Friday, December 21, 2012

Plant vs Animal Protein

What are some of the ‘truths’ we know about proteins?

???  Meat is a great source of high biological value and ‘complete’ protein???
???  Plant protein is ‘incomplete’ and can be complemented either with meat or dairy to make it complete???
???  We require lots of protein --the more protein the better???

These statements are only partially correct!

Here’s the whole story:

     It  started with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) coming out with dietary guidelines for individual nutrients. Back in the 1970s, they declared that upto 30% of all calories can be sourced from protein. Along with this they gave their opinion that meat and dairy products by far are the best sources of protein.

     In his eye - opening book, The China Study, Dr T Colin Campbell describes how the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – the major food regulatory bodies in the US – are peopled by scientists with known links to the Dairy and Meat industry. How, then, can we trust something that came from sources definitely motivated by commercial interests? The recommended dietary guidelines that they announced in the past were copied blindly by many other countries and our Indian guidelines have also been influenced by these. Our actual protein requirement is much less than these figures portray.

     The meat and dairy associations in the US are said to have links with politicians responsible for food related policy making and are a powerful lobby in Washington. These industries, perceiving vegetarianism to be a threat in the seventies, spread rumours and quoted fake studies purportedly showing that a vegetarian diet ‘lacked sufficient protein’, leading to protein deficiency.

     This misinformation campaign was so successful that even in India, meat eaters often ask their vegetarian friends how they manage to get their protein. In fact, especially in North India, there is still a common belief that only meat and dairy consumption ‘makes you strong and healthy’. Forget about public perception, this same lie was taught to us in our post graduate course in nutrition (some ten + years ago)!

     There is a scoring for protein called Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). Based on this, protein derived from animal sources scores higher than those from plants. This information has been so widely spread that it has added to the belief that the best protein comes from animals. THIS IS NOT TRUE.

     Protein from animal sources has been linked to increased risk of everything from obesity to osteoporosis to cancer so that theory is debunked. This doesn’t mean you need to stop eating meat, dairy or eggs. In India, most people don’t eat meat every day anyway (like they do in the west). But realize that you should cook meat healthily with less fat, choose white meat over red meat and leave out the yolk at least half the time when consuming eggs.

     There are 20 amino acids which are the building blocks of all human proteins. Of these, nine are essential which means that they cannot be derived as such by the body and need to be supplied through food. Most plant foods contain all essential amino acids in some quantity. However, proportions vary - some plant foods are deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids.

     Anyone eating whole and largely unprocessed vegetarian food, so long as he consumes a couple or more protein rich plant foods in a day, will get more than sufficient protein for his daily requirement. This holds good even for an athlete or bodybuilder.

     PLANT PROTEIN at last is now widely regarded in the scientific community as high quality protein. This awareness has come through reviewing recent as well as older studies and publicizing this information. We also have the ever increasing number of vegetarians and vegans worldwide, especially in the scientific community, to thank for this awareness.

     These are high protein vegetable foods –  dals, legumes, nuts, seeds and green leafy veggies like agathi, rajakeerai, kuppakeerai, sembu ilaigal (colocasia leaves), curry leaves, drumstick leaves and manthakkali keerai. Cereal grains like oats, whole wheat and whole rice are good sources too. 

     High protein sources which are now popular in India are Soy and it’s products (best bought organic) like tofu and last but not least Quinoa (originally from South America). Most vegetarians in India also consume dairy products like milk, curd, paneer and cheese. These add to the already abundant protein present in a plant - based diet.

     Lastly,  any nutritionist worth their salt will tell you that eating a good variety and quantity of whole, plant - based foods in a day not only takes care of your protein requirement but all your other nutrient requirements as well including fat, carbs, vitamins, minerals and that magical class of compounds called ‘phyto-nutrients’ which enhance current health and prevent disease. 

Note: ‘Whole’ refers to un-processed or minimally processed, natural foods and whole grains. Yup, a packet of chips or a veggie pizza is not going to cut it.

Suggested reading :
The China Study – by T Colin Campbell and son
Mad Cowboy – by Howard Lyman
Forks over Knives (book and movie of the same name) – Gene Stone, T Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn.

All books are in the American context but the science is valid for us as well.

This article was published in 'Life in Adyar', December 15th, 2012.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Healthy Apps?

     Have you thoroughly explored your smart phones' capabilities? On the one hand, the app store or market can be a confusing place with so many seemingly useful products. On the other hand, with the right applications downloaded, they can be your smart health buddy too.

Firstly a few pointers to find a good a health app:

1)  Don't get sucked into the calorie counting trap. All counting calories really does is confuse you into thinking you are making healthier choices. Calories don't tell the whole story. For example a diet soda might be low in calories but it doesn't contain any nutrients either. In fact carbonated beverages contain phosphoric acid which is extremely harmful to teeth and bone health!

2)  Look for a diary / journal feature which allows you to track your food intake daily and also review the week that was. This allows you to see how much healthy and unhealthy foods you consume and at what frequency. Do this for a month and it will be eye opening. One unhealthy item every other day can undo your fitness efforts for the entire week!

3)  Most apps are tailor made for the international market. Very few actually have data for Indian foods, our methods of cooking and cuisine combinations. Also, non–Indian food pyramids don't take into account that carbs are a big part of our diet. Ensure the app you choose has information that you can use.

