Is Japanese food Healthy?

I can’t believe today is the last first day of school I will ever have (at least in the near future). There are only the 15 weeks (one semester) standing between me and a master’s degree! With my last “official” summer as a student behind me, I can’t go without talking about my summer adventure to Japan.

I just got home from the steaming hot country last week and had an incredible time! We did lots of walking (definitely hit my 10,000 steps every day), lots of sightseeing, and of course, lots of eating. I checked out tons of local grocery stores and had to try almost every street food we passed.

All of the sushi, ramen, rice, fish, and Japanese omelets were so delicious — I could hardly get enough! However, by the last few days of our two-week trip I was definitely craving some vegetables (that weren’t fried into tempura!). My body wasn’t use to all the starchy rice and ramen noodles. I felt like most of the food I was eating was heavy and “unhealthy”.

I put unhealthy in quotations because there is not one definition of healthy. We, in the United States, are conditioned to believe that noodles and rice (among all other starchy, high-carb foods) are “unhealthy” and cause weight gain. With that messaging, you would think that everyone in Japan would be obese, but guess what?…I didn’t notice a single Japanese person that was severely overweight.

The obesity rate in Japan is a mere 3.5% compared to over 35% in the United States! How could it be possible that Japanese people constantly eat “unhealthy” food for several meals a day but aren’t overweight?

Quite timely as I returned from my trip, I received an email with an article from SELF Magazine entitled “Our Idea of Healthy Eating Excludes Other Cultures, and That’s a Problem”. A Registered Dietitian whose family was from Trinidad wrote the article, and she discussed how our portrayal of “healthy” food is very Eurocentric and makes people think that foods from other cultures are “unhealthy”.

Think about it, most people say their night out at a Mexican restaurant was “unhealthy” – and while maybe there were a few too many chips and margaritas, this Americanized version of a Mexican meal makes us (and potentially Mexican Americans) label Mexican food as “bad”. This same notion goes for Japanese food. Obviously the Japanese are doing something right if their obesity rate is just a fraction of ours.

All of this made me realize that, as a Dietitian and health professional, I need to be more aware of different cultures and their dietary habits, and as an American society, we can’t label peoples’ cultural foods as “good” and “bad”. We also can’t expect people to give up their culture, heritage, and ancestry to eat what the stereotypical Eurocentric “healthy diet”.

Just some food for thought 🙂

Interested in reading the SELF Magazine article? Click here!

 

A few meals and treats from my trip

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Nutrition for Bone Health

Calcium
When you think bone health, what is the first nutrient you think of? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you said Calcium! Yep, calcium is crucial for bone health. It is the key component of hydroxyapatite, which makes of the mineral matrix that keeps you teeth and bones sturdy and strong. Our bones are also constantly breaking down and building up – and in order to properly build, they need adequate amounts of calcium. This “adequate amount” ranges from 1,000mg- 1,300mg per day depending on age and gender and mainly comes from dairy products, almonds, leafy greens, tofu, beans, lentils, and some fish fish.

Vitamin D
Now, while calcium is the key component in bone, it pretty much is no good without its partner in crime, vitamin D. Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption, so no matter how much calcium you eat (or drink), your body isn’t absorbing much of it if you lack vitamin D. Vitamin also helps in that bone remodeling (breakdown and building) process I mentioned.

Vitamin D has become a pretty hot nutrition topic recently. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is on the verge of becoming a global public health issue. Why? Well, if you are reading this post right now, you are likely sitting inside staring at a computer or phone screen as opposed to soaking up the sun’s UV rays. Our primary source of vitamin D comes from the sun so the decreased time spend outdoors and the increased use of sunscreen that have been seen around the globe are causing vitamin D deficiency rates shoot through the roof!

There are a few food sources of vitamin D, including fortified dairy products, some fatty fish, and mushrooms, but these can’t really provide enough to meet our need of 600-800 IU per day (and most people need up to 2,000 IU per day if they are deficient).

Exercise
The final key player in bone health isn’t a nutrient; it is exercise!- specifically weight-baring exercise. Simply carrying the weight of your skeleton in activities like walking, running, jumping, and stair climbing all help in that formation of strong bones. Not to mention, exercise improves strength and balance, which can help decrease risk of falls and broken bones.

Other Nutrients
In addition to these top three, researches have also found that low vitamin C and vitamin K levels also put people at risk of poor bone mineralization. On the other hand, people who had diets high in fruits and vegetables were found to have stronger bones… just one of the millions of reasons to eat more fruits and veggies!

Controversy
A few studies have found that high calcium intake, greater than the recommended daily intake doesn’t provide any additional benefit when it comes to bone mineral density. There have also been associations between high calcium intake (especially from supplements) and heart disease risk. Moral of the story- more calcium isn’t always better.

Eggs: What do all the label claims mean?

