Taboos and Tidbits

Taboo, refers to a cultural prohibition, usually based on fear, and more closely related to religion than science. The word comes to us by way of Tonga, where it was directly connected to the gods and their supernatural powers. Our advanced society has endowed certain foods and herbs with fear and treated them as taboos. Eggs, liver, butter, cream—these have been demonized by the cholesterol gods. False gods, such as margarine and hydrogenated oils, have been worshiped in their place. The health of Western Civilization has suffered as a result. The real health gods have not been happy and there have been deaths, many deaths, as a result of our foolish worship at the deceptive altar of epidemiology. Statistical observations, even when "significant" do not equate to physiological truths.

The connection between dietary fat and cholesterol and rate of heart attack does not hold for all cultures, nor does it hold on physiological grounds. High blood cholesterol does NOT spell imminent danger. Research makes clear that after age 70 a blood cholesterol greater than 300 carries no detectable excess risk of heart attack. I have had patients in good health past age 90, and with cholesterol over 300. There are other factors, such as homocysteine, Lp(a), fibrinogen, and infection --to name a few-- that do have great impact and these physiological factors have recently gained sufficient research support to put cholesterol into perspective as but a relatively small part of the physiological puzzle of arteriosclerosis and heart disease.

Of course, dietary balance is important, but the fat taboo is turning out to be more fear than fact. Consider the following conclusion from a major research study into the alleged connection between dietary fat intake and breast cancer risk.[1] "We found no evidence that lower intake of total fat or specific major types of fat was associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer." That is from the Nurses' Health Study, which has followed the health of almost 90,000 women for over 20 years, since 1976. It is unlikely that we will ever see a larger or better study, nor under more trusted management—Harvard Medical School.

Despite all the confusing headlines to the contrary, fat deficiency is a greater hazard than fat excess. Certain fats are essential. These we must have--or we sicken and die. Since the processing of essential fatty acids, particularly linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3), requires enzymes that are powered by vitamins (B1,2,3,5,6, folic acid, B12 and biotin) and minerals (magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, chromium, selenium), deficiency of any of these catalysts can show up as dry skin, nerve deterioration, endocrine failure, auto-immune disease—a veritable pandora's box of inter-related degenerative disease conditions.

Eskimo and French dietary patterns are as high or higher in fat than our own fast food, hamburger and fried food culture. But the Eskimo native diet is high in fish fat and seal blubber, both high in omega-3 essential fatty acids. And the French enjoy duck pate, rich in the same omega-3 essential fatty acids, which are washed down with wines. French wines contain more copper than our American wines, due to their use of copper sulfate rather than the myriad chemical pesticides in use here. Copper remains one of the weak spots in the American diet, and it is aggravated by the hidden intake of fructose and corn syrup sweeteners, which aggravate copper deficiency.

Putting aside the copper connection, it is enough to appreciate the enormous impact of fish oil and flax oil in reducing risk of heart attack. Research at Yale University was emphatic in demonstrating lack of heart attacks in pigs with high cholesterol induced by a high saturated fat diet—so long as they were also fed fish oil, containing the omega-3 fatty acids. The adverse action of cholesterol was less powerful than the beneficial effect of the fish oil. Iodine confers a similar protection, a fact demonstrated as long ago as 1915 in fat fed rabbits. Those that were treated with iodine lived despite high blood cholesterol.

The word "tidbit" refers to "a choice morsel." Fish oil hardly fits that definition, though it takes only a little bit, as little as a teaspoonful a day, to satisfy the needs for most adults, and a tablespoonful or two to confer more complete anti-coagulant action. There are other foods that might be thought of as ‘tidbits’ Take the egg, for instance: properly prepared it is the most perfect single food and is the "gold standard" of protein quality. In one of the largest diet-health studies of all time, the American Cancer Society surveyed almost a million people and followed their health status over a period of years. Those who ate more than five eggs per week enjoyed better health and had fewer heart attacks and less cancer morbidity than those who ate less than two eggs per week.

