by changing it to acetaldehyde, and then into acetate, which is used up as fuel to produce energy.   While there is acetate in the body, it is used as the preferred fuel source.  Fat metabolism completely shuts down and sugar metabolism also slows down while there is alcohol in the blood.   This is because the body regards alcohols as a toxin and hence gives top priority to removing it from the blood as soon as possible.  However, the liver has its limitations.  It can process alcohol rather slowly, at an average rate of 10 grams per hour, which is about the amount of alcohol in one small drink, i.e. about 30 ml (1 oz.) of hard liquor such as whiskey.  If you consume alcohol at a rate faster than that, your blood alcohol level continues to rise.

Why alcohol makes you feel good?

When alcohol loaded blood enters our brain, it starts interfering with the functioning of the brain and the nervous system.   Our brain and nervous systems are made of cells called neurons, which communicate with other neurons through chemicals called neurotransmitters.  When there is alcohol in the blood, it starts interfering with this communication process, and slows it down.   That’s why alcohol is classified by doctors as a central nervous system depressant.   At lower levels of blood alcohol concentration, this slowing down of brain and nervous system has a relaxing, stress relieving effect.   Moreover, alcohol also triggers the secretion of neurotransmitters called endorphins, which are the “feel good” chemicals in our body.  Endorphins have the effect of reducing pain and creating a sensation of pleasure.   So, the net effect is that you feel relaxed and elated.  This “high” experience is best at low to moderate levels of blood alcohol level, after which things start getting bad, as explained in the next section.

What happens if your blood alcohol level continues to rise?

If you continue to consume alcohol faster than the rate at which your liver processes it, your blood alcohol concentration continues to rise, with noticeable harmful effects.  Let us look at this in some detail.

Blood alcohol content (BAC), also called as blood alcohol concentration or blood alcohol level is a commonly used measure for alcohol intoxication for legal and medical purposes. It is expressed as percentage of alcohol in the blood by volume. For instance, a BAC of 0.10 means that 0.10% (one tenth of one percent) of a person’s blood is alcohol.   You start noticing effects of alcohol at BAC levels above 0.020.  At a level of 0.040, most people feel relaxed, less inhibited and joyous.  It is best not to let your BAC go above that, because at levels above 0.040, things start getting bad.  At a level of .060, judgment, depth perception and peripheral vision start getting impaired.   At .080, there is definite impairment of muscle coordination and driving skills. This is the legal intoxication level in most states in the US.  At .100, there is clear deterioration of reaction time, control and reflexes. Staggering and slurred speech are also noticeable.  At .120, vomiting usually occurs.  At .150 to .250, most people begin to experience memory blackouts.  At .300, many people lose consciousness and bladder function gets impaired.  At .400, most people lose consciousness and some die.  At .450, breathing stops, because this is the fatal dose for most people.

The legal limit for intoxication (drunk driving) varies across countries and states.  It is in the range of 0.020 to 0.080 in most countries.  For most states in India, it is 0.030 and for most states in United States, it is 0.080.  In many countries, fines and punishment vary with the BAC level measured when a person is caught for drunk driving.

Definitions of moderate drinking, heavy drinking and binge drinking

Levels of drinking are often described in terms of moderate drinking, heavy drinking and binge drinking. So, it is good to define these terms unambiguously.  US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has defined these terms as below.

One drink is defined as a drink containing 0.6 fluid ounces (18 ml) of alcohol, which is typically found in 1.5 ounces (45 ml) of distilled spirits such as whiskey/vodka/rum/gin (80 proof, or 40% alcohol), or  12 ounces (355 ml) of beer (5% alcohol) or 5 ounces (150 ml) of wine (12% alcohol).

Moderate drinking is defined as consumption of up to 1 drink a day for women and up to 2 drinks a day for men.

Heavy drinking is defined as consumption of more than 3 drinks in a day or more than 7 drinks in a week for women.  For men, it is consumption of more than 4 drinks in a day or more than 14 drinks in a week.

Binge drinking is consumption of more than 4 drinks for women or more than 5 drinks for men in a period less than two hours.

Long term effects of alcohol consumption

Habitual consumption of alcohol also has some long term effects on our health, some positive and some negative, as elaborated below.

Positive effects

Studies have shown the following positive effects of alcohol, if consumed in moderation.

  • Reduced risk of heart disease, for men over 40 and women over 50
  • Reduced risk of dementia and type II diabetes
  • Reduced risk of mortality from all causes for middle aged and older adults

I would like to re-emphasize that the above positive effects have been observed only for moderate consumption for alcohol, not for heavy or binge drinking.

Negative effects

Several negative effects of alcohol consumption have been observed.

  • Increases risk of cancer, particularly of the breast, liver, rectum, throat, mouth, and esophagus. In women, even light to moderate drinking increases risk of breast cancer.
  • Heavy drinking or binge drinking increases the risk of following diseases:
    • Liver disease, including cirrhosis of liver
    • Heart diseases – high level of fats (triglycerides)  in blood, high blood pressure, heart muscle damage and heart rhythm disturbances
    • Strokes
    • Weight gain/Obesity
    • Type II diabetes
    • Impaired cognitive function
    • Drinking by pregnant women may result in negative behavioral or neurological consequences in the offspring

Effects of heavy drinking on your appearance

Alcohol causes dehydration of the body, including the skin.  This can cause your skin to look dry and dull, and also cause puffiness of the face.  Many habitual heavy drinkers develop puffiness around the eyes.  Moreover, alcohol blocks some of the essential nutrients such as vitamins A, B and C from your skin, which are required for skin’s repair and regeneration.  This can cause premature aging of the skin.

Calories in alcohol

Alcohol has about 7 calories per gram (for comparison, carbohydrates/proteins have about 4 calories per gram and fats have about 9 calories per gram).

Let us look at the calories in a large peg of whiskey (60 ml).  Whiskey typically has 40% alcohol, so 60 ml whiskey has 24 ml alcohol.  Since the density of alcohol is .8 grams/ml, this amounts to 24*0.8 = 19.2 grams of alcohol, which has 19.2*7 = 134 calories.

In distilled spirits such as whiskey and vodka, the entire calorie content is from alcohol.  However, beer and wine contain some carbohydrates too, in addition to alcohol.  Moreover, alcoholic drinks are often mixed with fruit juices, cocktail mixtures, sugar, etc., which contribute to additional calories.   For example, a pina colada cocktail in a typical bar can easily contain about 300 calories, and some cocktails can have more than 500 calories.  Moreover, drinks are typically accompanied with snacks and munchies, which further add to the calorie load.  So, if you are watching your weight, be extremely careful in those cocktail parties!

Does the type of alcohol consumed matter?

For all the positive and negative effects of the alcohol discussed above, it is essentially the amount and pattern of consumption that matters the most, not its source.  However, there are some differences.  Distilled spirits are totally devoid of any nutrients, but beer and wine do contain some nutrients, particularly antioxidants.  Red wine has a particularly good reputation of being rich in resveratrol and other antioxidants, and is often considered as a preferred alcoholic beverage from health point of view.

