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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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.

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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!

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!

 

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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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.

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!