Friday, January 22, 2016

Learning about Nutrigenomics and Epigenetics can be Empowering!


“We are, quite literally, what we eat as well as what our parents and grandparents ate”
                                    ------------- Dr Randy Jirtle, Geneticist.

     Remember when Hippocrates declared “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”? He knew a fundamental truth which mankind has started re-discovering only over the past one and a half centuries. In the last decade or so it has actually been a golden age for Nutritionists as more people are willing to work towards wellness than ever.

     Also over the past decade, researchers have been focusing on a mind-boggling new field in Genetics - the fact that you can turn on or off certain genes simply by the way you live! This field is called Epigenetics, the study of changes in gene expression caused by outside influences rather than existing gene structure. More importantly, many of these changes are heritable – they are passed on to your children… and their children.

     Quite simply, your lifestyle, food habits, emotional experiences (happiness / stress), physical traumas, exercise, chemical / pollution exposure, etc. can switch either beneficial or harmful genes ON or OFF.

     We are born with a set of genes which determine our physical characteristics like eye colour, hair texture amongst all the other things which make us human. These genes are responsible for every biological reaction that goes on in the body. They are essential for everything from our heartbeat to hormone levels. The basic nature of these genes doesn't change easily. But gene expression / activation / protection which is influenced by the factors in the previous paragraph, then directs critical body processes affecting aging, preservation of normal health and modifying your risk for chronic disease.

     Nutritionists have always maintained that while you are stuck with certain bad genes, these don't really determine your health – only you can....through the way you live. That philosophy has been validated by Epigenetics research which shows that you have more control than you think over whether you will develop disease or stay healthy.

     The implications are life-altering…….while we all have disease causing genes that can potentially be activated, not everyone has the same ones. For example, some people have a version of a gene that makes their coffee intake a risk factor for heart disease while others have the version that effectively deals with caffeine in coffee such that it actually lowers their risk of heart disease.  That is why different studies on the same topic have found different results – some studies say the caffeine in coffee is good for you while others find it is not – because of different genotypes of the subjects! Same goes for alcohol and chocolate. So the lesson here is ...... if you don't have the habit, don't start it for the sake of your health – it is not worth the riskwhat if you don’t have the right genes?

     The study of the effect of food and it's components on gene expression has been termed 'Nutrigenomics'. Some findings which have come out of Epigenetics and Nutrigenomics........

- Regular exercise switches on around 100 cancer-preventing genes and switches off at least 70 cancer-promoting ones.

- Regular exercise turns off genes that encourage storage of excess fat, especially on the liver.

- Don't drink sugar – rich sports drinks while exercising. This suppresses genes which promote fat-burning!

- Folate or Folic acid which is one of the B - complex vitamins is considered an important gene- protective nutrient – include natural sources of folate like green leafy veggies and whole pulses and fresh lentils for the whole family regularly.

- Other vitamins and amino acids have been found to positively influence genes, they are Riboflavin, B6 and Choline, Serine, Glycine, Methionine and Cysteine. These compounds are omnipresent in a varied and healthy diet.

- Regular olive oil consumption reduces the expression of 98 genes involved in the inflammatory responses which cause heart disease and auto-immune disorders like Arthritis.

- Eating low glycaemic index carbs (whole grain cereals and pulses) during pregnancy benefits the foetus by decreasing it’s risk of developing diabetes in later life.

     So how do we now utilise this information? It would be easy to get excited and try to keep track of the latest research on the subject but in reality, developing affordable genetic testing for the general public in India will take a couple of decades...don't hold your breath. Firstly, they have to isolate all the modifiable genes which runs into hundreds of thousands. Then comes figuring out the effect each gene has and calculating the health implications thereof. Extremely complex computer algorithms have to be formulated to process all this data which then has to be interpreted by geneticists.