Alcohol recommendations from authoritative bodies

The recommendations from alcohol consumption from bodies such as USDA and American Heart Association (AHA) can be summarized as follows:

  • If you do not drink, then keep it that way.  Do not start drinking, simply because drinking in moderation is linked to some health benefits.   There is nothing unique about the observed benefits of drinking in moderation.  The same benefits can be achieved by other means.  On the other hand, the associated risks make starting drinking not worthwhile.
  • If you do drink, then do so in moderation.  Drinking more than the moderate amounts (as defined earlier) poses serious health and safety risks.
  • Even low to moderate drinking should be avoided in the following cases:
    • If you have been diagnosed with cancer or have a family history of cancer.
    • If you are under medication/treatment for any disease.  In that case consult your doctor before consuming any alcohol.
    • If you are pregnant.
    • If driving, operating machinery or engaging in any activity that requires control and concentration.

 

Blue zones and alcohol

In most of the places known for high longevity (blue zones), alcohol is consumed in moderation. But in some of the blue zones, it is not consumed at all.  For example, people in Ikaria (Greece) and Sardinia (Italy) regularly drink grape wine and people in Okinawa drink rice wine (Sake).  On the other hand, people in Loma Linda, South California, USA (which is also a blue zone) do not take any alcohol at all.  This leads to the conclusion that moderate consumption of alcohol is perhaps beneficial or at least not that harmful for health.  Otherwise, there would not be such extraordinary longevity in the blue zones like Ikaria, Sardinia and Okinawa.  However, since there are some blue zones like Loma Linda, where people are teetotalers, it means that alcohol is not really necessary for longevity – one has to look at the total lifestyle and not alcohol alone.

So, to drink or not to drink?

I think the recommendation from authoritative bodies like USDA/AHA, as stated above, answer this question very well.  If you do not drink, there is no reason to start drinking.  If you do enjoy drinking, stick to moderate drinking to get the health benefits and avoid the ill-effects of alcohol.  And be aware of the conditions in which you should never drink.  Consult your doctor if there is any doubt.

Moreover, studies have shown that drinking has positive health effects only for people who have positive attitude and have general healthy habits.  Its relaxation and feel good effects are best in a social setting, when you are having a good time with friends or family.   Even when you look at the blue zones, the common factors in all of them are healthy eating, extensive physical activity and a good family/social life leading to a high level of general happiness.  When they drink, it is usually as a part of spending some good time with family and friends.

Let me also point out that there is nothing unique about the known health benefits of alcohol.  The same benefits can be obtained by other means.  Let us look at this in some detail, starting with the main reason of consuming alcohol, the feeling of relaxation and euphoria, the “high” that it generates.  This is because alcohol triggers secretion of endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals in the brain.  Endorphins are also released by several other activities, such as having a good laugh with friends/family, after an intensive physical workout, meditation, experiencing love, listening to good music and by doing any activity that gives you a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.    So, while it may be OK to get that “high” from alcohol once in a while, as a general rule, it is much better to get those endorphins released from a genuinely satisfying activity rather than from a drug like alcohol.  The heart health benefits of alcohol, such as increase in HDL cholesterol levels can be obtained by cardiovascular exercises such as brisk walking and consuming heart healthy foods such as omega-3 fatty acids.  The benefits of resveratrol and other flavonoids in red wine are essentially due to grapes, and can be obtained by consuming grapes or grape juice and also other fruits/vegetables.  So, whether you drink or not is really not that important.  It is far more important to follow an overall healthy lifestyle.

I hope that you have something useful from the above discussion and are better prepared to decide your own strategy regarding drinking.   Please do share your own experiences, thoughts and feedback.

(Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical or legal advice. You must consult a qualified health care provider before making any decisions about consuming alcohol.   You must also understand your local laws related to consuming alcohol, including legal drinking age, drunk driving, etc. before deciding to consume alcohol.   The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of making any decisions regarding alcohol consumption as a result of reading this article.)

 

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Carbohydrates, Fiber and Strategies for Optimal Intake

After articles on proteins and fats, I think it is natural to have an article on the third main macronutrient, carbohydrates.   Carbohydrates are also sometimes thought of as bad (just like fats), since they too are associated with weight gain and other health issues.  However, carbohydrates too are an essential component of a healthy diet.   Instead of avoiding carbohydrates, one has to consume the right types and in right amounts to ensure that they are beneficial to us rather than harmful.

What are carbohydrates and why we need them?

Carbohydrates are energy providing macronutrients, found mainly in plant foods and are essential for our body due to the following reasons:

  • They are the main source of energy, the fuel for our body.    Glucose, a carbohydrate is the main source of energy for our body cells, and the only source of energy which the brain cells and red blood cells can use.  Due to this reason, our body maintains a certain level of glucose in our blood at all times.
  • Carbohydrate rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains are packed with micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which are essential for our body.
  • Fiber, another type of carbohydrate, is helpful in maintaining our digestive and cardiovascular health.  It helps in good bowel movements and prevents conditions such as constipation and hemorrhoids.  It also helps in lowering cholesterol levels, and reduces the risk of certain cancers such as colon cancer.

Although our body can convert fats and proteins to glucose for energy needs, it is desirable to rely on carbohydrates as our main energy source rather than fats or proteins.    This is because our body can use carbohydrates much more easily for energy as compared to fats or proteins.  Moreover, a diet with low carbohydrates is also likely to be low in fiber, vitamins and minerals, which can lead to severe health issues.

Types of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are found in foods in three main forms – sugars, starches and fiber.  Each type has a unique role to play in our system, so it is important to get a basic understanding about them.

Sugars

Sugars are found naturally in several foods such as fruits, milk and honey.  They are also added to foods in the form of table sugar, corn syrup, etc.

Sugars are also known as “simple carbohydrates”, since they are easiest to be digested and absorbed.  The simplest among these are single molecule sugars (also called monosaccharides), which can be directly absorbed without any need to be broken down further by our digestive system.  There are three main types of such simple sugars:  glucose, fructose and galactose.  Glucose and fructose are found in fruits and honey.  Galactose is not found independently, but is a part of lactose, a sugar found in milk.

The other types of sugars are made by combining two molecules of simple sugars, hence they are also called as disaccharides.   There are three main types of disaccharides: lactose, sucrose and maltose.    They are first broken down by the digestion process to their simple sugar constituents and then absorbed.  For example, table sugar is sucrose, which is made of one molecule of glucose and one of fructose.  Lactose, the sugar found in milk is made up of one molecule of glucose and one of galactose.

Glucose is the main sugar that circulates in our blood and provides energy to all the cells.  Although the other two simple sugars, fructose and galactose are also absorbed into the blood, they cannot directly be used by the body tissues for energy.  They are transported to liver where they are converted to glucose.

