By NATUROPATH ROBYN CHUTER
BHSc, ND, GDCouns, Naturopath, Counsellor and EFT Therapist
Seven tips of the week: Don’t be scared of fruit, Don’t fall for the coconut oil hype, Ensure you have a reliable source of vitamin B12, Get enough iodine, Know your omegas, Check your vitamin D level, Get the balance right with raw foods
Don’t be scared of fruit
Widespread awareness of the damage down to our health by refined sugar has led many people to think that all sources of sugar are harmful, including fresh fruit. The truth is that whole fruits provide us with an amazing array of nutrients, and satisfy our normal human drive for sweetness without stressing our blood sugar regulation mechanisms in any way.
In fact, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who ate the most whole fruits, particularly blueberries, grapes, and apples, had a significantly lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who ate little or no fruit. On the other hand, drinking fruit juice was associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
Several prospective cohort studies (i.e. studies that recruit large numbers of people, and follow them up over many years to track how the behaviour being studies affects their disease risk) have found that the more fruit people eat, the less likely they are to become overweight.
So the next time someone says, “Don’t eat fruit, it makes you fat!” ask them where they got their information – from a study conducted by trained researchers and published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, or from a blogger with no training in nutrition, pushing the latest dietary fad?
Don’t fall for the coconut oil hype
Coconut oil is the latest darling of health food stores and food bloggers. It’s claimed to have all sorts of health benefits, including helping you lose weight and preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and its promoters claim that, unlike other types of saturated fat, it doesn’t raise cholesterol because it has a high proportion of a type of fat called medium-chain triglycerides. It’s also claimed to be the best oil to cook with because it doesn’t oxidise when heated.
But how well do these claims stack up?
A randomised crossover trial (in which people were put on 2 different test diets, one with added coconut oil and one without, in random order) found that coconut oil significantly raised the level of ‘bad’ cholesterol.
The only trial in relation to Alzheimer’s tested an isolated component of coconut oil called AC-1202 (not coconut oil itself) and found it had no clinically significant effect.
In a study comparing coconut, olive, canola and safflower oil, coconut oil was found to generate the most cancer-causing aldehydes when heated.
As for weight loss, of the more than 1000 papers on coconut oil published in the scientific literature, not one has demonstrated any benefit of coconut oil for weight loss. On the other hand, coconut oil has been found to cause less shrinkage of the testes of Mongolian gerbils when compared to animals fed with safflower oil. That sounds useful, doesn’t it?
So what should you do with that tub of coconut oil you bought at the health food store now? Put it on your hair! A study comparing mineral oil, sunflower oil and coconut oil for prevention of damage to hair found that only coconut oil reduced protein loss from both damaged and undamaged hair. Just don’t eat the stuff!
Ensure you have a reliable source of vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is typically thought of as a ‘carnonutrient’ – a nutrient derived from animal products, but in reality it is made not by animals, but by the bacteria that live in their guts. B-12 producing bacteria also live in soil, and organically-produced or home-grown vegetables that aren’t peeled or washed too thoroughly contain some vitamin B12.
However, the major dietary source of this nutrient is animal products, and vegans are at risk of developing B12 deficiency unless they take supplements or regularly use B12-fortified foods.
There are 2 main consequences of B12 deficiency:haematological and neurological. The haematological manifestation of B12 deficiency is an abnormality of red blood cells called macrocyticanaemia. Lack of B12 causes red blood cells to fail to reach their smaller, mature form; they remain large (the ‘macrocytosis’ part) and don’t transport oxygen well. If the B12 level remains low, anaemia (low haemoglobin level) develops, causing fatigue, reduced exercise tolerance, shortness of breath on exertion, pallor (pale appearance) and even heart palpitations and worsening of angina in those who already have it.
The neurological consequences of B12 deficiency mainly impact on the peripheral and optic nerves, posterior and lateral columns of the spinal cord, and the brain. Symptoms are usually gradual in onset, and may include paraesthesias (sensation of tingling, tickling, prickling, pricking, or burning of the skin); clumsiness especially affecting the hands; lightheadedness and impaired taste and smell; sensations of cold, numbness, or tightness in the tips of the toes and then in the fingertips; and if untreated, eventually weakness in the limbs and a stumbling gait
Babies born to vitamin B12-deficient mothers may suffer delayed development and even death if they don’t receive supplemental B12 in time.
B12 deficiency in adults is thought to contribute to dementia.
As you can see, the consequences of B12 deficiency are serious, and no vegan should gamble with their health (or their baby’s health) by failing to get enough B12. I recommend sublingual sprays or lozenges which offer better absorption of this notoriously difficult-to-absorb vitamin. Savoury yeast flakes, also known as nutritional yeast, is also a good source if eaten regularly. Most vegan foods that are fortified with vitamin B12 are highly processed and of poor nutritional quality.
Get enough iodine
Iodine, as most people know, is crucial for thyroid function. It is actually a key component of thyroid hormones. These hormones are critical for normal growth and development of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and are also necessary for the maturation of the body as a whole. Probably the best-known function of thyroid hormones is that they maintain your metabolic rate, or the number of kilojoules/calories you burn at rest.
Iodine is also important for breast health, helping to prevent and treat fibrocystic breast disease, and possibly reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Average intake of iodine is quite low in Australia by world standards, and studies have shown that vegans have a lower intake than either vegetarians or omnivores.
