Healthy: A Definition

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The FDA is in the midst of re-evaluating the terms under which the word healthy will be permitted on food labels. The whole idea was set in motion when KIND, a company that produces nut-based bars, retaliated after they were called out for their labeling practices. Based on the FDA standards, the bars’ fat content surpassed the healthy level. According to KIND, the fat in their bars is the healthy kind, and as for the bars’ few other ingredients? Well, those are healthy, too. 

As the parameters of what make a food healthy are now up for national debate, I’ve been considering my own perspective on the word. It’s not easy. 

I work in a hospital, so the idea of general health is constantly on my mind. While I primarily speak with my patients about their nutritional health, talk of adequate sleep and exercise – two other factors that I think contribute to being healthy – often weave into the conversation. 

On the flip side, also at work, in an employee wellness group, participants love to ask if certain foods are healthy, if they’re “good,” if it’s okay to eat this or to eat that. 

When talking with my patients, it’s much clearer that healthy isn’t just one thing, that it’s not a stagnant word with a universal definition. Yet, it seems that as a whole, we’re stuck thinking “healthy” is defined by a concrete yes and no, by a certain number of calories, by restriction, by being sure to avoid all of those “bad” foods and “bad” habits. There’s a serious oversight of the fluid, multi-faceted, and holistic quality of what healthy really is. 

Healthy incorporates our social health, emotional health, and physical health. It includes what we’re doing and how were doing it. 

I know it seems like things would be easier if we had the magic pill, the prescription for wellbeing, or an easy definition of what healthy means. But that’s not how our health works. It’s an evolving process and it’s different for everyone. Being healthy certainly isn’t about labels. It’s not about rules, or lists of good and bad. It’s about a collection of choices, about feeling our best, and a commitment to feel our best and to act in ways that encourage that.  

The 411 on GMOs

Genetically modified organisms are foods or animals produced via gene manipulation. The result of genetic modification is an organism that contains a combination of genes from plants, animals, or bacteria. The most common food GMOs in the U.S. include soy, cotton, canola, corn, sugar beets, Hawaiian papaya, alfalfa, and zucchini. GMOs, however, may also be present in ingredients such as xanthan gum, sweeteners, and natural and artificial flavorings that are commonly found in processed foods.

Why genetically alter an organism? Genetic modification allows genes to be transferred from one organism or species to another thereby creating an organism with a select combination of genes that could not occur naturally. When it comes to genetically modified foods, the most desirable genes are ones that will confer greater durability including enhanced resistance to bacteria, herbicides, disease, and spoilage. Genetic modification may also contribute to lower production and purchasing costs, enhanced nutritional value, better flavor, and higher crop yield. According to the World Health Organization, genetic modification is intended to benefit both producers and consumers.

How common are GMOs? GMOs might be found in over 70% of processed foods in the US, and are most often in foods that contain a soy derivative.

Are GMOs different than conventional foods? Most national authorities do not believe that GMOs are different from their traditional counterparts in any meaningful way.

Are GMOs safe? Potential risks of genetically modified foods entering the commercial food system include the possibility to invoke allergic reaction, gene transfer from foods to body cells or to gastrointestinal microbacteria, and the possible migration of genes from modified plants into conventional crops. To date no studies evaluating the long-term impact of engineered foods on individuals or on the environment have been conducted. The FDA requires GMOs to meet the same legal requirements that apply to all foods and believes that GMOs are as safe as comparable traditionally grown foods. Furthermore, the FDA states that all goods currently on the market have passed safety assessments are not considered likely to impose risks on human health.

So what’s the big deal? Unlike countries such as Australia and Japan, the US currently has no laws requiring companies to label products containing genetically modified organisms. This is in part due to the fact that the FDA has determined it has no basis for concluding bioengineered foods present different or have greater safety concerns than conventionally grown foods. Public concern largely stems from fear based on the lack of substantiated evidence proving that GMOs have no negative impact on physical or environmental health. Additionally, consumers who are advocating for transparency feel they have a right to know how their food is grown or produced in order to make informed decisions. 

 

This post initially appeared on Health Bytes

Holidays the Healthier Way

The holidays are a whirlwind of festivities. With tempting treats and drinks, every event may seem like an excuse to splurge. This year, navigate holiday celebrations the healthy way so you can embrace the cheer, not the unwanted belly bulge. These six tips are so effortless you won’t even miss that extra eggnog.

Set yourself up for success – Have a high-fiber snack, such as an apple, before the big event. You’ll be less tempted to overdo it.

Have a game plan – Tempting treats will abound. Before you blindly binge, take a moment to make conscious choices. Identify worthwhile indulgences and those foods you can do without.

Out of sight, out of mouth – Move your conversation away from the buffet and out of the line of passed bites to minimize the visible temptation that leads to unconscious nibbling.

Choose wisely – Load your plate first with vegetables and other less decadent fare. In the space that’s left, add heftier proteins and carbs (think steak and mashed potatoes). Bonus: research suggests we consume the largest portions of the foods we eat first, so you’re well on your way if you start with healthful choices.

Drinks count too – So start with water instead of a cocktail. Then, for every boozy beverage, drink one glass of water. You’ll not only stay hydrated and stave off that hangover, but drinking water before eating is associated with smaller intake.

Indulge for a night. Not a season – Tis the season to be merry, but no one wants to start January looking like Santa Clause. Enjoy a night (or three) of mindless dancing, drinking, eating, and being merry, and then return to your more conservative, more healthful ways the following day. Beware of lingering leftovers and hangovers and that interfere with the best of workout intentions. Make room for celebration within your routine (not the other way around) and come January 1, everyone will think your resolutions started a month early. 

Thanksgiving 2015: More Thank, Less Full

How to eat in moderation on the holiday whose premise is, well, eating? Focus on these five strategies steps can help you enjoy the food, the company, and still have room for leftovers the next day.

