Methylation is a cycle in our body that is critically important for healthy functioning. It also has the power to protect us from various diseases that are “described” in our genes. Methylation may perhaps be best known for its role in detoxification, although there are hundreds of additional body processes that rely on methylation and the compounds it produces. The methylation process can be easily disrupted by a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle. Furthermore, many people have a genetic mutation that affects their ability to methylate properly. Part One reviews how genes are affected by methylation, the various processes that methylation is used for, and the MTHFR mutation. See Part Two for ways to support methylation through specific changes in diet and lifestyle.
Genes Can Be Turned On or Off
As you may have heard before, our genes are not our destiny. There are several health conditions that have a genetic component and thereby tend to run in families. These include depression, anxiety, heart disease, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer. But we all know of people who never seem to get the disease that all their family members are struggling with. This sort of thing actually happens all the time, on both large and small levels, usually without us ever knowing that we dodged a bullet (or took a bullet).
So what happened? Well, our environment counteracted our genetic “destiny.” In other words, a disease-causing gene was turned off and rendered inactive. Our genes don’t only predispose us to disease however. They also offer protection against disease. In this case, we’d want this gene to be turned on so it can protect us. Our environment has the power to do this. It can cause genes to turn off or on depending on our lifestyle choices. Many elements constitute our environment such as diet, exercise, sleep, stress, and amount of toxin exposure. How we choose to live each of these out defines, collectively, how healthy our environment is.
The concept that our environment can change the way our genes operate is called epigenetics. Of course, our actual genetic material does not change, but rather the way our body reads those genes changes.
What Methylation Does For Our Genes
Methylation is a process that happens in our bodies that is critically important for the healthy functioning of our genes. Methylation controls whether or not a gene is expressed (turned on or off). It is a biochemical process that, when working properly, acts in our best interest. It will turn “bad” genes off and “good” genes on. In order to do this, methylation relies on our environment to work properly. When we surround ourselves in an unhealthy environment, the methylation process fails and we get the opposite effect on our genes (“bad” genes are turned on and “good” genes are turned off). This is the starting point for disease and dysfunction; when we first start noticing that something isn’t right with our health.
Methylation And Detoxification
We are constantly exposed to various toxins and chemicals, whether through breathing them, eating them, or touching them. Small, repeated exposures to chemicals accumulate in our body and overburden our detoxification system over time.
Common toxins include:
- Pesticides on our food
- Exhaust fumes from our cars
- Arsenic, lead, and pharmaceuticals in our drinking water
- Mercury in fish and dental fillings
- BPA in our plastic
- Phthalates and parabens in our personal care products
- Ammonia, solvents, and bleach in our cleaning products
- Formaldehyde, benzene, PFOA’s, and flame retardants in our household furniture and mattresses
Other than the toxins we’re exposed to in our environment, there are compounds produced by our body that can build up and become toxic if they aren’t lowered to safer levels. Estrogen, histamine, dopamine, and homocysteine are such compounds; they are also reduced through methylation.
Methylation is one of the six main pathways of detoxification that our liver goes through. The methylation process specifically detoxifies BPA, aspirin, cannabinoids, estrogens, mercury, lead, and arsenic. Furthermore, methylation produces two compounds (sulfate and glutathione) that are relied on in two other detox pathways, thus helping to detoxify an even longer list of chemicals.
People who do not methylate properly can experience a host of toxicity symptoms. These include migraines, allergies, chronic fatigue, arthritis, sinus issues, respiratory disorders, digestive problems, poor circulation, and insomnia. Those who experience these symptoms would be helped by strengthening their methylation process.
Other Processes That Depend On Methylation
Clearly, methylation is what makes the difference in determining how healthy we will be throughout life. It supports our protective, health-promoting genes while suppressing our harmful, disease-promoting genes. Methylation also targets various toxins and harmful compounds making them less toxic and able to be eliminated from the body. In addition to altering gene expression and enhancing detoxification, methylation is critically important in hundreds of other body processes. Below are a few examples:
Methylation is necessary in the production of phosphatidylcholine, a chain of fatty acids, phosphorus, and choline. This compound makes up our bile and helps emulsify fat from our diet. We need healthy bile production, not only to break down fats but also to control bacterial overgrowth in our gut. Bile is produced in our liver and then flows into our gallbladder, so people with poor methylation often have gallbladder problems.
Brain and Muscle Health
Methylation produces an amino acid called creatine, which is needed by our muscles and our brain. Our muscles use creatine to increase lean muscle mass and reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Proper creatine levels in our brain lead to improved brain function, recognition, and memory, while reducing mental fatigue.
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that send signals to and from our brain. No doubt you’ve heard of several types of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. Collectively, these neurotransmitters help us feel clear-headed, focused, calm, and upbeat. Methylation kickstarts the process of producing these neurotransmitters using folate, one of the B vitamins (B9 to be exact). A person who struggles with depression, anxiety, brain fog, mental confusion, or attention difficulties (like ADHD) would be helped by supporting their methylation process to increase neurotransmitter production.
Healthy Stress Response
You may have heard of the two parts of a healthy stress response. When our brain perceives stress, whether it’s psychological, emotional, or physical, it activates our “fight or flight” response. This response allows us to rise to the occasion so we can tackle the stress. We can focus longer, work harder, and move faster to help us through the immediate situation. This is made possible by various stress hormones including cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).
The other end of the stress response is “rest and digest.” It isn’t healthy to remain in a constant state of alertness and stress. For every stress event there needs to follow a relaxation event. This is when you calm down, mentally and physically relax, and begin feeling rested and peaceful.
Methylation allows both of these steps to occur, preparing you to tackle a hard work day before relaxing in the evening and enjoying a sound sleep. Poor methylation means we aren’t responding well to stress. We might have a quick temper, poor sleep, feel “wired” all the time, or perhaps get burned out.
This gene mutation has become very well known and is one of the most highly sought-after genetic lab tests ordered across the nation. And for good reason: the MTHFR mutation is the most common of all genetic mutations, with 30%-40% of Americans carrying at least one version of it.
MTHFR is an enzyme that has a very long name (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase if you’re interested). Thank goodness for acronyms though, right?! This mighty enzyme’s job is to methylate the vitamin folate (vitamin B9). This means it attaches a methyl group onto folate, which converts folate into its active form. The active form of folate is called 5-MTHF, or methylfolate. If you’re wondering what a methyl group is, it’s one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. In chemistry shorthand, a methyl group is written as “CH3.”
Why is any of this important? Well, methylfolate (the active form of folate) is the compound that starts the entire methylation cycle! So if our MTHFR enzyme is not working well, then we aren’t converting enough folate into methylfolate, thus impairing our entire methylation process! But this is exactly what happens for those 30%-40% of Americans with the MTHFR mutation.
However, as we covered in the beginning, our genes are not our destiny. This means having a MTHFR mutation does not necessarily mean that your methylation process is not (or cannot) function normally. As with all of our genes, genetic mutations do not doom us to a lifetime of disease. Our environment and lifestyle choices can overcome the hindrance of genetic mutations and give us lasting health. If you have the MTHFR mutation then you’re simply in the pool with everyone else who needs to strengthen their methylation cycle. Welcome to the club!
