Top 5 Healthy Springtime Tips

Even though spring has barely sprung outside, the spring semester is coming to an end. Tomorrow is my last day of class for the semester! Thankfully I don’t have any final exams, just one presentation on Wednesday and then I will no longer say that I am in school and working at the hospital at the same time. Now I’m taking a week of rest and relaxation until I hit the books again to start studying for my RD board exams (it makes me nervous just thinking about it!).

Since we are well into spring, I thought I would just share some of my 5 favorite things to do in the spring to stay healthy and happy!

1. Go outside! I know the cold weather is still lingering (especially up here in Cleveland), but getting fresh air and sunlight has been found to increase energy, decrease stress, improve digestion, and give your immune system a boost. Going for a walk is a great way to try to hit your 10,000 steps for the day and soak up some vitamin D.
2. Clean! Throwing out all the unnecessary stuff in your house/apartment/room has some surprising benefits. Living in a clean and uncluttered space decreases stress levels and makes you more productive. Not to mention, people who live in clean spaces are more likely to eat healthy, and cleaning can be a bit of a workout 😉
3. Check out a farmers market! The growing season is in full swing and farmers markets are the perfect for stocking up on produce. They are a great way to try out a new fruit or vegetable, see what is in season, and support local farmers. Plus you get the great to know exactly where your food came from and how it was grown.
4. Socialize! The longer days and rooftop restaurants & bars are the perfect excuse to spend time with friends and family. Spending time talking with other people can boost mental health and reduce your risk for dementia.
5. This is a big one…get ready…Put your phone down! It is so easy to get caught up in the virtual world of work and social media that it can be hard to disconnect (I’m guilty of it too), but try to unplug for at least an hour every day. Maybe put your phone in airplane mode an hour before bed, don’t check email or social media for at least an hour after you wake up, or leave your phone at home while you do my first four tips. It will help you be less distracted, more productive, more present, and you might even talk to someone and make a new friend.

Happy spring!

It Isn’t Only About Calories

What is the first thing you think about when it comes to health or weight loss? I am pretty sure I can guess that it is either diet or exercise. Did I guess correctly?

While diet and exercise both play very critical roles in health and body weight, there are many other things that people tend to forget about. Yep, it more than just calories in versus calories out than can impact how you feel or how much you weigh.

Here are some things to think about:

  1. Sleep –Not only can lack of sleep leave you with brain fog and feeling tired, it can also make it difficult to lose weight. Here’s why: lack of sleep increases a hormone in your body called ghrelin- your hunger hormones that tells your brain it is time to eat. Therefore, lack of sleep can cause you to eat more calories and have more cravings. Also, just like a lack of sleep makes your brain feel tired, it makes your metabolism feel tired too. That means your body doesn’t function as efficiently and you aren’t burning calories the same way as you would if you were well rested. Not to mention, it is difficult to get in a good workout in when you’re tired.
  2. Stress – When you are stressed, your body goes into the “fight or flight” response (also called “survival mode”). Just like the name, your body is doing everything it can to survive; your cortisol (stress hormone) levels increase and your body stops using your fat stores for energy. Why? Because your body thinks it needs to hold on to and use all of its energy to deal with the stress. Think about it…in evolutionary history, stress use to mean running from a dangerous situation, which does in fact require lots of energy, but now our stressors (like work and school) don’t require the same amount of energy as running from animals does. High stress and cortisol levels also cause you to crave energy dense/high calorie foods because, again, your body thinks it needs lots of energy to handle the stressor.
  3. Inflammation – Inflammation is a natural way the body protects and heals itself, but excess inflammation can cause weight gain and increased risk for chronic disease. Sugar, saturated fat, and trans fat are all pro-inflammatory foods (aka the bad guys), and more and more studies are showing dairy, artificial sweeteners, chemical food additives, and white flour are also culprits of inflammation. This means that even if you are only eating 800 calories per day worth of these foods, you are unlikely to lose weight (and you might also find yourself with headaches, fatigue, joint pain, and increased risk for heart disease and cancer).

While I am the nutrition guru and wish that all problems could be solved with nutrition, it is important to remember that there are other factors that control our weight and overall health. Try getting an extra hour or two of sleep, doing some relaxing activities (like yoga, reading, listening to some music, or taking a walk outdoors), and cutting out some of the pro-inflammatory foods and see how you feel. You might be surprised by the results after just one week!

Coconut Oil

This week’s topic brought to you from the family dinner table last weekend.

It seems like coconut oil is everyone’s favorite oil right now. It is encouraged by the recently popular clean eating, paleo, and ketogenic diets. Why is it so popular? There may be some great health benefits of coconut oil, but there are still some fuzzy areas that need more research. When asked, most coconut oil users can’t tell you why they use it or why they think it is healthy, so I thought I would share some insight.

