Clarifying nutrition: focus on Source, Process, and Time

This table shows the antioxidant contents of 3,000 foods:

The Antioxidant Food Table

On first glance, I was annoyed, because there was so much redundancy in the foods examined: 11 entries for blackberries? Couldn’t they make up their minds?

On closer inspection, a deeper story emerged. Take a look at this and see what you find:

Product Label Procured in Antiox. (mmol/100g) Prep
Blackberries, cultivated USA 4.02 6
Blackberries, cultivated Solabaer, Sola, Norway Norway 4.13 3
Blackberries, cultivated Norway 6.14 3
Blackberries, cultivated Belgium Norway 3.84 3
Blackberries, cultivated, canned, drained S&W Fine Food, USA Norway 2.34 3
Blackberries, cultivated, frozen Local grocery USA 4.06 6
Blackberries, cultivated, frozen Wholesaler USA 3.89 6
Blackberries, cultivated, with sugar Findus, Norway Norway 4.76 3
Blackberries, Dessert Berries, without sugar, frozen Norske Dessertbaer, Norway (berries from Poland) Norway 5.98 3
Blackberries, dried, “Loch Ness” The Norwegian Crop Institute Norway 37.08 5
Blackberries, wild Norway Norway 6.13 4

Comments:

3 Purchased in grocery store, restaurant, cafe, bakery or marketplace.
4 Handpicked or received directly from supplier.
5 Previously published in Halvorsen et al. 2002 or Dragland et al. 2003
6 Previously published in Halvorsen et al. 2006.

Notice how much variation there is?

This table indicates what’s behind those eternally confusing reports about which food has the  most antioxidant activity.

With a spread of more than tenfold in the antioxidant activity in blackberries, you simply have to look at two more factors:

  • Source
  • Preparation
Understanding these two critical factors helps clarify a lot of red-herring driven confusion over which foods are most nutritious.

It’s a reminder of something we know, but tend to forget in the barrage of information and anxiety around food. 

  • Plants and animals need nutrients, water, sunshine and air to grow; the quality and quantity of these things affects what they produce.
    More species-appropriate and healthful growing environments produce more nutritious food than inappropriate or unhealthful environments.
    Different strains of the same species have different attributes, as someone who has tasted longhorn steak and kobe steak side-by-side could probably tell you.
  • Food nutrients are reactive, which means that heat and light are going to make them change over time.
    If they weren’t reactive, they wouldn’t be nutrients, because nutrients need to be amenable to digestion and assimilation — that is, physical and chemical reactions — before they can do us any good.
    Therefore, food nutrients are susceptible to heat, light and time.

Source matters

Cultivated blackberries from 3 different places had an antioxidant score that varied by roughly a third. That’s a significant variation!

There was only one sample of wild berries, which rated about the same as the best of the cultivated fresh berries from the same region. Wild strains of berries are generally more nutritious, so it should be said that this study does not specify if these berries were from a wild strain, or from a cultivated strain found growing in the wild. Not everyone realizes there’s a difference, but heredity matters (kobe/longhorn.)

Preparation matters

Processing makes a huge difference in the amount of nutrition available per, say, 100 grams.

Notice how the canned berries, which are subjected to considerable heat in the canning process, have the least antioxidants.

The frozen berries, which are meant to last awhile (thus being subject to time) have less bounce per ounce than some, but more than the canned berries.

The fresh Norwegian berries that travelled to Belgium are likewise impoverished, and the distinguishing factor between them and the Norwegian berries in Norway is the transit… time.

This may also be due to using a strain of blackberry that withstands transport better — a trait which, in produce, often goes with a lower nutritional profile.

If fruit is dried correctly (a big “if”), then it retains much of its nutritional value and has the considerable advantage of concentrating it into a smaller quantity. Thus, the 100gm of dried, possibly higher-quality berries turned out to have the biggest antioxidant kick — by a factor of roughly 10 over frozen berries.

Subjective matters

I’ve been thinking about this article since I read it a month ago.

Then, as I was struggling with brain fog this weekend, I got a pair of half-pints of organic raspberries from a large commercial producer which is famous for consistently mild, sweet-smelling berries that hold their shape despite being shipped all over. They were on sale.

I ate a whole package, hoping for that antioxidant kick that would chase some of the fog away. Not wanting too much sugar in my system (and hating to spend that much money in one sitting), I hesitated before starting on the second package, but no good. I might as well have been eating cardboard for all the good it did. I began to wonder if I should bother with raspberries at all, given how every bite I eat has to matter.