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Eat during the day: It seems counterintuitive because you’ll be tempted to save room for the big meal, but fasting all day only means you’ll be more likely to overdo it at dinner. Start the day with a breakfast that includes protein and fiber. Think a spinach omelet with whole-wheat toast or oatmeal and yogurt with fruit. Have a small lunch or snack a little before the feast. Again, aim to eat a mix of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats.

Remember what it’s all about: Yes, Thanksgiving is a day for eating, but so is every other Thursday of the year. Try foregoing appetizers and heaping portions and focusing instead on what makes this one unique: no work, friends and family, the opportunity to relax and socialize. Between bites of turkey and crispy stuffing, look around the table to appreciate the company and conversations in addition to the edible bounty. After all, these are the parts that truly make Thanksgiving what it is.

Serve yourself: Buffets can be the ultimate danger zone. Instead of falling for the trap (I’ll have heaps of everything, please!), see the buffet as an opportunity to take control. Don’t waste previous stomach room on food you have all year long. Today is a day for your favorite Thanksgiving fare. Focus on those treats you eat only once a year so you can savor every festive bite free of the dreaded food coma.

Skip seconds: One plate at dinner means more leftovers for tomorrow, and more room for dessert!

Eat pie like a pro: It’s a day for family, so come dessert, time find a sweet-toothed buddy or two for some chummy familial sharing. Split pieces of pie and chunks of cookies. The game plan here is to eat a little bit of a lot of different foods. You get to sample the entire spread while avoiding the stomach pains that began three pieces of pumpkin pie ago.

Check in with reality: Remember, it's just one day. The reality is that one day of eating until it hurts won't make or break your health. Or the scale. Enjoy the holiday, and go for an extra long walk tomorrow. 

An Apple a Day Keeps the Waistline at Bay

We all know that an apple a day can keep the doctor away, but what we didn’t know is that a daily apple can also keep caloric intake in check. Eating more to eat less? It’s true!

A new study found that when subjects snacked on an apple before a meal they consumed fewer calories at that meal compared to those who ate other apple products (sauce, juice) instead.

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Why? // My first thought was fiber, baby! All that pectin (juicy apple fiber that also helps in gelling jams) must be doing a body good! But turns out that the amount subjects ate at meals didn’t change even when the juices and applesauces were spiked with fiber to more closely mimic the whole apple. 

Now I’m just an apple fan – maybe number one! – and by no means an apple scientist, but I have a hunch the results are largely in part to the inherent satisfaction that eating an apple provides. Juicy, crunchy, sweet; they even take a while to eat.

I do have questions about the study. Such as were the apple-eating subjects who ate less lunch hungrier come dinner? Was their daily caloric intake lower than that of their counterparts? Did the calories in the apple replace those that were neglected at lunch?


So what? // Without being able to conclude that eating apples = losing weight, we can still find some valuable takeaways from this research.

First, and most simply – fruit makes for a good snack. I love apples because they’re easy – portable, durable – so satisfying, and not too expensive. Find what works for you.

Second, quality matters. Eating quality foods won’t only make you feel good, but can also lead to decreased intake. Try to eat whole, fresh foods as much as possible. They’re loaded with fiber and nutrients that keep you energized and healthy. When you’re feeling good and treating your body well, you’re less likely to OD on excess, unnecessary calories. 

Do We Really Need Candy as a Halloween Treat?

While in grad school I taught a nutrition science curriculum to local 5th graders. The lessons focused on how to feel your best, and each week as students learned about the interplay between food and their bodies, they set goals to develop healthier habits. Most students loved the idea; they'd start each lesson barely able to contain anecdotes about the broccoli they tried at lunch or the marathon tag session they started after school. Overall, students didn't mind sacrificing some of not so healthy foods they were used to eating when it meant enjoying the pride that came with accomplishing one of their goals. Yet attitudes shifted when the conclusion of a lesson about cutting back on processed packaged snacks coincided with Halloween preparations.

The students' eyes widened as they realized candy fell into the category of foods they were now seeking to limit. We discussed solutions that allowed them to enjoy the Halloween loot without deviating too far from their goals, but many couldn't shake the idea that being healthy ruined Halloween. Many other food-focused holidays can still be enjoyed without sacrificing the essence of celebration - sticking to one dessert on Thanksgiving or bringing a veggie platter to Super Bowl still embraces what those holidays are known for. Yet Halloween is virtually indistinguishable from candy. And a whole lot of it. 

Interestingly, a 2003 study found that when offered a choice between candy and toys on Halloween, children ages 3-14 were equally as likely to select toys. This suggests that in fact, maybe for trick-or-treaters, the true appeal of Halloween may merely be obtaining a treat. As we see, candy is not inherently special, yet by offering candy and similarly coveted high calorie foods on other special occasions, we make these foods more desirable. The study authors propose that replacing sugary and high calorie foods with non-food items at special occasions may displace their status and possibly make them less desired over time. 

While a Halloween without candy is hard to imagine, the idea of detaching unhealthy foods from their status as treats is a step in the right direction. Food is so often treated as a reward (I'm so guilty of this). Whether or not the heaping bowl of mac-n-cheese after a rough day or an ice cream sundae following a child's baseball team win are factors in weight gain trends or longterm health, non-food rewards exist and can be just as effective in providing comfort and happiness. Imagine in-school celebrations that focus on festivities instead of feasts or birthday parties that boast piñatas filled with toys instead of candy-filled goody bags. It's a matter of changing expectations in a productive way so that, like my enthusiastic fifth graders, we can always feel our best.

 

 

Craving Carbs, but Eating Veggies: Tips for Getting Your Cold Weather Veggie On

I visited Montreal a few weeks ago. Though still early October, sunny and comfortable back home, Montreal’s weather had already progressed beyond the crisp stage and was settling comfortably into the gusty, chilly season it’s known for. After hours moseying around the city covered in goose bumps and wishing I had packed a hat, fullness from my blowout bagel breakfast began to fade. I found myself craving not the moderate meals I’m used to, but instead, something hearty, warm, and starchy. That’s how I ended up eating a poutine, cheeseburger, and beer “snack.”

