Dr. Fuhrman Dr. Fuhrman

Complete Protein in a Vegetarian Diet

In previous articles about protein, I mostly talked about the total amount of protein in a diet, as if all protein were created equal. People who are concerned about protein in a vegan diet usually are not only concerned about the amount of protein, but also about the quality of protein. Vegetable protein is said to be of lesser quality than animal protein. It is often referred to as "incomplete" whereas animal protein is said to be "complete". In this article I will discuss what is meant by the term "complete protein" and we will look at whether this is something to worry about.

Proteins are made up of amino acids. They are the building blocks of protein. There are twenty different amino acids in protein, nine of which are essential, which means that the body needs to get them from food because it cannot make them itself. The other amino acids can be made by the body so they do not have to be present in our food. Of course there is some controversy about the ideal or minimum amounts of the essential amino acids that we need. An often cited standard is that of the Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board. They give the following recommended amino acid profile (amounts given are percentages of the total amount of protein in the food):

Amino Acid Percentage of Protein
Tryptophan 0.7
Threonine 2.7
Isoleucine 2.5
Leucine 5.5
Lysine 5.1
Valine 3.2
Arginine 1.8
Methionine+Cystine 2.5
Phenylalanine+Tyrosine 4.7

A protein is said to be complete if the amino acids are present in at least these amounts. The body can make methionine from cystine and phenylalanine from tyrosine and vice versa, so that is why they are listed together. If a food does not have all the amino acids in the recommended amounts, it is said to be deficient in that amino acid, and the amino acid is called the limiting amino acid. This is not a problem at all, since people eat a variety of foods. Sometimes people (even self proclaimed experts) still recommend that vegans combine foods in a single meal to make up for limiting amino acids. This is not necessary. Just like we do not need to get optimum amounts of all vitamins in every single meal, we also do not need optimum amounts of amino acids in every single meal. The body will be able to use them if we eat a variety of foods every day.

Even though the food combining theory has long been discredited, many people still consider it a fact that plant based foods have incomplete amino acid profiles by definition. This is false. Grains often (but not always) have a limiting amino acid, but most vegetables and many kinds of beans have complete proteins. Green vegetables are no brainers for people who read this site, but even potatoes and carrots have a good amino acid profile, as have chickpeas, white, black and kidney beans. It has been stated again and again by vegan nutrition experts, but I think it bears repeating: if you eat a healthy, varied diet, you do not need to worry about complete proteins. If you do not eat a healthy varied diet, you have more important things to worry about than amino acids.

It was surprising to me that not all animal foods are complete proteins. I wonder why we never hear that people should always combine ground beef or cured pork with a food that is high in tryptophan, because ground beef and cured pork are severely deficient in this essential amino acid.

I made a simple search tool that allows you to search for the amino acid profile of all foods in the USDA database: Essential Amino Acids Search. The score you see in the tables is simply the percentage protein divided by the reference value from the Institute of Medicine. For example: the reference value for lysine is 5.1. If a food has 10.2% of its protein in the form of lysine, it gets a score of 2. If it has 2.55% lysine, it gets a score of 0.5, which means that this food is deficient in lysine.

March 15, 2008

New and Improved Bitter Poison

I am back. Sort of. As you can see, I changed the website, mostly to make older articles more accessible. I plan to start writing some new articles again as well, but not on a regular schedule.

Apart from the updated layout and the different colors, I also removed the advertisements from Google. I already removed most of them months ago, but now they are all gone. I did not like most of the companies that I promoted through those advertisements so it did not make sense to keep those ads. I kept the affiliate links to websites that I recommend and I added advertisements to my Amazon store with books about nutrition and vegan cookbooks. All the books in this store are books that I honestly recommend. If you buy something from Amazon after following a link from this website, I will get a small commision and it does not cost you anything extra. I know some people will dislike all advertising: if you are one of them please go ahead and block my ads.

For the moment, comments do not work. I may add comments to articles again at some point, but I also may not. If you want to say something to me, you can of course e-mail me at helena at bitterpoison. Some tools that practically nobody used also do not work for the moment. It is likely that there will be some other glitches, since I moved the site from Wordpress to a home-brewed Django application. I am stil working on some minor things like putting all articles in the correct category. If you encounter any problems: please let me know.

November 24, 2007

PRAL values of foods in USDA database

A reader asked me if I could make a file with the PRAL values of all foods in the USDA database. Here it is! It is a pipe (|) delimited file with PRAL values of all foods in the USDA database. It is calculated with the PRAL formula, based on the values in the USDA database. There may be errors; don't rely on this list (or the pral calculator) for anything serious. If you find an error, please let me know.

