What’s the ‘skinny’ on trans fat?

As always, I feel that my primary purpose of this blog is to debunk myths and dissect nutritional oversimplifications.  It is in that vein that I am approaching today’s topic, trans fat.  Although I feel that the ban on trans fats by the FDA is a definite step in the right direction, I wish to posit that there is a deeper level of complexity to this topic, as tag lines and generalizations are not particularly useful in any discussion that is firmly grounded in science.  The fact is that not all “trans fats” are created equal.  Yes, I know, I can already “hear” the gasps from my readers as I type these scandalous words!  But that does not make my statement any less true.

Trans fat is one of the few components in food that is widely (and blindly) accepted by all as being unhealthy for us, and not without some legitimate cause.  Industrial trans fats are created by pumping hydrogen molecules into liquid vegetable oil, radically changing the chemical structure and causing the oil to become a solid fat that can potentially clog our arteries.  Trans fats are generally considered especially harmful because they raise total cholesterol while lowering HDL cholesterol, the so-called “good” cholesterol.  However, as we dig deeper, we uncover an important nuance inherent to trans fat that is often overlooked.  Naturally occurring trans fats in ruminant animal products are not at all harmful to our health, and may actually reduce the incidence of numerous chronic diseases states.  Natural trans fats are formed when rumen bacteria in the stomachs of ruminant animals (e.g. healthy non-CAFO cows, sheep, etc.) digest the grass that the animal has eaten, thus forming trans-rumenic and trans-vaccenic acid via biohydrogenation of polyunsaturated fats in the grass.  Conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, is a trans-rumenic acid found abundantly in grass-fed meat and dairy products in particular.  It is also produced in our bodies from the conversion of trans-vaccenic acid (VA) from those same animal products.

Industrial trans fats however have critically different chemical structures than those of trans fats found in grass-fed beef and butter, namely the location of the molecular double bond.  And now that we’ve put on our propeller hats, let’s geek out even more!  CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid), a natural trans fat, contains both cis- and trans- bonds, whereas industrial trans fats have only trans bonds, which is a big problem mainly because this is not a molecular configuration that occurs in Nature, and if there is anything that I have harped on in this blog, it is that any unnatural edible food-like substance that we keep putting into our bodies will most likely slowly kill us over time.  These seemingly minor differences in chemical structure lead to significantly different effects in the human body, as has been demonstrated by numerous clinical and epidemiological studies.  While industrial trans fats have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity, CLA and naturally-occurring trans fats found in healthy animal products may actually decrease the risk of those same diseases.

The takeaway is this: the trans fat contained in a bag of Doritos circa 1995 is indeed “bad” for us, whereas the trans fat in good old Irish Kerrygold butter is in fact “good”.  So is it best for the FDA to ban industrial trans fats?  Absolutely!  But should we then avoid all trans fats, even if they are naturally-occurring?  Absolutely not!


What’s up with gluten really?

Why is it that much of our society seems obsessed with gluten these days, hence “gluten-free” is now virtually a religion!  But is this preoccupation with gluten scientifically justified or just another diet cult?  Let’s explore.  As brilliantly illuminated a few years ago by renowned clinician/researcher Dr. Alesio Fasano, the true culprit underlying the etiology of numerous digestive disorders, including IBS and autoimmunity, is not gluten per say, but rather the indigestible gliadin peptide contained in modern wheat that is a health hazard to varying degrees in respect to all humans, regardless of whether they present with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) or full-blown Celiac Disease or neither of the aforementioned.  Gluten is essentially a type of protein comprised of the peptides gliadin and glutenin, which are found in many modern strains of grains such as wheat, semolina, spelt, kamut, rye and barley.

