DHA and OMEGA -3’s

walnutYour heart and brain functions depend on omega-3 fatty acids including DHA. These nutrients help prevent or lessen the effects of hypertension, arthritis, some cancers and other chronic diseases of the body and mind.[1][2][3]

How often do you eat foods rich in omega-3’s? Salmon, herring, lake trout, mackerel, sardines, albacore tuna and seaweed are all known for their health benefits and are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Lesser-known foods that also contain these fatty acids are rapeseed oil, flaxseed and walnuts. A Harvard professor recommends at least one serving of these each day.[4]

The sky is the limit

One serving per day seems easy, yet most Western diets (American & European) don’t include this essential nutrient daily.

Even if we usually get enough fatty acids in our diet, there is no apparent harm in consuming more. I’m usually a fan of moderation but this is one instance where there seems to be little downside to ensuring that you include omega-3’s in your daily diet. Depending on your source of these fatty acids, there are no known side effects besides the possibility of fishy taste! [5]

Even better, eggs and milk, which are staple food that many of us consume daily are now available with more omega-3’s. A milk genomics article says it best (the same theory applies to eggs): “Cows from organic milk producers are not purposely supplemented with omega-3s, but they consume more omega-3s and less omega-6s as a result of increased access to pasture (where they consume grasses and legumes) and decreased consumption of grains, particularly corn.”[6]

Additionally, some milk producers have also begun to include an additional supplement of algal DHA in their milk. For example, Horizon Organic plus DHA Omega-3 milk can be found in most supermarkets. http://www.horizondairy.com/store-locator/ Since there’s no apparent harm in extra DHA, we may as well ensure that it’s in our system when we drink milk!

Critical impact for babies

A serving per day of omega-3’s is especially important if you are pregnant or breastfeeding due to baby’s needs for such nutrients in their critical period of neural pathway and retinal development. And yet, many such women avoid or limit fish consumption and therefore provide even less of this essential nutrient to their babies! This seems like a public policy failure because the FDA/EPA recommend limiting seafood consumption (with good reason) yet does not adequately publicize the benefits and alternative sources of omega-3’s. [7] This is despite studies that show that even small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids could be of benefit during pregnancy.[8] These agencies do recommend fish oil supplements, but again the contents of supplements are not regulated or enforced in the United States (link to post).

As a result, it is vital for pregnant women to understand what to consume throughout their pregnancies and lactation periods to provide omega-3’s to their babies. This nutrient is so essential and it is proven to be essential to the point where even most formulas contain DHA, yet few breastfeeding moms realize the importance of including it in their own daily intake.

Indeed, the benefits of fatty acids are so great for anyone that we should all know about them and consume them daily. In fact, I would recommend including fatty acid content on the Nutrition Facts label system[9] so people can consciously include an adequate amount in their daily diets.

About the Mediterranean Diet

mediterranean diet

mediterranean dietI’ve always associated the Mediterranean Diet with olives, cucumbers, feta cheese and red wine. Overall, however, the diet also encompasses a surprisingly large proportion of grains and fats.

Most of the foods in the diet are vegetables and nuts, and many can be easily made at home. The diet is nearly exclusively plant-based, although it does include some fish and occasional meat. It also includes some saturated fats and sweets, which I’m sure the majority of people appreciate.

Personally however, I don’t feel well when I eat gluten, which has naturally minimized the grain in my diet, although I’m a big fan of dietary fat, balancing food ratios and minimizing processed food. It is important that every individual eat food that makes them feel energized throughout the day. The Mediterranean diet has become a model for healthy dieting according to recent research reports.

There is a mountain of data showing a host of positive health effects from eating a Mediterranean Diet. [1] One study shows that the diet reduced subjects’ cardiovascular disease, including minimizing the risk for stroke. [2] Another study demonstrates that it is great at reducing adverse symptoms of menopause for women. [3] In fact, this diet has been so well-researched and is considered so healthy by the scientific community that it was even used as the definition of a healthy diet to determine if study participants were eating healthy in an overall study linking lifestyle behaviors to mortality.[4]

All in all, the Mediterranean diet is really more of a lifestyle. It includes leisurely food preparation and dining as a family, as well as eating mindfully so that you appreciate the food and the company you keep. The lifestyle also includes regular exercise, which I’m sure has contributed to the positive image of the diet as well as the great results from recent research.