The advantage of foods with sugars, such as fruits is that they can be a source of instant energy and can be consumed raw.  That’s why fruits are recommended when there are high requirements of energy, such as workout in a gym, sports or intense physical work.

Starches

Starches are found in vegetables, grains and beans/legumes/pulses.  Starches are also called “complex carbohydrates” or polysaccharides, because they are made of larger molecules, comprising of several (upto thousands of) simple sugar molecules.  There is a range of complexity, depending on which some of the starches are easy to digest, some are harder to digest and some are not digestible at all.  The digestible starches get broken down into their constituent sugars, which are then absorbed into the blood.  So, the end products of starches are also simple sugars.

Starches need to be broken down into simple sugars before they can be absorbed.  This process happens partially during the cooking process, that’s why cooked vegetables and cereals acquire a sweet taste and are easier to digest.   That’s why we cook our grains, beans and even vegetables before eating.  Further breakdown happens in the digestive system.  Since this breakdown takes a while, such foods release glucose into the bloodstream slowly as compared to foods with simple sugars.  Some of the starches cannot be broken down in our digestive system and are passed out of the body undigested.  Such starches are called resistant starches.

Fibers

Fibers are essentially the indigestible carbohydrates found in plant foods including fruits, vegetables, grains, beans/legumes/pulses and nuts.  Although they are not digested by the body, they play a very important health role, which will be discussed in greater detail later in the article.  It is mainly due to the importance of fiber that, it is considered healthier to eat whole fruits and vegetables instead of taking them in juice form; and to consume whole grain foods such as whole wheat bread and brown rice instead of refined grain foods such as white bread and white rice.

Carbohydrates processing in our body – digestion, absorption and blood sugar regulation

In order to understand the strategies for proper intake of carbohydrates, it is important to understand how they are processed in our body.   As discussed above, carbohydrates are broken down by our digestive system into simple sugars – glucose, fructose and galactose.  These simple sugars  are then absorbed into our blood.    Out of these, glucose is the only form that continuously circulates in our bloodstream and provides the required energy to our body cells.  The other two sugars, fructose and galactose are converted to glucose by our liver.

Our body needs energy at all times to keep us alive, irrespective of whether we are awake or sleeping, or whether we have eaten recently or not eaten for several hours.   To accomplish this, the body has a very well designed process.  The body maintains a blood glucose level in the range of 70 to 140 mg per 100 ml of blood at all times.  When we eat carbohydrates, there is a rise in the blood sugar level.  This increase in sugar level is detected by pancreas, which secretes a hormone called insulin, which causes our liver to remove the excess blood glucose and store it for future use.  The liver first converts the excess sugar into a substance called glycogen, which is nothing but a starch, made of many glucose molecules.  Glycogen is stored mainly in the liver and some in the body’s muscles.   The capacity of glycogen storage is limited.  So, if there is still excess glucose in the blood after the glycogen stores are full, the body converts this excess into fats (in the form of triglycerides).  The fat is stored not just in the liver but all over the body in the form of adipose tissue.  During periods when we are not eating (e.g. at night), the blood sugar levels go down.  This causes pancreas to secrete another hormone called glucagon, which signals the liver to add glucose to the blood by conversion from the stored glycogen.  When glycogen stores run out, the liver then starts converting the stored fat to glucose.

In diabetic patients, the above regulatory mechanism breaks down and blood sugar levels can go high after consumption of carbohydrate rich food.  When blood sugar levels stay at high levels for extended periods of time, they cause hardening of blood vessels.   This starts interfering with the flow of blood to the organs.  This impaired flow can result in damaging of organs, particularly kidneys and eyes.  This can also lead to heart disease.  Therefore, it is very important for diabetes patients to maintain their blood sugar levels by paying close attention to the types and amount of carbohydrates consumed in the meals.

Even for people who do not have diabetes, it is a healthy practice to avoid consumption of foods that release large amounts of sugar into your blood in a short span of time, e.g. by drinking a sugar loaded beverage or a sugar loaded candy.  Here’s why.  A rapid rise in sugar levels in the blood leads to a rapid rise in insulin levels, causing the liver to store the excess sugar as glycogen and then fat.    This can bring down the sugar levels down very quickly, which sends “hunger” signals to your brain, which prompts you to eat even more.  This can lead to overeating, weight gain and obesity.   On the other hand, consumption of foods that release glucose slowly into the blood, maintains a feeling of satiety for longer periods.

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load

Although it seems logical that complex carbohydrates (starches) would release glucose more slowly into the bloodstream as compared to simple carbohydrates (sugars), this is not entirely true.  Some of the starches cause the blood glucose level to go up even faster than some sugars.  Due to this reason, scientists felt the need of defining an index that would tell how quickly carbohydrates in a particular food get converted to glucose.   That index is called Glycemic index (GI), and it is a relative measure of how soon the carbohydrates in a particular food get converted into blood sugar, with pure glucose being the reference, defined at a Glycemic index of 100.  High GI foods raise the blood sugar level quickly, and low index foods raise it slowly.  A GI less than 55 is considered low, between 55 and 70 is considered moderate and above 70 as high.  Let us look at a few examples.  Some of the high GI foods are baked potatoes (76), white bread (73), watermelon (70), pumpkin (75), cornflakes (81).   Some of the moderate GI  foods are:   white rice – boiled (64),  brown rice – boiled (55), table sugar (68), oatmeal (55), banana (55), mango (56).  Some of the low GI foods are milk (27), apple – raw (38), orange – raw (42), kidney beans – boiled (30), chick peas – boiled (30),  soy – boiled (18), almonds/walnuts/peanuts (15), barley (25), cherries (22).   For finding the glycemic indexes of most common foods, a good site is www.glycemicindex.com.

Although glycemic index tells you how quickly the carbohydrates in a particular food get into your blood as glucose, one must also consider the quantity of carbohydrates consumed to know the real effect.   That’s where Glycemic Load comes in picture.  Glycemic load (GL) indicates the combined effect of glycemic index and the quantity of carbohydrates consumed on the blood glucose level.  It is the multiplication of the glycemic index and the grams of carbohydrates present in the food, divided by 100.  Let us look at a few examples.  One large slice of white bread contains about 14 grams of carbohydrates and its GI is 73; so consuming it would give a GL of 73X14/100, which is about 10.  On the other hand, 100 grams of watermelon has only 3.5 grams of carbohydrates and a GI of 70, so consuming that would give you a GL of 3.5X70/100, i.e. only 2.5.  This example illustrates that even a high GI food may be OK if it has low density of carbohydrates.  You can get the glycemic loads of common serving sizes of various foods at www.glycemicindex.com.

For one meal, a glycemic load of less than 10 is considered as low, between 11 and 19 as moderate and 20 or more as high.  There is evidence that high glycemic load is associated with increased risk of type II diabetes and heart disease.  So, it is considered a healthy practice to restrict the GL in a single meal to below 25, and not exceed 30 in any case.  Moreover, it is recommended that total GL during the day should be less than 100.

