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!

 

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Turmeric & Golden Milk

If you don’t have a trail of this yellow/orange powder around your kitchen, you might be missing out. Turmeric is a hot topic right now and for good reason – it has tons of health benefits.

Historically, turmeric was used in Ayurvedic, eastern medicine for pain and fatigue. Turns out they were on to something… Recent research has found that curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, has some serious anti-inflammatory effects.

Why is “anti-inflammatory” a good thing?

In a few cases, inflammation is a good thing – like healing cuts or wounds and fighting foreign pathogens in the body. However, when there is a chronic, low level of inflammation in the body it can increase risk for heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, and Alzheimer’s, among many others. Stress, environmental toxins, and chemicals and preservatives in our food can all cause some of this chronic inflammation, which turmeric can help counteract.

Does turmeric sound appealing now?

If adding turmeric into your diet sounds more appealing now, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Whether you’re adding turmeric to your stir fry, eggs, golden milk (see my favorite recipe below!), salads, or soups, make sure you add some black pepper – this boosts absorption of the curcumin in turmeric up to 2000%
  2. While it is more of a pain to cook with, raw turmeric root more potent than the powdered spice form of turmeric

Remember…

Just like any other food or supplement, turmeric is not a magic pill. In order to get the real anti-inflammatory benefits of turmeric, it is also important to be eating a diet rich in whole, real foods (not the processed stuff), fruits and vegetables, and fiber.

My favorite turmeric recipe – Golden Milk

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Emotional Eating & Food as Fuel

This past Sunday was commencement at Case Western, and even though I wasn’t graduating, I still got to do a lot of celebrating because two of my best friends from undergrad were graduating. What I really mean by celebrating was going out to a lot of nice and yummy restaurants. My friends’ families’ were kind enough to include me at dinner on Saturday and lunch and dinner on Sunday.

If you know me, you know that I love a good meal out at a restaurant (especially if it is somewhere I’ve never been), but this weekend was a lot… I am not use to going out so much! I stuck with healthy choices (mostly protein and veggies) at my meals and shared some dessert, but the whole weekend got me thinking about how we view food as a culture.

In the caveman times, food was merely fuel to keep us going. Today, we eat to celebrate (graduations and birthdays, for example), we eat when we are sad (cue the break-up pint of ice cream), we eat/munch out of boredom (like the popcorn while watching TV), and we eat when we are stressed (you should see the university library during finals!).

As you can see, we strongly associate food with emotions and feelings…no wonder so many people struggle with emotional eating! If you think about it though, most of us are conditioned from a very young age to associate food (usually unhealthy food) with our emotions or actions. For example, say little Billy keeps crying as he gets a shot at the doctor so he gets a lollypop to cheer him up or his mom says he can have ice cream if he quietly and patiently waits while she buys the groceries. In these cases, Billy now associates (again, unhealthy) food with unhappiness/pain and with doing something good/behaving.

Why do we always use unhealthy foods as rewards? That’s because sweet and salty foods cause our brains to release dopamine, the hormone that makes you feel happy. While this sounds great (of course we all want to feel happy), dopamine is also the hormone that can create addiction – just one of the reasons why so many American’s are addicted to sugar and salt. Also, remember that although those foods may cause immediate happiness, sugar and salt are ultimately not good for you. They can lead to high blood pressure, inflammation, and even throw off all sorts of hormones that could cause anxiety or depression (the exact opposite of the initial feeling of happiness!).

So while almost everyone may struggle with emotional eating (including me!), it is important to think back to what food is really for – to fuel our bodies. I don’t think you would intentionally put fuel in our car that you knew would clog the pipes, so the next time you are reaching for the bag of chips or box of cookies, ask yourself, is this fueling my body with good, healthy nutrients that won’t “clog the pipes”?

And if you are a parent of little kiddos, try not to use food as a reward or use food to fill a need other than hunger. It is, of course, part of life to have cake and ice cream on your birthday (don’t give that up!!), but try not to use foods (especially sweet and salty ones) as bribes or treats for desired behaviors. It can help prevent some of those food-emotion associations later on.