4)  Similarly, food bar-code scanners which tell you whether a food is healthy or not while you are shopping are not of much use in India. They do not include information for most processed Indian foods and actually waste your time in the store. You may spend most of your time stuck in the processed food aisles while you should actually be spending more time in the fresh produce (unbar-coded) sections.

5)  If the app has a BMI calculator, ensure the data is for Indians. BMI is gotten by dividing your weight by your height(in metres)squared. You should know that the normal BMI range for an Indian is 18.5 – 23. 23 – 25 is the overweight range and anything beyond 25 is obese! This data is according to the Indian Health Ministry. For non – Asians, the obesity cut off is 30 which is due to their larger frame size and structure.

6)  Fitness and exercise apps offer a variety of activities for you as well as tracking options. It's very easy to harm yourself while performing exercises without proper supervision or training. Be cautious and if possible take the advice of a professional. Apps which let you track your workout / run / hike / cycling session are preferable and can be great motivators!

Some applications that have useful features:

For iPad,iPhone

iFood Diary – an app which lets your track your food consumption.

Smash your Food – a game for kids to learn about nutrition promoted by Michelle Obama herself. A limitation is that it is for the American context.

Food Trivia – Healthy Eating Facts – again for the American context but with some useful general information.

For Android phones-

Endomondo Sports Tracker – useful for those who run, walk, trek, cycle, swim regularly.

MyFitnessPal – this app has a useful journal feature with a significant Indian foods database and allows you to track your weight.

Watch out for: My Food Wizard, an app developed by St John's Research Institute, Bangalore. It won the 'Aap ka App' contest by Datawind recently.

This article was published in 'Life in Adyar', October 20, 2012.

Mind ~ Body Connection

The thoughts we choose to think are the tools we use to paint the canvas of our lives. –Louise L. Hay

     Let’s look at this thing called the ‘placebo effect’. Deepak Chopra loves using this starting point to explain psychosomatic (mind-body) links. Every objective scientific study of a drug / nutrient’s effect on disease includes one set of people being given the healing substance while another similar set of people receive something they think is the cure. Why do scientists do this? It is based on the fact that if someone just believes they are being cured, there is a statistically significant chance that they will become well.

     Scientists have known for decades that stress raises blood pressure and increases risk of having a heart attack. Emotional or Mental Stress, in fact is a major contributor to ill health and chronic disease by virtue of the hormonal changes it causes in the body. Cortisol, adrenaline and nor-adrenaline (steroid hormones) are the main causes of this slow rise in inflammation which in turn causes many other complaints and conditions including the common cold. These hormones trigger a domino effect involving most of the important systems in our body, ultimately leading to acute and chronic disease.
     Imagine a child living in an environment with parents fighting constantly, separated or even divorced. How about the school environment? They are vulnerable to bullying, corporal punishment, being snubbed by peers, etc. If the effects of stress can be severe for adults, they are devastating for children. There are many instances when a child presents with symptoms of illness, the doctor is puzzled because there is nothing physically wrong. In such instances doctors and parents should investigate into the stress levels of the child and invite him / her to communicate what they are feeling and dealing with.

     Sometimes stress levels increase after being diagnosed with a disease. You start worrying about the future and whether you’ll overcome it. There may be many treatments with side effects which can cause additional alarm. I’ve noticed many times with couples that if one partner has Diabetes, the other partner develops hypertension – my theory is that it is stressful to live with, take care of and be concerned about your life partner.

     This may not just be limited to blood pressure and Diabetes, many other conditions can also manifest. In fact doctors report the highest rates of cancer among caregivers (nurses, carers of invalids, etc). Keeping a positive outlook, laughing often, communicating freely to your loved ones while taking treatment often works miracles.

     There is a branch of science which deals with the effect of mental and emotional state on the immune system. It is called Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). It’s been around since the 1800’s but is only now being explored with studies confirming the points made in the previous paragraphs.

     How do you now implement this knowledge in your lives? What steps can you take to maintain health right up to the end? It starts with being open, being aware that life works in mysterious ways to give you what you want. 

     Look at the list of recommended reading, try at least one of these eye-opening books and actually practice what these teachers suggest. What else can you do? Take the time to create balance and develop resilience to the hard knocks that life frequently deals out. Work at being calm in trying situations by meditating for some time every day. Work to overcome any addictions (food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc.) and above all – take care of yourself. Do things that please your inner self, invest in your hobbies and passions and laugh heartily at least ten times a day.

     If you are still sceptical at this point, maybe it’s not time for you to begin this journey. However, if you or someone close to you has an illness / condition or even have a family history of some disorder, consider giving this path a chance. Dig deeper and find a profound new way to care for your health.

Some good starting points:

Louise Hay: ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ also a movie with the same title.

Deepak Chopra: ‘Ageless Body, Timeless Mind’, ‘Creating Health’, ‘Perfect Health’.

Rhonda Byrne: ‘The Secret’.........also made into a movie.

Paula Horan: ‘Abundance through Reiki’....while you can learn more about Reiki through reading, you have to undergo ‘Attunement’ from a Reiki Master to actually begin practising.

This article was published in 'Life in Adyar', October 20, 2012.