Additionally noteworthy is that today’s highly-processed wheat has also been deaminated, allowing it to be water soluble and capable of being mixed into virtually every type of packaged food you could think of.  This deamination process has been shown to produce a significant immune response in many people.  In our modern world of ubiquitous fast food, we are eating far more wheat than our ancestors ever dreamt of eating.  When our immune system’s antibodies try to defend us against attacks by gliadin and glutenin, the microvilli in our digestive tract can atrophy and erode, decreasing our natural ability to absorb nutrients, thus making the walls of our intestines “leaky”, aptly-named by gastroenterologists as Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS).  This intestinal erosion can manifest itself as numerous unpleasant digestive symptoms including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, weight loss, fat malabsorption, and malnutrition, e.g. iron deficiency anemia, low vitamin D, and even osteoporosis.  The blunting of microvilli is a hallmark of Celiac disease, which is a chronic, not acute, condition that develops over many years, not something that you’re genetically born with and stuck with no matter what you do or what you eat.  The bottom line is that our gut can only handle X number of years of relentless assault by the pernicious peptides gliadin and glutenin.

Tightly regulating intestinal permeability is one of the basic functions of the cells that line the intestinal wall.  Gliadin can cause the gut cells to release zonulin, a protein that can break apart the tight junctions holding our intestines together.  Once these tight junctions get broken apart, the gut is officially considered “leaky”.  A leaky gut allows toxins, microbes, undigested food particles, and antibodies to escape from the intestines and travel throughout the body via the bloodstream.  The antibodies that escape are the ones which the body produced to attack the gliadin in the first place.  Celiac Disease is therefore the result of many years of assault upon the gut by the toxic effects of gliadin and the resulting “zonulin effect” described earlier.  The true takeaway is that the human digestive tract simply did not evolve to digest wheat any more than it did to digest grass that free-range cows are able to consume (we cannot absorb and digest cellulose), yet we “clever” humans have managed to find a way to process indigestible organic matter that we should not have been putting in our mouths to begin with.  I plan to cover other such examples of “evolutionary mismatch” in future blog posts.

What this all amounts to is that, whether or not we are gluten-sensitive or Celiac or neither, it makes about as much sense to eat foods that we did not evolve to eat as it does to feed Snickers bars instead of meat to a lion in a zoo.  I’m pretty sure the animal rights folks would be up in arms if a zoo keeper did that!


The myth of “healthy eating”

I’m back from vacation and eager to continue my daily mission of disrupting the nutritional status quo!  On that note, I recently asked my mother-in-law, who is 74, what she knows about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).  She said she wasn’t sure what they were but that she thought it meant eating lots of whole wheat bread, vegetables and fruit, lean chicken breast, tuna and low-fat milk, and to stay away from eggs and butter because they can cause a heart attack.  Unfortunately, her idea of fresh fruit is canned fruit drowned in a pool of high fructose corn syrup.  She dutifully downs a tall glass of Sunny Delight orange juice every morning and a bowl of corn flakes with low-fat milk.  But there is something else that she also swallows every morning, i.e. a 500mg tablet of a prescription blood-sugar lowering medication called Metformin, which is akin to taking a hangover pill with your tequila shots!  It is noteworthy that since she started “eating healthy” and gave up eggs & bacon for breakfast 10 years ago, she is now officially a non-Insulin dependent Type II diabetic and her cholesterol numbers are even worse than they were a decade ago, so now her doctor has also put her on a statin, which increases the probability that she will develop dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease!  Good times, right?

Meanwhile, she refuses to listen to any of my dietary recommendations, in spite of my two college degrees in nutrition science that now hang on the wall, because she’s absolutely convinced that her physician, who received a grand total of 1 week of nutrition education 30 years ago in med school, knows more about healthy nutrition than her son-in-law because, as we all know, doctors are all-knowing and infallible!

In my opinion, a much better approach to implementing government-sponsored nutritional guidelines would be to disseminate a comprehensive list of processed foods and ingredients (especially those containing refined sugars) that people should try to avoid entirely, but of course that will never happen while the FDA and USDA are allowed to continue to prioritize the economic interests of Big Agra and Big Food over the health of consumers, while maintaining the illusion that they actually care about our well being by propagating spurious manipulative initiatives such as the DGA. Not to mention that a healthier generation of Americans would also detrimentally impact the bottom line of Big Pharma, corporate entities that have nothing to gain and everything to lose from Americans’ improving their health.  They need us alive but sick, so they give us drugs that do just that, instead of making us healthy.  They profit from treating symptoms, not from curing diseases that were preventable in the first place.  What we have in today is a disease care system, not a health care system!  The only people who have anything to lose in this socioeconomic equation is the health insurance companies, but they don’t care because they’ll just keep raising our insurance rates to keep themselves in the black, so in the end it is we the public who end up paying for all the evolutionarily-mismatched DGA recommendations that only protect the economic health of the agricultural industry, not the physical health of consumers.  It is for this reason that my eyes glaze over when someone says to me, “I try to eat healthy” or “I try to eat clean”.  These are both meaningless phrases if we cannot accurately and meaningfully define adjectives such as “healthy” and “clean”, a topic which I will cover in greater detail in future posts.


