Archive for December 4th, 2010

You are what you eat

I mentioned yesterday that my bacteriology professor sort of radicalized me about food during the course of my studies with her.  What she said at the end of the lecture where she imparted the following information was this:   “You really ARE what you eat, you know.”

She and her partner were working on research about cell wall structure.   In the course of their research, they had reason to utilize substances that were marked with radioactive isotopes so they could be tracked in the body.

I suppose I could go into a long involved lecture about cell wall structure, but I can hear my readers yawning and complaining already just at the very thought of such an ascent into biochemistry.   I’ll just use a very simple metaphor.   Cell walls are formed by long chains of hydrocarbons and you could visualize them to be rather like those bead curtains you find hanging in certain funky doorways.  Only of course they are in great sheets rather than just one line of beads.

What my professor had found out through her research is that we are extremely efficient about our digestion of fats.   We have developed enzymes that allow us to transport these rather large molecules through the walls of the intestines unchanged.   They ride through our blood stream (raising our cholesterol in the process, incidentally) and are scooped up by the construction engineers of our body and incorporated unchanged into the cell walls.

This doesn’t sound particularly dangerous, or problematical on the surface.

There is a problem, however.    Those fatty acids that we incorporate into our bodies unchanged come in several varieties.  For simplification, we’ll break them down into two major sorts:   Partially hydrogenated (also called de-hydrogenated) and hydrogenated.

Carbon has four electrons available for forming bonds.   A carbon atom that has all four of those sites occupied by a hydrogen atom would be fully hydrogenated (and would also be called methane, incidentally).   If you make a long string of carbons, all neatly furnished with hydrogens, all those bonds form at what are called tetrahedral angles, approximately 109.5.  A long chain of carbons that is fully hydrogenated where all the carbons are hooked together with single bonds makes a rather twisty form because of this.  (For a decent discussion of bond angles and molecular shapes, go here.)

If you remove a couple of hydrogen atoms from adjacent carbon atoms on the string (de-hydrogenate it) what happens is the two carbon atoms, bereft of hydrogen to share electrons with, form a double bond with each other.   The tricky part is, when you replace a single bond like that with a double bond, the two carbons no longer form a tetrahedral angle with each other and the remaining hydrogens.   They now ride along in a straight line, become linear.

Now, let’s go back to the hanging bead strings.   Imagine your cell walls, with millions of these fat chains more or less aligned with each other, forming a barrier between what is outside the wall and what is inside.   If you have lots of long strings of twisty carbons, they sort of tangle with each other.   Also, the “corners” of the molecules share an electronic attraction, which makes them “stick together” as well.   They sort of look and act like strings of wool yarn that you just pulled from the skein and hung up on the ceiling.

What happens if you replace these twisty strings with long straight strings  of double bonded carbons?   They hang nicely, just like those vertical venetian blinds that you see in bank lobbies.   They also do not have the extra “static” charge that makes them stick together, either.

So, when a virus (or a toxic substance that you don’t necessarily want inside your cell) approaches the cell wall, imagine it coming up to a cell wall made exclusively of fully hydrogenated fatty acid chains, all tangled up together and sort of sticking together all up and down the chain.   To muscle through that tangle is not very easy, which is why we have transport molecules to assist in getting things we need to travel across the cell wall in and out of the cells.

But visualize all those neat vertical blinds.   A virus that wants in can just sort of shoulder through, shoving them aside fairly easily because they don’t have the weak bonds or the tangling to get in the way.

Your body isn’t wise enough to discriminate between partially hydrogenated and fully hydrogenated when it gets material for the cell wall, it uses what you ingest.   If what you are ingesting is all processed and shelf stable fatty acids full of double bonds, suddenly your defenses against the baddies you come in contact with are impaired.   You are more likely to get the flu, or a cold, when the virus is running around in your body, because it can find a way in through your weakened cell wall.

And if you are consuming lots of free radicals, they attack the double bonds in the carbon chains and make them in to free radicals as well, which tends to age you quickly as well as being one of the ways cancer gets started in the body.   And if you are being exposed to carcinogens, they can get into the cell more easily too.

I took that information to heart, back in my tender early twenties, and decided that I was going to choose to provide my body with building materials that would help me fight disease and minimize my exposure to carcinogens.  That was when I switched from oleomargarine to butter, and started avoiding processed food.  I also started looking for organic food too, which wasn’t that easy to find in the 70s, I can tell you.

I think it is interesting that it took almost 40 years for the mainstream to finally realize that partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are really not good for us, and that they are starting to be removed from our food supply.

It makes me wonder what ELSE they haven’t figured out yet:  like how detrimental are “safe” food dyes, and artificial flavorings, and preservatives?    The cynic in me wonders if they have got it figured out but just don’t want to tell us because it would affect their bottom line.   I mean, where would OreIda be if everybody figured out that it was pretty easy to peel and cook a potato without it being processed, inundated with processed fats, shaped and frozen?

You ARE what you eat, and don’t you forget it.

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