     Ultimately, the purpose of such exhaustive research is to customize nutrition advice to an individual’s genetic makeup. Such a personalized plan would take into account individual nutrient deficiencies. Customized nutritional supplements may replace every pill in the medicine cabinet, finally validating the industry that makes them. However, if I’m around when all this happens, I would still advise you to get most of your nutrients through natural dietary sources!

     There is no need to wait for a test to tell you what you know you should already be doing..... reduce consumption of processed food, unhealthy fats, sugar and salt; include more natural foods and whole grains instead and while you are at it – GO ORGANIC. Start exercising at least 4- 5 times a week. Live an active, fulfilling life that includes time for leisure, meditation and hobbies. Reduce commute time if possible and definitely exposure to pollution and household chemicals! Also, ensure that you eat responsibly before and during pregnancy and even throughout nursing. It's that simple, preventive action is always the best.

     Also, don't worry about single nutrients and their impact on your genes – that's the problem with nutrition research – they try to isolate the specific data related to one nutrient at a time but miss the big picture – do you eat a single nutrient at a time or a balanced diet delivering many known and unknown beneficial and life-sustaining nutrients?


Friday, January 15, 2016

Vani Hari... up close and book review: The Food Babe Way

It was a sultry September evening at 'Spaces' - a beautiful meeting place for the organically minded citizens of Chennai (although other types of events happen here too). We were gathered to hear Vani Hari, aka, the Food Babe, speak about her journey of discovering a healthy lifestyle, getting off all allopathic medication and becoming an activist who is currently the most feared person by food manufacturers in the US.

After her talk, the contents of which I had already gleaned from her website (and which might not have been too relevant for the current company of small organic farmers and consumers -but did inspire them nevertheless), I was expecting to interview her for Parent Circle, the magazine I write for with a little regularity. She requested that we do it on-line and I acceded with gratitude for then I was able to talk to her for a few minutes on the GMO scenario here, her book (which she signed right there for me and others), her latest investigation and how long it would take to wipe off Monsanto from the face of the earth. She mentioned that she was soon to visit Vandana Shiva, my hero, in Dehradun. I almost swooned.

I had been following Vani Hari and her website for a year or so and had been blown away by the way she went after food companies for the truth about their products and ingredients. She has no fear and speaks her mind at the risk of on-line and real attacks. This is living dangerously but she wouldn't have it any other way. A champion debater during her school years, this skill has been most useful when constructing successful on-line petitions to 'Big Food' companies to list their ingredients honestly, remove harmful ones and source better foods for their products.

Another wonderful thing she does is support travellers by posting about how to make healthy food choices while on the road which comes from her personal experience of being a successful executive on the road for most of the week. 

I could go on and on but you'll get all the info you need about her on her website, here. I do encourage you to visit, subscribe to her newsletter and use these resources to MAKE BIG CHANGES IN YOUR FAMILY'S HEALTH. Of course, most of the information pertains to foods available in the West but more and more of them are finding their way into local stores and the information on harmful ingredients is relevant world-wide.

Coming to her book, The Food Babe Way.. 

It is a quick read for those who read voraciously and are interested in regaining their health through changing how they eat. 

Her style of writing is straightforward but full of emotion. Quite passionate about communicating every detail of her journey, she gives a visceral account of the tactics resorted to by food manufacturers to hide what's really in their food and how they bully anyone who dares ask for the truth. 

She demystifies several famous 'diets', weighing their pros and cons. She lists the 'sickening fifteen' chemical non-food ingredients in use by food manufacturers throughout the world and why they should be avoided. The book has many delicious whole and healthy recipes and a list of books, cookbooks, magazines, websites and Alternative Healing institutes which is a great resource for anyone starting their wellness journey.

Vani has compiled a behaviour change program called '21 days of good food and good habits'  and everyone looking for answers on wellness and healing current disease should act upon these. I disagree with a couple of the points because a lot rides on individualistic treatment and also location specificity. 

For example, Vani recommends drinking a green drink every day.... eating / drinking raw greens in India has to come with a how-to, step-by-step cleaning process since most people here don't buy chemically cleaned greens and these may contain parasites. 