Fiber and its importance; soluble fiber and insoluble fiber

Fiber is a kind of carbohydrate that does not get digested and passes undigested through the body.  It still plays an important role in maintaining our health.   There are two kinds of fiber – soluble and insoluble.  Both are important for our health.

Soluble fibers dissolve in water with a gel like consistency.  They slow down the passage of food from the stomach into small intestine, create a feeling of fullness and hence can prevent excess food intake.   This slowing down also effectively reduces the glycemic index of the food.  In the colon, they act as food for the good bacteria present there and get fermented in the process.  This fermentation releases several chemicals that are beneficial for the immune system and also for the health of the colon.  Moreover, soluble fiber also helps in reducing absorption of some harmful substances into the body, such as cholesterol, fat and toxins, thereby helping in prevention of heart disease and other diseases.

Insoluble fibers do not dissolve in water.  They absorb water like a sponge and form the bulk of our stools.  They have the effect of cleaning up the colon (the way a cleaning sponge does), thus preventing accumulation of harmful substances in the colon which could be disease causing.

We need both soluble and insoluble fibers for good health.  A diet low in fiber is known to elevate risks of health issues such as constipation, hemorrhoids, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and colorectal cancer.

Most fruits, vegetables, grains and beans/legumes/pulses are rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, if they are eaten whole.   If you remove the skin of a fruit or vegetable (e.g. of apple or potato) or the husk of grains (e.g. of wheat or rice), you will lose a large part of its insoluble fiber content, but still get most of the soluble fiber content.

Good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates

From all the above information, it is reasonable to conclude that good carbohydrates are those with low glycemic index, high content of fiber and high quantities of vitamins and minerals.  Fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes/pulses and whole grains fall into this category.

Likewise, bad carbohydrates are those with high glycemic index, low content of fiber and low quantities of vitamins and minerals.  Table sugar, sugar syrups, beverages with sugar, refined flours, candies and sweets fall into this category.

How much carbohydrate and fiber should one consume in a day?

Recommendations from authoritative bodies such as WHO, USDA, AHA, etc. for intake of carbohydrates, sugars and fiber are given below.

Total Carbohydrates

As per USDA guidelines, 45% to 65% of daily energy requirements should come from carbohydrates.  For a 2000 calorie diet, this translates to 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates in a day.  (However, for diabetes patients, the recommended intake is lower, i.e. 135 to 180 grams a day).

The WHO guidelines have a slightly higher range of 55% to 75% of daily energy requirements.

Total Added Sugars

WHO recommends that the total consumption of added sugar (which includes white sugar, brown sugar, sugar syrup, corn syrup, etc.) should be no more than 5% of total daily energy requirements.  This translates to 100 calories for a 2000 calorie diet, which is equivalent to 25 grams or about 6 teaspoons of sugar.

American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a limit of  35.5 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar for men and 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of sugar for women.

To put this into context, one bottle or can of soft drink typically contains more sugar than the above daily limit.

Total Fiber

WHO recommends consumption of at least 25grams of total fiber in a day.

As per USDA guidelines, 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories is recommended.   So, if your total calorie requirements are 2000, you should consume about 28 grams of fiber.  As per Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, USA, the recommended intake of fiber per day is 38 grams per day for men less than 50 years of age, 31 grams per day for men greater than 50 years of age, 25 grams per day for women  less than 50 years and 21 grams for women more than 50 years.

There are no separate guidelines for soluble and insoluble fiber stated by any of these bodies.

Strategies for optimal carbohydrate and fiber intake

Based on the above discussion, it is reasonable to conclude that the key points in the strategy for intake of carbohydrates should be:

  • Limit total consumption of carbohydrates to a range of 45% to 65% of daily energy requirements (i.e. 225 to 325 grams for an average person on a 2000 calorie diet), and even lower if you are diabetic (135 to 180 grams per day).
  • Most of the above should be through fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans/legumes/pulses.   These foods are high in fiber, have relatively low glycemic index and are loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
  • Avoid foods with added sugars or refined flours.  Limit added sugar to 6 teaspoons in a day.
  • Spread the consumption of carbohydrates across several meals during a day, in a manner that the glycemic load of a single meal stays below 25, and not cross 30 in any case. It is OK to have some foods of high glycemic index in a meal, as long as you control the portion such that the total glycemic load stays in acceptable range.

Here are some practical strategies to achieve the above:

  • Plan to get your carbohydrate intake through approximately:
    • 4-6 servings of vegetables (1 serving = half cup cooked or 1 cup raw)
    • 2-3 servings of beans/legumes/pulses (1 serving = half cup cooked)
    • 2-3 servings of fruits (1 serving  = 1 medium piece or half cup sliced)
    • 2-3 servings of whole grains (1 serving = 1 slice of bread or 1 roti/chapatti/tortilla or half cup boiled rice/quinoa/corn or 30 grams of oats/breakfast cereals)
    • 1-2 servings of low fat milk or yogurt or cheese.  (1 serving = 1 cup milk/yogurt or 30 grams cheese)
  • If you need to eat more, increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and beans, instead of having more grain based foods, since grain based foods are dense in carbohydrate content and cause a relatively high glycemic load.
  • Spread the above throughout the day as 3 main meals and 2 snacks.   This will help maintain the glycemic load  to reasonable levels, keep you  feel satiated and avoid the urge to overeat.
  • Control the portion sizes.  Combine high GI foods with low GI ones.   For example, combine grain based food such as rice (which gives a high glycemic load) with foods such as beans and vegetables, which give a much lower glycemic load, are high in fiber and will create a feeling of satiety.
  • Fruits should preferably be eaten before and after workout, or as snacks in-between main meals.
  • Avoid processed and canned foods as far as possible.  Stop buying such foods and substitute them with fresh equivalents.
  • Avoid foods with refined flours as far as possible.  Use whole grain versions instead, e.g.  pick whole wheat bread rather than white bread.
  • Avoid foods with added sugar as far as possible.   It may be OK to have one or two teaspoons with your tea of coffee if you like it that way, as long as you limit the total intake in a day to 6 teaspoons.   It is more important to avoid foods that are loaded with sugar such as soft drinks/sodas/fruit juices, candies, chocolate bars, cookies, ice creams, cakes, pastries, jams/jellies, etc.  Play close attention to the added sugar content in whatever you buy.  When going for grocery shopping, do not pick up anything with added sugar.
  • When eating in a restaurant, ask for substitutions as required, e.g.  brown bread instead of white bread, vegetable side dish instead of French fries, sugar free beverage instead of sugary beverage, etc.
  • When purchasing a snack from a vending machine, pick low sugar options, e.g. roasted peanuts instead of candy bars.  It is even better to carry your own snacks.

