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.

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!

Healthy and Fast Meals with (almost) No Cooking Required

I’m not going to lie, I have slacked off a little (or a lot!) when it comes to cooking this year. Between school, work, trying new workout classes ;), and trying to get a decent amount of sleep, cooking just hasn’t been a priority. But don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean I’m having frozen meals or fast food – it just means my meals are a little more simple and don’t take much time to make.

Whether you are a student like me, a working professional, home taking care of kiddos, or have other responsibilities, time is always the number 1 excuse for not eating healthy, so today I thought I would share my tips and tricks for fast and easy, healthy meals.

1. Cook ahead of time – I typically only turn on my oven and stove one or two times a week. I’ll make some chicken, roast some veggies, brown some ground turkey, and cook some rice or quinoa. From start to finish, it usually takes me no more than an hour. I keep everything in separate containers in the fridge so it’s ready when I get home from a long day at work.

2. Build a meal – Now that you have all the food is cooked and ready to be eaten, all you have to do is put it together. Think of it like an assembly line…add some rice, chicken, broccoli, and sauce to a bowl, pop it in the microwave and voila, dinner is served.

3. Oh, wait – there is no step three 😉 It is so easy there are only two steps! See, no excuses!!

Here is a little cheat sheet for building a healthy meal:

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  • Tricks if you are really short on time:
    Choose canned tuna, buy a pre-baked chicken, or try canned beans which don’t require cooking for your protein sources
  • Use frozen veggies that you can steam in the microwave – no baking or chopping required.

Now that you have the “recipe” to build your own healthy meal, I thought I would share some of my favorites. Some might sound strange, but I promise they are tasty! Also, lots are vegetarian since I was experimenting with being a vegetarian for a month.

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No excuses now! What are your favorite meals to build?

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.

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!

The Westside Market

IMG_9990Ever since my freshman year of undergrad, making a trip to the Westside market in Ohio City, Cleveland (a big market where you can find everything from fruits and vegetables to honey, meat, cheese, and bread) has always been an exciting adventure. A few times every year, my friends and I would wake up early on a Saturday morning and head over to the market to indulge in some fresh fruit that we could never find in the dining halls. Strangely enough, I have now lived just a 5-minute drive from the market for the past 2 months and haven’t had a chance to go yet.

Saturday morning I decided to change that. Last week in class we had a discussion about different cultural fruits and vegetables, which got me wanting to eat some exotic fruits that I wouldn’t buy on a regular basis. So, Saturday morning my alarm went off at 6:30am (yes, I love fruits and veggies that much) and headed to the market before it got too crowded and overwhelming.

I gave myself a $20 limit otherwise my entire paycheck could have quickly disappeared. With my 20, I got 2 mangos, 2 spaghetti squashes, strawberries, blackberries, bananas, a pomegranate, and a carton of eggs (and I had some change to spare). Not bad if you ask me.

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I found that not only is it a bit cheaper to get produce at the market, but it is also so much more exciting. Seeing all the bright colored fruits and vegetables lined up makes you want to buy all of them! So if you are having trouble motivating to buy (or eat) your fruits and veggies, maybe going to a farmers market can help. It creates a change of pace and scenery that can make you more excited about eating those fruits and veggies.

If farmers markets aren’t your thing, try going to a different grocery store than usual. We often get stuck in a routine of going to the same store, walking through it in the same direction, and buying the same products, but going to new places and seeing foods presented in different ways can change the way you think about them…hopefully for the better! Even if its not fruits and vegetables, changing up anything in your diet provides variety meaning different vitamins and minerals you maybe weren’t getting before. Win!