To Eat or Not to Eat: Soy

soySoy is found in many of our foods, and is processed as the main ingredient for many meat and dairy substitutes. This is because soy is a plant-based protein that can also be liquefied into a milky substance or solidified like a cheese. In addition to soymilk and soy-based cheese, it’s also the main ingredient in soy sauce, tofu, tempeh, vegetarian burgers, TVP (textured vegetable protein), soy bran, some meal replacements and supplements, and also can be eaten whole as edamame or soy nuts. As a result, many people eat soy daily. But is this a good choice?

Pros

  • Soy is an adequate source of Vitamin D for those who are allergic to cow’s milk[1]
  • Soy protein can trigger weight loss for obese or overweight people where meat protein does not[2][3]
  • Soy may help prevent cancer or stroke, as well as reduce cholesterol[4][5][6][7]

Cons

  • Soy is often processed in the same facilities as wheat and grown alongside wheat pastures, meaning it may not be the best option for people avoiding gluten[8]
  • Overconsumption of soy could boost your estrogen levels, which can result in male infertility[9]

Conclusions

Soy appears to be a great choice for gluten-tolerant people looking to diversify their sources of protein. It may help promote weight loss and contains many beneficial properties.  Personally, I’ll eat it a few times a week, but just like anything else, soy should be eaten in moderation.

Excess soy consumption can lead to wonky hormones and consequential health problems. If you find that you’re eating too much soy, then the fix may be easier than you think. Substitutes are readily available, including almond milk, rice milk and hemp milk-based dairy products.  Also, consider alternative plant-based sources of protein. Keep diversifying your diet and include some soy occasionally, just make sure not to over do it.

Red Wine

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Red wine is my go-to alcoholic beverage these days because I’ve heard about many positive health effects despite it’s alcoholic content. Beer contains gluten and other alcoholic beverages are generally way too strong for me because my tolerance is virtually non-existent after a year of occasional drinking. But when I do choose a treat(link to post) I love to sip slowly and enjoy a nice cabernet, or even a sweeter port.

And it turns out that the hearsay about wine is generally spot on:

  • Drinking red wine regularly slows the development of Alzheimer’s disease[1]
  • Red wine inhibits testosterone excretion (which could be a good or bad thing)[2]
  • Dealcoholized red wine decreases blood pressure[3] and has heart protective benefits[4][5]
  • Red wine is bad to drink while pregnant as it inhibits the development of the fetus’s circulatory system and brain.[6][7]

In moderation, red wine’s health benefits may outweigh the fact that it’s a highly processed version of grapes, which are already high in sugar. Choose red wine that does not have sugar added, and many times you can also pick out a bottle from a winery that has environmentally sustainable business practices. Also, try drinking outdoors to take in the fresh air where the grapes were grown, it’ll enhance the taste and boost your enjoyment.

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.

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!

Chocolate

Chocolate

Chocolate is a delicious, rich indulgence for me. I used to eat some dark chocolate every day, but then I cut it out when I began dieting and now I sometimes indulge. I might begin eating more chocolate, however, given the beneficial qualities of it that science is increasingly supporting. Also, I appreciate that chocolate has to have only two essential ingredients: cocoa beans and a sweetener (like cane sugar, for example) – and such chocolate is not super hard to find! For example, Nirvana Organic Belgian Chocolate is 72% cocoa and lists unsweetened chocolate, cane sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla powder as ingredients.

The Ugly

The main chocolate brands that are sold most extensively also contain a myriad of other ingredients in addition to cocoa beans that have a varying degree of negative health effects.  In particular, soy lecithin is often found in chocolate because it is used as an emulsifier that keeps ingredients shelf-stable for longer. This is a plant-based all-natural ingredient but also contains estrogen[1] and other properties that have led many people to avoid eating it. Personally, I am starting to try and not consume soy lecithin but it is also used as an emulsifier by one of my favorite tea brands, so it may be hard to transition away from it. 

The Bad

Chocolate is generally highly processed, especially because sugar and fat are both major components of this food. For example, although fat is a natural part of the cacao bean, it is often processed out and added back in a different form. Cocoa beans can be broken up into cocoa powder, which contains little fat and many beneficial components, and cocoa butter, which is fatty and does not contain as many beneficial components. Therefore, although most chocolate bars will contain cocoa powder, they may have a different fat ingredient like vegetable oil, for example.