Cholesterol

There are two main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fat is considered the bad kind of fat which increases our LDL (bad) cholesterol. Unsaturated fat is known as the good or healthy kind of fat, which can decrease LDL cholesterol. Both saturated and unsaturated fats can boost your HDL (good) cholesterol a tiny bit, too.

Coconut oil is 90% saturated fat (which is more than the 65% saturated fat in butter!). Therefore, coconut oil, just like other saturated fats, increase that bad LDL cholesterol (not good!). However, coconut oil is unique in that it seems to give your HDL a little extra boost compared to all other fats.

This is where it gets confusing. Right now, when you go to the doctor, they test your blood for the amount of LDL particles and the amount of HDL particles in your blood, but they don’t look at the size of those particles. There has been some new research showing that the size of these cholesterol particles might be a more accurate measure of heart disease risk rather than the number of particles.

Here is where coconut oil comes in…while coconut oil increases the number of LDL particles (just like other saturated fats), it might increase the size of these particles, which could mean good news for your heart disease risk (the bigger the better!). But remember, this is still new research and we don’t consider this 100% fact yet.

MCTs

Then there are the infamous MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) that coconut oil is known for. MCTs don’t need to be digested the same way as other fats and are a readily available energy source for your cells. For this reason, they have historically been used as a therapeutic agent in people with fat malabsorption, cystic fibrosis, and epilepsy.

Most fat digestion requires the fats you eat to be transported to the liver via triglycerides in order to be used, but because MCTs don’t go through the normal digestion process, there are some studies showing they can decrease triglycerides and aid in weight loss. MCTs also have some anti-inflammatory properties, which is also good news from a health perspective.

Conclusions

While all of this sound great, I would still be a little skeptical. Much of this is just preliminary research, there are few research studies, and the results are inconclusive. So while coconut oil is fine every now and again, choosing oils high in unsaturated fats, like olive, sunflower, and avocado oils, are definitely the best choice as far as we know.

Being Vegetarian

Exactly four weeks ago I decided to become a vegetarian…temporarily. Yep, I have officially been a vegetarian for one full month. I had been pondering the idea for a while and I had finally used up all the chicken and turkey in my freezer, so I thought it would be a good time to start. (Oh, and I guess I should include that I just cut out all meat and fish. I still ate eggs and dairy.)

By no means did I plan on being a vegetarian forever, but as a future dietitian I thought it would be a good experience to walk in the shoes of vegetarian patients and clients that I will work with.

Anyways, I thought I would share some things I have learned from my experience with you this week.

The good, the bad, and the indifferent

The first question I have gotten from all my friends and family is, “how do you feel”, and honestly, I can’t say that I feel much different. Prior to my vegetarian experiment, I didn’t each much red meat at all; I mostly stuck to chicken, turkey, tuna, and salmon. Research has shown that there are a lot more benefits to cutting out red meat compared to other lean meats, so I don’t know if that has anything to do with the lack of change I have felt.

People are also very concerned about protein, so I’ll also mention that I was keeping track of my food intake using MyFitnessPal at the beginning to make sure I was getting enough protein. While I could easily meet my protein needs for the day, I had to be a lot more conscious of including it at every meal and snack than I was before.

With that being said, eating out was a struggle– not because there aren’t any vegetarian option (you can get pasta and potatoes pretty much anywhere), but because restaurant menus lack vegetarian protein sources. I especially had a hard time in the cafeteria at the hospital. After the first week I started bringing a container of tofu and beans to add to salads and soups to make sure I got my protein in.

So while it may have been a little difficult at times, I actually am really happy that I gave vegetarianism a shot. I had to get super creative in the kitchen, and find new ways to incorporate tofu, tempeh, beans, and eggs into my meals to make sure I got enough protein in for the day (which means lots of new vegetarian recipes and food combination to share in the coming weeks!). I also now have a good basis of vegetarian recommendations for any patients or clients who come to me with questions.

And finally (skip this section if you don’t want to hear about flatulence and bowel movements), vegetarianism has made me very regular. Vegetarian diets tend to be a lot higher in fiber which kept everything moving smoothly. The first week I was a little gassy (probably due to all the beans I was eating), but my body got use to it and I have been fine ever since.

Overall thoughts

I think a lot more good came out of this experiment than bad. I have cooked up some new things in the kitchen and have had experiences that will help me be a better dietitian. Meeting protein needs can be tough but definitely manageable if you plan ahead.