The next day, I stopped at a roadside stand and picked up a single half-pint of organic raspberries from a farmstand, for slightly more than the brand-name berries cost on sale, but less than they cost otherwise. (Farmstands are generally worth the gas I spend on finding and mapping them.) They were much smaller, much darker, and some of them were squashed. They wound up spilling in the car, and I pulled over to scoop them up and keep them from messing up the rest of my shopping. I quickly gave up on extracting them neatly, and just shoved the spilled half into my mouth.

Quite apart from the flavor explosion — which was an eye-opener in itself — within a minute, the fog had lifted. My eyes were sharper and my head was clearer than it had been in awhile. THAT was the antioxidant kick. It lasted for hours, and I got another one when I ate the second half.

Summary and context

A lot of the fuss over what to eat can be resolved with a little common sense and remembering what you learned in grade school when you were sprouting beans in little cups.

How fresh your food is, probably matters more than exactly what it is.

How well it was grown, probably matters more than the packaging.

And, if you’re lucky enough to live near farm country, roadside stands are worth your time.

If not, build farmer’s markets into your schedule, because they bring the fresh food right to your neighborhood, with very little time between the soil and you.

I’ve found that each bite of more nutritious food is more rewarding in every sense, and I wind up needing less to meet my needs. It’s economical in the long run, although I remember it took a few months of eating good food voraciously to catch my impoverished system up. That cost a lot up front, but it paid off in the end: my system became more efficient and my tastes evolved for satiation, not overstimulation. I eat enough and am genuinely pleased; that eternal nervous quest for more-more-more is gone.

Grocery stores are for filling in after the farmer’s market and roadside stands, in my view. I have a limited budget and stringent nutritional needs, so I’ve come to that realization the hard way. This study just reinforces my discovery in a different way.

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Suicide, including veteran suicide, handled back to front

This article discusses suicide among returning veterans:

Suicide Prevention Expert Outlines New Steps to Tackle Military Suicide

The up-side is, it brings more attention to this national shame: “..while only 1% of Americans serve in the military, the suicide rate of veterans accounts for [20 %] of the overall total in the US.” [Emphasis mine.] They’re overrepresented in suicidal despair, even at this time of epic national meltdown, at a rate of 19:1.

There are some good ideas (badly put) under this deceptive title (new? Hardly), with an unfortunate insularity and gee-whizz ignorance in parts:  “the effects on the mental health of active-duty service members, reservists, and veterans is only just beginning to be felt.”

Only just beginning to be felt? By whom? Reports started streaming out of this population from the start!

The horrific rate of PTSD, brain injury and subsequent/consequent suicide among modern veterans has been in the news nearly since the Iraq war started. And the effects were “felt” by affected veterans and those who love them from the beginning.

That was an astoundingly insensitive choice of words, and when a social scientist is astoundingly insensitive, it automatically makes me question his insight and judgement. After all, social scientists have to pay attention to social cues and have some social awareness in order to do their jobs well.

The suggestions made by this article are,

  • Reduce access to guns and other means of suicide.
  • Watch for sleep disturbances. 
  • Prescribe opioid medications carefully and monitor.
  • Improve primary care treatment for depression.

These instructions are useful and appropriate (though not new at all), but the order puts the primary burden in the wrong place.

The reflex is to consider first how to change the patient’s context and control, and second how to change the provider’s context and control.

But which person — doctor or patient — do the policy makers have more access to?

Which has broader (and more cost-effective) reach per person?

Where does influence and support really come from — especially when the patients themselves are desperate and don’t have the resources to face what they’re dealing with?

Hint: Only one of these two people is licensed, monitored — and paid to show up.

It might be time to focus first on how to change the provider’s context and control — in this case, train primary care physicians in how to evaluate for mental health issues without losing their own minds, and make it easier for them to be more mindful, conscientious and appropriate when prescribing CNS depressants such as opioids.

Policies regarding these things may need to be updated. Despite some alterations and improvements, they still focus on controlling the patient’s access to meds and autonomy, rather than on changing the provider’s involvement and awareness of what’s going on.

This is exactly back-to-front.

This is the best we can do??

