This chapter deals with the health risks that many commonly eaten foods in our society pose for women (and men also). The list of hazardous foods may surprise you because it includes not only processed “junk food,” but also foods that are considered staples of the American diet. Many women unwittingly prescribe to a diet that worsens their reproductive health as well as their health in general.
The wrong foods can affect health adversely in many ways. They can be difficult to digest, contain nutrients that stress the body, or even cause toxic reactions within the body.
The process of digestion itself takes much energy. Digestion must occur before the body can extract energy from the foods you eat. Proteins must be broken down into amino acids, complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, and fats into fatty acids. For these breakdowns to occur, food is chemically acted upon by stomach acid, hormones, pancreatic enzymes, and fat emulsifiers, as well as by the mechanical process that propels food through the entire length of the digestive tract. Once the food is broken down, it must be absorbed from the digestive tract and taken into the blood. From there, the food particles circulate to cells throughout the body. At the cellular level, the energy contained in the food is finally captured to fuel the body’s many chemical and physiological reactions.
This entire process requires a great deal of work. The body needs an abundance of reserve energy to produce the chemicals involved in the digestive process. Ideally, foods should be easy to digest, yet nutrient-rich, so that they can provide the body with needed energy.
Unfortunately, many of the most commonly eaten foods in our society are hard to digest. These include foods that are high in saturated fats, sugars, and animal protein. The long list includes pizza, steak, bacon, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, French fries, doughnuts, ice cream, chocolate, and many other processed and high stress foods. The body must work very hard to digest a typical meal of thick steak, French fries, buttered bread, wine, and a chocolate dessert. This meal is laden with saturated fats, red meat protein, and sugar. Upon finishing it, a woman will feel overly full and more tired than before she started eating. In contrast, a light meal of bean soup, mixed green salad, and baked potato is filled with vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and easy to digest vegetable based protein. This meal is also low in fat and sugar. It is much more likely to enable that woman to leave the table feeling energized and comfortable.
Other foods stress the body through their toxicity. There are many ways a food can increase fatigue. Some foods have a toxic effect that damages the cells and affects their ability to function. One example is alcohol, which is particularly toxic to the liver, brain, and nervous system. Alcohol and sugar promote the growth of pathological organisms like candida, which can worsen fatigue. Many food additives and preservatives can cause an allergic or toxic reaction in susceptible women. Other foods, such as saturated fats, margarine, caffeine, salt, and food additives, will be discussed in the following sections of this chapter for their adverse affects on health.
Caffeine containing foods include coffee, black tea, cola drinks, cocoa, and chocolate. These foods are used almost universally in our culture both as stimulants and emotional “treats.” Caffeine belongs to a class of chemicals called methylxanthines, which have a drug like stimulant effect on the body. In fact, caffeine-containing foods are the most commonly used legal drugs (along with alcohol) in Western societies. For thousands of years, people have used caffeine in rituals and ceremonies. It was also chewed in plant form or used in beverages as a mild daily stimulant. Traditional societies today continue to use caffeine containing plants like mate or kola nuts for their stimulatory effects.
In the United States, many of us are unknowingly raised on caffeine containing foods from our childhood. Hot chocolate is a favorite drink of children, especially during the winter months. Teenagers drink copious amounts of colas and other caffeine containing carbonated drinks, and most children name chocolate as their preferred sweet. Among adults, coffee use is ubiquitous, with Americans consuming as much as ten pounds of coffee per year. Even more staggering is the statistic that Americans consume a half billion cups of coffee per day (or about two cups per person each day). These figures have decreased by 50 percent over the past forty years when coffee consumption was at its peak. A single cup of coffee contains about 100 mg of caffeine, enough to create a mild stimulatory effect.
Black tea and green tea contain about half the amount of caffeine that coffee does (about 50 mg per cup). However, these teas also contain theophylline and theobromine, other members of the methylxanthine family which have marked effects on the body. Theophylline is used as a medication to aid breathing in asthmatics, while theobromine has stimulatory effects on the body. Both tea and coffee contain tannic acid, which can irritate the intestinal mucosa. Theobromine is also found in the cocoa bean, the natural source of chocolate and cocoa powder used in cooking. Other plant sources of caffeine include mate, kola nuts, and the guarana plant.
Many soft drinks like Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, and Jolt, are high in caffeine. Numerous over the counter medications also contain caffeine as an active ingredient. Manufacturers of cold remedies like Dristan use it for its stimulatory effect to help counteract the drowsiness caused by antihistamines. It is a main ingredient in over the counter drugs like No-Doz because of its ability to increase wakefulness and alertness. It is also used in many pain relief and menstrual relief formulas such as Midol, Excedrin, and Anacin.
As a central nervous system stimulant, caffeine increases brain activity when taken in doses of 50 to 100 mg or more per day. This is the amount found in one cup of coffee or black tea. When used on an occasional basis, a cup of coffee can have a pleasantly stimulating effect. However, many people are addicted to the jolt of energy that caffeine provides and find that they need to take it in large amounts. Many women must consume significantly more caffeine (two to three cups or even as many as ten cups per day) to receive the pick-me-up they need to combat drowsiness and perform optimally during the day. Besides increasing alertness, caffeine has other physiological effects. It speeds up metabolism, allowing calories to be burned more efficiently. It stimulates the cardiovascular system, increasing the heart rate, respiratory rate, and elevating blood pressure. It lowers the blood sugar level, increasing the appetite and the craving for sweets. It also stimulates adrenal function, causing an outpouring of adrenal hormones which make the blood sugar level subsequently rise again. Caffeine also has a diuretic and laxative effect, increasing elimination.