While I think going completely vegetarian isn’t really necessary (unless you would like to, of course), there are lots of benefits to being a vegetarian. Plant-based diets usually have a lot more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. There is also lots of research showing that decreasing meat intake can help prevent chronic diseases, aid in weight loss, and save the environment.

If I were to give any recommendations, I would say that it is always beneficial to cut back on red meat intake (Eat it no more than 1x per week) and increase you fruit and veggie intake. You can also try Meatless Mondays or another modified version of being a vegetarian to get some of the benefits (such as meatless lunches during the week).

Looking forward

This week I am planning on including a lot of fish and meat to see if I feel any different (I give you any updates in next weeks post). After that, I’ll definitely be adding fish and meat back into my diet but probably not in the same quantities as before. I am going to continue to include vegetarian meals on a regular basis because they both healthy and – more importantly – they taste good!

Considerations

If you are or decide to become a vegetarian or vegan long-term (longer than 1-2 months), I suggest seeing a dietitian (or sending me an email, I’m happy to help!) since there are some vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can occur if you aren’t taking supplements.

“Should I be eating dairy?”

 

When people find out I am studying nutrition the questions immediately start pouring out, and the topic of dairy is one of the most popular. There is tons of research on both sides, so I’ll try to sum it up for you.

Evolution and Intolerance

The number 1 argument against dairy is that it isn’t “evolutionary” for humans to consume the milk made from other animals. While it is true that humans are the only species to do this, people have been consuming animal dairy products for hundreds of years, and some research shows that our genes have changed and adapted to accommodate the dairy products we consume.

While some genes may have changed, over 75% of the world’s population is still intolerant to the natural sugars in dairy (also known as lactose intolerance). This is likely due to reduction of lactase production (the enzyme used to digests those sugars) that naturally occurs as we age. Why does it decrease with age? Probably because in distant human history, people didn’t have much dairy in their diet after they stopped breast-feeding.

Calcium and Bones

Because dairy is the optimal food for growing animals, it is packed with beneficial nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, protein, phosphorus, and some B vitamins. Dairy products often get the spotlight for calcium content and bone health – which they should since it can be extremely difficult to meet our daily calcium needs from food without dairy. Several studies have shown that people who consume dairy have improved bone mineral density, and have lower risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. But, other studies have shown that people who are lactose intolerant often have higher bone mineral density and lower risk of osteoporosis. Confusing, right?

More and more research is showing that we should really be focusing on vitamin D when it comes to bone health, but I’ll save that post for another day.

Healthy Fat

While the research on bone health is still “up in the air”, it is pretty well proven that dairy can provide a lot of healthy fats that can decrease heart disease and stroke risk. But there is a disclaimer that comes with this one. The nutrient composition of dairy can differ depending on what the dairy producing animals eat. We only see these healthy fats when dairy comes from animals that were grass fed or pasture raised. And don’t forget, you only get these healthy fats if you buy dairy products with fat in them – low fat and skim won’t have them.

Hormones and IGF-1

Finally, the infamous hormones that people are concerned about. Dairy has been shown to increase a hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). IGF-1 is responsible for cell growth – which can be a good thing and a bad thing. It is great for healing damaged tissues and building muscle, but it also means it might help the growth of cancerous cells (that’s why so many people say that dairy causes cancer). While there are few and inconclusive studies showing dairy may increase prostate cancer risk, there are several studies showing dairy can decrease colorectal cancer risk.

In addition to cancer, IGF-1 is also the suspected hormonal link between dairy and acne, headaches, low energy, inhibited weight loss, and many more.

Conclusions

So back to the original question “Should I be eating dairy?”

Do you have digestive symptoms (like abdominal pain, flatulence, and diarrhea) after eating dairy? If you do, avoid it. You can try lactose-free dairy products be those can also cause trouble sometimes.

Do you have any symptoms of hormone imbalances (like acne, headaches, low energy, inhibited weight loss, or mood swings)? If you do, try eliminating dairy and see how you respond. Maybe it will help, maybe not, but it is worth a try.

Other than that, it is really personal preference. While there are some potential health risks, the evidence isn’t conclusive and none of the studies were gold-standard clinical trials. If you aren’t sure, maybe you try to eliminate it for a week or two to see if you feel any different and then make your decision. Remember, everyone is different so just because your neighbor won’t touch a piece of cheese doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any either.

However, nutritionally, if you choose not to eat dairy, I would suggest a daily calcium + vitamin D supplement, especially if you are under the age of 30.

