Monday, March 7, 2011

Where Do You Get Your Protein?

My mother asked me this iconic question back in 1973, when I was calling myself a vegetarian. In fact, she asked me the same question every time I went to her house, during the seven years I was on a vegetarian diet. At first, I tried reasonable answers, explaining that protein isn't really all that hard to come by--that it's abundant in many foods, in fact. But her question was ideologically motivated, so she kept asking it, in the desperate hope that I would suddenly have a dietary epiphany and realize that her way of eating is indeed the correct one, and that my Eastern-weirdo-inspired diet was a dangerous fad. Once I understood this, I began answering her with a standard line, "Same place the cow gets it, ma." This didn't stop the inquisition, but I had stopped trying to defend my position.

This question is still alive and well, and making the rounds in inter-dietary conversations--even after decades of vegetarianism firmly established in mainstream American awareness. It used to be that restaurant workers flat-out hated vegetarians, because they were rare enough that it made a stir in the kitchen--some idiot in the dining room wants a meatless meal! I won't go into the spiteful things that might happen to that special request before it was served. Now restaurateurs have gotten hip and begun offering at least one vegetarian option, if not several. Some restaurants even have a "vegan menu," listing only the vegan-friendly items, so vegans don't have to wonder, or pepper the waitfolk with questions regarding each item on the regular menu. Smart move.

The real health-based questions that no one seems to ever ask are, "Where do you get your fats?" and "Where do you get your carbs?" Protein is important, sure, but as soon as I started getting it exclusively from plants, my overall health improved dramatically. My bad cholesterol plummeted, I feel more energy, and my BMI is about as good as it gets. The questions being omitted are far more crucial to human health, both on the individual and the national (even global) level, however.

This morning, I came upon an article by Dr. Andrew Weil, in which he plays down the threat to health from fats (a longstanding, over-exaggerated fear) and points to refined carbohydrates as the genuine cause of concern. I was glad to see that, because it signals the advent of a paradigm shift in the medical profession, one that may actually lead to a better understanding of the relationship between diet and health. It's new information for many (if not most) people, that fat is not the enemy. The mantra, "Eat a low-fat diet" is still being emphatically repeated in one form or another by doctors, many nutritionists, on product packaging, and in the media. It's not fat that makes people fat; it's refined carbohydrates. In terms of overall health, it's both fats and carbs that cause problems. More specifically, it's processed food. So let's quickly look at the two crucial, yet unasked questions:

Where do you get your fats? Fat has gotten such a bad rap for so long, people have no idea that there are good ones and bad ones. They seem unaware that fats play a critical role in the optimum functioning of every single cell in the human body. They think all fat is bad, with some (saturated) being worse than others. As Dr. Weil points out in his article, saturated fat isn't a huge threat to health after all. What he didn't mention, is that refined fats are harmful in two important ways:

1. They have been stripped of any nutritional value,  treated with harsh chemicals (specifically, as my buddy Udo Erasmus, says, "Drano, window washing liquid, and bleach"), and subjected to frying temperatures. The result? Damaged molecules and empty calories--two relatively new anomalies we have not co-evolved with, so we lack a gene for dealing with them. Certain cancers and other diseases may be a direct result of ingesting these "new" fatforms.
2. Because fats compete in the body for the enzymes necessary to process them and make them available for the body to use, these damaged bad fats--because they are ingested so copiously in the modern "western" diet--can crowd out the good fats we eat (undamaged omega-3, -6 and -9, among them). The result is a double whammy: we become deficient in essential fats, and sullied with a surfeit of harmful fats.

My answer: I get my fats from plants, in as natural a state as possible. Plant fats are not only better for you, but they taste really good, too. Think avocados, nuts and seeds. Then there are plant-based oils, extracted from nuts, seeds, and, in the case of olive oil, from the fruit. Of course, any oil you buy will have undergone some processing in order for you to dish it out of a container. But good fats have been extracted with minimal exposure to heat, light and oxygen. The harder the fat, the more tolerant of heat it will be, and the more stable it will be at room temperature. The more unsaturated it is, the more fragile it will be, and the more it must be protected from heat, light and oxygen.

Bear this in mind when shopping for oils:  If it's on a shelf and not refrigerated, then unless it's highly saturated, chances are excellent you're looking at process-damaged oil. The exception would be extra virgin olive oil, which as you probably know, is minimally processed. EVOO is strictly from the first pressing--and the key word is pressing, because olive oil doesn't come from a seed or a nut, like other oils; it comes from the flesh, which means that the first pressing will yield the most vibrant oil, with the highest concentration of flavors--and health benefits. Ideally, EVOO should be kept in a cool, dark place, like all oils. But stored in a dark glass bottle, it will keep fairly well at room temperature for a limited time, because it contains some saturated fat (stabilizing), very little omega-6, and no omega-3 fats (which are very fragile). Determining the quality of an olive oil is straightforward and simple. EVOO has co-evolved with us, so it should taste good to you. The better it tastes, the better the olive oil. If it doesn't taste good, it's gone off.

For cooking, I use mainly coconut oil, with EVOO as a second choice, when flavor is an issue, and only when some liquid is present to keep the oil from overheating. For raw food, or hot food that is no longer going to be reheated, I use Udo's DHA 3-6-9 Oil Blend, EVOO, almond oil, walnut oil, sesame oil and sometimes sunflower seed or pumpkin seed oil--all extracted in ways that protect the molecular integrity of the fats. That's it.

Where do you get your carbs? Here's where the dividing line is a lot easier to see. If it's on a produce shelf, marked "certified organic," it's safe as you can get. If it's on a shelf in the grocery aisle and it requires some preparation on your part, some compromises may be emerging, but you're still looking good. If it's been made into some packaged thing that you can open and eat in your car, you're in a red flag zone. If the label makes outlandish health claims, or has a long ingredient list (especially words you can't understand or pronounce), walk away. Refined carbs--especially the super-refined starches and sugars in fast food--are directly responsible for the rampant epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.

My answer: I get my carbs from plants, in as natural a state as possible. Complex carbohydrates, in beans, grains, fruits and vegetables are the only way to go. They come with fiber, antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and essential fats. It's hard to overeat them, because I have to actually chew them. They aren't predigested, loaded with sick, twisted additives, fake colorings, fillers and other non-food ingredients. And they taste like real food, not something for bored or depressed people to stuff in their mouths as a sad, ineffective therapy. Oh--and they don't clog my system!

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