A common statement made in many health practitioners’ offices goes something like this; “I eat really healthy, but I still have all of these problems! What’s going on?”
We hear this in our own office. Our fellow practitioners commiserate that these are the “tough cases” that are hard to crack. These experiences keep us hungry to learn more. Thankfully, a new book has helped us to piece together several seemingly disparate health concepts and we are excited to share this potentially revolutionary information with you.
First, let’s go back and explore this “healthy” diet. It may look something like this:
Green smoothie (1 cup of spinach, ¼ cup chia seeds, 2 Tbsp almond butter, 1 cup almond milk)
1½ cups of paleo clam chowder with cashews
½ cup steamed beet greens
½ cup pomegranate arils
2 cups unsweetened black iced tea
3 oz. carrot sticks
1 celery stalk
2 Tbsp almond butter
1 cup unsweetened green tea
1 cup quinoa
5 oz. sweet potato
Mixed greens salad
1 cup V-8 (blended vegetables)
2 oz. dark chocolate
At first glance, this does appear to be a very “healthy” diet, in the conventional wisdom sense. It checks a lot of boxes – whole foods, lots of vegetables and lean proteins, low sugar, keto-friendly, paleo-friendly, and so on. (There is no time to get into the debate on fats, but I should note that we would NEVER recommend a low-fat diet unless you’re referring to fake fats like margarine, vegetable oils and seed oils high in linoleic acids and polyunsaturated fats.)
I would bet that most classically trained nutritionists and medical professionals would celebrate this kind of diet and encourage their patients to stick with it regardless of their current symptoms. “Just keep going,” they would say, “your goals are right around the corner!” We know, because we heard this same sort of thing along our own health journey.
What these well-meaning practitioners have been missing (including ourselves for many years) is that there is something in these foods that is contributing to their symptoms. While there appears to be a consensus that these foods are healthy in the nutritional value sense, especially compared to the “unhealthy” options of fast foods and overly processed options that flood our stores and restaurants, the thing that makes this type of diet a ticking time-bomb for your health are OXALATES.
In Toxic Superfoods: How oxalate overload is making you sick – and how to get better, Sally K. Norton, MPH (Masters of Public Health) does a wonderful job of raising awareness about these potentially disastrous components in our food.
Oxalates, also known as oxalic acid, oxalate salts, and oxalate crystals, are naturally-occurring chemicals that are found in many foods. While it goes without saying that animals will naturally defend themselves from being eaten, the same is also true for plants. Plants and trees have evolved many special characteristics to avoid being eaten, such as the spikes on a cactus or the canopies of trees that are out of reach for even the tallest giraffe. Oxalates are a chemical toxin produced by plants that irritate plant eaters (tannins and lectins are other common examples).
When eaten in high quantities or if consumed by a human or animal that has predisposing conditions, these oxalates can build up and cause a wide variety of symptoms. Common symptoms include:
- Kidney stones
- Kidney damage
- Vertigo (inner ear crystals)
- Stiff joints
- Inflammation (-itis conditions like arthritis)
- Lack of energy
- Itchy eyes
- Excessive tartar on the inside of your teeth
- Sensitive skin
- Bladder conditions and infections
- Cloudy urine
- Bowel and digestive disorders (IBS, leaky gut)
- Yeast infections
- Cold hands and feet
- “Heavy” feeling in the groin
- Poor sleep
- Light and noise sensitivity
- Lack of motivation
(Even issues like chemical sensitivities (fragrances, exhaust fumes) can be related to oxalate overload and poor liver function.)
With such a wide range of symptoms, it is easy to assume they couldn’t be caused by only one thing like oxalates. Add to this the fact that high levels of oxalates do not affect everyone the same and it creates more confusion. Again, we know this because we thought the same thing!
What we were missing were the other factors that predispose certain individuals to having this problem. It is no surprise that the worse your baseline health is, the less resilient you will be. Our bodies are naturally able to remove oxalates as long as everything is working well, but a history of the following issues may make you more sensitive:
- Low calcium diet (dairy-free, vegan)
- A regular diet of gut-irritating foods like bran, beans, whole grains and quinoa
- A history of excessive antibiotics and antifungals
- Long-term NSAID use
- Gut disorders (Chron’s, IBS, leaky gut, food sensitivities)
- Poor kidney health
When considering if oxalates could be a factor in your health, there are three things to consider:
- Your Symptoms
- Any Predisposing or Contributing Factors
- The Oxalate Load in Your Diet
Norton shares that a “normal” intake of oxalates is roughly 130-220 mg/day. At this level, most people should be able to properly clear them from their system without causing any distress. By comparison, the diet listed earlier has a whopping 2,815 mg for just one day! Anything over 250 mg/day is considered “High”, and this diet is over 11x that amount! It should also be noted that the goal is not to avoid these foods entirely, but to simply be aware of this factor.
Norton also concedes that the idea of oxalates gets muddied by several other facts. There are no good tests for oxalate issues in a living body (urine, blood, and tissue tests unreliable at best). There are also no standard measurements for oxalate levels within certain foods. Amounts in foods can vary greatly based on growing conditions, different varieties of certain crops, the ripeness of the plant (unripened avocados are high in oxalates while ripened avocadoes are relatively low), and how they are processed (homemade almond milk can have 160 mg/cup while commercial varieties can range from 14-35 mg/cup). There is even a popular myth that oxalates are destroyed by cooking, but this is not true for most of these offenders.
It is also important to note that going on a low oxalate diet will encourage your body to flush out your oxalate stores. If you have a lot, this can lead to a series of detox symptoms that can be just as bad or worse than your original issues. It is important to go slow and have an experienced practitioner help you out.
Norton shares a lot of advice on how to properly tune up your diet as well as how to encourage safe metabolic breakdowns of your accumulated oxalates. One key factor is that calcium and magnesium are very helpful when breaking down oxalates, but this also means that oxalate metabolism will pull these minerals from your own body in the process, potentially creating a deficiency which can contribute to bone loss and muscle weakness. Taking high quality nutritional supplements appears to be a key part of correcting this issue, and we highly recommend Calcium Lactate along with Cod Liver Oil by Standard Process. Proper dosing will depend on many factors and is best defined by your personal practitioner, while Norton advises a range of 400-1,600 mg/day of calcium. This would equate to 2-6 Calcium Lactate per day, and the right amount of magnesium is built into this supplement as well! Taking 1-4 Cod Liver Oil per day is known to synergistically support the absorption of calcium as well as promote gut health.
The biggest piece of this oxalate puzzle is to identify the foods that are the worst offenders and get them out of your diet immediately. Even if you have none of these symptoms currently, these issues accumulate over time. The most common high oxalate foods we encounter with our patients are the following:
- Potatoes (most types)
- Beets and beet greens
- Almonds (Whole, butter, flour, and milk, along with several other nuts and seeds)
- Peanuts and various legumes
- Chia seeds
- Spices like curry and black pepper
- Black and green teas
- Whole grains
Low-oxalate alternatives to these foods include:
- Coconut flour
- Potato starch (not potato flour)
- New potatoes
- Red bell peppers
- White rice
- White pepper
- Romaine lettuce
- Seeds like pumpkin and sunflower
These are many more symptoms, predisposing factors, and various foods that were mentioned in the book and could have been listed here but were withheld for the sake of brevity. Making these changes will take patience and awareness, but it should be easy and rewarding at the same time. By adding this to your current mindset, you will invariably upgrade whatever type of diet you are currently eating to be much healthier.
Norton goes into much greater detail in her book and she also has resources on her website, www.sallyknorton.com, that are worth investigating. We highly recommend adding this book to your library and studying it carefully. If you believe oxalates may be a factor in your health, her advice is to remove the worst offenders from your diet and see what happens. With how prevalent oxalates are in our standard diet, how they accumulate over time, and how they contribute to such a wide array of symptoms, we believe this is information worth acting on immediately.
If you need more help or advice on your healing journey, it is best to work with a professional like ourselves who can safely guide you through this process. You can also download our free one-page resource on oxalates here.