Unfortunately, there are many negatives to the use of caffeinated beverages, which over time outweigh the initial benefits. Caffeine can cause a host of emotional and physical symptoms that can be quite debilitating. Caffeine is an addictive chemical, so many women find that they need increasingly larger amounts to keep their energy up. When caffeine use is initially discontinued, people tend to feel very fatigued. Women who suffer from PMS or menopause may find that psychological symptoms that can occur due to hormonal imbalance or deficiency such as anxiety, irritability, and mood swings are worsened with caffeine intake. In one study reported in the American Journal of Public Health, 216 female college students were questioned as to the severity of their PMS symptoms in relationship to their caffeine intake. Interestingly, only 16 percent of the women who used no caffeine at all reported suffering from severe PMS symptoms. In contrast, 60 percent of those women drinking between 4.5 to 15 cups of caffeinated beverages per day reported severe symptoms. This fourfold difference in frequency of symptoms is quite significant.
For women with anxiety and panic episodes due to emotional triggers, caffeine can aggravate the frequency and severity of their episodes. Caffeine taken in excess (more than four or five cups per day) can dramatically increase anxiety, irritability, and mood swings. Even small amounts can make susceptible women jittery. After the initial jolt, women with anxiety symptoms find that caffeine intake makes them more tired.
Caffeine triggers anxiety and panic symptoms because it directly stimulates arousal mechanisms in the body. It raises the brain’s level of nor-epinephrine, a neurotransmitter that increases alertness. It also triggers sympathetic nervous system activity, which causes fight or flight responses, such as increased pulse, breathing rate, and muscle tension. Thus, caffeine intake triggers the physiological responses typical of anxiety states. In addition, caffeine stimulates the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands, further intensifying nervousness and jitteriness. By overstimulating the adrenals, chronic use of caffeine actually weakens them. Over time, this can lead to persistent fatigue and tiredness.
Besides causing anxiety symptoms, caffeine has a diuretic effect and speeds elimination of many minerals and vitamins that are essential to health during the menopausal years. Loss of potassium, zinc, magnesium, vitamin B, and vitamin C are accelerated with caffeine intake. Many of these nutrients, such as B-complex vitamins and magnesium, are needed for optimal functioning of the chemical reactions that convert food to usable energy.
Deficiency of these nutrients increases anxiety, mood swings, and fatigue. Depletion of B-complex vitamins through caffeine use also interferes with carbohydrate metabolism and healthy liver function, which help to regulate the blood sugar as well as estrogen levels. An imbalance in estrogen and progesterone can increase anxiety and mood swings in women with symptoms of PMS or menopause. Many menopausal women also complain that caffeine increases the frequency of hot flashes.
Coffee also reduces the absorption of iron and calcium from food and supplemental sources, particularly when taken at mealtimes. This is obviously of concern to women who want to prevent osteoporosis and iron deficiency anemia.
Caffeine use has also been linked to a worsening of nodularity and tenderness in women with benign breast disease. Studies published in both the Journal of the American Medical Association and Surgery reported decrease in breast pain as well as size of breast lumps for women when they eliminate caffeine from their diets. Many of my patients have reported a decrease in breast symptoms when discontinuing caffeine use. Women with frequent bladder infections or irritability and those suffering from interstitial cystitis, a debilitating chronic bladder disease, may also benefit from caffeine elimination.
Postmenopausal women who are at high risk of heart attacks and strokes due to their familial tendency or blood fat profiles may want to avoid caffeine use. Caffeine increases blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides; both are risk factors for heart attacks. In addition, caffeine raises the blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, becomes increasingly prevalent with age and also is a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. Caffeine also causes the heart to beat faster and increases the excitability of the system that conducts electrical impulses through the heart. This can lead to rapid and irregular heartbeat in susceptible women.
Caffeine use directly affects hydrochloric acid secretion in the stomach. Specifically, caffeine increases acid production, which is a risk factor for gastritis and peptic ulcer disease. If you are prone to heartburn or either of these medical conditions, you should eliminate all caffeinated beverages for symptom relief. Besides triggering acid production, caffeine also stimulates peristalsis of the gastrointestinal tract. This has a laxative effect, producing more frequent bowel movements and even diarrhea in susceptible women. Too loose bowel movements can affect the loss of essential nutrients like B vitamins and minerals that are seen with the frequent use of caffeine.
Women who suffer from the side effects of caffeine or find that it aggravates preexisting health conditions should cut down their caffeine intake substantially or eliminate it entirely from their diet. Habitual coffee, tea, cola, or cocoa drinkers should reduce their daily intake to one cup (or glass) per day or even less.
Unfortunately, women may find that going “cold turkey” with coffee and eliminating it abruptly causes unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, depression, and fatigue I have asked patients to abruptly stop caffeine usage on the weekends, when they were more relaxed and did not require the stimulation that caffeine provided. However, severe withdrawal headaches often ruined the leisure time activities they planned on their days off.
To avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, it is better to cut down caffeine intake gradually. The best strategy is to decrease amounts slowly for one to several months. At the same time, other beverages can be substituted. Many of these substitutes either provide the taste or “look” of coffee. Certain beverages can even produce a similar pick me up without causing caffeine’s deleterious effects. If you like the flavor of coffee, water process decaffeinated coffee is often the easiest substitute to start with. However, if you do use “decaf,” be sure to buy a product prepared by steam distillation or the “Swiss water process” to remove the caffeine. Otherwise, you may be exposed to residues of dangerous chemicals like methyl chloride that are used in other methods of processing. Grain based coffee substitutes, such as Pero, Postum, and Caffix, are even better. Ginger tea is a stimulant that can actually be therapeutic for women since it has a vitalizing and energizing effect. Many of my patients make ginger tea by simply grating a few teaspoons of raw ginger root into a pot of water. It has a pleasant, spicy taste that many people enjoy. In addition, vitamins and mineral supplements and regular exercise can boost your energy levels without the use of coffee.
