Probiotics. You’ve probably heard about them. People toss the term around in a positive context: “You need probiotics. They’re good for your gut!”
But what are they? What types of probiotics are out there, how do they work, and what should you be looking for? I recently attended a conference session presented by Dr. Anthony Thomas and sponsored by Jarrow Formulas that threw my own understanding for a loop. You see, going into this session my understanding was that probiotics were mostly judged by quantity and availability. When you see numbers such as “5 billion cultures” it seems like a good thing right?
It is, but I also learned that the strain of the probiotic is important, and that not all good bacteria have probiotic properties. Checking labels, I realize that some foods or supplements include a probiotic, and identify the strain, and others may not.
Probiotics and Health: The Strain Matters
Research on the health benefits of probiotics is ongoing. Some studies have linked a positive relationship between probiotics and depression. There have also been mice studies suggesting how probiotics can impact blood pressure. Gut microbes may even impact the risk of stroke.
I truly find the research about our gut microbiota to be a fascinating new frontier in medicine and treatment of disease. There will be a lot more to come which is why the focus on probiotic strain will likely be very important for future treatment models.
Probiotics and the Gut
Probiotics are live microorganisms that promote a health benefit, such as healthy bowel function in the gut.
Research about gut microbiota has been ongoing for several years. Disruption of the gut microbiota has been associated with poor health. The theory is that probiotics can help restore the normal microbial environment in your intestines. If that sounds too simple, you’re right – it’s complicated. Not all probiotics will have the same impact on your gut or your health, but the bacteria in your gut impacts your health.
It may be that you aren’t “what you eat” but more like “You are what the microorganisms in your gut produce after you eat”.
A Quick Bio Refresher
Remember all of those Latin terms, family, genus, species…in animals? Well, bacteria also follows its own taxonomy. Even though the bacteria of the same species may share characteristics, their function differs by strain.
Many of you may be familiar with Lactobacillus acidophilus. It’s a bacteria found in the human body. Lactobacillus is the genus, acidophilus is the species. There are many strains. The strain may appear at the end of the name, and may be noted with letters or numbers.
How Can I Get Probiotics Into My Diet?
Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are two common probiotic bacteria. Probiotics can be found in foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, aged cheeses, kefir (a fermented dairy drink) or yogurt. You often hear “Eat yogurt for probiotics”. This is sometimes, but not always true. All yogurt is a good source of calcium, protein and potassium, but it may not always contain probiotic bacteria, and it may not always be labeled. You may also not know what strain of probiotic is present in sauerkraut, for instance, either (although it’s high in Lactobacillus).
The Activia® Yogurt in the photo here lists L. Bulgaricus and S. Thermophilus, and also the active probiotic B. Lactis with strain numbers (Bifidobacterium lactis DN-173 010/CNCM I-2494). While probiotic strain is important, not all brands will list the strain, even if they know what it is. This may change as we learn more about strain.
Lactobacillus (genus) bulgaricus (species) and Streptococcus (genus) thermophilus (species), are used to create yogurt. The Oikos® Triple Zero contains active yogurt cultures, but not probiotic cultures. The other store brand Greek yogurt doesn’t list strain either, but may contain an active probiotic strain. I encourage you to check the labels on your favorite yogurt and other potential probiotics.
In addition to yogurts with added probiotic strains, you can take a probiotic supplement with identified strains. As the research gets stronger, it will likely become more clear which strain is associated with which health benefit (memory, mood, blood pressure, reduced stroke risk, or anti-aging benefits).
Devil in the Details
As I see it, there are a few interesting new frontiers developing in medicine – gut health (and the connection the gut may have on the brain and cardiovascular system) and the use of medical marijuana and CBD (cannabidiol – a cannabinoid in the marijuana plant) and how it may also impact disease treatment or prevention.
Now that we know there could be a link to better health with these products, many companies quickly get on the bandwagon – and they may, or may not, be offering products that are effective and quality-controlled. It’s important to proceed with caution, and seek information from credible sources, and understand that the research is still emerging.
As far as probiotics go, identifying specific probiotic strains is going to be important, however, as you evaluate your choices of probiotics.
January has come and gone, and I want to share what I have brewing on the blog calendar over the next several months. I’m really excited about this upcoming content.
Each year for the past few years, we’ve continued to see emerging science about gut health. The gut is indeed connected to the brain, and to the heart. There is something called the gut-brain axis, and scientists believe that the gut may act as a “second brain”. Improving your gut health may be a first line of defense to keep everything else in check. Gaining a better understanding of both prebiotic foods (certain food fibers that benefit the microbes that live in us) and probiotic microorganisms will be important.
Have you been avoiding refined grains? Well, brain melt: Refined grains aren’t bad for you!
