By Pam Linn

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Comfort food adds balance to life

It’s the time of year when food becomes more than just a snack and a soda to hold us until, you guessed it, a drive-through meal. That may be marginally OK in summer when we’re out and about, soaking up sunshine, surfing and playing beach volleyball.

Autumn chill came a little late, following on the heels of record high temperatures, but it’s here now and the focus is on Thanksgiving and real meals.

Of course, some of us also think about quality food in summer, browsing at farmers markets for fresh local vegetables and fruit; a good balance for ice cream, sorbet or gelato. Take your pick.

Now we start looking at recipes in our favorite magazines and foodie newsletters. An interest in health issues has also driven me to search the news from major health organizations: Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Tufts and Harvard universities, the list is almost limitless. Essentially, however, these publications have little new to offer other than results from studies targeted at controlling high blood pressure, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. And new studies have done little to change age-old advice.

So it was a real pleasure to open the November issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, a publication of Center for Science in the Public Interest. The cover story, “Bad for Bones,” the latest on food and fractures, tests the old recommendations for calcium supplements, bisphosphonates and weight-bearing exercise.

It is no wonder people are confused by one-minute segments on TV targeted at those who are basically overweight and pre-diabetic, said to be two-thirds of our population. Problem is these are not the folks who are at risk for osteoporosis. Many of my friends have been underweight most of their lives and shouldn’t be listening to advice about “healthy diets” written for the larger population.

“Bad for Bones” addresses this anomaly, bringing a new focus on foods that change the acid/alkaline balance of the body. A whole book was devoted to this, “The PH Miracle,” but only a food fanatic would be inclined to read it much less follow its strict regimen.

“The acid load generated by many diets isn’t handled well by older people because of declining kidney function,” the article states.

Well, older people, especially women, are the most likely to have porous bones. Researchers have found that too much acid in the bloodstream causes muscle wasting and bone loss. The body breaks down bone and muscle to neutralize excess acid.

Science has learned bone cells have hydrogen ion receptors that are sensitive to excess acid, but it hasn’t quite worked out exactly how acid signals the muscles to break down. It’s clear that the body tries to defend against increasing acid by breaking down both bone and muscle. Along with balance, bone and muscle strength are our best defenses against fractures.

How to balance the acid load with diet may seem counterintuitive to those of us raised on the mantra of the dairy industry: drink milk and eat cheese for calcium; and the beef industry: eat meat for protein. Plant protein (think beans) has an accompanying alkaline source and is less acid producing than animal protein. Women should try for 60 grams of protein a day and men about 80 grams.

Also, citrus fruits that we think of as acidic create less acid in the bloodstream than refined flour found in white bread, ready-to-eat cereal, rice, tortillas, pasta, crackers, cookies, doughnuts and cupcakes (the basic American diet).

“When these foods are metabolized they release sulfuric and other acids into the bloodstream,” said Bess Dawson-Hughes, a leading researcher and author on bone health. “In contrast, fruits and vegetables get broken down into bicarbonate when they are metabolized so they add alkali to the body.”

Dawson-Hughes says Vitamin D improves strength in the legs and lowers the risk of falling and also is essential for the absorption of calcium. Many nutritionists are advising older adults to take 1,000 IU of D-3 or more daily, as it is almost impossible to get enough from food (there is some in fatty fish and eggs.) Younger people and those living in southern latitudes can convert some sunshine into Vitamin D, but 60 percent of people in the U.S., Canada and Europe get too little.

Dawson-Hughes served on the panel that set the current Recommended Dietary Allowances for vitamin D, but she has said the values are still too low. She also says that excess sodium chloride (salt in the diet) causes calcium leaching and that we shouldn’t discount the importance of weight bearing exercise on bone health. “It appears that the mechanical load from the weight is turned into a chemical signal by the osteocytes, the former osteoblasts, the bone forming cells.”

How this new knowledge translates into nutritious meals isn’t as difficult as it may seem. If we get most of our protein from fish, beans and a few eggs, replace refined grains with whole grain bread, cereals and pasta and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, we’re most of the way there.

So all except vegans can keep the turkey in Thanksgiving, dressing made from whole wheat bread cubes, apples, nuts, onions, celery and such, roasted Yukon Gold potatoes or yams, green beans, butternut or acorn squash, and pumpkin pie. All the good stuff. Instead of chips, try whole grain crackers with the spinach dip. And if you really want to lighten the acid load, ditch the coffee or switch to a very low acid brand. PC Greens sells one from Hawaii.

And for Nutrition Action Healthletter, e-mail www.cspinet.org.