Have You Thanked Your Cholesterol Lately?

“Good and Bad” cholesterol…really? In this age of information, high tech toys and fancy schmancy terminology is that the best that we can do? That’s like saying cats go meow or dogs go bow wow. I think we can stomach the truth [unintended pun]. There’s a little more to the story of cholesterol than making burger wrappers soggy or fueling Paula Deen’s “Ya’ll.” Stay tuned..

Your fat is lying to you..

6409413_f260Even in this information age so many of us are still manipulated by what I call (as of 5 minutes ago) “catch phrase science.” We do love our misleading names don’t we. I would go so far as to say that in this country misnaming things is as much of a past time as football tailgate parties, apple pie, or reality television. You know what? We’re better than that my friends.

It seems to me that these days you can’t walk into a burger shack or put knife to margarine spread without some granola eating health nut clearing their throats about good and bad cholesterol. DISCLAIMER – [ I have only the deepest respect and admiration for granola eating health nuts and the overwhelmingly positive influence of their Kashi bar commercials.]

Evil Wizard Saruman inaccurately portrayed here plotting to enslave human race with trans fatssource:http://vegetanivel2.deviantart.com/art/Saruman-Final-213864892

Evil Wizard Saruman inaccurately portrayed here plotting to enslave human race with trans fats

My friends, cholesterol is not a four letter word (literally or figuratively). It’s not the curse of an evil wizard as a means of killing off the hobbits. Cholesterol is a natural substance that our bodies use to construct cell membranes. The cholesterol component of the membrane is what contributes to the fluidity and permeability (allowing substances to pass freely in and out) of the cell. Scientifically speaking, if rhythm & blues had a molecular form it would probably look like cholesterol. We just so happen to have a couple trillion cells that make up our bodies that need to be replaced when they get destroyed or grow old and die like they are supposed to (not that I think everything old needs to die, unless it’s taking up a lot of space). So a small amount of cholesterol is necessary to keep our cells tap dancing and happy. Cholesterol is also one of the principle components of steroid hormones. Hormones work to regulate all manner of bodily function from metabolism to sexual maturity and reproduction which is also…fun.

When Cholesterols Attack….

So what’s with the “Good vs. Bad” cholesterol talk you ask? Excellent question, well done. You see our bodies use cholesterol but only in small amounts. What cholesterol we don’t need right then and there gets transported to the liver and is later broken down with the aid of bile and pancreatic lipase. The catch is that cholesterol doesn’t mix well with water. Blood is mostly water so anything being transported through the blood stream needs to be water soluble, and thus should dissolve in water. The molecular structure of cholesterol “ain’t havin that,” chemically speaking. So to solve this problem our bodies package those feisty cholesterol molecules with protein. What we’ve come to call good and bad cholesterol, HDL (high density lipoprotein) and LDL (low density lipoprotein) are actually protein carriers bound to cholesterol molecules. As long as we aren’t taking in too much cholesterol from our diet it’s all good (physiologically speaking). When we get carried away with our cholesterol intake the body needs to produce more carrier protein to move the fat about. These are the low density variety. They are larger and bulkier than their high density counterpart and have this nasty habit of collecting along the walls of blood vessels. This is where the “Bad cholesterol” thing comes into play. When these are allowed to build up, you get a kind of epic plumbing problem where the blood flow through those vessels gets restricted, increasing blood pressure. If that blood flow is completely blocked from fat build up then that could lead to a heart attack and I’m afraid I don’t have any jokes for those…bah dum bump.

Now your HDL (high density lipoprotein) or as I like to call it “the good stuff” is a whole different story. These carriers are smaller, denser, and actually help to remove cholesterol from the blood. We need both forms to function, but as is so often the case with the body, it’s all about maintaining balance among the two. The American Heart Association actually sets a value for that zen-like balance, recommending that we not let our HDL levels go below 40 mg/dl (routine blood tests will tell you that). Apparently letting our levels get this low in the blood prevents those mad skilled lipoproteins from being all they can be when it comes to protecting our hearts.