$1 for 18 or $6 for a dozen? Standing in front of dozens of eggs (no pun intended) on the self at the grocery store makes for a very confusion decision. Free range or pasture raised? Cage free or Organic? – don’t worry, it confuses me too so I thought I would break down just a few of the many claims on egg packages to help you make a more educated decision the next time you pick up a carton.

  • Cage free means that the animals don’t live in cages

You are all probably thinking..”duh”. But just because the animals aren’t in cages doesn’t mean they aren’t packed in a barn, and most of the time they never step foot outside.

  • Free range means that animals have “access to the outdoors”.

While this “access to the outdoors” has to be government certified, there really aren’t any guidelines, criteria, or qualifications on the quality or size of the outdoor space. That means the area could be anything from a small cement square to a grassy field.

  • Pasture Raised usually means that animals spent the majority of their time in a large open grass field – think the classic image of chickens in a field.

While pasture raised sounds the best, it isn’t regulated by the government so technically some unethical farmer could slap “pasture raised” on their conventional eggs and wouldn’t get in trouble for it.

  • Organic requires that the chickens be raised in conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors.

This includes area to roam outdoors in fields, but the key word is “accommodate”. Yes, they may accommodate for natural habits, but that doesn’t always mean they actually have the ability to live naturally 24/7. On another note, “organic” eggs also come from chickens that are not treated with any antibiotics and they are fed all organic feed – all of which are tightly regulated by USDA.

This chart is a pretty good summary of all the different egg labels- but remember, while it shows that pasture raised is the best, that term isn’t regulated so anyone can use it willy-nilly. Do some research into the brands of eggs at the store to see how they actually treat their chickens.

navigating-the-lables-a-guide-to-buying-eggs.jpg

So you choose…what kind of eggs do you buy?

5 Tips for a Healthy Summer BBQ

Can you believe it is almost July?!? I sure can’t.

I hope your grill is hot and your tummy is grumbling for some barbecue because the 4th of July is right around the corner.

In lieu of this festive holiday typically filled with hotdogs and s’mores, I thought I would share some of my favorite tips and tricks for a healthy 4th of July (or any summer night) BBQ.

  1. Load up on veggies – If your cooking, grill a bunch of kebabs full colorful peppers, tomatoes, and broccoli. If you aren’t the one cooking, bring a big veggie tray with hummus or guac and fill your plate! Vegetables provide so many vital vitamins and minerals, plus they help fill you up without breaking the calorie bank.
  2. Cut the carbs in half – Yep, I’m talking about the (whole grain!) bun. This one is tricky if you are having a hot dog, but if you go for a hamburger, go open face so you only get half the bun’s carbs and calories. Or, if you are feeling super healthy, try two big pieces of lettuce for your bun.
  3. Water, water, water! – I know pop, lemonade, and iced tea are BBQ classics, but you can easily save 200+ calories by only drinking water. And an extra bonus – water will help keep you hydrated with all the extra salt you might be getting from that hot dog and side of potato chips.
  4. Choose fruit for dessert – ‘Tis the season of nice, juicy watermelons and delicious fruit salads. Take advantage of natures candy and munch on some nutrient filled grapes and berries instead of reaching for the bag of marshmallows.
  5. Get moving – Go for a walk and enjoy the weather after dinner, or play with the kids in the back yard. Planning an activity for after the meal can help prevent overeating (since nobody wants to run around on an overly full stomach). Exercise also helps your food digest better – not to mention you burn a few extra calories in the process.

Happy Grilling, Happy Summer, and Happy (early) 4th!

The Official Trans Fat Ban!

Food/Health History Update:

Mark your calendars everyone because tomorrow is a very important day in United States nutrition history… Partially hydrogenated oils (also known as trans fats) will officially be illegal and will no longer be found in any food products sold in the United States.

Reminder- trans fats are a type of fat found in chemically produced partially hydrogenated oils, that, even in very small amounts, are responsible for raising cholesterol levels through the roof and increasing risk for heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Frozen pizzas, solid margarines, frosting, packaged cookies and crackers, and fried foods like onion rings and fries are just some of the common foods where trans fats can be found.

Back in 2015, the FDA finally realized that trans fats were no longer safe for people to eat and removed them from the GRAS (“Generally Recognized as Safe”) list of ingredients. The FDA gave companies until June 18, 2018 (tomorrow!) to have them eliminated from all products. (See my post back in 2016 all about the ban.)

Now, the world is following suit (hopefully!). On May 14, 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched an initiative to eliminate trans fats globally. While many westernized countries have already eliminated trans fats or are in the process of doing so, countries in southern Asia, Oceana, and Central/South America are still consuming dangerously high amounts of these processed fats. WHO can’t actually create any worldwide law or ban, but it will be part of their strategic plan to help countries around the world achieve a trans fat-free food supply. And guess what (this blew my mind)…WHO has never called to completely eliminate anything other than a specific disease! – Shows you just how bad trans fats are!