For more information about PRAL, see:

November 9, 2006

Breastfeeding and Vitamin D

baby drinks from breast

When my daughter was smaller I used to frequent parenting boards. One of the hot topics on those boards was whether to give your baby vitamin supplements. You give your baby the healthiest food on earth, surely she shouldn't need any supplements? Nature doesn't make mistakes, we have survived for thousands of years without supplements. Besides, vitamin D is available in plentiful supply just from a little sunshine. Let's have a look at the myths and the facts.

Myth 1: You'll get enough vitamin D if you spend just a little time outside

This depends on where you live. Vitamin D is a hormone. Your body makes it when it is exposed to UVB radiation from the sun. The closer you are to the equator, the more UVB radiation is in the sun. In most of Europe there is no UVB in the sun whatsoever from October through March. In the north of the US there is no UVB in the sun from November through Februari. During those months your body does not make any vitamin D, not even if you spend lots of time outside.

Myth 2: Vitamin D levels in breastmilk are meant to be low

The idea is that nature doesn't make mistakes, so if breastmilk levels of vitamin D are low, that is how it is meant to be. It probably means that our children do not need much vitamin D. After all, breastmilk does not contain much protein either, but we do not give our children protein supplements, do we?

It sounds logical, but it is not true. Breastmilk levels of vitamin D are only low when mother's vitamin D intake is low. If the mother gets about 4000 IU (100 mcg) vitamin D per day, breastmilk levels are sufficient and no supplementation is necessary. This amount of vitamin D occurs naturally in three herrings, or three tablespoons of cod liver oil. I think the conclusion is that if you live in a northern country, you are meant to eat fish and spend lots of time outside during summer. Now that the sees are enourmously polluted and fish population is diminishing, high fish intake does not seem like such a good idea anymore.

If breastmilk levels were meant to be low, the levels would not depend on mother's intake. This is true for other nutrients: iron levels in breastmilk are not dependend on maternal intake and it is reasonable to assume that this means that iron levels are meant to be low.

Myth 3: Many animal products contain significant amounts of vitamin D

The only real dietary source of vitamin D is fatty fish. Dairy products contain small amounts, but you would have to eat almost two pounds of cheese to get the RDA for vitamin D.

My Advice

Just like vitamin C deficiency does not only lead to scurvy, vitamin D deficiency does not just lead to rachitis. Rachitis is just the most severe form of vitamin D deficiency. In adults, low vitamin D levels are associated with osteporosis (vitamin D is more important than calcium in the prevention of osteoporosis), diabetes, MS, lung disease, breast-, prostate-, ovary- and gut cancer and heart disease.

Whether you want to supplement your child or yourself with vitamin D is an individual choice that mostly depends on where you live. I strongly feel that the dangers of not supplementing in northern countries are greater than the dangers of supplementing. This is even more important if you are dark-skinned, because the melanin in the skin blocks the UVB rays to a certain extent. At least make sure to supplement during the winter months. If you would rather not supplement your child, supplement yourself. 50-100mcg a day is enough to make your breastmilk high in vitamin D. If you want to rely on the sun, realise that sunscreen blocks UVB radiation. Make sure your child does not get sunburned.


November 5, 2006

How not to deal with stress

stress reduction

We just bought our first house, in another part of the country. There are lots of things that need to be done in a short time and I noticed that I developed some bad responses to the stress. In the spirit of do as I say, not as I do I'll share my pitfalls.

  • I am way too busy to eat healthy. Be glad I am eating whole wheat pasta with some veggies, instead of pizza!
    Better response: In times of stress I should take MORE care of myself, not less!
  • I wish my daughter would sit quietly in a corner with a book so that I can get some things done already!
    Better response: What a nice relief it is to play/sing/read/dance with her, and how happy I am to have a healthy, wonderful child.
  • I do not have time to exercise now. There are so many things that need to get done. Besides, I really need my sleep now.
    Better response: I am too busy to exercise during the day, so let's set a strict wake up time and stick to it, so I can exercise in the morning. I may be a bit more tired during the day, but that will only help me sleep better at night.

Eating habits and exercise are a big part of the health equation, but stress is also important. Stress not only often leads to unhealthy eating and less exercise, it also is unhealthy in itself. The most unhealthy stress is nagging, everyday stress. Stressful events that rarely happen, are not nearly as dangerous as a stressful job that you choose to do for the rest of your life, but it is still best to avoid both. Your life is much more pleasant if you know how to deal with stress.