Signs You May Have An MTHFR Mutation:
Here’s some signs that may indicate an MTHFR mutation:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- High blood pressure
- Low white blood count (WBC) for most of your life
- Low tolerance for medications such as methotrexate, 5-fluorouracil, or phenytoin
- High homocysteine (above 12 micromoles per liter)
- High folate or high vitamin B12 levels
- Low alcohol tolerance
- Sensitivity to chemicals
- Anxiety, depression, or irritability
We’ve covered how methylation is a necessary process to maintain good health. It acts to turn “bad” genes off and “good” genes on, so that we’re protected from genetically predisposed health conditions. Furthermore, methylation is involved in hundreds of other processes to ensure things are running smoothly. This includes brain health, healthy stress responses, neurotransmitter production, detox from chemicals, and more. It is our lifestyle habits that allow methylation to perform optimally, making it far too easy to disrupt this process if we aren’t paying attention to our daily choices. Lastly, we learned that methylation depends on the MTHFR enzyme to convert the vitamin folate into its active form (methylfolate). Those with a genetic mutation of their MTHFR enzyme have a compromised methylation cycle and will need to take steps to strengthen it.
Now that we’ve got a solid background on what methylation is and why it’s so important to our health, we need to know what to do to keep it running smoothly. Check out Part Two of this discussion! We talk about how to support our methylation cycle and the key nutrients we need each day.
Last week we talked about what the methylation cycle was and why it is critical for healthy functioning. Methylation maximizes a number of body processes. It has the power to activate your protective genes as well as deactivate your harmful genes. It is also one of the six detoxification pathways that our liver goes through to neutralize and eliminate everyday toxin exposure. Methylation is involved in hundreds of other processes including bile production, cognitive and mental health, stress regulation, and more. Unfortunately, our ability to methylate is easily suppressed and rendered ineffective when we don’t supply our bodies with the right nutrients and healthy habits. On top of that, roughly one third of Americans have a mutation in a particular enzyme (called MTHFR). This mutation prevents their methylation cycle from working properly.
To learn more about the methylation cycle, read our Part One blog, found here.
For part two of our discussion, we’ll launch into the reasons behind a poorly working methylation cycle, as well as the action steps that we can take to improve our methylation.
Our Bodies Need Our Help
Too often, we take our health for granted. We mistakenly believe that the internal workings of our body is a perfect system, designed to hum along without a glitch until we hit old age and things start falling apart. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our bodies want to be a perfect system but they can only behave as well as our ability to care for them. Treat them badly and feed them the wrong food and you’ll get a body that starts misbehaving. When it comes to our health, we are our own worst enemy. And the old age thing is also incorrect. Older people aren’t supposed to struggle with crippling diseases or cancer. Their body has worked hard for several decades to counteract the insults we have given it over the years. But there comes a point when it simply can’t keep up with the onslaught of insults. At this point, the best it can do is slow down and become inefficient. And the worst it can do is give in to the harmful stuff, thus developing disease. The point that our body becomes inefficient or gives in can vary from person to person. Oftentimes it happens in our old age, but other times it happens much earlier, even as early as our 20’s!
How To Harm Our Methylation Cycle
One of the ways that our bodies can be inefficient is through a broken methylation cycle. As with every cycle in our body, our methylation cycle doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s influence is far-reaching and impacts other processes down the line. An inefficient methylation cycle directly correlates to an inefficient detox process, the activation of disease-causing genes, and the improper functioning of hundreds of other processes that depend upon methylation.
Unfortunately, many people are well-trained in harming their methylation cycle. In fact, it really takes no effort at all, which is why it’s so easy to do. Here’s some of the main ways we block our ability to methylate:
- Consuming folic acid
- Lack of necessary nutrients
- Pro-inflammatory diet
- Oxidative stress
- Ongoing mental stress
- Ongoing exposure to heavy metals and other chemicals
If we’re not paying attention to the way we live our lives, all (or most) of the above list will occur without us even trying. If we keep this up, our bodies (and our health) will slow down.
How To Fix Our Methylation Cycle
It is clear that our bodies have a breaking point. But we don’t know where that point is in time. The best way to retain (and regain) your health for as long as possible is to change the way we eat and live every day. It is the small, repeated behaviors practiced over the years that have the most negative impact on our health. These repeated behaviors put excess strain throughout our body, touching every cell and organ and biochemical process, including our methylation cycle. There’s no need for our bodies to battle uphill. Let’s equal the playing field and give ourselves the best chance at a healthy life. So what do we have to do to turn things around?
Ditch The Folic Acid
Folic acid has been added to all refined, gluten-containing grains in the United States, including cereal grains, pasta, and grain-based flours (eg wheat flour). It’s also found in enriched white rice as well as cornmeal. This was an effort by the FDA in 1998 to help prevent certain birth defects in newborns, such as neural tube defects. This wasn’t the worst move by the FDA since it has indeed lowered the prevalence of neural tube defects. However, consuming folic acid does come at a cost.
Let’s take a step back. Vitamin B9 is best known as folate. Folate is the natural form of vitamin B9 and is found in green leafy vegetables, asparagus, beets, brussel sprouts, broccoli, avocado, beans, sunflower seeds, citrus fruits, and most whole grains. Once in our bodies, folate must be converted into its active form before it can be usable by our body. The active form of folate is called methylfolate, and our methylation cycle will not work without it. In fact, the cycle requires enough methylfolate to even get started.
Folic acid, on the other hand, is an artificial mimic of folate. It is created in a lab and closely resembles folate enough to enter our body cells. Specifically, folic acid binds to the folate receptors that are on the outside of our cells, thereby blocking those receptors from reaching the real version (folate). If folate is prevented from entering our cells, then it cannot be converted into methylfolate (the active form of folate). Without methylfolate, methylation cannot happen.
Eating more foods that contain folic acid (including folic acid supplements and medications) and eating less whole foods that contain folate will block your methylation cycle. Turn this around by choosing foods that contain folate (listed above) and strongly limiting foods that contain folic acid. When buying supplements, make sure that “folate” is listed. Avoid all supplements that list folic acid.
Get The Right Nutrients
Every biochemical process that our body performs requires specific nutrients to keep the process going. The methylation cycle is no different. It requires enough B vitamins, glutathione, magnesium, and protein in order to initiate and maintain its cycle. Each of these nutrients are found in a variety of foods and must be eaten regularly to replenish your ongoing methylation.
Riboflavin (vitamin B2): liver, lamb, wild salmon, spinach, almonds, mushrooms.
Pyridoxine (vitamin B6): pork, beef, poultry, salmon, oats, chickpeas, pistachios, avocados, bananas, potatoes including sweet potatoes, acorn squash, and spinach.
Folate (vitamin B9): Food sources of folate were discussed in the previous section but I’ll repeat it here: green leafy vegetables, asparagus, beets, brussel sprouts, broccoli, avocado, beans, sunflower seeds, citrus fruits, and most whole grains. Avoid all fortified foods that contain the synthetic form of folate, called folic acid.
