Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Avoiding the Micronutrient Madness

Nutrient X has been found good for Y, therefore eat foods that have X!


We all know the drill. Another article such as this is published that discusses some study linking certain micronutrients (minerals, vitamins etc) with protection from certain diseases. The enthusiastic reporter writing the piece invariably includes a list of foods (usually skewed towards politically correct foods) that have significant amounts of the wonder-nutritent under discussion.

Sure, it's great that the link beteween diet and health outcomes are made visible to the general public. Food is medicine. This message is important.

However, the big elephant in the room is never acknowledged:

The question that is always evaded is how a person could possibly access all of these super-important nutrients without having to make skewed or unhealthy trade-offs, or without having to hedge by stacking up 10000 calories per day of various food items listed in the reports, plus an array of supplements.

It is an optimization problem of potentially mindboggling complexity.

However in reality the answer is staring us in the face, and it is very easy:

Eat a diverse and as nutrient dense diet on a per calorie basis as possible, based on whole foods.

Let's look a bit on what this statement implies.

First we must add the qualification that since some foods contain anti-nutrients or toxins (gluten, lectins, saponins, etc) or other stuff that we want to avoid such as excess sugars or omega 6 fats, we must also make sure that we get as much of valuable nutrients per unit of undesireable content in our foods as possible.

To stay on a desired level of caloric intake and to otherwise preserve health, this means not eating foods that have a scarcity of micronutrients per calorie and/or mess with our health in other ways, and instead eat a variety of foods that have a maximum amount of nutrients per calorie, and a minimum of the stuff that we want to avoid.

Also, it must be a whole foods diet, and not a bunch of supplements (though I'm not against well considered supplementation) and not franken-foods like Atkins bars. The reason for this is that without a whole foods approach one will add another layer (if not several layers) of complexity in regard to how various nutrients interact when eaten together (or when not eaten together). There are also factors such as bio-availability and absorption that impact what actually happens when we ingest a nutrient in a processed form versus what happens when we eat it as a part of a whole food. (A great paper on food synergies here.) As evolved animals we are undeniably adapted to nutrient clusters delivered in the form of whole chunks of plant matter or whole chunks of animal tissue, not to nutrient molecules as such. (Each individual cell might not care if we ate a bunch of molecules or a steak, but each separate cell has no clue about our overall health, and doesn't care either.)

In practice things actually get quite simple: Eat a diet consisting of primarily meats (yes, meats including seafoods, and organ meats are the most nutrient dense foods that one can find) accompanied by a somewhat smaller amount (calorically speaking) of eggs and a variety of vegetables and perhaps some nuts and fruits thrown in occasionally.

In other words, the rational way to be nutritionally aligned in real life with the advice coming in from all of these micronutrient studies without going either crazy or become sick (or both) is to eat according to [drum roll] a paleo diet!

Who would have known?

PS. Great paper by Cordain showing more details on the supreme nutrient density of a contemporary paleo diet here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

De-caffeinating My Life

Don't get me wrong. I think that coffee is great - almost as great as Ray Peat thinks.

Even so, I have decided that I can't allow my caffeine intake to dictate my mood and energy anymore. I want to troubleshoot why I feel so slow and grumpy in the AM, particularly until I have had that first cup of joe. Another issue is that I have noticed how caffeine seems to make my heart rate go into overdrive with a lag of a few hours and I suspect it messes with my blood sugar too. (To be accurate, it seems like decaf coffee has somewhat deleterious side effects as well on my mental- and physical state.)

On a more general level, I want to see how far a clean paleo lifestyle can take me in terms of day to day well being and energy. I got a great energy boost from going paleo in mid 2008, and I think that, inherently, the human body, given an optimal supply of nutrients, should be able to produce just the right amounts of neurotransmitters and feel-good-chemicals in order to not need supplemental stimulants like coffee.

In any case, I'm not set to take coffee out of my life; I just don't want to be a slave to it. I'd like to rewind the clock 20 years or so, to the time when having a cup of coffee did something tangibly positive for me rather than just picking me up to baseline (combined with a cluster of side effects).