Carbohydrates in Blue Zone Diets

Let us take a look again at the diets of people from Okinawa and Ikaria, two of the high longevity “blue zones”, from a carbohydrate viewpoint.   Okinawan diet centers around stir fried vegetables, soya beans/tofu and sweet potatoes – all good carbohydrates with low glycemic index and high micronutrient content.  Ikarian diet centers around fruits, vegetables, beans, potatoes and whole grains.   A study of other blue zones also reveals that fruits, vegetables and beans/legumes/pulses are central to their diets.   Moreover, all the meals are made of fresh ingredients, so there is no consumption of processed foods.  This is perhaps a good practical evidence for the conclusions made in this article.

I hope that you can derive some benefit from the above information.  Your comments are welcome.

 

(Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. You must consult a qualified health care provider before making any decisions about any lifestyle changes including changes in your food or physical activity habits.   The recommended amounts of carbohydrates and fibers in this article are based on credible sources such as WHO/AHA/USDA, but opinions and data may differ from other sources.   Moreover, each individual’s needs are unique and you must consult a qualified professional to understand your unique needs.  The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of making any dietary changes as a result of reading this article.)

 

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Fats, Essential Fatty Acids and Strategies for Optimum Intake

After covering some facts and strategies about proteins and essential amino acids, I thought it would be appropriate to write a similar article about fats.   Although fats have acquired some bad reputation because of various problems associated with their excessive intake, one has to remember that fats are very important and are essential for our survival.  The answer to problems associated with fats is not to avoid them completely, but to consume the right kinds of fat in the right quantities.

What are fats and why are they necessary?

Fats are an essential part of all living tissue and play a key role in the proper functioning of our body.   Some of the important functions of fats in our body are:

  • Fat is a key building block of all the tissues.  It is a required ingredient for formation of new cells and for repairing damaged tissues.  The outer layer of each cell, called the cell membrane is composed of about 30% fat.  The fat content in the membrane provides flexibility and fluidity to the cells, which allows them to move freely in their environment and allows easy flow of molecules through the cell membrane.
  • Our cells communicate with each other through chemical messengers, and many of these chemical messengers are made of fats.
  • Fats are a highly efficient source of energy.  Each gram of fat provides about 9.3 Kcal of energy, as opposed to 4.1 provided by carbohydrates.   Extra fat is stored as adipose tissue in the body, as energy reservoir to be used when energy from food is not available.
  • The fatty layer under the skin acts as an insulator.  The fatty layers around vital organs help in cushioning and protecting them.
  • Some categories of fats such as Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are known to be protective against heart disease and several other diseases.    Omega-3 is considered so important for heart health that American Heart Association recommends consumption of fish, particularly oily fish at least twice a week.
  • Some of the essential nutrients such as Vitamin A, D, E and K require fats in order to be absorbed into the body.   Moreover, these vitamins are stored along with fat storage for later use.

What are Fatty Acids and Essential Fatty Acids?

Fats are made up of fatty acids.  There are many different types of fatty acids.   Each fatty acid has unique biological properties and health effects.  However, instead of tracking each individual fatty acid, it is much more practical to classify them into some major categories and track each category with respect to its health effects.  They are generally classified into four main categories:  saturated fatty acids (SFA), mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and trans fatty acids (TFA).  PUFAs are further classified into two categories, Omega-3 and Omega-6.

Most of the fatty acids required by the body can be manufactured by our body.   However, there are two types of fatty acids, which cannot be made by our body and must be consumed as a part of our food – hence they are called essential fatty acids (similar to essential amino acids).  These two fatty acids are Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), an Omega-3 fatty acid and Linoleic Acid, an Omega-6 fatty acid.   So, your fat intake strategy must ensure adequate intake of these two essential fatty acids from food sources.  We will discuss more about different types of fatty acids later in the article.

Cholesterol, Good Cholesterol and Bad Cholesterol

Cholesterol  is a wax like substance, essential for various functions including cell membrane production and some hormone production.  It comes in two forms, High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) and Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL).  LDL is considered as “bad cholesterol” because it causes building up of plaque in the arteries, which may eventually result in a heart attack.  HDL is considered “good cholesterol”, because one of its functions is to take LDL out of the blood into the liver where it is broken down and excreted.  In other words, HDL counteracts against LDL’s damaging effects.

Cholesterol is contained in some foods, but most of the cholesterol in our body is produced by our liver.   It has been observed that consumption of saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids tends to raise LDL (bad cholesterol) levels.   On the other hand, consumption of mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids has the opposite effect, i.e.  decrease LDL levels.

Good Fats and Bad Fats

Since saturated fatty acids (SFAs) and trans fatty acids (TFAs) are known to raise the bad cholesterol (LDL), they are considered unhealthy and are also referred to as “bad fats”. TFAs are considered particularly bad because they not only raise LDL levels, but also lower HDL levels.  Although some of the saturated fatty acids are not unhealthy, as a category, they are still considered unhealthy.   There have been some recent reports that claim that saturated fats are healthy, but the official opinion from authoritative bodies such as WHO, USDA and American Heart Association (AHA) is still that saturated fats are unhealthy.

Unsaturated fatty acids, both monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) are considered as good fats because they are known to lower LDL and increase HDL levels.   Out of these, Omega-3 and Omega-6  fatty acids, are considered particularly beneficial for health.

More on EFAs – Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

The essential fatty acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6 are so important for health that it is worthwhile to go a bit deeper into them.

The primary fatty acid in Omega-6 group is linoleic acid (LA).  LA cannot be made by our body, but other forms of Omega-6 fatty acids can be made from LA.  So, it is LA which is considered as essential fatty acid, not other Omega-6 variants.

The primary fatty acid in Omega-3 group is alpha linolenic acid (ALA).  ALA cannot be made by our body, but other forms of Omega-3 fatty acids can be made from ALA.  So, it is ALA which is considered as essential fatty acid, not other Omega-3 variants.   However, there are two other types of Omega-3 fatty acids, called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are considered as “conditionally essential”.  Although, our body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, the conversion efficiency is low and varies with age, gender and other factors.   DHA and EPA are known to be very healthy, so it is considered as a healthy practice to consume some amounts of DHA and EPA directly from food sources, rather than depending solely on conversion from ALA.  Most authoritative bodies, including WHO recommend direct consumption of some amount of DHA/EPA.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are important structural components of all cell membranes.   DHA is found in very high concentrations in the cells of retina and is hence considered important for vision function.  DHA is also found in high concentrations in brain cells, indicating their importance in the development and maintenance of our brain and nervous system.  DHA and EPA are also known to be anti-inflammatory.    Recognizing the importance of Omega-3 fatty acids for heart health, American Heart Association recommends consumption of fish at least twice a week.

Food sources of good fats and bad fats

Food sources of Essential Fatty Acids – the healthiest fats

Omega-6 EFA, in the form of LA is found abundantly in most plant based oils, including sunflower oil, safflower oil, avocados/avocado oil, soyabeans/soyabean oil,  peanut oil, corn oil, olive oil, cottonseed oil, etc.  Hence, getting the required amount of LA in one’s diet is generally not an issue.

