Monthly Archives: April 2014

Beating Stress With Potatoes

As I was walking past the Vitamin section of CVS, I heard the word serotonin pass between a young man and a saleswoman. “I can’t find any 5HTP on the shelf,” he was telling her, “…You know, the stuff that makes serotonin? I need some for stress!” She peered at the supplement stocked shelves and nodded. “We must be all out,” she responded. “But there is a health food store a few blocks away. Maybe they have some.”

I casually wandered over and uninvited said, “You know, you would feel less stressed and more relaxed just by eating a potato. You don’t have to take supplements for your brain to make serotonin, so why go to a health for store for 5HTP? Your brain makes serotonin every time you eat pretzels or potato, or any other starchy carbohydrate. “

He listened to me patiently, although I suspect he was humoring some crazy lady wearing tennis shoes (actually I had just come from the gym and was wearing sneakers).

“But isn’t it better to take the supplement?” he asked.

“The problem with 5HTP is that taking it to make serotonin is unnatural. The brain normally makes serotonin from what you eat. Now if you were to buy that bag of pretzels (I pointed to snacks in the adjacent aisle) and eat them, you would have more serotonin in your brain within a half an hour.”

“You mean my brain makes serotonin after I eat a snack?” He looked at me as if I was really some weirdo roaming around CVS telling bizarre stories.

Obviously this was neither the time nor place to give him a lecture on the neurochemistry of serotonin synthesis. So I quickly mentioned how after carbohydrates are eaten, insulin allows tryptophan to get into the brain and this turns into 5HTP and then serotonin.

“There are no side effects from eating carbohydrates, but 5HTP certainly has a few, like drowsiness and nausea,” I added

He nodded and mentioned that 5HTP makes him so drowsy it is hard to work, and he worries about driving. He left the store carrying the pretzels, but I wonder if he also stopped by the health food store to get some 5HTP, just in case the lady with the sneakers was indeed crazy.

As I walked back home, I mused on how typical it is for people to bypass food in favor of herbs, supplements, teas, minerals, and special potions no doubt prepared in big cauldrons by witches. A friend told me that he has given up eating carbohydrates, but takes magnesium and alcohol when he needs to relax. Pointing out that magnesium is only a muscle relaxer as well as that alcohol has more calories per gram than carbohydrates, and its own share of side effects, was useless. He simply did not want to hear what he did not believe.

And of course there are so many others whose dietary advice is simplymake-believe. These are the proponents of diets that eliminate carbohydrates, or curtail their intake. These diet gurus make believe that serotonin can be made without eating carbohydrate, or refuse to acknowledge that the bad moods, aggression, anxiety, depression and insomnia following such diets is not due to vanishing brain serotonin.

Isn’t it time to go back to eating the way nature intended us to do? We evolved eating carbohydrates, and our brains responded by making serotonin. Even though 5HTP is found naturally in the seeds of the African plant, Griffonia simplicifolia, myths and folklore are not filled with tales of people roaming around the continent seeking out the seeds of this plant to attain tranquility and relief from stress. Yes, do Google this plant name to see it’s purported effects on libido. I have potatoes to write about.

Mystifyingly, we resist believing that the natural way to make more serotonin is to eat carbohydrates. And that is understandable because it doesn’t seem to make sense. Carbohydrates don’t contain tryptophan, or indeed any amino acids. Eating protein, which is made of amino acids, prevents tryptophan from entering the brain. Isn’t nature sometimes counterintuitive?

Apparently not. More than 30 years ago, two scientists at MIT discovered the connection between eating a potato, pretzels, or a tortilla and serotonin synthesis. There is a barrier between the bloodstream and the brain that monitors what does and does not enter the brain. When certain amino acids try to enter the brain, they must pass through specific gateways. Tryptophan shares an entrance area with five other amino acids that are more abundant in protein and the blood than tryptophan. After protein is eaten, digested amino acids “clog” the gateway to the brain, and the small number of tryptophan units are outnumbered by the larger number of the other amino acids. As a result, very little tryptophan gets into the brain.

When carbohydrates (i.e. a small bag of pretzels) are eaten, insulin is released and sends the amino acids that compete with tryptophan out of the blood and into the cells. At the same time, tryptophan is able to enter the brain easily because the competing amino acids are no longer crowding the gate. If my fellow shopper had eaten his pretzels on the way back to work, soon after they were digested tryptophan would be entering his brain and new serotonin taking away his stress.

