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    Q&A Roundup #4

    Time to answer some questions I’ve received via Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail over the past few weeks.

    Enjoy — and keep the queries coming!

    I’ve recently started eating quinoa; I love the texture and flavour!

    I read that it was a good source of iron (which is great for me since I work out 6 times a week and am trying to eat less meat), but then read elsewhere that it contains oxalates, which inhibit iron absorption.

    Can you shed some light?
    — Jennifer Lee

    Quinoa is indeed high in oxalic acid.

    If you are looking for plant-based sources of iron, prioritize lentils, black beans, chickpeas, fermented soy products (tempeh and natto) and sea vegetables (nori, dulse, and wakame). They all offer good amounts of iron and contain lower levels oxalic acid (they are also relatively low in phytic acid, another compound that inhibits iron absorption).

    Keep in mind that you can increase the iron absorption of these foods by eating them alongside foods high in vitamin C (you can also accomplish this by eating them alongside meat, but that’s a moot point since you are trying to lower your intake).

    Another crucial tidbit for maximum iron absorption: leave at least a 45-minute window between a meal and the consumption of coffee or tea (both contain tannins, which severely inhibit iron absorption).

    FYI: The ubiquity of oxalic and phytic acid in many plant-based sources of iron means that vegetarians and vegans have higher iron needs than omnivores (whereas an omnivorous woman of childbearing age requires 18 mg a day, her vegetarian and vegan counterparts require 33 mg).

    The human body is very smart, though, and goes to great lengths to ensure iron levels are as high as possible. For example, some studies have determined that subjects on plant-based diets excrete less ferritin (an iron-storage protein) in their fecal matter than omnivores. Also, iron absorption is increased when stores are low.

    Any truth to this chart that links cravings of certain foods to specific nutrient deficiences?
    — Kate Redfern

    None. Cravings can be triggered by a variety of factors — emotional states, visual cues (hello, advertising!), smells, and hormonal changes.

    The idea that cravings relate to nutrient deficiencies simply isn’t true. If that were the case, then most Americans would be craving high fiber foods and dark leafy greens, rather than Oreos and Doritos. Also, individuals with iron deficiencies would crave iron-rich foods, not chalk or crushed ice.

    That chart makes some especially outrageous claims (i.e.: “overeating is the result of a silicon deficiency”).

    I’ve recently started to wonder about all the bad ingredients used in chewing gum.

    Could you enlighten us on what to look out for? Do you have any suggestions for better alternatives?
    — Josh Correia

    Most commercial chewing gums contain sweeteners (either natural, artificial, or sugar alcohols), artificial flavors, controversial additives like butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) — banned in some countries — and that ever-so-vague ingredient: “gum base”.

    The biggest brands’ gum base is made from petroleum-based polymers (yes, it is also what plastic bags and rubber tires are made from).

    While the amount of aspartame in a stick of gum is significantly lower than that of diet soda (a stick of gum contains 6 – 8 mg, while a 12-ounce can of Diet Coke offers 180 mg), many people — myself included — aren’t too keen on chewing on a combination of artificial sweeteners, artificial additives, and polyethylene.

    Some companies sell real chewing gum; that is to say, the gum base is made from chicle (a gum sourced from Sapodilla trees), rather than synthetic polymers. The most widely available brand I’m familiar with is Glee Gum.

    PS: the average American chews 300 pieces of gum a year. And, for those of you curious about exactly how most commercial chewing gum is made, here is a short-and-sweet summary.

    Someone recently told me that celery has a high sodium content. True?
    Amy Clemente

    False. A medium stalk of celery contains 32 milligrams of sodium (that’s an almost-negligible 1.5 percent of the daily recommended limit). Higher than other vegetables, nevertheless an insignificant amount. Consider the sodium content of these common foods:

    • 1/4 cup salted peanuts: 135 mg
    • 1 slice of bread: 150 – 180 mg (average)
    • 1 Tablespoon ketchup: 160 mg
    • 1 cup yogurt: 180 mg (average)
    • 1 cup Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal: 350 mg
    • Dunkin’ Donuts blueberry bagel: 620 mg

    What is your recommendation for daily sugar intake? I can’t find a consistent recommendation. Is it okay if the sugars are coming from real food, or should those be limited as well? Thank you!
    Cara (Last Name Unknown)

    I am in agreement with the American Heart Association on this one. Sugar should comprise, at most, 5 percent of total calories. When I say ‘sugar’ I mean “added sugars” (unless you are drinking significant quantities of fruit juice, which I am not very fond of). Remember, sugar can take on many aliases.