I was delighted to embrace these Montreal delicacies as much as possible while away (let’s face it, my trip was 90% motivated by my desire to consume bagels and poutine), but cold weather can’t be a perpetual excuse to exclusively eat gravy-doused French fries and doughy bread.

My cooking and eating routines have changed since summer temperatures have dropped and I’ve deemed it again safe to turn on my oven. Though breads, potatoes, and warm things smothered in cheese are casting leading roles in my meals far more than they do in warmer months, my waistline, wellbeing, and digestive tract (hellooo, fiber!) still crave those friendly vegetables. Without relying on salads, I’ve been adapting menus to include foods that are green (or yellow, orange, red, purple, and white!) and fibrous, yet still adequately satisfying in the colder weather.

This season, calm those chilly cravings as you embrace both our need for vegetables and edible comfort from the cold. Try these dishes that embrace the best of both worlds. 

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Soup // Really any vegetable-heavy soup will do, but I most often find myself turning to easy pureed squash or carrot soups when I'm a half hour away from starving. A few years ago I made some riff of this guy on repeat, and now it’s only October and I’ve made this Asian-themed carrot number twice. Minestrone is another annual favorite. Top with beans or seeds for added protein, serve with a starch – bread or rice works oh-so well – and a side of cheese, or even a salad if you’re feeling ambitious. Bonus tip: freeze those extras, guaranteed to make any Snow Day, Sick Day, and It’s-So-Late-And-I’m-So-Tired-And-Hungry Day delicious AND nutritious.

Galette // When you want an excuse to eat piecrust for dinner while also impressing anyone who inquires about the name of your dish, make a galette. These are new to me this year, and again, the chilly weather is hardly upon us and I’ve already made a couple. I love them because 1) pie crust, 2) opportunity to use up any old vegetable you’ve got lying around, and 3) so easy, so tasty. Galettes are basically free-form pies, little bundles of cheese-studded vegetables cradled in a flaky crust. I've found you need an idea more than a concrete recipe. I always include some whole-wheat flour in my pie dough (you know, to offset the butter), though choose to focus my nutrition needs in the veggie-heavy filling. It may take some experimenting, but fool around with whatever you’ve got hanging around. My first go was filled with greens and roasted squash, second was broccoli and so many onions. Bonus: leftovers are great for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Inspiration and piecrust recipes: one, two, and three

Gallette

Panzanella // Yes, technically a salad, but one that is studded with toasty bread bites. Typically made in the summer with tomatoes and soaked stale bread, those winter carby cravings will happily embrace a more seasonal tomato-free riff.  Roast up some veggies, toast up some bread, toss in some greens, and garnish generously with cheese. Start with this recipe from the New York Times to start and then customize to your desire: 

Sunday Roast // One of my favorite cold weather habits is to roast a pan’s worth of seasonal veggies over the weekend. The idea is that with almost no effort at all I’ll have an arsenal of tasty, nutritious gems to add to or inspire weeknight meals. Take that, Seamless. There are really no rules for this aside from cutting your collection of veggies in similar sizes to ensure similar roasting time. The rest is up to you. Season simply with salt, pepper, and oil only, or customize flavors to your desire – rosemary, cumin, maple...the spice drawer is your oyster.

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Use veggies as your garnish // Remember those roasted veggies you so diligently and wisely prepared over the weekend? Use them! Winter veggies are destined to jazz up wintery favorites. Making spaghetti and meatballs? Throw some greens into the sauce. Pizza night? Decorate that guy in mushrooms, please. Taco Tuesday? There’s no excuse to not fill your shell with a bounty of vegetables. Add away to omelets, sandwiches, grain bowls, stir-fries, and even soups. Vegetables don’t need to be the star of your meal, but I bet you’ll find there’s always room for them. Bonus tip: Don't panic if you've missed your weekend roast session; turn to frozen vegetables - budget-friendly and just as good as their fresh counterparts. 

Healthy Eating You CAN Do in Three Small Steps

For typically eating only three meals and a few snacks daily, the average adult makes 200 food-related decisions a day. Seems a little excessive? That's because about only 10 percent of those are conscious; the rest are gut responses to one's surroundings.

The ease by which the physical and social world we inhabit influences everyday decisions suggests that subtle cues in our environment have the potential to impact our diet in a big way. That's the theory behind the CAN approach, a product of the most recent research coming from Brian Wansink, a favorite food researcher of mine. Wansink is a consumer psychologist at Cornell University who studies factors that influence food choices. He is well known for identifying seemingly trivial details that subtly yet significantly impact what, when, and how we eat. For example years ago he showed that movie goers who received a container of stale popcorn ate more compared to those who received smaller containers of fresher, tastier popcorn. 

With the CAN theory, Wansink builds proposes that one can introduce meaningful improvements to the diet without requiring the major effort usually involved in breaking habits by tweaking one's surroundings in three simple ways: by making healthy foods convenient, attractive, and normal aka CAN - or “visible and easy to reach, enticingly displayed, and appear like an obvious choice." Following Wansink's theory, an adjustment of environmental factors could help make more nutritious living the norm. So if your diet has room for improvement, the tips below can help make healthy choices the instinctive ones. 