So, a couple of weeks ago, I begun cutting down on coffee by only drinking just enough to satisfy cravings and mitigate withdrawal symptoms. I might now toss away half a cup of espresso at the point where I feel that I've had the "right" amount. This has worked quite well, particularly in terms of my subjective experience of less feelings of stress and unduly raised pulse. A side effect in the first week was a bit of dizziness in the late afternoon, and in later weeks some headache - classic caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

Two weeks ago I also wanted to start addressing my grumpy morning mood and remaining afternoon coffee cravings. For that purpose I got a supply of supplements to use for troubleshooting and as training wheels. The book The Mood Cure (HT: Cheeseslave) and Poliquin's seminar on brain nutrition provided some tips in regard to which ones.

Coffee has multi-pronged effects on the psyche. It stimulates the release of dopamine (the "go-do-something" neurotransmitter), it releases endorphins (feel good chemicals), and it impacts serotonin (a neurotransmitter related to mood and a range of other things).

So I wanted to try some supplemental compounds that might also impact the same brain chemicals in order to perhaps discover why I crave coffee in the morning, and to mitigate whatever deficiency might be implied by that.

At this point I've tried the following in a preliminary way - one compound per day, except for #4 which I've taken almost every day:

1) DLPA (DL-Phenylalanine) - Impacts both dopamine and endorphins levels positively. This is the one that Cheeseslave reported great results with.
2) L-Tyrosine - Impacts dopamine.
3) 5-HTP - A precursor to serotonin.

4) R-Lipoic Acid + Acetyl-L-Carnitine . (I'm not sure how related it is to what caffein does, but I threw this into the mix because it's a tried and tested combo for clearing "brain fog" in the morning.)

I wish I could announce a miracle cure at this point, but so far I can't say that any of the above has made any significant difference. This actually makes sense because a paleo diet, after all, supplies these compounds naturally through food given good digestive function, and I don't have any overt digestive problems. (By the way, carby foods can create a temporary release of serotonin that probably beats a typical low carb paleo meal, but that's more of a transient effect.)

I will probably try the supplements a bit more systematically in another round of testing, while continuing to reduce my daily dose of coffee.

The goal is to go to zero, and to stay there for a couple of weeks with more troubleshooting of my morning grumpiness, and then to go back to drinking a small amount every day.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Short Notes on Saturated Fats and Coffee

Two short notes on subjects that I've been thinking about lately.

Saturated fats

Some evidence point to the fat palmitic acid as the type of saturated fat that one might want to avoid over-eating rather than saturated fats in general. Palmitic acid has been shown on a mechanistic level to make scavenger macrophages gulp up oxidized LDL which is believed to be an important step in the process of atherosclerosis.

Another issue with palmitic acid is its role in leptin- and (temporary, "physiologic") insulin resistance.

Somewhat as a confounding data point, I can report that my own brief experiment with consuming a large amount of heavy cream and butter for a couple of months before a blood test, and then dropping the extra saturated fat and do a comparative test after a month revealed a higher total cholesterol number on the diet high in saturated fat, however with a corresponding rise in HDL, while triglycerides stayed constant. (The informal experiment probably also led to a significant shift in total calories between the two "diets" which could have impacted the result.)

In terms of looking at formal risk metrics such as the ratio between HDL and triglycerides and HDL to total cholesterol, the cream and butter diet was a notch better than the diet without those items. (Though again, there may be confounding factors such as calories and the fact that adaptations to a specific regimen can take much longer than a month.)

I think the jury is still out on this, but the idea proposed by Cordain that modern grain fed animals have a higher proportion of palmitic acid in their meat than the animals consumed during the paleolithic provides a further clue to the effect that we might not be well adapted to "modern" levels of palmitic acid. This would of course include the palmitic acid that is released from the liver when we overeat carbs!


I sometimes feel that my heart rate is inexplicably high at times during the day, and if I just get the slightest stressed, the rate can sky-rocket. (I can feel the veins in my neck just pound like crazy.) I also suspect that I have a lack of really great blood sugar control, despite eating a low carb paleo diet.

I have come to suspect that coffee is one of the culprits in these problems (under-eating may be another). A weird thing with coffee for me is that it has some sort of delayed action, such that it can cause an explosion in adrenaline (and cortisol?) release hours after I've actually consumed the coffee.

I'm therefore experimenting with reducing my coffee intake so that I would only drink enough caffeinated coffee such that I precisely avoid withdrawal symptoms. This sometimes means that I drink just half of a cup of espresso and then I throw away the rest. I may do this two times a day.

So far I'm quite pleased with the results. Subjectively I experience a calmer mood and less of those undue fight-or-flight moments.

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