Cobalamin (vitamin B12): grass-fed beef, salmon, clams, mussels, crab, eggs, cheese, and Greek yogurt. Foods fortified with B12 contain the synthetic version of this vitamin which is inactive and less efficiently used by the body. Vegans will need to take B12 supplements. If you’re deficient in B12, then methylfolate (active folate) is trapped and cannot be used. The methylation cycle then comes to a halt.
Magnesium: dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, avocados, and whole grains. Some people may choose to take a magnesium supplement to ensure consistent intake.
Glutathione: Glutathione is your master antioxidant, found in every cell in your body. It’s involved in detoxification, immune system support, preventing cell damage, reducing chronic diseases, and much more. As it relates to methylation, this antioxidant (along with protein) helps transport vitamin B12 into your cells where it can be used. If you have low glutathione, your body cannot use B12, thus inhibiting your methylation process.
Glutathione is produced by our body, although levels are easily affected by toxins, poor nutrition, stress, age, and even a poor methylation cycle. Glutathione production can be increased by eating sulfur-based foods. These include, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, arugula, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, bok choy, garlic, and onions. Sulfur-foods are also found in meat, eggs, dairy, oats, and legumes. Taking N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) is also an effective way to increase glutathione levels.
Protein: all meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, soy products (must be organic), beans, broccoli, spinach, brussel sprouts, collard greens, nuts and nut butter, hemp seeds, and quinoa.
Activate Your B Vitamin Supplements
The methylation cycle requires all of the above nutrients in a constant supply. With the exception of protein, none of these nutrients are stored in the body and so must be replenished each day. The best way to get any nutrient is through eating whole food sources. In many cases, a person requires higher amounts of certain nutrients in order to return them to health or jumpstart particular body processes. This is the case with our methylation cycle. If we have not been consciously caring for our health, nor been avoiding harmful foods and exposures over the years, chances are that our methylation process has slowed down. This means we are low in at least some of the nutrients listed above. Our nutrient intake must be eaten consistently and in the right amounts, which can be hard to do even when eating the right foods. This is where supplements can help.
As discussed previously, there are active (natural) forms and inactive (synthetic) forms of B vitamins. If you are taking B vitamin supplements, it is critical to take their active forms only. Most B vitamin supplements in grocery stores will be in synthetic forms, however, if you head to a natural food store, like Natural Grocers, or order them online (our patients get discounts on Fullscript!), you’ll find higher quality supplements.
Always look at the ingredients list when purchasing food and supplements! B Complex supplements are no different. The ingredients list (supplement facts) on the B Complex bottle will tell you whether or not they use active or inactive forms.
Active (natural) forms of B vitamins will have the following (long) names:
- Riboflavin – 5’ – Phosphate (vitamin B2, riboflavin)
- Pyridoxal – 5’ – Phosphate (vitamin B6)
- Methylfolate, or 5-MTHF (vitamin B9, folate)
- Methylcobalamin (vitamin B12)
If you do not see these long names listed on the supplement facts then the vitamins were made synthetically and are in their inactive forms. Do not purchase the bottle! Supplement companies will not announce that their supplements are synthetic, so it’s up to you as the consumer to know what to look for and avoid sales gimmicks.
You might be wondering, how bad can synthetic supplements be? Well, synthetic supplements aren’t only ineffective in our body, but many can be harmful! Making synthetic forms of vitamins often means using harmful ingredients. For example, the synthetic form of vitamin B6 is made from formaldehyde and petroleum ester! Furthermore, vitamin B12 is synthetically made by using fermented cyanide and cobalt. Other ingredients used to make synthetic vitamins include oil secretions from sheep, palm oil, coal tar, acetone, ammonia, and isobutyraldehyde. These ingredients are highly processed at best and downright toxic at worst! Always read the supplement facts label and only purchase supplements from reputable companies.
Eat To Lower Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress go hand-in-hand. They each cause (and perpetuate) the other. Eating pro-inflammatory foods leads to chronic inflammation. Foods that cause inflammation include those high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, vegetable oils, and other processed ingredients. These harmful foods also produce high amounts of free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules) that damage our cells. The more free radicals we have, the higher our oxidative stress. Glutathione (mentioned previously), as well as other antioxidants, fight off free radicals. Antioxidants come from our diet and are mainly found in vegetables, berries, and citrus fruits. Eating inflammatory foods, therefore, causes a vicious cycle of inflammation, free radicals, oxidative stress, and low antioxidants, that all work together to compromise our methylation cycle.
Eating a whole foods diet comprised mostly of plant foods with some animal protein on the side, will provide the nutrients you need for methylation. Be sure to focus on those foods listed above that specifically support the methylation cycle. Whole foods are anti-inflammatory and do not create excess free radicals. Eating in this way will lower chronic inflammation and oxidative stress.
Address Your Mental Stress
Stress, especially mental stress, can be the death of us. This may sound hard to believe but the effects of mental stress (also called psychological stress), wreck havoc on our body. We release stress hormones and our brain operates on high alert. High stress impacts our gut bacteria, harms our mental health, weakens our immune system, increases body weight, and damages our heart. It is a common underlying cause of chronic disease including diabetes, obesity, arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, depression, anxiety, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer. With all the mayhem that mental stress causes, it’s no surprise that our methylation cycle is also harmed by high stress.
Next to eating whole foods, lowering your mental stress is the most impactful change you can make for your health. Stress can be lowered in many ways depending on the source of your particular triggers. Some examples of ways to lower stress include:
- Physical activity
- Getting outside
- Enjoyable hobbies
- Relaxation (stretching, yoga, meditation, gratitude journaling, etc)
- Restorative sleep
- Breaking up large tasks into small, manageable steps
- Surrounding yourself with supportive people
- Simplify and declutter your living and working space
- Be kind to yourself
- Therapy to address past trauma
Avoid Heavy Metals and Chemical Exposures
Exposure to heavy metals and other environmental toxins come at us from all angles, every day. Small, repeated exposures accumulate in our body, damage our cells, impact our cognition, alter our hormones, slow down our detoxification pathways, dampen our immune system, and give us all sorts of symptoms from fatigue, headaches, brain fog, poor skin and hair, weight gain, and much more.
Toxins are present in our fruits and vegetables, fish, dairy products, water, car exhaust, dental fillings, plastic containers, cleaning products, personal care products, carpets, furniture, mattresses, indoor air, and more. Our body has a limit on how many toxins it can process on any given day. If our regular habits expose ourselves to high levels of toxins, our detox pathways get overwhelmed and do not eliminate toxins effectively. Recall that the methylation process is part of our detoxification pathway. If you have poor detoxification, you have poor methylation.
In our world it is impossible to avoid all sources of toxins. They are found around every corner of life. But we can significantly reduce our exposure to toxins. Here’s how:
- Replace plastic containers with glass containers
- Avoid microwaving in plastic
- Replace plastic wrap with wax paper, silicone covers, or rubber lids
- Replace non-stick cookware with stainless steel, glass, or cast iron
- Purchase organic fruits and vegetables
- Avoid high-mercury fish (farmed salmon, tuna, swordfish, grouper, mackerel, tilefish, sea-bass, halibut, crab, lobster, mahi mahi, perch, and cod)
- Avoid all air fresheners and dryer sheets
- Replace mercury fillings with composite resin fillings
- Filter your drinking water to remove heavy metals, fluoride, nitrates, pesticides, industrial pollutants, pharmaceuticals, etc.