The Good

Science is proving that cocoa beans are good for our health. Recent studies have not only found that it is helpful for our heart health[2] including lowering blood pressure[3] and improving insulin resistance[4] but also beneficial for our brains. Yet another study was publicized about how cocoa contains polyphenols, which enable our gut flora to flourish and enhance our digestive system.[5] Consequently, chocolate is a delicious and rich treat that will be less of a guilty pleasure for me going forward.

Cinnamon and Other Spices

cinammon

Cinnamon has been one of my favorite spices since childhood. I remember growing up and eating white rice with cinnamon when I had a stomach ache, and to this day I’ll sprinkle cinnamon in my coffee if it’s burnt. I also drink cinnamon tea almost daily. I used it often in cooking when I lived alone; I only don’t nowadays because my husband isn’t a big fan of the taste.  Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if my daily dose of cinnamon is healthy.  After all, if variety is the spice of life, should I try not to eat so much of this particular spice?

Studies show that cinnamon is similar to chilies (link to post), in that it has many beneficial health qualities that are not yet fully understood. In fact, scientists have linked the prevalence of certain diseases to different cultures dietary patterns, and to spices in particular. For example, neurogenerative disease are less common in regions where people consume spices regularly, like in the Asian subcontinent, than in the western world.[1] As a result of such observations, many studies have been undertaken to show how spice consumption, particularly cinnamon, is linked to the development and prevention of chronic diseases.

Cinnamon is strongly anti-inflammatory and is considered an anti-oxidant. It is being studied as a potential supplement to prevent or reduce type-two diabetes, as well as improve cholesterol and blood pressure.[2] It possibly diminishes the potential of neurodegenerative diseases, as do other spices including sage, turmeric, horseradish, cumin, licorice, clove, ginger, garlic, coriander, basil, celery seed, onion and different types of pepper.[3]

I freely admit that I eat lots of cinnamon and even more spices on a daily basis. I love spices! And I am happy to find that they potentially represent an upside to my long-term health.

Sugar (and sweeteners)

sugar postI have reduced my sugar intake drastically since I began learning about sugar in-depth. I now consider limiting sugar essential to my commitment to fitness and healthy eating.

Whether it’s pure granulated sugar, all-natural organic unprocessed honey or high fructose corn syrup, our bodies treat it very similarly, if not the same. Scientists have not differentiated between sugar and other sweeteners in how our bodies process them, and this is apparent across a swathe of studies that categorize sugar in with other sweeteners. I wish I had found this out years ago when I habitually slathered honey on my sandwiches and stirred it into my tea. Unfortunately, many people still believe that they don’t need to moderate their sugar intake.

And it’s true that studies struggle to directly link obesity and sugar. But that doesn’t mean that sugar consumption is healthy. To this point, a recent breakthrough report has linked the prevalence and development of type-two diabetes directly to sugar availability. This study was conducted on a country-by-country basis and over time, with huge population samples and numerous control factors. [1] Like many recent studies, this report does not differentiate between sugar and sweeteners, and recommends that public policies aim to reduce sugar consumption especially in countries where diabetes is particularly prevalent.

About 1 in 10 adults in the world have diabetes and America houses slightly more adults with diabetes per capita.[2] This is particularly concerning because diabetes is a leading cause of kidney failure, and increases chances of heart disease, stroke, blindness, nervous system disease, obesity and a whole host of issues that make it painful to live.

This study and other publications, such as those discussed in The Weight of the Nation, (link to post) link sugar intake to diseases like diabetes. This shows that it is necessary to moderate our diets in societies like ours where rich ingredients that used to be scarce resources are overly abundant in everyday foods. Consequently, reducing sugar consumption bodes positively to living a healthy and happy life.

Chilies

Chili-Peppers-505x336

Chili peppers are nutritious, filling and have a low glycemic load. [1] They also contain an ingredient that is useful for combatting obesity: capsaicin.

Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers that makes them spicy, “is known to increase energy expenditure and decrease body fat.” [2] Although it is not yet understood exactly why capsaicin does this, the study above linked capsaicin ingestion with an increase in active brown adipose tissue – which takes calories from normal fat and burns them. Another study, which was just published in the Journal of Nutrition, linked capsaicin to feeling full even when restricting caloric intake by 20%. [3]

In other words, chilies naturally induce our bodies to expend energy and burn fat, while simultaneously curbing our appetites!

