Weight Loss

All the mechanisms that cause most people to accumulate body fat can be traced to one and only one cause: excessive blood glucose and the ensuing insulin production.

As we saw in the last post, a valuable lesson can be learnt from the Biggest Losers: weight loss is not a matter of willpower, and certainly not a simple matter of eating less than you burn. In order to lose weight, you need to modify your metabolism. This is not easy, but it’s not impossible either.

Body fat is regulated – How fat is stored in our cells is a complex, regulated system. The body is working hard to stabilize the amount of fat around a set value. This set value is a function of our genetics, as well as our long term nutritional behavior, environment and medical history.

It’s true that our body fat is regulated by several factors over which we have little control, such as genetics or past behavior, but there are steps that can be taken towards a healthier metabolism.

Note that being thin is not necessarily healthy, and that body fat is not necessarily a problem. It is the underlying causes of body fat that pose a health threat, as well as bringing the undesired fat.

Actually, all these causes are related to one and only one item: excessive blood sugar. We will explore a few of the mechanisms below, but there are many more.


1. Elevated insulin, a consequence of high blood sugar, puts the body in fat storage mode.

During digestion, carbohydrates are broken into simple sugars and passed into our bloodstream. The elevation in blood sugar causes the pancreas to produce insulin, a hormone that allows the cells to let sugar in.

The glucose (sugar) taken away from the blood and into the cells can be used to provide immediate energy. If energy is not needed, sugar is stored as glycogen. When the glycogen storage is full, the remaining glucose is stored as fat in fat cells.

Insulin

Insulin activates the enzymes that enable fat storage and impairs the action of hormones that release fat from fat cells: high insulin signals that glucose (i.e. immediate energy) is available; fat is therefore not needed and should be stored for later use.


2. Elevated blood glucose induces the enzymes that favor using sugar for energy (and impairs the enzymes that are necessary for burning fat).

The bulk of our energy is generated through cellular respiration, a complex series of chemical reactions that take place in the mitochondria in our cells.

TCA
TCA / Krebs Cycle – All three types of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) behave in a similar fashion.

The body is a marvelously adaptable machine that can work with whatever it has. If there is a lot of glucose in the blood, the body will produce the enzymes to burn glucose for energy. If the body sees less glucose, it will generate the enzymes that burn the fat instead.


3. Elevated blood glucose next to fat cells locks the fat inside the cells.

Fat is travelling in the blood or stored in cells under the form of triglycerides.

The molecules in the fat tissue are in constant motion, crossing the cell walls into the blood stream and back. Since triglycerides cannot cross the cell walls, to go in and out of the cell, they are disassembled into free fatty acids and glycerol and reassembled into triglycerides on the other side of the wall.

This process is also regulated by the levels of insulin and blood sugar: insulin causes fat cells to take in glucose and burn it for fuel; this produces a glycerol-phosphate molecule, which in turn provides the glycerol molecule that binds with free fatty acids to create triglycerides.

Thus, burning glucose in the fat cells reduces the number of free fatty acids that can escape the cell and increases the proportion of fat locked as triglycerides inside the cell.


There are several more mechanisms that cause fat to be stored, all involving sugar. Very surprisingly, these facts have eluded most weight loss researchers for a century. Instead, the notion that eating fat makes you fat still prevails.

(To be continued…)


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Lessons From the Biggest Losers

A study finds that people who lost a bunch of weight after participating in the TV reality show “The Biggest Loser” gained most of it back. That’s of course no surprise. What’s more interesting are the findings about how their metabolism changed after the weight loss.

A KQED broadcast last week (May 2, 2016 – All Things Considered) reported on a study that examined what happened to the participants in the TV reality show The Biggest Loser after the show was over. A (not too surprising) fact was that many of them regained much of the weight they had lost during the show.

One of the report’s conclusions was that body weight is biologically determined and that “it’s not just a matter of willpower to produce weight loss and to keep weight off.” It seems that the body wants to regulate its fat content to a set point, like a spring: you can compress it, but as you let go, it returns to its original position.