Convenient: make nutrition visible and easy to reach

  • Place salads and vegetables on the table while you're eating for easy access to nutritious second servings, and keep other dishes out of sight to cut back on aimless noshing (I'm a notorious pasta-picker).
  • Make a shopping list. Stick to it. (Don't shop when hungry!)
  • Create a routine to prep staples to last the week. That way healthful eating is easy even on a crazy Thursday. Think roasted chicken, cooked grains, homemade salad dressings, and steamed or roasted veggies - bases that can stand on their own or serve as a springboard for easy dishes.
  • Keep healthy snacks visible by storing them in clear containers at eye level in the fridge, or in the front row of the pantry. Stash cookies and packaged snacks out of sight.
  • Swap the cookie jar for a fruit bowl stocked with a selection of your favorites. 
  • Double the recipe of freezable dinners like soups and chilis or make extra portions of your weekly dishes for ready-to-go lunches.
  • Always keep a stash of frozen fruits and veggies so there's no excuse -  even when you haven't made it to the grocery store

Attractive: make nutrition enticing

  • Incorporate a variety of colors and textures into your meals. Look for colorful produce and include a variety on the plate; mix crunchy and soft textures to increase satiety and keep meals feeling fresh. 
  • Set the dinner table using real plates and cutlery. Investing in cloth napkins is an simple way to make an everyday meal seem special.
  • Invite family to join in menu planning and preparation; kids are more likely to eat a meal when they're involved in the process of putting it together.
  • Cut fruits and vegetables before stashing them in the crisper. You're not only more likely them when they're already prepared, but there's also something so enticing about a bite-sized ready-to-eat piece of fruit, The time and effort spent to prepare the foods is bound to be reflected in your enjoyment. 
  • Keep things fresh by learning a new recipe; you'll be more invested in eating something nutritious when you've invested time and energy, and everyone benefits from the excitement that comes with a change in routine 

Normal: make nutrition a natural choice

  • Make nutritious fare the new normal by filling your shopping cart with more healthy items than indulgent ones. 
  • Start serving a salad with every dinner, stock healthy snacks in the house, bring a fruit to pair with your afternoon snack. Once these new healthy habits become part of your daily routine they'll no longer be active choices, but automatic actions. 
  • Try fruit for dessert one night a week. Then every other. The less sugar you eat, the less you crave more. Bonus: the more you repeat a new behavior, the more natural it becomes. 
  • Stick with it. Even when you're busy. Even when you're tired. Even when you're out. 

Resolutions Refreshed: 4 Steps to a Healthy Summer

As June comes to a close it's not only the snow that has long melted away, but also the dedication that we once devoted to January resolutions to be healthier, more active, better, happier. Motivation can wane when we hibernate indoors, but with signs of summer growing by the day, there's a refreshed sense of energy and possibility in the air.

The summer presents so many opportunities to embrace health – irresistible fresh produce (finally embrace more veggies!), long light days (get more done!), warm weather (off the couch and into the sun!). Halfway through the year, it's a prime time to not necessarily to reignite neglected resolutions (no Mid Year’s Resolutions here, friends), but instead, to make a vow to reinvest in health. The five healthy habits below will get you set for a fresh start this season.  

  1. Plant something tasty. Keeping a garden or even tending to just one pot of summer herbs can be extremely gratifying and inspiring. Find a sunny spot at home and head to the nearest hardware store for soil, pots, and likely a selection of summer herbs and other easy starters. Basil and mint are foolproof and will jazz up summer cooking all season. If you’ve got some space outside try radishes, carrots, or even kale. Bonus: you’ll be inspired to cook with your veggies all season long.

  2. Savor salad. This summer resolve to remove salad as the addendum to your meal. Instead, make it the main affair. Produce is at its peak, and the variety gives you an opportunity to step out of the box. Plus, I welcome any excuse to not turn on the stove. Get creative. A salad doesn’t have to star lettuce. Think of using corn, tomatoes, a hearty grain such as quinoa or whole-wheat couscous, or even bread as your base. Accent with fruit - I love peaches and watermelon. Add in some crunch, protein, and top with a squirt of lemon and a swirl of oil. One of my favorite sides turned main dish is a peach/nectarine-cucumber-goat cheese combo with a side of crusty bread and a glass of Rose. 

  3. Head to the farmers’ market. Load up on summer’s best and freshest produce straight from the source. Fresher produce is both more nutritious and more delicious. Shopping at your local market creates an opportunity to try something new. The vendors are a great resource for advice on how to prepare and store their offerings. If you make a new friend they might even offer deals or throw in a freebie zucchini. Bonus: work up an appetite by walking or biking to your local market.

  4. Find an outdoor activity (do it daily). Take advantage of the long days and comfortable temperatures by finding an easy activity that will get you out and moving every day. Maybe a lunchtime walk to the park or pre-work bike ride, When the midday heat's got you down, get out in the early morning or late evening when temperatures are cooler. The combination of the fresh air and activity-induced endorphins

  5. Because summer is all about fun, cool down with ice pops. Ice pops are my favorite summer treat. After a day in the heat they’re the only things I want. They’re not only refreshing, but fun, and also less outrageously decadent in the nutrition department than ice cream and most baked goods. Feeling ambitious? Make your own pops, so you can load them up with fruit and control the sugar level (check out my recipe for these guys made with blueberry and lime).

Blueberry Popsicles

My anticipation of summer has a lot to do with popsicles. Blueberry-lime pops in particular. While there are plenty of purist ice pops on the market, I've found that nothing beats these in terms of flavor, nutrition, and satisfaction; they're beautiful and delectable. Dose your sugar to preference and indulge: you're getting a legitimate serving of blueberry with every frozen bite.  

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Blueberry Popsicles with Lime

Ingredients 

  • 3 cups fresh or frozen blueberries 
  • 1/2 cup sugar 
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice 

Tools

  • Dixie cups/ice pop mold (I use - and love - this one) + popsicle sticks 

Steps

  1. In a heavy saucepan simmer the blueberries, water, and sugar. Stir occasionally until the blueberries burst, encouraging them to pop with your spoon.
  2. Remove from heat and add the lime juice. 
  3. Using an immersion or standing blender, puree until desired consistency. I like to leave a few pieces whole for texture. 
  4. Pour into molds and freeze. If using cups, insert sticks after about 45 minutes when the pops are slushy. Freeze until completely hardened.   

