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 2 of 3

Phytates.  Science actually knows very little about these anti-nutrients that some say rob your body of minerals. Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions teaches how to soak grains to neutralize phytates. (I discuss this issue and, for ease of digestion, teach it as an option in Step 9 of 12 Steps to Whole Foods, too.)

However, Reddy and Sathe published a book on phytates, the “anti-nutrient” in many grains. They explain evidence that phytates may not do what we think they do. They may not leach minerals from our blood and bones. They may, in fact, be helpful and important.

After all, the Bible calls wheat the “staff of life.” On a logical level, it doesn’t make much sense that grains aren’t good food. Many more Egyptians would have died in the time of Joseph and Pharoah, had they not had stores of wheat. It keeps for hundreds or thousands of years because of its hard shell, protecting the nutrition inside.

Wheat is vitamin- and mineral-rich. It’s easy to grow and inexpensive. It’s great food. (Too bad it’s been so hybridized and chemically sprayed. Many people react negatively to gluten now, likely because of hybrids. Buy organic spelt or Kamut, ancient non-hybridized grains. Avoid any whole-grain products that are not organic. Many people now must avoid gluten entirely, but some whole grains do not contain any gluten protein. Avoid white flour always. “Wheat flour” on an ingredient list IS white flour. Only “whole wheat” is the grain with its bran and germ intact.)

Purines. These compounds are ubiquitous, in our cells and most foods. They are necessary and good, but in concentrated amounts can cause problems for people with gout and a few other childhood illnesses. But they are concentrated in high-protein foods (like many animal-flesh foods).

Several researchers, including Choi, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, have found that plant proteins do NOT increase gout risk, while organs and flesh of animals, do increase gout symptoms. Moderately high purine-content plant foods include beans, lentils, asparagus, peas, oatmeal, and cauliflower.

It’s a non-issue unless you have a nutrition-related health problem that affects your purine metabolism. Especially for children and infants, problems that may warrant looking at goitrogens may include autism, cerebral palsy, deafness, epilepsy, recurrent infections, inability to walk/talk, or anemia. In those cases, a doctor may limit purines to 150 mg or less. (Keep in mind that MOST cases of those illnesses have nothing to do with purines.) You could still eat a serving a day of one of those “moderate” foods and stay below that very low limit. (For other people, eating even ten servings, you would be fine and not at risk for gout.)

Cyanide.  True, it’s in apple seeds. Cyanide is actually a trace element our body needs. What’s in apple seeds is a tiny amount, and your body breaks it down into another harmless compound in metabolism. I put apples, core and all, in my green smoothies. My dad has eaten apples whole, with the core, his whole life. (He likes to point that out, to whoever is within hearing range—“Hey look, I ate everything but the stem.” It seems to be proof of superior manliness?)

The cyanide used by Socrates’ murderer, and the Nazis, is a synthetic chemical combined with another element—hydrogen cyanide or sodium cyanide or potassium cyanide.

In fact, the “amygdalin” made of natural cyanide and sugar, found in apple seeds, is the B17 found in other pits that had people lining up by the thousands in Mexican cancer clinics in the 1980’s.

 

More info coming on Friday.

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.

Phytates . . . part III

When making baked goods, get in the habit of putting the flour in the blender or bowl with the liquids (with a bit of a fermented dairy product like kefir), and just leaving it all day (or night) before completing the recipe.   You’ll also find that your baked goods are lighter, with a lovely texture, as you take this additional step that creates natural leavening.   You can often cut by half or even leave the baking powder out when you have presoaked flour with kefir/yogurt added.

This extra step of soaking grains or flour, while requiring you to think ahead, doesn’t add time to your preparation, since the dish is then ready, or nearly ready, when breakfast or dinner is served.

You don’t always have to make soaked-grain breads and grain products from scratch.   At your health food store, you can buy sprouted-grain tortillas, English muffins, and manna bread with several varieties like sunflower seed, carrot-raisin, and more.

Don’t be frustrated if you just learned about phytates for the first time and now wonder if whole grains are good for you!   If you’re stumped about whether eating whole grains (even unsoaked) is better than white flour, the answer is a definitive yes!

First of all, white flour robs your body of minerals, too, at a faster rate–and is virtually devoid of fiber and nutrition.   Second, remember that literally hundreds of studies document the link between whole grains and blood sugar control, among many other health benefits.   That one benefit alone–that fiber dramatically slows the release of sugars into your bloodstream–is critically important to your future.