Oct95_004

No surprise

This finding, of course, doesn’t come as a surprise. Anybody that has been on a weight loss diet could have told you that. With the risk of sounding conceited, this result was highly predictable, not to say inevitable.


So why do most people still believe that after going on a weight-loss diet, they can return to their old ways and still keep the weight off?


This has always seemed odd to me, until I examined the prevailing weight-loss beliefs more in depth.

It turns out that most people, including doctors and health professionals, view the body as a calorie bag: if you eat more calories that you expend, you gain weight; if you spend more than you eat, you lose weight. Before people embark on their lean quest, their weight is more or less constant (maybe several pounds higher than they wished, but stably so). The logical deduction is that what they are eating balances exactly what they expend. Therefore, if they could only lose the extra pounds, they’d be fine and could resume their old lifestyle happily ever after. QED.

Logical? Well the fact that this scheme doesn’t work should be proof enough that the “calorie in – calorie out” view of weight control is incorrect.


Regulation – The Spring effect


Actually, how fat is stored in our cells is a complex, regulated system, the body trying hard to stabilize the amount of fat around a set value.

This set value is a function of our genetics, as well as our long term nutritional behavior, environment and medical history; with age our body is less resilient, and coping with excesses becomes more difficult.

Still, another sensible line of reasoning says that you can’t produce something out of nothing, and that, in order to gain weight, you have to take in more calories than you consume. After all, like gravity, thermodynamics are not just a good idea, they are the law! So how can a weight-loss contestant eat less than ever, keep-up the exercise, and still gain the weight back? Read on…

Somewhat of a surprise (but not that
much)

One contestant interviewed explained that she had worked extremely hard at shedding the original weight: it took a grueling regimen of diet and exercise. Listening to her, one could sense that she is a very strong-willed person; nobody could suspect her of being lazy or self-indulging. Yet after she gained the weight back, she found it nearly impossible to lose it again.

The interesting “discovery” of the study was that after they lost weight, the people’s basal metabolic rate (BMR, amount of energy expended while at rest) was disproportionately low compared to the rest of the population: these people needed to burn less calories to sustain their weight than people with the same weight that have never been on a weight reduction program. Conversely, these weight-reduced people needed to eat less than the other people in order to sustain their weight.

Another interesting observation was that, after they regained their weight, the people’s BMR was still low. That contributed to make losing weight the second time around even harder.

There is a prevalent view that muscles burn more calories than fat, and that if you lose fat and build-up muscle, your metabolic rate will increase. The study’s findings go against that theory.

A conclusion

The “calorie in – calorie out” view of the body has been proven wrong over and over again. To reach your ideal weight, you need to improve your metabolism. This goes way beyond “eating less and exercising more”. It includes changing your metabolism, lifestyle and especially your nutrition.

Calorie restriction makes you metabolically weaker.


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The ERFOE Plate

Although eating a large variety of foods is our safest bet so far, we need guidance that goes beyond “Eat a little bit of everything” if we don’t want to be an easy prey for the food industry.

When considering nutrition, both macronutrients and micronutrients come into play:

Our food needs to provide enough macronutrients to supply energy and building material for our body (hormones, proteins, enzymes, antibodies, membranes, etc.).

But in a society where getting enough calories in not an issue, it makes more sense to think in terms of micronutrients and seek the most micronutrient-rich food. In fact even in countries where there is a risk of undernutrition (that is, not enough macronutrients), there is an emerging problem of malnutrition (that is, lack of adequate micronutrients).

Macronutrients play an important role, but they must be selected wisely:
– Modern diets include too many carbohydrates. Carbs should not be eliminated from our diet, after all, vegetables provide a fair amount of carbs, but the carbs we eat must be useful: they must also contain micronutrients.
Proteins portions are often diminished usually because of fear of fat. That is bad. We need proteins for the largest array of functions in our body: structure, hormones, enzymes, antibodies…
– Fats are feared because of the mistaken belief that fats make you fat and that fats are responsible for cardiovascular diseases. Don’t fear fats. Fats are needed for important functions in our body.

♦ ♦ ♦

ideal plateOur “ideal” plate is the result of years of clinical practice. It was designed empirically to provide enough micronutrients and macronutrients for most people.