At-risk patients — those with PTSD, intrusive pain, or some other confounding factor — need to be seen more often and have mental health screens at each visit. Since many of the well-tested screening tools are short checkbox quizzes, that’s a reasonable addition to care. Some can be filled out in the lobby by the patient.

This serves several purposes: the frequent care provides a disproportionate feeling of support to the patients, reducing despair and helplessness; if the visits feel excessive, it motivates the patients to improve their own resources and self-care, reducing passivity, which improves outcomes; and bad findings on the quizzes provide quantifiable, documented need for mental health care, which can then be provided in a more timely manner and with less argument from payors.

Speaking as someone with significant confounding factors (chronic pain, neuro dysregulation, and acute life stress) I’d be delighted to know my doctor and health care system would do that for me, even though I’m not remotely suicidal myself.

When the behavior of those who are easiest for policies to reach AND most influential in patient care is more appropriate and effective, then it makes more sense to go to the trouble and expense to reach further out into the population’s private lives and try to manage them there.

A more rational and effective approach might be,

    1. Train and retrain all primary care doctors to look for mental health issues. This is something that suicide prevention specialists have been screaming for for years. It’s mentioned last in this article, but should be mentioned first: people who commit suicide were likely to have seen their doctors within a month. Talk about a cry for help falling on deaf ears!

      But most doctors turn into deer in the headlights in the face of mental distress, because they have no real idea about what to do. There need to be better guidelines, a clearer path to mental health follow-up, and failure to meet basic requirements of care needs to create problems for the provider — as they inevitably do for the patient.
       

    2. Manage access to obvious methods of suicide, like CNS depressants and firearms. There are many profoundly depressed people who will kill themselves if it’s easy, but fewer who will really put a lot of energy into it, because energy plummets with major depression — along with impulse control. A deadly combination.

      Reducing access involves having primary doctors get more involved with patients who get CNS depressants like opioids and benzodiazepines; implementing and enforcing access laws to firearms and ammunition; and noticing at-risk people with drug and firearm access and giving them the training they need to reduce their own access on an impulsive basis. (Yes,that’s right, engage the patient’s own inner and outer resources, rather than simply impose limits outside their control.)
       

    3. Increase time span between impulse and action, giving second thoughts a chance to kick in. This is important, because the despair is stubborn, but the suicidal impulse comes and goes. Give it a chance to go, so the person has a future and a chance to recover.

      This involves, again, noticing them; engaging them to leverage their own capacity for self-management; and getting logistical support from those around them.
       

    4. Look for early signs, like sleep disturbance, mood swings and eating or weight disturbances. Don’t know why the latter signs aren’t even mentioned here, when they’re easier to notice from the outside. Veterans certainly have them.

      We’ve been pushing for effective education for all primary doctors around both mental health and pain control (which are tightly linked) for decades. It’s not new, it’s just ignored, underfunded, and badly implemented, costing billions in direct and indirect costs.

      Mental health and pain control are tightly linked because:

      • Pain is depressing.
      • Pain is limiting.
      • The helplessness of those limitations is depressing.
      • CNS depressants are, literally, depressing.
      • Depression and helplessness significantly increase pain response in the brain and nerves.
      • And back around we go.

      It’s a vicious cycle, keeping overtaxed minds between frying pan and fire…

      Lasting treatment success is tied to increasing someone’s sense of self-governance and engagement with life (reducing actual helplessness) not limiting their options and patronizing them into submission (increasing actual helplessness.)

      [Limiting options is necessary and useful for inpatient treatment, but is highly problematic in outpatient care — which is where most mental health issues take place.]

      That same engagement and sense of self-governance also reduces the neural system’s susceptibility to pain.

      It breaks the cycle.

      One of these people is not engaged in life. The other is. Which seems better?

      Let’s do all that now — at last — and see how much faster the suicide rates drop than at any prior point in history. For veterans, civilians, everyone.

      It’d be cheap, effective, and useful. It’d serve our veterans and increase productivity. It’d brighten up the lives of everyone affected by it. Is there a downside?

      Links:

      Suicide Prevention Expert Outlines New Steps to Tackle Military Suicide. ScienceDaily (Sep. 10, 2012)
      6,500 US Military Veterans Commit Suicide Every Year, International Business Times (April 2012).
      Combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health problems, and barriers to care. NEJM (July 2004)
      PubMed search for “PTSD veterans” results.
      PubMed search for “TBI veterans” results. TBI stands for Traumatic Brain Injury.
      Make the Connection, bringing generations of vets together for mutual support and counseling.
      Suicides — United States, 1999–2007 Centers for Disease Control (January 2011).