* I have made these (accidentally) without water and (intentionally) with much less sugar and much more lime juice. They're always winners. They're flexible, so experiment away.  

recipe borrowed with little adaption from Gourmet via Epicurious.com

 

 

Eating Your Way to Smart

It's finals season for the students I tutor. Last week one of my favorites whipped out a giant calendar where we mapped her test schedule, study plan, timing for breaks, and - best for last- snack agenda. "What are some brain foods I need to have," she asked me, not knowing how my dietitian heart was swelling. 

No brain food is capable of magically boosting mental skill two weeks before the test and years into one's educational career. There are foods, however, that can support brain health over the long term. More relevantly, eating certain types of foods can promote mental endurance and acuity, which is really all students need during finals season.


Foods and the everyday brain

The brain requires energy to function, just as the rest of the body does. Yet unlike the rest of the body, the brain relies on glucose for power. Glucose comes most directly from carbohydrates - breads, grains, fruit, and sugar. Thus, any brain diet for cognitive longevity must contain a smart choice of carbohydrate, ideally a whole grain rich in satiating fiber that will provide a sustained source of fuel. When combined with the standbys of a balanced diet - friendly proteins, veggies, and fats - you've got a recipe for A+ success. 

If you're thinking like my type A student who wants a game plan for every step of the way -- while you're learning, preparing, and challenging the noggin on game day -- chew on these smart choices.  

 Maintenance smarts

  • Vitamin B12 – This B vitamin (aka cobalamin) helps ensure proper nervous system function. Low levels are associated with poorer short-term memory and concentration, low energy levels, and depression. Animal products - meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy - are the best sources. If meat isn’t your thing, you’re looking at fortified soy milk and supplements.
  • Blueberries – Research suggests that the flavonoids, or antioxidant pigments, found in blueberries may improve memory, learning, reasoning skills, decision-making, verbal comprehension and numerical ability. 
  • Vitamin B6  This water-soluble vitamin is especially important for regulating mood and preventing mental fatigue. Vitamin B-6 also helps the body make hemoglobin, the part of your blood that carries energy-boosting oxygen to the brain and other organs. Low levels have been associated with low energy and impaired ability to focus. Cod, salmon, halibut, trout, and tuna contain high doses of B6. Although dairy products aren't among the best sources of vitamin B-6, a cup of cottage cheese will provide you with 10 percent of the day's recommendation, while other soft cheeses and yogurt give about half of that.
  • Healthy fats – The body cannot produce omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, but the brain relies on them to work. Find the omegas in fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, eggs, and oils (safflower, soybean, flax). As always, avoid trans fats and limit intake of saturated fats from animal products. A study from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, found that rats fed a high trans fat diet learned more slowly and made more errors on memory challenges than rats who didn’t consume as many trans fats.  

The night and morning before the test 

  • Whole grains – Because the ability to concentrate and focus relies on an adequate, steady supply of glucose, incorporate whole gains into your study plan. Foods like brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and whole wheat bread are rich in fiber that will provide a slow release of glucose to keep you feeling sharp throughout the day.
  • Coffee or tea – Caffeine improves mental acuity and can enhance focus. Stick with your usual intake on test day (and avoid the night before!) Too much caffeine coupled with test day adrenaline can lead to distracting jitters. 
  • Protein – You’ll want a protein serving about the size of your palm pre-test taking. Protein will contribute those B-vitamins that are important for mental maintenance, while also helping to sustain the energy needed to do your best.

While taking the test

  • Dark chocolate – Eating ½ to one ounce of dark chocolate a day can deliver a beneficial dose of antioxidants which may slow the aging process in the brain when consumed regularly over the long term. For the short-term, dark chocolate contains natural stimulants that can enhance focus and concentration. Eating chocolate has also been shown to stimulate the production of endorphins, which improve mode and provide a sense of satisfaction – both desirable sensations while test taking. Mix dark chocolate morsels into a trail mix made of nuts and dried fruits for an energizing snack on test day, or tuck away a square for a satisfying mid-test treat.
  • Nuts and seeds – Add these guys to your trail mix for a test break snack. They offer protein to maintain energy and healthy fats to satisfy. Include pumpkin seeds for a last minute dose of memory-enhancing zinc.
  • Fruit – While not common in the cast of brain boosters, fruit is a smart choice for hard workers. Fruit is a source of both sugar and fiber. The sugar provides an immediate energy boost, while the fiber prevents an imminent crash and instead keeps you energized at a steady rate for longer. Plus, the water is refreshing.  
  • Water – Brain cells depend on a balance between water and other elements to function. When the balance is offset, the brain loses efficiency. Moreover, even mild dehydration can lead to fatigue, poor concentration, and reduced cognitive abilities. Hydrate the day before a test. To avoid bathroom emergencies on test day, have a small cup of water before the exam starts, and take period sips every hour to stay fresh.

Savvy Snacking

Americans are snacking more than ever, and companies have noticed. There's an excess of appealing snackables nearly everywhere we go. The challenge with snacking isn't a lack of availability, but a lack of nourishing options. Food companies stocking the shelves and tempting our appetites don't have our best interest in mind. Commercial outlets have made it too easy for nourishment to fall to the back burner when snacks like candy, chips, and pretzels are so easy to sell. These, like most of what lines the shelves, are low in valuable nutrition – the protein and fiber needed to boost energy – but high in calories, sodium, and fat.

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What constitutes a snack?  Snacks are basically mini meals meant to sustain you until mealtime, yet Americans often think of snacks in a food category all of their own - convenient, salty, sweet, packaged. Snacks should be energizing and satisfying, so choose a small portion of something that contains both carbs and protein.

Healthful snacking can be done with a shift in mentality and some effort. Rethink the snack as an energy boost instead of a distraction and buy some tinfoil and a bag of small Ziplocs. Successful snacking awaits you! Read on for my favorite snacks at home and on the go.