Although it is easier to illustrate this concept with volumes (as in the picture), the proportions are intended in weight of cooked ingredients.

The “ideal” plate contains:
• 1/4 Proteins
• 3/4 Micronutrient-rich vegetables
• Fats
• No sugars or starches or cereal

Proteins can be animal or vegetal. They include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds.

It is assumed that vegetables are cooked or seasoned with fats. Protein generally comes with built-in fat. Fat is important: in the vegetable portion of your plate, half of the calories might come from fat (this is, however, not much in volume).

The exact quantity of fat for cooking vegetables is not important, as long as you use a reasonable amount. The window for “reasonable” is pretty wide: within the context of our micronutrient-rich diet, the body can deal with excess fat fairly easily, but it cannot cope with deficiency.

♦ ♦ ♦

On the ideal plate, the protein sets the agenda. This doesn’t diminish the importance of vegetables; it simply means that the quantity of vegetables is determined by the quantity of protein on the plate:

Whether you eat a 4-oz steak, a 6-oz fish fillet or a 3-egg omelet, make the vegetable portion of the meal about 3 times larger than the protein portion.

After you have finished your plate, if you want more food, make sure the next serving has the same 3 to 1 proportion of vegetables to proteins.

The quantity of protein required varies from person to person and also depends on the activity for the day. Younger or older people, or athletes, might need more than the general population. However, the “ideal” plate offers a good method for most people.


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Stem Soup

Here is a great way to get nutrition while making the most of your vegetables. Add a poached egg and you have a delicious breakfast to help you start the day!

On Wednesday mornings, I get my vegetable box delivered from the local organic farm. This saves a little bit of trouble with buying all the bulky vegetables that our household consumes in large quantities.

(Talking about organic, remember that “organic” doesn’t always equals “nutritious”. Check the growers’ credentials and verify that their agricultural practices are sound.)

Before…
…and after.

To save time, I fill the sink with water and wash the vegetables in bulk. After drying them, I cut them up and pack them in plastic bags so they are ready to use during the rest of the week. (This also keeps the refrigerator organized.)

While I’m at it, I dice the stems right away, and throw them in a big pot as I go. The soup cooks while I am dealing with the rest of the vegetables, a bonus.

Stem vs. Leaf
Don’t discard the stems of the leafy greens. They possess as much nutritional value as the florets or the leaves:
– The stems contain more chloroplasts and the associated chlorophyll and carotenoids, they also have more fiber.
– The maturation of nutrients in the stem and in the floret are different and complement each other.

 

Stem 01
Fresh beet stems and leaves are good.
Stem 03
Fennel stem and leaves are useful too!

Most stems are edible. Absolutely keep these:
♥ Beet stems and leaves
♥ Fennel stems and leaves
♥ Chard, kale, collard green and all the leafy green stems in general.

(Carrot tops are the only green stuff that comes in abundance and that I don’t know what to do with. Apparently you can eat them, but I’m not sure how…)

Stem Soup

(Proportions don’t matter much, use whatever you have.)

  • Stems from leafy green vegetables, fennel, beets
  • 1 tablespoon oil or butter or a few slices of bacon
  • bones (optional)
  • broth (optional)
  • other vegetables (optional)
  • Salt and pepper, spices, herbs

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Food Labels: The Worst is Still to Come?

“The FDA plans an overhaul of nutrition information on packages to make it more useful for consumers.” The proposals for this much needed update are scary in more ways than one!

Wall Street Journal article (Feb. 16, 2016, A Hunger for Better Food Labels) discloses several food label updates that are under consideration. While we agree that an overhaul is needed, this is also potential for disaster.

The changes proposed by the FDA include: making the calorie information more prominent, changing the serving size to reflect the bigger portions that people eat, showing added sugar.

FDASome think that it is still not clear enough. Here are proposed “better” labels:

NuvalNUVAL score grades food on a scale of 1 to 100 based on many factors, positive or negative, including protein, calcium, sugar, cholesterol… It replaces the complex label by a single number.