Gluten Free

gluten free

gluten free

The gluten-free diet is a hot, controversial topic these days. It works great for me, but I rarely substitute toward highly processed gluten-free alternatives that are increasingly prevalent in stores and restaurants. By eating gluten free I commit to a healthier lifestyle because it removes highly caloric, high in sodium foods, and most junk foods like bread, soy sauce and burgers from my radar when I’m deciding what to eat.

Recently Yahoo news and Live Science published “Most People Shouldn’t Eat Gluten-Free”, an article featuring two nutritionists who declared that if you don’t have celiac disease you’re not likely to benefit from a gluten-free diet. The dietician was also quoted as saying: “There’s nothing magical about eliminating gluten that results in weight loss,” Mangieri said. Any of us that eliminates or removes cookies and candies from our diets, and replaces them with fruits and vegetables is going to feel better.”[1]

I take issue with the title of the article publicizing a blanket statement that non-celiacs are not likely to benefit from this diet. Also, last I checked, many candies do not contain gluten, so I have no idea why that nutritionist even mentions them in the article. But However, she does have a point that foods that contain gluten are often highly processed and also contain excess sugar or sodium content. Also, most products made specifically “gluten-free” are just as processed and should be avoided. Just because a particular candy bar is gluten free does not mean it is healthy!

A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry just three months prior to this Yahoo article found that a gluten-free diet may lead to decreased risk factors for obesity.[2] The same study states that a gluten-free diet has already been proven to be beneficial for decreasing risk factors in numerous other diseases. And these studies did not limit other food intake for patients! Although such research does not yet prove that avoiding gluten does improve outcomes of people predisposed or suffering from such diseases[3], I could not find any studies that say that avoiding gluten is harmful to people.

Until I decided against eating gluten, cookies and breadbaskets were much more tempting. Gluten free also made me eat more foods that have a low glycemic load and thus reduced my hunger afterward. From taking a couple of “breaks” in avoiding gluten and continuing most other healthy habits, I have found that I feel a lot more energized and upbeat when avoiding gluten. Every body is different, but I have been happy to give up bread and cookies as a way to moderate portions without sacrificing satiety.

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!

Plant-Based Protein

nuts-seeds-beans

I’ve been struggling to figure out how to maintain my protein intake while continuing to reduce the amount of processed foods I eat. I recently realized that the most highly processed part of my diet is protein – from milk to ham.  In fact, I rarely eat other processed foods. So how can I keep cutting them out?

Many plants are significant sources of protein, and can easily be bought fresh and whole. In particular, nuts and avocados contain protein. However, I already maximize my nut and avocado intake daily; I eat about 30 nuts and a whole avocado each day! These also serve as my main fat sources.  Because I’m trying to cut down on processed foods, I’m not going to choose tofu, tempeh or plant-based milks. And I’ve found that my body functions best when I eat fewer grains. Another source of protein I’m already eating is dark greens like kale, collard greens and chards. I did want to mention, however, that those are also often high in protein content.

Legumes, which include beans, lentils and peas, seem to be the group of plants with the highest protein content that I don’t eat regularly. In particular, chickpeas [1] have more complete amino acid profiles than other legumes [2] so I will try to strengthen my body’s ability to break-down protein by including these particular legumes more often. I am going to buy raw legumes, then wash them thoroughly before cook them myself, thus avoiding potential chemicals from canning or other packaging processes.

Along with eating legumes regularly, I will also boost my dark green veggie intake because kale [3] and collard greens [4], for example, are also great sources of high-quality protein.

Plant-based protein seems to be the solution to my conundrum because I can’t afford to buy fresh fish and seafood daily, and it would be unpractical for me to buy a whole cow or pig. Poultry is also fed with corn and hormones these days, so I would also like to reduce its presence in my diet.  The milk, cheese and even egg whites I buy are pasteurized, yet I feel wasteful separating egg yolks if I’m consistently eating just the whites.  Studies have demonstrated that protein from animal byproducts are actually inferior to plant-based protein. [5] Granted, a vegan or vegetarian diet has been shown to be at least adequate, if not beneficial, for athletic performance, but this dietary choice is still often questioned. [6][7] Although I’m not a professional athlete, I do want to be taking good care of my body to be happy and healthy. Hopefully shifting away from processed meats and animal byproducts will help boost my health and vitality.