Well of course there is way more to this gentle art of lowering one’s cholesterol in order to live strong, kick ass, and swing dance another day but hey, you don’t need me to give you all the answers. In this crazy information age let your questions be your guide my fellow wisdom seekers. As for me, it’s bedtime. Until next time…

Just Breathe

What makes this wiseguy think he could possibly possess the wealth of knowledge to cover a subject as familiar, as fundamentally elemental as breathing? What nerve. What raw, untamed, audacity, arrogance…courage (please ladies, try to focus). Yeah, I’m kind of excited too. Let’s get into it!

I felt the same way when I lost my tiny car in the Disneyland parking lot.

I felt the same way when I lost my tiny car in the Disneyland parking lot.

Sorry, you won’t find some dusty ole “from the top” general biology review about the way in which terrestrial organisms evolved to tolerate and then utilize oxygen in their metabolism on here. Who has time for that? (that’s another article) No sir, we’re focusing this talk on human physiology. It’s all about us baby, the tool users, opposable thumbs waved high…USA! USA! USA! Sorry. Ok, so my grasp of comparative anatomy is severely limited but the nuts and bolts of the human respiratory system will just as easily huff, puff, and blow your mind.

The complexity of breathing is really a matter of what perspective you are looking at it from. It has an anatomical side, a fluid dynamics aspect, and a biochemical aspect. Well hell, let’s just chat about them all…just a little, so they (my science critics) can say that we tried 😛

A Word or Two about Biomechanics…

We move air in and out of our lungs by changing the shape of our diaphragm muscles which get their orders directly from the medulla oblongata of the brain (which is always fun to say). The muscles contract, pull air in like a dirt devil vacuum, and we inhale. When the muscles relax, or flatten and push air out like really ugly bag pipes, we exhale. That is breathing from a basic mechanical point of view, but I know that won’t satisfy you will it? Hellz to the no! Let’s talk about gas exchange.

Respect the Lungs

I know it's a creepy diagram but boy howdy do I love that sweater!

I know it’s a creepy diagram but boy howdy do I love that sweater!

What you should appreciate about the lungs as organs is the way in which they interact with the external environment. They are not only exposed to the air but are able to manipulate it in such a way as to allow the oxygen component of the air to diffuse into the bloodstream by way of the capillaries. To understand the diffusion of oxygen into the bloodstream you must visualize the way in which the airways leading to the lungs branch and articulate into smaller and smaller vessels. Our respiratory anatomy really reminds me of the root system of a cedar tree. From our mouths the air flows down our trachea (wind pipe), which splits at a fork in the road at our left and right lungs into two primary bronchi. The bronchi of each side (feeding each lung) spread out and branch until they can’t branch any further.

What Rhymes with Alveoli?

you'll find these handsome devils at the very ends of our bronchioles.

you’ll find these handsome devils at the very ends of our bronchioles.

If we took our hypothetical magnifying glass and looked at the inside of the lungs…got up close and personal at about 400 – 500x magnification, then we would be able to see the point where the bronchioles branch no further, the alveoli. These are tiny, no seriously, TINY sacs of tissue covered on all sides by blood rich capillaries. This is the site of gas exchange, where the vessels have branched down so thin that there is a single layer of red blood cells ready to accept molecular oxygen as it diffuses from the air space of each alveolar sac. Those red cells exchange CO2, bound to hemoglobin molecules, for that sweet sweet oxygen

Woody seen here taking questions after his lecture on respiratory pathophysiology

Woody seen here taking questions after his lecture on respiratory pathophysiology

The capillaries that transport deoxygenated blood to the alveoli are fed by the pulmonary arteries and the capillaries siphoning oxygenated blood away from the alveoli to the heart are fed by the pulmonary veins. The heart feeds the blood supply to the lungs and receives freshly oxygenated blood from the lungs to pump to the rest of the body. So it is certainly no coincidence that your heart and lungs are anatomical bunk mates with the left and right lung literally draped around the heart like a magician’s cape. Also, remember that we are not just bringing oxygen into our body but letting carbon dioxide (which can be thought of as spent air) out of our bodies. So you should have some appreciation at this point for how well our bodies do this “simple” task 24/7 without mixing the good air with the bad or as Woody from Toy Story would say “poisoning the water hole.”(honk if you like obscure Pixar references)

I could probably go on and on about the respiratory system and shifting oxygen dissociation curves but your eyes are probably glazing over about now and I’m missing a Burn Notice marathon. So stay classy my friends and never stop learning.