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      Serious business: reporting bad doctors, saving future patients

      Most doctors do good. They do lots of good, all the time, every working day. They’re not perfect (nobody is) but they do far more good than most of us have a chance to.
      Moreover, most specialists were drawn to their specialty because they thought it was the coolest and most intriguing use of their time and skills.

      It’s helpful to realize that it doesn’t so much take brains to get through med school, as the ability to work really hard on your own behalf. Moderate intelligence is enough, if you can be a solid student. It’s just a lot of hard work, with a guaranteed career at the end of it. This might explain why so many docs are simply mediocre, and most of the time, that’s really all they have to be. The trick is knowing when that’s not enough.

      No profession — in fact, no large human grouping — is exempt from the reality of the bell curve. And this means that, while a few physicians are truly outstanding, a few are truly vile; a  few are famous, and a few are totally invisible; most are somewhere in the middle.

      Almost all docs are honestly doing their best, and when they give up (which sounds like, “It’s all in your head” if they’re chicken, or “there’s nothing more I can do” if they’re not) or screw up (which sounds like, “whoops… it’s not my fault” if they’re chicken, or “I’m truly sorry, I’m still only human” if they’re not) it’s because the science, their imagination, or their intelligence is not always up to the challenge.

      And that’s fair. Our science is vast but still inadequate to match reality, and not everyone is a genius, not even all doctors. We have to be realistic.

      A very few are exceptionally smart, exceptionally diligent, and exceptionally good at communicating effectively with patients. They are at one tip of the bell curve, where miracles happen and people beat the odds.

      A very few are exceptionally egocentric, have an exceptionally good act, and are exceptionally good at communicating with administrators (which is a special skill.) They are at the other tip of the bell curve, where others’ losses and suffering increase exponentially while the doc’s career blossoms in the adulation of those who don’t need them for care.

      A few docs are so insulated from consequences and so accustomed to power that they become something distinct: they do more actual harm than anyone outside Congress or the judiciary can manage, and since they can’t be voted out, they need to be stopped some other way.

      It’s rare, but, sadly, it happens to those hardest-pressed to stand up to them — and their obvious allies.

      Those of us with rare and complex diseases are bound to hear of them, because rare and complex diseases are prone to develop “cults of personality” around physicians and institutions that get a good article written about them because the subject itself is cool.

      These vile docs are a tiny, tiny minority, but they do exist, and sooner or later, we have to deal with them ourselves or aid our friends who do.

      In a litigious country, it’s important to know what the agendas are. So let’s be clear about one thing, before going further with this article.

      • Those of us with CRPS and related conditions are not vindictive, we are desperately in search of effective care.
      • We typically exhaust all reasonable means of resolution, long after any normal person would have given up in frustration and despair. 
      • So, by the time WE are ready to trash a doctor or an institution, they have earned it — in spades.

      The merely careless, ignorant or foolish are damaging, but still not worth our very limited time and energy.

      When you really have to stop a doctor, you’ll know.

      While I do believe in evil, I don’t think anyone is past saving… but in order to redeem themselves, some people have to lose what they hold most dear. They have to hit bottom.

      In rare cases like this, where the lives of others are fodder for the cannon of someone’s willful and soulless arrogance, I have no trouble with that. Let ‘em hit.

      How does that happen?…

      By them losing enough of what matters most to them, that they have to either change or fail. Bad doctors in rarefied positions have huge egos and huge paychecks, and in practical terms, that is what matters most to them.

      Egos and paychecks are tied together by reputation.

      If you’ve been a victim, you can help re-adjust their reputations to something more in line with reality. This could really aid their personal growth. (Nice way of putting it, eh? Still true.)

      If you’ve discussed it online and you’ve kept your paperwork, you’ve done most of the work already. It just involves cleaning up what you wrote to your friends, adding a few links, and laying your hands on the documentation created and collected along the way. I’ll write more about that soon, but for now, you can start with what you can easily get.