Diet Review: P90X Nutrition Guide

p90xnutrition

I started P90X workouts about a year ago on the condition that my husband and I would also follow the accompanying nutrition plan. I was not willing to devote time to daily workouts and risk not seeing results! Doing this diet in conjunction with the workouts was the smartest thing I did because it has helped me develop the skills necessary to eat healthy.

Similar to the workouts, the P90X nutritional guide leads you through calculating the daily portions of how much you should eat, based on your fitness goals and your physique. It also gives recommendations for healthy foods, and teaches basic skills of what to look for on food labels to control your daily consumption.

The nutritional guidelines shift through three phases that are about a month long each, matching the workout schedule. The transitions hinge on dietary component ratios. Recommended proportions go from a low carb, high protein diet during phase one to a balanced diet in phase two and finally to a high carb, low protein diet in phase 3; meanwhile fat intake remains at about 20% of your consumption throughout the program.

The reason that the nutrition plan works so well is that the phases align with how intensely you are physically able to do the workouts. At the beginning, you’re most focused on fat loss and muscle gain, so you boost the protein component of your diet. Toward the end you are expending a lot of energy during each workout; to maximize your stamina the diet incorporates more carbohydrates instead.

disciplineEating according to this diet was more challenging for me than the exercise component of P90X. Particularly during the first two weeks, my mind wanted me to put everything sugary in my mouth instead of the nuts or cheese I had to snack on. I often wanted to keep eating despite having finished my allotted portion for dinner-even though I was not hungry at any point!

Overall, I was only able to follow the P90X diet because the nutrition guide has basic instructions and because my husband was willing to help me stick to it by cooking healthier meals. I’m incredibly happy with the results of the program, which exceeded my goals more than threefold. Above all, however, my takeaway has been to learn much more about dieting and determine what foods and dietary proportions are best for me given my energy needs, which change from day to day. The P90X nutrition guide was one of my first stepping-stones to healthy eating because it provided a foundation with which to educate myself about nutrition.

Processed Dairy Consumption: Pros and cons

chrisboshgiraffeMy body’s aversion toward processed dairy and my mind’s aversion toward highly processed products have significantly restricted my dairy intake throughout my life. But milk and milk products are often spun positively in the media. For example, about 90% of Americans are aware of the got milk campaign that the National Fluid Milk Processor Education Board licenses to dairy boards across the country. [1] But does dairy deserve the positive media profile it maintains?

Pros

  • Studies have found that regular dairy consumption reduces your likelihood of developing chronic a metabolic or heart disease[2][3]
  • Dairy consumption is positively correlated with children’s growth and development[4]
  • Consuming dairy products also boosts the effects of weight loss regimen[5]

Cons

  • Most of the dairy we consume has been highly processed, and comes from animals that are unnaturally fed and poorly treated. Processing includes pasteurization and homogenization, which significantly alter the chemical make-up of the dairy most people consume.
  • The protein:carbohydrate:fat ratio of whole milk (the least processed dairy) leans heavily toward fat[6] but this can and should be compensated for through eating naturally fat-free foods like vegetables.
  • Milk is also high in sugars [7]
  • Many people are lactose intolerant, which prevents their body from properly digesting dairy

From my perspective, there are enough dairy cons and not so many pros to justify a daily dose of processed dairy. Most of the research that is semi-official seems to be funded by the industry it supports, which lends itself to inherent bias. Furthermore, the media coverage and studies I’ve found about unprocessed dairy products seem to be even more biased. Nevertheless, I’m not going to stop consuming it because I enjoy dairy, but I am planning to look further into unprocessed dairy to determine if it’s a healthier alternative to the pasteurized and homogenized products with which I personally struggle.

Here is the original got milk commercial that aired in 1993. Since then, per capita dairy consumption in the United States has increased 6.1% according to the USDA.[8]

Processed Food

This video demonstrates that it is difficult for our bodies to process processed food, ironically. Scientists asked two people to eat noodles, one ate top ramen and the other ate a home-cooked version. Then each of these people swallowed a camera in the form of a pill. After two hours, you could still see ramen noodles floating around in one stomach, while the other stomach was just full of mush that used to be the home-cooked noodles. These results are almost obvious considering that food is consistently being developed to extend its shelf life, which also hampers decomposition in our digestive system.