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My go-to snacks

Munching at home: 

  • Fruit / veggies + spread (hummus, nut butter) 
  • Bread / rice cake / wasa cracker + spread (hummus, nut butter, avocado, cheese) 
  • Banana bread 
  • Hardboiled egg

Buying out: 

  • Small latte (with regular or soy milk for protein)
  • Small frozen yogurt with fruit + nuts/granola 
  • Edamame
  • Honey wheat pretzel sticks
  • Beef / salmon jerky
  • Cheese stick

Packing at home, eating out:  

  • Stove popped popcorn 
  • 1 handful nuts 
  • Fruit + KIND bar 
  • Nut butter packet (alone, or with apple, / banana / rice cake)
  • 1/2 peanut butter and banana sandwich 

Four Tips for Guilt-Free Munching

Hi. My name is Jenny, and I’m an emotional eater. 

Any emotion will do. I’ve been known to pack in a prodigious portion of peanut m&ms on Superbowl Sunday simply because socializing on a Sunday evening is exciting, and most evenings it's not unusual to find me perched at the counter peanut butter jar in hand mindlessly licking one spoonful after another as I ponder the most recent distress.

The issues with these situations are myriad (peanut butter is too expensive for me to deplete every other day!), yet the most perturbing to me is the regret I feel once I snap back to reality and digest not only what, but how I’ve just eaten. 

Guilt associated with eating probably exists more often than it should. For me, it stems from mindless and reckless overeating. For others I know indulging in their forbidden fruits or eating too much is what breeds regret. 

I believe there is room in a nourishing life for m&ms, peanut butter, and everything that falls in between. For me, the first key to guitlessly enjoying indulgent variety is simply HOW it’s done: how much you're eating (to some extent what you’re eating, too) and most importantly, how you’re eating it. 

Though being comfortable with your diet is an ever evolving process, some conscious crunching coupled with a shift in perspective may help promote nourishing habits and the the acceptance that comes with them. 

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Ask yourself why you're eatingIdentifying where you're coming from can help you come to terms with what you're doing and ensure you're making the best choice for your needs at the time. Maybe it's not hunger that's luring you to the kitchen, but boredom or anxiety. Maybe you're dragging and need small pick me up, or maybe you're upset and a walk would be a more productive choice. Checking in with your needs can help you make the best choice for you.

Ask yourself if it is worth it. Sometimes the answer is yes, you need this now, even if it’s not for the right reason. That’s okay. Taking time to check in before eating makes it a conscious decision. You’re less likely to regret something that you rationalize and actively decide to do. 

What you eat can make a difference. Sometimes (often), I crave volume. Instead of eating an entire wheel of cheese or half the chocolate cake tucked away in your fridge (as I have done on numerous occasions), choose something that will hurt less and temper the guilt. Popcorn has become my go to. 3 air-popped cups (which is a lot!) has only 93 calories. 

Eat well whenever you can. Consistently making choices to eat well creates wiggle room in your diet for the foods that don't rank at the top of the healthy list. When most meals most days of the week provide the nutrition you want, there is room for there the occasional burger, weekend ice cream treat, or evening cocktails. The treats are not something to feel bad about when they're actual treats and not the norm. The bonus is that having your special food items only sometimes makes them even more special. You’ll be more likely to relish it when you’re having it instead of binging.

Super Food Spotlight: Coconut Oil

 

You've likely noticed it: lining grocery shelves, dominating headlines, appearing among other more familiar recipe ingredients, and even touted as a beauty fix. After a history of being shunned as remarkably unhealthy, coconut oil is back and now among the newest super food trends. But my friends and patients are curious: what's all the hype and should we be buying into it? 

What is it // Coconut oil is extracted from the hard white coconut "meat." Like lard, it is solid at room temperature and has a long shelf life, which makes it attractive for many kinds of food processing and baking. Coconut oil has long been shunned for it's saturated fat content (98%!), which exceeds even that of butter. Sat fats are found primarily in animal products and are linked with high cholesterol. Why are we eating it // Even though they're technically the same kind of fat, the structure of fat found in coconut oil is different than that found in say, a hamburger. Coconut oil has an unusually high amount of medium-chain fatty acids. MCFAs are harder for the body to convert into stored fat and easier for them to burn off than their longer counterparts in animal products. Ultimately, this suggests that maybe coconut oil isn't as bad for us as we first thought. 

Not all coconut oils are created equal // Many different types of coconut oil are on the market today, but not all should be welcome into your pantry. 

  • Partially hydrogenated - Made by heating and passing hydrogen bubbles through oil it to change its texture. The process is cheap and extends shelf life, both very appealing traits for food producers. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also introduces trans fats, which are considered to be the worst kind of fat for raising "bad" cholesterol and lowering the "good" kind.
  • Refined - Extracted chemically from bleached and deodorized dried coconut meat.
  • Virgin - Extracted from the fruit of the fresh, mature coconuts without using high temperatures or chemicals; considered unrefined, and the most pure, possibly offering antioxidant properties.

What does it do // The purported benefits of coconut oil are abundant. It’s promoted for helping control weight and make hair and skin shine, but more conclusive data is needed about some of the more serious health claims.

Heart health // Virgin coconut oil contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. However, participants in a clinical trial who consumed coconut oil for 12 weeks saw an increase in HDL (the "good" cholesterol"), but no change in their cholesterol levels overall. Their soybean oil-consuming counterparts saw an increase in LDL and a decrease in LDL, both markets of an increased risk for heart disease. While coconut oil came out ahead in the study, it's important to note, that other common oils, olive in particular, have more mono- and polyunsaturated fats than coconut oil.

Weight loss // A few studies have suggested that consuming coconut oil compared to other common oils is associated with enhanced weight loss. The thought process is that the medium-chain fats found in coconut oil are converted more easily to energy than long-chain fats, meaning that the fats in coconut oil may be less likely to be stored as fat on the body. However, all fats are inherently dense in calories, and coconut oil is no exception. If you’re game to try, be sure to substitute it for other high-calorie foods instead of adding it in addition to what you already eat.

