NEWSTART Element #1: Nutrition

A detailed, scientific explanation of Nutrition by Neil Nedley, M.D., taken from his book Proof Positive

The first element of NEWSTART is nutrition. I have devoted many pages in this book to the value of nutrition to our health. We have seen that it can help prevent heart disease and cancer. We have seen its value in helping to stave off kidney failure, kidney stones, and early skin wrinkling. We have looked at its role in avoiding serious infectious illnesses as well as in improving our mental health. But the total vegetarian diet can produce many other benefits that I have not yet mentioned. Nutrition is, of course, just one element of NEWSTART but its importance can not be overemphasized.

The Bottom Line on Diet and Health
In this era of medical cost consciousness, Dr. Synove Knutsen has published some fascinating data on the benefits of the vegetarian diet.1 Her results provide a fitting demonstration to the benefits of a vegetarian eating style regarding general health. Knutsen found that among both men and women, there were approximately 15 percent less chronic diseases among vegetarians when compared to non-vegetarians. Utilization of health care facilities also decreased; the non-vegetarians of both sexes reported more hospitalizations than the vegetarians. Medication use by non-vegetarians was dramatically more frequent. In general they used about twice as many medications as the vegetarians.

Vegetarian Diet and Endurance
What about the benefits of the vegetarian diet beyond its resistance to many diseases? Many people feel that once they go on a vegetarian diet they are going to be weaker. They worry that they will not feel as strong or robust. Many of us have grown up with the idea that meat and milk builds strong bodies. Those ideas have turned out to be myths. Competitive athletes have known for years that animal fat and protein is something to be kept at a minimum when trying to build endurance. In general, they engage in a practice known as “carbohydrate loading.” Such approaches are based on years of research in the area of sports medicine.

Figure 2

One of the classic studies was performed in the late 1960s when the Scandinavian researcher, Doctor Per-Olaf Åstrand, studied nine highly trained athletes. Dr. Åstrand changed the diets of these athletes every three days. At the end of each three-day period, he had each athlete pedal a bicycle at high speed until exhaustion. His results are tabulated in Figure 2: Vegetarians have Greater Endurance.2

We see that with a high meat diet (high in both protein and fat), they became exhausted after about an hour. When on a mixed diet, lower in meat, fat, and protein, and higher in plant foods, they could peddle at high speed for almost twice as long—a total of 1.9 hours. However, when on a vegetarian diet, they went for 2.78 hours until exhaustion set in.

This dramatic improvement in endurance should not surprise keen observers of the animal kingdom. After all, the ox, the elephant, and the horse have no problems with strength or endurance on a vegetarian diet. Horses can run at high speeds for hours. Elephants are noted for running 10 or 12 hours straight at high speed. Can you imagine carrying all of that weight (over 6 tons) at 25 miles per hour for ten or twelve hours straight?

On the other hand, meat-eating big cats such as cheetahs, tigers, and others have good speed at the start, but they fatigue within a short time, often within less than 5 minutes. Indeed, in the animal kingdom, endurance, the ability to provide top energy for long periods of time, is largely a characteristic of vegetarian animals.

Food Supplements
Typically, when I talk to people about the health benefits of nutrition, some are not content with my message of eating more fruits, whole grains, and vegetables. They want something more—and perhaps something less. It requires some effort, planning, and acquisition of new habits to dramatically increase your fruit and vegetable consumption. Many feel that an easier solution is to take supplements (“vitamin pills”) in order to reap the benefits of improved nutrition. They attempt to improve their nutrition, not by eating substantially better, but by holding to the same foods and adding vitamin and mineral supplements to their regimen.

Unfortunately, taking extra doses of vitamins can cause problems. Take the B vitamin, niacin, for example. Niacin is actually an acid (nicotinic acid—not to be confused with “nicotine” of tobacco fame3) but acts like a vitamin in the amounts that it is found in nature. However, if you take large amounts of this acid, it acts as a drug.4 The reason for this is that there is only so much of this vitamin that the body can use. The excess, which cannot be used as a vitamin, begins to exert drug effects. Among those drug effects are the lowering of cholesterol and triglycerides.5 For this reason, many people take niacin in drug doses to bring their blood fats into line.