Many chemicals are used to treat food in order to keep its shape and color. Just as preservatives make it difficult for food to go bad, our digestive system has trouble breaking down such foods into the nutrients that we need. As a result, processed foods stay in our stomach as our body waits for them to decompose. Simultaneously, this prevents other food from being passed through our normal digestive cycle, clogging up our body. This also signals to our body that it is full and has excess food, which leads it to store fat and can cause to weight gain.

ramenWorse yet, processed foods can contain chemicals that are harmful to our “gut flora.” Gut flora is composed of beneficial bacteria that live in our digestive system. It can break down potentially harmful, even carcinogenic, substances. But our bodies cannot produce gut flora, it comes from foods that we eat and then can flourish within our body. This is why “cheat days” are so bad for you; there’s a high chance you’re killing bacteria that proactively ward off diseases. Staying consistent with a diet full of fresh whole food choices is the key to providing probiotics with a friendly environment and maintaining good health for the long term.

 

Smoothies are unhealthy

smoothies-article

Smoothies are often marketed as a good-for-you beverage, and sometimes even as a meal-replacement.  Many restaurants and smoothie chains market milkshakes, which used to be a treat equated more with an ice-cream float or malt beverage, as smoothies! Although I enjoy an occasional smoothie, I would never recommend having them regularly and I always check the ingredients or make my own.

Like juice and soda, smoothies liquid calories: therefore they are not going to satisfy your hunger as much as an equivalent amount of calories of solid food. To make things worse, you can drink them quickly without realizing that you’ve had enough until you’ve had too much. Worst of all, they often come in a jumbo cup that contains multiple servings; yet people tend to drink their smoothie in one sitting.

Most smoothies have a high glycemic load because they contain sugars and other additives that are high on the glycemic index despite already being made from sugary fruits and starchy vegetables. [1] Not to mention that they’re also not a balanced meal.

Smoothies sometimes come with “boosters” of protein, antioxidants or other nutrients that we may think are beneficial and healthy. However, these are usually dietary supplements that have not been approved by the Federal Drug Administration and are therefore unregulated apart from marketing and labeling standards. [2] Many dietary supplements have not been studied, let alone proven to be beneficial for our bodies, and some studies have found negative side effects from these or similar substances. So you may be paying extra for something that could hurt you in the long term.

By definition, smoothies are blended. Because it’s already partly processed, your body does not have to work as hard to break down the nutrients that are left and, therefore, you burn fewer calories during digestion. Also, the pulp is often filtered out or left at the bottom of the blender, meaning that you won’t get the benefits of the fiber from the fruit or vegetables. This is the main reason why I don’t consider a smoothie a nutritious food that would be suitable as a meal replacement. If you choose to have a smoothie be sure to read the ingredients or make it yourself so that you know what you’re drinking.

Minimize Glycemic Load

glucoselevelsUntil I began cutting back on carbohydrates I had no idea what “glycemic load” or the “glycemic index” was. In a nutshell, it measures how long it takes for your body to process a carbohydrate.

The glycemic index a great tool to use because you can pick out foods that you know your body will absorb over a long period of time, which will not only leave you feeling satiated for longer but also make your body expend more energy to break down your meals.

Glucose is 100 on the glycemic index because your mind senses it and your liver absorbs it nearly instantaneously.[1] This can cause a spike in insulin levels, which is why it is dangerous for diabetics to eat sugary foods! It also elevates cholesterol, triglycerides and leptin, which negatively affect your metabolism and can lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. [2]

Glycemic load takes into account the portion of whatever you are eating. It follows logic; you can not only substitute toward foods lower on the index but also choose to eat smaller portions of foods that are higher on the index.

Some sports drinks and candy bars that are made of ingredients high on the glycemic index claim to provide your body with a boost while training. Recent studies have shown that this is false! The quantity of food that you eat can affect your performance, but something lower on the glycemic index is probably still better for you because it will not boost your performance. [3][4] One study even concludes that ingesting foods high on the glycemic index hampered fat breakdown.[5]

Foods are scored on the Glycemic Index based on how long it takes people to break them down.

Researchers at the University of Sydney maintain a database of scores and provide lots more information about this dieting tool: http://www.glycemicindex.com/about.php