Can green smoothies “DEVASTATE” your health?

Sarah the Healthy Home Economist online recently posted an article about how green smoothies can “DEVASTATE” your health.  The content was so unsubstantiated that at first I refused to respond to it. But Amanda said, “She has a big audience and people are freaking out about it.”

Sarah cites the oxalates phenomenon, wherein a natural compound (oxalates) occasionally bind to calcium to cause kidney stones. (She infers, without citing evidence, that other more serious health consequences could also be possible.) Greens have oxalic acid in them. Sarah makes several logic leaps and concludes that no one should be drinking green smoothies.

I’m not going to promote her blog article by pointing to it here. She rates her content for how controversial it is. Controversy generates more readers, I guess. It also has the potential to do harm, if what you’re saying is (a) undocumented, (b) contrary to hundreds of studies about the benefits of greens, and (c) featuring a bizarre and untenable conclusion.

Just because someone posts stuff on the internet does not automatically endow that person with credibility. Her argument locks in on a detail — that greens are high in oxalic acid — and misses the larger picture.

Only one source is listed at the end of her article and none are quoted or referenced. The source is a PhD’s book on oxalates and autism and “chronic disorders,” but she never quotes the author or anyone or anything else, so I’m not sure how many of her claims came from this one guy, or what.

I don’t bet the farm on one book or one source. There are quite a few other sources that show that some of the anti-nutrients in our most nutrition-dense foods, actually work together synergistically for our health, rather than against it. I’ve done quite a few blog series on anti-nutrients such as oxalates, goitrogens, purines, and phytates, concluding that none of the anti-nutrients should generally cause people to avoid foods containing them.

Note that at the end of the article, Sarah says to eat greens, if you like them, but not very much. Always cook them, she says, and eat them with butter.

Wow! Really?

Let me quote Dr. Norman Walker in his book Fresh Vegetable and Fruit Juices: What’s Missing in Your Body?

“Spinach should never be eaten when cooked unless we are particularly anxious to accumulate oxalic acid crystals in our kidneys with the consequent pain and kidney trouble. When spinach is cooked or canned, the oxalic acid atoms become inorganic as a result of excessive heat and may form oxalic acid crystals in the kidneys.

“When the food is raw, whether whole or in the form of juice, every atom in such food is vital ORGANIC and is replete with enzymes. Therefore, the oxalic acid in our raw vegetables and their juices is organic, and as such is not only beneficial but essential for the physiological functions of the body.

“The oxalic acid in cooked and processed foods, however, is definitely dead, or INORGANIC, and as such is both pernicious and destructive. Oxalic acid readily combines with calcium. If these are both organic, the result is a beneficial constructive combination, as the former helps the digestive assimilation of the latter, at the same time stimulating the peristaltic functions in the body.

“When the oxalic acid has become INORGANIC by cooking or processing the foods that contain it, then this acid forms an interlocking compound with the calcium, even combining with the calcium in other foods eaten during the same meal, destroying the nourishing value of both. This results in such a serious deficiency of calcium that it has been known to cause decomposition of the bones.”

So according to Dr. Walker, what Sarah is telling her readers to do is really terrible advice.

One of my favorite sources is George Mateljan, because his staff, and his book The World’s Healthiest Foods, review and quote a tremendous amount of empirical data before making claims. Each section contains an extensive bibliography, and the conclusions are scientific and objective.

He says that a review of the peer-reviewed research reveals that the ability of oxalates to lower calcium absorption is small and does not outweigh the ability of those foods to contribute significant calcium to the diet, since spinach is rich in calcium.

So, one of the primary recommendations of most the sources I’ve read, to avoid stones forming in the body, is to get plenty of calcium from plant sources.

So, the high calcium content in spinach may actually inhibit the formation of stones, even though spinach is also high in oxalates. This is at least some logic or evidence, then, underpinning my theory that there are far more synergies than we currently know about in whole, raw plant foods leading to their clear, incontrovertible place (based on volumes of published research) as the necessary mainstay in our diet. We know that people the world over who eat mostly whole, raw foods simply don’t get sick. We don’t always know WHY.