Mean Ole B

If for some reason you thought that the B complex referred to a psychological fear of Bee stings that make it impossible to cope, then you should probably read this article on vitamin B

the softer side of Vitamin B 

terrifying image of chihuahua moments before deadly fit of rage.

I have to be honest with you. I’ve been avoiding the B vitamins like a rabid chihuahua (terrifying mental image). At first glance they are just a little intimidating, the nutritional deep end of the pool. However, I owe it to you, my fellow information seekers, to bring you the facts, raw and uncut. Today we are crashing this academic adult swim called the vitamin B complex. The shirts are coming off and we’re going full frontal in the name of science (metaphorically of course). Let’s get to it.

Let’s talk about absorption

Life is a day to day struggle. You can break your back just trying to fit in all the essential vitamins and nutrients your body needs in one day only to have to do it all over again the next and why is that? The answer is solubility my friends. Vitamins like C and the members of the B complex dissolve in water (water soluble) like so many spoonfuls of powdered, orange Tang. The advantage to this is that in small amounts they can be readily transported throughout the body. The downside is that like vitamin C, what we can’t use immediately will get excreted as waste rather than stored. So a fresh supply of B vitamins must be sought through our diets and via dietary supplements daily.

There are boat loads of chemically distinct B vitamins but we typically focus on eight. Hey, eight is plenty. Luckily, the B vitamins all play quite well together and are found, naturally in a lot of the same foods, which is why they were originally thought to be a single vitamin and have been grouped together in recent years.

and now a confession…

random assortment of grains and beans that capture the warrior spirit of the B complex

random assortment of grains and beans that capture the warrior spirit of the B complex

Ok here’s the thing, I’m really lazy. There is a small part of me that feels obligated to describe in great detail the amazing super powers of each B vitamin. The problem is that the B complex is all over the place. They maintain muscle control, nerve impulses, cellular metabolism, a healthy immune system, digestion, red and white blood cell production, hormone regulation, the construction of DNA molecules, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they somehow prevented dry, split ends. They have so many different applications that not only do I NOT care to memorize them all, but I doubt that you care to sift through a long, boring list of them. So this is me not listing them. My deepest apologies. Moving on…

All Star Players

vitamin B1 street name: Thiamine

vitamin B2 street name: Riboflavin

vitamin B3 street name: Niacin

vitamin B5 street name: Pantothenic acid

vitamin B6 street name: Pyridoxine

vitamin B7 street name: Biotin

vitamin B9 street name: Folic acid

vitamin B12 street name: Cobalamins

All roads lead to riboflavin

a small furry rodent...not to be confused with quinoa, the South American seed crop

a small furry rodent…not to be confused with quinoa, the South American seed crop

So where can you get your lipsmackin supply of B vitamins? I would be more than happy to break down each individual vitamin and tell you exactly which aile to steer your grocery cart down in the whole foods store, but you really don’t need to hunt down each one. Honestly, all you really need to do is EAT YOUR GRAINS. Yup, the bulk of these vital compounds can be acquired in robust amounts in foods that we love to avoid like oat bran, brown rice, BEANS (which house a ton of nutrients on their own), oatmeal, multigrain pastas, and quinoa, which always makes me think of a small furry rodent for some reason.

I will say that your B7 through B12s are a bit more abstract and not quite as abundant in plants. For these I might recommend looking either to the sea (fish, shellfish and the like) or let a little egg and dairy into your life.

When vitamins attack

6820213_f260Vitamins, not unlike teen celebrities, do not like to be ignored. Leaving out just one or two of your essential vitamins can lead to some pretty nasty consequences. In the case of pellagra, a serious vitamin B3 (niacin) deficiency, those consequences include skin lesions, madness, severe diarrhea, and death, neither of which can make for the best summer ever. Early Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs whose diets revolved mainly around corn, developed a method for processing their corn into ground meals with a mixture of wood ash and alkali that chemically unleashed the vital B vitamin. The Spanish conquistadors would later crash their tortilla party and swipe their corn but not their knowledge of processing it. This of course set up the conditions for a great deal of nutritional woe in the form of massive pellagra outbreaks in the years to come, not just for Spain, but all other cultures adopting the unprocessed corn as their staple food source. Hey don’t worry, they figured it out eventually and so did we. I just love happy endings 🙂

Vitamin D…raw and uncut!

