Top Yoga Food: Bananas

Just to the north of me here in Tel Aviv, near Haifa on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the worst wildfire in Israels history has finally been extinguished with the help of fire fighting forces from around the globe. The fire destroyed many of Israel’s banana trees.

That means bananas may be disappearing from my breakfast table for awhile. I eat a banana almost every morning, and I think that just about everyone ought to find a way to sneak a banana or two into their daily diet.

In the Gheranda Samhita, the ancient gurus recommended the same. They may have meant plantains, the forerunner of the modern banana cultivar, but they’re the essentially the same when it comes to healthy food. The health benefits of bananas are many.

Bananas are one of our best natural sources of potassium, a mineral that helps to maintain a normal blood pressure and normal heart function. In a meta-analysis of existing trials  published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the authors concluded that it’s clear from the existing scientific literature that a low potassium intake may play an important role in the development of high blood pressure, and they recommend increasing potassium intake for its prevention and treatment.

The high potassium levels found in bananas may also help to keep bones healthy and to prevent osteoporosis. Potassium can counteract the loss of the body’s calcium through the urine which is caused by a high salt diet, thus preventing the bones from becoming too thin.

High intake of fruits and vegetables, particularly root vegetables, can prevent the development of cancer. A study out of the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Sweden followed 61,000 women aged 40-76 for 13 years. They found that women eating bananas four to six times a week halved their risk of developing kidney cancer compared to those who didn’t eat any.

Bananas are high in vitamin C, with one medium banana a day providing 17% of the recommended intake of this important nutrient. That same banana, packed with nutrition, only carries 105 calories.

Bananas are also high in vitamin B6. One medium sized banana (7 to 8 inches long) provides 22% of the recommended daily allowance of this important nutrient. Pyridoxal phosphate, the metabolically active form of the vitamin, is involved of many aspects of health and metabolism. It is needed for the transformation of tryptophan into serotonin, a neurotransmitter crucial to mood. Most modern anti-depressant medicines aim to increase serotonin, but one way to treat depression naturally is to be sure to get plenty of vitamin B6 daily so the body can make serotonin naturally and efficiently.

Bananas are a great Yoga detox food. They aid detox in three main ways:

  1. The high levels of vitamin B6 enhance oxygen binding capacity of hemoglobin in the red blood cells, aiding in the delivery of oxygen to all cells.
  2. Vitamin B6 is an essential component of two enzymes that convert methionine to cysteine. Cysteine is the limiting substrate incorporated into the compound glutathione, necessary to efficiently fight free radicals through its antioxidant effects.
  3. The high fiber content of bananas helps to keep the bowels moving and the bulk from the fiber cleanses the lower gastrointestinal tract.

Bananas are easy to eat on the go in their peel, or you can add them to other fruit as a blended shake in the morning, or put them on top of your regular cereal.

Another way E. and I enjoy our bananas is in an easy and delicious whole grain, home-made banana bread. Here’s our recipe:

In a bowl, mix 1¼ cups of whole wheat flour, 2 tsp of baking powder, ½ teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1 cup of oats and ½ cup of finely chopped walnuts. In another larger bowl, mix 4 small, very ripe mashed bananas, ½ cup of unsweetened apple sauce, ½ cup of honey, and 1 tsp of vanilla. Fold the dry goods from the first bowl into the mixed contents of the second bowl. Then pour the batter into a lightly greased 8 x 4 x 2½ inch loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 55 minutes.

Mmmm…. we love it!

References:

Whelton PK, et al. Effects of Oral Potassium on Blood Pressure: Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Clinical Trials. JAMA. 1997;277(20):1624-1632.

Rashidkhani B, Lindblad P, Wolk A. Fruits, vegetables and risk of renal cell carcinoma: A prospective study of Swedish women. Int J Cancer. 2005 Jan 20; 113 (3) :451-5.