I have always shared that I don’t like whole wheat pasta, and use regular (usually imported from Italy). I always have bought a variety of breads – including white, Italian, French, and multi-grain. You can too! Somehow, the message has been mixed up – putting a slice of white bread in the same category as pie or sweet rolls. The recommendation is to make half of your grains whole grains. This means that refined grains fit into your diet too. So go make yourself some really good toast with Italian bread, allow your child to enjoy his peanut butter sandwich on white bread, and don’t worry about enjoying some white rice or pasta this week.
Nutrisystem® recently began using a genetic test that may give you insight into what type of diet your body favors, and which nutrients are of concern for your body’s metabolism. It’s called DNA Body Blueprint® and I had the chance to use the test (I was sent a free test to try). The results were surprisingly on target, and I’ll be sharing more about that in a later post.
Nutrigenomics will definitely continue to be trending as more science becomes available to evaluate metabolism to determine how food and genes interact. If we eventually have good science that can personalize diet therapy, we could have improved health outcomes. You’ll still have to change your behavior, however.
On the Blog
Over the next several months, I’ll be exploring these topics further, including:
- An evolution of meal planning. New data suggests that people are sitting at the table less and less at home. I hope to explore this topic, and come up with new strategies for you, so you can make healthy meals and snacks happen.
- More about why grains (including refined grains) should still be making it to your plate.
- The emerging science of what impacts the gut microbiome is fascinating. You certainly have likely seen ads coming through your feed with products to promise to nourish your gut microbiome. Unfortunately some of it may be valid, and some of it may just be another money-driven supplement. I’ll be sharing some facts about what may impact gut health, and what may not.
- The difference between a prebiotic (certain types of fiber) fiber and other fibers. This continues to be an area of confusion, as science is still researching how these fibers work in the body. Eventually we’ll have a broader list of which fibers can be classified as prebiotic.
- There’s also more to learn about probiotics, and how knowing what the probiotic strain is determines whether a product is useful or not. You may often see products boasting the number (millions) of probiotic bacteria, but it’s the specific strain that you’ll want be on the lookout for.
- Further study will emerge on genetics and how the human genome may provide selective information to personalize nutrition recommendations. Nutrigenomics is the integration of genomic science with nutrition and other lifestyle variables. Nutrigenomics may indeed be the future of diet therapy prescription. The science isn’t quite there yet (but it’s getting close).
- Plant gene editing may help solve real problems in farming (with climate change, a growing population). I recently mentioned this to a neighbor who replied “I didn’t know plants had DNA!” So, there’s definitely more to learn.
- More news about how important early feeding is. The first 1000 days of an infant’s life serve to set them up for health, for better or worse. The more parents can focus on proper feeding (age-appropriate introduction of solid food, fostering good habits), the better chance a child has for better development.
My goal has always been to decipher the data and provide you with information you can use. I also want to encourage you to be a more savvy consumer – taking in all of the dietary information and food fads that you hear every day, and pausing to think critically about them.
You often may hear “the scientists (or doctors or dietitians) can’t make up their mind!” But that’s exactly it, nutrition is an evolving science. Nutrition scientists and registered dietitians continually evaluate new data based on current research to determine how it all fits together. Stay tuned for what’s on the table!
I had the opportunity to attend a food and nutrition conference last month covering hot topics in nutrition science and the food trends that follow it. Part of my travel expenses and my continuing education credits were paid for but I was not paid to write this or any future posts.
I just read that January 17 is usually when people ditch their big exercise plans they resolved to in the new year. This means that fitness “resolutions” that are unrealistic last less than three weeks! Three weeks won’t get you far.
While a regular exercise program is an important part of healthy lifestyle, eating well is also important, especially if you need to lose weight. Exercise does support health in terms of maintaining muscle (strength, balance, bone support), but there’s some research that’s shown exercise alone isn’t going to impact your metabolism significantly over time (genetics plays a role in how the body responds to exercise), so diet has to be managed too.
Just as it’s unrealistic to maintain long-term over-the-top exercise goals, extreme dietary changes don’t last either. “Detox diets” are popular this time of year, but they aren’t necessary. Eliminating food groups (“I’m swearing off bread!”) or obsessively avoiding ingredients (“I’m completely eliminating sugar!”) also tends to backfire. While sugar and alcohol supply empty calories (void of nutrients, high in calorie), they can still be incorporated into a diet, if chosen with moderation in mind. Bread is also not “bad” (but sure, you can overdo it). Whole grains supply the bulk of the fiber you need in your diet, so you can include bread in your diet and still maintain a healthy weight.
Here are my 5 Quick Tips to Ditching the Detox Mentality:
- Value food as nourishment. It is not toxic. Choose to plan meals based on both nourishment and enjoyment. Respect your personal food tolerances or intolerances, but don’t eliminate foods if it isn’t necessary (such as going gluten-free when you do not have diagnosed gluten intolerance).
