Wellness Superhero Turned Villain? Not Quite.

Setting the Record Straight on Coconut Oil

coconutRecently, the wellness community has been up in arms over the presidential advisory released by the American Heart Association (AHA) – it turns out coconut oil may not be the wellness superstar many people thought. The AHA advised that people limit sources of saturated fat, including coconut oil, because it may increase the risk of developing heart disease. However, the funny thing is – the news that sparked headlines and shook up the wellness community wasn’t really news at all.

Coconut oil is known to be a source of saturated fat. While it has been recommended for a long time to limit sources of saturated fat, the issue isn’t necessarily so clear cut. The AHA recommends limiting saturated fat to 6% or less of one’s daily caloric intake. Typically, it is recommended to consume approximately 30% of one’s calories from fat, meaning over 20% of fat consumed should be in the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated forms (although individual recommendations may vary). While saturated fat isn’t necessarily all bad (it does raise HDL cholesterol – the “good” kind of cholesterol, and we do need some in our diet because it plays an important role in the structural component of cells), it should be consumed in moderation, since it also increases LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Diets rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids are typically referred to as “heart-healthy” due to the cardio protective effect of these fats (for example: the Mediterranean style diet, which emphasizes leafy green vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish and olive oil).

Coconut oil is touted to be helpful for weight management, digestive woes and everything in between. It’s known for it’s medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are digested and absorbed differently than other fats. MCTs are absorbed quickly and bypass the long process typically required to break down and absorb fats, so they may be used clinically for patients who have malabsorption and have even been used as an ergogenic aid for athletes due to it’s perceived quick energy. However, the research that supports the use of MCT oil typically has used an oil that is far more rich in MCTs than traditional coconut oil. While coconut oil contains more MCTs than many other oils, it is not pure MCT oil. Additionally, the link between coconut oil and weight loss is not causative – that is, we do not have any evidence that proves that increasing coconut oil intake causes weight loss. There are many confounding variables that prevent this conclusion from being drawn. It is most likely that people who start using coconut oil and lose weight do so because they are

a) making many other dietary and lifestyle changes, as well

b) feeling satiated from the calories provided by the coconut oil, which can also be provided by other fat and food sources, and possibly limiting their overall caloric intake, which can aid in weight loss.

So, to consume coconut oil or not consume coconut oil – that is the question. Coconut oil is one type of many oils that can be incorporated into an overall healthy diet. In moderation, it can certainly be enjoyed. However, do I recommend loading it up in all of your meals, snacks and coffee? No.

So, unless you plan to lather it all over your body and hair, enjoy it in moderation .

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Just BEET It!

beets

What’s the deal with beet juice? It’s being used as an all natural exercise supplement over recent years, but why?

Beet juice is a great pre-workout drink because it’s ability to enhance oxygen flow to the muscles translates to enhanced fuel utilization through aerobic metabolism (which requires oxygen to break down food into energy that can be used by the body). Enhanced fuel utilization may delay feelings of fatigue, as well as lactic acid buildup (the burning sensation often felt during exercise as a result of anaerobic metabolism), which can lead to stronger workouts.

Nitrate can be converted to nitrite by bacteria located in saliva via the enzymes called nitrate reductases. Nitrite can then be reduced to nitric oxide (NO) by a variety of enzymes, which remain to be the subject of study (and still remain controversial). NO then enhances vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) through signaling via soluble guanylate cyclase, which ultimately allows for increased blood flow and increased oxygen and nutrient delivery to muscles. It should be noted that the existence of oral bacteria is essential for this conversion to occur, and so the use of antibacterial dental products (such as mouthwash or antibacterial gum) is not recommended directly before consuming nitrate-rich foods and beverages.

How do beets (and other veggies) get their nitrates?