Meatless Monday

If you thought hospital cafeterias were full of healthy food options, you thought wrong. Unfortunately, even in the building where heart disease is being treated, it is also being served on a plate in the form of fried chicken, onion rings, French fries, pizza, and deli sandwiches. Since those are the main options, I resort to the salad bar daily for my lunch, filling my bowl with romaine, kale, tomatoes, peas, mushrooms, and chicken. But it is only now, after almost 12 weeks, that I realized the cafeteria does “Meatless Monday’s”. I just thought every now and then the salad bar was out of chicken, but I have now realized it happens to be every Monday…the same day they don’t serve chicken fingers or BBQ chicken pizza.

With research linking meat consumption to cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, at least the hospital is on the right track one day a week. Meatless Monday’s is a concept used to both reduce health risks, but also reduce our carbon footprint since there is so much water and fuel used in meat production.

After the Meatless Monday realization I had, I decided I would try something other than a salad this past Monday. In a cafeteria where most of the food looks slightly suspicious, my meatless lunch was actually delicious – stuffed sweet potato with a kale, quinoa, and cranberry salad and a quarter of a roasted acorn squash. It was also nice to switch things up and have something other than a salad.

I have never participated in Meatless Monday’s before, but I think I might try to continue Meatless Monday’s through dinner at home. It is great motivation to get creative in the kitchen, try something new, and get some health benefits.

Worried you won’t get enough protein by going meatless? No need to worry! 85% lean ground beef has 10.4 grams of protein per 100 calories and broccoli has 8.5g per 100 calories… Pretty close, huh? Plus broccoli is full of fiber, vitamins, and minerals that meat doesn’t really have. And of course, there’s always quinoa, tofu, lentils, yogurt, beans, and nuts which are all good sources of protein.

Sure, meats have lean protein, vitamin B12, and iron, but you don’t need to have it everyday to reap the benefits. Give Meatless Monday’s a try! If anything, it is a good excuse to fill your plate with extra veggies, which never hurts.

Up for a challenge? In doing some google-ing about Meatless Monday. I also found there is a campaign called #NoRedOctober encouraging people to cut meat for the entire month of October. I know October is almost over but you can try it any month. Think you could do it? It would be tough, but even a meatless day or week is better than nothing.

Whole Grains

Five weeks (holy cow-I can’t believe it has already been 5 weeks!) of my DI complete and I am finally getting into the swing of things. I have my daily routine down, feel a lot less overwhelmed, and still have time to explore Cleveland and spend a few hours at the grocery store ;).

The highlight of last week was working an outreach table at the outpatient pediatric clinic in the hospital. I spent the day educating patients about the importance of whole grains. I made a poster (which I don’t think I have done since high school), a handout, compiled some recipes, and played a whole grain game with some of the kids. Having quality conversations with some of the parents definitely made me feel like I was making a difference, but playing games with the kids continuously put a smile on my face throughout the day. And even better, not only did I have fun playing with them, they were also able to learn what whole grains were and be introduced to new food items to try! Win-Win!

Since I had the opportunity to teach so many people in the clinic about whole grains, I thought I would share the knowledge here.

Whole grainFirst off…What is a whole grain? You have probably heard of them, but do you really know what they are? A whole grain means that the product contains all three parts of the grain- the germ, endosperm, and bran. White or refined grains only contain the endosperm. The bran and germ are important because they have vitamins, minerals, fiber, and healthy fats, whereas the endosperm is made mostly of starch.

Whole grains have also been found to prevent stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and constipation. I don’t know about you, but I think those reasons alone are enough to want some whole grains in my everyday meals.

Ok, now that I hopefully have convinced you to eat some whole grains, you have to find them at the store. This can be the tricky part. Lots of packages slap phrases like “100% wheat” and “multi-grain” across the front to pull you in, but these phrases do not mean it is a whole grain. Here’s what you should look for:

  • Check the ingredient list on the box. If a food is a whole grain, the very first word on the ingredient list will be “whole” (ie. Whole wheat flour, whole grain oats, etc.).
  • Words like “brown rice” “bulgur” “quinoa”, “oats” and “wheat berries” listed first in the ingredients also always mean it is a whole grain.
  • Even if the front of the box says “5g of whole grain”, check the ingredients. While it might have some whole grain, if it is not the first ingredient, then the majority of the product is a refined grain.

There are lots of other whole grains including bulgur, millet, farro, barley, amaranth, buckwheat, and rye, which are great for adding to soups and salads or as a side dish. Those sound a little foreign? Try oatmeal or whole grain cereal (like Cheerios) for breakfast. Air-popped popcorn and whole grain crackers (like Wheat Thins) are perfect whole grain snacks. Even using whole grain bread on your lunch sandwich is a step in the right direction.

Making the switch to whole grains can be hard, but small steps can make it easier. A good rule of thumb is the make at least half of the grains you eat each day whole grains. You can also use this as an opportunity to try some new foods!

Here are some pictures from my outreach in the clinic!