Paleo reality check

Happy Friday, everyone!  I’d like to indulge in some “nutritional blasphemy” this morning, by debunking a particular diet that I myself was a huge fan of in the long ago time before I had a Bachelors and Masters diploma hanging on the wall behind me.  Popularly known as the “Paleo” or “Primal” diet, I do not take particular objection to either of these similar dietary approaches as exclusionary methodologies for eliminating modern processed foods from one’s diet.  They are both certainly a good starting point in the personal journey of restoring oneself to optimal health, as the Primal diet was for myself 7 years ago, but I cannot ignore, having learned what I’ve learned the past few years, the numerous inherent pitfalls of attempting to replicate an ancient ancestral diet or a way of life that is now as extinct as the dinosaurs!

A few years ago, I had the honor and privilege of meeting in person the “founding father” of the Paleolithic Diet, the esteemed Dr. Loren Cordain, at the Ancestral Health Symposium in Berkeley.  After his fascinating lecture, he was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of his time to answer a few questions that lay heavy on my mind.  He made some interesting observations that were unexpectedly critical of the diet that he himself had “invented” over three decades ago.  He told me that, in its current consumerized incarnation, the “Paleo Diet” does not in fact accurately represent the anthropological record, which I shall attempt to delineate with a few pertinent bullet points:

  • It is nearly impossible to properly replicate a true Paleolithic diet and lifestyle in modern times, simply because we no longer have access to the same abundance and variety of wild-growing fruits, tubers, nuts and seeds that Paleolithic humans consumed, i.e. hundreds of nutritionally dense foods and animals, as compared with a relatively narrow range of options available to us today.


  • The Paleo Diet’s popular emphasis on fatty cuts of meat and fats in general is inconsistent with the far leaner animals that would have been hunted by Paleolithic humans.  Animals were lean because they were not ingesting a deliberately obesogenic diet, as are modern grain and corn-fed CAFO animals, and such animal protein would have been a rare “luxury feast” at best.


  • The Paleo Diet is little more than a modern-day approximation of a pre-agricultural menu of options, most of the benefits of which are attributable primarily to exclusionary food choices that cut out processed and packaged foods, proinflammatory cooking oils, chemical additives, synthetic pesticides, and refined sugars.


  • The Paleo Diet does not take into account that one cannot realistically isolate a specific period in history without also factoring in regional variations in diet within that epoch, e.g. Paleolithic humans were not consuming the same foods in Northern Africa as humans of the same period in Northern Europe.


  • The Paleo Diet’s emphasis on a low-carbohydrate, high-fat macronutrient ratio is inconsistent with the historical record.  Paleolithic humans would have had far greater access to a variety of carbohydrate sources than the popularized version of the Paleo Diet asserts.  As for simple sugars, a bee hive of honey was a delicacy so greatly prized in that era that humans were willing to get stung just to get their sticky fingers on that high-octane energy source.  However, in all fairness, they did not dine on such simple sugars every single day, as does a modern human pounding down glazed donuts with their double mochaccino latte every morning!


  • And the most important point that Dr. Cordain highlighted was that, just because Paleolithic humans ate a particular way, it does not necessarily follow that it was the absolute healthiest possible diet that they could have been consuming.  It is simply that they were eating the food sources available to them in that time and place, foods that kept them from starving to death!