There is a twist of irony to our egg taboo, for the yolk of the egg contains both cholesterol and biotin, a vitamin, which regulates blood cholesterol. Biotin deficiency causes scaly skin, hair loss, sore tongue, low mood, and high cholesterol! If you are low in biotin, eating eggs can lower cholesterol. And here is irony: the yolk contains biotin; the white of the egg contains avidin, a protein that inactivates biotin. Cooking the egg denatures the protein, destroys avidin, and preserves the biotin. It is only raw eggs that should be considered dangerous. So the experts are wrong to cast a taboo on eggs; and the health faddists are wrong to eat them raw. That leaves the rest of us to listen to our body and do what comes naturally: eat them if we like them.

Now that we have challenged the taboo against eggs, are there are other, tastier tidbits in the world of food? How about chocolate? Now that is a choice morsel for sure, if only for its high content of phenylethylamine, a neurotransmitter and mood elevator. The Aztecs called it "food of the gods." You will be pleased to learn that chocolate is also good for your health, better than we thought! Dr. Joe Vinson has found chocolate to be loaded with antioxidant polyphenols. His research confirms that these are present in huge amounts, about 300 mg. in an ordinary candy bar (i.e. about 40 grams of milk chocolate). This is equivalent to the amount contained in 5 servings of fruits and vegetables. If the candy is made with dark chocolate it has twice as much polyphenol and one such chocolate bar can satisfy the food pyramid guidelines for two days so far as these flavonoids are concerned.

And coffee—this herbal brew, made from the seeds of the coffee tree, is enjoying new respect since Harvard researcher, Dr. Edward Giovannucci gathered results of a number of research studies (meta-analysis) and found an over-all reduction in colorectal cancer of 30 percent in those drinking several cups a day. That will come as no surprise to those who know that coffee enemas have been a mainstay of cancer therapy at the Gerson Clinic and other cancer treatment centers in Mexico for over 50 years.

It should be no surprise that coffee is also coming into its own as an anti-depressant. Move over St. John's Wort. A 1996 analysis of data from the same Nurse's Health Study population that exonerated fat also found an inverse relationship between coffee drinking and suicide. The greater the coffee intake, the lower the suicide rate. Evidently the effect of caffeine and other natural chemicals in the coffee bean act as anti-depressants. Dr. Peter Martin at Vanderbilt University has founded an "Institute for Coffee Studies," funded with over six million dollar to pursue this. Coffee contains many other chemicals besides caffeine, including chlorogenic acid. It is also a good source of scarce trace minerals, especially manganese.

Are you concerned that coffee causes addiction? Relax. Dr. Astrid Nehlig used SPECT scans, which track blood flow in the brain, and found no increase in activity in the nucleus accumbens, the seat of the reward system of the brain, after caffeine equivalent to three cups of coffee. This implies that coffee is not addictive, even though it does increase activity in brain centers that control muscle activity, mood, and state of arousal. Only at very high doses, seven or more cups of coffee at a time, was there an increase in glucose in the brain reward system. These findings were reported at the 1999 American Chemical Society meeting.

There are many more begging to be included. How about the important news that iodine deficiency has quadrupled in the past 20 years! Dr. Joseph G. Hollowell of the Center for Disease Control observes that in 1971–1974 the incidence of iodine deficiency in USA was 2.6%. Just 15 years later, 1988–1994, the incidence had increased to 11.7%. This coincides with a 4-fold increase in infantile autism, a disorder of brain development; and there has been a huge increase in attention deficit disorder (ADD), numbering in the millions. Could there be a connection to iodine deficiency? Iodine is essential for thyroid activity; thyroid is required for normal fetal and neonatal brain development, so it is possible and should be taken seriously.