But resistance toward eating carbohydrates to relieve stress, and experience the other benefits of sufficient serotonin such as satiety after eating and increased focus, is also based on the effect of excessive carbohydrate intake, especially sugar, on heart disease, obesity and maybe cancer. An excess of anything, even water, is bad. Fortunately, research has also found that only small amounts of carbohydrate have to be eaten to make serotonin. Twenty-five to 30 grams of carbohydrate—the amount in one cup of Cheeriosis sufficient. And if the carbohydrate is a starchy and very low-fat like breakfast cereal, or popcorn, pretzels or rice crackers, natural tranquility comes at a price no one should resist.

Pass the Chicken Fat! They Say it’s Good For You….

It turns out that eating butter, cream, egg yolks, fatty meats, and full fat cheese is no worse for our hearts than olive or canola oil, according to a recent study published by Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury and his colleagues in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  Maybe Paula Deen was right all along: We should be eating fried butter, cream, and cheese-laden casseroles, as well as egg yolk and whipped cream-stuffed desserts. This article appears to vindicate Ms. Deen because now (finally) we have scientific evidence that such foods will not immediately send us to the emergency room with chest pain.

As someone with a several generation-deep history of heart disease, I think I will pass on the lard, butter, and whipped cream, though. Even though the statistics of the study seem to show otherwise, I don’t want to be my own statistic in the cardiac intensive care unit.  But most people aware of the study are tossing their tofu and running, not walking, to eat marbled steaks and buttery croissants.  Indeed, one remarkable example of the current trend to embrace saturated fat comes from a recent issue of Bon Appetit magazine. A two-page spread prominently features an ingredient previously reviled for its artery-clogging (or so we thought) proclivity. The ingredient: chicken fat, or as it is known in certain circles, Schmaltz.

As someone whose grandmother taught her at an early age how to render chicken fat into a golden, chicken flavored spread for rye bread and potatoes, but who stopped eating it after a fair number of relatives died at an early age from heart attacks, I was astonished to see it making a comeback in, of all places, a magazine devoted to gourmet eating.

As a corollary to the safety of eating saturated fats, we are also told in this study that we must avoid starch since it, rather than lard and bacon, is contributing to heart disease, diabetes and other life shortening conditions. This poses a conundrum. Whereas it is possible to eat bacon with one’s fingers or along with eggs (a good source of saturated fat), how does one eat butter, or cream cheese, or whipped cream, or indeed, chicken fat, without something starchy or bready underneath? Dr. Atkins had many recipes that eliminated all starch but for many, no starch grew tiresome. How many butter-coated strips of bacon can you eat without feeling a wee bit nauseous? Whipped cream might taste good by itself, but it certainly tastes better when incorporated into a chocolate mousse.

Carbohydrate-free foods have been developed but rarely are they eaten more than once. Of course one could follow the suggestions of Bon Appetit and add duck or chicken fat, or failing that, more butter or lard to slow cooked vegetables.  It is curious however, that years ago, we were all told that the delicious but oh-so-unnutritious method of cooking greens for hours with salt pork should be stopped, immediately. We were all to steam our vegetables and not even allow a smidgen of butter to pass over them. But now? Pass the salt pork!

Sometimes it looks as we won’t live long enough to know what we really should be eating or not. Or if “they” are wrong, maybe we won’t live long at all. Moreover, what seems to be lost in the “I told you so,” or “How can they say that?” responses to every new conclusion about our diet and our health is that:

1. Unless we eat foods with the nutrients our bodies demand, we certainly are not going to be healthy as we should be;

2. Moderation in all food consumption has never been challenged; and

3. Excessive calorie intake, regardless of its source, it going to make us fat.

To be sure, collard greens cooked in salt pork, or turnips cooked in schmaltz for the better part of an hour, may taste better (to some) than the same vegetables prepared without gobs of saturated fat and cooked quickly.  But the nutrient poverty of such dishes after their vitamins have been cooked out of them should not be overlooked. Maybe they should be eaten with a vitamin pill chaser.

Eating moderate amounts of most foods (except those to which people are allergic) rarely causes any harm. But given the tendency of those in our country to do things in excess, how certain are we that giving a green light to eating butter and bacon will not result in the overconsumption of fatty foods? After all, none of the scientists in this study pointing out the non-relationship between saturated fat intake and heart disease has suggested making these foods staples in the diet.
What about calories? Will they go away just because no one is talking about them these days? What happened to the concept that if we eat more calories than our bodies need, the excess, regardless of where they came from, will end up in our fat cells? It is prudent to consider that all fat, whether it comes from olives or a chicken, contains 9 calories per gram. Protein and carbohydrate contain 4 calories per gram.  My grandmother expended more calories than I because she had no clothes dryer, no car, she lugged her groceries up many steps, chopped meat into hamburgers with a wooden bowl and chopping knife, rolled her dough for noodles with a heavy wooden rolling pin and beat rugs with a broom handle.  I beat the keys of a computer.

