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!

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.

“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.

Mixing and Matching Food Groups

Balance. That is pretty much they key word that people use to describe a healthy diet since there is no real consensus on what a healthy diet exactly is. But, I know that that is a little too vague and some more guidelines are helpful for creating well-balanced eating habits. It is impossible to tell you exactly what and how much to eat since that varies too much person to person, but there is a good way to keep the daily balance when it comes to snacks and meals.

This guide to balance refers to food groups. Remember that famous food pyramid? Yep, those are the food groups I am talking about. While that pyramid has now been redesigned into a plate (which I don’t really like, but that is for another blog post), the idea is still the same. The main food groups you should incorporate into your diet are grains, protein, vegetables, fruit, dairy, and fats. Fats are left off of the plate because most foods that I would consider healthy fats also fall into other categories (e.g. avocado could be classified as a fruit and nuts could fall into the protein category).

Food pyramidmy plate

Snacks
The key here is to incorporate two to three food groups into each snack. This allows the body to get nutrients from different sources and digest at different speeds. One food group will usually digest faster (giving you more immediate energy) and the other will digest more slowly (keeping you full longer).

Want some snack ideas?
-Yogurt and granola (dairy and grain)
-Apple and peanut butter (fruit and fat/protein)
-Hummus and celery or carrots (protein and vegetable)
-Cheese and crackers (dairy and grain)
-Avocado Toast (fat and grain)
-Oatmeal and berries (grain and fruit)

Meals
For meals, you want to combine three to four food groups (you could even try to do all five!). This allows for lots of variety (which means lots of different nutrients) and helps you meet your daily servings of each food group. It can also prevent over eating by helping you fill up on foods like vegetables before digging into the main, usually more calorically dense, part of your meal. Plus, it is important to get all the vitamins and minerals in vegetables that are sometimes forgotten during typically protein and grain rich meal times.

Need some meal inspiration?
Breakfast:
-Eggs and avocado toast (protein, fat, and grain)
-Yogurt with berries and granola (dairy, fruit, and grain)
Lunch:
-Sandwich with protein (egg salad, turkey, tuna salad) and veggies with hummus (grain, protein, and vegetables)
-Grilled chicken salad with quinoa and an apple (protein, vegetables, grain, and fruit)
Dinner:
-My favorite black bean burrito lettuce wraps with brown rice (protein, vegetable, and grain- also add avocado/guacamole for a healthy fat)
-Baked salmon with whole-wheat pasta and a side of edamame (or other vegetable) (protein, grain, and vegetable)