      So here are some ways to do the most good:

      • Report the physician/s to the licensing board in your state.
        You can’t do much about what happens after that, but it goes on record and makes that doctor’s/institution’s future screwups harder for them to do damage control on. And there WILL be future screwups.
      • Review the physician or organization online.
        These review sites get read by patients, doctors, and doctors’ staff, so patients are warned by your record of consistent stinkery and — bonus! — a really stinky review often gets back to the physician via other physicians, providing “reputation readjustment” among the very people they most value. It sounds cruel, but hitting them in the ego is second only to hitting them in the pocketbook in terms of the salutary effect you can have once constructive efforts have been exhausted.
         
      • Submit letters to the editor in that doctor’s or institution’s area.
        These are followed by the PR departments of hospitals, government agencies and universities (this means that university hospitals will have a double dose of PR departments.) Docs who make the institution look bad, cost money. Once they look like they’ll cost too much, they lose their jobs… And, at higher levels, find it very hard to get another one.

      In the end, maybe it’s not about whether you can get what you needed in the first place. Sometimes, it’s about protecting others, your cohorts in need. There are a lot more of them than there are of either vile doctors or great ones, but at least let’s steer them away from the vile. You can save lives this way :)

      Links

      …With surprisingly little effort, now that you know where to find all the links you need to get started.

      How to report damaging and dangerous doctors

      AMA FAQ on reporting physicians:
      http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/medical-ethics/code-medical-ethics/frequently-asked-questions.page
      Don’t be intimidated by the prim, imperative language. You’ve probably done almost all of that already.

      Contact info for physician licensing boards in all 50 states:
      http://www.ama-assn.org/resources/doc/ethics/state-medical-boards.pdf
      This is who has the authority to revoke a vile physician’s right to practice. A consistent record of vileness can’t be overlooked once it gets to this level.

      How to review your providers online

      This site is well known and widely used. Even though it’s generic, physicians themselves have told me they fear bad reviews here:
      http://www.Yelp.com/

      Doctor-specific review sites:

      http://www.vitals.com/doctor/rate
      Reputable. You need to register.

      http://www.healthgrades.com/
      Find the doctor, click “About This Provider”, look under “Patient Satisfaction,”  and click “Fill Out a Survey About [doctor's name]“.

      http://www.ratemds.com/
      Looks rudimentary, but it’s been picked up by several national news outlets. Also, it has the perfect URL for its mission, so it will grow.

      http://www.healthcarereviews.com/HealthcareRating.php
      Seems relatively new. Could be worth it, if it saves one more person.

      http://www.change.org/
      Ideal for institutional-level stinkiness. You can set up a petition and this org will do most of the legwork to get others with relevant interests to sign it. This then gets mailed to the institution with aaaaaall those names on it. Also, if it’s a good story and the news folks are awake, it can hit national TV. Now THAT’s pressure!

      Letters to the editor
      - Guidelines for writing letters to the editor: http://www.pnhp.org/action/how-to-write-an-op-ed-and-letter-to-the-editor
      Most important advice: keep it focused, human, and snappy. Cite relevant recent news (on the institution, the doctor, the disease, health care, etc.) so it feels like part of the larger reality (which it is.)
      - Links to major news outlets’ Letters pages, with submission guidelines: http://www.ccmc.org/node/16179
      - Or search “letters to the editor [your state or city]” for more relevant links.
      These not only come back to the hospital administrators, but are followed by politicos. It’s a good way to make a big stink, especially given a good paper trail and a link to your petition. If you’re lucky, it could trigger some investigative journalism.

      You can also research investigative journalists in your area, and pitch your story as an idea for a project. This is more time-consuming than the other options, and not all of us have that time or can make those contacts.

      Not the last word

      Once a reputation has been trashed, it’s very hard to recover… And sometimes that’s the only way to keep these hateful, [expletives deleted], predatory, self-serving, [more expletives, really vile ones, also deleted] from hurting others.

      It would be helpful if more doctors stepped up to the plate and helped corral their own. It’s this damaging minority of trolls who stain the image of all doctors.

      Any physicians who know of means to do that, it would be tremendous if you’d let us know… If only to assure us that some effort is being made. Even after roughly a decade as a nurse and another as a patient, I know of no mechanism that still lets you police your own — so if it exists, it’s awfully coy. It’s too easy to feel abandoned by the profession when we wind up in the hands of someone like this, and see the colleagues near them just shut up and knuckle under. If there were a wider pool of colleagues they had to answer to, it would help us to know that.

      If you’re in the awful  position of needing to use this info for yourself or a loved one, please comment and let us know how these methods work for you.

      Best of luck. May all your future doctors be good, capable, and really know their jobs.

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