- Choose fitness routines that are of interest to you and that you enjoy. Think about whether you are an intrinsic or extrinsic exerciser. If you need support, find it by enlisting a friend to work out with, joining a gym, signing up for a session of classes.
- Once you have a routine you can stick with, embrace your body. Be mindful of how your body works, and what it is capable of doing.
- Be accountable. Announce your goals to a friend or family member, or even as a personal journal entry. Writing it out, or speaking it, can make it seem more real. If weight loss is a goal, it’s probably not a good idea to weigh yourself more than once a week, but weigh in on occasion. Keep in mind however that weight changes aren’t the only measure of successful lifestyle change. How you feel, reduction in blood pressure, increased energy, ease of movement – all are gains.
- If you want to be one of the 40% or so people who do maintain their diet and fitness goals, cut yourself some slack. Nobody’s perfect. If you slip up, honor that and move on to better choices at the next meal or the next day.
I’ve written many words over the years about setting small, realistic goals. Changing a habit takes time, and it begins by being ready, and then choosing a goal you can achieve and stick to. There will be slip-ups, because life throws curve balls all of the time, and we never have complete control over our environment. Find the support you need to stick to your goals and you’ll do your best.
Dry January. It’s trending.
After the holidays – a resolution to abstain from alcohol during the whole month of January may seem like a fine idea. For some, this may be a welcome break from the overindulgence of food, cocktails, wine and champagne over the holiday season. But for others, is it necessary? What sort of mindset does it create going forward?
Think about the goals you set or the behaviors you changed last January or February? Did they stick? Did you lose weight, then gain it back by August? Did you improve your fitness level? Did any of your health parameters improve (blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, weight)?
There are plenty of cultures that enjoy alcohol as part of their meals, social occasions, and lifestyles. In Italy, for instance, the meal time begins with a small plate and an “aperitivo” in the early evening after work (around 6:00). This is often a small cocktail or bitter liqueur (such as a Negroni, Aperol spritz, or Campari on ice). The purpose of the aperitivo is to relax and ready you for the 8:30 dinner meal. Wine is poured and enjoyed with the dinner meal, and often another liqueur may be served as a digestive after the meal. Nothing is rushed or overdone. Alcohol is part of the culture, it’s not vilified. This is a beautiful way to live in my opinion.
This lifestyle should not be confused with excess or binge drinking. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol will definitely have adverse affects on your health. But having a glass of wine (or two) with dinner can be fine as long as you pour properly. “One glass” is equivalent to a 5-ounce pour of wine. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that moderate drinking is defined as one glass per day for women, and two for men. A serving of alcohol equivalents are:
- 5 ounces of wine
- 1.5 ounces of hard liquor (bourbon, whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, etc)
- 12 ounces of regular beer (a craft beer equivalent may be a smaller 8-10 ounce portion)
Root of Bad Behaviors
The wine industry has grown exponentially in the United States since the 1970s. Facebook memes regarding wine-drinking have become common and many “Book Clubs” are as much (if not more) about the wine than the literature discussion.
Rather than feel the need to go on the dry wagon in January, I challenge you to become more aware of your daily habits all year long. Every day. Every week.
Sure, a stressful Friday (or Tuesday) may come your way that has you pouring heavily at 5pm to bring your stress level down. This isn’t a good thing to do routinely, but I get it. If it’s an occasional occurrence, it’s probably not a problem, but it’s good to be mindful of how often you seek a glass of wine or a cocktail to handle your stress.
Working on healthier solutions (exercise, yoga, meditation, talking it out over a cup of herbal tea) to address your stress takes some effort, but is important to managing stress in a healthy way. It’s okay to enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine – but it’s not okay to habitually go overboard. There’s a difference. Many social situations revolve around alcohol, but there are certainly many other ways to socialize and have fun:
- Meet a group of friends for a walk
- Plan a cross country ski party followed by a hearty breakfast
- Host a Sunday Movie with flavored bubbly waters served in fancy glasses and plenty of popcorn
- Meet a friend for tea or coffee
Keep in mind though, abstinence does not work for everyone. For some, completely abstaining from something that is tagged “bad” may only increase thoughts about that food or beverage. Instead you may consider what is driving your behavior to drink too much, or too often, and set goals to change the frequency or manner in which you drink. This could be taking a week or two off, or perhaps setting goals for a 1-2 drink limit, no more than once or twice a week. It also could simply be that pouring a glass of wine after work has become a routine you’ve gotten into, and you can replace it with a cup of herbal tea or a nice glass of ice water with lemon or cucumber. Maybe it’s just that “ahhh” moment of being able to sit down, relax, get your mind off work, and sip something soothing that you need.
The Perfect Pour
When you are going to imbibe, it’s important to realize how much you are drinking. We’ve all seen the meme with the “I only had one glass of wine!” and the woman is holding a 3 gallon wine glass.
Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to dine at a fine restaurant where they bring a small single wine carafe and pour your wine into the glass table-side. This is not only a nice presentation, but it’s also a portion (and cost) control gesture. Remember, a 5-ounce pour is the standard wine portion (equivalent of “one serving of alcohol”).
I’m always preaching “portions matter”, and being aware and mindful about alcoholic portions is important too. From a sommelier’s perspective, you aren’t supposed to fill any wine glass to the rim. The wine should have room to be moved in the glass (when you see someone swirling their wine, they are incorporating oxygen, which can mellow the tannins).
Check out some of the glasses you are served at restaurants, and then check the ones you have at home. I used to a glass measuring cup to measure various glasses from my bar that you see pictured here. It’s always interesting to see how differently shaped glassware and dinnerware look when holding the same volume of liquid or food.
Going to Extremes
By all means, if someone has a drinking problem, or truly feels that they need to make a serious change in their habits, they should take a complete break from alcohol.
There is solid evidence that links cancer to excessive alcohol intake. In addition, excessive alcohol damages the liver and other organs over time. Alcohol also raises your blood pressure, which can weaken your blood vessels and impacts your heart health.
Dry January however, seems to be another trendy hashtag that encourages an extreme behavior that is temporary. Just as “going sugar-free” (#sugarfreechallenge) will likely be temporary, doing #DryJanuary may not solve your issues with alcohol, weight, or adopting healthy behaviors. It may just be another excuse to adopt a short-term, unrealistic goal.
Instead, consider setting realistic goals to change the way you handle stress, have fun, and how often and how much you enjoy an alcoholic beverage. Best wishes for a healthy 2019.
Happy New Year!
The years seem to go by so quickly, right? While you may find yourself reflective every January, please don’t stress over any need to become a whole new you.
December can be rough. The holidays are stressful. They are a lot of work, there’s a lot of opportunities to eat and drink, and the season may bring sad times because of lost loved ones who are missed. Then January hits and you are bombarded with advertisements for weight loss:
“Lose 10 pounds in two days!”
“Start your skinny journey!”
“Make this the year you achieve results!”
Stop. Ignore those ads. For many folks, they just send messages like “I’m not good enough”.
You can choose to make improvements in yourself – but this does not mean that the improvement has to be about achieving some unrealistic body weight, shape, or form. You may want to change your attitude about life, you may want to change some of the unhealthy choices you’ve made (whether that be junk food, too much alcohol, working too much, or letting toxic people or situations get under your skin). Maybe you are a “giver” and you need to work on creating more time for your own needs.
But you don’t have to go on a crazy restrictive diet and start an insane exercise regime.
Just get back to a normal routine. My goal has always been to help people be comfortable with themselves, learn about how the body works, and focus on health, not appearance. Sure, we all want to be comfortable in our jeans, but jean size isn’t the only measure of health.
Weight management is just that – it’s day to day management of what you eat and how much you move. This isn’t something to “do in January”, this is something to work on continuously. When you do this, you aren’t ever “on a diet”, you are just setting new goals to live a healthier life. Because our lives change – we age, our living situation changes, our health may impact our activity (e.g. arthritis, an injury, or a heart condition), our schedules change – there are many variables – which is why you have to continually set small goals.
Yes, weight absolutely impacts your health status, but you don’t have to be skinny to be healthy. Add movement. Add healthy meals and snacks. Choose activities you enjoy. For me, that’s fresh air walks, yoga class, and meeting my trainer at the gym for weight lifting. Start the year off by planning healthy meals, and make these habits something you do every week – all 52 of them! Sure, some weeks will be “off”. That’s life! Stock the refrigerator or freezer with fresh fruit, Greek yogurt, salad, cut frozen veggies, lean meats and low fat dairy. Add some whole grains to your pantry like granola, whole grain cereal, barley, quinoa, or brown rice. Keep easy items on hand, and use simple recipes.
2019 Best Diets
US News and World Report once again has published their Best Diets 2019. This year, after 8 consecutive years of being ranked #1, the DASH Diet is ranked at number 2. The number one diet this year is the Mediterranean Diet. The top three are Mediterranean, DASH Diet, and Flexitarian Diet. Any of these are great choices for living a healthy life. Learn more here.
Food doesn’t have to fancy to be good for you. You don’t have to add chia seeds to everything. You don’t have to use hard-to-find ingredients. You don’t have to have fancy “nut butters” on hand, if all you have on the shelf is peanut butter – it’s okay.