    Here’s how you figure what “5 percent of total calories” means in grams. Nice round numbers help, so let’s consider someone with a caloric recommendation of 2,000 calories.

    • 5% of 2000 calories = 100 calories
    • 100 calories divided by 4 calories per gram of sugar = 25 grams of sugar

    If you want, you can take this one step further:

    • 25 grams of sugar divided by 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon = roughly 6 teaspoons of sugar

    Personalized calculations aside, the idea is to cut back on added sugar as much as possible.

    Given that most people’s daily caloric recommendations fall anywhere between 1800 and 2400 calories, an allotted limit of 20 – 25 grams a day applies to most everyone. FYI: the average American adult currently consumes 88 grams of added sugars on a daily basis.

     I’ve recently heard that beans aren’t good because they have anti-nutrients and lectins. Any truth to that?
    @Rozy80 (via Twitter)

    Some beans and legumes contain a fair amount of phytic acid, which is considered an anti-nutrient since it decreases the absorption of some minerals (i.e.: iron and zinc).

    To argue that they therefore “aren’t good” is hyperbolic and inaccurate. They are a great source of protein, fiber, folate, potassium, magnesium, and consistent intakes have been linked with improved health and reduced risks of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. I highly recommend eating two to three cups of beans and legumes each week.

    Lectins are a natural insectide found a variety of foods, including beans. When consumed in large quantities, they can cause severe gastrointestinal distress, and it has been theorized that long-term lectin consumption can raise the risk for certain types of cancers.

    However, soaking, sprouting, and cooking significantly lower their lectin levels. As long as you eat fully cooked beans (and who doesn’t?), you don’t have anything to worry about.

    An organic CSA website recently made the following statement on their homepage:

     “Our animals eat a diet of grass and hay, plus organic corn and flax. Grass and flax are part of their diet to insure the fats in our milk are in the healthy balance our bodies need for optimal health. These are the fats that are associated with fish, but in fact are present in very small quantities in farmed fish. Cows eating a healthy diet are a safer source for Omega 3 fats than wild or farmed fish. “

     Is it really true that eating beef from cows that were a “healthy” diet contains more Omega 3’s than wild caught fish?
    Kelsey Lepp

    Seems like there is some Omega 3 confusion. Let’s review.

    There are three types of omega 3 fatty acids: ALA, DHA, and EPA.

    ALA is abundant in flax, walnuts, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. Fish offer DHA and EPA (what is often left out of the conversation is that they get DHA from microalgae and EPA from sea vegetables, and humans can too). Different omega-3 fatty acids have different functions, so it is important to distinguish between them.

    As far as cattle feed is concerned, flax fortification contributes ALA Omega 3s, while grass contributes some DHA and EPA. Although ALA can be converted to DHA and EPA, the conversion requires a hefty amount of ALA fatty acids.

    According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average combined amount of  DHA and EPA in a serving of grass-fed steak is 35 mg. By comparison, a serving of wild salmon offers, on average, 1,500 milligrams.

    I have no idea what they could be referring to with the claim that grass-fed beef “is a safer source of omega-3s than wild salmon”. Wild salmon is not high in mercury or PCBs.

    Regardless of cattle feed, Americans would be better off reducing their overall red meat consumption and increasing their intake of plant-based foods.

    What do you say to doctors whose belief is that medications are more immediately effective than changes in diet?
    — @Bairi (via Twitter)

    The end doesn’t justify the means. Medications may be more immediately effective, but many of them also come with unpleasant side effects and health risks. Some people, for instance, are resistant to statins (cholesterol-lowering medications).