If you tend to be nervous and edgy in the morning, you might want to start the day with an herbal tea like chamomile or hops. These teas have a pleasant, relaxing, and calming effect.
Caffeine Content of Beverages and Foods
(listed in order of caffeine content)
|Product||Caffeine per Serving|
|Coffee –||(per cup)|
|Coffee (instant)||(per cup)|
|Maxwell House||94 mg|
|Decaffeinated Coffee||(per cup)|
|Taster’s Choice||3.5 mg|
|Constant Comment||29 mg|
|Soft Drinks||(per 12 oz. can)|
|Mountain Dew||55 mg|
|Diet Dr. Pepper||54 mg|
|Coke Classic||46 mg|
|Diet Coke||46 mg|
|Diet Pepsi||36 mg|
|Hot Chocolate Drinks||(per cup)|
|Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate||24 mg|
|Hershey’s Milk Chocolate||4 mg|
Side Effects of Caffeine Use
- Anxiety, irritability, nervousness
- Chronic fatigue
- Depletion of potassium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, anad vitamin B
- Frequent urination
- Insomnia, restlessness
- Less absorption of iron and calcium
- Rapid and irregular heartbeats
Conditions Worsened by the Use of Caffeine
- Adrenal exhaustion
- Chronic fatigue
- Fibrocystic breast disease
- Gastritis and ulcers
- Interstitial cystitis
- Menopausal symptoms
Alcoholic beverages are available in a wide variety of types and potencies. They are produced either by the fermentation of grains and fruits or the distillation of grains and starches. Alcohol has been taken for thousands of years, both as a social and commercial beverage. Today, there are over 100 million consumers of alcoholic beverages in the United States alone. Next to caffeine, alcoholic is the most abused legal drug of choice for people wishing to alter their energy level and their mood.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Though it relaxes the drinker and has a mild tranquilizing effect, it also slows down physical processes. In addition, mental alertness and acuity are decreased when drinking alcohol. It is often difficult (if not impossible) for many people to perform demanding intellectual work after imbibing alcoholic beverages. Physical coordination and reflexes are also impaired when drinking, which is one reason why it is so dangerous to drive after drinking.
On the plus side, the relaxant effect of alcohol can remove inhibitions and improve congeniality at parties and other social gatherings. This is why people often socialize with a beer or a glass of wine in their hands. When consumed in small amounts, alcohol can promote a relaxed state of mind for people after a hard day of work, or enhance pleasure when they are socializing. An added benefit is that alcohol stimulates the appetite and increases the enjoyment of dining. There are even possible health benefits with moderate use. Alcohol improves blood circulation by dilating blood vessels and causes a mild increase in the beneficial HDL cholesterol, which is thought to decrease the risk of heart attacks.
Unfortunately, many people take alcohol in amounts far beyond that which is needed to produce the social or health benefits. In fact, 10 percent of all alcohol consumers in this country (10 million people) cannot limit their amount of alcohol use and are diagnosed as alcoholics. Many people abuse alcohol because they are trying to suppress strong emotions. Often, people increase their alcohol intake to unhealthy levels as an attempt to dull emotional pain and anxiety. It is also thought that alcoholics may have a genetic proclivity towards abuse, and it is true that alcoholism runs in families.
Some people may crave alcohol because they are allergic to the grains, grapes, or yeast from which the beverages are made. As with other food allergies, the sufferer may crave the food to which he or she is allergic. Thus, alcohol abuse in some people may be a manifestation of an underlying medical problem.
Alcohol, itself, has no particular nutritive value. It contains almost twice the calories of protein and carbohydrate foods (7 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram, respectively). Unfortunately, these are empty calories. Alcohol is readily digested and easily absorbed from the digestive tract so it rapidly affects the blood sugar level after ingestion. Once absorbed, it is metabolized by the liver and used immediately as energy or stored as fat in the liver. Unfortunately, alcohol cannot be converted to storage forms of carbohydrate, which would be much more beneficial.
The excessive use of alcohol can significantly worsen a number of common female health problems, including PMS, menopausal symptoms, anxiety states, depression, heavy menstrual bleeding, fibroid tumors of the uterus, fibrocystic breast disease, and endometriosis.
Women with moderate to severe anxiety, mood swings, and depression due to PMS, menopause, or emotional causes, should avoid alcohol entirely or limit its use to occasional small amounts. Alcohol, like a simple sugar, is rapidly absorbed by the body. Like other sugars, alcohol increases hypoglycemia symptoms; excessive use can increase anxiety and mood swings. This can be particularly pronounced in women with PMS related hypoglycemia.
As mentioned earlier, once alcohol has been absorbed and assimilated, it is metabolized primarily by the liver. This is a complex process requiring much work. Excessive intake of alcohol can overwhelm the liver’s ability to process it, leading to toxic byproducts that can themselves affect mood. Too much alcohol can also impede the body’s ability to detoxify other chemicals including drugs, hormones such as estrogen, and pesticides that we take into our bodies by choice or through environmental contact. As a result, toxic levels of these chemicals can build up in the body, worsening anxiety.
The liver metabolizes estrogen, thus playing an important role in regulating estrogen levels in the body. Normally, the liver can metabolize estradiol, the main type of estrogen secreted by the ovaries, to less potent forms of estrogen as it passes through the hepatic circulation. When liver function is healthy, it will convert estradiol to estrone and estriol the much weaker and less potent forms of estrogen. In the liver, estrogen is also inactivated by binding it to sulfates and gluccoronates. From there, the inactivated and weaker forms of estrogen are secreted into the bile and, finally, the intestinal tract. Much of the estrogen is then excreted from the body with the bowel movements.