Like all drugs, niacin in drug doses can cause side effects. In the case of niacin, these side effects include peptic ulcers, diarrhea, altered heart rates, liver disease, gout, and worsening of diabetes.6, 7, 8 Like other drugs, niacin in large doses may have some desirable effects, but it also has some undesirable ones. The user of large amounts of niacin is really using a drug—not a mere vitamin. In fact, a recent scientific paper on niacin concluded with the following remarks: “Unfortunately, the side effect profile of this agent [niacin] warrants its use only in patients with marked dyslipidemia [extremely bad blood fats] in whom side effects and potential toxicity are closely monitored.”9

The B group of vitamins, including niacin, is water-soluble and is thus easily eliminated. For this reason, many people who lack a deeper understanding of biochemistry think that their bodies would get rid of any excess niacin and it would cause no harm. However, they are sadly mistaken. Other B vitamins can cause problems in excess. Large amounts of folic acid can cause insomnia and other mental disorders. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) in large amounts can worsen Parkinson’s disease and cause other nerve problems.10

Figure 3

Vitamin C, another water-soluble vitamin, may increase the risk of kidney stones if taken in excess.11 It can also cause diarrhea and abdominal cramps.12 Those who abruptly stop taking doses of vitamin C greater than 500 mg daily risk developing vitamin C deficiency—apparently because the body becomes dependent on higher doses of the vitamin.13 Their gums can easily bleed when brushing their teeth. Figure 3: Dangers of Taking Excessive Water-Soluble Vitamins lists some of the problems caused by excessive amounts of water-soluble vitamins.

The fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, are more difficult for the body to eliminate. Many people have taken modest amounts of vitamin A in supplements and have become ill as a result. A dose of 25,000 IU of vitamin A per day (about 5 times the amount needed to prevent nutritional deficiency) can cause problems as diverse as liver trouble, headaches, hair loss, dry skin, bone pain, and joint aches.14 Pregnant women who take over 10,000 IU of the vitamin put their unborn children at increased risk of birth defects.15

Excessive vitamin D can cause severe problems by interfering with calcium balance in the body, and can lead to calcium buildup in the blood (called hypercalcemia). This condition may produce anything from mild to life-threatening symptoms. The list of related problems includes nausea, vomiting, fatigue, confusion, high blood pressure, kidney failure, and coma.16

Vitamin E may be toxic in high amounts, causing problems with weakness and fatigue as well as nausea and diarrhea.17 Excess vitamin E also predisposes certain individuals to bleeding problems, particularly those who are on blood thinners (anticoagulants).18, 19 Dr. Sheldon Hendler is a widely quoted authority on vitamins and minerals. He holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia University and an M.D. degree from the University of California. He expresses much more caution for vitamin E supplementation than many supplement advocates. Dr. Hendler sees “no reason for adults to take more than 400 IU daily” and lists concerns for some side effects beginning at doses of as little as 600 IU per day.20

There is a separate concern regarding the practice of routinely taking vitamin and mineral supplements. Surprisingly, you can cause a vitamin or mineral deficiency by taking large doses of supplements. How can such a thing happen? How can conscientious individuals who take extra vitamins and minerals put themselves at greater risk of deficiency? The answer lies with a true understanding of the interactions between vitamins and minerals. There are a number of ways in which vitamins and minerals are transported and utilized by the body. Taking excessive amounts of one vitamin or mineral results in an unbalancing of the uptake and utilization of other vitamins and minerals. Some of these interactions are illustrated in Figure 4: Vitamin - Mineral Interactions.21

In this figure, a line connecting any vitamin to a mineral indicates an interaction. For example, vitamin C has a line connecting it to iron. This indicates an interaction between these substances. In this specific interaction, if you take large doses of vitamin C day after day, your body will increase its absorption of iron, which could cause other problems. Interactions of other substances may cause a decrease in the absorption of a substance. Many people are unaware of these potentially harmful interactions. The message is that no one should take large doses of supplements without careful consideration. There are 11 separate interactions shown on this figure.

Not only do vitamins and minerals interact, vitamins can interact with other vitamins, and minerals can interact with other minerals as illustrated in Figure 5: Vitamin Interactions and Figure 6: Interactions Between Essential Minerals and Trace Elements.22

There are 12 vitamins shown, and 27 possible interactions. Note that three of the popular vitamins, A, C, and E, interact with each other. What about a simple multiple vitamin pill, or the supplements in a bowl of Product 19 or Total cereal? Unlike many supplements, these usually do not provide large amounts of nutrients. It is unlikely that serious repercussions will arise from taking such products (although they probably are not necessary if you are healthy and following the diet recommended in this book).

There are certain disease situations in which large doses of vitamins can be of benefit. However, such supplements are best taken under the direction of someone who is well aware of the risks as well as the benefits of such an approach. Indiscriminate use of vitamin supplements may well increase health risks rather than decreasing them.

In Chapter 2, “Good News About Cancer—It Can Be Prevented,” I point out a better way to get many of the benefits of vitamins without taking supplements. There I share some of the exciting new research that is championing whole plant foods in the antioxidant domain where vitamins were formerly thought to reign. For example, current research indicates that you can get an antioxidant benefit equivalent to 1100 IU of vitamin E by eating a cup of the cooked green leafy vegetable, kale. Kale does this without exposing you to the risks of high vitamin E doses because it only contains 13 IU of the antioxidant vitamin E. But it also contains a host of other antioxidants, making it equivalent to 1100 IU of a vitamin E supplement.23

The message that I presented elsewhere in this book is that many fruits and vegetables have powerful antioxidant effects that exceed expectations based on their vitamin content. Similarly, other naturally occurring chemicals in plant foods may substitute for functions that we usually think of being associated with specific vitamins.