One reason for iodine deficiency is there has been a taboo against salt! Iodized salt was introduced in the 1920s to end goiter forever. But that was before blood pressure and salt got linked and became a public health and media issue. In case you hadn't heard: it is now physiological to eat salt to suit your taste—unless you are in the unlucky 10 percent with a high blood pressure condition specifically linked to salt. Salt contains the essential minerals, sodium and chloride. Excess salt may cause high blood pressure and death--after a number of years. But salt deficiency may cause death in just a few hours!

Tryptophan is back in the news again: this time it is good news. Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, continue to ruin young lives. Psychiatrists at Oxford, in England, compared the effects of amino acid mixtures with and without tryptophan in 12 healthy women compared to 10 recovered bulimia patients in a double-blind, cross-over study. It was significant that the bulimics had a significant lowering of mood and loss of control of eating following the tryptophan-free meal. Conclusion: "chronic depletion of plasma tryptophan may be one of the mechanisms whereby persistent dieting can lead to the development of eating disorders." And the unwritten conclusion is that tryptophan supplementation deserves to be tried in anyone struggling with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders.

There is no shortage of reports of improved mood, better sleep, and other health benefits from tryptophan supplementation. However tryptophan has been almost entirely removed from the over-the-counter marketplace for the past ten years. It has become taboo. Fear, not science, deprives thousands of people from treatment with this essential amino acid. The FDA bureaucracy is afraid to approve the sale of this food substance, which is present in most of the foods you eat, especially animal proteins, because contaminated tryptophan made it to the health food stores 10 years ago, and caused over 30 deaths and many more cases of lung and muscle damage. It wasn't the tryptophan. It was the contaminant.

But that problem has been corrected, so why the taboo now? I hate to say it, but it looks like a fear-driven bureaucracy at work. Bureaucrats don't want to be criticized for not doing enough; and so they are motivated by fear and almost forced to grab power over us misguided "consumers" who would like to believe that a bureaucrat knows what is good for us. That is something you have to find out for yourself. Bureaucracy is a threat to our individual liberties. Every law and every regulation removes a degree of freedom from the public domain. You want tryptophan? The tryptophan disaster of 1989 occurred despite the fact that FDA standards were met. Now the cost is 5 to 10 times higher than it was in 1989, because of governmental over-control. So no one uses tryptophan much anymore. Luckily we now have 5-hydroxy tryptophan, which is better and safer than tryptophan—but is already threatened with removal by FDA. There is a power struggle going on right now, not only here in the USA but world-wide as the Codex commission is holding a series of meetings to forge an international consensus on regulating health and nutrition products.

Along with this our own FDA is proposing to redefine the term "disease" so as to include any deviation from a normal state, including headache, pregnancy, menopause. That would place foods that affect symptoms under regulatory control as drugs rather than foods. Do you really need FDA to tell you whether you can have a chocolate bar? It could come to that. Already, in Canada the government has announced a new office of Natural Health Products to oversee all aspects of natural health products. Herbal companies will be required to prove that their products work as advertised. Forget about the fact that herbs have been used successfully for thousands of years and that we know the science behind their action now more than ever before. Efficacy requirements raise the costs enormously and will benefit big drug companies, who can invest big money in big bureaucracy. Where will the big money really come from? From the little people—you and me.

'Putting nutrition first' is more than a good health strategy; it is your individual right and responsibility. There is a war going on right now, and it is a war over who has the power to regulate your personal health. Don't think that any bureaucracy can tell you what works for you any better than you can determine for yourself. Freedom of choice in personal health matters is NOT guaranteed by our Constitution. Big mistake. Putting nutrition first is in the same league as putting Freedom first. Anything else should be taboo. Freedom is one of the basic tenets of the belief system that has made America great. Any law or regulation that erodes our freedom should be classified as taboo.

[1] Holmes MD, Hunter DJ, Colditz GA, Stampfer MJ et al: Association of dietary intake of fat and fatty acids with risk of breast cancer. JAMA 199999;281:914-920.

©2007 Richard A. Kunin, M.D.