Herbs as Vegetables, and a little on Oxidative Stress
This is part 2 of a discussion of ketogenic diets, antioxidants, and why herbal infusions and herbs in general are a wonderful thing to incorporate.
Going back to the two reasons we don’t need to be too concerned about missing out on antioxidants through minimizing carbohydrate intake:
1 Some of the lowest-carbohydrate vegetables are also some of the best sources of antioxidants. In other words, the best carb choices on this limited-carb program will also tend to maximize antioxidant consumption.
2 When a metabolism is running on free fatty acids/ketones instead of glucose, the process by which mitochondria convert these into ATP for cellular fuel appears to involve less oxidative stress, thus reducing our overall need for antioxidants (although today’s levels of toxin exposure means we’re still wise to get plenty, although “antioxidants” might not be the best way to think about it, see below).
In part 1, I went into some detail about how nourishing/long herbal infusions as part of the diet (of any diet) provide a great complement of antioxidants and minerals. Here’s a bit more on the vegetable end of the herb-vegetable teeter-totter, and I’ll finish with some links showing that metabolism of ketones creates less oxidative stress than metabolism of glucose.
Many of the most nutrient-dense, high-antioxidant vegetables turn out to be very low in carbohydrate, and most of their carbohydrate is fiber. This makes them ideal ketogenic diet foods for many people--along with the small amount of carbohydrate, they’re providing micronutrients, the fiber feeds necessary gut bacteria, and these vegetables are also great fat-transport vehicles!
I mean that both from the culinary perspective, in that oily dressings or sauces combine beautifully with vegetables, and from the nutritional perspective, in that many of the micronutrients in vegetables are fat-soluble (notably vitamins A and K and the carotenoid antioxidants), while the vegetables themselves aid in the breakdown of fat (the acid in sour vegetables helps to emulsify the fat; bitter compounds in vegetables prepare the liver to break the fat down into its constituent parts).
For example, an ounce of arugula contains just one gram of carbohydrate, and it also contains a gram of protein. It’s abundant in B vitamins including folate, as well as vitamins A, C, and E, choline, and important minerals including calcium, magnesium, zinc, sodium, and potassium. I notice that many people love its pungent flavor, even people who generally don’t love the bitter. This spicy flavor points to the sulfur compounds it contains, like other cruciferous vegetables (yes, arugula is one), which have been shown to protect against cancer and to balance estrogens. It’s also high in carotenoids.
Even on a calorie-restricted ketogenic diet most people can “afford” somewhere around 10-30 grams of carbohydrate per day, depending on the individual. This could include several ounces of arugula and other highly medicinal greens.
Yes, you have to forsake the mangos and melons and legumes, and be very sparing with the pumpkin, but really these foods contain less of the antioxidants and micronutrients than the more herb-like veggies do anyway, so this isn’t a viable route to an excuse to consume them, (sorry)!
I understand the process of letting go of those foods. I used to be a fruitarian, remember? For about six years! At this point, the only fruits I eat with any regularity are avocados and olives, and I don’t miss the sweet fruits at all. Cucumber is another botanical fruit that would be ideal in a ketogenic paradigm, but it doesn’t agree with me. Yes, berries are high in antioxidants, and if I was eating more calories overall, I could have a half cup of berries once in a while.
I used to be the biggest fruit aficionada you could hope to find. But at this point, I’ll have to add my own voice to what I’ve heard countless others say: when you start to feel so much better, when you realize how your previous foods made you feel, it doesn’t matter how delicious they are. You don’t want to go back--how you feel in your overall life is so much more important than a delicious taste in your mouth for a few minutes.
And you can replace delicious tastes, too! There are plenty of delicious tastes to be found within a ketogenic diet. (Want me to show you?)
The second reason we don’t need to be too concerned about getting fewer antioxidants on a ketogenic diet is because a ketogenic diet in and of itself is a lower-oxidative-stress way of eating! Mitochondria are tiny organs that exist within each cell. Evidently, they used to be bacteria and have become naturalized semi-independent contractors. They have their own membrane and create their own waste products. They are also the organs that produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the actual fuel used by our cells, for which they need oxygen and either glucose or the eponymous ketones, which are compounds produced in the liver by metabolism of free fatty acids.
The fact that one of the key ingredients in ATP production is oxygen means that there’s no getting around oxidation as part of energy production. The oxygen gets broken down, which creates oxygen radicals--bits of unbound oxygen--that need to be reduced so that they don’t create the sort of degradation that culminates in permanent damage (iron + oxygen = rust, but iron is the crucial transporter of oxygen in our red blood cells). We require oxygen for every aspect of our functioning, which is why so many healing (and holy) techniques boil down to breathing, but oxygen in its unbound/radical forms is also a constant danger to our tissues.
The good news, by the way, which many people don’t realize, is that we actually create our own antioxidants. Is it possible that taking too many antioxidant supplements could make our own endogenous production systems lazy? Or is it simply redundant?
When mitochondria are metabolizing ketones, the production of oxygen radicals (also called reactive oxygen species, ROS) is reduced. This article suggests some explanations for why that might be so. The article also points out that ketones can cross the blood-brain barrier and be used to create energy by the brain’s mitochondria, which can be preferable in situations where glucose-for-energy would lead to anaerobic environment and otherwise increased inflammation.
This article goes into greater experimental detail, specifically considering Parkinson’s Disease.
And here’s another review article explaining how ketogenic diets protect against neuronal death.
This Scientific American article explains the less-oxidative-on-ketones situation in layman’s terms.
And this article by a doctor and this one by a dietician also address mitochondria and oxidation with great clarity.
Note that all of them focus on why this is helpful for the brain. This is why my brain is feeling so much better!
Yes, our toxin exposure from man-made environmental toxins is at an all-time high. Antioxidants may help to meet this. But overall good nutrition and breathing will do more than anything to meet it. And if we can enlist ketones to make better use of oxygen for energy and create less oxidative damage, and if we can nourish ourselves with herbal infusions, and perhaps if we can go out and be with the herbs and gather them, this puts us on a good path.
I’m more and more drawn to think of herbs and foods rather than “antioxidants.” Especially since we need oxygen, and since our bodies produce antioxidants, I don’t think we fully understand their role and value. But when they are components of nourishing herbs, and when we consume them as part of whole herbs, we are taking them in with synergistic cofactors for which we may not even have names yet, which may be wonderful supports to our health.