    There certainly are medical cases where medication is necessary, but a significant number of individuals with high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol, arthritis, and Type 2 diabetes can improve their conditions with dietary tweaks.

    Nutrition therapy is less costly, safer, and more sustainable than medication, and its effectiveness has been consistently proven (I continue to be amazed at the medical professionals who scoff at nutrition as if it didn’t have a body of research backing it up).

    The majority of doctors prefer medication simply because it is what they were taught in school. Talk to any medical professional who has studied nutrition and I doubt you will find one that thinks “pills first, nutrition second”.



    1. Robert said on March 16th, 2012

      Andy, cows and chickens can convert the ALA from their grass and flax to EPA and DHA. That’s how we get “Omega-3 Eggs” containing a good amount of EPA/DHA and why grass fed meat is “better” for you. Farmed salmon have their issues, so perhaps the CSA was right that grass-fed meat might be a safer source of n-3’s.

    2. Andy Bellatti said on March 16th, 2012


      You are correct about the conversion; I edited the earlier paragraph since the wording wasn’t clear enough.

      However, DHA-rich eggs come from chickens that consume DHA-fortified feed. Chickens with flax-fortified feed will usually highlight ALA values on their packaging.

      While DHA and EPA are one reason why grass-fed meat is hailed as superior, producers also market CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) content — a naturally-occurring trans fat that, according to very preliminary research, could have some benefits for heart health. Lower levels of saturated fat are also often touted as one way in which grass-fed beef is superior to corn-fed beef.

      I’ve added some links that compare the amount of EPA/DHA in a serving of steak and a serving of salmon. Not even close. It is fine to say that grass-fed beef contains some EPA and DHA, but to sell it as superior to wild salmon is, from an omega-3 standpoint, not accurate.

      What gets lost in all this chest-thumping over DHA and EPA in beef is that it’s an even better idea to go straight to the source. I encourage eating plant-based foods rich in ALA (they also offer fiber, minerals, and phytonutrients) as well as integrating sea vegetables (which also offer minerals and phytonutrients).

      I understand that, nutritionally, grass-fed beef offers some advantages compared to corn-fed, but I don’t think it’s wise to rely on it to get omega 3s. Why wait to eat flax until it’s been digested by a cow?

      There certainly are issues with farmed fish, but the CSA explicitly states that their beef is safer than wild salmon, too.

    3. Brandon said on March 16th, 2012

      “subjects on plant-based diets excrete less ferritin (an iron-storage protein) in their fecal matter than omnivores.”

      This study was actually interesting. If this study was the end-all be-all study to base nutrition advice on, it would seem that 18mg iron is enough for a vegetarian woman of childbearing age, instead of your suggested 33mg, and/or that 18mg is “too much” for a omnivorous woman of childbearing age. I say this since serum iron (transferrin, hemoglobin, etc) was not affected by either diet. But of course we can’t say that definitively since the study was only eight weeks.

    4. Andy Bellatti said on March 16th, 2012


      The 33 milligram figure is not mine; it frequently appears in the literature and has very solid science behind it.

      Of course, one study does not change everything (hence the “roughly double the iron needs of omnivores” suggestion not changing), but it is important to highlight findings that could add a new lens to existing data.

    5. Hannah said on March 16th, 2012

      In the sugar question, you didn’t answer if the sugars coming from real food was something important to track. I severely limit added sugars in my diet, but I eat a ton of whole fruit every day with meals, as snacks, in tea… Is this okay?

    6. Andy Bellatti said on March 16th, 2012


      I did answer that part of the question:

      “When I say ‘sugar’ I mean “added sugars” (unless you are drinking significant quantities of fruit juice, which I am not very fond of).” In other words, the sugar in whole fruits or unsweetened dairy does not count towards this 5% figure.

      What, exactly, is “a ton of whole fruit”?

    7. Dairugger XV said on March 16th, 2012

      I wouldn’t mind if you had a more detailed post debunking this concept of “cravings driven nutrition.”