While plants may receive small amounts of nitrates from the air and water, the majority of nitrates are usually delivered to the plant from soil. Specifically, nitrogenous sources in the soil can be converted to ammonia, which can then be converted to nitrates by bacteria. The plant can then absorb the nitrates to use for development and growth. High-nitrogen soils now exist in order to enhance nitrate absorption by the plant. Since the majority of nitrates used by the plant come from the soil, fruits and vegetables that grow in the ground (like beets!) generally contain a higher amount of nitrates.

I thought nitrates were bad for me? I’m told to avoid them in meat…

The difference between nitrates in processed meats and those found in fruits and vegetables has to do with other existing compounds in the food. Nitrates can be converted to small amounts of nitrosamines (carcinogenic compounds) in the presence of protein and heat (>300oF). However, fruits and vegetables do not contain the amounts of protein required for this reaction to occur. Additionally, veggies can also be consumed raw, meaning heat is not present, either. Regardless, both protein and heat are required for nitrosamines to form, so nitrates in fruits and veggies are safe.

So how do I use beet juice to my benefit?

Beet juice is generally used as an ergogenic aid (or an exercise supplement) prior to aerobic exercise (running, biking, etc.). Ideally, beet juice should be consumed about 15-30 minutes before the event (whether it is a race or training). This allows time for vasodilation to occur throughout the beginning of the exercise. Always remember to check regulations of your sport if this is not for recreation, to ensure that beet juice is allowed. Also, remember that consumption of beet juice does not guarantee an improvement in training or time – rather, the literature to date suggests that it may benefit the production of nitric oxide, which in turn could promote vasodilation and may lead to less fatigue during a workout.

*beet photo courtesy of: http://www.elizabethrider.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/benefits-of-beets.jpg

Food Myths: Debunked

There are a ton of rumors circulating about food and nutrition lately. It’s no wonder that all of these mixed messages – from reliable and unreliable sources – can cause confusion. I wanted to sort out a few food issues that I keep encountering over and over. After reading this, you will be able to sort fact from fiction and learn the truth about hot topics in food and nutrition.

Oats HeapMyth #1: All oatmeal is good for you

All oatmeal is not created equally. Many instant varieties contain a ton of ingredients that many of us can’t even pronounce. My rule of thumb is no one should need to be able to understand biochemistry in order to understand the ingredients listed on their food’s nutrition label (and if you do happen to have a degree in biochemistry, you would probably agree that many of those ingredients should not be consumed). Your best bet is to buy rolled oats that list only rolled oats as the sole ingredient. Craving more of an instant fix from a packet? I like Trader Joe’s Oats and Flax oatmeal, which has just four ingredients (rolled oats, sugar, flaxseeds and sea salt). Also, beware of flavored varieties, which tend to contain a ton of excess sugar and additives. Stick with a plain oatmeal and add your own toppings, such as fruit, nuts, cinnamon, or even cocoa powder.

Myth #2: Egg yolks are bad for you

I cringe when I hear this myth. In fact, egg yolks are the source of nutrients within eggs. While egg whites are a good option for those looking to decrease their calorie content, the whites offer little in the way of nutrition – just a small amount of protein and only about 20 calories per egg white, which is not very satiating. The egg yolk contains the lipids, vitamins and minerals that cause eggs to boast such great nutrition, and one large egg contains less than 80 calories. Also, egg yolks contain a substantial amount of choline, which is a nutrient that has been linked to enhancing memory. Start your day sharp and eat eggs (the entire egg!) and feel fuller, longer. Another great option? Combine one whole egg with two egg whites to shave off calories and fat while maintaining some of the nutrition of the whole egg. Also, that rumor about eggs being bad for cholesterol? False! Unless you already have high cholesterol, the cholesterol in eggs does not appear to raise one’s cholesterol. Now, no excuses!

My Green Eggs, No Ham! Avocado toast with sunny side up eggs - yum!

My Green Eggs, No Ham! Avocado toast with sunny side up eggs – yum!

Myth #3: Skipping breakfast is a good way to lose weight

My Very Berry Smoothie (just frozen berries, Greek 0% fat plain yogurt, ice and a touch of honey!)