So, after thorough cleaning with water (soak and rinse three times..the last under running filtered water),you might want to blanch the greens for a minute in hot water. Or alternatively, do a potassium permanganate / tamarind soak before the last rinse. Oh, and chew your green (or any other) juice for maximum absorption of nutrients in the gut.

All in all, a good read written authentically with enough info to turn the head of the most ardent 'zero nutrition food' addict. And, most importantly, giving a new direction to search for wellness. 

The world is shifting from blind faith in so-called modern (sometimes even pseudo) 'science' to evidence-based trust in the humblest of Mother Nature's offerings. The pursuit of true wellness is a mirage no longer. 

This movement IS happening, spreading like wildfire - purely based on implementation and results... and all those big conglomerates peddling disease and destruction are running for cover because all the money in the world can't hide the fact that humankind doesn't and never did need them in the first place.

Coming soon.........Vani answered a few questions in an email interview and this along with my own list of Indian superfoods will be published in a month or so.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Protein Basics


This article was originally published in Parent Circle magazine, June 2013. I've reproduced it here as first written. The only thing that I would alter is the dairy advice. Research now shows that organic fresh dairy products are the best form in which to consume this food group. Raw, unpasteurized (heated breastmilk too loses half of it's nutritional value) organic milk is best especially for children...if you choose to give dairy. I've previously written on Plant vs Animal Protein  ...please read both for a full perspective on Protein.

     Discovered in the 1800's by a chemist named Mulder, Proteins are still the most researched biological molecules even today. The human body contains around 50, 000 different proteins, each with their unique, critical functions to perform. 

     Proteins are made up of building blocks called 'Amino Acids'. There are 20 different amino acids present in human proteins and of these, 9 are called essential. When you hear this term applied to any nutrient, it means that the body is not capable of deriving or producing this compound itself. 'Essential' means that the particular nutrient needs to be derived from food.

     Amino acids are made up of 4 basic elements  Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen. These are linked together in different ways and with side elements or molecules to give each acid their unique character and function. Amino acids are also the products of protein digestion by our gut. They are absorbed into the blood stream and form an 'amino acid pool' which is like a bank account from which the body withdraws what it needs to reconstruct different types of proteins. 

     Once proteins from food are absorbed, they don't last very long in the body.... some 3 to  5 hours. This is why we need to keep consuming different protein containing foods on a daily basis, replenishing this stock. The body functions wonderfully to utilize these amino acids within this short time. If there is an additional demand, say due to moderate physical activity, the body steps up protein production and increases it's storage in our muscles. Building of muscle mass (lean body mass) is a desirable process.

     Proteins figure in every bodily process...from formation of skin, hair and nails to making sure each cell in your body receives a supply of oxygen to lifting your little finger. They make up hormones, enzymes, genetic material, blood, bone marrow and the list goes on. They are especially critical in phases of life where growth takes place - childhood, adolescence, pregnancy and lactation. As we age, we lose more protein, therefore we need to focus even more on consumption to replenish our protein stores. 

     Infancy, childhood and adolescence are high-growth phases during which protein plays a huge role. If there is any consistent deficit in dietary protein intake at these times, the consequences can last a lifetime!

If your child's diet falls short of the first element, the following could result:

- Fatigue
- Decreased muscle mass and in severe cases - muscle wasting
- Failure to thrive, poor growth
- Irritability
- Changes in nails, skin and hair colour
- Anemia
- Frequent severe infections due to lowered immunity
- Constipation
- Slow healing of wounds
- Sleep problems

     In extreme protein deficiency, the respiratory system and heart muscles are weakened - this is seen mostly in children from impoverished families.

FOOD SOURCES can be of 2 types – Animal and Plant.....

     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. Therefore, it was inferred that animal protein is of higher quality. This information has been so widely spread but is not true.