October 4, 2006

Recipe: Apple Tart

This week's recipe is truly delicious and healthy. It has become my standard birthday cake recipe that everybody likes. It is completely oil free and suitable for people with dairy, egg, soy and gluten allergies.

The recipe is from The World's Healthiest Foods, a great website with lots of info about healthy foods. I adapted it very slightly to make it vegan.


  • 2.5 cups walnuts (300 grams)
  • 1.5 cups dates (225 grams)
  • 3 firm green apples, such as Granny Smith (Braeburn work great as well)
  • juice of 1 lemon in 2 cups water
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp allspice
  • 1/8 tsp ground clove
  • 2 tbsp agave nectar (or maple syrup)
  • 1/2 cup apple juice
  • 1/4 cup raisins


  • Remove pits from dates and cut off stems. Grind walnuts in food processor. They should be grind coursly, not into flour. Set aside. Grind dates until they form a big ball. Add in ground walnuts. Process until well mixed and ground, but not smooth. Press evenly into a seven to nine inch tart pan. Set in refrigerator while making the filling.
  • Slice apples and put into lemon water. Drain when done.
  • Place apples in a large skillet with rest of the ingredients and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently on medium heat.
  • Remove apples with a slotted spoon from hot pan to a bowl and cool completely.
  • Reduce liquid to about half the volume and cool separately.
  • Spread apples evenly over crust. Brush syrup over apples.

The recipe is very forgiving. I have used different amounts of walnuts and dates, and it always works. If you leave the syrup on the stove for too long, just add some more apple juice and spices (or not). I have also used whole cloves instead of ground cloves, that worked fine as well. A very sharp knife is helpful for cutting the tart without ending up with date-nut-apple mess

Health notes

This recipe is full of heart and brain healthy walnuts. Dates and apples are phytochemical rich fruits. The only non whole foods in this tart are apple juice and agave nectar, but the amount per serving is very small.

Read the original recipe on for a more extensive health analysis.

I highly recommend this apple tart as a substitue for apple pie if you have something to celebrate.

October 1, 2006

Saturated fat

raw coconut

In this fourth post in the series about cooking oils I will discuss saturated fat. If you are reading this blog, chances are, I do not need to tell you that saturated fat is not that good for you. In this article, I will discuss why.

Most saturated fat in western countries is consumed in the form of animal products and fried/baked goods. Cooking oils that are high in saturated fat include coconut, palm and palm kernel oil.

There are different kinds of saturated fatty acids (SAFA's). The most common distinction is between short chain, medium chain and long chain SAFA's. All SAFA's have a different effect on fat metabolism and cholesterol levels.

Health benefits of saturated fat

There are very vocal internet groups that claim that saturated fat is not just safe, but necessary for health. Lots of research does not agree. There are a couple of arguments that are worth discussing:

  • There are many studies that proof that saturated fat is better for {insert favorite disorder here} than polyunsaturated oils. I actually believe that this is likely to be true, in a society where people eat an extremely antioxidant poor diet. As I explained in the article about Polyunsaturated oils, they do have their drawbacks. The fact that, in some selected studies, saturated fats somewhat improve a diet that is rich in PUFA's from extracted oils and low in nutrients, does not impress me much.
  • Lauric acid (the main fatty acid in coconut oil) has anti viral/bacterial properties. I believe this is true as well. It is important to note though, that many foods have health promoting properties, and most have a much better calorie:health ratio. If I wanted to kill a flu, I would load up on garlic, ginger and greens, not on coconut oil. That said, I do think lauric acid has some beneficial properties, and I am not too worried about the cholesterol elevating effects of a small amount of saturated fat in my diet, so I still happily consume some coconut products.
  • Short and Medium chain fatty acids promote weight loss. I strongly feel people should not micromanage their diets this way. It may or may not be true, eating three tablespoons of cholesterol elevating oil a day is just too unhealthy. I also dislike the idea that weight loss needs a secret, a special method. Weight loss is not that difficult for most people. Willpower is a good skill to learn.

Health dangers of saturated fat

The most well known danger of saturated fat is that it elevates your LDL ("bad") cholesterol. It also elevates your HDL ("good") cholesterol, but the net effect is still negative. The cholesterol will block your arteries, which makes it harder for the blood to flow, which (simplified to the extreme) leads to heart attacks. Technically, this is not the entire story. Some types of saturated fat do not elevate cholesterol as much. Practically all high saturated fat foods do contain the cholesterol elevating kind of SAFA's (cocoa is a welcome exception!), so this is only a theoretical point.