TrafficLightTraffic light, developed in the UK, assigns a red yellow or green to the components that are deemed important: fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

GuidingStarsGuiding stars (developed in 2006) assigns 1, 2 or 3 stars to grade the food according to an algorithm that takes into account vitamins, minerals, fibers, sugar, fat, cholesterol.

 

 

 


Our Opinion

The new FDA proposal for sugar is misleading. It focuses people’s attention on added sugar (when in fact natural sugar is not better than added sugar). This line of thought makes people eat a ton of fruit, not realizing that they are ingesting sugar at the same time and no more vitamins than in vegetables.

But it is only the least of evils… The other proposals make our hair stand on end:

At first glance, simplified labels are good idea. After all, navigating the maze of nutrition is hard and most people don’t have the time. What’s wrong with helping them save time and effort in buying their groceries?

  • For starters, you’d have to trust the agencies to make the right choice for you. But, as everyone can understand, government recommendations are constrained by many factors other than pure science: practicality, the need to provide a diet affordable to all, politics, business interests, etc.
  • You’d have to blindly trust the science that’s underlying the labeling. At this point, nutritional science is still shaky and has been proven wrong many times. Take dietary cholesterol for example…
  • But most importantly, assessing ingredients using simplistic rules will not encourage people to consume a variety of foods. You could eat the same thing day in, day out, and still believe you are getting a “3 star” nutrition.
  • Simplified labels don’t allow us to think for ourselves; since all we have to work with are those silly stars, we cannot rate our food ourselves. This might help a minority but not regular people.

By reducing nutritional information to simplistic values, these systems hide the actual contents of the food and prevent people from understanding what they are eating.

Nobody will contest that food labels need improving. But the simplistic route is just not the solution.

Looking at nutrients on a broad basis and encouraging people to educate themselves about their food is the way to go.


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The Neanderthal Edge

In which we examine the consequences of inter-hominid romance.

The Neanderthal in you

We all know that some people are better at metabolizing carbs than others: your friend Giacomo can eat all the pasta he wants without apparent damage to his waistline, while you put on 2 lbs merely looking at the plate.

Many explanations have been offered to explain this frustrating state of affairs. An article in The Economist (Feb.13th-19th 2016, A Parthian Shot, page 78) is bringing a new perpective to the topic: In a recent report to Science, a team from the Vanderbilt Genetic Institute found, among other things, that “Neanderthal DNA seems to put modern humans at risk of a specific sort of malnutrition caused by a lack of thiamine, a B vitamin that is vital for carbohydrate metabolism. (…) But that same genetic variant may also make it easier to digest fats.

It has been known for a while that there was interbreeding between the homo-sapiens (us) and the now extinct Neanderthals (the big, hairy, heavy ones), and that 1% to 4% of the modern Europeans’ DNA is of Neanderthal origin. (For more on the topic see http://quantitativemedicine.net/2014/11/26/neanderthal-dna-in-humans/). It has been hypothesized that red hair or blue eyes are of Neanderthal origin. It seems now that Neanderthal genes carry more serious consequences.

Of course, such results must be interpreted with caution: it is already difficult to run a serious experiment on humans, let alone on Neanderthals. Such studies that only observe existing data can show correlation (Neanderthal DNA and lack to thiamine appear in the same people), but cannot prove causation (is Neanderthal DNA causing the lack of thiamine? Or maybe both these things are caused by a third factor). A definitive scientific experiment would involve a “double-blind” procedure, where both the tester and tested are kept unaware of the actual nature of the test, in order to reduce bias.

This is however an interesting enough result that it deserves some attention.

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Carb metabolism is important because carbohydrates are linked to serious health problems. Just to cite a few:
♦ The nutritional value of carbs is low. Granted, they provide calories, but their micronutrient content is low.
♦Overconsumption of carbohydrates causes elevated blood sugar and elevated insulin levels.
♦ Chronically elevated blood sugar is responsible for
glycation. Molecules produced by our body in presence of a lot of sugar will be defective. Glycation leads to small vessel diseases in the kidneys, eyes, fingertips, toes and brain.
♦ Chronically elevated insulin is bad in itself: insulin directly increases arterial stiffness, which leads to high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. Elevated insulin also clearly increases cancer risks.
♦ Elevated insulin impairs the action of glucagon, thus preventing the use of stored fat for energy. The excessive presence of carbohydrates in the blood shifts the body’s energy preference to burning sugar and impairs the burning of stored fat.

