Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ghee: Food of Gods.

I have a new article at esvasa.com. Check it out.

Ghee can only be described in superlatives. It has a very important place in our Culture. It is called one of the 5 Amrits which are must when preparing prasad during festivals. Its required to burn Ghee diyas at all Hindu festivals. It is essential in "Havanas". It is mixed with honey and given to a newly born infant during the Naming Ritual aka "Namkaran Sanskar". It was the most preferred weaning food in the past. It is also required for burning a dead body during the "Dah Sanskar". It is required in our culture literally from cradle to grave.

Butter is also considered important in other dairy based cultures.

In Ayurveda, it is considered the best form of fat, above butter. No meal is considered balanced without ghee. It is said to ignite the fires of digestion, so that the food digests properly. It is also said to balance Vata and Pitta Doshas, and must be avoided when Kapha dosha is dominant. It is said to be very important for the development of brain, intelligence and memory power. It is said to be very good for the skin, eyesight and bones.

But modern medicine calls it the worst fat. It is said to be high in Saturated fat and Cholesterol, both are supposed to cause heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.

So how do we reconcile the two. Obviously one position is wrong. Ayurveda's position is based on observation of the whole body. Modern Medicine's position is based on looking at just two things Saturated Fats and Cholesterol. In my opinion the Modern Medicine, misses the forest for the trees. It is so intent on looking at things from the bottom up that it fails to see the over all effect.

Contrary to Modern Medicine's expectation due to Saturated Fat and Cholesterol content, Ghee is not associated with increase in LDL Cholesterol. I have personally experienced it. My HDL increased and LDL reduced. This has been observed in studies too. In fact if you search for Ghee and cholesterol most of the articles talk about how it does not increase cholesterol. The only study on the first page stating otherwise is highly speculative, and does not account for a change of diet from mostly natural food to mostly packaged food.

There are several studies and individual reports from people who know nothing about Ayurveda and are Medical doctors and scientists who have endorsed several of the properties given by Ayurveda.

Bones, Teeth, Eyesight, and Skin
Dr. Weston A Price was a dentist in the early 19th century. He went across the world searching for people who had the best teeth and bone structures. He also studied the diet of such people. He later devised a medicine for fixing teeth. It was made up of Cod Liver Oil and Ghee (Butter oil as he called it). His research was published as a book called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. His work agrees with Ayurveda that Ghee is very important for building healthy bones.

At the time of Dr. Price, the factor in Ghee which caused the development of strong bones was not known. But now it is found to be Vitamin K2. Ghee is quite high in MK4 version of Vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 has been found to be very important in Calcium metabolism. When there is enough Vitamin K2, the Calcium goes into bones and does not deposit in arteries or any other places. It reduces plaques and calcification.

Vitamin K2 is also associated with a softer skin. This effect is quite easily seen, when supplementing with Vitamin K2. Remember Ghee contains more Vitamin K2 if the cows ate grass.

Ghee also contains some preformed Vitamin A, which will be helpful for the eyesight. Ghee from Pastured cows is richer in Vitamin A. It also contains some beta carotene which gives it a golden yellowish color.

So we have seen above that the single factor Vitamin K2 provides multiple benefits, better bones, low calcification, better eyesight and a softer skin that resists wrinkling. As a bonus it also prevents heart disease, by reducing calcification of the arteries. Heart Disease was probably not very common in Ayurvedic times, so they didn't notice this effect.

Ghee is also the fat that is highest in Short Chain Fatty Acids, particularly Butyric Acid. SCFA's are known to feed, lubricate and heal the walls of the intestines, and hence improve digestion. Ghee contains about 10% short and medium chain fatty acids. These fats are very easy to digest. This property makes Ghee very easy to digest compared to other fats. Coconut oil has too much Medium chains which is not handled well by everybody. 

The primary benefit of fibers in the body is to feed the bacteria in the intestines and colon. The bacteria produce the SCFA, which helps the intestines remain healthy. This effect maybe impaired for people with gut dysbiosis and other digestive disorders. In these cases Ghee is a very good substitute for SCFA from fiber. Fermented foods like curd also provide some SCFAs.

The SCFA, Butyric Acid and the moderate amount of medium chain fats, makes Ghee the ideal food for a good digestion, as has been observed by Ayurveda.

Brain, Memory, and Intelligence
Unfortunately there has not been any research on the effects of Ghee on the brain, memory and intelligence. But one scientist (not a medical researcher) Seth Roberts, who measures everything he does, has found that of all the different foods he tried, butter gives the biggest boost to his mental capacity. One reader actually conducted an experiment with 45 volunteers and compared Coconut oil with Butter. Result was Butter improved memory function while Coconut oil had no effect.