The D stands for "Don't test me fool!"

The D stands for “Don’t test me fool!”

If you’ve ever succumbed to the late night temptation of a pint of cookies n cream and thought “well at least I got my calcium today” then you are not alone my friend. However, have you ever wondered where that calcium goes and what’s the deal with vitamin D? Stay tuned for these and other mysteries.

Sometimes I’ll walk past a neighbor’s lawn or a big leafy plant in the window and think “man, plants sure have it easy.” All they do is lay out in the sun all day, not working, sponging off our tax dollars, and more importantly not having to worry about food. Plants can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide and water into sugars in the presence of sunlight…lazy good for nothings. What if we had the ability to produce something our body’s need just by laying out in the sun? Well guess what you freak, you can! That’s right, good ole vitamin D is produced in our skin when exposed to UV radiation. [Sorry for calling you a freak. I get carried away sometimes. Let’s be friends]

The Nuts and Bolts…

Vitamin D acts as a hormone to regulate calcium levels in our bodies. It is what allows the calcium we effortlessly soak up from foods like milk and cheese to be absorbed. This process is of course tightly monitored and controlled by parathyroid hormone as well as the level of calcium and phosphate circulating in our bloodstream. Calcium and phosphorous build bone. Calcium in it’s ionized form is involved in all manner of enzymatic mayhem (but in that fun way). In fact, aside from buiding bone, ionized calcium (Ca2+) facilitates electrical conduction in the heart, allows for nerve impulses, and aids in muscle contractions (remember that the heart is also a muscle). If the level of calcium in the blood is high and inhibits the action of parathyroid hormone then the cool kids (scientists) refer to this kind of inhibition as negative feedback.

America, let’s talk about the facts

There’s a little confusion these days about what foods actually provide solid sources of vitamin D. There are fewer foods than you may think, and if you were about to say the M word then allow me to hit you with some knowledge. Milk, as in cow’s milk, is actually fortified with vitamin D. In the states we have fortified a lot of our dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt with vitamin D. This makes a lot of sense since these foods are naturally rich in calcium. It all started as a public health campaign back in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s to combat a nasty vitamin D deficiency linked bone deformity in children called Rickets, or osteomalcia in adults. Yes, “Rickets” is a real word. In fact I’ve always found the word nostrils to be pretty funny too, but let’s stay focused. NOSTRILS.
Adding the vitamin D allows us to absorb the calcium we are getting from that mouth watering hunk of aged white cheddar or that cold, frothy glass of chocolate 2 percent perfection that is chocolate milk (guilty pleasure I admit).
If you are looking for foods that are naturally rich in the “D” may I suggest you look to the sea. Oily fish like maceral, tuna, and salmon all contain healthy doses of vitamin D. If you combine that with the sunlight you should already be exposing yourself to during the day, then you’ll be all set. Just to be clear, I advise that you expose yourself to sunlight and not that you expose yourself…um..in the sunlight. I don’t want to get calls later. Ok bye!

Mean Green

What are free radicals and why shouldn’t they be free? Why have green tea extracts suddenly hit the big screen, playing supporting roles in everything like some new whole food’s MSG? Stay tuned…

Ah..nothing like green tea for that earthy, clean Saturday morning taste of wet grass clippings.

Ah..nothing like green tea for that earthy, clean Saturday morning taste of wet grass clippings.

Antioxidants get more media play than any summer blockbuster celeb fresh out of rehab could ever hope to aspire to. You say you don’t like tea..no problem. These days herbal extracts are trigger-happily infused into everything from chewing gum to butter biscuits, and why is that? Antioxidants my friends. These potent biochemicals boast less filling, long lasting protection from the aging damage of free floating electrons (free radicals) aimed at ripping your cells apart one at a time. We’ll get to that.

Free Radicals..why so serious?

Why don’t we like free radicals? Short answer: people are terrified of growing old. More specifically, free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons that are highly reactive. Since this molecule is missing electrons it tends to pull what it needs from another molecule which in turn curses that molecule to become a free radical too. Now you have a molecular zombie apocalypse on your hands.

