Sunday, 24 June 2012

Food Myths: High Cholesterol Foods Raise Serum Cholesterol

In a previous post, I recommended that people who want to lose weight should eat eggs for breakfast rather than toast or cereal.  Given the scare stories that were all over the media a while back, I can imagine the reaction in some reader's heads. 

Aren't eggs high in cholesterol? 
Won't they raise my cholesterol levels? 
Won't they increase my risk of heart disease?  

Well, the answers are yes, no, and no, respectively. 

In 1968 the American Heart Association recommended that people with high cholesterol limit their intake of dietary cholesterol.  The recommendation was later expanded to the general population.  This advice seems to have been based on an unproven assumption that cholesterol in the food we eat goes straight into our blood.   The best analogy I can think of is  Meat is muscle tissue so it will go straight to your muscles. Eating a lot of meat will make you look like a body builder - no exercise or weight lifting necessary. Our internal food processing systems just aren't that simple.

Cholesterol gets a bad rap, but it is actually fundamental to our existence.  Every cell in the human body requires cholesterol to form its protective waterproof membrane.  Cholesterol is also needed for the production of vitamin D and the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone.  The brain has a higher concentration of cholesterol than any other organ.  Studies have found links between low cholesterol levels and the incidence of strokes, brain haemorrhages, dementia and depression.

The vast majority of  cholesterol in our bodies is manufactured internally.  Cells can produce their own cholesterol or import it from the bloodstream. About 75% of cholesterol in the body is made by the liver.  In normal, healthy people, the liver balances its cholesterol production.  It can manufacture around 1000 mg a day.  If it takes in extra cholesterol from food sources, it simply makes less. 

Research into human eating habits has been unable to demonstrate a relationship between high cholesterol foods such as eggs and dairy products and a harmful increase in serum cholesterol levels.  One US study examined the diets of 957 men  and 1,082 women in the town of Tecumseh, Michigan.  Their food intake over 24 hours was categorized into a wide range of nutritional components including specific types of fats, carbohydrates and protein as well as cholesterol.   The participants were divided into three groups according to their serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels. 

Analysis showed that the men and women with the highest serum cholesterol did not eat significantly more fat or cholesterol in their diets than the participants with the lowest serum cholesterol.  In fact, the study did not reveal any dietary factors that could account for the difference. 

Another study specifically set out to assess the nutritional significance of eggs in the American diet and to determine the degree of association between egg consumption and serum cholesterol.  The researchers analyzed data from 27,378 participants in a national health and nutritional survey.  They found that

Contrary to what might be expected, total serum cholesterol concentration was negatively related to frequency of egg consumption. Subjects who reported eating four or more eggs per week had a significantly lower mean serum cholesterol concentration than those who reported eating one or fewer eggs per week.
The researchers also compared the nutritional intake of people who reported eating an egg within the last 24 hours with those who didn't.  The egg eaters consumed  a significantly greater level of every nutrient except fiber and vitamin B6.  They conclude

Results of our study indicate that eggs make important nutritional contributions to the American diet, and frequent egg consumption does not associate adversely with serum cholesterol concentrations. Our work repudiates the hypothesis that increased egg consumption leads to increased serum cholesterol concentrations and also adds to the growing body of literature which supports the nutritional benefits of eggs.

Back in 1991, a news story was widely circulated about an 88-year-old man living in a retirement home who had consumed an average of 25 soft boiled eggs a day for over 15 years. He maintained normal levels of blood cholesterol.  When asked to comment on the case, a clinical dietician  said that the man's healthy cholesterol level was not surprising. "All of the studies we have done showed no effect of high egg consumption in a normal diet."

So go ahead and enjoy the nutritional benefits of an egg breakfast as often as you like.  Serve omlettes, frittatas, soufflés and quiches for lunch and dinner too.  Eggs really are good food cheap.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Foods that Make you Fat: Bread or Cereal for Breakfast

According to a recent survey, the most popular breakfast items eaten at home in UK are toast and cold cereal.  No wonder 60% of us are overweight.  Bread products and breakfast cereals are cheap to buy and easy to prepare.  Advertising campaigns promote them as being full of 'healthy whole grains'.  Some are even marketed as weight loss products.  So what could be wrong with them? 

It's important to understand that these foods don't cause weight gain due to the calories they contain, but due to their effects on our metabolism. Let's take Special K cereal as an example, since it's advertised as sliming.  It contains 76 grams of carbohydrates per 100 grams, made up of 17 grams of sugars and 59 grams of starch. 