If I am to guess why butter helps brain more than other fats, it would be the fact that Brains and neurons are made up of Saturated fats and cholesterol. Butter has both. The grass fed versions of butter or ghee also have a good amount of DHA, EPA, and Arachidonic Acid, which are also required by neurons. The exact ratios may be the best in Ghee and Butter, compared to other fats.

Although there is not enough information about this particular property of Ghee, but it is quite possible that Ayurveda is right about this fact.

Vegetarians do not eat animal products except milk, and possibly eggs. For people not eating eggs, the only source of preformed fat soluble vitamins, like Vitamin A and K2, and also preformed DHA, EPA, and Arachidonic Acid is Dairy fat, particularly Ghee. Since India is the only country with very large number of Vegetarian people, there must have been enabling factors. I believe one of the most important enabling factor apart from around the year Sun is Dairy tolerance. Milk also provides Vitamin B12 and Zinc, which are quite a bit lower in Vegetarian foods. Ghee by providing the number of important fats and fat soluble vitamins assumes a much greater importance for Vegetarians.

It is possible that the emphasis Ayurveda places on Ghee is because at the time of Charak and Dhanvantari, India had substantial number of Vegetarians at least in the Brahmin class.

Ghee really is very good for the body. If you are a vegetarian, then it becomes even more important for you. Ayurveda developed in a period when Hindus were living a vegetarian life, and the authors knew how important Ghee was for the vegetarians. So for your own health eat ghee at all meals. Try to get pastured cow's ghee, which is much more healthy compared to ghee from normal farmed cows.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A crash course in Fats

This article will be a bit dense, as crash courses go :-), but I will summarize at the end for simplified guidelines.

The fats can be broadly classified into 3 types based on their saturation levels. The Saturated Fats (SFA), the Mono-Unsaturated Fats (MUFA), and the Poly-Unsaturated Fats (PUFA). As any chemistry student will tell you the higher the unsaturation the lower the stability of the fat. So PUFA are the most unstable and SFA are the most stable.

A good rule of thumb is to use high heat only on SFA and MUFA fats. PUFA fats should not be heated as far as possible. I am ignoring the fact that all oils/fats that you will buy on the market or get in real life will be a combination of all sorts of fats. I will get back to it later.

SFA fats can be further broken down into 3 types based on the length of the carbon chains. Chains shorter than 8 carbon atoms are called Short chain fats (SCFA). 16 and above are considered to be long chain (LCFA). The ones in the middle are called Medium Chain Fats (MCFA). The three fats have slightly different use in the body. The SCFA are generally used by the digestive system (gut) as food, and much of it gets used there.  These are also created by the bacteria in the gut by decomposing fiber. Butyric acid which gives Butter its distinctive smell is a SCFA. The MCFA are broken down into ketones by the liver and are used for energy immediately. Lauric Acid is the major component of Coconut oil and is an MCFA. LCSFA are primarily stored and then used while fasting. Most fats in meat are LCFA, both SFA and MUFA. The LCFA are also used in the body to provide structure. These have a high melting point and form the bulk of cells, neurons, and cholesterol. These are also required for hormone production.

The MUFA are of two types the Long chains and the medium chains. The long chains again can be stored and the medium chains are used immediately for energy. The predominant long chain is Oleic Acid, the major constituent of Olive oil. The Oleic acid is also called Omega9. The medium chain MUFA are not very common. These are as far as I know used primarily for energy. Primarily natural MUFA are cis fats, while artificially created MUFA are generally trans fats. These transfats are solid at room temperature, just like Saturated fats, and are confused with saturated fats. These are extremely harmful for the body, as the body can confuse it with saturated fats, and use these wrongly.

The PUFA are primarily divided into 2 types, Omega3s and Omega6s. Omega3s generally have 3 or more unsaturated bonds while Omega6s are 2 or more unsaturated bonds. So in effect Omega3s are even more unstable than Omega6s. Much of the Omega3s and Omega6s cannot be created in the body (so are called essential fats), although the body can increase the chain length, to create longer chains. PUFA are very unstable. This fact is used by the body, for communication. These are primarily used on the cell walls as receptor sites. These are not used for energy. Some of the Omega3s are used for anti-inflammatory signalling and Omega6s are used for Inflammatory signalling. Some Omega3s are required for brain development, EPA and DHA.

The anti-inflammatory and inflammatory signalling factor means that you want to have a balance of Omega3s and Omega6s. A higher level of Omega6, vis a vis will induce high levels of inflammation. Excess of inflammatory signal can thicken the blood. A higher level of Omega3 will reduce the level of inflammatory signalling, one side effect is that blood clotting stops working effectively. It is best to keep TOTAL Omega3:Omega6 consumption ratio in between 2:1 <-> 1:2. It is generally difficult to get Omega3s from plants. There are a few exceptions like Flax seeds. Be careful with high PUFA oils, you should keep them in the fridge to prevent damage.