Cholesterol is not the only thing that makes saturated fat less healthy. Saturated fat has a bad effect on blood glucose levels, which may cause diabetes. It also causes inflammation, which may cause many diseases.


I do not recommend to consume significant amounts of coconut or palm oil (I don't recommend dairy either - but this series is about cooking oils). For occasional use, I do not think it is very harmful if you eat an otherwise healthy diet with lots of anti-oxidants, but I would still recommend consuming fresh coconuts instead of coconut oil.

See also

Masai people and heart disease on a high saturated fat diet.

September 29, 2006

Monounsaturated oils

olive oil with olives

In this third post in the series about cooking oils I will discuss mono-unsaturated oils (or: oils that consist primarily of mono-unsaturated fatty acids). The most prominent mono-unsaturated oil is olive oil. Another oil that is getting more popular is high-oleic sunflower/safflower oil. Usual sunflower and safflower oils are very high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, but the high-oleic varieties are made with special seeds that are about as high in monounsaturated fats as olives. See the introduction to this series for a table with the fatty acid ratios of common cooking oils.

Health benefits of mono-unsaturated oils

Monounsaturated oils are much easier to understand than polyunsaturated oils. There are no different kinds and types that you need to worry about.

You can think of monounsaturated oils as a kind of hybrid between very unstable polyunsaturated oils, and very stable saturated oils. They do not get rancid as easily as polyunsaturated oils, but they do not have the artery clogging effect of saturated fats. Mono-unsaturated oils have an anti-inflammatory effect: they are good for diseases like asthma and arthritis. They are also heart healthy because they lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and higher HDL ("good") cholesterol.

Health dangers of monounsaturated oils

Even though monounsaturated oils are more stable than their polyunsaturated counterparts, they do still oxidize easily. Even though olive oil is extremely rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, it still contains 11% of highly unstable polyunsaturated fat. Oxidized oils are dangerous to your health because they oxidize the cholesterol in your body: think of rusting arteries.

Even though mono-unsaturated fats have many health benefits, as extracted oils they are still mostly empty calories: they contain very few vitamins and no minerals. You can get those health promoting fats in a much healthier way by eating avocado's and almonds.


I think that if you want to consume oil, olive oil is a good choice, if you keep the following advice in mind:

  • Buy extra virgin olive oil. This is the best quality olive oil, that is pressed without heat, thus preserving at least some of the antioxidants (like vitamin E) that were originally in the olives.
  • Only buy olive oil that is stored in a dark bottle and still has a long shelf life.
  • Always store the oil in a sealed bottle or glass jar in a dark and cool place. It is best to put it in the fridge. It will solidify, but you can just get it out of the fridge a couple of hours before you want to use it as a salad dressing, or scoop a teaspoon out of the jar if you want to use it for cooking.
  • Do not overheat the oil. A good technique if you want to saute things in a little oil is to water saute: add a small amount of water to the skillet. Heat. Add a little oil. Saute as usual. This method ensures that the oils do not get too hot.
  • Moderation is important. It is not healthful to regularly use two tablespoons of oil as a salad dressing.

September 27, 2006

Polyunsaturated oils

beautiful sunflower

Many health organizations recommend the use of oils that consist primarily of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA's), like sunflower oil because they are said to be heart healthy. Let's look at the facts.

There are two separate issues that are important when assessing the healthfulness of polyunsaturated oils:

  1. Health aspects of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
  2. Health aspects of extracted oil made from those fatty acids.

Different kinds of polyunsaturated fatty acids

PUFA's can be divided into two major groups: omega-3 and omega-6. For years, experts thought the two were interchangeable in their health benefits, but lately the omega-3 fatty acids get most of the attention, and it is now known that too much omega-6 PUFA's are actually unhealthy.

Omega 3 fatty acids

The three most important omega 3 fatty acids are ALA, EPA and DHA. Your body cannot make ALA, you have to get it in your diet. Flax seeds, walnuts and greens are naturally rich in ALA.

ALA itself has health benefits, but the omega 3 fatty acids that are so good for your brain are DHA and EPA. Your body can convert ALA into EPA and EPA into DHA, if you eat a healthy diet and are very healthy. Natural sources of EPA and DHA are fish, specially bred animals and algae.

Omega 6 fatty acids

The three most important omega 6 fatty acids are LA, GLA and AA. Your body cannot make LA, but it can convert LA into the other omega 6 fatty acids. Some health experts still recommend the use of sunflower oil and other LA rich products because they are so heart healthy, but our diets are already very rich in LA, we certainly do not need extra LA. Sunflower oil may or may not be healthier than saturated fats like butter and palm oil, but that is not the issue: you should avoid both.