Antioxidants have the charismatic ability to donate electrons without becoming unstable themselves. They effectively neutralize these potentially harmful chain reactions before critical damage to cellular structures, or more importantly, before damage to intracellular DNA can occur (which can lead to mutation and the potential proliferation of cancerous cells).

So how do we stock up on these taster’s choice, biochemical riot police? This is where vitamins come in handy. I can think of two that are perfectly suited for the job. Vitamin E and C are both all natural and metabolically bad to the bone.

I'm more than just a cunning visual metaphor..I'm a weapon against free radicals. Go Joe!

I’m more than just a cunning visual metaphor..I’m a weapon against free radicals. Go Joe!

I like to call them the dynamic duo (I’m weird that way). What is particularly interesting about these vitamins is that their chemical properties (water vs. fat solubility) influences what borders they protect. Not unlike G.I. Joe special forces troops, they are both adapted to different environments. Vitamin E is fat soluble and is well adapted for combating nasty oxidizing substances that build up in the tissues (like peroxides) as a result of metabolic processes. Vitamin C is water soluble and is perfectly suited for cruising through the fluids of cells, neutralizing drama caused by harmful toxins from the environment that slip into the bloodstream. What kind of environmental toxins you ask? Well let’s just say it’s no coincidence that prolonged cigarette smoke mimics the wrinkling effects of aging.

mmm..green tea, good to the last phenol

The reason why green tea gets so much Cosmo cover girl hype is due largely to the potent, plentiful compounds locked inside the leaves (Camellia sinensis) called polyphenols. Polyphenols are a great source of antioxidants and since all you have to due to reap the benefits of this biochemically active compound is brew a cup and drink the stuff I think the street credit is well deserved.

Well, ok just one thing…there are different classes of polyphenols, some of which aren’t so warm and fuzzy when it comes to nutrient availability. Green tea has a sleek, sexy user friendly form called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) which has only been used in herbal medicine for a few thousand years or so (which is why I feel perfectly happy drinking the stuff). Red wine has resveratrol which is believed to help keep cholesterol levels in check (when consumed responsibly of course). It’s still a hotly debated topic in nutritional research. There are certainly benefits to imbibing beneficial “super fruit” juices and extracts but you may have to wait around for a while before a recommended dietary value is actually agreed upon. Sorry kids, but as soon as the scientific community figures it out I’ll be all over it like cheap wine on khaki slacks. In the meantime, stay classy and never stop learning.

True Blood

Blood, in our day and age, plays nothing more than a supporting role to teen vampires on the big screens with perfect bed hair. Well today the fake fangs are coming off, the microscopes are coming out, and we’re giving blood the red carpet treatment it deserves in this segment of Forgotten Physiology.

6952917_f260Alright, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. We’ll need to shake off all those icky vibes we get whenever we mention the word “blood.” It’s time to take a closer look at that crazy vampire juice, and by closer I mean at roughly 400x magnification. I’ll wait till you catch up. Just say when. Outstanding, let’s get to it!

Oh sure, I realize that anyone who’s learned to turn on a computer or operate a stove when their parents aren’t home has probably figured out by now that our blood is composed of red blood cells. There are a few white blood cells floating around in the mix as well, fighting off infections but that’s for another article. Today I want to focus on the true work horses of our circulatory system, the red blood cells.

What is blood exactly? No wait, that’s a boring, safe question. Perhaps a better question might be why do we have blood? I mean what’s the evolutionary advantage of having a bunch of flat, pink disks floating around in a murky straw colored, neutral pH solution at 37 degrees Celsius? It’s all about clever chemistry my friends, gas exchange to be more precise. Red blood cells, or erythrocytes, as the cool kids (scientists) call them are nothing more than transport vessels. They are not unlike tiny FedEx drivers transporting their oxygen payloads from the lungs to the cellular tissues of the body (I never liked the term tissue…just feels dirty) “How do they accomplish this?” you cunningly ask. Ha! Well played.