When liver function is compromised by alcohol, estrogen levels can become elevated. This can be a risk factor for the aggravation of many common female problems such as heavy menstrual bleeding, fibroid tumors of the uterus, endometriosis, fibrocystic breast disease, and PMS.
During midlife and beyond, alcohol can actually intensify almost every type of menopause symptom. As a result, I recommend that women with active symptoms limit their intake or avoid alcoholic beverages entirely. The list of menopause symptoms affected by alcohol intake includes hot flashes and mood swings. Unlike caffeine, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so its intake can worsen menopausal fatigue and depression. This is particularly pronounced in women with night sweats and insomnia whose sleep quality is already poor. In addition, alcohol has a diuretic effect on the body. Estrogen helps keep the skin and other tissues plump by causing fluid and salt retention in the body. So, excessive intake of alcohol can further dehydrate the skin and tissues, including the vaginal and bladder mucosa, already at risk for dehydration because of estrogen deficiency. Alcohol’s diuretic effect also causes the loss of excessive amounts of essential minerals through the urinary tract. These include minerals needed for healthy bones, such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc. Women who are addicted to alcohol may also have a negative calcium balance because of poor nutritional habits. Alcoholics often eat less calcium rich food and ignore their intake of other essential nutrients, preferring the empty, nonnutritive calories of alcohol.
Alcohol, an irritant to the liver and other parts of the digestive tract, may be used by the body for immediate energy, or stored in the liver or in the rest of the body as fat. Unfortunately, the liver cannot convert alcohol to a storage form of glucose. As a result, the amount of fat stored in the liver increases with excessive alcohol use. Alcohol raises the liver enzyme level, leading to liver inflammation (or hepatitis). Eventually the chemical byproducts of alcohol and the fat derived from alcohol can cause scarring and shrinkage of the liver, leading to its functional impairment and cirrhosis. In addition, alcohol irritates the lining of the upper digestive tract, including the esophagus, stomach, and upper part of the small intestine. It also causes irritation and inflammation of the pancreas. Over time, this can result in worsening of hypoglycemia and diabetes, as well as impaired absorption and assimilation of essential nutrients from the small intestine. Some of these nutrients, such as B vitamins, are necessary to stabilize these conditions.
The nervous system is particularly susceptible to the deleterious effects of alcohol, which readily crosses the blood-brain barrier and actually destroys brain cells. Alcohol can cause profound behavioral and psychological changes in women who drink it excessively. Symptoms include emotional upset, irrational anger, emotional outbursts, poor judgment, loss of memory, mental impairment, dizziness, poor coordination, and difficulty in walking.
Symptoms of emotional upset triggered by alcohol can also be due to candida overgrowth, since candida thrive on the sugar in alcohol. Alcohol can, thus, promote a tendency toward chronic candida infections. Women with candida-related mood upset and fatigue should avoid alcohol entirely. Furthermore, many women with allergies are sensitive to the yeast in alcohol, which worsens their allergic symptoms.
Fermented Alcoholic Beverages
Distilled Alcoholic Beverages
Percent (%) Alcohol By Beverage
|Beer||3 – 6|
|Bourbon||35 – 50|
|Gin||35 – 50|
|Port||12 – 18|
|Rum||35 – 50|
|Scotch||35 – 50|
|Sherry||12 – 18|
|Vodka||35 – 50|
|Whiskey||35 – 50|
|Wine||9 – 12|
When taken carefully, not exceeding 4 ounces of wine per day, 12 ounces of beer, or 1 ounce of hard liquor—alcohol can have a delightfully relaxing effect in women who are healthy. As mentioned earlier, it can make us more sociable and enhance the taste of food. For optimal health, however, I recommend drinking alcohol no more than once or twice a week. Women with preexisting health problems, particularly estrogen related problems like PMS or fibroid tumors of the uterus, should avoid drinking alcohol entirely when they are symptomatic. Fortunately, there are many good alcohol substitutes. If you entertain a great deal and enjoy social drinking, try nonalcoholic beverages. A nonalcoholic cocktail, such as mineral water with a twist of lime, lemon, or a dash of bitters, is a good substitute. Near Beer is a nonalcoholic beer substitute that tastes almost like the real thing. Light wine and beer have a lower alcohol content than hard liquor, liqueurs, and regular wine. They can be mixed with mineral waters, crushed ice, or fresh fruit for a variety of delicious low-alcohol drinks.
Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
Sugar is primarily used as a sweetening agent in the form of sucrose, which most of us know as white, granular “table sugar.” It is one of the most overused foods in the Western world. Refined white sugar and brown sugar are the primary ingredients of cookies, cakes, soft drinks, candies, ice cream, cereals, and other sweet foods. In addition, foods such as pasta and bread made out of white flour with the bran, essential fatty acids, and nutrients removed act as simple sugars and also make up a significant part of the diet of many women in Western societies. Many convenience foods (salad dressings, catsup, and relish, to name a few) also contain high levels of both sugar and salt. Some prepackaged desserts and even main courses sold in natural food stores are highly sugared, too, although they are sweetened with fructose, maple syrup, and honey. With sugar so predominant in many foods, it is no wonder sugar addiction is so common in our society among people of all ages. Many people eat sweets as a way to cope with their frustrations and upsets. Statistically, the average American eats more than 120 pounds of sugar per year.
This dietary sugar is eventually metabolized to its simplest form in the body, glucose. Glucose is essential for all cellular processes, since it is the major source of fuel that our cells use to generate energy. However, when we flood our body with too much sugar, it is overwhelmed and cannot process the sugar effectively. This excessive intake can be a major trigger for blood sugar imbalances, food cravings, PMS symptoms, and anxiety symptoms.
It happens like this: unlike simple carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans, and peas, which digest and release sugar slowly, food based on sugar and white flour break down quickly in the digestive tract. Glucose is released rapidly into the blood, and from there is absorbed by the cells of the body to satisfy their energy needs. To handle this overload, the pancreas must release large amounts of insulin. This is the hormone that helps drive glucose into the cells where it can be used as energy.
Often the pancreas releases a flood of insulin, more than the body requires. As a result, the blood sugar level goes from too high to too low, resulting in the “roller coaster” of energy you typically see in hypoglycemia or PMS. You initially feel “high” after eating sugar, followed by a rapid crash. (Excessive amounts of stress also use up glucose rapidly and can cause similar symptoms.) When your blood sugar level falls too low, you begin to feel anxious, jittery, “spacey,” and confused because your brain is deprived of its necessary fuel. To remedy this situation, the adrenal glands release hormones which cause your liver to pump stored sugar into your blood stream. While the adrenal hormones boost the blood sugar level, they unfortunately also increase arousal symptoms and anxiety. Thus, both the initial brain deprivation of glucose and the adrenal gland’s response to restore the glucose levels can intensify symptoms of anxiety and panic in susceptible women.
Several studies have shown the relationship between the overindulgence of simple sugars and resulting PMS symptoms. One study published in the Journal of Applied Nutrition found that women with PMS symptoms had a 50 percent higher sugar intake than normal volunteers. Another study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that women with PMS were more likely than others to crave sweets and experience emotional symptoms premenstrually.
With continued overuse of sugar, the pancreas eventually wears out and is no longer able to clear sugar from the blood efficiently. The blood sugar level rises and diabetes mellitus is the result. This tendency towards diabetes or high blood sugar levels increases dramatically after menopause. Studies show that more than 50 percent of Americans have blood sugar imbalances by the age of sixty-five.
Excess sugar can worsen the anxiety, irritability, and nervous tension that many women feel as they transition into menopause. One study even suggests that a diet high in sugar can impair liver function and affect the liver’s ability to metabolize estrogen. Highly sugared foods also promote tooth decay and gum disease. Many women, however, are addicted to sugar and have a difficult time controlling their intake once they start eating sugary foods like cookies and candy.
The excessive use of sugar has further detrimental effects on the body. Like caffeine, sugar depletes the body’s B-complex vitamins and minerals, thereby increasing nervous tension, anxiety, and irritability. Too much sugar also intensifies tiredness by causing vasoconstriction (the narrowing of the diameter of blood vessels) and putting stress on the nervous system in women with chronic fatigue. Candida feeds on sugar, so overindulging in this high-stress food aggravates chronic candida infections. Many women with chronic candida overgrowth notice a worsening of emotional symptoms like depression and nervous tension. Sugar (as well as caffeine, alcohol, flavor enhancers, and white flour) also appears to be a trigger for binge eating and even bulimia. In fact, research has shown that when women switch from a diet high in sugar to a sugarfree, high nutrient diet, their food addictive behavior tends to cease. After making the switch from a high-sugar diet, women tend to lose or maintain weight more easily and gain relief from the pattern of craving and bingeing. In one small study of 20 women, the women on a nutrient-rich diet (free of sugar and other high-stress foods) were able to remain bingefree for two and a half years.
Because sugar is so deleterious to good health, it is best for menopausal women to avoid sugar entirely or limit its use to small amounts on occasion. It is easy to substitute for sugar in recipes by using fruit, sugar substitutes like aspartame (if you can tolerate them without side effects), or smaller amounts of more concentrated sweeteners. Also, become a label reader. When canned and bottled foods like salad dressings, soft drinks, and baked beans have sugar near the top of the list of ingredients, the product probably contains too much sugar. If so, find alternatives that don’t use sugar or only in very small amounts. If you crave sweets, keep fresh or dried fruits in the house like apples, bananas, or dried figs. Whole grain snacks can be a more healthful choice, too. A good example is an oatmeal cookie or a bran muffin sweetened with fruit juice. You can use whole fruit and whole grain products in small amounts to satisfy your craving for sweets; as an added benefit, they provide many essential nutrients. Instead of disrupting your mood and energy levels, these foods may actually have a healthful effect on the body. If you have hypoglycemia or PMS related blood sugar imbalances, you should avoid simple sugar entirely. Instead, eat a good amount of complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, potatoes, fruits, and vegetables. The sugar in these foods is digested slowly and released gradually into the blood circulation. Thus, the amount of sugar released never overwhelms the body’s ability to process it. For even more blood sugar control, combine complex carbohydrates with protein and essential fatty acids. I usually recommend that patients eat foods like tuna fish on toast, and sesame or almond butter on rice cakes.
In an attempt to reduce table sugar intake and other sweeteners, many women will resort to using artificial sweeteners. Unlike natural sweeteners, which are extracted from real food and do have nutritive value as sources of energy, artificial sweeteners are strictly products of the laboratory. They have a sweet taste but no inherent nutrient value.
Two artificial sweeteners aspartame and saccharin currently dominate the American market. Aspartame is the newer of the two. It is manufactured from phenylalanine and aspartic acid, two different amino acids. Though many women tolerate aspartame well, some do not. Many of my PMS patients or patients with generalized anxiety or food allergies find that aspartame intensifies anxiety and nervous tension, worsens “the jitters,” and even can trigger a rapid heartbeat. In addition, people with phenylketonuria (PKU) are born without the enzyme needed to metabolize phenylalanine. They cannot digest the large amounts of phenylalanine found in the myriad of artificially sweetened soft drinks, desserts, and dietetic foods that are ubiquitous in our society (as well as food naturally high in phenylalanine). People born with this genetic problem find that phenylalanine ingestion triggers headaches, dizziness, mood swings, and other symptoms. On the positive side, however, aspartame is probably the safest artificial sweetener on the market. Since it is 200 times sweeter than table sugar, people need very little to achieve desired culinary results.
The other artificial sweetener currently on the market is saccharin. While it has been used for many decades, much research suggests that it may be mildly carcinogenic in animals. Saccharin, too, is quite sweet and, in fact, is 300 times sweeter than sugar (although it does have a slightly bitter aftertaste). Saccharin contains no calories whatsoever, and, until the advent of aspartame, was the main artificial sweetener used by millions of Americans trying to lose weight. However, because of the health concerns regarding its use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been trying to remove it from the marketplace for many years. As of this writing, it can still be purchased freely in most supermarkets.
A third type of sweetener called cyclamates was actually banned from the market in 1969. Packaged under the brand name Sucaryi, it was a very popular type of artificial sweetener used throughout the 1960s. Laboratory tests found that high dosages of cyclamates produced bladder cancer in research animals.
No artificial sweetener currently on the market is without drawbacks or potential health hazards. It is best to use utilize natural sweeteners in small amounts if you are concerned about potential side effects of artificial sweetners or if you find that you do not tolerate them at all.
Negative Effects of Sugar
- Anxiety and panic episodes
- Chronic fatigue
- Diabetes mellitus
- Food addiction
- Loss of B vitamins and minerals
- Menopausal mood and low energy symptoms
- PMS-related emotional symptoms and food cravings
- Tooth decay and gum disease
Common Food Sources of Sugar
- Beverages: soft drinks, mixed sweet drinks
- Convenience foods: salad dressing, catsup, relish
- Desserts: cookies, candies, cakes, pies, ice cream
- White flour products: pasta, bread, crackers, pastries
Many foods like cheese and meat, as well as salt flavored condiments such as table salt and monosodium glutamate (MSG), generally contain large amounts of sodium. Sodium is one of the body’s major minerals. It is found primarily in the body’s extracellular compartment and in the fluids within the vascular compartments. The rest is stored within the genes. Along with potassium, the primary intracellular mineral, sodium helps to regulate the cell’s water balance. Water tends to accumulate in areas where sodium collects. Thus, an overabundance of sodium in relationship to the body’s potassium levels can lead to edema, bloating, and even some cases of high blood pressure.
During the active reproductive years, ingesting too much salt can worsen premenstrual bloating, fluid retention, and breast tenderness during the week or two prior to the onset of menstruation. It can also worsen the dull aching pain that can accompany menstrual cramps at the beginning of the menstrual period. With the onset of menopause, excess sodium intake is a risk factor for many other health problems like cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Women at high risk for developing these problems should certainly curtail their sodium intake.
Bloating and fluid retention are very common in menopausal women. Fluid retention often adds to the excess pounds that can be so irksome; many women complain that they gain 10 to 15 pounds after menopause and that the weight is very difficult to lose, even with dieting and exercise. Of even greater concern is the fact that excess sodium is a risk factor for osteoporosis, since it accelerates calcium loss from the body.
Besides regular table salt, MSG, another sodium containing flavor enhancer, has been implicated in health problems. MSG is often used in food preparation in Chinese restaurants. It is also a common ingredient in many commercial seasonings, meats, condiments, and oven baked goods. Besides causing headaches and anxiety episodes, this chemical seems to worsen my patients’ food cravings and food addictions.
Unfortunately, avoiding salt and MSG in the American diet, like sugar, takes some work because it is so prevalent. In fact, salt and sugar are often found together in large amounts in frozen, canned, cured, and processed foods. Many of us eat so much salt (far beyond the recommended 2000 mg or one teaspoon per day) that our palates have become jaded. Many people feel that food tastes too bland without the addition of salt. Fast foods such as hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, pizza, and tacos are loaded with salt and saturated fats. Common processed foods such as soups, potato chips, cheese, olives, pickles, salad dressings, and catsup (to name only a few) are also heavily laden with salt. One frozen food entree can contribute as much as one half teaspoon of salt to your daily intake. And if this was not bad enough, many people use the salt shaker liberally in their own cooking and seasoning.
Fortunately, there are many other seasoning options available that are much better
for your health. For flavoring, use garlic, basil, oregano, and other herbs. The fresh foods that we eat such as vegetables, grains, legumes, and meat contain all the salt we need, so added table salt isn’t necessary. As with sugar, it is important that you read the labels before you buy bottled, canned, or frozen food. Don’t buy a product if salt is listed as a main ingredient (near the top of the label). Many brands in the health food stores and supermarkets now distribute foods labeled “no salt added” or “reduced salt.” Be sure to buy these rather than the high-salt foods. If you are sensitive to MSG, be sure to check labels of bottled salad dressings and sauces to make sure that it is not an ingredient. Also, eat at Chinese restaurants that advertise “No MSG” in their ads or in their windows. Many restaurants are aware of the reactions that people have to MSG, so they forego using it in food preparation. Be knowledgeable about the salt substitutes available in natural food stores like miso (flavored soy paste of Japanese origin) or Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids. These and other foods impart a salty taste with less sodium. Also, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables since they are excellent sources of potassium and other essential nutrients. Potassium helps balance the sodium in the body and regulate the blood pressure to keep it at normal levels.
Red Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Products
Red meat (such as beef, pork, and lamb), eggs, and dairy products (such as butter, cream, milk, yogurt, and ice cream) are the main sources of saturated fats in the typical American diet. These fats are solid at room temperature and tend to be more stable and become rancid more slowly than the healthier polyunsaturated fats. Unlike polyunsaturated fats (found primarily in vegetable sources such as raw seeds and nuts, green leafy vegetables, and fish), saturated fats can contribute to such common health problems as heart disease, cancer, obesity, and arthritis. Unfortunately, 40 percent of the calories in the American diet come from these unhealthy, meat-derived saturated fats. The American breakfast of eggs, bacon, milk, toast and butter, as well as dinner choices like hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, and milk shakes, are loaded with saturated fats.
