Chris Masterjohn (part 3)

by on December 1, 2013

Matt: Chris, thanks coming back onto and answering some questions for me. Last time you were here it was exactly 3 years ago and John interviewed you, now it’s my turn! I can’t wait to get to some burning questions for you, but before we get to that tell me about what’s been going on in your life and any updates you have.

Chris: Thanks to both of you for inviting me back! It was a lot of fun last time and I look forward to answering some more questions this time around.

Matt: You’re a big advocate on vitamins/minerals, how much do we really absorb from our tablets and capsules? Are they worthwhile to take or should we still try and get these nutrients from our diets?

Chris: I think it’s better to get nutrition from foods than supplements, but there is also room for supplementation. In general, I don’t think poor absorption of nutrients from supplements is the primary reason for this. The major problem, rather, is that the interactions between nutrients are complex and whole foods are most likely far more than the sums of their parts.

Poor-quality supplements may sometimes contain poorly absorbable ingredients, though more commonly cheaper supplements will contain vitamins in less than ideal forms that compromise their bioavailability by other means. Before we get to the major problem with biological complexity, let’s discuss this problem.

Take, for example, vitamin B12. The basic B12 molecule is called “cobalamin,” but there is an interchangeable portion of the molecule that results in different forms that all have complex scientific names ending in “cobalamin.” In foods we get a mix of hydroxycobalamin, methylcobalamin, and 5’-deoxyadenosylcobalamin. Cheap supplements, however, contain cyanocobalamin. This is a form that is not found in foods. It has cyanide attached to it instead of one of the normal attachments like a methyl, hydroxyl, or 5’-deoxyadenosyl group. In the body, after we consume cyanocobalamin, we release cyanide and use the cobalamin to form one of the more natural forms of B12 listed above. The amount of cyanide released is tiny and we won’t get cyanide poisoning from it. In fact we can get cyanide from a lot of natural foods including many fruits and vegetables and even some starches. But what do we do with the cyanide? We detoxify cyanide primarily by two mechanisms. The first is to take sulfur from the amino acid cysteine and convert it to thiocyanate, which we can pee out, but which also competes with iodine for absorption into the thyroid gland, and, in women, the mammary glands. This isn’t much of a problem as long as we have adequate iodine and sulfur amino acids in the diet. The second way we detoxify cyanide, however, is to combine it with cobalamin and form cyanocobalamin, which we promptly excrete in the urine. This naturally leads me to wonder, then, just how bioavailable is cyanocobalamin when our bodies are designed to pee it out as a way of detoxifying cyanide? It will definitely cure a frank deficiency, but no one to my knowledge has compared its efficacy at supporting B12-related functions head to head with other more expensive forms of B12 on the market, and I suspect those would prove superior. Without knowing for sure, I would default to getting supplements that provide B12 in the forms we find in food. This is entirely possible. The only problem is you pay an arm or a leg for it, and unless you have a known problem absorbing the B12 requiring extremely high doses, it’s a lot more cost-effective to obtain it from food.

There are plenty of other examples like this but the take-home message is always the same: you pay more for a higher quality supplement, and the high-quality supplements are usually just providing the nutrient in a way you could get from food.

The larger problem is biological complexity. Understanding biological complexity is like peeling away the layers of an onion. You find one network of primary interactions, but then you peel away the next layer to find another set of interactions. As you peel away each layer you find more and more interactions that get progressively more indirect but also more complex and not necessarily any less important, which ultimately leads you to realize everything interacts with everything.

Take, for example, a topic I’ve written an awful lot about: fat-soluble vitamin interactions. Vitamins A, D, and K constitute a functional network of vitamins that are critically important to have in balance. Studies show, for example, that vitamins A and D are safe and effective at preventing the common cold in humans, but when provided alone each one is toxic and does nothing to prevent colds. Experiments in many different animal species show that if you get too much vitamin A you get bone loss, but providing vitamin D prevents this. Conversely when you have too much vitamin D you get soft tissue calcification – meaning pathologic deposition of mineral crystals in the kidneys, blood vessels, heart valves, and other tissues where such mineral salts don’t belong – but providing vitamin A corrects this. Experiments with cells and in some cases animals suggest that vitamins A and D together may be able to prevent cancer, regenerate pancreatic cells in type 1 diabetes, and prevent autoimmune diseases in general. Basically the two vitamins synergize to support health but antagonize each other’s toxicity.