Health benefits of PUFA's

PUFA's lower cholesterol. High levels of cholesterol are associated with higher rates of heart disease, lower levels of cholesterol are associated with lower (or even absent) levels of heart disease. It is important to note though, that PUFA's lower both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol and that populations that have low levels of heart disease do not consume large amounts of PUFA's.

Health dangers of PUFA's

PUFA's are prone to oxidation and rancidity. Oxidation does not just affect taste, it affects the health properties of the fats. Their original packaging (whole nuts and seeds) protects the fragile oils with many anti-oxidants. As extracted oils the fats are much more likely to go bad than as properly stored nuts and seeds. If you do not want your arteries to rust, always store PUFA rich products in a sealed container in a refrigerator or freezer and do not overheat them.

Omega 6 fatty acids, particularly AA (a fatty acid almost exclusively found in animal products), but also an overload of LA compared to ALA, lead to inflammatory diseases like asthma and arthritis.


Nuts and seeds are very high in polyunsaturated fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fats are very unstable, so it is best to eat them in their original packaging and not use extracted polyunsaturated oils. An exception could be small amounts of sesame oil, because it still contains many anti-oxidants and a large amount of (more stable) mono-unsaturated fatty acids. I recommend to add sesame oil to the meal when it is done, not to fry in it. A good quality cold pressed rapeseed oil could also be used sparingly as a salad dressing, because of its favorable omega 3/6 ratio, but many rapeseed oils sold today do not have that much omega 3 fatty acids anymore. Canola oil (which is refined rapeseed oil) does, but I do not recommend the use of refined oils.

Do use nuts and seeds in your diet -- despite my reservations about high amounts of PUFA's, nuts and seeds have been shown to be good for you in many studies. Make sure to include flax seeds and walnuts, as well as lots of greens, in order to keep a favorable omega 3/6 ratio.

Later this week, I will discuss the health properties of mono-unsaturated oils, most importantly olive oil.

September 25, 2006

Brussels Sprouts Recipes

brussels sprouts

My apologies for my lack of updates this week. I was away from home and had planned to update the blog as usual, but somehow I could not access my blog software from there.

In the comments to a recent post IFitAndHealthy asked what my favorite vegan recipes are. I must admit I did not have an immediate answer to that. I also realize my sunday recipes are far from superhealthy and that that may give the impression that you should do as I say, not as I do. In reality, I really do like healthy foods, but my healthy meals just are not that impressive. Toss cucumber and tomatoes, top with sunflower seeds hardly counts as a recipe, does it? I am fortunate that I really like plain vegetables. When I am lazy, I just steam a boxed of frozen green beans for lunch.

I was overjoyed when I found fresh brussels sprouts in stores again. I now remember my favorite recipe: plain boiled brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts are both green and cruciferous. They are excellent sources of vitamin A, C and K. Cruciferous vegetables kill cancer cells and green vegetables are nutritional powerhouses.

For people who are a little more enthusiast cooks than I am, here are a couple of brussels sprouts recipes that really do look delicious:

Not all these recipes are totally healthy, but they are easy to adapt. Reduce oil and salt if necessary.


September 24, 2006

The cooking oil issue

olive oil with olives

When I wrote earlier this week about the dangers of saturated fat, I said that one of the arguments of people that say saturated fat is good for you is that polyunsaturated oils are really bad for you, and that I agree with that statement. That raises the question: what cooking oil should you use? In the coming series I will discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of various cooking oils.

Should you use oil at all?

Oil is a refined food. It is rubbed from most of its original nutrients and protection against rancidity. It is not something that is good for you, and you should use it in limited amounts. It is perfectly possible to cook without oil, and it is perfectly possible to get all your essential fatty acids from whole foods, like nuts, seeds, avocado's and greens. That said, populations from all over the world have used oils for ages. Some food does taste much better with even a little oil. I do not think that oil in small amounts is harmful if you are not overweight or suffering from a serious disease and if you are using the right oils, the right way.

Different kinds of oils

There are three kinds of oils: saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated. Saturated oils are solid at room temperature, mono-unsaturated oils are fluid at room temperature, but solid in the refrigerator, poly-unsaturated oils are fluid at room temperature and in the refrigerator. That sounds easy enough, but all oils contain a mixture of saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats. Below you will find a table with the saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fatty acid contents of various oils, as well as their vitamin E content.

Next week, I will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the most popular cooking oils. I will also discuss how to use and store oils.