Omega-3, in the form of ALA is found in several plant foods including flaxseeds/flaxseed oil, mustard seeds/mustard oil, rapeseed oil (canola oil), walnuts, soyabeans/soyabean oil and green leafy vegetables.    Omega-3 in the form of DHA/EPA is found in fish and sea food.   The primary source of Omega-3 in water based life is algae, which are water based green colored plants. Algae are lowest in the food chain in the water based life, and all fish and seafood get their Omega-3 primarily from algae.   It is also found in small quantities in milk/dairy products, with amounts much higher in milk from grass fed cattle.

I would like to make one interesting observation from the above paragraph, i.e. the importance of green plants as a food source.  Green leafy vegetables are rich in omega-3.  Algae, the green plants in water are also rich in omega-3 , which in turn make fish and seafood rich in omega-3.   The cows that feed on grass also produce milk higher in omega-3 (it has been observed that milk from 100% grass fed cows has more than twice of omega-3 as compared to grain fed cows).   So, we can benefit a lot by consuming green leafy vegetables and edible algae, and by feeding green grass and other green leaves to the animals who give us food in the form of milk or meat.

Food sources of Monounsaturated Fatty Acids – the other healthy fat

One of the best sources of MUFA is olive oil.  Many other vegetable oils are also rich in MUFA content, including canola oil, rice bran oil, peanut oil and sesame oil.  In fact, most oils contain some percentage of MUFA.

Food sources of Saturated Fatty Acids – the unhealthy fats

Most of the animal based fats are high in saturated fats, including full fat milk, red meat, poultry with skin, lard, tallow, butter and cream.  Among the plant based fats, coconut oil and palm oil are high in saturated fat.  Although there are some claims that these oils are healthy, such claims are not supported by authoritative bodies such as American Heart Association.  Another point to be noted is that most oils contain some percentage of saturated fats, e.g. even olive oil contains about 15% saturated fats.

Food sources of Trans Fatty Acids – the unhealthiest fats

Tran fats are mostly man-made by hydrogenization of oil.   Hydrogenation  increases the shelf life of oil, decreases its greasy feel and also enables it to withstand repeated heating.   Due to these properties, trans fats  have been used by the food industry for making several products including fried foods (such as French fries), baked goods (such as cookies, pies and donuts), margarines, cake mixes, etc.  However, due to increasing awareness about unhealthiness of trans fats, their usage has been declining.  Still, it is wise to read the food labels and avoid foods which show any trans fats as ingredients.

Effects of fat deficiency

What happens if you reduce your fat intake substantially?   It can lead to deficiency of essential fatty acids as well as deficiency of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).   These deficiencies can lead to serious health issues, such as:

  • Skin related issues:  Essential fatty acids are required for healthy skin.  Their absence can cause unhealthy looking, dry skin with scales.  Any wounds also become harder to heal.
  • Brain related issues:  Since Omega-3 fatty acids are important for development of brain tissue, their absence can lead to issues such as depression, dementia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, learning disability, poor memory, etc.
  • Vision related issues:  Since Omega-3 fatty acids are important components of retina, their absence can lead to degeneration of vision.
  • Several other issues including low immunity, stiff or painful joints, bone mass loss, etc.
  • Deficiency of vitamins can lead to additional issues, e.g. deficiency of Vitamin A can lead to night blindness.

Effects of excess fat

Excess fat gets stored as fat deposits all around our body.  This is fine to a certain extent, but excessive fat deposits can lead to overweight/obesity condition with all the resultant ill-effects.   Fat deposits in arteries can lead to heart attacks or stroke.   Abdominal obesity can lead to diabetes.   Excess weight puts extra load on all your organs, putting those organs at risk.  It also puts extra load on bones and joints, leading to problems in lower body joints of knees and hips.  Excess fat is also known to increase the risk of some types of cancer.

How much fat should you consume?

As per WHO/FAO, the guidelines for daily consumption of fat are:

Total Fat

Your total fat consumption should be in the range of 20% to 35% of total energy requirements.  For a 2000 calorie diet, this means that 400 to 700 calories should come from fat, which translates to 43 to 75 grams of fat in a day.

Saturated Fatty Acids

Should be less than 10% of the total energy requirements.  This translates to less than 22 grams of saturated fat for a 2000 calorie diet.  Please note that American Heart Association recommends even a lower upper limit for saturated fat intake, i.e. 7% of total energy requirements, which translates to less than 15 grams of saturated fat for a 2000 calorie diet.

Trans Fatty Acids

Should be less than 1% of total energy requirements.  This translates to less than 2.2 grams of trans fat for a 2000 calorie diet.

Total Essential Fatty Acids – Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (LA+ALA+EPA+DHA):

The total consumption of essential fatty acids should be in the range of 6% to 11% of total energy requirements.   This translates to 13 to 24 grams of EFAs in a 2000 calorie diet.  Please note that there is both a lower and upper limit indicated for EFA intake.  Although EFAs are good fats, even their intake has to be limited.

Total Omega-6 (LA):

Total omega-6 consumption should be in the range of 2.5% to 9% of total energy requirements.  This translates to 5.5 to 20 grams of LA in a 2000 calorie diet.

Total Omega-3 (ALA+EPA+DHA):

Total omega-3 consumption should be in the range of 0.5 to 2%.  This translates to 1.1 to 4.3 grams for a 2000 calorie diet.  Again, note that in spite of all the great benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids, their consumption should not exceed 2% of total energy intake.

Omega-3 in ALA form

Omega-3 in the form of ALA should be at least 0.5%, which is equivalent to  1.1 grams for a 2000 calorie diet.

Omega-3 in DHA+EPA form

As discussed earlier, Omega-3 in DHA and EPA forms has many health benefits and direct consumption in this form of 250 mg to 2000 mg per day is recommended by WHO/FAO.

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids

MUFA should make up for the balance for meeting your total fat requirements, after accounting for all the other types of fats.  For example, if you are on a 2000 calorie diet, and you want to be in the recommended range for all types of fat, one possible way to accomplish that would be:   Restrict total fat consumption to 60 grams in a day and break it up into 10 grams of Omega-6 fats, 2 grams of Omega-3 fats, 7 grams of saturated fats and the balance 41 grams of monounsaturated fats.

Your fat strategy

From the above discussion, one can conclude that the key points in a good strategy for fats should be:

  • Ensure adequate intake of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, at least the minimum amounts as per WHO recommendations.
  • Limit total intake of fat to 20- 35% of total calorie intake.
  • Limit the consumption of saturated fats and trans fats.
  • Limit the consumption of total calories, since extra calories will end up as fat, even if they are coming from carbohydrates or proteins instead of from fats.  This is important because some people cut down on fat, but stuff themselves up on carbohydrates, which will not help.
  • If you are overweight and need to reduce weight, you will need to consume fewer calories than required.   While doing this reduction, ensure that you do not reduce the consumption of EFAs lower than the minimum amount.