Here’s How

the steamy, Fe2O3 love connection that allows iron oxides to form can explain iron rich hemoglobin's affinity for O2

the steamy, Fe2O3 love connection that allows iron oxides to form can explain iron rich hemoglobin’s affinity for O2

Inside each red cell are specialized proteins called hemoglobin and inside these are tiny iron molecules. Like all proteins they are composed of certain amino acid chains that only fold a certain way, but what makes them unique and a hit at all the parties are their ability to cling on to that sweet, sweet iron. It’s not just any ole iron, but the ionic “taster’s choice” ferrous form of iron, Fe2+. These iron molecules have a real knack for accepting molecular oxygen, or O2. If you’ll recall, metallic iron tends to rust or “oxidize” when exposed to moisture and air. Once you’ve made that connection feel free to go “Ahhhh!”

There is however, another gas that our red cells love playing catch with and that’s carbon dioxide, CO2. You know that ole cellular metabolism that our cells go through to convert carbohydrates into energy is messy business. If it weren’t for our red cells that CO2 (the byproduct of respiration) would build up in our tissues slowly poisoning us, which is not ideal. The very same red cells transport that stuff from our tissues to the lungs for gas exchange, or as it’s known on the mean streets, “exhaling.” The other advantage red cells have for shipping gas to and fro is the fact that each mature red cell loses it’s nucleus. This makes room for gas exchange to take place, but it also limits the lifespan of the red cell. A mature (non-nucleated) red lives about 120 days. By that time it will have lost it’s ability to metabolize, let its facebook page expire, let himself go. Whatever, it’s just too old and worn down to be effective.

That is the basic mambo of our red cells. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year they carryoxygen to cells and carbon dioxide away from the cells. It’s pretty basic, reliable stuff. Blood is also quite honest. Those red cells travel through the vessels surrounded in fluid, which is mostly water and dissolved minerals, nutrients, proteins and gases. This funky fluid, or plasma interacts with everything, all the tissues of the body. So when you come down with an infection or any ailment for that matter, physicians, nurses, and lab specialists like myself rely on the blood to give us all the juicy gossip about what’s going down.

“psst…hey Dr. Oz, Mrs. Doe has high blood sugar today.” – Your BFF, the plasma

Now what is important to note about those red cells when it comes to testing the plasma is that they are alive. That’s right, they are still maintaining low levels of metabolism, a form of glycolysis the cool kids refer to as the Embden Meyerhof pathway (which sounds like a race track in Germany). Since these cells are alive and intact they are continually taking electrolytes in, but if those cells are ruptured they will release things like potassium and glucose back into the plasma. This can give the person examining your blood misleading and often alarming results. So if you’ve ever had your blood drawn one day and then got called back to the doctors office later to have the same tests redrawn due to “questionable results” there is a good chance that the blood was hemolyzed, i.e. those cells were ruptured in the process. Sorry about that, but it happens sometimes. Drawing blood is not an exact science and each individual’s vasculature is different. This can also happen when well meaning, handsome, young lab techs leave the tourniquet on for too long. Sorry Ms. Jackson [not her real name] I’ll lay off the cafe mochas next time.

in case you slept through the 90's, this was quality television

in case you slept through the 90’s, this was quality television

So the next time you’re enjoying Twilight recaps on Hulu, getting your finger pricked at the doctor’s office, or knocking back a cold one while watching your favorite scene from Buffy the Vampire slayer (no question, an American classic) take a moment to appreciate the rosy, red concoction that makes it all possible. Red Blood Cells, this bud’s for you.

Stay classy my friends and never stop learning 😉

Got Protein?

my oatmeal never makes me feel this centered :(

my oatmeal never makes me feel this centered 😦

Let’s say you cut back on red meat, pork, dairy, or whatever this month’s Vanity Fair, fad diet recommends you stay away from in order to slim down and center your chakras. You’ve decided to turn over a new leaf, literally. You become one with the salad greens, the baby spinach, the arugula and the dark green kale that melts in your mouth and not in your stock pot. Yet something is missing, “Well it can’t be protein.” You tell yourself. “I read the labels. The lentils had 6 grams. The almond butter had 8 grams and I just let all my facebook peeps know that it’s complicated with me and chickpeas.”

You’d be right to feel betrayed because while these nutritious foods bring plenty of protein to the table they do not provide, wait for it….a “complete” source of protein. Huh?!! What you talkin bout F.P.? (Forgotten Physiology)

7471098_f260Wait a minute, slow down…put down the Salisbury steak. I’m not saying that these incomplete sources of protein can’t be brought together in nutritional matrimony to compliment each other. We just need to be a bit more crafty about how we bring them together. It’s not the amount of protein in foods that I’m harping about. It’s a matter of how those proteins are constructed. That’s right, amino acids, those nifty chains of nucleic acids constructed by the ribosomes from mRNA instructions stored in our DNA. Oh yes my friends, high school biology just got practical.