Fatty acid composition of various oils


This table is sorted by mono-unsaturated fatty acid content. To sort on another header, just click that header

Oilsaturatedmono-unsaturatedpoly-unsaturatedvitamin e
Sunflower oil (oleic)1084441
Hazelnut oil7781047
Safflower oil (oleic)6751434
Olive oil14731114
Avocado oil127113
Almond oil8701739
Apricot kernel oil660294
Mustard oil125921
Canola oil7593017
Goose fat2857113
Herring oil215716
Teaseed oil2152230
Duck fat3349133
Cod liver oil234723
Peanut oil17463216
Chicken fat3045213
Sheanut oil474450
Turkey fat2943233
Beef tallow fat504243
Mutton Tallow474183
Sesame oil1440421
Rice bran oil20393532
Palm oil4937916
Oat oil20354114
Sardine oil303432
Cocoa butter603332
Salmon oil202940
Corn oil 13285514
Menhaden oil302734
Soybean oil1423589
Tomatoseed oil2023534
Walnut oil923630
Flaxseed oil9206618
Poppyseed oil14206211
Sunflower oil10206641
Cottonseed oil26185235
Grapeseed oil10167029
Wheat germ oil191562149
Safflower oil6147534
Palm kernel oil821124
Babassu oil8111219
Coconut oil87620
Nutmeg butter90500

At first I planned to only list the most popular oils, like olive, safflower and canola, but I was fascinated by all the different oils. I had never heard of Babassu oil and wondered how anybody had ever thought of making oil from tomato seeds, so I decided to let them in.

September 15, 2006

Masai People and Heart Disease on a High Saturated Fat Diet

bread with butter

If you are interested in nutrition and have access to the internet, it is highly likely that at some point or another you came across views that are contradictory to everything you ever learned. There is a highly vocal group of people that claims that saturated fat is actually good for you. When you first look at the sites the evidence seems convincing, but if you look further you will see that they all reference each other and the few carefully picked studies that support their ideas. Let's discuss two of the most cited arguments.

The Masai eat lots of dairy and do not get heart disease

The Masai (or Maasai) are a people in Kenia. They use lots of dairy products and there arteries show for it: The coronary arteries showed intimal thickening by atherosclerosis which equaled that of old U.S. men (Atherosclerosis in the Masai). It is true that they do not get heart disease, but keep in mind that the life expectancy of the Masai is below 50 years. Many people in western countries don't get heart disease either, even if they are living on a chips and cheese diet. That is not the only explanation though: the researchers conclude that their exceptional level of fitness is probably an important factor: it makes the arteries expand so that blood can still flow, even with all the plaque.

The Masai get away with eating an artery clogging diet but that does not mean you can too. They have been eating lots of vegetables and herbs their entire lives. They have been physically active their entire lives. They have lived their entire lives in a natural environment and they are generally happy people. Even if you eat healthy now, chances are you grew up with refined grains and not enough exercise. Your arteries likely are already clogged and much less able to withstand the saturated fat than the arteries of the Masai. On the other hand: you will hopefully live much longer than most Masai. There also may be other factors at play that we do not know yet. Maybe the Masai eat a diet that is naturally rich in plaque removing substances. Maybe they have good genes.

Contradictory studies

The saturated fat - heart disease connection is very strong. It is untrue that the real experts do not believe anymore that saturated fat is bad: this is only a handful of doctors and other people that promote shabby research or take good research out of context. If you look for it, you can find studies that support every controversial opnion easily. The Japanese smoke much more than people in Europe and the US, yet have much less heart disease. Does this mean that smoking is actually good for you? There are people that think so.

Polyunsaturated fats are the real bad fats

Most of the pro saturated fat research concludes that extracted polyunsaturated oils are even worse than saturated fats. I agree that polyunsaturated oils should be severely limited as well (and the fact that trans fat is bad for you is already undisputed), but that is irrelevant. Two wrongs don't make a right.


All that said, I don’t think saturated fat is actually poisonous. Nuts and seeds also contain saturated fat and I do not think there is anything wrong with eating coconuts every once in a while. No naturally occurring nutrient is totally good or bad. If you are lean and active and eating a healthy diet with lots of vegetables, I would not worry about saturated fat. Just do not think about it as health promoting.


A reader commented that life expectancy does not say much, and he is right. In poor countries, life expectancy numbers are skewed, because so many children die at birth. If you have ten people die at birth and ten die at age 90, the average life expectancy is still only 45 years. However, in this particular case I do not think it is very relevant, because life expectancy at age 15 in Kenia is still only 60 years. It is also interesting to note that one of the reasons that the Masai have such a high neonatal mortality rate is exactly because of their beliefs about a healthy diet: Masai women eat less food during pregnancy because they want smaller babies.