Besides their beneficial health qualities, dried chili peppers are one of my favorite spices because their taste varies greatly depending on what you are seasoning. Even if you don’t like spicy foods there are some sweet chilies that still contain a fair bit of capsaicin. There is an increasing amount of chili varieties available, both dried and fresh, which further diversifies their applicability to all types of cuisine. Also a little known fact: fresh chilies taste much different raw than when they are cooked, which also makes them a versatile addition to any type of dish, whether it’s meat, grains, dairy or veggies!

Here’s an article about how to pick the perfect chili pepper: http://allrecipes.com/howto/choosing-chile-peppers/

Corn

corn

I used to be amused when my relatives would come visit from Europe and make fun of American food. They have an expression that doesn’t translate particularly well but in essence means that everything in America is made from corn. Sadly, it’s true; corn is in everything from fireworks to printing inks. It’s in more than 90% of the products sold by most supermarkets.

My relatives also look at all of the ingredients on food labels.  I thought it was the weirdest habit. It’s a habit I’ve taken up now that I understand how much food manufacturers overuse corn, as well as other ingredients.

Corny ingredients

Many of us recognize the main corn product used as sweetener, which is high fructose corn syrup. But many other ingredients derived from it do not have corn in the name. Corn products include: cornstarch, modified starches, dextrins, cyclodextrins, maltodextryns, glucose (also called dextrose), crystalline fructose, corn oil, corn gluten feed, corn gluten meal, germ meal (sometimes just called germ), steapwater, ethanol, organic acids, amino acids, polyols and xantham gum.

Even hominy and grits are just processed corn!

A grain of corn

corn2

As the diagram shows, a grain of corn has a small amount of fiber on the outside that covers the mostly starchy and glutenous inside. However, many of the corn derivatives used in processed foods have stripped the hull and fiber off of the corn.  This fiber is the only part of corn that is actually useful to our digestive health! And most of us eat too many starches because they are the primary inputs for processed foods.  Not to mention that many of the animals we eat were primarily fed corn. Even cows benefit from a high fiber, low starch diet. [1]

Because diversity is key to satiation and nutritional balance, we should strive to avoid these proliferous corn ingredients. And because corn is in most processed foods, the more single-ingredient foods we choose to eat the better.

zp8497586rq

Alcohol

Alcohol has screwed up countless lives; 40% of Americans have been exposed to alcoholism within their families[1], this figure doesn’t even include friends, coworkers or neighbors! Most of us have sat through classes teaching us the social dangers of getting drunk or driving drunk. We know it’s a potentially addictive drug, and that it reduces our inhibitions, resulting in poor decision-making that could get us into trouble. Most of us also choose to drink alcohol regularly, despite all of this information.

beer is addicted to me

This last point is what fascinates me: I’ve been drinking or not drinking off and on for a few years now, and tend to enjoy life more when I don’t drink. Yet the social awkwardness that comes with not drinking can be uncomfortable. So I sometimes have a drink to avoid the awkwardness, convincing myself that I would like to relax and unwind with an alcoholic beverage once in a while. But then again I don’t let myself drink soda and I could say that it might be nice to have one occasionally. But why isn’t it awkward to stick to water with soda drinkers, while it is at social situations that involve alcohol?

I’ve looked at several studies and come to the conclusion that this awkwardness has not yet been successfully explained away by science. Maybe then it’s just in my mind? A study that caught my eye in particular observed that people reported a better bonding experience in a group setting with alcohol than without it, yet concluded that the results were not robust and recommended further research on the subject. Their other observations included increased coordination between the group members with social cues like smiling and speaking after the group had enjoyed an alcoholic beverage for 30 minutes. It’s important to note, however, that the subjects were all male and didn’t previously know each other.[2] Now I’m not convinced that I’m missing out on anything if I choose not to drink, besides the drink itself.

Despite going for months without drinking and only having one drink most weeks for the past year, I still fall into a higher risk category than most people according to a short survey I took form the National Institute of Health. I’m surprised by the result and am probably going to be drinking even less after having researched alcohol in more depth for this post. Honestly having a drink is not worth the sluggish feeling the next day, or the effects of alcohol on the rest of your body.[3]

As for social awkwardness, I loved what my yoga teacher, Ally, said in class last week; while we were holding a long awkward pose she philosophized about accepting the awkwardness of situations because they’re bound to happen and you will only make it more awkward overall if you attempt to avoid awkwardness.[4] I’ve made her spiel sound awkward, but it makes sense to me! I’m going to continue to go out with people, party and not drink often; that way I’m even more present for the fun and have no regrets afterward.