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.

Go Further with Food

Happy National Nutrition Month! March is National Nutrition Month and every year the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics decides on a theme – this year it is “Go Further with Food” and they are focusing on reducing food waste.

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Now, some people think that I take my eco-friendliness a little too far (it takes me over a month to fill up 1 garbage bag), but over the past few years I have been trying to create as little waste as possible.

Did you know that food makes up more of our landfills than any other product (even more than plastic), and American’s throw out about one third of all food produced an purchased. Think about that…What is 33% of your last grocery bill? Now imagine throwing that chunk of change in the trash!!

So, in honor of this year’s National Nutrition Month theme, I thought I would share some of my favorite tips for reducing food waste:

  1. Plan– I know I have said this before, but planning before grocery shopping makes the world of a difference. You can figure out exactly what you have and what you need so you don’t end up with any extra (which means no food waste and no extra $$ spent).
  2. Freeze– Your freezer is your best friend when it comes to reducing food waste. Bread nearing its expiration date? Freeze it! Strawberries getting a little mushy? Freeze them! Leftovers from dinner that you don’t want right away? Freeze them! Get my drift? Even fresh herbs can be frozen in ice cube trays to be used for cooking later.
  3. Use all parts of a food – Keep you skins on potatoes and cucumbers and don’t even think about cutting off the broccoli stems. There is no reason to throw these veggie parts into the landfill. Not only are they edible, they also add tons of nutritious value.

I challenge you to reduce the amount of waste you create in the kitchen. These tips can help you reduce your food waste, but reducing waste from other sources is good too. Use rags instead of paper towel, stop buying paper plates/plastic silverware and use real dishes, and switch from plastic bags to reusable containers. Every little bit helps keep our planet greener, cleaner, and healthier.

Organic vs. Natural – What do they mean?

Walking up and down the grocery aisles, boxes and packages are covered with health claims and catchy words to suck you in, but they can get very confusing. Most people have a vague idea of what an organic apple is, but organic cookies…not as straight forward.

Here is a break down some of these catchy health words to help you understand what they all mean.

Organic

  • When it comes to produce, organic products are grown in soil that has no prohibited substances (including synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) for at least 3 years prior to harvest.
  • Organic meat and poultry have to meet 3 criteria – (1) they are raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors, (2) they are fed 100% organic feed, and (3) they cannot have any antibiotics or hormones administered to them.
  • As for processed, multi-ingredient foods, they can only be labeled organic if every ingredient is organic, there must be no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors, and no GMO ingredients are used.

Organic products are very highly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The government goes out to farms, tests soil, evaluates feed, and examines animal living conditions to ensure they meet all of these specific criteria.

 

Natural

  • Right now, the term “natural” seen on food labels means absolutely nothing.

Yes, you read that right. There are no rules that regulate what items can use this term in their labels, which means technically anything from apples and cucumbers, to ding-dongs, and ho-hos are all “natural”. Pretty scary, huh? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working on some guidelines for what products can use the word natural, but right now, there is no regulation.

organic-vs-natural-chart_0

Did you find any of this shocking? I know the “natural” one continues to blow my mind – especially because people tend to value natural products more than regular ones, and they usually cost more!

 

Want more info? These links might help!

https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means

https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm456090.htm

Protein!

From protein bars, protein pancakes, protein shakes, protein peanut butter, and giant chickens breasts, I was originally planning on writing this posts about the potential risks of a high protein diet. In school we learned that high protein consumption could damage the kidneys and lead to bone disease, health disease, and possibly cancer. But, when I started digging through the research to write this blog post, I was kind of shocked to find out that none of these side effects of high protein intake were really proven.

The research shows that high protein diets can be harmful to the kidneys, but only in people who already have kidney problems (which are usually caused by high blood pressure and diabetes). High protein diets might also increase the amount of calcium we lose in urine, but it hasn’t been found to have an effect on our bones. In fact, more protein can actually prevent bone fractures.

As for heart disease and cancer risk, we should really be focusing more on where our protein comes from. Many protein rich foods, like beef and red meats, are also high in saturated fats. This saturated fat is actually what has been found to increase risk for heart disease and cancer, not the protein. That means, we should focus on eating proteins lower in saturated fat, like lean meats, low fat dairy, and fish.