My Very Berry Smoothie (just frozen berries, Greek 0% fat plain yogurt, ice and a touch of honey!)

Skipping breakfast is one of my biggest pet peeves. This myth is totally false. Want to hear a fact? Breakfast is actually the most important meal of the day. Overnight, we deplete our glycogen stores (our body’s storage form of glucose) and this stimulates a series of hormonal responses. Additionally, many individuals wake up with low blood glucose because of the lack of glycogen and exogenous fuel first thing in the morning. Eating breakfast (with some carbohydrates) helps to keep your hormones in check and replenishes your body with the fuel it needs to take on the day. Just like you would never drive a car without gasoline, you should never walk out your door in the morning without fueling up (properly). That being said, I even suggest that individuals eat a little bit of something (anything) rather than skip breakfast. People are often appalled by this, but I truly believe it is better to eat a half a bagel (or something else “shamed” by most) than skip breakfast entirely. Not hungry? That’s okay. Work your way to eating breakfast by beginning with something small (a few strawberries or a banana) and ultimately add in extras (add a piece of toast with peanut butter, or a small bowl of oatmeal). No time? I can solve that, too. Below are a few quick breakfast options. Again, no excuses!

  • Make some hard boiled eggs at the beginning of the week and store in a bowl in your refrigerator. Grab and go!
  • Make a breakfast smoothie the night before and store in your refrigerator, covered, until the next morning.
  • Make a piece of toast and spread with a nut butter  of choice. Add fruit (on the side or on top) to round out the meal.
  • Bring an apple (or another fruit, like a banana) and some peanut butter with you out the door.

Myth #4: You will undo your workout if you eat afterwards

After a workout, your body needs fuel. You just took your energy from earlier in the day (and from some body reserves) to produce work and now, your body needs fuel to recover. That being said, you don’t need to go overboard. Post-workout, your body needs protein and carbohydrates. Specifically, you should aim to consume about 25 grams of protein within the first 30-60 minutes post-workout. Great options include:

  • Chocolate milk (the chocolate adds extra carbohydrates, which your body needs to recover following a workout)
  • Greek yogurt with fruit (add your own fresh fruit to plain – you will avoid excess sugar and reap nutritious benefits from the whole fruit)
  • Fruit and nut butter
  • Healthy trail mix (I like to make my own with small handfuls of unsalted or reduced sodium nuts and seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews and peanuts, dried fruit, such as dried blueberries, and a small amount of dark chocolate pieces, such as semisweet chocolate morsels.)

apple pb

Myth #5: You need to take protein supplements if you are active

It’s true that active individuals may require more protein than non-active individuals. However, most Americans already consume more protein than needed from diet alone. It is recommended that adults consume 0.8 g/kg body weight protein per day. For a 70 kg male (154 pounds), this equates to 56 grams of protein daily. That is not that much and can certainly be attained (and often is exceeded) by an adequate diet. While active individuals may require more protein, many guidelines recommend 1.0-1.7 g/kg body weight, depending on the activity (and the duration and frequency of the activity). So, at 1.5 g/kg body weight (which would be toward the upper range of protein recommendations), a 70 kg male would require 105 grams of protein per day. That post-workout protein shake? It’s probably just going to add excess calories and should only be consumed every once in awhile, if there aren’t other food options to provide the carbs and protein you need to refuel after a workout. Also, it should be noted that protein does not get stored like carbs and fat do within the body. So, what happens to protein that’s consumed beyond your body’s energy needs? It will either get excreted or stored as fat.

my warm kale and butternut squash salad! A good source of carbohydrates!

my warm kale and butternut squash salad! A good source of carbohydrates!