  • An additional thought worth mentioning, which Dr. Cordain did not point out, but which I uncovered in the course of my own explorations into this topic is that the average life expectancy of humans in the Paleolithic era (not counting infant mortality and those who were killed violently in their youth) was approximately 33 years, as opposed to 79 years in the United States as of 2017. Therefore, folks did not generally live long enough during the Paleolithic to have developed any of the degenerative chronic disease states synonymous with advanced age in our era.  So in other words, unless you’re only planning to live to 33, please proceed with caution when it comes to eating like a caveman or cavewoman, especially if you happen to have a genetic proclivity such as familial hypercholesterolemia or a family history of heart disease.

In the final analysis, my numero uno criticism against the Paleo Diet is essentially the same as it is in regard to any other “one-size-fits-all” eating plan or fad diet, i.e. it is not personalized!  If you decide to forego an individualized diet plan designed by a qualified nutritionist or dietitian who has factored in your personal genetics and biomarkers, and you decide to try a diet such as Paleo, please make sure to consult with your physician first and get bloodwork done, such as a lipid panel, at least every couple of months to make sure that your lab values and disease risk are not headed in the wrong direction.  Like the old saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  Have a happy healthy weekend and eat sensibly!

Also, here’s a link to a voluminous critique of the Paleo Diet published in Scientific American a few years ago, if you’re interesting in a more detailed exploration of this topic:  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-paleo-diet-half-baked-how-hunter-gatherer-really-eat/


Why my blog is called ‘Nutriphilosophy’

Why do I call my blog ‘Nutriphilosophy’?  Excellent question.  Complex answer.  Of course, most folks would think that I’m just trying to be clever.  Well, maybe just a tad!  But the real reason is a lot more complicated than that.  My first ideas for a name were cute little phrases such as ‘Food for Thought’ and ‘Chew on This’, but in this overcrowded blogosphere of the Interwebs it’s real hard to come up with anything clever that someone hasn’t already grabbed up.  It was extremely frustrating to punch stuff into Google and watch it get regurgitated over and over again.  I finally took a deep breath and asked myself “What is your blog really about?”.  Is it about daily lectures on the science of nutrition?  No.  That would be pretentious.  Is it about dispensing sage advice on what people should be putting into their bodies?  No.  That would be arrogant.  Is it about humbly throwing some ideas out there to give people something to ponder, a starting point for personal enquiry?  Yes!  Absolutely.  Then it occurred to me that this type of enquiry falls under the general academic purview of philosophy, hence ‘nutrition philosophy’.  I therefore squished the two words together and came up with ‘Nutriphilosophy’, then was relieved to discover that there was only one domain out there in the Interwebs that had already staked a tenuous claim upon my cute little made-up word and it was a small now-defunct business in Rio De Janeiro that had not seen any activity online since 2007, so I was pretty sure that I wasn’t about to get an irate message from a bored Brazilian lawyer anytime soon!

Now back to the point I’ve been trying to make.  At first glance, nutrition and philosophy present as seemingly disparate disciplines, but they aren’t really as incompatible as one might think.  Nutrition science is forever growing and evolving, and even merging with other disciplines these days, e.g. genetics, epidemiology, anthropology, etc.  Thus, nutrition science should be viewed as a transdisciplinary approach to investigating the cultural and etiological implications of what we choose to eat and why.  Also, I have learned as the years go by that long-held beliefs and dogma continue to be reworked, debunked and discredited, e.g. eggs are good for us, then they’re bad for us, now they’re good for us again (as long as they’re “cage free”), and on and on.  When I took my first deep dive into the world of nutrition a little over 10 years ago, I thought I knew a lot.  I thought I had all the answers!  Today, a Bachelors and Masters degree later, I now know how little I know and how little we all know about nutrition-related matters that we thought we knew a lot about.  A recurring theme in my academic studies is that I was astonished by how often I would read words such as “It is not known at this time…” or “Further investigation is needed…” in my expensive impressive-looking textbooks.  And I also noticed that my professors with doctorates were actually more humble than many of my classmates, simply because they had spent enough time in academia to have been imbued with the humility and understanding that comes from grasping that what we know for certain is a quantity much smaller than what we don’t know.