So screaming that the sky is falling about one compound—in an entire class of our most nutritious foods—seems not only unwise, but even irresponsible, if you have an audience and give nutrition advice.

The jury is still out on so many of the issues Sarah the Healthy Home Economist takes strong, unilateral stands on. For instance, what really causes oxalic acid buildup. (She quotes ZERO evidence that greens do.) Whether greens are high in oxalates are only ONE issue related to whether they cause kidney stones. What if they also have dozens of other nutrient compounds, and fiber, that PREVENT stones from forming? A relevant example would be Mateljan’s review of the published, peer-reviewed literature on spinach, oxalates, and calcium as mentioned earlier.

After I investigated this issue, I wrote this in Chapter 1 of 12 Steps to Whole Foods:

“The research is not clear that restricting foods such as spinach helps prevent stones in those who have previously had them. Many researchers believe that dietary restriction cannot reduce risk of stone formation. In fact, some foods that were assumed to increase stone formation because of oxalate content (like black tea) have appeared in more recent research to have a preventative effect.

“Further, cooking has a small impact (about 10%) on the oxalate content of foods, with no statistically significant lowering of oxalates following blanching or boiling of greens. It appears that the nutritional advantages of eating raw greens continue to far outweigh any benefit of cooking them.”

And yet, with slim evidence, if any, Sarah says green smoothies can “devastate” your health and advises at the end of the article, “Skip the Green Smoothies!”

She undertakes no discussion of the true baddies that cause kidney stones:

Soft drinks

Sugar

Animal proteins

Salty foods (or any refined salt)

Oxalates in spinach (also strawberries, soy, and many other foods) can be difficult to digest for a tiny percentage of the population who are suffering from a few very rare disorders (absorptive hypercalciuria type II, enteric hyperoxaluria, primary hyperoxaluria). But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. If you don’t have these disorders, and 99+% of those reading this don’t, greens are not just good food—they are powerful good medicine!

Leafy greens are the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, and cooking them as Sarah instructs kills 100% of their enzymes, and most of their vitamins and minerals, too.

Sarah the Healthy Home Economist uses hyperbolic words to terrify people that eating nutrient dense foods could kill them, but she cites no research whatsoever. She implies that cases of painful sex are on the rise (where does that data come from? Is there any data?) and that oxalates are a “possible culprit.”

There are no references to check, and the bigger issue to me is, if people develop kidney stones, or crystalline deposits in other parts of the body, are greens the real culprit? How would you isolate that factor? Show me the study that did.

It’s terribly unlikely that greens are why we have lots of kidney stones, since almost nobody in America eats very much green food.

And in addition to thousands of testimonials we’ve received, my own research (175 subjects) shows massive health benefits to the green smoothie habit, as published in my bestselling book, The Green Smoothies Diet. In that research, not one person reported kidney stones as a side effect of starting the daily green-drink habit. And yes, we asked.

Nutritionally, crystalline deposits are likely caused by highly acidic foods, especially salt, and not drinking lots of water.

So let’s minimize or eliminate the baddies, listed above. Let’s eat more of the foods that have been linked by hundreds of studies world-wide, to ideal weight and minimized disease risk.

(Dr. Joel Fuhrman does this best, in Eat to Live, quoting literally hundreds of published studies showing the benefits of eating plant foods. This is highly recommended reading.)

Let’s don’t kill greens with cooking, and slather butter on them.

If you’re worried about oxalates, let’s not “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” because people who don’t metabolize that anti-nutrient well need the nutrition in the leafy greens as much as anyone, if not more. Instead:

Let’s rotate greens, use a wide variety in our green drinks—not just spinach. Amanda says a friend of hers had oxalate issues and one took a calcium-magnesium supplement and the pain went away. Several experts I have read suggest getting more calcium from plant sources.