     Protein from animal sources (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and it's products) has been linked to increased risk for many disorders. Increased animal protein consumption acidifies the blood necessitating withdrawal of calcium and other salts from your bones to neutralize it. This process leads to loss of bone mass and increased risk of osteoporosis as well as erosion of teeth. There are studies now highlighting the influence of animal protein isolates on activating cancer cells. It is also associated with lowered age of puberty in girls. Excessive animal protein intake is a burden on the kidneys which have to excrete it and could damage these organs.

     But we need to view protein more as a 'food package'. Proteins do not naturally occur in isolation. Most sources of animal proteins also give you saturated fat / cholesterol, almost no fibre and not too many vitamins. So increasing your protein intake from animal sources increases your risk for cancer, diabetes and heart disease among others.

      Have you ever been asked, as a vegetarian, how you get enough protein? The meat and dairy industries 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 'conducted 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, egg and dairy consumption makes you 'strong and healthy’.

     Plant protein for years has been sidelined as an 'incomplete protein' source simply because several plant foods are missing one or more amino acids. Also, these don't fare as well in their PDCAAS scores. 80 – 100% of animal proteins are absorbed by the digestive system but absorption isn't that much less for plant proteins – it falls in the range of 75 – 90%. Recently, plant proteins have been getting lots of good press because their 'food package' is much healthier. When you consume this type, you are also getting fibre, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals which build wellness and are as effective in replenishing the amino acid pool as animal proteins.

     PLANT PROTEIN is finally being acknowledged as high quality protein by the scientific community.  This comes after many studies on vegetarians and vegans. 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 body-builder. Such people who consume largely plant proteins are found to have lower rates of chronic disease, are more active, more likely to be at their ideal body weight and 'feel healthier' in general.

     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). Just ensure that you cook meat healthily with less fat / oil, choose white meat over red meat and leave out the yolk more than half the time when consuming eggs.
     Also, most people (even vegetarians) in India consume dairy products like milk, curd, paneer and cheese. These add to the already abundant protein present in a plant - based diet. Just ensure dairy products are low fat to make it a healthy 'food package'. The whole family benefits from eating this way, not just the children.

     These are high protein vegetable foods –------>  dals, pulses, legumes, sprouts, nuts, seeds and green leafy veggies like agathi, rajakeerai, kuppakeerai, sembu ilaigal (colocasia leaves), curry leaves, drumstick leaves and manthakkali keerai. (Of course, to get the benefit of the protein in greens, you have to consume a large quantity). Cereal grains like oats, whole wheat and whole rice are great sources too. Refining of cereal grains (white rice / maida) can result in at least 18 – 25%  loss of valuable protein from the grain. High protein sources which are now popular in India are nuts, seeds, whole grams and last but  not least Quinoa (originally from South America).


     If we consume a variety of healthy, whole and natural foods in a day, we will get enough protein. There are, however, specific circumstances under which extra protein may be required, for example …. endurance athletes, undernourished children, people with chronic disease, injury, infection or diabetes. In such cases, if deemed necessary, a safe protein supplement should be taken as per the doctor's or nutritionist's recommendation. Avoid taking more than prescribed.

     Protein is a big business. Avoid any brand containing the word ‘grow’, ‘muscle building’, ‘mass’, etc even if you are into hardcore strength training. If your doctor prescribes it – follow the same rule and take it for the least possible duration. Just because you train at a gym doesn't mean you need protein supplements. Be responsible for eating a healthy, well balanced diet to meet your daily requirement.

The National Institute of Nutrition states that the recommended dietary protein allowance for Indians is:

Age Group
Protein requirement (gram / kg of body weight)
Infants (0-1yr)
1.4 – 1.6
Children (1 – 10 yrs)
 1.2 – 1.4
1.1 – 1.2
 0.8 – 1
Pregnancy - 1st trimester
Adult allowance plus an additional 1 gram per day
2nd trimester
Adult allowance plus an
additional 7 grams per day
3rd trimester
Adult allowance plus an
additional 20 grams per day
Adult allowance plus an
additional 20 grams per day

If you eat all the foods recommended daily and at least 1 or 2 servings of foods recommended weekly, you will be getting around 70 g of protein or more per day! There is actually a little more coming in from your veggie intake. So don't panic that you may be deficient in protein.....this is proof that a wholesome, largely plant-based diet more than satisfies an average Indian's daily requirement for protein. For your children, based on their food intake capacity, they too are consuming more than enough protein for their body weight. Just ensure these basic food groups are a part of their diet.