So let’s have a helping of common sense along with the pats of butter and dollops of whipped cream. It will go a longer way in keeping us healthy.

Are Baby Boomers Turning Into Dumplings?

“I just came back from my 45th college reunion,“ my neighbor told me, “and to my amazement, my Baby Boomer classmates have now turned into dumplings. They are overweight, walk slowly, don’t seem to have much muscle, and more than a few had difficulty negotiating the uneven brick walkways. What happened to them?!?”

We went on to reminisce about how Baby Boomers made health clubs, yoga, Pilates, kick boxing, high-protein diets, tofu, vitamin supplements, and yogurt part of American mainstream culture and thereby changed how the country ate, exercised, listened to music, and dressed.

“So how is it that they (our contemporaries) are now softer versions of Humpty Dumpty?“ she asked. Yesterday they were wearing long hair, fringes, and beads. Now they wear medical alert bracelets announcing that they have diabetes or pacemakers, and I read they have a higher prevalence of obesity than other generations.”

The Baby Boomer generation, which has been at the forefront of many changes in the lifestyle of our country, may now be leading the way into the unfortunate consequences of too much bad eating and too little time devoted to exercise. Are they giving up their emphasis on youth, as in the mantra of many decades ago of, “Don’t trust anyone over 30?” Are they whose early years were spent in marches and rallies now thinking walkers and canes? Are they capitulating to the inevitability of getting old? As someone I know who just turned 65 told me, “Finally I can eat what I want and not worry about how I look. Why should I care about being thin?”

The good news and the bad news is that given the increasing longevity of their generation, Baby Boomers ought to reconsider turning themselves into versions of their grandparents. It is premature for them to give up on exercise (presuming they had been doing it all along) and to be complacent about their bad food choices. Unless they run into bad medical luck, they may live to 100 and, as George Burns said when he reached that age, ”If I knew I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself.”

In all fairness, changes in lifestyle that occur as the Baby Boomers retire, or at least work less, may make it harder to avoid gaining weight. Moving from a multistory house to a single-story dwelling, opting for the elevator instead of taking the stairs, doing fewer household and outdoor chores? This amounts to using up fewer calories in the course of the day. Dependence on a car may increase even above what it was during earlier years, if they are moving to communities without easy public transportation or access to nearby shopping areas. Social interactions revolve around dinners and often lunches as well; if one wants to see friends it is usually over a restaurant table rather than on a walk. A couple with whom we are going to a local museum insisted that we make reservations at the museum restaurant for lunch, even though the alleged purpose of the trip was to see the art.

Recreational sports such as skiing, tennis, and biking are often abandoned as coordination and balance deteriorate, thereby making a fear of broken bones seem too much of a risk. Health clubs are, in general, not particularly geared to those who are old enough to be parents of most of the members. Many classes are unsuitable for bodies that may have some orthopedic limitations, and standards by which to measure baseline stamina and muscle strength are rarely applicable to those over age 50.

Perhaps it is time for the Baby Boomers to lead the way into improving the lifestyle of those 60 and over. It is time for them to insist that restaurants serve portion sizes compatible to diners with a somewhat sedentary life rather than suitable for a construction worker. They should compel changes in menus so vegetables are included with a main course rather than being an item for which there is an extra charge. Might they able to compel food manufacturers to increase fiber content outside of a few breakfast cereals? No one expects bagels to be enriched with bran and chopped prunes, but the food wizards in the country could come up with more options than Bran flakes and Fiber One bars.

It seems that it is also time for this forward-looking generation to demand that health clubs start including classes with music that does not increase their already compromised hearing loss, and with movements which will not ultimately require knee replacements. They should consider turning, “Dine and Discuss” book clubs into walking discussion groups, or put pressure on golf courses to allow players to walk the course rather than ride in a cart. And why not ask towns to make indoor pools for water aerobics as common as wading pools for toddlers?

Baby Boomers must stop accepting their potential status as dumplings and do what they are best at: seizing hold of their life and making changes that will benefit their health and that of the generations to follow.