Here are some possible practical strategies:

For Omega-3 EFAs:

  • If you are a non-vegetarian, the best strategy is to consume fish 2-3 times per week, as recommended by AHA.  This will ensure adequate Omega-3 intake, including DHA/EPA.
  • If you are a vegetarian or someone who does not like to eat fish, then
    • Consume plant based sources of Omega-3:  flaxseeds/flaxseed oil , canola oil, mustard/mustard oil, soya beans/soyabean oil, walnuts, and green leafy vegetables.
    • One of the simplest strategies for vegetarians is to keep a stock of ground flaxseeds and add a few teaspoons to your main dishes or side dishes.   It will hardly make any difference to the taste, but add substantially to its health value.   Flaxseeds are very rich in Omega-3.   Just 5 grams of flaxseeds (about 1.5 teaspoons) can provide you the minimum required Omega-3 for the day.
    • Another good strategy is to consume a few walnuts every day.  About 13 grams of walnuts can provide you the minimum required Omega-3 for the day.  You can eat walnuts as a snack, or add them to your cereals, salads, etc.
    • Although the above sources can easily provide you the required amount of ALA, they do not provide DHA or EPA.   Non-fish eaters can consider taking DHA/EPA supplements.   Supplements based on fish oil and krill oil are available.  For strict vegetarians, who would not even take fish oil in capsule form, there are DHA/EPA supplements based on algae available.  Your health care provider can advise you on appropriate supplements.
  • Consume green leafy vegetables.    It is a good practice to have some green leafy vegetables every day.  They are loaded with nutrients, including omega-3.
  • Remember that there is an upper limit to Omega-3 consumption, beyond which it can be harmful.  So, don’t go overboard in consuming Omega-3.

For Omega-6 EFAs:

  • There is generally no particular strategy required for ensuring adequate consumption of Omega-6, since it is plentiful in most vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.   If you consume moderate amount of these, you should be fairly well covered for Omega-6.  Moreover, most of the Omega-3 rich foods are also rich in Omega-6.  For example, if you consume 15 grams of walnuts, you will meet the minimum requirements of Omega-3 as well as Omega-6.
  • Again, remember that there is an upper limit to Omega-6 consumption too, and since Omega-6 is much more abundant in common foods as compared to Omega-3, chances of exceeding Omega-6 upper limit are fairly high.   However, if you are careful in maintaining overall fat intake limit, you should generally be fine.

For Limiting Saturated Fat Intake:

  • If you are a non-vegetarian, replace red meats with other protein sources such as fish turkey, chicken, tofu or beans.  As stated above, consuming fish 2-3 times a week is anyway recommended for Omega-3 intake.
  • Replace full fat milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products with zero fat or low fat versions.
  • Replace animal based oils such as butter, ghee, lard, tallow,  etc. with vegetable oils such as canola oil, olive oil, sesame oil, rice bran oil, corn oil, safflower oil, etc.

For Limiting Trans Fat Intake:

  • Read food labels carefully and avoid anything with trans fats.
  • Avoid eating fried foods in restaurants.   If you do, verify that they are not using oils with trans fats.
  • Avoid packaged foods as far as possible.  If you do, then ensure that they do not have any trans fats as ingredients.

For Limiting Overall Fat Intake:

  • Prefer roasted, steamed, boiled or baked foods over fried foods, whether while cooking at home or ordering food in a restaurant.
  • Even when frying, use pan frying instead of deep frying, using as little oil as possible.
  • Snack on healthy foods such as roasted nuts, roasted chick peas, fruits, etc. instead of fried snacks.
  • Read food labels carefully to see the fat content.  Many of the common foods such as chips, cookies, biscuits, cakes, etc, are loaded with fats.   Do not consume anything without being aware of its fat content

Ensuring Healthy Fat Habits in your Circle of Influence

You may be in a position to influence others in eating healthy fats, in addition to adopting healthy fat habits yourself.   Here are some suggestions for various types of positions of influence:

As person responsible for family kitchen

  • Remember that in your role, you are also the chief nutritionist of the family.  Your family’s health depends largely on what you cook and what kinds of prepared foods you stock in your pantry/refrigerator.  Follow some of the strategies mentioned in this article, and you will contribute a lot towards the health and wellness of your family.
  • Follow these guidelines even when you are hosting a party.  Share with everyone how you have made all the dishes healthy, and tasty too.

As owner/official of a business

  • You can contribute to the health and fitness of your employees by ensuring that the food served in your canteen/cafeteria has the right kind of fat profile.   Ask your cooks/caterers to follow the guidelines in this article. Take the help of a qualified nutritionist if required.
  • It would be great if you can display the fat content and fatty acid profile of all the foods served in the cafeteria, along with some education material on good fats and bad fats.

As principal/official in a school or college

  • You may have resident students who eat all their meals at the school/college, or you may have day students who may take some meal or snack from the school cafeteria.  In either case, ensuring the right fat profile, particularly the essential fatty acids, will go a long way in ensuring children’s health, which in turn will make them better learners.
  • Educate your students about nutrition and encourage them to influence their parents too.

As a government official

  • Enforce restaurants and food manufacturers to display the details of oils used and the fat profile of all the foods sold by them, so that consumers know what they are eating.
  • Issue guidelines for fat content for foods served  in the government canteens/cafeterias, including government schools, colleges, offices, etc.

As a restaurant owner/food manufacturer

  • Sell foods with a healthy fat profile.
  • Display the fat content and profile of the foods you sell and educate your customers about it.  This can become a good competitive advantage for you, as more and more people become health conscious.

As a dairy farmer

  • Ensure grass feeding for your cattle, which gives healthier milk.  Publish omega-3 content of the milk sold by you and educate your customers about it.  Make this as a competitive advantage.

As a food /researcher/innovator

  • Invent zero fat/low fat versions of common foods, that taste similar or better than the regular versions.
  • Invent algae based foods for vegetarians, so that they can have the DHA/EPA without having fish.   Some forms of edible algae such as spiriluna have been available.  In countries such as Japan,  various seaweeds, such as kelp, nori, kami, etc. are regularly consumed.   Algal oil and algae based DHA supplements are also available.   But, I feel that some mainstream foods could be developed, by adding algae/algal oil to regular foods, while preserving their original taste and enhancing their health value.

I hope that this information will help you in planning your meals better, with regard to the fat content.   Your comments are welcome.

 

(Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. You must consult a qualified health care provider before making any decisions about any lifestyle changes including changes in your food or physical activity habits.   The recommended amounts of fats, fatty acids and foods in this article are based on credible sources such as WHO/AHA/USDA, but opinions and data may differ from other sources.   Moreover, each individual’s needs are unique and you must consult a qualified professional to understand your unique needs.  The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of making any dietary changes as a result of reading this article.)