Food (Protein Source)
Quantity per serving (g or ml)
Protein content per serving (g)
Recommended number of servings
 Cereal Grains (rice, wheat, millets, oats, etc)
1 roti / 1 idli / 1 dosa / 100 g cooked rice or millet
1.6 - 2
7-10 per day
Dals, pulses and legumes
100 g, soaked or cooked
3 - 4 per day
Milk and Curd (low fat)
200 ml
3 - 4 per day
Nuts and seeds
30 g
4.8 – 7.5
1 per day
100 g, raw or steamed
3 - 4 per week
Paneer and cheese
25 - 30 g
2 per week
Egg White
35 g (1, medium)
2 – 3 per week
Chicken / Poultry
24 g
1 - 2 per week
30 g
1 – 2 per week
Unsweetened Soymilk
200 ml
1 – 2 per fortnight
Plain tofu (not fried)
60 g
1 – 2 per fortnight
100 g, cooked
1 - 2 per fortnight
100 g, cooked
1 – 2 per fortnight
Mutton / Red meat
30 – 35 g
1 per 3 or 4 weeks

A Drop of Golden Sun

      When I was studying nutrition over a decade ago, we learnt that the functioning of D was to support the absorption and action of Calcium in it's various roles. The past decade has seen an impressive amount of research into this compound mainly because it seems to have impacts on the body beyond that of just an ordinary vitamin. Vitamin D is now being referred to as a hormone since it is manufactured in the body from sunlight.

     This is due to the fact that Vitamin D Receptors (molecules necessary for it's entry into cells) are located in over 30 different tissues in our body! This means that we have probably just hit the tip of the iceberg in determining what roles it really plays in our bodies.

     Evidence shows that maintaining adequate levels of vitamin D during pregnancy, nursing, infancy and childhood lowers risk of the child developing Type 1 Diabetes and other auto-immune disorders. Vitamin D is required for bone and teeth mineralization, optimal functioning of blood, acid base balance, essential for thyroid hormone action, maintenance of muscle strength, brain development in children, health of our immune system, optimal functioning of cardiovascular and respiratory systems, insulin production / regulation and involvement in cell multiplication at a genetic level. This is what science is exploring so far......there are still miles to go.

What's worrying is that in sunshine-rich India, over 40 % of Indians are estimated to be D-ficient....

Some of the risk factors:

-        Not getting at least 15 minutes of direct sun exposure daily, remaining indoors for most of the sunlit hours
-        Covering up and applying sunscreen at all times when in the sun
-        Having a darker complexion (more melanin, more time it takes for skin to produce Vit D)
-        Being older than 50 years of age (Capacity to produce Vit D from sunshine is reduced as one ages)
-        Being obese or even just overweight (more fat tissue under skin reduces Vit D production)
-        High pollution levels in your city (smog reduces penetration of UV B rays)
-        Being on a severe low fat diet

Some of the disease risks raised by D-ficiency....

-  Rickets – a bone mineralization disorder seen in children, once rare, again on the rise. The condition is called osteomalacia if present in adults
 - Hypertension, sudden death from heart attack and stroke
 - Multiple Sclerosis, Type 1 Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and other auto-immune disorders in children and adults
 - Asthma and respiratory infections especially in children
 - Several types of Cancers.
- Decreased thyroid function leading to goitre

             The risk factors are so much the norm in our daily lives and so are the consequences. Just evaluate your own risk to see where you stand. You could be dealing with some of the possible consequences already or just having niggling back / joint pain. A lot of otherwise healthy adults and children have also been found to have low D levels in blood – setting them up for an unhealthy future.