Nutrition for Yogis

Magnesium in the diet lowers the risk of developing colon and rectal cancer.Thats likely because it helps the body to fight inflammation. Magnesium also has a pivotal role in cellular metabolism, and it helps to prevent the development of insulin resistance and the onset of diabetes. Its yet another reason to eat green leafy things. Spinach is a great source of magnesium – as are other green foods. The center of the chlorophyll molecule (the substance that makes plants have a green color) contains magnesium.

Beans, peas, nuts, and seeds are great sources, too and whole grains. (As always – stay away from refined flour and rice, as the act of processing whole grains to white removes the germ and bran that contain magnesium.) Hard tap water naturally contains important minerals like magnesium. When you can, drink filtered tap water rather than distilled or bottled water.

Replacing saturated fat in the diet with both n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) significantly reduces the risk of sudden cardiac death.In other words, if you eat saturated fat-rich animal foods like beef, pork, lamb, and dairy products, youre more likely to suddenly drop dead from a heart attack than if you get the fat in your diet from walnuts, flaxseeds, fish, and corn and soybean oils. Interestingly, in this recent study oils high in monounsaturated fats (olive and canola) had no association with sudden cardiac death at all. They were neither protective nor detrimental.
Even more interesting, the theory that has been circulating that the protective effects of n-3 PUFAs (from walnuts, flaxseed, and fish) are attenuated by a high intake of n-6 PUFAs (corn and soybean oil) didnt hold up. The concern has been that eating a lot of corn and soybean oil negates the health effects of eating walnuts and flaxseeds. This is usually discussed as a ratio – that ideally we need to get equal amounts of each or have a 2:1 ratio of n-6 to n-3 in the diet for maximum protective benefits. This was a cohort study, not a prospective, randomized, and controlled trial, so the results need to be kept in perspective.

If you have asthma, eating a diet high in carotenoids will help you to breath better – but only when those carotenoids come from whole fruits and vegetables and not from a vitamin pill or a supplement. Asthma sufferers eating 5 serving of vegetables and 2 servings of fruits daily do much better than those eating less than 2 servings of vegetables and less than 1 serving of fruit each day. Whether you have asthma or not, its worth it to take notes from this study. A big underlying problem with asthma is inflammation – a common underlying culprit in many diseases. Eating fruits and vegetables in high quantities decreases inflammation in the body.

People eating a high carbohydrate diet with less animal protein and less saturated animal fat are the ones eating fewer calories and having lower BMIs. They also get more healthy vitamins and minerals naturally. Eating fresh fruit, pasta, and rice was better for maintaining a trim figure than eating meat and limiting carb intake. So much for the low-carb diet fad.

These studies corroborate what the Yoga gurus wrote hundreds of years ago. Avoid meat in the diet. Eat lots of whole grain rice, barley, and wheat. Make lentils and beans a primary protein source. Enjoy lots of veggies – especially the green stuff, and satisfy your sweet tooth with fresh fruit every day.

References:

  1. Wark, P. A., Lau, R., Norat, T., Kampman, E. Magnesium intake and colorectal tumor risk: a case-control study and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr September 2012, Volume 96. 
  2. Chiuve, S. E., Rimm, E. B., Sandhu, R. K., Bernstein, A. M., Rexrode, K. M., Manson, J. E., Willett, W. C., Albert, C. M. Dietary fat quality and risk of sudden cardiac death in women.Am J Clin Nutr September 2012, Volume 96. 
  3. Wood, L. G., Garg, M. L., Smart, J. M., Scott, H. A., Barker, D., Gibson, P. G. Manipulating antioxidant intake in asthma: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr September 2012, Volume 96. 
  4. Shay, C. M., Van Horn, L., Stamler, J., Dyer, A. R., Brown, I. J., Chan, Q., Miura, K., Zhao, L., Okuda, N., Daviglus, M. L., Elliott, P., for the INTERMAP Research Group. Food and nutrient intakes and their associations with lower BMI in middle-aged USadults: the International Study of Macro-/Micronutrients and Blood Pressure (INTERMAP). Am J Clin Nutr September 2012, Volume 96. 

Are You Vitamin B12 Deficient?

A young woman in her twenties began to have numbness and tingling in both of her legs. The feelings increased in intensity over several months. Slowly, she began to feel unsteady on her feet and eventually started falling over. When she also lost control of her bladder and began peeing her pants at such a young age, she finally took herself to the doctor.

Her diagnosis? Vitamin B12 deficiency.

The young woman was lucky. Supplementation reversed her symptoms, but not everyone is so fortunate. In many, the neurological damage is irreversible.

If you are vegetarian or vegan like many serious yogis, theres a good chance you might be vitamin B12 deficient, too. In a UK study last year, 52% of vegans and 7% of vegetarians were found to have deficient levels. Another 21% and 17% of vegans and vegetarians, respectively, had a serum vitamin B12 at the borderline low level.

Reprinted from J Med Case Reports. 2011; 5: 166.

That borderline level can be dangerously deceptive. Weve learned that tissue levels of B12 can be too low even when blood levels appear to be okay. Anyone with a borderline level needs to have another test or two looking at B12 function to determine whether or not they are getting enough of this important vitamin.

Unfortunately, it seems we non-meat-eaters arent paying enough attention to vitamin B12. Only 19% of those in the UK study reported taking a regular B12 supplement.

Among supplement users, 11% of vegetarians and 37% of vegans didnt meet the average daily requirement for vitamin B12 intake. That means even the supplement takers in the study werent getting enough of this important vitamin. Maybe thats because their supplements contained an inactive plant-based form of B12. We now know that this form is not only ineffective, but it also interferes with the absorption of naturally occurring B12 in food. If youre taking the wrong B12, youre not only not helping yourself, youre hurting yourself.

Vitamin B12 is crucial for brain cells and the tissues supporting all nerves. Its important for DNA synthesis and the synthesis of some brain chemicals involved in mood disorders and memory. Vitamin B12 is needed to make blood cells and low levels can cause anemia and troubles with immunity. Anemia is usually a late manifestation appearing long after nerve troubles. The young woman above, for example, had completely normal blood counts.

Symptoms of Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Numbness and tingling in the arms, legs, feet, or hands
Clumsiness with difficulty handling utensils and dropping things
Depression
Memory problems
Difficulty concentrating
Tiredness
Difficulty walking
Dry vaginal and vulvar mucosa
Frequent vaginal yeast infections
Possibly abdominal pain and nausea

If youre vegetarian or vegan – even if youre taking a supplement and think you have it covered – consider getting a blood test for vitamin B12. If you have any of the symptoms listed in the table above, please dont waste any time.

The treatment is a high dose of the proper kind of B12 taken as a pill. Doctors used to give shots, but weve learned thats overkill and pills (the right ones!) work just fine. If youre found to be deficient, dont mess with the over-the-counter unregulated brands that might contain the ineffective plant-based form or a similar non-working analogue. Your doctor can prescribe prescription strength, guaranteed quality vitamin B12 to treat your deficiency and, with any luck, relieve your symptoms.

Next time well talk about ways to prevent vitamin B12 deficiency on a vegan or vegetarian diet.

References:

  1. Gilsing AM, Crowe FL, Lloyd-Wright Z, Sanders TA, Appleby PN, Allen NE, Key TJ. Serum concentrations of vitamin B12 and folate in British male omnivores, vegetarians and vegans: results from a cross-sectional analysis of the EPIC-Oxford cohort study. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Sep;64(9):933-9. Epub 2010 Jul 21.
  2. Herrmann W, Obeid R. Causes and early diagnosis of vitamin B12 deficiency. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2008 Oct;105(40):680-5. Epub 2008 Oct
  3. Watanabe F. Vitamin B12 sources and bioavailability. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2007 Nov;232(10):1266-74.
  4. Dali-Youcef N, Andrès E. An update on cobalamin deficiency in adults. QJM. 2009 Jan;102(1):17-28. Epub 2008 Nov 5.
  5. Rabhi S, Maaroufi M, Khibri H, Belahsen F, Tizniti S, Berrady R, Bono W. Magnetic resonance imaging findings within the posterior and lateral columns of the spinal cord extended from the medulla oblongata to the thoracic spine in a woman with subacute combined degeneration without hematologic disorders: a case report and review of the literature. J Med Case Reports. 2011 Apr 27;5:166.

What about other natural sources of B12?

There is no naturally occurring form of vitamin B12 that works in humans except for that made by bacteria. Animals eat the bacteria and then store the vitamin in their meat, milk, and eggs. Plants make their own vitamin B12, but its a form we cant use.

Any kind of seaweed, chlorella, fermented soybean, or other plant-based source of vitamin B12 is NOT reliable.

Only bacteria produce the form of B12 usable by the human body. Plant-based vitamin B12 contains analogues that interfere with the absorption and function of the correct form of B12.

These analogues can also interfere with the blood test for B12 giving a false reassurance of adequate levels. If youve been relying on plant/algae/chlorella derived vitamin B12 and are resistant to taking a supplement, ask your doctor to test blood levels of MMA and/or homocysteine to get a better idea of your actual B12 status. MMA and homocysteine levels in the blood are markers of vitamin B12 activity, and they rise when B12 function is inadequate.

The only other option is supplementation with fortified foods or pills.

Yeast and soy products that are fortified with B12 from bacterial or synthetic sources can provide adequate levels if ingested in sufficient quantities. Be careful though, because many of these foods contain plant-based vitamin B12 that is actually an analogue and therefore detrimental. Read the label carefully.

Commercial breakfast cereals, at least those manufactured in the United States, are usually fortified with an appropriate form of vitamin B12. If you are eating at least a full serving every day of Kelloggs All-Bran with Extra Fiber or some similarly fortified (preferably low-sugar and high fiber) commercial product, then vitamin B12 intake may be adequate.

Yeast, breakfast cereals, and soy products fortified with B12 are not natural sources. They are fortifications and thus supplements and therefore exactly what you are getting from a pill except perhaps less reliable if you dont eat adequate amounts every single day.

What to do:

Repletion. If you have not had an abundant, reliable source of vitamin B12 for two months or more, go directly to the pharmacy and buy 1000 microgram tablets. Both cyancobalamine and methylcobalamine are fine. The first is more traditionally used and therefore better studied. It doesnt matter whether you take a sublingual preparation placed under the tongue or take a pill. Take one a day for a month. After this important repletion of vitamin stores, follow the minimum daily maintenance recommendations.

Minimum daily maintenance. To get enough vitamin B12 from naturally occurring vegetarian food sources, eat at least a full cup of naturally produced yogurt (preferably sugar-free with live cultures) or low fat cottage cheese every single day. A cup of yogurt provides the bare minimum amount of vitamin B12 (or probably not if you listen to the US RDA and other recent data suggesting higher levels are much better for health). Its also a good source of calcium and of probiotic bacteria to keep the gut healthy.

An alternative for those who dont like yogurt is to drink at least two cups of milk every day. Note though that some evidence suggests that two or more glasses of milk may increase the risk of developing prostate cancer and three or more may increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Eggs cannot be your primary source of vitamin B12. The amount of eggs that would need to be eaten to maintain adequate vitamin B12 levels is unrealistic and dangerous from the perspective of saturated fat and cholesterol.

Cheese might be a good source of vitamin B12, but its also loaded with saturated fat and calories, especially the best tasting variety thats made from whole milk. Getting much of your vitamin B12 from cheese isn’t a good idea.

Consider eating fortified foods like commercial breakfast cereals or yeast preparations. Make sure you check the labels to ascertain you are getting at least the bare minimum of 1 or 2 micrograms daily without unnecessary additives, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, or sugar. For the yeast preparations, check to see that a bacterial or synthetic source of vitamin B12 has been added and not a plant derived analogue.

Ultimately, the best alternative for vegetarians (and especially vegans) may simply be to take a vitamin B12 supplement containing 25 to 100 micrograms daily. Theres concern that when mixed within a multivitamin, some chemical reactions take place that decrease B12 availability. As long as the vitamin manufacturer is reliable and the dose is 25 to 100 micrograms, the supplement should remain adequate.

You can also take the prescription strength 250 microgram tablet containing only vitamin B12 every day. There is a maximum amount that can be absorbed through a specialized mechanism in the intestines with the rest expelled through feces. Taking the higher dose may counteract a rising incidence of problems with vitamin B12 absorption such as is seen with small bowel bacterial overgrowth and low stomach acid resulting from pills taken for GERD or as a consequence of aging.

The bottom line…

Vegetarian, particularly vegan, yogis need to consider taking a commercial B12 supplement. A daily low dose tablet taken with food is more reliable than sporadic intake from various supplemented foods like breakfast cereals, soy products, and yeast.

Anyone resistant to supplementation from food products or pills should ensure they are eating abundant amounts of dairy products, preferably low fat and low calorie varieties.

Eggs cannot be relied upon as a sufficient source of adequate amounts of vitamin B12.

Anyone eating the bare minimum of one cup of yogurt or cottage cheese per day without other supplementation should have their blood levels of vitamin B12 (and/or its function with MMA and homocysteine) checked at least yearly and with any subtle manifestation of deficiency. Dont forget that if youve been ingesting plant based B12 analogues, they can interfere with the accuracy of the test.

Vitamin B12 for Yogis

Im generally not an advocate for taking anything from a pill bottle. Medicines should be kept to a minimum. Vitamins and nutrients are best absorbed from wholesome food and not from a tablet.

When it comes to vitamin B12 though, I make an exception. Many vegetarian and vegan yogis are simply not getting enough. Consequently, theyre slowly and insidiously harming their brains and nerves and potentially increasing their risk for various cancers.

How much vitamin B12 should you get every day?

The absolute bare minimum is 1 microgram per day, the average amount lost from the body in 24 hours. The US recommended daily allowance (RDA) for most adults is 2.4 micrograms. Recent evidence suggests weshould be getting 4 micrograms every day to ward off subtle brain dysfunction like depression and memory deficits as well as to prevent serious morbidity like dementia and stroke.

Animal products contain relatively high-levels of bacterially produced, naturally occurring vitamin B12. Omnivores generally meet even the higher requirements mentioned above. On the other hand, yogis following traditional Yoga advice dont eat any form of meat including fish. That leaves them with only a few naturally occurring sources such as dairy products, which are recommended for consumption by the classic texts, and eggs. Beyond that, its supplements in the form of fortified foods or pills.

How can vegetarians get enough naturally occurring vitamin B12?

To reach the absolute bare minimum to replace the average 1 microgram lost from the body daily without some from of supplementation, you must be drinking or eating:

  • 2 cups of milk every day or
  • 1 cup of yogurt every day or
  • 1 cup of cottage cheese every day
  • 5 ounces of mozzarella cheese every day or
  • Any other form of cheese in adequate amounts or
  • 20 eggs every day or
  • A proportional mix of milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs

These values take into consideration the bioavailability of the vitamin within its source. For example, eggs contain a substance that inhibits absorption in the intestines. Although each egg contains 0.6 micrograms of vitamin B12, it is only 9% available, so the effective dose from eating one egg is only roughly 0.06 micrograms. The vitamin B12 within milk, cheese, and yogurt is only 65% bioavailable. Of the 1.5 micrograms in one cup of yogurt, only .98 micrograms gets absorbed.

To meet the higher safety standard of the US RDA, youd need to more than double the amounts of milk products and eggs listed above. The recommendations are based not on what is average (1 microgram per day), but on what would cover 98 or 99% of the population – because everyone isnt average. Were all a little different when it comes to the subtleties of physiology.

For the highest level recommendations according to recent research, 4 micrograms, youd have to quadruple the amounts on the list. Eight cups of milk, four cups of yogurt, 20 ounces of mozzarella cheese, or 80 eggs in a day – or any proportionate combination of them is definitely WAY too much!