The inability to use it for fuel also means that the consumption of PUFA should be very low. There are indications that PUFA consumption should not exceed 4%, ideally it should be at 2% of total energy consumption. This is quite low, around 2gms in a diet of 1800kcal. Also remember you do get some PUFA from your food.

Also remember that Vitamin E keeps the Unsaturated fats stable. So it is best to get some Vitamin E when consuming high PUFA fats.

Our body fat depends on our diet. On a low PUFA diet, it resembles the content of Red Meat, which is about 50/50 division of LCSFA and LCMUFA. The ruminants (eg cow, goat) can convert the PUFA into stable fats so their fat content does not depend much on the PUFA content of the diet. Non-ruminants also have body fat depending on PUFA content in their diet, eg birds, pigs, horses, etc.

Seeds are generally higher in PUFA, than MUFA or SFA, with a very few exceptions, eg Coconuts.

Now that you have a rough idea of what different fats are, you can have a look at this table, for the constituents of different oils. Unfortunately it does not list the animal fats, but it contains a lot of the plant fats.
The C number in the fatty acid composition section, gives you the type of the fatty acid. The table does not list any number below C8, which means that plants fats rarely have any short chain fatty acids. You will also note that they are all in even numbers. There are some with a colon, eg C18:1, C18:2, C18:3. These indicate the degree of desaturation, ie there is 1, 2, or 3 unsaturated bonds. C18:2 is an Omega6 and C18:3 is an Omega3.

Before we get into dissecting each common oils and fats, one word of caution. Fats are essentially nutrient free, except for some fat soluble vitamins. These vitamins are important, but its best to get from whole foods. Added fats should be avoided generally, just like low nutrient grains/legumes should be avoided. There maybe some conditions in which some particular fats can help.

Now lets try to use the above given information on the different common oils.

1) Coconut oil: Around 80% of the fats are Medium chains, and only 20% is long chain. There is some MUFA, but PUFA is very very little. As we know that Medium chains don't get stored, so it would be very difficult to gain weight if Coconut oil is the main calorie source. Also PUFA is very low, so it is the ideal frying oil. It will not go bad easily. At around 1% PUFA, you could have it as much as you want, without overshooting the PUFA budget. You will note that Palm Kernel oil has very similar characteristics. It is IMO ideal for fat loss.

2) Ground nut oil: Around 60% MUFA, 20% PUFA. Wikipedia gives a bigger number for PUFA (32%). Assuming that it has been used a lot in our traditional diets, it should have been low in PUFA. So I would go with the numbers given in this paper. at 20% PUFA it would be a fairly stable fat for cooking, but not frying. The fact that all of the PUFA is Omega6 makes this oil difficult to balance. At 20% 2 tsp will complete your daily Omega6 requirement. Other 1gm of PUFA to be exclusively Omega3s.

3) Mustard oil: 47% Erucic, 14% Omega6, 7% Omega3. The Erucic acid is a MUFA and gives it the pungent smell. At Omega6:Omega3 of 2:1 its fairly balanced. Also at 20% PUFA it would be fairly stable for normal cooking. Again 4tsp would be sufficient for the days allowance.

4) Olive oil: 75% MUFA, < 10% PUFA. The low PUFA content means that it is stable enough for cooking. < 10% of Omega6 means that 6tsp can be consumed safely, with appropriate addition of Omega3 from other sources.

5) Sunflower oil, Safflower oil, Wheat Germ oil, Soybean oil: At >50% PUFA these are best avoided completely. If you want to use keep it in fridge and use with a dropper :-).

6) Sesame oil: At 40% PUFA, it is an unstable oil. It could be used as a seasoning oil, when used rarely.

7) Flax Seed oil: At ~70% PUFA, its a very unstable oil. The only good thing about it is that it can be used to balance Omega6 fats from other foods, as it is high in Omega3 and low in Omega6. The ratio being 3:1 Omega3:Omega6. Not more than 1tsp per day, mostly as seasoning or drunk straight up. Buy only cold pressed and keep it in a dark bottle in the fridge. One thing to remember is that plant Omega3s (ALA) are inferior to those in plant sources, as we get preformed EPA and DHA. The conversion rate in men is pathetic of the order of 1% and 4%, while in women and children its 10% and 30% for DHA and EPA respectively.

For the animal fats lets get the data from other places.