- Avoid fragrances, parabens, phthalates, and SLS in your personal care products
- Purchase a HEPA air filter for your bedroom
- Switch to an organic mattress
- Avoid particle board or press board furniture. Stick with real wood
- Purchase non-toxic cleaning products (see ingredients to avoid here!)
Our methylation cycle needs our ongoing help and support in order to function properly. Taking care of our bodies requires awareness, commitment, and self control. However difficult this may seem, our ability to methylate properly depends upon our daily healthy choices. Methylation is easily interrupted by synthetic nutrients, inflammatory foods, oxidative stress, mental stress, and daily toxin exposure. We can overcome these insults by changing the way we eat and live, not only when we feel poorly, but every day of our lives. Supporting our methylation (and our overall health) requires active participation. Let’s commit to making these positive changes!
We posted part one of this blog last week where we discussed the two types of iron found in food as well as the food compounds that help to increase iron absorption. You can read part one here.
This week we’re continuing our conversation on iron absorption by discussing those compounds that inhibit its absorption. Such compounds not only inhibit the iron found within that food item, but also inhibit the absorption of iron found in other foods eaten at the same time. Knowing which foods inhibit absorption will help you decide how best to organize your meals and determine which foods should be eaten separately from other foods. On the other hand, if you are looking to lower your iron intake, these foods will help achieve this when paired with iron-containing foods.
Food compounds that inhibit iron absorption include calcium, phytates, oxalates, tannins, and polyphenols.
Serving Size Determines Nutrient Amount
All foods discussed below are those that contain the nutrient in question per serving size. This means that a person can eat more (or less) than one serving to affect nutrient intake. A serving size is considered to be 1 cup raw vegetables or ½ cup cooked vegetables. It is also 1 piece of fruit the size of a lightbulb, or 2 pieces of fruit if they are small (like kiwis). Dairy products are one cup for milk and yogurt and 1/3 cup for cheeses. Grains and legumes are both a half-cup serving while nuts are one handful.
MyFoodData.com is a great tool for listing the breakdown of nutrients in a food. The Cronometer app displays this same information as well and might be more convenient to use when standing in a grocery store.
When To Eat Iron-Inhibiting Foods
Let’s outline the various compounds found in food that can alter how much iron your body gets. In an effort to increase our absorption of iron, we not only want to increase our intake of foods that enhance iron absorption (discussed in part one), but we also want to decrease our intake of iron inhibiting foods by eating them away from iron-containing meals. What this means is to separate these foods by at least 2 hours on either side of an iron meal. In this way, foods that inhibit iron would make for great snacks in between meals.
Calcium plays a large role in preventing iron absorption. It is unique in that it is the only known compound that affects both types of iron. All other compounds that affect iron absorption only affect non-heme sources and have no effect on heme iron. Since calcium inhibits both heme and non-heme iron, it is best to avoid eating high-calcium foods with any iron-containing meal, especially a meat meal.
Studies have shown that consuming 300 mg or more of calcium with an iron-containing meal will prevent between 56% and 59% of all iron from being absorbed. However, eating less than 300 mg of calcium with that same meal greatly decreases how much iron is inhibited (meaning that smaller amounts of calcium in food will not have a huge effect on inhibiting iron from your meal). Consuming 30 mg or less of calcium has minimal effects on inhibiting absorption of iron.
Below is a list of foods with less than 30 mg of calcium per serving:
- Bell peppers
- Green leaf lettuce
- Swiss chard
- Snow peas
Dairy and Eggs:
- Butter, pat
- Whipped butter
- Cream cheese
- Cottage cheese
- Whipped cream
- Egg, one
- Game meat (deer, bison)
- Nuts (besides almonds)
- Beans (besides black beans and blackeyed peas)
- Whole grains (besides amaranth)
Let’s also check out the foods high in calcium (100 mg or more per serving). Be sure to eat these foods away from iron-containing meals, especially when consuming more than one serving (amounting to more than 300 mg of calcium).
- Firm tofu (1720 mg)
- Soy milk (300 mg)
- Soybeans (175 mg)
- Blackeyed peas (100 mg)
- Almond milk (480 mg)
- Plain yogurt (450 mg)
- Cows milk (300 mg)
- All cheeses (250-300 mg)
- Whey protein powder (200 mg)
- Sesame seeds (280 mg)
- Chia seeds (180 mg)
- Leafy greens (100-245 mg)
- Grapefruit juice and orange juice (350 mg)
- Canned sardines (325 mg)
- Salmon (180 mg)
- Shrimp (125 mg)
- Oysters (122 mg)
- Walleye (175 mg)
- Trout (123 mg)
- Pork chop (105 mg)
- Teff (123 mg)
- Amaranth (115 mg)
A Note About Eggs
Although eggs are low in calcium, which thus does not alter iron absorption in significant ways, the egg yolk is another story. Egg yolks contain phosphoprotein, a compound that impairs iron absorption. One egg yolk can inhibit absorption of iron by 28% when consumed with an iron-containing meal. For this reason, it is recommended to eat eggs away from meals that contain iron.
Phytates and Oxalates
Phytates and Oxalates are both naturally occurring compounds found within various vegetables including nuts, beans, and whole grains. Collectively, these compounds function to protect living plants against being eaten and to help in the germination of their seeds. In humans, however, phytates and oxalates are not necessary to the human diet and even inhibit some absorption of iron and calcium. Because of this, these compounds can be ill-suited for some individuals and when eaten in excess in one sitting. For this reason, phytates and oxalates are oftentimes considered to be “antinutrients” since they can rob us from absorbing nutrients. Those with low iron should consider decreasing their intake of phytates and oxalates or eating them separately from iron-containing foods.
Phytate Foods and How to Lower Them
Phytates are found in high concentrations in beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and soy products (soy milk, soybeans, and tofu). These compounds are very effective at inhibiting iron absorption, up to 50%-65% of non-heme iron!
The good news is that lowering phytate concentration in foods is very easy. Most antinutrients are water-soluble. This means you can use any method of preparation that introduces water to the food and the antinutrients will leach out of the food and into the water. Soaking these foods in water overnight is the best way to lower phytates. Phytate foods that are best for soaking are raw beans, nuts, and whole grains (such as quinoa and rice). Keep in mind that preparing any food in water will cause it to leach out all water-soluble compounds, not just antinutrients. This would include any vitamin C and the B vitamins, especially thiamin. Whenever you use water to remove phytates, always be sure to discard the used water. In the case of raw beans, always rinse the beans after discarding the soaking water. If you are using canned beans you do not need to soak them prior to using, but you do need to rinse them thoroughly. The phytates (and lectins, another kind of antinutrient) are present in the surrounding liquid found in the can, so it is very important to strain out all of this liquid and rinse until all the bubbles are gone from the strainer.
Other than soaking and rinsing phytate foods, you can also lower phytate content by sprouting. Seeds, whole grains, and raw beans are the best candidates for sprouting (also called germination). Sprouting causes phytates to degrade.
Fermentation is another way to lower the phytate content in foods. Whole grains and raw beans are ideal for fermenting. Simply soak whole grains overnight, or at least for a few hours. Add a splash of an acidic liquid to the soaking water, such as apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. In the case of raw beans, be sure to soak overnight at least. Replace the soaking water at least once during this time, being sure to rinse the beans prior to re-soaking. Once again, add an acidic liquid to the soaking water. Although soy products are high in phytates, tempeh is not. This is because tempeh is made by fermentation. Even with its low phytate content, however, tempeh is high in calcium (180 mg per cup) and so should be consumed in smaller amounts (quarter cup servings instead).
Perhaps the easiest way to prevent phytates from inhibiting the absorption of iron is to consume these foods away from an iron-containing meal (at least 2 hours away on either side of the meal). Keep in mind that eating phytate foods on their own (without preparing them in the above mentioned ways) will still inhibit the non-heme iron present in those foods. But it won’t affect the iron absorption of your meal eaten a couple hours later.
Lastly, we can consider serving sizes. This is especially true for nuts and seeds, where usual serving sizes are too small to contain any significant amount of phytates. Be sure to abide by correct serving sizes: nuts should be a small handful and seeds are no more than a tablespoon or so.
Phytates are not degraded by heat, so cooking these foods will not decrease their phytate content.
Oxalate Foods and How to Lower Them
Aside from phytates, oxalates are the other “anti-nutrient” that inhibits iron absorption (as well as calcium). Oxalates are found in a variety of foods rather than in entire food groups, making them more difficult to memorize when at the store. When wanting to increase iron absorption, it is best to limit oxalate foods to no more than 50 mg of oxalates per day. Below is a list of foods that contain high amounts of oxalates (over 50 mg of oxalates per serving):
- raw spinach
- rice bran
- soy products
- sweet potato
- white potato
- navy beans
- dark chocolate
Oxalates are also found in Swiss chard however they are not bioavailable (able to be used) by the body.
Oxalates are degraded by moist heat cooking. They are also water-soluble (like phytates). Preparing and cooking oxalate foods in water will leach out and break down its oxalate content. Steaming, boiling, and pre-soaking, are the most effective methods for greatly reducing oxalates. As you can see from the list above, each of those foods respond well to one or more of these methods. Navy beans, buckwheat, and nuts are the only ones that can be soaked, and the rest can be boiled and/or steamed. As with phytates, always be sure to discard the used water and remember that soaking or cooking in water will cause food to leach more than just phytates, but also all water-soluble compounds (like vitamin C and the B vitamins). Unlike phytates, oxalates are not removed through fermentation or sprouting.
Another way to lower oxalates is simply to eat those foods that contain low to moderate levels (less than 30 mg of oxalates per serving). Some examples of low oxalate foods are:
- Fruits: bananas, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, apples, apricots, lemons, peaches
- Vegetables: mustard greens, kale, bokchoy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, peas, zucchini
- Grains and starches: white rice, corn flour, oat bran
Tannins and Polyphenols
Tannins and polyphenols are both potent iron inhibitors. Polyphenols are a class of phytonutrients. There are over 500 types of polyphenols, one of which is tannins. Other types of polyphenols you may have heard of are flavonoids, quercetin, and isoflavones. Polyphenols, as a group, help plants function and stay healthy. Tannins, in particular, make fruits and herbs unpalatable to deter being eaten. They are responsible for the bitter taste of unripe fruit, tea, coffee, wine, and chocolate. When it comes to iron, studies show that tannins and polyphenols in beverages specifically (not food) significantly inhibit non-heme iron absorption from a meal, by as much as 60% to 90%!
Coffee and black tea contain the most tannins while white tea and oolong tea contain moderate amounts. The amount of tannins in a typical mug of coffee can inhibit non-heme iron absorption by 40% and black tea inhibits non-heme iron by 64%. Be sure to drink coffee and black tea away from iron-containing meals, at least 2 hours on either side of a meal.
As with tannins, coffee and black tea top the list for polyphenol content. Green tea also tops the list here. Studies have shown that beverages containing between 100 to 400 mg of polyphenols per serving (standard mug size), inhibit absorption of non-heme iron by 60%-90%. Coffee, black tea, and green tea, each contain between 200-400 mg of polyphenols per serving, so it’s important to separate these beverages by at least 2 hours on either side of an iron-containing meal.
It’s important to note that tannin and polyphenol content are present in both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffees and teas. Their concentration is the same strength and unaffected by the amount of caffeine present.
For those who need to increase their iron, it’s important to be aware of which foods to combine together in the same meal and which foods to separate from each other. There are many compounds that inhibit the absorption of iron from other foods in the same meal. Calcium is the only compound that inhibits iron absorption of both heme and non-heme iron. Antinutrients, phytates and oxalates, block the absorption of iron and other minerals. Lastly, tannins and polyphenols, specifically in coffee and tea, can block iron absorption up to 90%! Foods containing these compounds should be consumed away from an iron-containing meal so that they don’t disrupt the iron found in other foods.
Iron is an essential mineral we need for everyday health. Iron helps make specialized proteins that help carry oxygen throughout the body. It also helps maintain our focus and energy levels, as well as various digestive processes. The production of one of the thyroid hormones, T4, depends upon adequate iron intake. Lastly, iron is necessary for proper functioning of our immune system.
There are several reasons why a person would want to increase their iron intake. One reason is to prevent iron deficiency. Those most at risk for iron deficiency include, female adolescents, premenopausal women, and the elderly. Women who are pregnant require a higher intake of iron to protect against iron deficiency.
Another reason to increase iron intake is when a person has anemia. The most common health condition caused by iron deficiency is anemia, specifically iron deficient anemia. This condition can develop due to ongoing blood loss (as in a menstrual cycle), lack of iron in the diet, or an inability to absorb iron due to a digestive disorder, certain medications, or low stomach acid.
Vegetarians and vegans may need to pay attention to which plant foods contain good amounts of iron since they aren’t getting iron through meat sources. However, since iron is in many plant foods, vegetarians and vegans do not have a higher incidence of iron deficiency than those who eat meat and are not considered at risk.
If you find yourself in any of these categories and are wanting to maximize iron absorption from the food you eat, read on! This is part one of a two-part blog on iron absorption. Part one discusses which foods contain iron as well as those foods that increase iron absorption in your meal. Part two discusses those foods that decrease iron absorption from a meal and ways to work around this.
All foods listed below are those that contain the nutrient in question per serving size. This means that a person can eat more (or less) than one serving to affect nutrient intake. A serving size is considered to be 1 cup raw vegetables or ½ cup cooked vegetables. It is also 1 piece of fruit the size of a lightbulb, or 2 pieces of fruit if they are small (like kiwis). Dairy products are one cup for milk and yogurt and 1/3 cup for cheeses. Grains and legumes are both a half-cup serving while nuts are one handful.
MyFoodData.com is a great tool for listing the breakdown of nutrients in a food. The Cronometer app displays this same information as well and might be more convenient to use when standing in a grocery store.
All foods contain non-heme iron, a form of iron that is less bioavailable for our body to extract and use. The iron found in dairy products as well as plant foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, etc), is 100% non-heme iron. However, the iron found in meat and fish is about 55%-60% non-heme iron. Our body absorbs between 5%-20% of the total non-heme iron present in food. Whenever we hear that a food increases iron absorption, it always refers to non-heme iron.
Non-Heme Iron Foods:
Non-heme iron is found in highest amounts in Malt-O-Meal, Cream of Wheat, oats, amaranth, and quinoa. It’s also found in all beans, particularly firm tofu and soybeans. Nuts and seeds, including coconut milk, are quite high in iron per serving. Lastly, several vegetables are also high in non-heme iron including, cooked spinach, cooked Swiss chard, snow peas, leeks, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts.
As we will learn in part two of this discussion, there are “anti-nutrients” present in varying amounts in all plant foods, including grains, beans, and nuts/seeds. These compounds block the absorption of non-heme iron up to 80%! These anti-nutrients can be decreased, however, which we’ll discuss in part two as well.
Heme iron, on the other hand, is the most bioavailable form of iron. It is only found in meat and fish and comprises about 40%-45% of heme iron per serving (the rest is non-heme). Our body absorbs between 15%-35% of the heme iron contained in meat and fish. As we will later learn, most compounds that affect iron absorption do not affect heme iron whatsoever. In fact, there is no compound known to enhance heme iron absorption. But since heme iron is the easiest form of iron to absorb, there is no need to enhance it anyways. We can, however, affect the portion of non-heme iron found in meat and fish depending on what we eat along with it.
Heme Iron Foods:
Beef contains the highest amount of heme iron, ranging from 15% to 26% of the daily value (DV). Poultry and pork contain moderate amounts of iron, between 4%-8% DV. Assorted varieties of fish contain the least amount of heme iron, between 1%-7% DV. Canned sardines are the exception, however, containing higher amounts of iron (15% DV).
Compounds That Enhance Iron Absorption
Vitamin C enhances the absorption of non-heme iron. Consuming vitamin C found in foods, fortified foods, supplements, and juices, all serve to increase non-heme iron absorption when consumed with an iron-containing meal. It is important to note that about half of the vitamin C in vegetables will leach out of a food when it’s prepared or cooked in water. Vitamin C is also easily degraded by heat. Therefore, any vegetable commonly cooked or prepared in water, such as potatoes or Brussel sprouts, will contain much less vitamin C once it hits your plate. These foods will still help enhance iron absorption but not as much as the other, uncooked foods listed below.
Oranges seem to come to mind when talking about vitamin C. But if you have a hard time with the acid found in citrus fruits, don’t despair! Plenty of foods are high in vitamin C besides oranges. In fact, plenty of green vegetables and starchy vegetables contain vitamin C as well as berries and other fruits. As a general rule, foods are considered high in vitamin C if they contain 20 mg or more per serving. Here’s a breakdown:
- Red potatoes
- butternut squash
- bell pepper
- snow peas
- Brussel sprouts
- cooked kale
- cooked spinach
- bok choy
- collard greens
- mustard greens
- Swiss chard
- lemon juice
- Oranges and orange juice
Vitamin C is also found in fortified foods, namely ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. While these will increase iron absorption, they are heavily processed and often contain copious amounts of added sugar. For these reasons, it is best to limit your intake of such cereals, opting instead for whole grains such as oats or buckwheat as a cereal alternative. Keep in mind that whole grains are a poor source of vitamin C, so it’s best to rely on the fruits and vegetables listed above rather than any grains.
Beta carotene is another compound that increases non-heme iron absorption. It is in the family of carotenoids, which is a type of phytonutrient. Phytonutrients are compounds found only in plants and function to protect the plant in some way. Beta carotene, and other carotenoids, are responsible for giving color to fruits and vegetables, specifically yellow, orange, and some red varieties. When these foods are eaten, beta carotene converts into vitamin A in our body. In high amounts, beta carotene can overcome the inhibitory effects of those foods that limit absorption (specifically tannins and phytates, discussed in part two). Thus, it is best to consume beta carotene foods with an iron-containing meal, especially when that meal also contains phytates or tannins.
Foods high in beta carotene are those that contain 20% or more of the daily value (or DV, as listed on nutrition labels). Whole fruits and vegetables obviously don’t have nutrition labels, so this information can be found on various websites and apps. Beta carotene is found in several yellow and orange foods as well as some leafy greens. In fact, beta carotene is the reason our parents told us to eat carrots so that our eyes would be healthy! It’s the vitamin A, which beta carotene converts into, that is responsible for eye health. The highest amounts of beta carotene are found in the following foods:
- Sweet potatoes
- Butternut squash
- Cooked spinach
- Mustard greens
- Swiss chard
You’ll find that most of these foods are also in our vitamin C list, above. This makes these foods particularly effective at enhancing non-heme iron absorption. Keep in mind that you can always increase the vitamin C and beta carotene in a food if you consume more than one serving. Use this concept when eating foods that are low in these nutrients.
Check out Part two of our discussion on iron absorption! We share which compounds in food can inhibit iron absorption and how to work around this.
Our genes tell us a lot about who we are and of who we can become. After all, a person’s genetics explain basically everything about them: their hair color, their cleft chin, their propensity towards car sickness, and even why they sneeze in sunlight. Some genes are easily seen and express themselves immediately (like a cleft chin), while others are hidden away and lying dormant until or unless they are switched on (like macular degeneration). These types of genes are not our destiny but rather a measure of probability. And as with any probability game, there is always the chance that something won’t happen. Genes don’t always express themselves.
Our primary focus for this blog is a certain gene called the COMT gene, but before we launch into it and why it’s so important, we first need a little bit of background information. No discussion of genes is complete without recognizing the importance of another factor: the environment.
Nature Vs. Nurture
On a cellular level, genes tell a story of probability. Your genetic story describes how your body will gravitate towards certain outcomes if given the chance. These outcomes affect your health either positively or negatively.
When anyone discusses how genetics influences our health (and vice versa), they are talking about nature versus nurture. “Nature” refers to genetic inheritance which we receive from our parents. Our genetic makeup is set within our DNA and can be passed along to our offspring. Genes dictate not only whether you inherit your father’s large nose, but also more subtle characteristics seen only on the cellular level. They reveal your propensity towards getting certain diseases, converting nutrients into energy, eliminating toxins, handling stress, and much more.
“Nurture,” on the other hand, is the influence of environmental factors that impact our life after our genes are already determined. In essence, “nurture” is anything that happens to us after we are first conceived. Examples of nurture include the effect of alcohol on fetal development, traumatic or supportive childhood experiences, intact or broken families, level of physical activity, healthy or unhealthy diets, amount of exposure to toxins, and much more.
This all seems very straightforward, but let’s look at the relationship between them. Many people believe that our genes are our destiny. That there is no point in trying to work around something that is ingrained in our DNA (quite literally). However, the truth is that, while our genes are indeed set in stone, the expression of our genes can be changed. In other words, our genes carry instructions that tell our body to function in a certain way (this cannot be changed), but those instructions can be turned off; their expression can be changed. Genes (nature) can be active or inactive depending on external factors (nurture). The study of this is called epigenetics.
Here are two examples of epigenetics; how hard-wired genes don’t always follow their own instructions. A child may have inherited the gene for perfect pitch (the ability to identify a musical note simply by hearing it). And yes, there is a gene for this! However, without musical training, that child will not possess this ability. Another example is if a child inherits the genes for tall height but perhaps lives in poor conditions with little access to healthy food. Without proper nutrients, the child may not achieve the height that his genes would have allowed him to. Epigenetics shows us that simply possessing certain genes (genotype) does not mean that a person will display that gene (phenotype). Genetic instructions are not always followed.
So what does all of this have to do with COMT? And what even is COMT? Earlier, we mentioned that genes can influence how well we eliminate toxins. Our ability to do this is not outwardly noticeable when everything is working well. However, we definitely notice when things are not working well! Examples of the genes involved in eliminating toxins include cytochrome P450 genes, glutathione S-transferase genes, and the COMT genes. These genes are responsible for eliminating several types of toxins from our body, including pesticides, air pollution, estrogen, mold, and even stress hormones!
These genes come in different variations but everyone has them (in one variation or another). It’s these variations that can cause problems (when they are turned on).
COMT genes, in particular, are responsible for making an enzyme that clears away certain neurotransmitters from our body. These neurotransmitters are dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Collectively, these neurotransmitters are called catecholamines and are important factors in our behavior, stress response, mood, pain tolerance, cognition, and even cardiovascular disease!
Our bodies produce these catecholamines in the right amounts and then remove them from the body so they don’t accumulate and cause damage. This is a normal process. But when we have a variation in our COMT gene, we are unable to break these neurotransmitters down, thus causing them to build up to higher levels than normal. High levels of these neurotransmitters impacts how well we handle stress.
Symptoms of Met/Met Gene Variant
About 20%-30% of caucasians of European ancestry carry the Met/Met variation of the COMT gene. These Met/Met carriers are three to four times slower at removing catecholamines than the other COMT variation, Val/Val. This slow removal process (detox process) results in higher levels of dopamine and cortisol, and can cause HPA axis dysfunction. During low-stress situations, those with the Met/Met variation often have better focus and memory. However, once under pressure, stress hormones rise and they cannot break them down quickly, so they easily become overwhelmed. This translates to a state of elevated stress as well as less resilience against stress. This variation also experiences strongly felt emotions, whether positive or negative.
Having elevated cortisol and thus elevated stress is detrimental to our long-term health and something that those with the Met/Met variation need to be aware of. Stress and high cortisol levels can cause adrenal dysfunction and HPA axis dysfunction. They also bring about other symptoms including poor sleep quality, disrupted circadian rhythm, gut inflammation, food sensitivities, and blood sugar imbalances. Constant high stress is nothing to take lightly! Those with the Met/Met variation of the COMT gene need to be careful of how they handle stress and take steps to reduce it whenever possible. The Met/Met variation also leads to increased levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These elevations lead to symptoms such as, digestive issues, nervousness, hyperactivity, mania, increased blood pressure, headaches, heart palpitations, anxiety, and increased sweating. That’s a long list of symptoms! What can those with Met/Met variants do to help themselves?
What To Do About It
Recall our earlier discussion of how a person’s environment and lifestyle can alter their gene expression. Well, the Met/Met variant is no different. It can be balanced out to have less of an impact in your life given the right environment. Since those with this variant have slow COMT function (slow metabolizers of catecholamines), it’s important to support our COMT function. Let’s see what this looks like:
1. Supplements: The COMT gene is part of the methylation process of phase II detoxification. Methylation requires a methyl group (chemical compound) in order to function. A special compound called SAMe provides that methyl group. SAMe is produced by our bodies and is also available as a supplement. Met/Met variants can be greatly helped by taking SAMe as a supplement. Other ways to support the methylation process is to increase your magnesium as well as your B vitamins, particularly B2, B6, B9, and B12.
2. Foods to eat: Met/Met variants do better with foods that remove estrogen from the body since excess estrogen further slows down the COMT gene. Such foods include flaxseeds as well as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. Supporting liver health will further remove estrogen compounds. This includes taking bitter herbs like milk thistle and dandelion, as well as eating citrus fruits. Lastly, focus on phytonutrient-rich foods that don’t contain catechols. These include grapefruit, onions, parsley, and celery.
3. Foods to avoid: The Met/Met gene variation is slow to remove catecholamines from the body. Thus, it’s best to avoid foods that increase catecholamines. Avoid foods high in the amino acids, tyrosine, tryptophan, and phenylalanine. These mainly encompass poultry, beef, fish, and cheese. These amino acids are also found in several seeds, nuts, beans, soy, chocolate, blueberries, coffee, and eggs. Further, several flavonoids (a phytonutrient) contain catechols and should be avoided. These flavonoids are found in green tea, capers, cilantro, apples, and berries. Lastly, caffeine and alcohol can trigger the release of catecholamines (the last thing you want). So it’s best to avoid these substances as well.
4. Exercise and fasting: Exercise further increases catecholamines. A person with the Met/Met variant already has increased catecholamines, so they would be better served to limit strenuous or prolonged exercise. Going without food for long periods also increases catecholamines. For this reason it’s a good idea to eat regularly and maintain blood sugar levels.
5. Avoid stress: As discussed, the Met/Met variant is slow to remove stress hormones resulting in less resilience in stressful situations. This means stress feels stronger, lasts longer, and does more damage to our body than those without this variant. It is imperative in this case to avoid or reduce stress wherever possible by practicing stress reduction techniques.
The Importance of Genomics Testing
Most people don’t know which genes they possess so they don’t know which of their genes are being hurt or helped by their environment. People often live their lives without thinking of long-term consequences. And certainly without thinking of genetic consequences. Only when something goes awry do we look back at our choices and lifestyle and wonder what led us here. Oftentimes the underlying cause of symptoms has a basis in our genetic expression. Something in our environment and lifestyle has flipped the genetic switch. Sometimes it’s a protective gene that has been turned off or it’s a harmful gene that has been turned on. But either way, something happened that jump started a downward spiral in our health and we’re just now taking notice. But what if we can take notice before it spirals out of control? To do this we need to know what genes we carry and which ones put us at risk for health conditions or impaired functioning.
Genomics testing answers these questions. Such tests have grown in popularity and affordability over the years. Perhaps the most well-known genomics test is 23andMe where a person can get a complete picture of their genetic data and risk factors for about $200. Check them out here. 23andMe provides a detailed report of your genetic data. Our team at CustomCare Nutrition can translate your report into a customized plan for supporting your health despite at-risk genetic factors. The COMT gene is only one of over a thousand genes that influence our health and are described in your genetic report. Give us a call to discuss your report today!
Breakfast has long been called the most important meal of the day. However, it is also the most commonly skipped meal of the day. Mornings can be hectic with getting ready for work, packing lunches, and dropping kids off at school or a sitters house. It’s just easier to skip breakfast and save yourself those extra 20 minutes. However, when it comes to taking care of your health, time-saving measures aren’t always the answer. Foods that can be made quickly often deliver high-calories, low nutritional value, and blood sugar spikes.
While breakfast is the most important meal, not just any breakfast will do. As with any food choices, quality counts. All it takes is a perusal of the breakfast menu at your local diner to see which foods we value most. Items like bagels with jam, biscuits and gravy, hashbrowns, cinnamon rolls, breakfast burritos, pancakes, and waffles often dominate the menu. Not to mention the usual addition of orange juice, sugar packets, salt, flavored creamer, and maple syrup to top it all off. A person can easily create a blood sugar nightmare in this situation, along with robbing themselves of the nutrients they need to focus throughout the day. Let’s take a look at why breakfast is so important and what a healthy breakfast consists of.
Studies have long shown that eating the right breakfast has multiple benefits. In the short-term, it provides sustained energy and mental performance throughout the day. Over the long-term, a healthy breakfast helps with weight management and decreases your risk of type 2 diabetes and various cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease.
In addition, those who eat a healthy breakfast statistically consume less fat throughout the day and have higher daily intakes of calcium and fiber. They are less likely to feel “snacky” and more likely to meet daily recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption. Overall, those who eat a balanced breakfast tend to make better food choices throughout the day.
Breakfast is the meal where you are literally breaking your fast. After 8-9 hours of sleep and around 10-12 hours since the last meal, your body is in need of steady glucose to replenish depleted energy stores. Glucose is what our body cells use to give us energy, which translates into alertness, staying awake, improved reaction time, and clearer thinking. Glucose is found in the carbohydrates we eat, although carbohydrates are not created equal.
Refined carbs, such as waffles, pancakes, white bagels, and most breakfast cereals, flood your bloodstream with glucose, causing harmful blood sugar spikes and crashes. This leads to the mid-morning reach for quick and easy snack foods in an attempt to satiate your quickly returning hunger. Complex carbs, on the other hand, provide a steady release of glucose over the span of several hours, satiating you until lunchtime. A slow release of glucose provides the sustained energy you need throughout the day. Examples of complex carbs include whole-grain hot cereal, nut butter, multi-grain bread, whole fruit, and vegetables.
Be sure to eat breakfast within 2 hours of waking up to prevent increasing hunger. You don’t want to get to the point where you grab unhealthy snacks to quickly alleviate hunger pangs.
Glucose is our bodies’ energy source, not only for our muscles but also for our brain. Adults need about 200 grams of glucose per day for healthy functioning, and two-thirds of that (about 130 grams) is sent to our brain to meet its energy needs. That’s a lot of glucose! In fact, unlike our muscles and liver, our brain cannot store glucose for later, meaning it requires a continuous supply every day. And our brain function takes priority: in times of starvation, it is programmed to limit glucose for the rest of the body making it more available for its own needs.
Energy from glucose is used to transmit nerve signals, maintain neuron health, and produce neurotransmitters (like dopamine and epinephrine). Glucose is necessary for cognitive functioning, particularly in memory and attention. Unsurprisingly, challenging mental tasks require more glucose than simpler, rote tasks. Studies show that skipping breakfast affects concentration and memory, making some tasks feel harder than usual. This is especially true for school children, who perform poorly in attention-related tasks when they don’t eat breakfast.
Eating a healthy breakfast will provide several nutrients that aren’t found in highly processed, sugary breakfasts. In fact, breakfast-eaters are more likely to meet the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals than those who skip breakfast.
- Fiber: Healthy breakfasts usually include whole grains and fresh fruit, both of these are rich in fiber. Breakfast smoothies with fresh greens and chia seeds will increase your fiber count even further.
- Protein: This is commonly seen at the breakfast table. Eggs, yogurt, oatmeal, nut butter, and breakfast meats are all good sources of protein. From a breakfast perspective, protein helps keep you satiated for longer, preventing you from overeating or reaching for unhealthy snacks mid-day.
- Calcium: This mineral is easily gotten through a balanced breakfast. Calcium is found in yogurt, cow milk, nut milks, green leafy vegetables like spinach, and in oranges, kiwis, and blackberries. These common breakfast foods make it easy to get calcium into your diet.
- B Vitamins: Just about everything in a healthy breakfast contains B vitamins. There are eight B vitamins that we get from our diet (common examples are folate, B12, and thiamin). These vitamins are found in varying amounts in whole grains, meat, eggs, dairy products, seeds and nuts, leafy greens, and fruit.
Blood Sugar Balance:
As mentioned earlier, the importance of breakfast lies in the quality of the foods you eat. Eating processed and refined carbohydrates will spike your blood sugar. This will strain your pancreas in its attempt to keep up with the higher demand for insulin. Continuing this cycle over time will increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. These conditions, in turn, can all increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart disease.
Of course, poor quality foods can be eaten at any time of day but, as discussed earlier, skipping breakfast or eating a processed breakfast will create a cycle of hunger and blood sugar dips throughout the day. People can experience dizziness, brain fog, fatigue, and headaches, and tend to reach for sugary foods to quickly rebound them. This is the dangerous rut many people find themselves in and is the cause of high blood sugar issues. Eating a wholesome breakfast stabilizes your blood sugar and quells hunger. Furthermore, those who eat a good breakfast tend to have healthier diets overall.
Healthy Breakfast Choices
By now you might have a good idea of what constitutes a healthy breakfast. Here are some further ideas:
- Whole-grain hot cereal such as muesli, oats, or buckwheat
- Nut butter and sliced banana on toasted multi-grain or sprouted bread
- Whole fruit and raw nuts and seeds (great toppings for yogurt or hot cereal)
- Egg omelet with spinach, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, or any combination of these
- Plain yogurt with whole fruit as a topping
- Smoothie with leafy greens, frozen fruit, chia seeds, protein powder, and yogurt or canned coconut milk (for thickness)
- Avocado toast. Add a fried egg on top for extra yumminess!
- Organic breakfast meat that’s free of nitrates and nitrites
- Granola blends as an alternative to cereal
- Whole-grain pancakes as an occasional treat. Top with honey, fresh fruit preserves, whole berries, or pure organic maple syrup with no additives
If you’re short on time in the morning, plan ahead the night before and prepare overnight oats, baked egg muffins, or a smoothie. Better yet, get in the habit of setting your alarm 15-20 minutes earlier to give you time to eat breakfast without being rushed. Pack healthy snacks to keep at work such as nuts, granola, fresh fruit, vegetables and hummus, or a simple energy bar that has whole-food ingredients (I like the brand Lara Bar).
The power of eating a healthy breakfast cannot be understated. It provides essential nutrients and balanced blood sugar, as well as boosting energy, memory, and focus. Furthermore, wholesome breakfasts protect against type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases (they also help treat these conditions as well). The best time to take care of our health was yesterday but it’s never too late to start today. Childhood breakfast habits of cartoon cereal, pop tarts, and Lego my Eggo have set us up for poor eating habits in adulthood. Let’s break the sugar cycle, climb out of the processed food rut, and choose to start our day with the nutrition we need.