And, you don’t have to tell your guests that your party spread is “healthy for them”! Here are my tried and true tips to healthy eating, and a good life:
- Think green! Sometimes the side dishes all end up starchy and white. If you are serving a rich lasagna or a beef roast, along with a rich potato dish, keep the vegetable simple. There’s no need for extra sauce or cream – just simply roast or steam a fresh veggie. Plan a spinach salad, fresh green beans, or a simple side of roasted broccoli – Trim two large heads of broccoli (or more – one large head of broccoli can serve 2-3 people) – cut the stem, and break into florets. Put the florets onto a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil blend and a pinch of salt and pepper (or your favorite garlic herb blend). Roast at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Transfer to serving bowl.
- Find more ways to use vegetables. It’s really simple to amp up the taste and nutrition of a recipe or dish with a little bit of tomatoes, thinly sliced onion, and zucchini. Cut the zucchini in half longways, then slice (or quarter and slice). Drizzle some olive oil in a pan over medium heat, add zucchini and cook for 5 minutes (don’t overcook it!), then add fresh sliced grape tomatoes, and sliced onion. Cook until the onion is translucent. Top pasta or baked fish with this, or use as a side dish.
- Put some healthy appetizers out before dinner. Include raw vegetables, olives, fruit, nuts. If you are cutting down on carbs, use thin cucumber slices as an alternative to crackers for spreads, and try pear or apple slices to pair with cheese. You can still put out a bowl of crackers, but the veggies and fruit will give your guests options.
- Get over the avocado. Some folks go a little overboard with those 250 calorie avocados. Subbing butter with avocado isn’t going to help your overall dietary patterns all on its own.
- There is a “high fat low carb” trend happening, but for most people, fat is going to add a lot of extra calories to your diet. Unless it’s a baked good, most recipes that call for a whole stick of butter can get by with half. This adds up. Since a holiday meal may have rack up 1500 calories, it does help if each side dish has 75 less calories.
- Enjoy fruit for dessert. Hey, I love a good homemade cookie, but instead of finishing every holiday meal with cake or cookies, try poaching a pear, or just serving some fresh sliced fruit with a good sharp cheese at the end of a meal. Try my colleague Ellie Krieger’s easy red wine poached pears recipe.
It’s totally okay to splurge on special treats over the holidays, but you also want to keep your diet and lifestyle as balanced as possible – which means curbing the sugar sometimes, drinking alcohol in moderation, and keeping your exercise routine on point.
Happy holidays to you and yours. Enjoy a balanced life!
You know how everyone gets excited when they read that chocolate is good for them? Well that’s how I feel when I read about coffee.
Are you a regular coffee drinker? I am. I’ve been drinking a daily cup or more since I was a kid. When I was in grade school, my mom used to pour me a cup with lots of milk, and I’d dip my toast in it. Eventually I’d be sipping it, and by the time I was in college I was drinking 2-3 cups a day. I love everything about it. Making it, smelling it brew, and especially drinking that first, hot cup in the morning. I have more than 4 coffee makers. A regular drip pot. A K-cup single cup maker. A Nespresso. An old Italian stove top espresso maker. A French press. Yeah, I love coffee.
Lots of Americans drink coffee every day – about 64%, according to last year’s data from the National Coffee Association. Like many wonderful things, it was accidentally discovered.
Good news: Coffee may indeed be good for you.
While the exact mechanisms for the health benefit isn’t completely clear, I give you a green light to enjoy your daily dose of coffee.
It could be the caffeine. German scientists recently showed that they could modify heart health of mice by administering the caffeine equivalent to 4 cups of coffee a day. This study showed that caffeine promoted movement of a regulatory protein into mitochondria (the part of most cells that is responsible for generating energy and other important cellular activity). This suggests moderate amounts of caffeine could be protective to our heart.
Other studies have shown there could be some additional health benefits to drinking coffee too. These benefits were shown in correlational studies but it may reduce breast cancer in postmenopausal women, reduce colon cancer risk, and other risks. I know that I simply enjoy it, as my parents and grandparents did, so it seems prudent to continue enjoying my 3 cups a day.
Here are some tips when choosing your coffee habit:
- Enjoy your daily cup (or cups) but be sure that it’s straight coffee.
- It’s best to drink coffee either black or with a little bit of milk or cream (actually, adding some milk adds calcium, and balances out any calcium loss from the caffeine).
- Brew your own coffee whenever possible, or choose fresh brewed coffee. It’s okay to occasionally indulge in a small (tall) fancy coffee from a coffee shop, but straight up coffee is what may provide a health benefit.
- Straight coffee has no calories, but the added sugars, creams, etc can add tons of calories to your day, so check out the menu board. If you don’t love regular brew, try an iced coffee that’s simply coffee with ice, even with small amount of sweetener (at only about 30 calories, or try a sugar free sweetener).
- Skip the type of coffee found in cappuccino machines at your local convenience store or fast food joint. These really don’t have much of a dose of coffee, and are mostly sugars, saturated fat, and artificial flavors.