And, eat some good fats with your green smoothie, like avocado or coconut oil or flax oil, to increase calcium absorption. One of my favorite lunches is a quart of green smoothie, with some homemade guacamole and “corn chips” (organic corn tortillas, quartered with a pizza cutter and broiled on both sides, no oil or salt needed).

Anti-nutrients? Are you letting them scare you off whole foods?….Part 3 of 3

Oxalates in greens? It’s another tempest in a teapot. Please show me the clinical data that healthy people need to limit oxalate-rich food. I’ve seen none. Only claims, passed around the internet. Hypothyroidism does not dictate that we avoid this very important, phenomenally nutritious class of vegetables and greens.

Goitrogens in broccoli, cabbage, kale? Let’s use some common sense. Let’s say a food has sustained human life for thousands of years, and dozens or even hundreds of studies show it to be dramatically healthy. (I’m referring to broccoli, cabbage, and kale—the crucifers.) Let’s say we break down the many complex parts of the broccoli plant, and we find one that, when chemically isolated, is harmful.

We might do well to trust that the synergy in 100 different co-factors in that food are time-tested. How can you do a study to show that the complex interplay of factors in a powerful plant food yields long life and superior energy for humans? Scientists want to parse and isolate. If they find the heavy-hitter nutrient, they might be able to put it in a pill. Altered slightly, it might be patentable and worth $1 billion.

I’m not saying that natural, food-based supplements have no value. But nothing is going to come close to the synergistic, nearly incomprehensible effects of the plants they were derived from. The impact of the aloe vera plant on digestion, and burn healing….it’s nearly inestimable. You know this if you’ve ever cut a stalk off your aloe vera plant and applied it to a sunburn, which then doesn’t peel, and feels dramatically better, and is gone the next day. (Or if you put a stalk of your aloe vera in your green smoothie, watch what it does to your digestion that day, WOW.)

Whole plant foods are dramatically helpful  for us to fuel a long, vibrant life. When you dig to the bottom of these “tempests in a teapot” controversies about anti-nutrients, you invariably learn that research shows the “anti-nutrient” to be neutral or even helpful to normal, healthy humans.

If you’ve read this blog series and are now going to avoid whole grains, cruciferous vegetables, or apple seeds, you’ve missed the point entirely. Whatever OTHER food you eat instead of that whole plant food—animal flesh, or packaged foods—has far worse than an anti-nutrient or two. They have heat-damaged carcinogenic oils, no fiber, refined sugar, chemicals from solvents and preservatives and flavor enhancers and packaging and colorings.

You’re simply far better off eating whole foods. Virtually always.

Anti-Nutrients….are you letting them scare you off whole foods? part 1 of 3

One of the more infuriating aspects of nutrition education is the highly confusing anti-nutrients debate.

For example, hot issues include but are not limited to….

Grains have PHYTATES.

Spinach has OXALATES.

Apple seeds have CYANIDE.

Legumes have PURINES.

Broccoli and cabbage have GOITROGENS.

Dr. Mercola propagates a bunch of needless fear, attacking all grains and some vegetables because they contain an anti-nutrient. He creates fear about lots of whole foods people have eaten for centuries. And then he moves on to leverage that to sell whey protein (an over-popular, highly refined food).

Keep in mind that I feel some of Mercola’s stuff is brilliant, important, and well researched. Some of it is salesy, with shoddy thinking/research. Sometimes I wonder if he doesn’t watch over his staff writers very well…..

No one addresses this issue more logically, than my friend Jim Simmons, whose book Original Fast Foods is a great addition to your library. Because it’s excellent, well researched, and comprehensive, with good recipes. It’s the closest thing out there to the diet I teach. There are lots of raw-food recipe books, but people burn out from how labor-intensive they can be. Eating cooked legumes and whole organic grains is a way to eat a whole-foods diet without burnout, and with the high-fiber, high-nutrition, low-effort gains of, for instance, split peas, lentils, and black beans. I am suspect of any eating plans that ban such foods. I advocate for 60-80% raw plant foods—but I feel that some cooked vegetables, legumes, and grains are a wonderfully healthy part of a good disease-preventative diet, as evidenced by long history.