 

Posted in Bad Fats, Essential Fatty Acids, Fats, Good Fats, Healthy eating, Healthy Fats, Healthy Lifestyle, Nutrition | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

More on Proteins – excessive consumption, effective absorption and related issues

I received several questions and comments in response to my last article on proteins.  Many of the questions and comments were around the following main issues:

  1. What is the maximum amount of protein that one can safely consume?  What are the effects of consuming excessive protein?
  2. What percentage of protein consumed is effectively absorbed by the body?  What can be done to increase the absorption level?

In this article, I have tried to answer these questions.

How much consumption of protein is excessive?

The recommended amount of protein as per USDA is 0.8 grams per Kg. of body weight, for an average, healthy adult.  As your physical activity increases, you protein requirements also increase.    For example, several sources recommend 1.6 to 2.2 grams per Kg. of body weight for athletes and bodybuilders.

So, what is the maximum amount that can be consumed without having any negative effects?    There is no clearly stated maximum amount by any authority.   But, we can look at some of the related published figures and try to get a reasonable answer.  One guideline from USDA states that proteins should constitute 10% to 35% of the total calorie requirements.     Let us look at the higher end of that range, i.e. 35% and see what that translates to.  For a moderately active adult of weight 70 Kg., the daily calorie requirements are about 2000 calories.    35% of that is 700 calories, which translates to 175 grams of protein, or 2.5 grams of protein per kg. of body weight. Another nutrition study proposes a daily maximum intake of 25% of the daily calorie requirements, which translates to about 1.8 grams per kg. of body weight.   So, considering all these numbers, I would like to conclude the following:

Consume at least 0.8 grams of protein per kg. of your body weight.  If you are physically active, you may consume more, going up to a maximum amount of 1.8 grams per kg. of body weight.   Consumption of more than that amount should generally be avoided. However, since individual needs are different, it is best to consult your health care provider to get a recommendation suitable for you.

Who should be concerned about excessive protein consumption?

Most people do not have to worry about excess protein intake.  Rather, the concern for most people is to have the adequate intake of high quality protein in their daily diet.  However, the following categories of people may run into the risk of excessive protein consumption and should consult their health care provider to get proper advice on how much protein may be excessive for them.

  1. Fitness and body building enthusiasts, who may be taking excessive protein supplements.  This may be particularly true for amateurs who may be taking high doses of such supplements without proper guidance from health professionals.
  2. Followers of high protein, low carbohydrate diets.  If more than 35% of total calories in your diet come from proteins, it should raise a red flag and you should consult your physician before continuing such a diet program.
  3. People with kidney disease.  Any protein overdose can be toxic for people with kidney disease.  In such cases, it is extremely important to restrict the protein consumption to the amount recommended by your physician.

What happens when you consume excess protein?

Let us understand how protein is digested and metabolized.  When we consume protein, it is first broken down into its constituent amino acids by our digestive system.  The amino acids then enter our blood stream and are transported to various parts of our body, where they are picked up to manufacture proteins required for body’s functioning, i.e. to build body tissues, hormones, enzymes, etc.    If after meeting the requirements of protein synthesis, there are still some amino acids left, they are converted to sugar (glucose), releasing ammonia in the process.  Since ammonia is toxic, it is converted to urea by the liver, which is then filtered by the kidneys and excreted out of the body as part of urine.  Glucose is used to meet body’s energy requirements, but excess glucose gets converted to fat for long term storage.  So, excess protein intake may end up as fat in your body (instead of muscle), which may not be what you really intended.

The process of conversion of excess amino acids to glucose, and the resultant production and excretion of urea places an extra burden on your liver and kidneys.  This may be tolerated well in a healthy individual, but if one has kidney disease, then one must be very careful and not consume proteins in excess of what is recommended by your physician.  Even healthy individuals should remember that by consuming excess protein, you are putting extra burden on your liver and your kidneys. You may also end up increasing body’s fat content, which is not healthy.  Moreover, some studies have found that excessive protein intake can lead to calcium loss and kidney stone formation.  So it is best to consume only the recommended amount as per your activity level and other conditions.

Effective absorption of proteins

When we consume protein, it may not be absorbed 100% into our body.  Some part of it may end up as waste products that are excreted.  Moreover, some part of may end up as glucose or fat, as explained above, which is not the real purpose of protein.  Here are some of the factors that influence the absorption of proteins:

  1. Source of protein:  Some protein sources are inherently more difficult to digest than others.  Protein molecules are complex, with different sizes and structures.  The structures of some proteins is easier to break down into constituent amino acids (i.e. digest) than others.  For example, proteins from wheat, corn, soy are made up of large molecules that are harder to digest; and proteins from eggs and whey protein isolate supplements are made of smaller molecules that are easier to digest.
  2. Amino acid balance:  If some essential amino acids are lacking in the proteins you consume, the body will not be able to utilize all the consumed quantity effectively (i.e. for synthesizing the required proteins), and the excess may end up as glucose or fat.
  3. Proper chewing:   Proper chewing of the food helps in proper mixing of the food with the digestive enzymes, thus allowing the enzymes to work efficiently on the food.  You should chew the food till you cannot feel any solid pieces in your mouth.
  4. Portion size:  A study published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,” found that strength trainers got the best results from eating about 20 grams protein after the workout. An amount greater than 20 grams in a single meal was not found to be effectively used by the body.
  5. Digestive system efficiency:  Insufficient secretion of digestive acids and enzymes may lead to incomplete digestion of proteins.  In such a situation, your physician can help you in restoring your digestive health.

Accordingly, the steps you can do to improve the effective absorption of proteins are:

  1. Consume a variety of protein sources, preferring those easier for you to digest.   Sources such as yogurt, eggs, tofu, chicken breasts (boiled/baked), fish, boiled green gram (moong daal) and whey protein isolates are some of the sources that are easier to digest as compared to other sources; so it is a good idea to have some portions of such sources in your diet.     If your digestive system is not functioning too well due to sickness or other factors such as aging, it is best to stick to easy to digest sources.
  2. Have food combinations that give you appropriate amino acid balance.  We already discussed the strategies for achieving this balance in my previous article.
  3. Chew your food well.  Your food should be completely mashed up before you swallow it.  This habit could help you a great deal in digesting well not just the proteins, but your entire food.
  4. Take small portions in any one meal.  Do not consume more than 20 gram of proteins in a single meal.  Another useful guideline is that the total portion size of any one meal should not be more than the size of a closed fist.
  5. If you continue to have issues with protein digestion, it is best to consult a physician.

I hope this information is useful.  Your comments are welcome.

 

(Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice. You must consult a qualified health care provider before making any decisions about any lifestyle changes including changes in your food or physical activity habits.   The recommended amounts of proteins, amino acids and foods in this article are based on credible sources such as USDA, but opinions and data may differ from other sources.   Moreover, each individual’s needs are unique and you must consult a qualified professional to understand your unique needs.  The author or the management of this site cannot be held liable for any consequences of making any lifestyle changes as a result of reading this article.)

 

 

Posted in Healthy eating, Healthy Lifestyle, Nutrition, Proteins | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments