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The three things to avoid for a healthier diet

Reading time: 11 minutes

Even those of us who regularly buy from the health food store could be ladening our diets with the three big health killers, says ecological medicine specialist Dr Jerry Thompson.

Health problems start in the kitchen. It is astonishing that, for most of us, 55 percent of our calories come from just three food sources: sugar, refined carbohydrates and processed vegetable oils.

Equally astonishing is the fact that these same foods have absolutely no nutritional value, containing only empty calories. We are talking about over half the foods we eat. Not only are they largely devoid of vitamins, minerals and essential fats, but they can positively damage our health.

Here are the big three health killers.

1. Sugar

Sugar has been shown to depress immunity, and it does so rapidly and dramatically. Two studies of young adults looked at their ability to deal with bacteria after ingesting sugar, one after 100 g of sugar,1 and the other after 24 oz of soda (66 g of sugar).2

There was rapid suppression to 50 percent of normal in both cases, with a peak at two hours in the first case and 45 minutes in the second. The effect lasted five hours.

Studies on rats have again shown a 50 percent drop in the ability to produce antibodies on a diet containing as little as 10 percent sugar, with greater amounts of sugar causing a proportionally greater drop in immune function.3

However, of even more interest is the link between sugar and cancer. In 1931, Otto Warburg won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for discovering that cancer cells feed off sugar using a mechanism called “anaerobic glycolysis.” Cancer cells require three to five times more sugar than normal cells.4

Could sugar make us more prone to cancer? A prospective study in Sweden found people with higher glucose levels were more prone to later developing melanoma and cancers of the pancreas, endometrium (womb lining) and urinary tract, and this  effect was independent of obesity.5 A review of 21 Western countries found higher sugar intake was linked to higher rates of breast cancer.6

Other correlations make the case even more strongly. Insulin and IGF-1 are growth hormones that stimulate cancer growth and can switch off the mechanism for cancer cell death (apoptosis). These hormones rise as sugar intake increases in the diet.

If sugar is important in cancer, we might expect to see an increased cancer risk with higher levels of insulin and IGF‑1. This is exactly what we do find. There is both an increased risk of cancer7 and a worse prognosis.8

However, the “acid test” is what happens to cancer on reducing sugar intake. In a landmark study, mice were inoculated with cancer cells and given diets with varying amounts of sugar.

The results were unequivocal. Those on a low-sugar diet were 16 times more likely to survive than those on a high-sugar diet. In mice on a high-sugar diet, 16 out of 24 died; of those on a medium-sugar diet, eight died; but of those on a low-sugar diet, only one died.9 These results have huge relevance to cancer treatment.

Dying for something sweet

Does this happen in humans? 

Clearly the same experiment on humans would be unethical. One way around this  problem is to look at cancer patients on treatments that artificially increase glucose levels. These include treatments using steroids (typically dexamethasone), which are indeed associated with a poorer prognosis.10 We also know that depriving cancer cell cultures of sugar triggers apoptosis.11

The implication is crystal clear: whether you have cancer or you just want to prevent it, sugar is something to avoid.

Sugar plays a part in other major diseases, most obviously diabetes but also cardiovascular disease. In one study, those who consumed more than 21 percent of their calories in the form of sugar were found to have twice the cardiovascular mortality of those who obtained only 7 percent or less of their calories that way.12

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey found the average consumption for UK adults was 12.1 percent.13 Most diets used by survivors of diseases other than cancer have been very low in sugar.

It stands to reason that one of the most basic steps in improving health is reducing sugar. However, when I talk to people about sugar, they tell me that they don’t eat it. “I don’t eat cakes and biscuits, and I don’t even put sugar in my tea,” they say.

And this is the crux of the problem. Over half of the sugar we eat is hidden sugar; over 80 percent of foods in a supermarket have added sugar. In fact, in the last 20 years, the amount of sugar we buy as sugar has gone down, but the

 amount we consume has risen sharply due to hidden sugar.

Some foods we eat, such as soups and breads, have double the amount of sugar they once had. The average sugar intake in the UK is nearly 22 teaspoons a day.

Clearly, sugar is the first food to cut out of your diet if you want your health to improve. Start enjoying the taste of food without sugar. And enjoy the extra vitality.

The hidden sugar in your food

Most breakfast cereals, including mueslis and those advertised as “healthy,” are laced with sugar. Foods labeled “low fat” are major culprits.

Sugar is contained in almost anything that comes in a packet or can. The average ready-made meal may contain eight different types of sugar and consist of up to 15 percent sugar in total.

Sugar can be found in savory foods such as sauces, canned fish and canned vegetables. It’s also added to meat. Fruit concentrates are added to baby foods, giving babies a taste for sugar.

The first step in dealing with sugar is recognizing it. Table sugar is called sucrose, but sugar has many forms and names, including glucose, maltose (in beer), lactose (in milk), dextrose (glucose in corn), fructose (fruit sugar), molasses, rice syrup and polydextrose.

The new sugars

Though our bodies have hardly had time to adjust to so many sugars, we are now being exposed to novel sugars, such as sugar alcohols developed by breaking down starches, including sorbitol, maltitol and mannitol. 

These sugars can be converted by enzymes into maltodextrins, which are added to soft drinks and baby foods. Anything that ends in -ose or -ol is likely to be a sugar.

Read labels: any food in a packet or can will give the sugar content per 100 g. If you remember that one level teaspoon is 4 g, you can soon work out whether a food is high in sugar.

Table sugar is 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. High-fructose corn syrup (found in many soft drinks and most processed foods) may be the most dangerous of all due to its higher fructose content (55 percent).

Unlike other sugars, fructose is largely broken down by the liver, but once the liver becomes overloaded, it starts to malfunction. (Fructose that comes from fruit is less harmful because fiber slows its absorption and it contains other beneficial nutrients.)

2. Refined carbohydrates

Refined grains are not eaten by healthy and long-lived communities. 

Nevertheless, they are some of the foods that tragically destroyed the health of many indigenous communities once they were introduced to the Western diet, as the pioneering researcher Dr Weston Price discovered when traveling around the world. Previously these groups had used freshly ground grains for their bread and in their food.

Researchers in Switzerland found that the third of the population who ate the most refined grains had nearly double the rate of cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx, nearly four times the risk of esophageal cancer and a fourfold risk of cancer of the larynx (compared with the third eating the least). In contrast, whole grains reduced the overall risk of these cancers by 50 percent.14

Italian researchers looked at refined grain in the form of cereal, pasta and rice. They compared the third of the group who ate the most refined cereals with the third who ate the least. Again they found a higher incidence of cancers of the pharynx, esophagus and larynx (50 percent increase) but also an increase in cancers of the stomach (50 percent increase), colon (30 percent increase) and thyroid (100 percent increase).15

The authors reviewed the literature and noted whole grains were protective against a variety of cancers, whereas refined cereals increased the risk of other cancers (breast, endometrium and lung). And it’s not just cancer. A meta-analysis of 21 studies found whole grains reduced the incidence of cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.16

But again, what we need to know is whether reducing or stopping refined grains helps recovery from cancer.

The following studies shed some light on this. “NOP mice” have a genetic mutation that gives them a very high probability of developing breast cancer. Researchers looked at what happened when they were given either a low-carbohydrate diet or a diet similar to the typical Western diet (with a similar mix of carbohydrates).

The odds of these mice getting cancer turned out to be dramatically different. On the diet equivalent to the standard Western diet, about half of the mice developed cancer within a year, but only 15 percent of those on the low-carbohydrate diet developed cancer. Their chances of developing cancer were reduced to less than a third of expected.

However, perhaps more importantly, even when the mice did develop cancer, they were far less likely to die from it. Of the low-carbohydrate group, the death rate was 27 percent compared with 70 percent in the group on a standard diet (the mortality was again a third of the expected rate).17

Another study on mice inoculated with prostate tumors found those given a diet high in refined carbohydrates had nearly twice the tumor growth.18

What do we mean by “refined carbohydrates”? 

This category includes white or bleached flour products, such as bread, pasta and cereals, white rice and potato chips.

Why should consuming these foods make a difference, and why should whole grains be better for our health? The reason is that whole-grain and wholemeal products still contain the germ layer of the wheat, where nearly all the vitamins, minerals and essential fats are stored. Another benefit is that they contain health-protective fiber.

Refining grains has been very popular with the food industry as it gives foods a long shelf-life, which allows easy transport and storage. However, once the grains become devitalized, even insects won’t touch them.

Consumption of refined carbohydrates, because of the speed with which they break down into sugar, leads to insulin release, higher levels of circulating insulin and ultimately insulin resistance. This leads to the secretion of insulin-like growth factors (IGF-1). These can promote cancer growth, as we noted with sugar.

How much do we eat? 

In the US, the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey determined that the amount of calories that come from low-quality carbohydrates went down from 45.1 to 41.8 percent between 1999 and 2016,19 but they remain a major part of our diet.

Most breakfast cereals consist of refined carbohydrates. Nearly all contain large amounts of sugar and they are typically high in salt. Even without the added sugar, the industrial processing necessary to produce cereals from grain also produces yet another hazard: acrylamide, a carcinogen linked with cancer of the ovary and uterus.

Any process in which grains are subjected to high temperatures, such as the making of potato chips or cereals, will produce this carcinogen. It is even present in many baby foods, and there is no safe limit.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has labeled acrylamide an extremely hazardous substance, and the European Commission was set to limit its level in food but backed down after strong lobbying by the food industry.

It’s increasingly clear that refined carbohydrates are bad for health. Read the labels, look for whole grain (at least 30 percent of the grain must be whole grain and it must have more whole grain than refined grain within it) for your bread and pasta. With rice, use long grain rather than short grain. Avoid most breakfast cereals.

The color of the bread is a poor guide: brown bread, granary and multi-grain bread are not whole-grain breads; they contain refined flour, often with colorings such as E150 added. Grains like barley, millet, spelt and rye tend to be less refined.