- If you don’t like coffee, you don’t have to add it to your diet. There are a lot of ways to improve heart health.
A Nespresso® coffee with a bit of whipped cream on top.
- Latte: This is made with espresso (usually 2 shots) and steamed or frothed low fat milk in a 4:1 ratio of milk to coffee
- Cappuccino: Similar to a latte, but with less steamed milk (2:1 milk to coffee ratio).
- Americana: This is a typically brewed coffee (as through a drip machine). It’s like taking a shot of espresso and adding hot water to it (so a 6 ounce Americano will have the same caffeine as a one-shot of espresso).
- Mocha: This is a coffee drink with milk and chocolate. It’s usually 2 parts coffee, 1-2 parts chocolate syrup, and one part milk.
- Espresso: This is a preparation method really, not a type of coffee bean. Often it’s fine-ground, and brewed more slowly for intense flavor and caffeine. So the coffee itself may not be more caffeinated but the method of brewing increases potency. “One-shot” is one ounce.
Nobody wants to ruin the holidays with “diet food”; certainly not me. But as you get older, you realize that something’s gotta give when it comes to calories and splurge foods. Taking a look at your family favorites. You may be able to tweak them just a little, so they are not quite as high in calorie or rich in fat (yep, maybe a half of stick of butter instead of a whole one). This can go a long way toward balancing nutrition for the whole family.
At least that’s what I think. Calories do still matter. It’s not just about the “macros” (protein, carbohydrate and fat). It’s also about balance and enjoyment. While it’s fine to splurge on a holiday, maintaining healthy habits and a healthy weight take sustained lifestyle changes over the whole year. Year after year.
Farewell to Light
A dietitian friend of mine were talking the other day about our long careers in food and nutrition, and how some things have changed a lot, and other things, notsomuch. We also noted how there is a big divide just about everywhere these days on just about every topic, and the dietitian community is no different. This was evident at a recent conference where there was a session debating HAES (Health at Every Size) and conventional weight management practices.
When I recently received my “Farewell Issue” of Cooking Light® magazine, this whole topic hit home. I realized that we really are at a new crossroads with food and health. I’ve had a subscription for this magazine since its inception in the late 80s, and used it as my weekly go-to for dinner for years and years. The magazine always offered tasty recipes that were easy to prepare, and older issues featured articles about fitness and healthy living as well. It kept me healthy and at a healthy weight through my forties, and kept healthy weeknight meals on the table for my husband and children, helping them develop healthy habits, and maintaining good health.
Is Lightening Up Recipes Still a Thing?
Despite the facts about diet’s role in heart disease, diabetes, and cognitive health (saturated fat should still be limited in your diet, and so should sugar. However, over-restricting all carbohydrates is not a proven diet therapy), it seems that the idea of “light” cooking is going by the wayside in favor of food rules revolving around food fad words (dairy-free, GMO free, organic, gluten-free). Recipes today often include calorie-heavy ingredients like avocado, nuts, seeds, butter, bacon, and olive oil. These are all healthy in moderation (ok, I’m still calling bacon healthy – it’s loaded with saturated fat and sodium. Yes it’s a great flavor booster and should be eaten in small portions), but sometimes, you can still go overboard with these ingredients, just as you can with sugar.
This new lifestyle ideology focuses on carbohydrate restriction, extreme exercise, and “cheat days”. In addition, we are also seeing extreme ways of eating (such as the “carnivore diet” which is exclusively meat only, or the very low carbohydrate “keto diet”. Even though a highly respected group of experts did not rank the “Keto diet” as one of the top 40 diets, it is very popular in mainstream media and gyms).
People seem to be drawn to these extreme diets and many seem to have an easier time completely avoiding a food or food group (like sugar) than having any small amount of it (at least temporarily – there’s the hitch). To me, both personally and professionally, this is a terrible way to live.
Food should serve as both nourishment and enjoyment. It should be balanced with your activity, and it should celebrate your culture. ~Rosanne Rust
Extremes aside, we’re seeing more research about the how “macros” (fat, carbohydrate and protein) may affect metabolism. A new study suggests that people who eat a lower carbohydrate diet actually burn more calories than people eating a lower fat, higher carbohydrate diet (calories in study groups were determined in order to maintain weight. They found that the lower carbohydrate diet group actually had to eat about 200-300 calories more to maintain the same weight as the other group). While this is still somewhat preliminary evidence, it supports the theory that calories aren’t all equal, and that perhaps some people will burn more calories eating a higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet. In terms of health, some people may metabolize a lower carbohydrate diet more efficiently for weight control.
So is “light” out?
