June 22, 2011

Animal products I still eat — and recommend you do as well

As you may know, I’m a vegetarian, largely vegan. I try to encourage you and my patients to eat as many Living Foods as you can. But that doesn’t mean I recommend being vegan. While there are some animal products you should avoid, I don’t tell my patients to give up all animal products. There are nutrients found in animal products that you’ll not find easily in plants. And, as you’ll see in a moment, there are great health reasons to eat certain animal products.

You have probably heard about trans fatty acids. If you buy chips or other bagged foods, you’ve probably seen a new label saying “No Trans Fats!” That’s because trans fats are toxic. Trans fatty acids increase the risk of vascular diseases, immune dysfunction, and damage cell membrane integrity. We certainly want to avoid ingesting them!

Two of the biggest sources of trans fats are margarine and hydrogenated oils. They’re full of these trans fats.

But I just found out that your body naturally creates these trans fats. Why would your body create something that’s toxic? The results of a recent study may tell us.

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Scientists fed rodents a diet totally devoid of trans fatty acids. Yet they discovered that free radical processes can chemically alter “cis” fatty acids (these are unsaturated essential fatty acids) in the cell membranes. Your body actually turns the cis fatty acids into the toxic trans configuration. All of us have free radical processes going on 24/7. We can’t avoid it. Some of it protects us from infection. But too much, say due to chronic inflammation can lead to cellular damage. Trans fatty acid production might be yet another expression of that damage. There is a silver lining though in this story.

The research discovered that all natural vitamin A, all trans-retinol, effectively stopped the transformation of the fatty acids. Retinol is a powerful free-radical scavenger and has been one of my favorite nutrients for decades. Problem is many people consider it to have a narrow margin of safety and instead recommend beta-carotene, which is “pro-vitamin” A. Your body converts it to retinol, but not necessarily in the amounts you really need.

Retinol is available in your diet. Foods that contain a lot of it include liver, eggs, butter, cheese, whole milk, fish, and meat. Colorful plants are rich in beta-carotene, but not retinol. And since your body can’t convert enough of it to retinol, vegetarians, like myself, could be at some risk for vitamin A deficiency. This is borne out by studies showing that night blindness, a symptom of vitamin A deficiency, is more prevalent in societies that don’t eat animal food products.

Personally, I think that many of us, including carnivores, are deficient in active vitamin A. But since it has a bad and unfair (I believe) rap as potentially being a supplement with a narrow window of safety, it’s hard to find multivitamins with ample free-form vitamin A. Most products emphasize beta-carotene over vitamin A.

This is why I still eat dairy, including butter, cheese, and yogurt. I’ve told you that I’m not a real fan of coconut oil as a supplement, or even to cook with. While it does have some fatty acids, butter is best in my book. First, you just can’t heat butter too high without “browning” it. That preserves the nutrients. Butter is the fat part of milk. The momma cow feeds its young this fat because it has loads of fat-soluble vitamins, including retinol. Coconut oil lacks these precious fat-soluble vitamins animals need.

I’ll have more on butter in the future. In the meantime, feel free to eat butter, cheese, and some yogurt. And make sure you do all your cooking with butter. You cannot heat your food to a toxic temperature in butter. Butter contains lots of great fat-soluble nutrients. In standard vegetable oil cooking, you can heat the “foods” to scorching temperatures, damaging both the fatty acids and nutrients. You just can’t do this with butter.

Just be sure that you consume animal products in moderation, not cooked too hot, and organic! They can help stop the transformation of cis fatty acids into the toxic trans fats.

Ref: Free Radical Biology and Medicine, volume 40, issue 9, 1 May 2006, Pages 1549-1556.

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