Don’t give us our daily bread

In the main, bread is not the healthy food it once was. Over 98 percent of bread produced today is made using the Chorleywood process; this includes most whole-grain bread. The process uses a lot of poor-quality ingredients: hydrogenated fats, additives, sugar and 

higher amounts of yeast.

For anyone with a serious disease, there is another important reason wheat could be an issue. Originally, wheat contained 10 percent gluten; now, following a switch to mutated forms of dwarf wheat in the last 50 years, the gluten content has risen to 80 percent.

During this time, the incidence of celiac disease in the UK has shown a steep rise (from one in 8,000 in 1950 to one in 100 today), likely due to changes in wheat and in bread-making. This is no small matter.

For instance, 54 percent of neurological patients have antibodies to gluten compared with 12 percent of healthy people, and 16 percent of previously undiagnosed neurological patients have been found to have celiac disease after undergoing gut biopsies.1

For many patients who have neurological or autoimmune diseases, removing gluten from the diet can be an essential step in recovery.

3. Hydrogenated fats

Hydrogenated fats are formed whenever fats are heated to high temperatures, such as in the processing of cooking oils and margarines. It is theoretically possible to produce them by prolonged frying at high temperatures, either by stir-frying or deep-fat frying.

Frying produces acrylamide and has been found to increase the risk of cancer in some (but not all) studies.20

The Harvard School of Public Health estimated these fats were responsible for 30,000 premature deaths annually in the USA.21 Its study found hydrogenated fats doubled the rate of heart attacks. A further study suggested they were responsible for 6–19 percent of cardiovascular deaths in the US and 2,700 deaths annually in the UK.22

Animal studies show hydrogenated fats cause a variety of problems, including reduced sperm counts, lowered immunity and increased complications in pregnancy.23

They are also thought to be a cause of macular degeneration. They are banned in some countries, and from baby foods in the UK. Some stores, including Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, have banned them from their own brands.

Hydrogenation can occur at around 176 °C (350 °F). Frying can reach this temperature and can produce hydrogenation if prolonged. Olive oil has a smoke point of 160 °C (320 °F) depending on the type (light olive oil has a higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil), so hydrogenation can occur.

Refined vegetable oils have higher smoke points but have been preheated to high temperatures in their manufacture, so they already contain hydrogenated fats. Always avoid reusing cooking oils.

Today many manufacturers have recognized the public concern about hydrogenated fats and are taking them out of some foods. However, this is not quite such good news as it seems. 

Hydrogenated fats are being replaced by “fractionated fats” created in a process that also involves heating and altering oils and fats.

It may be safer than hydrogenation but could turn out to be just as bad for our health. Only time will tell. So, I think the answer is to be wary of all processed fats.

When cooking, butter, lard, animal fats, and coconut and nut oils are good choices. Unrefined oils have lower smoke points and are not suitable.

Over the last few decades, saturated fats have had a bad press and were thought to be a factor in heart disease.

Two major meta-analyses have concluded that they do not cause heart disease and, in contrast, one of these studies found that hydrogenated fats increased both cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.24

Unlike what you’ve been repeatedly told, the real danger comes from processed or hydrogenated fats, not from saturated fats, and the lesson here is the more unnatural and processed the food, the more our health suffers. An added problem is that sugar, refined carbohydrates and hydrogenated fats are often combined in processed and ultra-processed foods (see Comment, page 3).

Besides sugar, refined carbohydrates and processed fats, processed starches, chemical food additives and pesticides are all toxic and lack virtually any nutritional value.

Many people are confused by all the contradictory messages they hear, but eating the right food is really quite simple. The best way to avoid this problem is to buy organic wherever possible.

The more natural, unadulterated and fresh food is, then the better it is for us. Unprocessed is better than processed, fresh is better than frozen, organic is better than non-organic, raw is generally better than cooked and a short shelf-life is better than a long one.

The healing properties of food can still astound us. The benefits of high-quality food outstrip those of almost any other method of treatment.

We’re only now beginning to understand why food is such a powerful healing agent. High-quality foods contain a host of healing nutrients. These can block all the stages of the cancer pathway, act synergistically, change and up-regulate genes, improve intracellular communication, reduce inflammation and remove toxins.

Little by little, science is catching up with food pioneers like Weston Price, confirming what they have been telling us for so long: food is our best medicine.

The hidden bad fats

Key sources of hydrogenated fats are cooking oils and margarines, but they can also be found in a wide range of processed foods, such as biscuits, mayonnaise, pastries, pies, potato chips and cakes.

Any food sitting on a supermarket shelf with a long shelf-life is likely to contain hydrogenated fats. These fats are not always easy to spot. Look for the following on labels: trans fat, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, shortening or vegetable fat.

Emulsifiers (substances used to combine oil-based and water-based foods) typically contain mono- and diglycerides, which are forms of trans fats, but products containing these can be labeled as free of trans fats. The clue is partially or fully hydrogenated oil in the list of ingredients. The higher up on the list, the greater the amount.

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Main Article



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Don’t give us our daily bread



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Article Topics: carbohydrates, diet, Fat, food, sugar
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