Not exactly. It still comes down to balance. Working toward a lower carb diet doesn’t mean never eating a higher carb meal. To achieve a low carbohydrate diet takes careful planning. As researchers and anyone who has tried to switch to a low carb diet will tell you – it’s not easy to do (especially in the first 72 hours when the body fights it). You can’t just increase the protein and fat (or scoop on fat with abandon), you also still need to be aware of unhealthy saturated fat (the recommendation continues to be <7-10% of total calories) and other key nutrients including potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and fiber.
But if you are struggling to lose weight, or if you have been diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, reducing your carbohydrate intake (especially simple carbs like sweets, desserts, white bread) can help with weight loss in some people. Don’t remove all carbs, just take the less healthy ones out, and reduce the portions of others. Ask your doctor to refer you to a registered dietitian who can help customize a plan for you.
Cheers and farewell to Cooking Light® magazine, but I plan to continue cooking light for many more years of healthy meals at home.
Are you overwhelmed sometimes when you go to the grocery store? Maybe you heard a news program that said that organic food is better, or lemon juice is going to lower your blood sugar levels, or that you need to find Non-GMO food.
Well, these details don’t matter much at all compared to the big picture – all of the foods and beverages you consume, how much you consume, where you consume it, how you prepare it, and how varied your diet is.
What fascinates me about the current landscape of diet and nutrition, is how labels matter to a lot of folks, and yet not a lot has changed about what sort of diet is actually good for you. Consumers are often led to choose foods based on the claims on the label, or even the style of the packaging. They are also led to make purchases based on what they may hear in soundbites on television or social media.
For instance, have any of these MYTHS led your decisions?
- Buy organic milk to avoid hormones
- Look for the non-GMO label for the safest food that’s best for the environment
- Gluten-free means it’s better for me
- High fructose corn syrup is worse than cane sugar
- Grains make you fat
FACTS on Organic VS Conventional Milk
There’s no difference in the safety, nutrition or health benefits of organic cow’s milk versus regular cow’s milk. The difference with any Certified USDA Organic product is with the farming practice, not the end product.
- Organic milk claims to have more omega-3 fatty acids than regular milk, and it does. But, the amount is not significant. Fatty fish is still your best bet to get a healthy dose of omega-3s.
- Perhaps you live alone and want your milk to last longer? Organic milk often has a longer shelf life because it is ultra-pasteurized at a higher temperature than conventional milk. Why? Since it’s a smaller market, it needs to have a longer shelf life as its shipped longer distances all over the country.
- Organic milk is rBST-free. But guess what? All milk is rBST-free. Organic milk comes from cows that have not been treated with supplemental hormones or given antibiotics, but BST (Bovine somatotropin or sometimes called BGH – bovine growth hormone) is a hormone naturally present in all cows. Farmers used to use a small amount of the plant-based synthetic hormone (smaller than the human hormone dosing in birth control pills) to boost milk production, but this is no longer common practice (due to consumer demand based on misinformation). This hormone is a protein, and 90% or more of it is destroyed during pasteurization, while any remaining amino acids are digested like any other protein. (this hormone is not active in humans).
- Also, all milk is antibiotic-free. While conventional dairy operations are permitted to use antibiotics on sick animals, those cows are quarantined during that time, until they are healthy and the antibiotic is no longer in their system. I side with allowing farmers to responsibly use antibiotics to treat animals when needed. It’s illegal to package milk that has any trace of antibiotics.
So depending on your budget, taste, or how often you consume milk, choose what you like, but understand that organic milk is no safer or more nutritious than conventional. And both will help lower your blood pressure!
I just returned from the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo where registered dietitians have a chance to get some of their continuing education requirements met and also learn about new foods and products coming into the market. It’s a large conference, with about 11,000 in attendance this year.
Food Product Expo
In addition to attending lecture sessions, I always enjoy walking the Product Expo floor because it’s a chance to see what’s new, and get immediate information about the emerging product market. As I walked through the Expo, it appeared that like years before, products touting protein and gut health benefits (probiotics and prebiotics) were hot, but drinkable products were taking up a large portion of the floor.
A few years ago, activist groups were up in arms that “Big Food” was on the Expo floor, and put pressure on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to remove those brands as sponsors. The result was definitely apparent this year where many smaller, Certified Organic brands with “free-from” labels were showcased. This doesn’t mean however, that this made the Expo any better, especially since so many of the brands showcased are only available online or at Whole Foods Market (which only serves metropolitan areas), and at a high price point. After all, it’s not nutrition until you eat (or drink) it. And if foods aren’t available to a large part of the population, they don’t help improve health.
Like so many other issues we discuss in our country today, food goes to extremes.
- On the one end there are many animal-free products fashioned to meet the “plant-based philosophy” and vegan markets, while on the other there are high protein products meeting the Paleo market.
- The Organic packaged food space is definitely expanding, with more processed and individually-packaged products than ever. Many of these are marketed as “alternatives to Big Food” brands, but most are no better nutritionally, nor for the environment.