What happens when you load up on lots of starch and/or sugar?   First of all, your body converts these carbohydrates into glucose, also known as blood sugar.  As you chew and swallow your cereal, your blood glucose quickly rises.  Too much sugar in your blood is deadly, so your pancreas releases the hormone insulin to lower it.  Insulin converts some of the glucose into glycogen to be stored in the muscles.  It converts the rest into triglycerides to be stored in the fat cells. 

The more carbohydrates you eat in a meal, the more insulin is needed to lower blood glucose and the longer it persists in your bloodstream.  An important fact about insulin is that it activates fat storage and prevents the body from using fat as energy.  The purpose of insulin is to remove glucose from the blood. The fat cells are essentially locked shut so that glucose gets burned in preference to fat. 

Insulin not only stops you from releasing stored fat, it also makes you hungry.   If you eat a typical breakfast of cereal or bread you may start to get food cravings about two hours later.  In addition, you may feel tired, have difficulty concentrating and lose patience with people or tasks.  This is because  insulin has done its job and your blood glucose has dropped.  Your fat-burning metabolism is still shut down, and there's no longer a readily available energy source for your body.  Time to grab a snack quick! 

But that's not the whole story.  Another hormone is involved.  Ghrelin is manufactured by cells in the stomach and signals the brain to increase your appetite.  When your body produces ghrelin, you feel an urge to eat.  High protein meals suppress ghrelin for hours afterwards.  High carbohydrate meals suppress ghrelin at first, so you feel full after eating.  However, a couple of hours later, ghrelin increases dramatically.  If you eat a breakfast of starches and sugars you may be hungrier mid-morning than you were when you woke up.

Eggs Instead

High carbohydrate breakfasts lead to gain weight in two ways.   They stop you from burning your body fat and they make you crave snacks before lunchtime.  If you're trying to lose weight, what should you eat instead?  Any kind of protein food is a good idea, but I suggest eggs.  It only takes a couple of minutes to prepare them, they're relatively cheap and they've only got around 75 calories each.

In a study published in the journal Nutrition Research, scientists compared the body's response to eating a bagel breakfast or an egg breakfast  containing the same number of calories.  Three hours after breakfast, subjects were presented with a buffet lunch and told to eat until they were satisfied.  They also filled in a hunger questionnaire and a survey about food intake on the day before and after the test breakfast.  Researchers took blood samples from the subjects before they consumed their eggs or bagels and at various intervals afterwards.  

The researchers tested the blood samples for indicators linked to hunger.  The bagel breakfast produced a rise and fall in blood sugar and insulin, whereas blood sugar and insulin levels were more stable following the egg breakfast.  In addition, ghrelin rose significantly more following the bagel breakfast than the egg breakfast. 

The subjects' eating behaviour reflected their blood test results.  Those who ate a bagel breakfast reported more hunger three hours later than those who had eggs.   They also consumed significantly more calories at the all-you-can-eat buffet lunch than the egg eaters.  In addition, the food surveys showed that bagel eaters consumed more calories in total over the 24 hours following breakfast.

Links to research articles

Variations in postprandial ghrelin status following ingestion of high-carbohydrate, high-fat and high-protein meals in males

Consuming eggs for breakfast influences plasma glucose and ghrelin, while reducing energy intake during the next 24 hours in adult men

Personal aside

Back when I was fat,  I used to eat carbohydrate breakfasts like cereal, toast, crumpets, muffins or bagels,  I had the typical mid-morning low blood sugar response.  If I didn't get a snack I would feel tired, weak, confused and irritable.  Now I eat two eggs every morning and I'm good till lunchtime. 

On the other hand, my partner eats a big bowl of cereal every weekday morning and never feels hungry.  Is it due to his metabolism or the fact that he smokes and nicotine is an appetite suppressant?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Smoked Salmon and Broccoli Souffléd Quiche

Preparation time 15 minutes
Cooking time 1 hour
Serves 2-4
Total price £2

This is what it cost me, based on purchasing ingredients at the lowest price I could find.  This includes supermarket offers on produce and branded items as well as supermarket value-priced brands.
Here's a innovative way to use cheap salmon trimmings and get more omega 3 into your diet.   It isn't really a soufflé, because it's pie-shaped like a quiche.  It's not really a quiche because it doesn't have a pastry crust.   If you cut it into four pieces, one makes a light breakfast and two make a filling lunch (for me anyway).  In addition to containing about 2.2 grams of omega 3, this savoury dish is packed full of protein, vitamins and minerals. 

  • 120 grams smoked salmon trimmings
  • 100 grams (1/2 pack) cream cheese
  • 4 medium broccoli florets, cooked and chopped
  • 4 medium or 3 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 190 C.  Butter an 18cm diameter, 4 cm deep cake tin or pie dish. (There's no need to grease  flexible silicon bakeware.)  Separate the eggs into two large mixing bowls.
Beat the egg whites until stiff.  Whisk together the egg yolks and cream cheese.  (An electric hand mixer works best for both these tasks.)  Stir the broccoli and salmon into the egg yolks. 

Gently fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture to create a light, fluffy batter.  Transfer to baking dish.

Bake for around 45 minutes or until the top is browned and a knife stuck into the center comes out clean.  Allow to rest for 15 minutes before cutting to serve.

  • This is also good made with spinich instead of broccoli
  • If you use fresh salmon trimmings instead of smoked, you may want to add seasoning for flavor.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Reduce your Food Costs with Savy Shopping

Here are a few of my thrifty tips for making your food budget stretch further.

View supermarket offers online before you shop

The major UK supermarkets all advertise weekly offers on their websites. Check out which fresh and frozen meats and vegetables are heavily discounted and plan your meals around them.  Use your imagination or search the web for recipes. 

If you live in an area with more than one local supermarket, compare the offers on their websites to decide where to do your weekly shop.  If you want to take advantage of different offers at different stores, make sure the  potential savings outweigh any transportation costs involved.

Buy things that aren't on your shopping list

The endlessly repeated 'stick to your list' advice is only useful for junk food junkie impulse buyers.  Actually, those types of people are unlikely to head anyone's advice when they come face-to-face with a special on chocolate bar multi-packs!

To get nutritious food at the best possible price, you need a flexible attitude towards shopping and meal planning.  You never know what you are going to find in the 'reduced for quick sale' bins.  You may get a chance to stock up your freezer with half price premium sausages or salmon fillets.  If you are trying to stay within a weekly budget, this may mean changing your menu ideas on the spot.  It helps to have a wide repertoire of recipes.

Don't assume the advertised offer is the best value

A supermarket may have a big sign indicating that a certain package of tomatoes is a great deal at £1.  If you take the time to compare the price per kilogram with other varieties of tomatoes, you may find a better price.  The non-advertised pack selling for £1.20 could contain 50% more tomatoes by weight. 

Be sure to compare like with like

The recent years of inflation, many food manufacturers have tried to keep their prices stable by reducing the amount of product in the package.  Packs of bacon that used to contain 8 rashers now contain 6.  Packs of ground coffee that used to contain 227 grams now contain 200 grams.  If one brand stands out as cheaper than the others, make sure it contains the same amount of product.  It could turn out to be more expensive.

Stock up on store cupboard staples

With strategic planning, you should never have to pay full price for items with a long shelf life.  If you see a half-price or better offer on things you use that come in jars or tins, it's time to stock your pantry.  The same is true for dry, packaged foods like pasta or pulses.  Do check the use-by date.  If it's a couple of years in the future, and you cook with the item on a regular basis, fill your cupboard to the degree that your budget will allow.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Cheapest Ways to Get Your Omega-3

In the previous post, I discussed the importance of omega-3.  In this one I want to tell you how to get it on a budget.  One of the reasons so many people in industrialized nations are deficient in omega-3 is because omega-6 grains are inexpensive to produce. The production of grains is often subsidised and a large percentage of agricultural land is devoted to them. 

We can all eat cheap if we load up on plenty of bread, pasta, breakfast cereal and other grain-based staples.  Unfortunately for many low income people, this way of eating often results in obesity and chronic, or even terminal, illness.

If money wasn't an issue, delicious meats like venison, bison or free-range, grass-fed beef could supply us all with omega-3.   Luckily, there are still plenty of fish in the sea that can provide this essential fatty acid at an affordable price.  They tend to be small and available in tins. 

  • Mackerel
  • Herring (Kippers)
  • Sardines
  • Anchovies
  • Pilchards
  • Eel
  • Whitebait
You may associate these omega-3 fish with your grandparents' eating habits. They knew about getting good food cheap. 

I recently tried canned pilchards for the first time in my life when I noticed that the price of kippers had gone up and the pilchards were significantly cheaper.  I found them quite tasty and have continued to buy them regularly.  One small tin makes a healthy, convenient lunch.

Salmon is a great source of omega-3, but salmon fillets and smoked salmon can be pricey.  A cheap alternative is smoked or fresh salmon trimmings.  These are the boneless pieces cut off when the salmon is trimmed into thin slices or perfect fillets.  They cost around £2 a kilo as opposed to £12 a kilo.  Chop up smoked trimmings to eat in salads or mix them with cream cheese to spread on crackers or bagels. Smoked or fresh trimmings can also be used in omelettes, quiches and pasta dishes.

Why You Should Balance your Omega 3/6 Ratio

Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids.  Both types of fats are necessary for good health. They cannot be manufactured by the human body and must be obtained from foods. 

Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, while many omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation.  Inflammation is necessary for the healing of injuries and infections.  However, chronic inflammation can lead to a wide range of diseases including  allergies, asthma, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.   To stay healthy, the body must have the necessary nutrients to keep inflammation levels under control.

Nuts, seeds and grains tend to be good sources of Omega-6, whereas wild game, grass-fed meat and oily fish are good sources of omega-3.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably acquired equal amounts of essential fatty acids from animal and vegetable sources.  Researches estimate that humans evolved to eat an omega 3/6 ratio of approximately 1:1. 

Industrial methods of food production have led to a dramatic imbalance in most people's intake of essential fatty acids.  In modern Western diets, the typical ratio of  omega-6 to omega-3 is about 16:1.  This is partly due to the fact that a large portion of our diet is based on omega-6 rich cereal grains like wheat, rice, oats and corn.  But the real story is far more complex.

The process for chemically extracting oils from nuts, seeds and grains was developed in the early 20th century.  Since then, high omega-6 corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil and soybean oil have made their way into a wide variety of processed foods.  They are also commonly used for home baking and frying. 

Beef was once high in omega-3, but is now contains far more omega-6.  This is because cattle used to freely roam fields eating nothing but grass.  These days, they are fattened for market on feeds produced from high omega-6 grains.  Chickens are also primarily fed on grains instead of their natural diet of grasses and insects. As a result, their meat and eggs are high in omega-6.

Most people in the UK and other industrialized nations now eat what could be characterized as an inflammatory diet.  Diseases that are virtually unknown in tribes that still hunt and gather their food or practice ancient forms of agriculture are rising to epidemic levels in the most wealthy nations on earth.

So how can you rebalance your omega 3/6 levels?

  • Use lard or butter rather than vegetable oil or margarine
  • Avoid processed foods, especially those which are baked or fried
  • Eat fewer cereal and grain products and more green leafy vegetables
  • Make oily fish a major part of your diet

A basic guide to the omega-3 and omega-6 content of fats and oils:  
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Food Sources

A couple of references for people who want to review the scientific evidence:

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Save Money and Eliminate Waste by Using your Freezer

According to a statistic widely reported by the BBC, the average British family wastes £680 of food a year.  I estimate that we've wasted about £5 over the last year, and I still feel guilty about it.   There are very few fresh foods that can't be preserved by freezing.  Here are some suggestions to help keep the food you buy from ending up in the bin.


If a vegetable can be cooked, it can be frozen.  There's no need for any veg to go to waste, with the possible exception of lettuce and cucumber.  If things in the fridge are starting to go a bit limp or if you bought more than you can use, cook and freeze them.  The technique I use with big bags of onions is applicable to pretty much any veg.  Prepare it as you normally would, either for eating as a side dish or for using as an ingredient.  Freeze in plastic take-away containers or any containers with snap-on lids. Defrost overnight in the fridge or heat from frozen in the microwave.


Fruit loses its texture and leaks juice when frozen and defrosted, but frozen fruit still has plenty of uses.  Bananas can be frozen right in their skins.  Allow them to defrost just enough to stick a spoon in and serve for dessert with hot fudge or caramel sauce.  Berries can be frozen raw (slice large strawberries first) in single serving containers and defrosted for stirring into yogurt or porridge.  Apples, pears, peaches and plums can be sliced, cooked and frozen for use in pies, tarts or crumbles. 


Bread can be easily repackaged for freezing in old bread bags sealed with twist ties. It only takes about an hour to defrost at room temperature. Buy reduced price bread on its sell-by date. Divide a loaf into bags containing 4-6 slices and keep them in the freezer to defrost as needed. Take advantage of multi-buy discounts on packs of baps or rolls and freeze the extras.


Cheese can start to go mouldy within a week of opening the package.  Freezing is a great way to extend it's life.  Grate hard cheeses like cheddar, edam or emmental and package in take-away containers.  Use straight from frozen in baked or grilled dishes or in cheese sauce.  Defrost for about an hour to use on cold sandwiches.  Buy big hunks of cheddar with 50% extra free and immediately freeze half the pack.


 Most people routinely use their freezers to store packages of meat, poultry and fish, but here are a few tips. 
  • Meat can be safely frozen at any time up to its 'use-by' date.  You don't need to freeze it on the day of purchase.
  • You can buy meat or fish reduced for quick sale on its 'sell-by' date and freeze.  Defrost in the microwave on the same day you use it. 
  • If large family packs of chops, steaks or chicken pieces are on sale, but you only need to feed one or two people, wrap the pieces individually in cling film and freeze for use as needed.   Divide large packages of mince into smaller portions and freeze in take-away containers.