Are egg yolks bad for you?

It is no secret that egg yolks are packed full of cholesterol (I think they win the gold medal for cholesterol content and are typically the number one source of cholesterol in our diets). People commonly opt for egg white omelets or low cholesterol egg substitutes to cut back on their cholesterol intake.

What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance both in food (like egg yolks) and made by your liver, which is needed by all of your body’s cells in order to function. In other words, without cholesterol, we wouldn’t be able to survive.

Cholesterol Recommendations
In the 1960’s, American Heart Association, along with many other health organizations, recommended limiting cholesterol intake after researchers found high blood cholesterol levels were linked to heart disease. The typical recommendation was no more than 3 egg yolks per week.

But wait! Researchers are rethinking their “low cholesterol” recommendations. High blood cholesterol levels are still liked to heart disease, but we aren’t so sure that eating cholesterol really increases cholesterol levels in the blood. I know that seems illogical, but our liver actually produces way more cholesterol than we eat, so cutting back on your egg intake won’t really affect your cholesterol levels.

Don’t worry, I’m not just spewing science here… the U.S. government agrees and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (published every 5 years by the USDA) eliminated the recommendation of limiting cholesterol in 2015.

Dietary Fat
While monitoring your cholesterol intake can be a thing of the past, you should keep saturated and trans fat on your radar. Newer research is showing that these two types of fat play a much more significant role in increasing blood cholesterol levels and heart disease risk compared to dietary cholesterol.

So when it comes to eggs, there is no need to trash the yolk. The yolk won’t increase your cholesterol levels, and it is full of healthy vitamins and minerals! Plus, eating whole eggs has been found to keep you more full, promote weight loss, protect brain health, and decrease inflammation.

Don’t Forget…
Diet isn’t the only thing that affects heart disease risk. High levels of inflammation, stress oxidative damage, along with high blood pressure, smoking, and low physical activity levels can all increase your risk, too.

Probiotics

Last Wednesday the nutrition department at school had their annual symposium. This year’s topic: the gut microbiome. The microbiome is a pretty hot topic right now. There is so much interesting research on how it affects our health so there is no way I could share everything with you in one post (or even a few!). If you aren’t familiar with the microbiome, it is the collection of the billions of different bacteria (both good and bad) that live inside our guts, and the composition (both the type and number) these bacteria play a role in our health. They can influence whether or not we get certain diseases, how efficiently our metabolism runs, our hormone levels, our immune system, and much, much more. And guess what? Diet is the #1 factor that determines which bacteria live in our gut!

So how do you make sure your microbiome is in tip-top shape? Well, there are many different things to think about, but I am going to just focus on 1 here today — probiotics.

Most of us have probably heard of probiotics in a few contexts – supplements and yogurt. Probiotics are actually live, good bacteria that help create a good balance of the different bacteria in your gut. In other words, they help improve your microbiome, which is good news for your health and digestion.

How much do you need? Taking 1 probiotic supplement every day or consuming 2-4 tablespoons of fermented foods every day is optimal.

If you are going to take a supplement, you want to pay attention to the strains and the CFUs.

  • Strains are the number of different types of bacteria in the supplements. Try to find a supplement with at least 5 different strains to get the most benefit (the more the better).
  • CFUs are the colony forming units or the actual number of live bacteria in the supplement. Aim for a supplement with 25-30 billion CFUs. Some people can benefit from up to 900 billion CFU’s, including those with IBD and celiac, but 25-30 billion is typically enough for healthy individuals.

Sound too science-y and confusing? Eating 2-4 tablespoons of probiotic containing foods is just as good! Probiotics are found in fermented foods like unpasteurized sauerkraut (the stuff you find in the fridge), kefir, yogurt, kimchi, apple cider vinegar, and tempeh. Getting probiotics from just one of these foods is great, but mixing up your sources of probiotics is extra helpful.

Interested in knowing more about the microbiome? Ask me your questions and I would love to share more!

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!