What all this amounts to essentially is that any proclamations or fad diets that grow from the fertile soil of nutrition science should be viewed with both an open mind and some healthy skepticism (pun intended), with the realization that anything we say today could be discredited tomorrow or, at the very least, updated and more clearly defined.  In the light of this argument, it is not a great leap of logic to state unequivocally that any observations which I or any of my peers unleash upon the Interwebs is little more than an educated philosophy of nutrition, an informed point-of-view at best, one that is forever morphing into newer iterations.  Plato begat Socrates, Socrates begat Aristotle.

Having said all this, I realize that the reader might cynically think to themselves that if this is true and we don’t know jack, then that’s a great excuse to start eating at Jack in the Box, right?  Wrong!  Just because there’s still a lot for us to learn, that’s no excuse for trashing our bodies by consuming foods that we know for sure will kill us, slowly and ubiquitously.  So we make best decisions based on best information and humbly acknowledge that a slight course correction may be required at some point in the future.  Knowledge is forever evolving, but facts are still facts.  This is the beating heart of science.  This is my heart!


Salt is life!

When we discuss the subject of salt, it is imperative that we first recognize the biochemical difference between sodium and chloride.  Sodium is a critically important micronutrient in virtually all biochemical processes.  Sodium is salt.  Salt is life!  It is unfortunate and a bit ludicrous that sodium is demonized by modern society, a micronutrient that is an essential component in almost all biological reactions.  “Reduced sodium” and “low sodium” are virtually meaningless terms in the context of real-world nutrition science. “Low sodium” relative to what?  An individual organism’s specific osmotic pressure within the intracellular matrix?  Okay, I’ll take off my propeller hat now and get down to the nitty gritty.

Standard iodized table salt contains an inferior concentration of sodium (40%) to chloride (60%).  Salt is a compound (a formulation), not a mineral, like sodium, hence not all salt is created equal, e.g. table salt versus sea salt is an excellent example of this.  Although the quantifying terms (free, low, reduced) may seem arbitrary to those who choose to ignore the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), they were put into place to assist consumers consuming a repugnant Standard American Diet (SAD) to make dietary decisions relative to salt that will help to offset the detrimental effects of consuming highly processed foods loaded with an unnatural amount of salt.  The mass incorporation of salt into processed foods creates an “eat more” tactic, due to the flavor modification that creates an inexpensive way for food manufacturers to promote greater consumption and higher product sales, similar to their strategies relating to sugar.  This increased caloric consumption is a problem in and of itself, regardless of the sodium content of foods.

The defining terms, put into perspective to make sense, signify the quantity of sodium in a single serving of a particular food.  “Low sodium” will contain 140mg or less of sodium and “reduced sodium” will have at least a quarter-less sodium than the traditional marketed product (almost exclusively processed), making these terms a basis for comparison only, but meaningless in terms of the physiological impact on a specific human being’s physiology, which is influenced by a multitude of factors that are inextricably intertwined, e.g. genetics, lifestyle, physical activity level, chronic and acute health conditions such hypertension or kidney disease, and even the time of year.  Although many of us may be possessed of the knowledge and willpower to nourish our bodies responsibly, the majority of Americans evidently are not.  Therefore, these terms related to salt have been summoned and defined by public health authorities to provide general guidelines that will encourage people to limit their salt consumption to below a total of 1500mg of sodium per day.  To know exactly how much salt you should be consuming, you will need to consult with your physician or a qualified nutritionist/dietitian.  Don’t just automatically assume that less salt is always better!


Fat and cholesterol, friend or foe?

A great deal of attention in the media, and even in academia, has been disproportionately focused on dyslipidemia and the dietary cholesterol/satured fat components in the etiology of heart disease, instead of focusing on dyslipidemia as an endocrine and metabolic disorder in older populations (50+) propagated as a public health epidemic caused mostly by excess sugar in the diet, manifesting as metabolic syndrome.  Metabolic syndrome, or “Syndrome X”, consists of a cluster of chronic conditions, i.e. increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist (central adiposity), and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels, that generally occur together, concurrently increasing one’s risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

I found a recent article in the journal of the American Diabetes Association that examined this permutation via epidemiological data obtained from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) that categorized adults over 50 years of age as presenting with metabolic syndrome, with or without full-blown diabetes (some participants were “only” prediabetic).