The Neanderthal Edge
What was presented as a problem is in fact an advantage for those with Neanderthal DNA: since they can easily metabolize fats, it is easier for them to revert to a natural diet lower in carbs and higher in proteins and fats, thus limiting the dangers posed by the high consumption of carbohydrates that has become the norm today.


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Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients – Put a palette of colors on the table!

Given the dauntingly vast quantity of indispensable nutrients, it is impossible, as of today, to offer an exhaustive list of recommended foods.


The body is an infinitely complex machine, the seat of countless interactions. Food operates as a whole, and when nutrients are isolated, they don’t work as well, or don’t work at all. 

 

At this point of nutritional knowledge (or lack thereof), our best bet is to consume the widest possible variety of foods, while following three simple guidelines:

1. Seek colored, micronutrient-rich food

With some exceptions, micronutrients are richly colored. Let that be your guide: seek deeply, intensely colored ingredients.

Grapes 1 as Smart Object-1• Look for the blue-indigo to purple-red pigments, as found in berries, eggplants, radicchio, purple cabbage, bell pepper, red onion…

Tomato• Find orange-red to yellow nutrients in carrots, tomatoes, pomegranates, berries, squashes…

• And all the shades in between! Train your artistic eye, and soon you’ll be able to distinguish subtle hue variations.Carrots-bunch

There are exceptions to the color rule. Most notable are:
• Cruciferous vegetables (such as cauliflower) are not very colorful; however, they contain an important class of micronutrients.
• The allium family (onions, shallots, garlic), which has many proven medicinal virtues, is not very colorful either.

2. Seek whole real food

This is food as produced by nature, food that is closest to:
        Pulled from the ground,
        Cut from the flesh,
        Plucked from the plant.

_DSC2365 as Smart Object-1Look for fresh ingredients that received as little processing as possible: humans coevolved with this kind of nourishment for several hundred thousand years and have genetically adapted to it. On the evolutionary scale, agriculture is a very recent development!

Industrial processing almost always lowers the nutritional value of ingredients and, willingly or not, introduces chemicals.

3. Seek healthy sources 

Consuming foods that have been grown in contaminated soil or with chemical fertilizers and pesticides will lead to elevated amounts of dangerous substances in the body.

If buying organic food exclusively is neither practical nor affordable, keep in mind that foods have different capabilities to absorb chemicals, and that ingredients with concentrated nutrition also have the potential for concentrated contaminants.

RainbowAt special risk are:

• Root vegetables (carrots, turnips, potatoes…)

• Fall berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries…)

• Eggs

• Dairy products

So, go the extra mile for these!


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A Little Bit of Everything?

Most people agree that we need to eat a balanced diet. However, the interpretations of this principle vary widely.

Popular wisdom says that we should have a balanced diet: a little bit of everything and not too much of anything. This seems to be a safe approach and we do agree with this wise principle, especially in light of our body’s complexity and the lack of a definitive scientific answer concerning the perfect diet.

But from a practical point of view, what does “a little bit of everything” mean? A little bit from each aisle of the supermarket?

IMG_0275

If we still led the hunter-gatherers’ life, the question wouldn’t arise: we’d eat what we can find in nature, and we’d be fine. Our bodies have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to do just that. In comparison, agriculture is a very recent development (10,000 years).

Agriculture has made available an abundance of unnatural new foods:
– Unnatural because selective breeding creates crops that evolve faster than our metabolism.
– Unnatural also in the proportions of the macronutrients offered: the advent of agriculture mostly meant “grains” and we’ve been eating an excessive proportion of our diet as cereals and starches since then. While grains made civilization possible by feeding large populations, it was also the first step in consuming food that our body isn’t built for. Maybe we’ll adapt to it in a few hundred thousand years, but, for the time being, our bodies still think we are hunter-gatherers.

fish sticksThe problem is made more acute by the food industry: understandably, companies want you to buy what’s profitable for them, not what’s good for you. Sfishhopping habits, lack of time, shear volume of the offering, constant advertising disguised as science,  all contribute to make it hard for people to distinguish real food from junk. How many kids think of “fish” (as food, not as in The Little Mermaid) as a rectangle?