Third, the phytate issue, while worth discussing here, is by no means settled science.   In fact, Reddy and Sathe published a book in 2001 called Food Phytates that surveys the growing body of research on phytates.   They claim that phytates are free-radical scavenging antioxidants that may reduce blood glucose as well as risk for high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, kidney stones, and some forms of cancer.

So, the jury is still out on the precise role of phytates.   Whether or not they are friend or foe remains a hotly debated controversy, so perhaps the best strategy is to soak, sprout, or ferment wherever possible, and enjoy eating unsoaked grains sometimes, too

Phytates . . . part II

The phytate issue is fiercely contested in the nutrition world, with some believing that soaking grains is critical, and others believing it’s unnecessary.   I have studied compelling evidence on both sides, leading me to the following recommendations.

Regardless of whether phytates in whole grains lead to mineral deficiencies, soaking and slightly fermenting your grain clearly aids in digestion.   It costs nothing and doesn’t really add time to a recipe’s preparation, although you do a portion of the work in advance.

Most adults in the Western world need to be kind to their digestive systems.   That’s because before most of us get serious about treating our bodies right (which you’re doing if you’re reading this), we have abused our bodies with the modern lifestyle.   In particular, we’ve damaged our digestive systems.   Some of us have developed chronic digestive problems, and many of us have decades of damage to undo.    Part of a whole-grain habit, then, is to as often as possible soak your flour or grain for up to 24 hours, and add a bit of whey, kefir, or yogurt.   Even 8 hours of soaking is very helpful.   Many  12 Step recipes (in Ch. 9) call for soaking the flour or grain.  

The grain with the highest phytate content is oats, so if you like oatmeal, put the boiling water in the rolled oats right after eating breakfast, add a Tbsp. or two of yogurt or kefir, cover with a lid, and just reheat it for breakfast the next morning.   It can sit for 24 hours and will be just fine, so don’t worry.   If you like sourdough, you’ll probably like the slightly fermented taste.   If it’s too much for you, soak it only 8 hours and use a very small amount of yogurt.   This habit requires thinking ahead but is worth developing.    

Unlike oats and wheat, brown rice, millet, and buckwheat have low phytate content, so you can soak them just overnight, for shorter periods of time.   When I am serving brown rice for dinner, I put boiling water in it in the morning.   I cover it and leave it to steam all day in the oven preheated to 350 degrees (and then turned OFF).   The rice is perfectly cooked at dinnertime.   When making kasha (buckwheat cereal), I put the boiling water in the night before, letting it steam overnight.   All of this is in Step 9.    

Part III (the end of this topic) tomorrow.

What are phytates and how do I avoid them?

Getting off refined grain products and onto whole grains is a great thing to do! But some of you have been scared silly by Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions, regarding phytates.   I  hope you’ll feel a bit  more peaceful on that topic  after reading this three-part blog.

Phytates are a natural, acidic chemical compounds in the bran of grains that some experts say bind to calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc, making those nutrients less bioavailable and potentially leading to deficiencies.   So that we can absorb the nutrition of grains well in the gastrointestinal tract, grains can ideally be soaked in water, sprouted, or fermented to neutralize the phytic acid.   This is easy to do and requires only a little planning ahead.   Step 9 of 12 Steps will guide you through this.  

This process is related to the nutritional power of lactofermentation you know about with milks, if you have begun making kefir or yogurt from my Jump-Start Basic recipe collection.   This fall, we’ll also have a step on fermenting vegetables (like sauerkraut) with garden produce.

The way it works in grains is that enzymes and microorganisms break down starches, tannins, and proteins including gluten.   Many people who are gluten intolerant do well with soaked/sprouted grain.    

Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, PhD say in Nourishing Traditions thatvirtually all preindustrialized people soaked or fermented their grains before making them into porridge, breads, cakes and casseroles”  (p. 452).     Modern culture has largely abandoned this practice.   However, I do not believe (as Fallon did writing her book 15 years ago) that unsoaked grains pose a great risk to our health, and I also believe much evidence exists that unsoaked grains have also been widely used by healthy populations.  

Jordan Rubins (The Maker’s Diet) speaks of how ancient peoples stacked damp grain, which cultured it (as evidence of our need to soak/culture our grain).   This makes no sense, because damp grain quickly becomes moldy grain.   I find that sprouting grain is rather difficult to achieve without mold, even when you’re fairly experienced (like I am) and live in a dry climate (like I do).   Soaking grain 8-24 hours is easy, but sprouting it can be tricky.   Seeds and nuts are much easier.  

Part II tomorrow.