Myth #6: Carbs are the devil

I like carbohydrates. Repeat: I like carbohydrates. Carbs are your body’s main source of fuel – and they are everywhere (which is not a coincidence). It’s true that refined carbs are not ideal, as they offer little in the way of nutrients and are often enriched with vitamins and minerals that are taken out in processing, along with chemicals. However, eating whole grains, such as quinoa, whole wheat bread and pasta products and farro is recommended. Additionally, foods such as fruits (and many vegetables) offer carbohydrates – and there is no reason to run from them. Many of these foods also contain fiber, which many Americans lack in their diet. Also, your brain runs on glucose – about 50 grams of it per day. Without consuming glucose, your body converts fat to ketones, which your brain can use as a secondary fuel source  – as a last resort. Relying on ketones regularly puts your body in an unhealthy state and prevents your brain from obtaining the fuel it needs and creating an optimal environment within your body for necessary enzymatic reactions. Many individuals require between 250-300 grams of carbohydrates per day, with active individuals often requiring even more than that. Put this into perspective next time you see that a snack contains 30 grams of carbs – it is probably okay to consume.

The take-home message

I hope you enjoyed this post and learned that, while there are a ton of nutrition rumors out there, it is important to learn the facts and fuel your body right. Also, many fads do not hold up to the science and it is important to learn the science (or speak with someone who does understand and keep up with the science, such as a registered dietitian) to separate fact from fiction.

*oats picture courtesy of: http://www.babybulletblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/oats.jpg

**apple and peanut butter picture courtesy of: http://images.meredith.com/fitness/images/2008/12/ss_101159512.jpg

 

Have Your Candy – And Eat It, Too!

 Trick or Treat – Give Me Something GOOD to Eat!

Halloween is around the corner – and that can mean a LOT of extra fat and sugar. Whether you have candy around because of trick-or-treaters, friends, children, or your own feeling that October merits candy, don’t sweat it! My advice? Enjoy the holiday and all of its goodies in moderation! Here are some healthy tips to help you enjoy your holiday – guilt-free!

*photograph courtesy of: http://newamericanacuisine.com/

1. Remember the Fundamentals of Good Nutrition: Balance, Variety and Moderation

You CAN enjoy candy as part of a balanced diet. That is, fuel your body with foods that actually offer, well, fuel! Then enjoy some candy, in moderation, knowing that you have fueled your body right and can afford to enjoy a craving every once in awhile! Deprivation will only make your feel like you “deserve” a treat and, truth is, if you practice good nutrition, there is often a little wiggle room to enjoy “empty calories” every once in awhile, if you wish!

2. Why Not Have Some Nutrition With That Candy?

*Photograph courtesy of: http://www.bourbonblog.com

To get into the spirit of fall and Halloween, you can enjoy healthier candy options! My favorites are candy apples or caramel apples. Granted, there are definitely healthier ways to eat apples. But, if you’re craving some candy, it can’t hurt to sneak in some nutrition with all of that sugar! A fun activity is making your own at home, using easy store-bought mixes that create sweet apple-y goodness in no time. For some extra nutrition (along with some extra calories), use caramel or candy as glue for chopped peanuts, dark chocolate pieces or any other topping you’d like! These toppings, specifically, offer some extra nutritional value to the candy, but remember, this is YOUR treat so top it with whatever you’d like! Other ways to get some sweet nutrition out of candy? Dark chocolate dipped fruit! My favorites are strawberries and bananas.

3. Some Sweet News for Chocolate Lovers

Dark chocolate has a ton of nutritional benefits! Don’t overdo it- remember the principle of moderation. However, if chocolate is your thing, don’t sweat it! Look for dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa, since this is the minimum amount that will offer nutritional benefits, such as antioxidants. Also, some studies have suggested that dark chocolate aids in a favorable HDL:LDL cholesterol ratio. In other words, those who enjoy dark chocolate over other types of chocolate (milk, white) tend to have more of the “good” cholesterol (HDL) and less of the “bad” stuff (LDL). Once again, this is not proven, but it has been reflected in some studies. That being said –  enjoy in moderation!

*Photograph courtesy of http://www.alzcareblog.com