Happy Father’s Day!

 

*Note- unfortunately the FDA has extended the June 18, 2018 deadline for trans fat removal under some conditions, but for the most part, they will all be eliminated. Read more here: https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm449162.htm

Artificial Sweeteners: Not so sweet after all

The next time you are about to tear open that yellow, blue, or pink packet or reach for a diet beverage, you may want to think twice. Throughout the 1900’s, artificial sweeteners seemed to be the miracle food – all the delicious sweetness people enjoy, without any of the sugar or calories. But now this “miracle food” might not be such a miracle after all. Recent research has been showing that these artificial sweeteners may be doing more harm than good!

One study of over 400,000 people found that, even though artificial sweeteners don’t have any calories, they did not help people lose weight. In fact, they found consuming more artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

How could this be possible? Less calories should mean more weight loss, right? Well, just because the sweeteners aren’t providing any calories, doesn’t mean we aren’t getting more calories elsewhere. One Harvard doctor explained that artificial sweetener consumption could cause overstimulation and desensitization of our sugar receptors, which causes people to crave sweeter and sweeter foods. It can also end up making un-sweet foods (such as vegetables) unpalatable. These sugar cravings and vegetable aversions lead to people eating more sugary and high calorie foods, which cancel out any reduction in calories from using artificial sweeteners.

Also, remember the gut microbiome I talked about in my post about Probiotics? Well, researchers found artificial sweeteners can change your gut bacteria…and not in a good way! The sweeteners increase the number of Bacteroides, an “energy hoarding” bacteria species that make it nearly impossible to lose weight. Other changes in the microbiome, caused by artificial sweeteners, make it more difficult for your body to breakdown sugar – leading glucose intolerance and diabetes.

If you are looking for any bright sides, using artificial sweeteners in place of sugar can decrease likelihood of cavities and tooth decay, and while there is a lot of hoopla around artificial sweeteners causing cancer, there haven’t been any concrete studies to prove this. But! We only have short-term studies…we don’t really know what the effects of long-term use are.

In the end, regardless of weight gain, cravings, and diabetes, artificial sweeteners are, well, artificial. I don’t know about you but I would rather avoid putting artificial chemicals in my body and stick with the real stuff (in moderation, of course) if I had the choice.

Back to the Beverage Basics

This week, I am going back to some basics. While I love writing about all the cool, new nutrition research I learn at work and at school, I sometimes forget that many people have a tough time making basic healthy choices – especially when it comes to what they are drinking.

In many of my rotations at the hospital, people overlook drinks as a source of nutrition. I have seen overweight patients who just can’t figure out why they aren’t losing weight while eating eggs for breakfast, a salad, for lunch, and grilled chicken for dinner. Guess what? These people also drink crazy chocolate-y, sugary Starbucks drinks, several glasses of orange juice per day, and bottle on bottles of pop/soda. I even had one patient who admitted to drinking over 2 liters of orange juice every day – that’s about 946 calories and 176 grams of sugar!! I know this is an extreme scenario, but it is so easy to lose sight of how easily those fluid calories can add up.

When I am working with patients who want to lose weight, my number one piece of advice is to switch to zero calorie beverages with no artificial sweeteners. Yes, diet coke is zero calories, but all the artificial sweeteners wreak havoc on your digestion and bacteria in your gut (more on this in a future post, but for now, avoid all artificial sweeteners).

So what type of beverages do I recommend?

Number 1 is always water! Hot, cold, with lemon, berries, or cucumbers…water is always the best option. I love mine ice cold with a wedge of lemon, of course!

If you aren’t a fan of water, try the unsweetened, flavored, sparking waters that are all over Instagram and Facebook, like LaCroix or Bubly. While these are all better options than pop or sugary drinks, I still encourage people to stick with fluids that aren’t sparkling. There is some newer research showing that all the carbonation can acid reflux and increase ghrelin levels (the hormone that makes you feel hungry).

You can also pick up a cup of coffee. No, not a double chocolate Frappuccino with umpteen pumps of flavor or even a cup with some Splenda…just a plain old cup of black coffee (maybe with a splash of milk). Two to three, 8 ounce cups of coffee per day has been found to decrease risk of many diseases and help you live longer. Unsweetened tea, hot or cold, is also a good option.

Ultimately, my top beverage recommendations are:
1. Water
2. Unsweetened tea
3. Black coffee
4. Zero-calorie flavored water
*1-2 glasses of milk each day (any variety) is also okay. There is lots of new and controversial research about milk, but I’ll save that topic for another day.

Stay away from:
1. Pop/Soda (diet and regular)
2. Juice (even the 100% natural kind)
3. Fancy, sugary coffee drink
4. Gatorade and other sports drinks (unless you are a competitive athlete)

I challenge you to cut out all fluid calories – that could add up to a few hundred calories per day or ½ pound per week!