Furthermore, we know that eating an abundance of fruits, grains and vegetables can actually add years to your life. Studies suggest that a vegetarian diet may extend the average person’s life by more than a decade over that which they could expect on a heavy meat, plant-poor diet. It should be obvious to those who have read this book systematically that the way a vegetarian diet promotes longevity is by substantially decreasing the risk of the two most powerful killers, heart disease and cancer, as well as decreasing the risk of other degenerative diseases. Rather than thinking about the use of supplements when in quest of good nutrition, think about healthful food choices.

The use of supplements begs another question: do vitamin and mineral supplements actually increase one’s lifespan? Fortunately, they have been around long enough for us to get a statistical answer to the question.

Vitamin Supplements and Your Life Span
How much difference do food supplements make? This was the question addressed not long ago by researchers at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. The researchers used the extensive database from the First National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (performed from 1971 to 1975), and then assessed the death rate of participants through 1987. They found that those who used supplements did not live any longer than the non-users.24 They concluded: “We found no evidence of increased longevity among vitamin and mineral supplement users in the United States.” Clearly, supplements do not appear to be living up to their promise.

It is obvious that the foundation for nutritional health does not lie with vitamin and mineral supplementation. It rests with a diet based on an abundance of fruits, grains, and vegetables. Not only do these food choices provide the benefits of the vitamins and minerals that we know about, but they also provide a host of factors that have not yet been discovered. If you are on a supplement program, you will have to wait for scientists to discover more of the healthful compounds in plant foods, learn how to make or isolate them in the lab, and then finally put them into supplements for commercial sale. On the other hand, if you are eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds in moderation, then you will be getting all of the hottest protective phytochemicals (plant chemicals) before they are even discovered.

In spite of all of the scientific evidence of the nutritional completeness of the total vegetarian diet, there are still some members of “the old school” who believe that such a diet is nutritionally deficient in protein and calcium. As pointed out in Chapter 7, “The Great Meat and Protein Myth,” Harvard researchers in the 1950s showed that a total vegetarian diet was fully adequate for protein. In the same chapter, it is pointed out that total vegetarians need a smaller intake of calcium than their meat and dairy-consuming neighbors. There is a variety of excellent sources of calcium in the vegetarian diet such as the green leafy vegetables.

Only one nutrient has been a perplexity for total vegetarians and that is vitamin B12. Interestingly, this vitamin is needed in only very tiny amounts. Less than one hundredth of an ounce is more than enough B12 to last a lifetime (provided you took it in small increments throughout your life). Despite our very meager need for this vitamin, a total lack of it can cause troubles such as anemia and nerve problems. Until recently, no one had found a reliable plant source for B12. As a result, many who are vegetarians have felt that because of the possibility of B12 deficiency, they should either get their Vitamin B12 level checked by a blood test every year (to be sure they are not becoming deficient) or supplement their diet with this vitamin for security’s sake.

Dr A. Mozafar, a Swiss researcher, has discovered that certain plants do contain vitamin B12.25, 26 Furthermore, he conducted a study to determine if plant foods grown organically would have greater concentrations of B12 in their tissues than those grown with chemical fertilizer.27 His results are shown in Figure 7: More B12 in Organically Grown Plant Foods.

Note that B12 was found in soybeans, barley, and spinach, and that when grown organically, the amount of B12 was significantly higher. This study immediately generated shock waves. Mozafar’s work flies in the face of a well-established nutritional position (held even by vegetarian scientists) that B12 is not found in plants as conventionally grown. Since he reported B12 levels even in the chemically fertilized plants, some nutritional experts have proclaimed his work as suspect.

The research has prompted many questions. Were there mistakes in the B12 measurements? Was there something different about the soil in the study? Is there really an increase in B12 content in certain organically grown plants? More studies are needed to confirm Mozafar’s results. Some are now asserting that a totally plant-based diet without B12 supplements is sufficient for all of our nutritional needs.

Until all the answers are in, however, I prefer to err on the side of caution. I still recommend that total vegetarians take a regular B12 supplement or eat foods in which B12 is added, such as many of the breakfast cereals or meat substitutes. There are at least 12 dry cereal varieties available at this writing that contain substantial amounts of B12. Some milk alternatives contain levels of B12 that are equal to or greater than the amount in cow’s milk. As little as 5 micrograms every other day is probably all that the average person needs. A listing of quantities of B12 and other nutrients in various brands of milk alternatives and cereals is found in the Appendix.

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