- The liquids, probiotic products, and supplements, in the Expo definitely outnumbered the whole foods or beverages that support the DASH Diet market (dairy, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, a few whole grains, and unsaturated oils).
Folks Want Convenience
There were some interesting products designed to make eating healthier easier. The drinkable oatmeal from Fair Life? Quick oats are pretty easy, and while I love Fair Life milk, I don’t see the appeal of this oat product. I also sampled these frozen sweet potatoes and cauliflower products. The Caulipower® products are serving the market who is either gluten-free or trying to reduce carbohydrate in their diet. The sweet potato toasts (slices) are to be served as you would a cracker (topped with something), and the cauliflower pizza crust is self explanatory. However, I can also see the sweet potato slices serving as a time-saving way to add vegetables to your diet, even if you still also want to eat crackers or crostini on occasion. I sampled a bottled soup product, that tasted good, was low in sodium and high in vegetables – another on- the-go, and drinkable, nutrition item.
Drinking Your Diet
The number of bottled products was astounding. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to drink my diet. I have teeth, I want to chew. Supplemental foods in liquid form can have their place (people with poor dentition, people who can’t eat and need nutrients for illness or recovery), but to replace sitting down to regular meals with drinking food from a bottle?
Some of these liquids tout themselves as supplements in the “functional foods” category, and others just alternative beverages. The “dairy alternative” category continues to grow.
All of these products, in my opinion, add to the confusion of “what’s good for me”, or as some may perceive it, “what’s good for the planet”.
Let’s start with dairy alternatives. Unlike cow’s milk that is a high protein, high calcium, high potassium nutrient-dense beverage, most plant alternative are not (but may be fortified – or have nutrients added to them). Have you been to the dairy case lately? It’s mind-boggling. Almond milk. Soy milk. Coconut Milk. Cashew Milk. Hemp milk (stay tuned – the dairy industry is fighting to maintain the identity of cow’s milk, and feel they have dibs on the term “milk”).
And now, enter Banana milk. (Whaaaat?)
Many brands continue to use the term “milk” when marketing their products, but this product really had me asking myself “Why?”. It’s nut-free, organic, and dairy-free, yet calls itself “milk”, even using the term “mooala” (aka, cow sounds). They even have the audacity to use a cow-look-alike image on their packaging.
This product really annoyed me. They take a high potassium banana, dilute it with water, and serve it as a drink (milk substitute no less) in a plastic bottle. But since you’ve diluted it, there’s less potassium per serving. I even asked if they use brown bananas (perhaps this product helped reduce waste?) but she said no, they use bananas that are yellow but just slightly green (in other words – perfect bananas!).
This isn’t banana-flavored milk. This would be better termed “Banana Water” because it’s basically pureed bananas with water added (and a few sunflower seeds). Not only does this water dilute the nutrition of the banana, but it also doesn’t taste great. I asked the vendor representative if this drink would benefit those who need more potassium (like those with high blood pressure), or if could act like a potassium supplement. Since it’s been diluted, the answer is – no. Interestingly she said the company was considering fortifying the product with potassium next year. Are you shaking your head yet?
(You may be asking yourself – Why not just eat bananas? I’m pretty sure they are a universally tolerated food, and if you don’t like bananas because of taste, you probably aren’t going to like banana water either).
Another product that left me scratching my head was Drink Simple® Maple Water. This is a product that takes the water (maple sap) from maple trees and purifies it and bottles it. This water claims to offer some electrolytes and minerals including manganese. I think it’s a waste of good pure maple syrup ingredients.
How’d it taste? Like water, with a teeny tiny drop of maple flavor. Oh and yeah, it’s non-GMO (because they want to be in Whole Foods stores. There are no GMO maple trees FYI).
Both the dairy industry and milk-alternatives were present at the Expo. Chocolate milk is still popular and marketed as a sports recovery drink (which works well for many athletes). There were some goat milk products, and many types of yogurts featuring probiotic cultures.
What About All of the Plastic?
What really impressed me was the sheer number of beverages in single serving bottles. Remember the environmental crusade to reduce plastic by producing reusable, BPA-free water bottles? It appears to me that we are replacing whatever plastic we’ve saved with more single serving beverages touted as functional nutrition.
I find it interesting that there seems to be a “cool hipster factor” when it comes to being drawn to these types of products. Often those who are drawn to milk alternatives (dairy-free, plant-based products) or the health halo of the Certified Organic and GMO free labels, are also interested in the environment, reducing food waste, and conserving resources. It’s ironic to me that so many who would purchase all of these single serving bottled products, yet may also feel that reducing animal agriculture (hence, milk-alternatives) is an answer to controlling climate change. Something to think about.
While there may be a market for them, we need to consider reducing single-serving product packaging.
In any case, I really can’t think of a single good reason for banana water or maple water in a bottle.