Here’s what Jim said to me via email, when I posted on the goitrogens issue last July:

“Research now supports the idea that anti-nutrients are nature’s way of helping us to be more intuitive in our eating patterns. For instance, some spinach is really good for you, but as you consume too much, the level of oxalates will build up in your bloodstream to a point that a signal will be sent to your brain and then a signal is sent from the brain to your endocrine system. The long and the short is, you will lose your appetite for spinach until the level of oxalates drop sufficient that your taste for spinach is turned back on….don’t get too complicated in your eating habits.”

I agree with Jim. Anti-nutrients are in most, if not all, whole foods. This does not mean they are bad, scary, or to be avoided. God put them in the food for a reason.

Tomorrow I’ll write about each of those anti-nutrients.

Jim’s response to my article on GOITROGENS

These are author Jim Simmons’ blog comment in response to my latest report on goitrogens and cruciferous vegetables. I feel it deserves front-and-center attention:

Regarding oxalates and other anti-nutrients: recently Dr. Mercola went at it again with fear-mongering toward ‘all’ whole grains and even a variety of vegetables. By the time he got done with all the foods you cannot eat or that are problematic, there was not much left to choose from.

Then he introduced a variety of products he sells, such as whey protein, chlorella, and so forth. I’ve noticed this pattern off and on with Mercola articles. Some are so well written and researched that they are true contribution. Others extrapolate data from research in unhelpful and problematic ways. Others do not recognize a wealth of data that do not support some fairly narrow claims. When it comes to oxalates, this is just one more “anti-nutrient” that exists in a healthful food. If you were to cease eating foods that possess anti-nutrients, you would have to stop eating real, whole foods.

Therefore, what is the answer? Research now supports the idea that anti-nutrients are nature’s way of helping us to be more intuitive in our eating patterns. For instance, some spinach is really good for you, but as you consume too much, the level of oxalates will build up in your bloodstream to a point that a signal will be sent to your brain and then a signal is sent from the brain to your endocrine system. The long and the short is, you will lose your appetite for spinach until the level of oxalates drop sufficient that your taste for spinach is turned back on. The bottom line is this; don’t get too complicated in your eating habits.

Eat as many whole foods as possible without blending, grinding, and so forth, which best supports the physiology of your body. When it comes to even whole fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, don’t force yourself to eat any of them just because they are healthful in nature. Rather, pay attention and respect your desire or lack thereof to eat any particular healthful food. Chew it slowly and enable digestion to take its most natural course. Best!

GSG response:

[Jim is a friend of mine, and I highly recommend his fabulous book Original Fast Foods, because I love it. I agree with him entirely about Dr. Mercola’s latest. In fact, I agree with Jim Simmons probably with more regularity than with any other nutrition author/expert.]

Exactly! Reddy and Sathe published a book on phytates (another anti-nutrient; I teach about this in Ch. 9 of 12 Steps). Contrary to the latest hype, they present quite a body of evidence that phytates may be friend rather than foe. (The logic is similar to what I’ve just presented in our conversation about goitrogens last week.)

If we eliminate any food containing the so-called “anti-nutrients” (that very term encourages anxiety), we eliminate most whole foods. Occasionally I have a reader send me an email that she’s learned that apple seeds contain cyanide. (A trace amount of a natural substance that is does not react in the body like eating chemical cyanide would.) Of course “MSG” occurs naturally in trace amounts, in some highly nutritious plant foods, I am concerned only about the chemical version that is well documented as a potent neurotoxin. I have discussed goitrogens and oxalates on this blog numerous times—just more examples.

Jim is right that many if not most foods contain anti-nutrients. We don’t yet know, fully, the role that they play and why.   But again, we know from thousands of studies that whole plant foods are our most preventative, health-supporting diet.