So now that we have busted some of the myths, here are some benefits of protein for healthy sources:

1. Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for cells, muscles, and tissues in the body. Therefore, more protein can help build/preserve muscle mass and repair damaged tissues.
2. Protein tends to be very satiating, which can lead to fewer calories consumed from other foods and weight loss.
3. The jury is still out there on this one, but some research shows that high protein intake can increase your metabolism (that means more calories burned while you sit on the couch!).

How much protein should you eat?

In order to prevent deficiency, you should have 0.35 grams of protein per pound of your body weight, but in reality, most of us can benefit from more than that. I suggest 0.5g-0.75g per pound (I wouldn’t go much higher than 0.90g/lb – there isn’t enough research to know the long term effects anything higher than that). Most of us typically land in this healthy range every day just by eating everyday foods, but like I said before, it is important to focus on those lean, low fat protein sources to meet your daily goals.

And remember, just because protein has the spotlight doesn’t mean you can eliminate carbs and fats – they provide lots of important nutrients we can’t live without!

 

“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.

Will Power Points

When trying to make healthy lifestyle changes, surrounding yourself with a healthy environment can make the world of a difference. Keeping lots of fresh fruits and vegetables in the house and throwing away all the chips and cookies make it a whole lot easier to reach for something healthy. Seems logical right? I think most people have heard this before, but one of my preceptors made a great analogy that put this concept into a new perspective.

She explained, just like we all have bank accounts filled with dollars, we also have a bank account filled with “will power points”. These are the currency used to make healthy decisions when our environment makes it challenging – like choosing not to have a piece of bread from the bowl on the table while you’re waiting for your meal at a restaurant.

Just like we all have a limited amount of money in the bank, we all have a limited number of “will power points”, so, just like money, we have to spend them wisely. If you are putting yourself in unhealthy environments all of the time, those will power points are going to run out quickly and you are going to give in to unhealthy temptations. But, if you surrounded yourself with a healthy environment most of the time (healthy snacks in the house, choosing restaurants that have lighter or healthier meals, packing your lunch for work or school, etc.), you will still have a stash of will power points to use when you need them.

Just some food for thought…Happy Sunday!

Micros and Macros

In this post, I thought I would take it back to some basics: micronutrients (the little guys) and macronutrients (the big guys).

Micronutrients

Micronutrients are all your vitamins and minerals, like iron, zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin E – just to name a few. They are called micronutrients because you only need a little bit of them each day. Your fruits and vegetables are packed with tons of these, but they are also in lots of other foods.

Micronutrients are responsible for things like eye sight, bone health, thyroid function, blood pressure, and many, many more.

Right now, on the nutrition fact labels you will always see vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. That is because back in 1990’s when the label was designed, those were the nutrients that people often did not get enough of. Now, you may know that there is a new nutrition fact panel coming out, which will be mandatory for manufacturers to use by 2021. On this label you will see vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium since these are the micronutrients that most people are low on now.

Macronutrients

Macronutrients are your carbs (including sugar and fiber), proteins, and fats. They are called macronutrients because – you guessed it – you need large amounts of them each day. Protein rich foods include fish, animal meats, and soy products (like tofu and tempeh). Fats come from foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, oils, and butter. Carbs come from grains (quinoa, bulgur, rye, rice, wheat) and foods made from grains like bread and pasta, corn, peas, and fruits. There are also lots of “combination foods” like beans, eggs, and cheese that provide a good mix of 2 or 3 of these macronutrients.

Macronutrients are our main sources of energy, growth, and building blocks for muscles.

Why does this matter?

Micro and macronutrients are both crucial for survival. We can’t live healthfully if any single one within these two groups is missing. I wanted to talk about this because many food products market themselves as “healthy” because they have extra whole grain or protein. For example, I love Kodiak Cake pancakes, which are “protein packed” and made with 100% whole grains. While it is great to have a little extra protein and whole grains these pancakes don’t have many micronutrients. Now think about broccoli and carrots – super healthy right? Yes, they may be packed full of micronutrients but they have very few macronutrients.

See – that’s why variety is important and eating only vegetables all day isn’t really a good thing. There is no single food that can provide all the nutrients we need. Mix things up, try new foods, and maximize your nutrient intake!