During the active reproductive years, a diet high in saturated fat increases the risk of menstrual cramps, PMS, ovarian cysts, benign breast disease, endometriosis, fibroid tumors of the uterus, heavy menstrual bleeding, and other female health problems. Changing the diet can be difficult for women because meat and dairy products have traditionally been touted as important food groups. Most women consider them the mainstay of their diets, consuming large amounts of cheese, yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, eggs, and meat. Yet meat and dairy products are the main dietary sources of arachidonic acid, the fat that your body uses to produce the series-2 prostaglandin hormones. These hormones are the main culprits implicated in causing the painful menstrual cramps experienced by 50 percent of all younger American women. In my practice, I have seen the severity of menstrual cramps decrease by as much as one third to one half within one menstrual cycle when women completely eliminated these foods from their diet. Also, the high salt content of dairy products increases the bloating and fluid retention usually seen one to two weeks before the onset of menstruation in women suffering from PMS. In postmenopausal women, arachidonic acid derived PGE 2 increases the risk of many health problems emerging during the later years. It actually promotes platelet aggregation or clumping, thereby initiating potentially dangerous clot formation. It also causes inflammation and fluid retention, which can predispose postmenopausal women towards arthritis and high blood pressure.
Besides increasing the levels of the harmful series 2 prostaglandin hormones, the regular use of dairy products, red meat, and eggs also increases estrogen levels in the body. In fact, the blood estrogen levels found in omnivores differs strikingly from those of vegetarian women who eat a lowfat, highfiber diet. Specifically, omnivores have 50 percent higher blood estrogen levels and only one third to one half the blood estrogen excretion rates of vegetarian women. Studies conducted at Tufts University Medical School explained why this is the case. Researchers found that under optimal dietary conditions, large amounts of dietary fiber (normally found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes) bind with estrogen, aiding its excretion from the body in the bowel movements. This helps to regulate the blood estrogen levels and keep them from rising too high. Predictably, women eating a high fat, low fiber diet have higher blood levels of estrogen. Fat promotes the growth of intestinal bacteria that can act chemically on estrogen metabolites, reactivating them so that they can be reabsorbed back into the body. Elevated levels of estrogen can worsen a variety of female complaints, including PMS, fibroid tumors of the uterus, heavy menstrual bleeding, endometriosis, and benign breast disease.
As women reach midlife, the use of meat, eggs, and dairy products can promote a host of other health problems. Saturated fat tends to increase the cholesterol levels in the blood, particularly the high risk, low density lipoproteins that initiate plaque formation in the blood vessels. Plaque formation can eventually lead to heart attacks and strokes. In contrast, the “good” fats derived from fish and vegetable sources can actually prevent heart attacks by reducing the tendency for the blood to clot. A high saturated fat diet can also lead to obesity in women of all ages. Menopausal women are particularly at risk since, as their metabolism slows down with age, they burn calories less efficiently. One gram of fat contains 9 calories versus the 4 calories contained in one gram of protein or carbohydrate. As a result, fatty foods tend to be much higher in calories per unit weight. While saturated fats do provide the body with a concentrated source of energy, very few of us need these extra calories. Instead of burning the fat for energy, we tend to store it in our cells as excess pounds.
A high fat, low fiber diet is also associated with colon cancer, prostate cancer in men, and some breast cancer in women. As mentioned earlier, a high fat diet promotes the conversion of estrogen metabolites by anaerobic bacteria in the intestinal tract to forms of estrogen that can be easily reabsorbed back into the body. This elevates the blood estrogen level with types of estrogen that may increase some women’s susceptibility to breast cancer. In contrast, lowering the amount of dietary fat while increasing the amount of high-fiber foods in the diet can help reduce the risk of hormone related cancers in women.
Many American women base their meals on meat and dairy entrees like steaks, chops, meat sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, and yogurt. Unfortunately, large amounts of meatbased protein can increase the risk of osteoporosis. Meat protein is acidic; when a woman eats meat in excessive amounts, her body must buffer the acid load that meat creates. One way the body accomplishes this is by dissolving the bones. The calcium and other minerals released from the bones helps restore the body’s acid-alkaline balance. (This process does not occur with dairy products which already contain calcium.) One study comparing the incidence of osteoporosis in meat-eating women (omnivores) with that among vegetarians found a dramatic difference in bone density after age sixty. Between the ages of sixty and eighty-nine, vegetarian women lost 18 percent of their bone mass, but meat-eating women lost 35 percent of their bone mass. Quite a striking difference. Other studies show that the amount of protein eaten can make a difference in calcium levels. Protein intake over three ounces a day causes loss of the calcium from the urinary tract. This has been found to be true even in low risk groups such as young, healthy males.
Finally, meat, dairy products, and saturated oils (like coconut and palm-kernel oil) are difficult to digest. As women age, they secrete less hydrochloric acid and fewer of the digestive enzymes needed for fat and protein breakdown in the intestinal tract. In one study, 40 percent of postmenopausal women lacked hydrochloric acid. Without sufficient hydrochloric acid, calcium and iron absorption become more difficult. For women of all ages with chronic tiredness, a meat and dairy based diet can aggravate these symptoms. This is because the body must use so much energy to break these foods down before they can be absorbed, assimilated, and finally utilized. All parts of dairy products are difficult to digest the fat, the protein, and the milk sugar. Digesting dairy products demands hydrochloric acids, enzymes, and fat emulsifiers, which a fatigued woman may not produce in sufficient quantities. Eggs and meat protein are equally difficult to digest for a chronically tired woman.