      Why would we ever have needed to understand vitamins and nutrients and deficiencies or dietary risk factors if all it took were people following their cravings to a perfect diet?

      It makes no sense.

      Regarding beans, I would feel it important to mention that the majority of epidemiological studies include beans as associated with health and longevity.

      Now, some people don’t like epidemiology, but I find it far more useful to look at how people eat and live to get a general idea of what sorts of patterns we can spot, than the reductive, “beans have anti-nutrients, therefore they are bad.” We can do this with almost every food that has some “bad” component, and it’s not very helpful for undertaking a holistic dietary approach.

      Yes, beans have anti-nutrients, but in the real world of eating patterns, it doesn’t seem to make people who consume a lot of beans any worse off, and actually, they seem to lower certain health risk factors.

      As far as I know, there is no chronic disease cause by anti-nutrients in beans, so I have no idea why people make this a concern. Is obesity caused by anti-nutrients? Heart disease? Cancer? Well, I do have some idea why this idea is around; it usually goes along with a pro-meat anti-vegetarian agenda.

      Seems like the omega 3 grass fed hype was claiming that it was a “safer” source, not that pastured livestock contained more. They are probably cautioning against mercury and other persistent organic pollutants in fish.

      (I’m not at all convinced of omega-3 hype in general, but I’ll keep that to myself.)

      Andy said, “I understand that, nutritionally, grass-fed beef offers some advantages compared to corn-fed”

      Yeah, sure, higher omega-3 in comparison, but a poor source overall, low saturated fat in comparison but still a high source overall and very little epidemiological evidence that a diet high in red meat, grass-fed or otherwise, is ideal. We do have data from the rest of the world that eats grass-fed beef and there doesn’t seem to be any protective benefit and plenty of cautionary data to still suggest limiting portions if the goal is lowering disease risks.

      Personally, I don’t care if beef is healthy or not. What I dislike is picking upon some aspect of nutritional science while rejecting all the rest (I’m not accusing anyone here). Some people find a tenuous reason to make beef a health food yet consider all the data that suggests otherwise fraudulent. Same for beans. The data are very strong that beans are associated with good outcomes for lowering disease risks, but “Oh no, anti-nutrients and lectins, don’t ever eat them!” Abject foolishness.

      Andy said, “Talk to any medical professional who has studied nutrition and I doubt you will find one that thinks ‘pills first, nutrition second’.”

      I don’t’ disagree, but in fairness to at least some medical professionals who do accept the important role nutrition can play, they may understand the very contentious nature of offering a dietary solution to their patients and the problems of patients adhering to a new dietary pattern without support. Prescribing medication is less controversial, patients tend to expect and demand a prescription from a medical professional, and there’s a better chance (though still not 100%) that a patient will actually take their medication (though the rates of people taking their medication properly and consistently aren’t very good).

    8. Jen said on March 17th, 2012

      Andy, thanks for answering my question about quinoa! I love lentils too, so assume that it’s not a problem to continue eating quinoa regularly 🙂

    9. Lauren Slayton said on March 17th, 2012

      Great information. I think you touched on areas that are tricky for many people. I recently blogged about gum, I it gets a pass and shouldn’t. The sugar suggestions are hard to put into action. Unless people track everything they eat and calculate it, how would one calculate 5%? Maybe one item that’s sweetened a day? A certain number of grams to tally? Not trying to nitpick but how would you put that advice into action?

    10. Andy Bellatti said on March 17th, 2012


      Thanks. I’ll check out your gum post.

      As far as the sugar suggestion, I wanted to provide calculations so that someone who eats around 1500 calories a day can get a personalized number, as can someone who eats more in the vicinity of 2200 calories a day. I purposefully used the 2,000 calorie example since it applies to a significant percentage of the population. The idea isn’t that people need to be tracking down calories obsessively, but rather base the calculations on a nice round number that reflects the caloric intake that is recommended based on age, activity level, etc.

      That said, I understand what you mean about the need for practicality, so for further clarity (which never hurts), I’ve added a sentence that summarizes recommendations with sugar grams.

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