To coconut or not? // That is the question. And the jury is still out. Coconut oil is by no means a magic pill and it is not healthier than most common oils or fats. If you don’t buy the hype that it will cure disease while keeping your waste line trim to boot, there’s no reason not to jump on the bandwagon and begin cooking and baking with extra virgin or virgin coconut oil. 

Cooking with Coconut // The taste is smooth and subtly coconut, but you won't taste it much once the oil is incorporated into your dish. Give these tips and ideas as try if you're looking to join the adventures in coconut oil.

  • It’s my new go-to for stove top popcorn
  • Last night I used it to bake banana bread when I ran out of canola; use as a 1:1 ratio 
  • Stir into warm grains
  • I’m thinking coconut-roasted vegetables can’t be bad
  • Cooking: stirfries for sure
  • Spicy lentils
  • Cookies!
First photo courtesy of MadeofMuscle.net

Super Food Spotlight: Turmeric

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Long established in the cuisine and herbal medicine realm of Asian cultures, turmeric is blowing up Stateside as a gotta-have-it super food. 

What is it // Turmeric is a rhizome (a thick plant stem that grows underground and has shoots and roots growing from it!) native to South Asia. In the States it’s most commonly seen as a powder sold alongside spices or as a dietary supplement in the form of an extract.

What does it do // The spotlight should be on curcumin – the active component of turmeric – which is responsible for the plant’s therapeutic properties. Turmeric has gained fame for offering high amounts of antoxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and phytonutrients. In studies, turmeric and curcumin have been found to:

  • Improve cancer outcomes/enhance cancer prevention
  • Treat osteoarthritis equally as effectively as anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Alleviate symptoms of IBS, colitis
  • Improve cognitive performance of curry-eating elderly Asians
  • Reduce infections and inflammation
  • Reduce risk of Alzheimers Disease
  • Alleviate

Jump on the Turmeric Train? // I embrace super foods with a cautious curiosity. Rather than adopt popular trends the pillar of your diet, integrate a variety as co-stars to spice up your normal routine.

Remember too, that in most studies the active components of foods are studies in mega-doses, making their findings clinically significant, but ultimately impractical for real life. Most of the research uses 2-7 grams of curcumin – more than I’m sure even the Curry-eating Queen consumes in a day.

My advice is to incorporate turmeric into foods you already eat. Though the color is bright, the flavor is subtler, so you won't notice a pinch here and there. See how I spiced up my granola game for proof.  And watch out: it stains! 

Nutrition tip // Add a pinch of pepper when cooking with turmeric. It increases our body's absorption of the spice. 

Cooking with turmeric // Add to cooked eggs / Toss with roasted vegetables / Add to grains: rice, quinoa, oatmeal, millet / Jenny's turmeric and olive oil granola (see below!) / Dust over popcorn / Cook Indian (bring on the curries and chickpeas!) / Add to hummus, smoothies, dressings / Pancakes? I did this morning! 

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Olive oil granola spiked with turmeric

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups rolled oats
  • ½ cup raw pumpkin seeds
  • ½ cup raw sunflower seeds
  • ½ cup quinoa 
  • ½ cup coconut chips
  • ¾ cup raw nuts (I leave them out)
  • ½ cup flax seeds
  • 1 tsp – 1 tbsp ground turmeric
  • pinch of black pepper
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup maple sugar
  • ¼ cup brown sugar (I also leave this out)
  • Salt to taste 

Steps

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment or tinfoil. 
  2. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Stir to combine. 
  3. Add olive oil and maple syrup, mixing well to combine and coat the dry ingredients. 
  4. Season with salt to taste.
  5. Spread evenly on a baking sheet. 
  6. Bake for 30-45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes until the granola is golden brown and crisp. 

When you're running down the hall and you feel something fall...

 
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I ran the 400-meter hurdles in high school. Standing at the start of every track meet I was certain that I would poo in my pants during my first leap. Thankfully (so, so, so very thankfully! ) this never happened. I've been running accident-free ever since (a few minor incidents and a host of false alarms don't count). Until last Sunday. On Sunday there was some aggressive gurgling and a couple VERY uncomfortable moments. Luckily (again, so very thankful), I managed to successfully waddle home 85% of the way through without any messy emergencies.

I'm no stranger to the occasional post-half-marathon bathroom woes, but the running emergency and unpleasant episodes that continued throughout last Sunday were new to me. I've been lucky; Runner's Diarrhea is a regular experience for many athletes.

Fun fact: I just learned that Runner's Diarrhea is also known as Runner’s Trots. Trots! I love that name! The trots, themselves, however? Let's avoid those forever. 


What are these Trots I speak of?  Long-distance running sometimes invites a cranky belly, manifesting as frequent, loose bowel movements during or after a run.

But why?  According to runner and GI-experts, the cause isn’t 100% clear, but is likely related to a few factors:

  1.  When they're working hard, muscles have increased needs for oxygen. To help them out, blood is diverted from other places, like the gut.  when they’re working hard. Decreased blood in the GI may be partially responsible for wreaking some havoc.
  2. When you’re bounding down the road your organs are moving too. All that jostling can upset the usual state of operations. 
  3. Running is accompanied by a host of physiological changes, including alterations in intestinal hormone secretion that can interfere with digestion.
  4. If you’re racing (or have general mixed feelings about running), anxiety is a likely culprit.

Racing season is here! How to prevent the Dreaded Trots?

Eat at  least two hours before running. Aim for low-fiber carbs + protein. Go easy on the fat. Try: hard-boiled egg and white toast, bagel and peanut butter, peanut butter and banana, yogurt with granola. pasta with sauce, KIND bar.

Get to know your body. Oatmeal is chock-full of fiber, but it doesn’t bother me before a run. Experiment and learn what works for your body before, after, and during a run. Keeping a journal may help identify triggers.