September 13, 2006

Recipe: Peanut sauce

peanuts in shell

I realize I could call this ongoing series Junk Food Sunday because the recipes I posted are not exactly great examples of super healthy recipes. I do think they have a place though. I was so happy to finally find a recipe for peanut sauce without added oils or sugar. This is especially great if you have kids who love to eat "normal food" sometimes.

Health notes

Natural peanut butter is made of ground dry roasted peanuts, and nothing else. It is an excellent source of protein (peanuts contain more protein than tree nuts) and provides many vitamins and minerals (among which boron, which is good for your bones). Peanut butter also contains resveratrol, the antioxidant in red wine that protects against heart disease and cancer.

There are a couple of concerns with this peanut sauce though:

  • Peanut butter is often contaminated with aflatoxin (the ones that you grind yourself in the health food store are the worst, in this regard) but if you eat a diet that is very rich in leafy green vegetables, you do not have to worry about that.
  • Peanut butter (like all roasted nuts and nut butters) contains carcinogenic acrylamides. I feel that if you eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables your body should be able to handle a little bit of acrylamide every once in a while.
  • This sauce is high in sodium, so you should watch your portion size and/or replace the soy sauce with something more heart healthy.

The source of this recipe is the best source of vegan recipes on the internet: Fat Free Vegan.


  • 1/3 cup natural peanut butter, crunchy or smooth
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoons lime juice (I use lemon, because that's what I have on hand most of the time)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)


Mix all ingredients together well. Makes about 1 cup.

Nutrition Facts for entire recipe

  • Calories: 547
  • Fat: 42 g.
  • Protein: 19 g.
  • Carbohydrate: 23 g
  • Sodium: 1800 mg (1200 mg if using "low sodium" soy sauce)

September 10, 2006

Weight Loss Success Stories

measuring tape

Weight Loss Tips is a new site that features many weight loss success stories, including mine.

This is a great project, I hope they will be very successful. So many experts say that it is near impossible to lose weight and keep it off, it is good to read reports from actual people who did just that.

I was very surprised that the first question was which program I used and that almost all the other people who are featured on the site either used or created some sort of commercial weight loss program. People often ask me how I did it and when I answer I just started eating less, they seem disappointed. When did losing weight become so complicated and such a big industry?

September 8, 2006

The No S Diet

No S Diet Logo

When I was a teenager here in the Netherlands, there were no fad diets. If you needed to lose weight, the common advice was to stop snacking and to exercise a little more. This wonderful simplicity has been captured in a simple mnemonic by Reinhard Engels: The No S Diet. No S means:

  • No Sugar
  • No Sweets
  • No Seconds
  • On days that start with an S.

That's it! It really is a simple concept and I am convinced that for most people this will really help them lose weight. Of course, in itself this does not say anything about health, but that's not what the program is about.

It is somewhat ironic that such a simple concept has a 24 page (that's just the printed out homepage!) website, a store, a podcast and a forum where people discuss the program.

Although I recommend the concept wholeheartedly, I do not agree with all of the author's reasoning. Bold passages are from the No S Diet website, my comments are below.

The calorie accounting diets are time consuming and joyless. You won't be able to stick with one of these because it will make you miserable. Besides the sheer tedium of compliance, if you come to think of food as fuel, a mere quantity, you'll come to loath it -- and your number crunching-munching self.

Many diet book authors say the same thing. I do not agree. For me (someone with an analytical mind, like Engels) knowing exactly what I ate helped me very much in making my eating more joyful. For the first time in my life I actually realized what I was eating. I think it is comparable to learning music theory. People often wonder if that doesn't take the joy out of music, but in fact it makes music much more interesting.

I also think there is a misconception in anti-calorie-counters that you need to count every calorie for the rest of your life. I only tracked everything I ate for a couple of weeks. After that I had a ballpoint figure in my head and just knew somewhere inside my head what constituted a normal meal or a normal snack.

By "no seconds," I officially mean one physical plate, and I think for beginners especially it's good to stick with this, even if it means a fairly overloaded plate. .

I think the "no seconds" idea is a great one. It may even unknowingly be one of the successes behind my weight loss. For practical reasons, we always put dinner on our plates in the kitchen. It means no leftovers, no picking in the pots and pans, no jealousy, no misguided politeness (both waiting if the other takes the last piece of yummy food from the pot). It also means that I got a very good idea of what a portion for me looks like. I think this is much better than constantly putting new food on your plate because you'll have no idea how much you already eat. When you are overweight, clearly you lost the ability to regulate that yourself, you need some external cues.