If we hone in on the regulation of calcium and bone metabolism, vitamin K comes into the picture. Vitamins A and D cooperate to regulate a number of vitamin K-dependent proteins. One of these is osteocalcin, which accumulates in bone matrix and, at least in mice and probably in people too, gets released during the natural process of bone resorption to promote the production of insulin and testosterone – both important to bodybuilders! – And to maximize sensitivity to insulin. Vitamins A and D help produce the protein, but in the absence of vitamin K, the protein can’t accumulate in bone matrix. Another key player is matrix Gla protein, which is produced in the kidneys, cartilage, blood vessels, and many other soft tissues. It prevents calcium salts from depositing these tissues and makes sure they accumulate in bone. In the absence of the active form of this protein, growth in children is compromised because the cartilage growth plates calcify early, and we see the calcification of kidneys, blood vessels, and other soft tissues, and the demineralization of bones and teeth. Basically calcium is going into all the wrong places and none of the right places. If you get too much vitamin D and not enough vitamin A, you make way too much of this protein, more than vitamin K can activate efficiently, and you wind up with a defective form of the protein that can’t do its job. When you have A and D in balance, with adequate K, you make lots of high-quality, activated vitamin K-dependent proteins that do their jobs and promote vibrant health.

But this is just, so to speak, the first layer of the onion. If we peel away another layer, we see interactions with other nutrients, such as fat, carbohydrate, carbon dioxide, thyroid hormone, zinc, and magnesium. Fat is needed to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Thyroid hormone is needed to produce vitamin K-dependent proteins, and both thyroid hormone and carbohydrate are needed to produce lots of carbon dioxide, which vitamin K uses to activate those proteins. Zinc promotes the absorption of vitamins A and D and, conversely, vitamins A and D promote the absorption of zinc. Zinc is needed for the activation of vitamin A and also for the nuclear receptors for both vitamins. Without proper functioning of those nuclear receptors, vitamins A and D cannot control the production of proteins. No proteins can be produced without magnesium, moreover, nor can any energy-dependent process go forward. Energy is required for order, so no order in the body can be maintained without magnesium. An example of such order would be keeping calcium where it belongs and out of where it doesn’t belong. That allows for a number of interactions with the fat-soluble vitamins. When vitamins A and D tell the cell in a zinc-dependent fashion to make – for example – matrix Gla protein, magnesium is needed to make it and vitamin K is needed to activate it. Matrix Gla protein will prevent calcium salt crystals from forming in the blood and depositing in soft tissues, thereby making the calcium available for bones and teeth. But magnesium is needed for the energy-dependent process of keeping calcium either outside the cell or in specialized storage vesicles. If it doesn’t do that, no matter how much matrix Gla protein you have, the calcium won’t be available in the blood for matrix Gla protein to protect and make available to bones and teeth. In fact it will be making mischief in the cell, contributing to inappropriate, involuntary muscle contractions. The regulation of calcium flow in the nerve cells also becomes disturbed in the absence of magnesium, contributing to inappropriate nerve excitation. This leads to cramps and spasms.

Now you could say, well, let’s just supplement with all these factors. But in every case you have other layers of the onion to peel away. When you supplement with zinc, for example, your intestines ramp up their production of a protein called metallothionein. This protein functions to store not only zinc but also copper. The copper gets trapped in the intestinal cells, which slough off into the feces every few days, leading the copper to get flushed down the toilet. As a result, supplementing with high doses of zinc can rapidly induce a copper deficiency.

Now we could try to use our understanding of these interactions to micromanage an expansive supplementation program, but we would not only be paying an awful lot of money to support such a program, but we would be at the mercy of all the things we don’t know. It would be folly to assume we understand ninety percent of biology. It’s quite possible we understand less than ten percent of it, or even less than one percent of it. Donald Rumsfeld once explained it quite well in application to another discipline: “There are known knowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

With foods, we not only tend to get these nutrients in the proper forms and in these interacting networks, but we get thousands of other things whose importance we may not understand. I’d love to see someday an experiment where foods are compared head to head with everything we think is nutritionally important in them in the exact same amounts and proportions and see which fares better. Perhaps I’ll conduct such an experiment myself one day. In the absence of a rigorous experimental demonstration that foods are more than the sums of their parts, however, I am going to hedge my bets this is true. I think it is much safer to assume this is true than to assume we know enough to perfectly manage an expansive supplementation program.

With that said, I think there is also a place for targeted supplementation. As an example, I have a genetic polymorphism – a variation in a single unit of genetic information – that decreases my ability to recycle vitamin K. I think that is why I have been so vulnerable to tooth decay when my diet quality suffers. So as a precaution I take a vitamin K2 supplement almost every day, which is the form of vitamin K that best supports calcium metabolism. I don’t let it replace the vitamin K in my diet though. I still try to get plenty of vitamin K1 from leafy greens and different forms of vitamin K2 from animal fats and fermented foods, and make sure that nutrient-dense foods are the foundation of my diet. The supplement is just that – a supplement. I think supplements are useful when targeted and used for good reason. But the foundation of the approach should always be an appropriate balance of nutrient-dense foods.

Matt: How would you suggest someone eats enough micro nutrients without consuming too many calories? Bodybuilders in particular are carb conscious and certainly have a fructose-phobia. Aside from popping capsules all day do you have any suggestions or strategies?

Chris: Well dumping the fructophobia should be a high priority in general, regardless of concern over vitamins and minerals, because there is no scientific basis for fear of or aversion to fructose from natural foods and because fearing a nutrient – after all, that’s exactly what fructose is – is always going to hamper the ability to appropriately balance one’s diet, but it’s also going to greatly hamper the ability to listen to one’s own body. When we have strongly held preconceptions about what is or isn’t healthy, it’s a lot easier to get stuck in a rut and a lot harder to identify what we’re doing wrong once we’re in the rut.

Part of my approach to nutrition is to combat phobias. I started as a way to vindicate cholesterol because our society is so phobic of it. I’ve written a lot to vindicate saturated fat because our society is similarly phobic of it. But had this wave of fructophobia arisen eight or nine years ago, who knows? Maybe I would have made my website instead. Or maybe I would have made it Or We should definitely pay close attention to how we respond to foods, and one person’s food may be another’s poison, but we can best assess how we respond to foods when we don’t have any preconceived ideas that some foods are intrinsically poisonous.

But to answer your first question, the key is to focus on nutrient-dense foods. If calories are a concern, you can look at nutrient density on a per-calorie basis: how much of any given vitamin or mineral does this food have per calorie? Leafy vegetables tend to be very nutrient dense in that sense because they have so few calories. Organ meats like liver tend to be the most nutrient-dense animal foods, although certain shellfish are sometimes the most nutrient-dense sources of certain minerals. For example, oysters are incredible dense in zinc, and clams are incredibly dense in iron and B12. The least nutrient-dense foods are refined foods like white sugar and white flour, which have been stripped of most of their micronutrients during the refining process. Healthy people who aren’t restricting calories can probably tolerate consuming some refined foods, but when you are restricting calories you really should eliminate them, because you have to fit the nutrition you need into a smaller allotment of total food, meaning you really need to ramp up the nutrient density. Getting rid of refined foods and increasing foods like liver, shellfish, and leafy greens, will help optimize nutrition on a calorie-restricted diet.

It’s not just about nutrient-density, though: it’s also about nutrient balance. Liver is incredibly rich in most nutrients, but it’s pretty pitiful as a source of calcium and magnesium. Milk, bones, and cruciferous vegetables are the best sources of calcium, and unrefined plant foods tend to be the best sources of magnesium. Similarly, animal foods are poor in vitamin C. Liver has some, and adrenal and pituitary tissue – which almost no one in our society eats – are quite rich in it. In general, though, fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C. It makes no sense to stock up on liver alone for its nutrient density while neglecting several nutrients it doesn’t contain to the point of deficiency. As I said above, moreover, vitamins A, D, and K need to be balanced. The liver of land animals is incredibly abundant in vitamin A but is very poor in vitamin D. In most cases, moreover – the one exception I know of is goose liver – it’s only a modest source of K. So you want to get plenty of sunshine for vitamin D, and supplement that with fatty fish or fish liver oil, and with eggs and butterfat from pastured animals exposed to lots of sunshine, while getting vitamin K from leafy greens, animal fats, and fermented foods.

Balance is also important when it comes to macronutrients. When you cut calories, your absolute need for protein stays the same, so as a proportion of calories you need to eat more protein. Excessive restriction of either calories or carbohydrate can lower thyroid activity, and restricting both is going to be a double whammy on the thyroid. So when you restrict calories, it probably becomes more important to make sure you get adequate carbs. That really leaves added fat as the easiest thing to cut, but you don’t want to completely forsake added fat because many people won’t feel full without it, and the evidence is pretty clear that when you eat more fat, you absorb more fat-soluble nutrients. I think the point here is to realize that each nutrient – including the dreaded calorie – has its own unique profile of benefits, and when we eat less, we have to be all the more mindful of getting all those benefits. And that means hitting two birds with one stone wherever we can. If you’re cutting calories and you want to make sure you’re getting enough carbs, don’t do so with white rice, for example, but with carbs that also supply lots of vitamins and minerals, such as fruits or unrefined starches.

It’s also important to realize that some lifestyle factors can be seen as nutrients. Stress can wreak havoc on the endocrine system, for example, and can lower thyroid activity. Lowering thyroid activity lowers the activity of the fat-soluble vitamins. So going outside, getting fresh air and sunshine (which also provides vitamin D), having fun, and laughing a bit, getting plenty of rest, and removing negative stressors are all important. After all, what’s the point of getting all the fat-soluble vitamins you need if their biological activity is being wrecked by all the negative stress in our lives?

Matt: You’ve talked about the importance of people consuming grass-fed meats and other free range products. Do you think there’s a chance of this ever becoming a reality for everyone or will government subsidizing corn and other farming industry never make this become a reality?

Chris: Pasture feeding is important, and the government-cartelized Agricultural-Industrial Complex is a major problem, but I don’t like to think in terms of making things realities “for everyone.” I think whenever we try to plan something out for everyone; we do a lot more harm than good. And that’s because people in different situations have different needs, and people in different environments have different solutions at their fingertips. When Weston Price traveled the world documenting vibrant health on traditional diets in peoples of wildly different cultural and genetic backgrounds in wildly different geographical and ecological niches, one of his key points was that the solutions each group had developed for the problem of how to obtain optimal nutrition were wildly different. Every successful traditional diet provided the same essential vitamins and minerals, but the vehicles of these nutrients – the foods themselves – were often quite different. It just made sense for the Swiss to grow rye or the Gaelic’s to grow oats in ways that it could never have made sense for the Inuit to do either.

If we zero in on the United States, and perhaps similar industrialized countries, the particular situations are quite different but the principle still applies. Some people do better on meat-heavy diets than others. Some people live in areas where it is easy to obtain grass-fed meat at a reasonable price and others do not. Some people can afford the premium for grass-fed meat and some cannot. One thing that is clear is that production will follow demand. If grass-fed meat is less available in an area, demand for it will increase the price and provide an incentive for more farmers to produce it, which will eventually reduce the price.

None of this helps poor people, though. Solving poverty is itself important, but those of us in the “food movement” have particular jobs to do. I think we need to find creative solutions to help people eat well on a very tight budget. One thing that could be done is to encourage the care of egg-laying hens. If you have a yard with grass and bugs, and you have kitchen scraps, then you already have much of their nutritional needs, and you’re on your way to having pastured-animal products. But we also need to create strong local systems of mentoring. There was a recent news item circulating about animal shelters being inundated by unwanted hens after “hipsters” learned they were “hard to raise.” We also, of course, have additional logistic problems for people who don’t have yards and perhaps have to deal with zoning laws. Following Ron Finley’s “Gangster Gardener” approach might be useful. He’s successfully fought for the right to turn unused city land in LA into community gardens. Well, why not community pastures where people can raise chickens, or raise fresh food to include in their chickens diets? After all, this is how the Maasai raise their cattle: each family privately owns their cattle but they raise them on community pastures that they share. It may seem impractical but I’m sure there are innovators who could make something like this work. Anyway, all the traditional money-saving tactics like buying in bulk and, when possible, directly from farmers can also help people on tight budgets.

Going up against the government-cartelized Agricultural-Industrial Complex, though, is a trickier matter. I really don’t see the government easing up on its subsidies and insurance programs that severely distort the grain market any time soon. I could say we should vote for the right candidate but I don’t see anyone campaigning on that platform. We certainly can participate in writing campaigns, though right now this activity is largely focused on preventing things from getting worse, for example by opposing the FDA’s newly proposed regulations, derived from power granted under the Food Safety Modernization Act, ostensibly aimed at preventing animals from pooping on vegetables but holding the danger of granting the FDA arbitrary power to shut individual small farmers out of business.

I think we can do more, though, by encouraging farmers to pursue pasture. Between 1970 and 2006 America lost ninety percent of her dairy farms. Several dairy farmers committed suicide in 2009 and 2010 because of downward pressure on dairy prices, including one who massacred his 51 cows before turning his rifle on himself. This is an incredibly distressing situation and farmers are starting to realize they can make a real living by producing raw milk from cows raised on pasture, selling directly to customers, cutting out the middlemen, and charging a premium for the higher quality product. Farmers can also do better charging a premium for grass-fed meat, especially if they can cut out the middlemen. By getting involved in the local food scene and supporting these farmers, we can slowly undermine industrial agriculture.

People can debate whether pasture-based meat can feed everyone. It’s presently moot, however. Let’s first get people who want pasture-based meat connected to farmers who produce it, and educate more and more people to demand it. In a system of free exchange there is no need to plan ahead exactly what can and can’t be accomplished because when demand is much higher than supply the price goes up, which limits consumption and encourages more production. The more freedom there is the more efficient allocation of resources where they are most needed.

And of course that also means supporting the freedom for people to make these exchanges. David Gumpert has masterfully described the conflict between the regulatory state and the movements for raw milk, pastured animal products, and “private food” in his new book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat. Supporting local farmers and private food networks, as well as the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, are important ways of defending the freedom to pursue healthier food communities.

Matt: I once heard someone say, “If you’re eating grass-fed beef, you can never eat too much for it to be unhealthy.” Is that true? Every dietician or doctor talking to someone in the mainstream would lead us to believe eating red meat daily or like myself 2x per day is asking for serious trouble. What do you think?

Chris: I do think there is the potential to eat too much meat. People with hemochromatosis – many of whom don’t know they have it – are predisposed to iron overload. The best prevention of iron overload is to donate blood regularly, and the standard treatment for it once it has occurred is, similarly, phlebotomy. But in the absence of blood donation, eating iron-rich foods like red meat frequently will probably make the situation worse. It’s also possible that cooking the meat until it’s well done, especially over an open flame, might lead to the creation of worrisome carcinogenic chemicals. And I think many people in our society overdo muscle meats at the expense of skin, bones, and organs.

Most of the “meat will kill you” hysteria, however, promotes the idea that it’s the absolute amount of meat in the diet that is the issue, rather than context, quality, and balance. The take-home message is “meat is bad.” These ideas are based primarily on epidemiological studies with very difficult interpretive problems. To begin with, epidemiological studies look at correlations, and correlations cannot show causation. Students of any science get the phrase “correlation is not causation” drilled into their heads from early on. Just because two things tend to vary alongside one another doesn’t mean one causes the other. For example, if people who eat fish are more likely to drown, this doesn’t mean that eating fish causes drowning. It could just be that people who live closer to the water are more likely both to eat fish and to go swimming, while swimming is a pre-requisite to drowning. As another example, there is a very close correlation between shoe size and reading ability among children. You’re not going to increase your reading ability by buying bigger shoes, though, even if you’re just a kid. The correlation probably exists because as children get older, their feet get bigger, their brain develops more, and they accumulate reading experience. Correlations between diet and disease could be similarly confounded by other factors. For example, people who follow mainstream health recommendations – like avoiding red meat – are likely to be health conscious in many other ways. They may smoke less, drink less, rest more, be happier, exercise more, eat more fruits and vegetables, buy organic, and so on. How do you adjust for all these factors when you only know what some of them are?

Another problem is that food frequency questionnaires are terrible at estimating red meat intake. The validation of the food frequency questionnaire used for the Nurses’ Health Study, for example, found that the accuracy of hamburger intake data was about 1.4%. Also, when these studies break “red meat” down into cooking categories or processed meats, they tend to find the association only exists with processed and/or overcooked meat. The jury is out whether these associations reflect negative effects of processed or overcooked meats or whether they just reflect the confounding effects of other aspects of health consciousness.

Personally, I think that if one is careful to avoid iron overload, avoids overcooking, emphasizes natural pasture-raised fresh meats, and balances meat with bones, skin, and organs, in the context of a well-rounded, nutrient-dense, balanced diet, daily intake of red meat is more likely to be healthful than harmful.

Matt: I usually eat 8 whole omega-3 eggs and 2-3 servings of salmon per week. Is that providing me with enough omega-3 fatty acids in my diet or would you suggest taking fish oil as a supplement?

Chris: For a healthy adult under ordinary conditions, the need for omega-3s is extremely small. We are talking milligrams per day, easily achievable without any seafood in the diet. The need increases with growth, and that includes bodybuilding hypertrophy, recovery from injury, childhood, pregnancy, and lactation. Unfortunately I don’t think the exact needs in all these conditions have been worked out well, but I would be very surprised if you weren’t getting enough from the foods you have listed. In general I do not think fish oil is warranted in many cases, but high-vitamin cod liver oil can often be a useful source of vitamins A and D, especially if someone is not eating liver or getting enough sunshine.

Matt: Healthy liver is paramount in reducing body fat, what dietary suggestions would you give to help maintain a healthy liver function?

Chris: While liver function is a bit outside my main areas of expertise, from the little studying I’ve done in this area, I think avoiding polyunsaturated vegetable oils, maintaining ideal body weight, not drinking excessively or chronically taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, and eating a nutrient-dense and well balanced diet are the most important things to maintain healthy liver function.

Matt: I’d love to hear your opinion on water. Many experts talk about the importance of drinking alkaline water. How much credence do you put into consuming alkaline water vs. bottled vs. tap?

Chris: I’m not sure. I am currently living for the first time in an area where the local water is fluoridated, so I’ve been drinking vapor distilled water with electrolytes added, which is alkaline. But I also enjoy sparkling mineral water, which is quite acidic. Many traditional drinks have been lacto-fermented as well, which are acidic. I am not convinced that the pH is critically important, but I think it is a good idea to avoid fluoridated water, and to opt for water that is likely to be freest of environmental toxins and rich in minerals.

Matt: Thanks once again for your time and well-articulated answers, Chris. You’ve definitely made me rethink some of my own principles on these topics in my diet. Part 2 of this discussion will be available soon where I break out follow ups to Chris’s answers and delve more into the importance of mineral intake, fiber supplementation, and see if he can unlock some dietary secrets that could be limiting your overall muscle growth!

Chris: My pleasure, Matt. I’m looking forward to it.