Hydrate well and often, but also with caution. Drink up the day before a long run. Fluid is good before you head out, too, just take it easy; drink slowly and moderately to avoid the dreaded sloshing. Once you're out there, sip along the way when you’re feeling thirsty. Water is best. Electrolyte drinks might exacerbate a cranky belly.

Beware the day before. If you have a sensitive stomach, think about steer clear of trigger foods the day before you run. Common culprits include: cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale), beans, fried foods, dairy, caffeine, sugar-free products, and alcohol.

Fuel may not be your friend. If you’re out there for a while, you might need some energy on the go. Gels, goos, chews, and bars are common (take them with water!), but don’t sit well with a lot of athletes. Don't fear if they don't work for you. Try whole food alternatives made of simple carbs and sugars: pretzels; banana; dried raisins, dates, apricots; honey packets; fig bars.

Keep calm and run on! Not everyone experiences running-related GI distress. Stress can only add to the risk. But if the feeling strikes, by all means find a restroom!

Confessions of a budding dietitian: mid-week day off

I relish a mid-week day off – a whole day to eat what I want when I want, free of the constraints that come with a workday and the hospital cafeteria. The only struggle that comes with such freedom is that I want to eat everything and to be eating non-stop. All daylong. 

Yesterday was one of those lovely days. I had some guidelines in mind: 

  1. To eat like a normal person instead of a gluttonous animal
  2. To enjoy it
  3. To eat what I fantasize about when I’m working
  4. To end the day free of an I Ate Too Much belly

Here we go...

As dinner the night before was a beer, a giant bowl of popcorn and half of those tangy mangoes that go on sale this time of year, I woke up at 6:30 hungry. I was registered for a running workout at Mile High at 7:15, so I had to temper my craving for a sunrise feast with the dread of sprinting with a too full belly. Coffee, a banana, and half a Picky Bar did the trick.

I knew I'd be starving after the class. The remaining Picky Bar was intended to tide me over, and though I love me a Picky Bar, that’s hardy any fun. I wasn't planning on heading directly home after and was open to treating myself to breakfast, but also had my eye set on a latte at Irving Farm (free with my loyalty card!), and a lunch at home (a perfectly ripe avocado was calling my name).

Usually every baked good and bagel tempts me, but the moderation fairies must have had me under their spell. I managed to survive downtown errands with jicama chunks doused in lime (yum!) and a KIND bar fortuitously hiding in my bag. A few hours later, feeling the late morning slump, I secured that scrumptious latte and headed home hunger-free and proud of having eaten moderately and sensibly instead of excessively and outrageously

Lunch passed without incident. I avoided raiding the fridge the moment I entered my apartment and instead waited until I was actually hungry to guzzle that avocado and a riff on this (and leftover roasted Brussels sprouts that I downed during meal prep...).  

Popcorn was a post-lunch must, but I managed to stay out of the kitchen until a respectable dinner-eating time arrived. I riskily began by making my mom’s classic banana bread – a risk because I usually OD on batter and spend the next 12 hours feeling ruefully ill. I kept it to only a few finger dips and a spoon-licking finale. 

In an effort to employ my well-intentioned pantry items, dinner was a garlicky sardine-frozen spinach mess with pecorino atop whole wheat fusilli (Don't wrinkle up your nose at sardines! Tasty and LOADED with calcium, iron, and that elusive Vitamin D!). In another remarkable feat, I tucked some away for leftovers after portioning dinner. And , no, I didn’t raid the Tupperware after I finished my portion!

The night ended with a coconut ice pop, mint tea, and a few more banana bread samplings than I’m happy to admit. Still, I went to bed free of the dreaded I Ate Too Much belly all the while having reasonable eaten what I wanted when I wanted to. A day off well consumed!

5 easy, kid-approved breakfasts that aren’t cereal

Kids tend to love cereal. Unfortunately many boxed cereals provide too much of the wrong nutrients and not enough of the right ones. Commercial cereals tend to be loaded with sugar, which can give kids a quick high, but cause them to crash soon after. Furthermore, most cereals lack protein and fiber, two that help  fuel little ones through their mornings. Swap sugary cereals for ones that offer 4+ grams of fiber and protein and less than 10 grams of sugar. Or, step out of the box with these nutritious alternatives that are just as easy and equally as fun to eat.

1. Oven pancake

Quick to whip up and high in protein and calcium, this was my favorite breakfast-for-dinner growing up. I loved watching it emerge puffy from the oven and delicately deflate. This pancake, more commonly known as a Dutch Baby, is satisfying, nutritious, and, most importantly for the kiddos, fun to eat. Cut into wedges and serve with a sprinkling of sugar or cinnamon. Leftovers make for a great bonus. Try this recipe.

2. Make ahead whole-wheat pancakes

Weekday mornings aren’t always the time for elaborate meal prep. But that doesn’t mean weekend-style breakfasts can’t make an appearance. Cook up a batch of whole-wheat pancakes (I love this mix) and store in the fridge. Heat in the toaster, and breakfast is served! Mix some berries (or chocolate chips if you’re feeling generous!) into the batter – extra vitamins and smiles all around!

3. Egg in a hole

In only a few more minutes than it takes to whip up a piece of toast, this jazzed-up riff on eggs and toast is fun to eat for kids and adults alike. Eggs are a perfect protein, and recent studies show no risk of eating one a day.

 4. Bear toast

Teddy bear toasts are cute way to encourage children to enjoy breakfast. For a delicious breakfast to fuel your kids through the day spread toast with a protein base (nut butter, yogurt, cream cheese) and get creative with the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth (berries and banana / cucumber and tomato / strawberries and chocolate chips).  

5. Grab and go

Follow this formula for a sustaining breakfast on those mornings when there is little time to do anything but open the fridge and go: protein + carbohydrate. Look for high fiber carbs (think whole grains) to promote fullness.  

  • String cheese and graham crackers.
  • Chocolate milk and banana
  • Nuts and apple slices
  • Hard-boiled egg and Wasa cracker