The consequences of iodine deficiency include goitre (enlarged thyroid gland), hypothyroidism (note that iodine deficiency is NOT the major cause of hypothyroidism in Australia – that dubious honour falls to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition that can be triggered by excess iodine intake) and impaired mental and physical development. Severe iodine deficiency in pregnancy can cause miscarriage or stillbirth, congenital anomalies, increased perinatal and infant mortality, cretinism (mental retardation) or mental deficiency with deaf mutism, spastic diplegia and squint, dwarfism and psychomotor effects.
Studies in Australian and New Zealand school children have found that correcting even a mild iodine deficiency with iodine supplements, leads to improved scores on tests of cognitive performance and memory.
The best food source of iodine for vegans is unquestionably seaweeds such as wakame, dulse, kombu (kelp) and nori (the pressed seaweed used in sushi). Nori is relatively low in iodine compared to other seaweeds and a sheet or two can safely be eaten every day, either in traditional rice-filled sushi (choose brown or red rice for maximum nutritional benefit) or as a wrap for salad vegetables. Wakame, dulse and kombu are extremely high in iodine, and intake should be restricted to a pinch, 2-3 times per week. I like to grind wakame with sesame seeds and nutritional yeast to make a delightful Parmesan substitute.
Know your omegas
One of the main concerns new vegans express to me is “Where will I get my omega 3s from on a vegan diet?” Oily fish and fish oil are so widely promoted that most people think they’re the oly sources of beneficial omega 3 fats, but that simply isn’t true.
Plants – both land and aquatic – make the short chain omega 3 fat known as alpha—linolenic acid, (ALA) which is converted within our bodies into the long-chain omega 3 fats eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Fish oil contains EPA and DHA, while linseed/flaxseed, chia seed, hemp seed, walnuts, pepitas and green leafy vegetables contain ALA.
While most vegans who eat plenty of ALA-rich foods, and avoid excessive intake of omega 6 fats such as vegetable oils and margarine, which block the conversion of short chain to long chain omega 3s, will be able to make perfectly adequate amounts of EPA and DHA. Some people do not adequately convert their short chain omega 3s, however, due to genetic variation and/or environmental factors.
Shortage of long chain omega 3 fats can be detected by specialised blood tests such as the Holman Omega 3 Index. Vegans who have, or are at risk of, low levels of DHA and EPA can take a supplement derived from algae. Algal-derived supplements are cruelty-free, environment-friendly, free of the contaminants found in fish oil, and just as effective as fish oil supplements at raising EPA and DHA levels.
Check your vitamin D level
It’s quite amazing that vitamin D deficiency is so widespread in a sun-drenched country in Australia, but I have found that over 90% of my clients have a vitamin D blood level that’s well below optimum, with many of these severely deficient.
The ‘sunshine vitamin’ is crucial for absorption of calcium from the small intestine, and in recent years has been found to be a key factor in preventing – and in some cases treating – many types of cancer (including, somewhat ironically, malignant melanoma), autoimmune diseases, high blood pressure, infectious diseases such as colds and flu, as well as improving muscle strength and response to exercise, reducing appetite and improving mood by increasing serotonin levels.
Very few foods contain vitamin D, the only plant food that does is mushrooms that have been exposed to ultraviolet light during growth.
For most people, a combination of judicious sun exposure (for fair-skinned people, no more than 10 minutes of direct exposure of arms and legs to sunlight between 10 am and 2 pm, or 11 am and 3 pm in daylight saving time n the summer; and up to half an hour in winter, 3-4 times per week) and supplementation with vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), is the best approach to avoid or reverse deficiency and reach optimal levels.
Unfortunately, most vitamin D3 on the market is made from a non- vegan source: lanolin, derived from sheep’s wool. Rather than participating in the cruelty of the wool industry, vegans now have the option of using vitamin D3 made from lichen, a type of simple plant. This type of supplement is not yet available in Australia but can be ordered online from the UK; email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is derived from non-animal sources and is the type of vitamin D found in most vegan multivitamins. However, studies show it is less long-lasting in the bloodstream than vitamin D3, so it is not the referred source.
I advise asking your GP for a blood test for 25-hydroxy vitamin D 1-2 times per year, and supplementing with vitamin D3 and judicious sun exposure until your blood level is between 100-130 nmol/L.
Get the balance right with raw foods
Raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are all wholesome foods that should make up a large proportion of your diet. Raw vegetables, in particular, show strong protective power against various types of cancer. I recommend to all my clients that they eat a large raw salad each day, and at least 3 pieces of raw fruit.
But trying to eat a mostly-raw or all-raw diet can land you in serious trouble. Studies of raw foodists have found that they are more likely to become severely underweight (due to loss of muscle mass) than vegans who eat cooked food, and raw foodist women have a very high risk of becoming infertile.
The Giessen Raw Food Study (which included women on mostly-raw and all-raw diets) found that 10% of women aged less than 45 diets had irregular menstrual cycles, 30% had amenorrhoea (their menstrual cycle had ceased altogether) while 50% of women on all-raw diets were not menstruating.
There have been no studies published on the health of babies and children raised on high-raw or all-raw diets, but there are numerous case reports of babies and children who failed to thrive when weaned onto a diet that contains little or no cooked food.
There are exceptions to every rule, but most people can’t get their energy needs met on a diet that is mostly or all-raw. And of course, there are many nutritious foods that show strong protection against disease, that simply can’t be eaten without cooking. Many legumes, including kidney beans for example, are poisonous when eaten raw or sprouted.