That said, I think salads and soups should be encouraged. My lunches are always a combination of salad/soup/stew or sandwich and I see no reason whatsoever to change that. I also end every meal with a piece of fruit. I think the only real reason to put everything on one plate is because Engels doesn't want you to realize the calorie content of your food at all. I think in the end that works against you. It is good to realize that it is better to eat two large plates of salad than it is to eat one small plate of mostly hamburgers and fries.

I also don't think that anyone in the medical profession would suggest regularly going 5 straight days without any fat. Unlike added sugar, it has some nutritional benefit, the body does need it.

It is true that the body does need fat, but the body does also need sugar. And just like the body does not need any added sugar, the body also does not need any added fat. Many doctors agree on that fact. We can get plenty of fat from whole foods such as avocado's and nuts and cutting out added fat that you don't really miss can be a big weight loss help. I used to just pour the oil in the pot, now I measure it out with a spoon. If you know a tablespoon of oil is 120 calories, that adds up fast. I do agree that simplicity is important though, and that if you leave out snacks you already lose a big part of the fattening fats.

Just about every diet guru publishes a list of permitted and forbidden foods. And they're bestsellers. People buy millions of copies of these lists. I am utterly baffled by this phenomenon.

This, I wholeheartedly agree with. One of the most common questions on the Eat To Live mailinglist is exactly which vegetables are considered non-starchy (and therefore unlimited) by Dr Fuhrman. I think many people really want their diet to work and just want explicit instructions on what to eat.

But most of all, I'm baffled that anyone really imagines they will play scavenger hunt at the supermarket for more than a month or two. It shows an utter ignorance of human psychology.

But I disagree here. I know many, many people who do exactly that. After I learned about trans fats, I just stopped eating them. That was not a problem at all. The same was true about white flour products, etc. A low carb diet would not work for me, but I know many people who actually are able to stick with it. Many people on the Eat To Live mailing list stick with the plan to the letter. As with the calorie counting, people only need those lists in the beginning. After a few weeks you know which foods are good, and which foods should be avoided (or only be eaten as treats).

Even if you aren't one of these unconscious permasnackers, but count every calorie and want to "graze" to better trick your metabolism, snacking isn't a good idea. The problem with such grazing is that it's impossible to get a sense of how much you are eating without paying an exorbitant amount of attention -- counting calories, points, etc. Doing all this math is way too much conscious overhead to sustain for the long term, and it's not something you can automate into unconscious habit.

This is a good point. After reading the No S Diet I made a commitment to stop snacking again, and I do like not thinking about food so much. I actually did not snack that much (I used to be a grazer, but I found it impossible to stay thin and eat so often), but I did have the nasty habit of eating my daughter's leftovers or sharing a snack with her. I noticed that it preoccupied me with food way too much, and I like the simpleness of just never snacking during the week. Allowing myself some leeway in the weekends means I don't become a grumpy thin person.

But I am way fatter than you were! Then you probably eat way more than I did, and will benefit that much more from eating less.

No doubt. I think the real challenge is with people who are much thinner. Engels' thin weight is 170 pounds. Many people are still overweight at that weight, and smaller women are even obese at 170 pounds. The smaller you are, the less food you need. If you are a male, weighing 170 pounds, I can see it would be almost impossible to gain weight on three meals a day, even if you indulge somewhat in the weekends. If you are a small woman however, I think this may not be enough. You may need to watch your portions, or be more careful on weekends.

Most conventional wisdom rules about diet are too simplistic and vague to be useful ("only eat when you're hungry"). The No S Diet finds the happy medium between the two. It's simple and specific.

I totally agree here. I wonder what people who advocate that you only eat when you are hungry do for a living? Most people cannot just drop everything they are doing to start preparing a meal. You just eat when it is lunch time. The good thing is that our bodies like predictions. Once you are used to eating three meals a day, you'll get hungry three times a day.


I may sound very critical, but I really like the No S concept. It is a great diet to recommend to people who would never try something like Eat To Live (which, incidentally, also forbids snacking and sweets). The diet does not say anything about health, so you can eat as healthy as you want. You may need to make some modifications (I would not recommend following the one-plate rule, and I would definitely recommend to watch what you are eating), but that's okay. Like with every diet, you have to think for yourself, because it is something you are going to do for the rest of your life.

September 6, 2006