This is the situation…

There are 20 amino acids necessary to sustain human life. Our bodies make 11 of those which leave 9 crafty “essential” amino acids that we have to seek out in our diets. It can be a real nutritional scavenger hunt if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Sure there are a handful of oats, grains, and beans…”oh my” that come close. The reason meat contains all of your essential AA’s is because when that poor critter was alive it was stocking up on protein for itself. Dairy comes fully equipped because mammals like cows are delivering all the nutrients from their foraging to their offspring through the milk they produce. Most plants (soybeans are an exception) only contain a portion of those because that was their particular growth requirement…a little isoleucine here…a little phenylalanine there.

It said "bean bag chair" on the front of the box.

It said “bean bag chair” on the front of the box.

When you chomp down on a cheese steak it doesn’t get separated into perfect microscopic IKEA parts labeled “for the kidneys” or “for the triceps.” Those proteins are digested and the amino acids recycled in order to supply our body’s amino acid pool, that hard working transfer RNAs pull from when it comes time to make our own proteins (remember that’s called RNA translation). That kind of thing is going on right now inside our cells. What proteins we are able to make is dependent on what amino acids we have available. It’s the kind of “little thing” that only matters when you start to feel rundown because there’s not enough tryptophan around to make the proteins that keep your thyroid happy.

"We just love it when he talks whole grain"

“We just love it when he talks whole grain”

Now right about now you’re probably thinking. “I don’t have time to look up the amino acid content of everything I eat.” To that I say tough tabouli brah! That’s the cost of eating healthier. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging, but ask anyone who has made a successful transition to vegetarianism and they will probably give you an earful about the websites and books they checked out. Besides, it’s fascinating stuff and chicks dig guys who know their quinoa 🙂

Here are just a few ideas to get you started and I’m leaving you some nutrition links at the end. I hope they’re helpful.

Non-meat protein sources aren’t nearly as dispersed as jigsaw puzzles. I think of them in terms of what they did for the plant they came from. Roots like carrots and parsnips stored energy for that plant. So it would make sense that these would be sweet, starchy, fibrous, and packed with minerals and carbohydrates, but relatively low on the protein scale. Now tubers like potatoes or yams, and legumes like lima beans or lentils are packed with carbohydrates and protein because their respective plants sprouted from them. They provided the fuel and the molecular raw materials for the growth of those plants. It is the same story for seeds. So for the times when I would go vegetarian (mainly to lose weight) it always made sense to me to essentially rebuild those plants in my diet…seeds and beans, roots, stems, and leaves. Now that’s not including dairy which I’ll get to…I NEEDS MY DAIRY!

What’s with this soy business?

Oh yeah, this bean get’s its own section. It truly is a wonder food, containing all of the essential amino acids. What’s really nice about the versatility of soy is that it can take many product forms (tofu, soy milk, soluble protein powder) which allow you to reasonably incorporate the stuff into even your most hectic daily routine. It is important to remember that while soy has all of the AA’s it is lower in some than others like methionine for example.

Dairy is your friend…

If you’re cutting out dairy for certain principles or to trim the fat I totally respect that. Just don’t be surprised if you find it harder to smile…that’s a Ben & Jerry’s deficiency.

In the course of your interweb browsing and research it will inevitably become apparent to you just how many of the AA’s are covered by dairy products. Low fat sources like yogurt, feta, cottage cheeses are CRAZY loaded with good stuff. Remember, cheeses were an ancient energy food. I will say that for my lactose intolerant friends out there (which make up a large percentage of the population) you probably want to stick to traditionally made yogurts and harder cheeses which have had most of their lactose sugars converted by active lactose fermenting bacterial cultures or separated out from the milk solids. Hey, don’t feel bad that stuff is good too and usually of higher quality. It’s going to have a little more fat but give yourself a break…you’re living off tree bark and rabbit food for crying out loud (that was mean..didn’t mean that)

Stay curious. Stay classy and never stop learning 🙂