♦ ♦ ♦

In the modern supermarket, without more precise guidance than “Eat a Little Bit of Everything” we are doomed.

Of course, most things found in the supermarket are man-made: apart from some rare wild-caught fish or game, and wild fruit (mostly berries), vegetal and animal products are grown or bred. The fruits available today are much bigger and sweeter than the original ones.

We don’t suggest that we go back to prehistorical lifestyles. But if we want to be healthy, it is important to look for fresh ingredients that received as little processing as possible, and try to eat food that is closest to what exists in nature, closest to:

Pulled from the ground,
Cut from the flesh,
Plucked from the plant.


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Asparagus and Leek Soup

Spring is just around the corner, well at least in California. (In Minnesota maybe less so.) In any case, get ready to enjoy fresh asparagus, one of the many gifts of the season.

This soup is an opportunity to enjoy the first of the young spring asparagus. Choose medium-sized asparagus (neither pencil sized nor too large) and look for tips that are tight and free from flowering.

Although you can serve the soup “as is,” the cream garnish brings valuable dairy fats.


Asparagus, in addition to being a good source of fiber, has one of the most complete spectrums among vegetables both for amino acids and elements. Asparagine, a fairly common amino acid with a distinctive smell, is rarely found in such abundance as in the asparagus. It is a good thing to have because it is used by our body to make a variety of other amino acids.

For these reasons, asparagus should be a staple in our diet, not an exotic food.


Leeks, being sulphur donors, like all the members of the allium family, are good for the immune system, joints and cartilage. They have a very broad spectrum of essential amino acids (which is rare for vegetables), extremely low glycemic load and glycemic index, and some anti-inflammatory properties.


Efficiency, Completeness, Spectrum, Quality: all these words refer to the same notion: how many key nutrients are present in a given food? 

Protein – A “complete” or “efficient” protein source contains all 9 essential amino acids, in proportions suitable for our body: excess in any particular amino acid results in imbalance. Although our body can adjust within a certain range, it cannot deal with overwhelming imbalance. By eating a variety of proteins, we avoid stressing our body’s regulation capability. 

 Over-emphasizing “completeness” may lead to problems, though. Restricting your choice of proteins to the “efficient” ones narrows your options and impoverishes your diet.

Eating a large variety of proteins is a better way to take care of efficiency!

Fat – Fat quality is determined by the quality of its source: fat is not an isolated molecule, it comes within a whole matrix of other ingredients, and those must be healthy too. Healthy fats start with healthy animals and healthy plants.

Micronutrients and elements that have a physiological function in our body are too many to count. If you eat a restricted diet, you will forgo many healthy nutrients.


Serves 6

  • 2 medium leeks (white to light-green part only)
  • 2 lb medium-sized asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 cups chicken stock

For the citrus cream (optional):

  • 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
  • ½ cup crème fraîche
  • Zest and juice of one lemon

Continue reading “Asparagus and Leek Soup”

Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients

We are used to think of our food in terms of its macronutrient composition: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Nowadays, it would make a lot more sense to think in terms of micronutrients, including, but not limited to, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes.

There are many ways to classify food. The good old macronutrient approach is primarily linked with energy production: just anybody will tell you that you need to eat carbs to have energy (never mind that it conflicts with the widespread knowledge that fat is very calorie-dense, with almost twice the calories of protein or carbs for the same weight).

This energy-oriented approach makes sense if you consider that for a long time the main concern of humankind was survival and getting enough calories was a matter or life and death.

_DSC0927 corrThe micronutrient approach started with the discovery of vitamins. While this scientific breakthrough opened new horizons in nutrition, it also created the enduring myth that sugar equals vitamins, because fruits were the first foods to be associated with vitamins.

Since then we have discovered that, in fact, many vegetables are richer in vitamins than fruit.

Continue reading “Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients”