Coffee

coffee beans

coffee beansCoffee is the most commonly brewed beverage in the world. The image above was taken at a coffee plantation in a far off land, and depicts the berries growing on a bush that are later picked, sorted, dried, roasted, ground and then brewed. Along with chocolate gourmet coffee is one of my favorite treats.

Recent research is demonstrating astounding health benefits associated with both the caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee varietals. Most of us have heard of its antioxidant qualities, I have found that most people don’t know what that means.  I also just read that some antioxidants could actually be bad for us.  Also my husband reminds me that coffee can stain the teeth, which is the biggest downside I’ve come across.

One study that has just been published (March 2013) reviewed the recent two decades worth of research and summed it up relatively simply.

“There is a significant impact of coffee on the cardiovascular system, and on the metabolism of carbohydrates and lipids. Contrary to previous beliefs, the various forms of arterial cardiovascular disease, arrhythmia or heart insufficiency seem unaffected by coffee intake. Coffee is associated with a reduction in the incidence of diabetes and liver disease. Protection seems to exist also for Parkinson’s disease among the neurological disorders, while its potential as an osteoporosis risk factor is under debate. Its effect on cancer risk depends on the tissue concerned, although it appears to favor risk reduction. Coffee consumption seems to reduce mortality.” [1]

I also found more recent studies that were published after the above review, which supported some of its findings and furthered others. For example, coffee has been shown to slow down the development of type-two diabetes for women in particular.[2] Another study just found that restricting or eliminating coffee intake during pregnancy had no effect on birthweight. [3]

Decaffeinated coffee was recently shown to decrease hunger by triggering the satiety hormone PYY, while caffeinated coffee had varied effects depending on the person.[4] So if you’re trying to stay on a low-calorie diet and avoiding hunger, decaf may be your best friend.

A lot of these studies were only robust (yes that’s a purposeful pun) for people that drank more than three or four cups a day.[5][6] But that is still much more coffee than I can handle in one day! I know caffeine will keep me up late if I have more than two cups in the morning, or any at all after noon. So I’ll just sip away slowly and enjoy my morning joe all the more from here on out.

Myths about Granola

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Granola has a great, healthful reputation. However, I’ve been stunned by the nutrition labels on granola products that I have picked up at the store, and I haven’t bought any in over a year. I’ve decided to boil down why I reach for granola bars (the myths), and also why they haven’t crept into my diet (backed by research of course).

Myth #1: Granola is healthy

More than 95% of store-bought granola bars and cereals contain caloric sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup or sugar [1] and they are also often high in saturated fat. If you love granola, you can try this homemade version from Marvelous Girl instead – and always make sure to buy unsweetened dried fruits!

Granola bars have a higher glycemic load than white bread [2]! To substitute you could choose to eat whole-grain oat cereal or porridge, which have been found to have a much lower glycemic load and are great for your gut.[3]

Something else to keep in mind about granola bars is that they can lead to cavities. Granola bars that are soft and moist are three times more likely to lead to cavity formation than crispier and dryer alternatives.[4]

Myth #2: Granola products are environmentally friendly

Most granola bars and cereals are highly processed, and the ingredients are sourced from a diverse range of ecosystems and transported from around the world to reach our supermarkets. Additionally, granola products are often wrapped in single-serving packs. While this may help keep on track portion-wise, it creates a lot of excess packaging waste that is often composed mostly of plastics that cannot be recycled and end up clogging landfills.

Granola, just like cucumbers, does not live up to the healthy, green image it conjures. It’s often sugary, overly-processed, cavity-creating and wastefully packaged. Such research just furthers the fact that we all need to carefully read the official nutrition labels on every food we buy, instead of buying into myths manifested by decades of marketing.

Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body: Book review

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If you are frustrated whenever you get in the pool to swim laps because it doesn’t feel like you’re getting far or improving, this is a great book to read and apply. It’s particularly great if you want to swim but have never enjoyed it, or enjoy it but are frustrated by your performance. Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body is all about working with water to balance and propel yourself forward calmly and efficiently.

I took swimming in college because it was offered and I wasn’t going to have to pay extra for it. I didn’t need the credits, but I wanted to get in the habit of going to the pool twice a week. I didn’t read the course description upon registration, and was surprised when we were required to buy this book as part of the class. Extraordinary Swimming for Every Body is a guide to “swimming better than you ever imagined.” This is the promise on the cover and I thought it was cheesy – it turned out to be true.

That swim class taught me more about balance and focus than any other class I had to take in college. The lessons I learned based on its principals did not just apply to time spent in the pool, but throughout my life to this day. It deepened my meditation practice, and showed me how to prioritize things logically, otherwise I would drown.

On my way to the final for this swim class I was delayed due to traffic. This combined with the very little sleep I had been getting throughout finals week, and I began to hyperventilate as I walked from the parking lot to the pool. The stress was too much for my body and I was forced to sit down and calm my mind. I had just been reading this book and thinking about the fundamentals of balance and patience, and continuous improvement; Remembering how far I had come that semester, and that even if I did fail that final it was due to circumstances beyond my control, I could continue on into the gym and keep on swimming.

This book shows you how to learn four basic strokes on your own: breaststroke, freestyle, backstroke and butterfly. The author, Terry Laughlin, engagingly shares how he has been continuously improving his swim practice well into middle age and beyond. He also has a series of instructional videos and has written other books about total immersion, which is the key to underwater efficiency and is appropriately the name of his company.

totalimmersion

A Healthy Goal

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Garfield is known for his eat, sleep, and eat again schedule, which is depicted with the funniest of intentions. Yet the cartoon drives home the fact that many of us don’t realize how our thinking directly affects how much of life we experience. Garfield doesn’t have goals and sleeps away his existence, and likewise, many of us let our bodies go to waste by living an unhealthy lifestyle.

The goals we make either make or break our habits of eating right and exercising.

Many dieters restrict themselves dangerously for a limited amount of time to reach a set goal for an occasion, and then return to past habits afterward. If we think that we are working out and restricting what we eat to lose weight, we tend to start gaining weight once we attain our goal. Instead, it’s important to implement eating habits that we can sustain for the rest of our lives. Thus we can be ready for any event life throws our way, even if it wasn’t planned!

Similarly, people go through phases of working out. Gym memberships and personal trainer services experience a post-holiday spike each year and business slows from there on out.[1] This post-holiday spike illustrates the ambitious New Year’s resolutions that people make, and that for most people this proves unsustainable. The key to being healthy is staying consistent, and being physically active every single day.

Short-term health goals are great to kick-start a habit, but long-term health should be the most important focus. By focusing on “long-term health” as my fitness and food goal I’ve been able to let go of shifts on the scale, or the lack thereof. This was especially important when I didn’t see results for a while when I first began eating right and exercising. It’s also incredibly important now that I’m not trying to put on muscle or lose weight. Instead, my short-term goal is training to finish a triathlon, but its underlying cause is to keep me moving and eating right so that I’m healthy and happy.

Eating Out at Restaurants

food_services_highway_signs_collection_poster-r8546094f738a4b77a66606d5968a2bbc_i13_400While cooking your own meals is definitely the easiest way to eat healthy, making a few simple choices when eating out at restaurants can also ensure that you are guilt-free afterward.

I eat out a couple times a week, and make sure that wherever I go either offers salads or other options that I’m willing to eat. If I’m planning ahead of time, I simply check menus online… and if I’m walking around then I just ask to see a menu before I’m seated. I realize that I’m lucky that I now live in a very health-oriented city, yet even when traveling it has become increasingly easy to make healthy eating choices by staying conscious of my decisions from the moment I walk into an eatery to when they ask if I want dessert (don’t even consider it!) The other thing I avoid at all costs is fast food; even the salads are from frozen ingredients and often include a ton of processed, high sodium ingredients. I generally opt to go for a pre-made supermarket or convenience store salad as a last resort, they’re usually more fresh and nutritious than from a fast food chain.

A lot of the time, something that is not considered healthy catches my eye when I peruse a menu. For example, this weekend a bagel with lox was tempting me at lunch one day. Bagels contain lots of processed grains and also come with incredibly fatty cream cheese to slather on, so I simply substituted a salad for the bagel when ordering. Then I had a relatively healthy, balanced meal that was flavorful and satisfying.

I wish I had taken a picture of the pretty pink salmon with round white onion and red tomato slices and bright green basil and capers on top, along with the vibrantly dark green salad that had heirloom tomatoes and other yummy veggies sprinkled throughout it! But I was too busy savoring my meal and enjoying the company of my husband.

In general, whatever diet I’m on when I eat at home I also stick to in a restaurant. For example, if I am not drinking alcohol or limiting myself to one drink at home, then I do the same when eating out. If I’m avoiding processed foods, I’ll try to do so no matter what. I’ve never really enjoyed salad dressing, so ordering salads without it is a habit that I didn’t need to learn when I started eating healthy, but it’s important to note that those dressings are generally extremely caloric and full of saturated fats.

Finally, watching portion sizes becomes more challenging at restaurants, which often serve food on gigantic plates that make big meals look small. But eating the right amount becomes increasingly easy, especially because when you need to leave half of the meal for the next day you can keep in mind that you get to enjoy it twice!

Guest Post: Why I am a vegetarian

twainblushquoteSometimes it occurs to me that the people around me still eat chickens, cows and pigs. And it weirds me out. Really? People still eat meat?

Who do I think I am, right? And how did I get into this ivory tower, anyway?

I took an Environmental Science 101 course my freshman year of college. In our textbook, there was a paragraph breaking down the amount of acreage needed to raise livestock compared with growing vegetables, and the amount of people that are fed by each. That to feed the same number of people, you would need, say, 10 acres for livestock to roam on and another 10 acres required to grow food to feed to the livestock, versus the 10 acres required to grow food to feed directly to us humans.

So I made a logical decision to do less harm to the environment, and to spread the food wealth a little to give poorer nations a better chance to not starve. As with most conservation-minded initiatives, vegetarianism is as much a humanitarian endeavor as it is an environmental one.

The reasons I remain vegetarian have expanded since I made this commitment. A plant-based diet is healthy, for one thing. I’m not here to explain the ins and outs of iron or B12; you have other sources like this blog for that (but protein is literally in everything – ask anyone with a kidney disorder and they’ll tell you how hard it is to avoid protein). And hey, look at me! I don’t take vitamins yet I haven’t been sick in over a year and, most importantly, I have a lot of energy. I’m a normal, functioning human being even though I haven’t eaten meat in 13 years.

Let’s get real now. What makes me sad when I realize that the people around me are eating actual limbs of actual animals is that I know that most of them have animals at home. Or they knew animals as kids. And yet the gap is so vast in people’s minds – the gap between the animals we love and the animals we eat.

I know, I know – we’re at the top of the food chain! We can do whatever we want! We have dominion! Meat is delicious! But with freedom comes responsibility, right? Man is separate from animals, but what separates us? It’s our critical thinking and self-control. And it’s our morality; we have the ability to think about whether what we are doing is ethical. Our greatest quest as a species should not be our dominion over this planet, but our stewardship of it.

Most people have seen a cat get scared when the garbage truck rolls by, or a dog whimper in pain when its tale is accidentally stepped on. And yet they can’t superimpose those same qualities – wit, loyalty, fear, pain – onto a cow or a pig. Or they do, but they would rather eat bacon anyway. We have the self-control to do what we want, not just what we feel like. Our bodies have the ability to operate on either an omnivorous or an herbivorous diet. With these choices, with these abilities – why would we choose to eat animals when we can choose not to?

Plants: Quintessential relaxation

Plants are like art; the greenery of leaves and vibrancy of flowers is gorgeous. Plant structures are superbly diversified and have amazing lines to contemplate; I often wonder how vines can stay upright and reach so far! I look forward to watering plants and pruning leaves; caring for anything living is gratifying.

Indoor plants are an especially important connection to nature in urban environments. Some benefits are that they filter the air for us, turning carbon dioxide to oxygen and even filtering out some of the pollution our society creates.  They are also interesting to observe over time as they grow and change. They go through cycles of growth, flowering and eventually death.

Because I don’t really enjoy that last part, I love having plants that will thrive for years; perennials as opposed to annuals. Yet these tulips I came across on Pinterest look gorgeous and I plan to give this project a try.

tulipMany plants are superbly easy to grow and need to be watered just a few times a month. The first plant I owned died early because I didn’t follow the growing instructions; I didn’t have a spot in our apartment with the right amount of light for it. But I’ve learned since then on how to better care for plants by buying the ones I can properly care for.

Just like with most things, you need to plan ahead to properly take care of a plant. I now seek out staff at a nursery to get advice on which plants will work best for the spot I want to put them in and the frequency with which I’m able to care for them.  Thereby I make sure that I can properly take care of the plants I keep.

Sunlight and water, resources that are available to most of us, are all we need to provide for plants in order for them to flourish in or around our homes, and even in the workplace. Surrounding ourselves with such greenery helps to relax and reduce the stress in our busy lives.

To Eat or Not to Eat: Cucumbers

Sliced cucumber

Cucumbers are a green oblong fruit often associated with refreshment, relaxation and even rejuvenation. I used to eat cucumbers fairly frequently; in fact I ate cucumbers at almost each meal for the three weeks while traveling abroad in Eastern Europe. – I really enjoy the taste to this day. However, since eating healthier and learning to listen to my body, I’ve noticed that my stomach feels funny whenever I eat even the slightest bit of cucumber.  So I’ve been avoiding them.
Should most people eat cucumbers regularly?

Pros

  • Cucumbers can be eaten raw or cooked in a variety of cuisines, including a Mediterranean diet. Studies show that this particular diet is great for reducing risks for a slew of chronic diseases.[1]
  • Cucumbers are a decent source of protein when combined with some nuts or oats and contain little sugar [2]
  • Cucumbers are used as a traditional treatment for heartburn by pregnant Jordanian women[3] (I could not find any recent studies that were scientifically-based proponents of eating cucumbers, with the exception of studies about the Mediterranean diet)

Cons

  • Cucumbers are shown to be low in antioxidants[4] and vitamin A[5]
  • They potentially contain elevated lead and nitrate concentrations. This even includes organic cucumbers![6][7]

After all of this research, I feel justified about avoiding cucumbers and I’m not convinced that they are among the healthiest fruit, despite their soothing image.

As an aside, during my research I also discovered a way to make a cucumber into a shark… fun!

Myths about Organic Products

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Foods labeled with the USDA Organic food label are not necessarily completely organic products, and may be incredibly unhealthy because even sugar can be organically grown.
Myth #1: The organic certification seal means 100% organic

Actually, there is another certification, 100% Organic, that producers can strive for.  The regular USDA logo at the top of this post allows manufacturers to include up to 5.0% of non-organic content when excluding water and salt. Salt and water are not regulated under this certification. Also, be aware of the label that says “made with organic” ingredients because only those specific ingredients are organically produced.

Additionally, there is a long list[1] of (pretty gross) products that can be used as ingredients for products labeled as “organic.” I only used the quotation marks here because the USDA does as well!

Ingredients on this extensive list of allowed non-organic ingredients in certified organic products include casings from processed intestines, many colors and extracts, gelatin, lecithin, several types of starches and seaweed. So any products labeled as organic but containing these or other ingredients from this list are probably not organic after all.  There are similar lists of nonagricultural ingredients[2][3], and even synthetic substances for growing organic crops[4].  Examples of substances on each of these lists, respectively, include: xanthan gum (derived from corn, dairy, soy or wheat using the same black bacteria that rot your broccoli or cauliflower, and which oil companies use to thicken drilling mud), biologics (vaccines) and liquid fish products.

Myth #2: Organic means healthy

Certified organic products may be highly processed and contain a high proportion of sugar or salt, or they may be whole foods. Examples of organic products vary from gummy bears to whole fruit and everything in between. This means that we should make the same choices and read nutrition labels just as carefully for organic products as with any other food.

Myths about various foods and classifications are prominent because of numerous instances of misleading marketing and public programs. Figuring out what is true and who to trust is tough, and eating right becomes even tougher. But it’s best to take an extra minute to find out whether or not our conscious choices make a true difference in what we use do fuel our bodies each day.

With organically certified products I will question highly processed foods or those that contain ingredients from the lists I cited above, because I believe that the companies that are using such ingredients are most likely to mislead consumers in other ways as well. What are your thoughts? Comment below or on Facebook to let me know!

Resistance Training: Gender differences

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I’m still surprised whenever a man picks me up with ease, especially if I know that they don’t work out regularly. It’s frustrating knowing that I could not do the same despite having focused on muscle strengthening for a year now. But muscle composition depends strongly on gender and there is a long list of how our muscles differ…

Men are stronger and have a larger cross-sectional area of muscle fiber. While it’s easier for men to build muscle, their muscles also deteriorate more quickly as they age. On the other hand, women are more resistant to muscle fatigue and have a higher proportion of oxidative muscle fibers and higher density of muscle capillaries. Men may be able to build muscle faster but women’s muscle dynamic strength builds more quickly (albeit from a lower base.) The reason may be partly because although womens’ bodies signal muscle growth like mens’, they also send out signals that hinder muscle growth after participation in resistance exercises.[1] Another cause may be hormonal; with about 10 times more testosterone boosting muscle growth in men than in women. [2]

Why our bodies react differently to weight lifting is not as important as how we, as women, can harness the differences to our advantage. Most weight-lifting regimen are male-focused because men have had to build their muscle strength in order to dominate and survive throughout history.

The biggest change for women’s strength training routines should be to vary up the weights and repetitions. Many women only lift lighter weights and do many reps, often not even feeling a burning sensation in their muscles during the workout. This doesn’t fully exercise muscles and, therefore, significantly limits results. Women are scared of getting big and bulky, but if you do regular cardio workouts in addition to weightlifting then you will maintain a lean physique. To reiterate the studies above, womens’ muscle mass builds a lot more slowly and from a much lower base than mens’, so to be big and bulky you would have to do frequent isolation exercises regularly (which is what female body builders do.) Hitting the gym with your guy friends or find a weight-lifting routine just outside of your comfort zone is fine, just make sure to feel the burn!