             So how can you guarantee adequate Vitamin D levels in your body? Get your serum D3 levels checked. If deficient, supplementation is key – under your doctor's guidance of course. Especially if already suffering from it's impacts on your health.

Unfortunately, foods are not a great source of this vitamin. Some foods that are relatively higher in D content......
-   Fatty fish – Raawas (salmon), Bangda (mackerel), Chura (tuna), Bhing (herring), Mathimeen (sardines)
-   Dairy – milk and cheese
-        Egg yolks
-        Mushrooms (few varieties like Shiitake)
-        Cod Liver Oil

       For vegetarians, the options are pretty slim – cheese, mushrooms and cod liver oil supplements. For even meat eaters, food intake can contribute only a maximum of ten percent of our requirement – so the main source is still sunshine.

 The Root Causes.......We Indians are complexion-conscious and don't wish to be tanned so we use sunscreen – an additional concern may be skin cancer which of course is relevant but we needn't shy away from sunshine for fear of it. Also, more worryingly, many doctors in India are recommending supplementation without really dealing with the basic issue of sun exposure. The concept of food fortification with D hasn't taken off in India the way it is in the West.

The Reality.........Our country mostly lies below the 35 degree latitude line, towards the equator. We get enough UV B radiation from the sun almost the whole year. This is a sunshine vitamin and our bodies are capable of producing it! The focus should be on how to empower our skin to make more than enough for our needs, not solely rely on artificial supplementation.

       The Final Prescription:
       Go out in the sun every other day without sunscreen for at least 15 minutes (or less if your skin burns easily). If you have a dark complexion, 20 minutes. Make this a conscious, regular practice – otherwise it will go the way of other healthy habits you started...and stopped. A sign that your skin is absorbing the UV B rays is a slight pinkish hue (erythema) developing. Stay in the sun for at least 5 to 10 minutes after your skin turns pinkish. Make sure you expose your arms, hands, neck, face and feet if not more. This ensures production of the amount you'll need for a couple of days as well as creating a store for future use. Finally 3 or 4 times a week, every week is what you should be aiming at.

       Ensure your whole family does the same – encourage your kids to take up out door games and activities. Many schools in urban centres don't have any playground area....  this means kids have to be indoors all day – if this sounds like your child's school – ensure their sun exposure yourself. If your child's school has time dedicated to outdoor play, no need to worry – but check that it is not excessive and does not occur at the hottest time of the day or else your child could wind up with dehydration or sun stroke.

       If you live in India, stock up on sunshine in spring, summer and autumn months. In winter, except for cloudy, foggy and smoggy days, you should be able to catch some rays during peak daylight hours. Take supplements only with your doctors consent and only in the dosage recommended.

       Interesting Facts :
-        Of the different types of radiation from the sun – the specific wavelength of Ultra Violet 'B' rays are required for Vit D production
-        7-dehydrocholesterol and ergosterol are the 2 precursors of D found in skin. On receiving UV B radiation, they form Vitamin D3 which then travels first to the liver and then the kidney to finally become the active form that the body uses.
-        Using sunscreen reduces absorption of UV B by as much as 95% on that patch of skin
-        Best time for sun exposure is between 10am to 3 pm, even on cloudy days
-        Exposing arms, hands, feet, neck and face to the sun means around 25% of your skin's surface is soaking the rays.
-        UV B rays don't pass through glass or clothes!
-        While Vitamin D toxicity is possible through irresponsible supplementation, the body has a natural control mechanism for Vitamin D produced by skin so that this can never cause toxicity
-        Vitamin D is used in the treatment of Tuberculosis. It also has anti-inflammatory effects in the body.

-        Activated Vitamin D can only be stored in the body for a couple of weeks, which is why you need regular sun exposure.

An edited version of this article was published in the January 2014 issue of Parent Circle...screenshots below