Three key insights from the article:

  • Individuals with both metabolic syndrome and diabetes had the highest prevalence of CHD (Cardiovascular Heart Disease).
  • There was a clear linear relationship between the degree of metabolic dysregulation exhibiting as elevated fasted blood glucose and HbA1c in relation to the degree of CHD risk, calculated as an algorithm of associated comorbidities.
  • “Insulin resistance syndrome” was cited as the primary contributing factor in the development of CHD.

Egg-vibesMy own personal takeaway from this study validates one of my long-held beliefs, confirmed by the latest scientific data, that saturated fat and cholesterol as independent variables are not the true culprits underlying heart disease.  Bacon and eggs for breakfast will not automatically clog your arteries (unless you happen to be one of those unfortunate folks with a rare genetic disorder called ‘familial hypercholesterolemia‘), but if you add a stack of pancakes and syrup to your bacon and eggs, then you have the proverbial ‘Colonel’s secret recipe for arteriosclerosis’.  I therefore feel that the general public should be nutritionally counseled to focus on avoiding foods high in refined sugar, salt, and hydrogenated pro-inflammatory vegetable oils, instead of worrying about how many healthy free-range eggs they are consuming each week and whether or not they should be eating the whole egg or only the egg whites.  Our society’s decades-long obsession with “low-fat” foods that have substituted fat calories for sugar calories is mostly to blame for the skyrocketing incidence of heart disease in Western populations.

What is nutrition?

Nutrition, in regard to all mammalian species, is essentially a biochemical process required for the production of energy and the nourishment of cells within the body.  If food is not ingested, the human body will in fact “digest” itself in order to obtain calories from its own tissue via catabolism of fat mass and/or lean mass.  Having established nutrition and its vital necessity in the propagation of life, the only choice that we have is whether or not we fuel our body with calories derived from nourishing sources that do not create a “cellular ecosystem” conducive to the development of chronic and acute disease states.  I like to compare this to either running on “clean burning fuel” such as fresh organic vegetables and wild-caught salmon or on Big Macs and french fries washed down with a beer.

Three excellent examples of this hypothesis that are well-supported within academia include the following chronic diseases sharing the commonality of obesity driven by improper nutritional practices.  I want to emphasize, as a caveat, that none of these conditions are caused directly by poor nutrition, but that poor nutrition manifesting as obesity and the comorbidity of Type II diabetes sets up a favorable environment for the development of chronic diseases within the human body.  Correlation does not always equal causation, but it is a good starting point for scientific enquiry.

1)  Cancer and systemic inflammation.  Recent studies have highlighted the role of a pro-inflammatory obesogenic diet and carcinogenic compounds found in processed foods that may lead to the development of numerous cancers, including brain, liver and pancreatic cancer.

2)  Arteriosclerosis and systemic inflammation.  Elevated cholesterol may be the proverbial “bullet in the gun” but it is actually elevated HS-CRP (C-reactive protein) that pulls the trigger on a heart attack.  Familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic condition identified via Apo-E genotyping, is the “gun” itself.

3)  Dementia/Alzheimer’s and systemic inflammation.  There has now been established a strong association between the consumption of pro-inflammatory refined sugars (especially High Fructose Corn Syrup) and inflammatory cooking oils linked to what is sometimes referenced as “Type III Diabetes“.


Clearly, nutrition is either a fertile soil for health and longevity or a breeding ground for deadly diseases.  What we put in our mouths is much more than just fuel.  It is fuel that can potentially generate pro-inflammatory cytokines and ROS (reactive oxygen species) that turn our bodies into a toxic waste dump, basically a welcoming committee for chronic diseases such as cancer and arteriosclerosis.  I have always advised my patients/clients in respect to their nutritional choices that they can either treat their bodies as a sacred temple or as an amusement park.  It’s all about our personal choices!  We must therefore live with the consequences of our actions, for better or for worse.  The greatest tragedy in the world today is that millions have no choice but to consume unhealthful foods just to stay alive.  However, those of us who are financially privileged to have a choice in what we consume should certainly not squander that freedom by consciously choosing to put foods into our bodies that we know are harmful and self-destructive.  Bon appetit, but with wisdom!