8) Milk Fat aka Ghee: 65% Saturated, with some small chains and some medium chain fats. 30% MUFA and less than 4% PUFA. The composition of PUFA depends on the feed of the ruminant. Grass feds generally have a balance of 2:1 Omega6:Omega3. While non-pastured milk PUFA is almost completely Omega6. The milk fat also contains some natural trans fats called Conjugate Linoleic Acid (CLA) and Vaccenic acid. Vaccenic acid is a precursor of CLA. These are byproducts of the animal trying to convert the PUFA into safer MUFA or SFA, and are at worst harmless. They are sold as supplements though. The < 4% PUFA means that 100 gms can be consumed if pastured and 50gms if unpastured. 

9) Ruminant Fat: 43% SFA, 50% MUFA, and 4% PUFA. Nearly same as Milk fat, except, that the chains are longer, and the short chains are missing. The vitamin content is also lower compared to the milk fat. Milk fat has an increased vitamin content to provide for the growth of babies.

10) Fish oil: The fatty acid composition varies a lot across fishes. But still we can note a  few things. First Omega3:Omega6 varies from 2:1 to 3:1. The amount of PUFA is higher in fish from colder regions. The PUFA content is generally very high. This means that no more than 1tsp and keep it in a fridge. The other benefits of fish oil is that these have Vitamin A and D.

11) Bird and Pig fat can have as much as 30% PUFA if the diet is rich in soy and grain meal. This happens to animals raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). Pretty much all of commercialized chicken is CAFO.

Ghee and Coconut oils are the best fats for consumption. Occasional use of Mustard oil and Peanut oil is ok. Olive oil can be used regularly. It is a good idea to have a tea spoon of Fish oil or Flax seed oil for extra omega3s for balancing if not using pastured ghee or animal fat. Ruminant fat is good. Bird and Pig fat is only ok if the feed is not grain based, and low in PUFA. Most seed oils should be avoided.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Vitamin K2: The unknown Activator X

Weston A Price was a Dentist, who didn't know why there were so many people with bad teeth. He took on a world trip to find out people who did not have bad teeth. He wanted to find out what can be done to enhance the quality of teeth. He discovered many natives and tribes that had excellent jaw structure and teeth. He discovered the dietary practices of these people, and distilled the knowledge to come up with fish oil and butter oil (ghee) as the two ingredients that can provide the basic necessities for recovering and building teeth and skeletal structure. At that time it was known that Vitamin A was the crucial factor which helped and was obtained from fish oil. The factor from Ghee was not known, and Dr. Price called it Activator X. Vitamin K2 was discovered in 1993, and is now expected to be the Activator X.

Vitamin K comes in 2 forms K1 and K2 and have quite a bit overlapping functionality. K2 seems to have a high effect on forming bones and teeth. K1 reduces the requirement of K2 a lot, so it is also a good idea not to concentrate solely on K2, as K1 is easier to obtain through natural sources.

Vitamin K1 is created by the gut bacteria from elements in green vegetables. Some people may be able to create K2 as well as K2 is also created by bacteria. But the real trouble is that most of the creation happens in the colon, where it is not absorbed. This is the same problem with Vitamin B12. Still it is beneficial to eat plenty of green vegetables.

Vitamin K2 comes in two forms, MK4 and MK7. The MK4 has a very short half life, and is gone within a few hours. MK7 is the storage form and persists for several days. MK4 is made by mothers in their mammary glands, which is an important source of Vitamin K for the newborn children. MK4 is converted to MK7 by bacteria.

Milk from Cows or Buffaloes, which eat green grass have MK4 form in their milk. It is heat stable and ghee from pastured cows is a good source. Long aged cheeses created from pastured cows milk contains a lot MK7. Actually the MK7 content of Cheese is much higher than in ghee. Natto a Japanese condiment made by fermenting soy, is the largest source of MK7, and is used in MK7 supplements.

Green Vegetables, Ghee, and aged Cheeses are a good way to get the full spectrum of vitamin K. But since most of the milk these days is not pastured, and our gut bacteria are not in the best of health, so Vitamin K2 content may still be lacking, particularly for people with impaired gut.

Super K from Life Extension is a good supplement which contains all three varieties. MK4 in supplements is normally synthetic, which may contain some trans version of MK4, and maybe problematic. So it is still better to try and get the vitamin from pastured dairy. Several Pastured butters and cheeses are available from Europe and Australia. The supplement is also quite expensive, but imported butter and cheeses in India would be prohibitively expensive.

Update: Be aware that Vitamin K2 does not work well with Blood thinners like Warfarin, which are actually Vitamin K antagonist. Vitamin K is very important for our body and Warfarin can cause quite a bit of side effects, including osteoporosis, due to this effect. IMO a better option is to use mega doses of Omega3s, which will suppress Omega6 signalling and act as an anti-coagulant.

Updated2: Vitamin K2 requires several cofactors to do its job, some of them are Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Magnesium. It also helps with the uptake of Vitamin D and Sulfates.