Dairy foods can also aggravate other health problems. Many women are specifically allergic to dairy products, and dairy products intensify allergy symptoms in general. Besides fatigue, users of dairy products often complain of allergy based nasal congestion, sinus swelling, and postnasal drip. They might also suffer from digestive problems such as bloating, gas, and bowel changes, which intensify with menstruation. This intolerance to dairy products can hamper the absorption and assimilation of the calcium these products contain. Also, clinical studies have shown that dairy products decrease iron absorption in anemic women.
Women concerned about losing calcium by eliminating dairy products from their diet can choose many other food sources of calcium. These include beans and peas, soybeans, sesame seeds, soup stock made from chicken or fish bones, and green leafy vegetables. A delicious potato based milk called Vegelicious; as well as soy milks and nut milk are excellent substitutes for food preparation. These nondairy milks are readily available at health food stores, and many of them are calcium fortified. You can also take a supplement containing calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D to make sure your intake is sufficient.
For optimal protein intake, your diet should emphasize whole grains, beans and peas, seeds and nuts, and fish high in the beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids. Red meat and dairy products are best eliminated or eaten occasionally in small portions. This is truly an optimal diet for most women, emphasizing high nutrient content, low stress foods, and easy digestibility.
If you feel the need to eat meat other than fish, poultry is the best option. Serve poultry broiled or roasted and without the skin. Avoid heavy sauces or dressings. Always buy lean cuts and trim off all visible fat. Fish and poultry should be eaten more frequently than beef, pork, or lamb, which are higher in fat. American dinners traditionally center around a large piece of meat or fish, with small servings of
grain and vegetables as side dishes. For women who want to enjoy optimal health throughout their lives, I recommend reversing this ratio. Keep your meat portions small (3 oz) and fill up with a variety of other nutritious side dishes. Try to buy meat from organic range fed sources. This type of meat has undergone less exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. Most people eat much more meat protein than necessary. In fact, if you find meat difficult to digest, you might be deficient in hydrochloric acid, a digestive enzyme normally found in the stomach. Try taking a small amount of hydrochloric acid (available in tablet form in natural foods stores) with every meat containing meal to see if your digestion improves.
Female Problems Aggravated by Red Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Products
- Benign breast disease
- Breast cancer
- Fibroid tumors of the uterus
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Menstrual cramps
- Ovarian cysts
General Health Problems Aggravated by Red Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Products
- Cancer of the prostate
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic fatigue
- Colon cancer
- Digestive complaints
- Food allergies
Foods High in Saturated Fat
- Coconut oil
- Cream cheese
- Ice cream
- Palm oil
- Sour cream
Margarine is a golden yellow solid spread that has been touted for many decades as a healthier alternative to butter. It is manufactured of polyunsaturated vegetable oils that are altered chemically by saturating their carbon bonds with hydrogen. Hydrogenation changes the liquid vegetable oils to a solid. As a result, it can be used like butter on toast, rolls, and other foods. Hydrogenation also renders the oils more stable, so they are less perishable and have a longer shelf life.
The “margarine is healthy” campaign has been very effective in terms of sales. People who were concerned about their cholesterol levels and risk of heart attack abandoned butter and dramatically increased margarine use. In fact, by 1980, margarine consumption was almost triple that of butter. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are ubiquitous, used in all types of fast food products and processed foods. These include crackers, snack foods, salad oils, and cooking oils, to name but a few types of products.
Are the health claims made for margarine actually true? A number of studies have turned up troubling data on this subject. While it is true that margarine contains no cholesterol, the process of hydrogenation changes not only the physical form of the oils, but alters the way they are metabolized by the body. Once vegetable oils are hydrogenated, they are no longer polyunsaturated. In fact, with hydrogenation, the beneficial structure of the essential fatty acids is altered or destroyed. As a result, the final margarine product is much lower in essential fatty acids. Most of the beneficial oils have been changed to a form called transfatty acids. These transfatty acids tend to predominate in margarine, with some samples containing as much as 60 percent of their oils in this altered form.
Transfatty acids behave differently than the natural oils from which they were derived. They burn more slowly than natural oils and interfere with their function. Transfatty acids also tend to concentrate in the heart. Ominously, recent studies show that people eating four or more teaspoons per day of margarine actually have a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In one study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, the trans-fatty acids in margarine were found to increase LDL cholesterol. This is the type of cholesterol associated with an increased risk of heart attacks. Transfatty acids were also found to lower the beneficial and protective HDL cholesterol levels. Other studies have shown that transfatty acids also increase the level of triglycerides, another risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Another drawback of margarine is that its high water content continues to alter its chemical structure while it is on the supermarket shelf. This degrades the product further.
What is the solution? Ideally, people in our society should decrease their intake, both margarine and butter. With 40 percent of the average American diet composed of fats, intake of margarine should be sharply curtailed. For those women who want to continue to use fats in food preparation, the amount should be decreased significantly. Steaming, roasting, broiling, and other preparation techniques that are fat free should be favored over frying and sauteing in large quantities of oil. When cooking with oil, often a small amount will work just as well. Instead of using margarine as a spread for toast, rolls, or other grain products, use fresh fruit preserves or raw seed and nut butters that have their natural oils intact. Try olive oil as a topping instead of margarine; it is delicious on bread and toast. Avoid fast food outlets since they tend to use partially hydrogenated oils in much of their food preparation. Also, read labels carefully when you buy convenience foods and processed foods in the supermarket. If they contain hydrogenated oil, you are better off buying a safer substitute that contains natural oil, or no oils.