I trust my tastes to let me know if I get too much of any food. This happened recently as I was drinking 4 oz. of wheat grass juice daily. One day I went to Good Earth TWICE and had 4 oz. twice that day. I immediately had a brain fog and slight headache for 2 hours after that. My body was telling me to lighten up on the wheat grass juice. So I did.

Just a little perspective here: I’m far more concerned about toxicity people are getting from hot dogs, than from too much wheat grass juice. The effect of the former is nitrites building up in various organs (very difficult to eliminate chemicals that we eat) and initiating and promoting growth of cancer cells. The effect of the latter is to cause more detox than I’m comfortable with.

Panic! Are cruciferous vegs killing my thyroid? I’m taking a stand on this issue.

A reader, Shawna, wrote us an email with tons of capitalized sentences and exclamation points, saying, “Hey! I’ve been doing green smoothies for a few years now! And I’m hypothyroid! Help–am I killing my thyroid?”

My customer support wrote me that people constantly write us “freaking out” about a widely circulated article on the internet saying that cruciferous vegetables essentially damage your thyroid gland. Crucifers include broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower.

People are susceptible to fear and paranoia–which are antithetical to empowerment and faith. I’ve written about this in Ch. 1 of 12 Steps to Whole Foods, but I need to take a stronger stand, since it’s Top Five (questions I am asked, via email and everytime I speak in public).

As with food-combining theories (D’Adamo, etc.), or the idea that too many of one green food is “toxic” (Boutenko), or the idea that oxalates in greens harm us (another dubious internet-circulated claim)…..my reaction is like that line from Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money!”

My variation on that quote is, “Show me the data!”

Evidence that cruciferous vegetables are phenomenally powerful anti-cancer foods is voluminous. They also reduce bad estrogens; this is desperately needed by Americans, as we’re daily bombarded with endocrine disruptors (“bad estrogens”). David Wolfe, in fact, says his favorite supplement of 2011 is Indole-3-Carbinol (I3C), which is an extract of the crucifers. I’ve been taking it myself.

The evidence that one compound in crucifers may have deleterious effects? It’s limited and sketchy at best.

If we can isolate one compound (of dozens, maybe 100 or more) in green foods, and say that Compound X has Effect Y on Gland Z, how do we know that Compounds A, B, and C don’t have mitigating effects on Effect Y? How do we know that the profoundly healing properties of Compounds D, E, and F in that same food don’t work together synergistically with Compound X? The mountain of evidence that vegetables prevent disease suggests that foods are far more than the sum of their parts. Science still has little understanding of why plant foods are powerful, although in general, scientific communities like to break things down into parts and explain phenomena inductively. Let’s back up and use some deductive reasoning.

The “articles” on the internet (read: people saying stuff–let’s not give them undue credit by calling them articles) claim that LARGE AMOUNTS can damage the thyroid and increase the need for iodine. The entire American diet does both of those things–first, damage the thyroid, and second, increase the need for iodine (for instance, we eat salt stripped of iodine in virtually all our foods– or that refined salt has chemical isolates of a toxic form of iodine put back in). So I’m highly skeptical of how any researcher isolated the “goitrogen” factor. Somebody please show me where that’s been done.

Pick on the REAL bad guys here. Are we really going to flog cabbage and broccoli, when 95% of Americans are eating nuggets boiled in grease made of dozens of disease-infested chicken “parts” that if you looked at them each separately, you would wrinkle your nose and throw it in the garbage? And the same 95% are drinking tubs full of brown chemical liquids infused with carbon dioxide that contain absolutely no food?

About Shawna’s question. Me, too–I’ve been hypothyroid AND I drink green smoothies daily. But in my case, it’s been 17 years, not 3. My thyroid was all but destroyed because of nuclear fallout at the Nevada test site in the late 60’s when I was a baby, drinking highly radioactive milk from cows who ate the radioactive fallout on the grass even hundreds of miles away.

Read the rest of my answer on the topic of goitrogens and thyroid (too long for the blog). Or just come back every day, and I’ll post the rest in installments…..the next two days I have cool 3-min. videos for you!