29 Jan 2014
In 1899, William McKinley was President of the United States, a 50 gallon barrel of maple syrup cost $.89/pound, and the bicycle frame and motor powered vacuum cleaner were patented. But was really interests me about 1899 (and the years following up through the 1940′s) is how people ate. Just think about it for a minute…
- In 1899 nobody had refrigerators or microwaves. So no Lean Cuisines or Frozen Lasangas for our 19th century friends.
- People in rural areas mostly grew their own vegetables. People in cities bought vegetables from the market on a near daily basis (in fact, most of Europe still does this. That might be one reason Europe does food better than America).
- Most people ate meat from their own livestock or from livestock nearby. Many people probably still hunted their own meat (venison burger anyone?). Although people in large cities did eat meat from factories with some pretty nasty processes (go ahead and check out Upton SinClair’s The Jungle if you don’t believe me).
22 Jan 2014
Kale is, and has been, the new “it” vegetable for a while now. I think it was also the “it” vegetable a few decades ago, then went away and came back. Anyone who wore bell bottoms in the 90′s thinking it was so new, only to see pictures of mom rocking the same thing in the 70′s knows that sometimes happens.
But now, we have a few articles – like this one on “The Dark Side Of Kale” – discussing the potential for kale and other cruciferous vegetables – including broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and brussels sprouts – to cause problems with our thyroid. Here’s the gist of the article:
A lot of people, even President Obama and Kevin Bacon, love kale. Kale is awesome. But, then a reporter from the times (a young, healthy 40-something) found out she had hypothyroidism. Apparently, a Google search lead her to lots of information about how the kale she juiced every morning and some other cruciferous vegetables have been linked to hypothyroidism. Researchers from Oregon State University explain that this can happen because certain compounds in the vegetables break down to some compounds which can interfere with the body’s ability to produce thyroid hormone and other compounds that can compete with iodine for uptake by the thyroid (the thyroid needs enough iodine to function normally). But, the good news is, the risk of developing hypothyroidism from too much raw cruciferous veg appears to be troublesome mostly in the presence of an iodine deficiency. The article also notes a few other things you can do to prevent this problem…
1. Cook your kale – cooked kale loses many of its goitrogenic properties (those qualities that cause thyroid issues) when it’s cooked.
2. Eat seaweed to make sure you’re getting enough iodine
3. Add a Brazil nut every now and again - Brazil nuts have plenty of Selenium, and Selenium can help support normal iodine levels.
4. Alternate between cruciferous and non-cruciferous vegetables.
Afraid of kale now? Don’t be. As one of the interviewed experts points out, the poison is in the dose. Eating a few servings of raw kale, broccoli, or brussels sprouts per week is fine. Juicing several pounds of kale or spinach everyday may put you at risk. (Besides, you shouldn’t be juicing all your vegetables anyway, because you lose all the good fiber in them when you do that).
So, does kale cause hypothyroidism? No, not usually. But it might, if you eat over 3 pounds of it raw everyday. If you’re not doing that, feel free to keep enjoying your kale and broccoli – it is a good source of important nutrients like fiber, B vitamins, and iron.
14 Jan 2014
First things first, housekeeping: this Saturday there will be no nutrition session due to the Average Joe’s competition. The session will be held on Friday, January 17th or on Monday, January 20th in the evening. Please comment or email me with your preference!
Carbs. Everyone generally interested in nutrition and healthy eating seems to be talking about carbs these days. But before I tell you all about them, I must address one of my biggest pet peeves and one of the biggest myth that seems to be floating around – the idea that you can “give up carbs”. Let me just say definitively that you cannot. Why? Because they are in everything that is good for you. Fruits. Vegetables. Even whole dairy. Because, you see, “carbs” are not pasta, rice, and baked goods. “Carbs” is really just an abbreviation for carbohydrates – the body’s main source of energy. So, you can give up grains. You can give up starchy carbohydrates. But you can’t really give up ALL carbohydrates. Allow me to explain further…
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and can be found in simple or complex structures. They provide fuel and are the body’s most readily available source of energy.
Why do you need them?
When you eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down into the simple sugar glucose, which is then transported throughout the body to provide energy, fuel important reactions, and maintain blood sugar levels. Any glucose not used immediately is stored in your liver as glycogen. During quick bouts of exercise, like a 100 meter sprint, the body uses glucose as the main source of fuel. But when it needs additional energy during longer workouts, it will draw on its glycogen stores, as well as stored fat, for energy. Having enough glycogen stored up for the body to use will allow you to perform at your best, both in competition and training. On the other hand, not getting enough carbohydrates and energy to meet your needs over an extended period of time can weaken your immune system – meaning you could get sick more often – and make you feel less energetic.
Where do you find them?
Carbohydrates come from a variety of sources, and some are better than others. Some of the better sources of carbohydrates include fruits and vegetables, starches like sweet potato, and some whole grains (quinoa, oats, barley). Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of carbohydrates because they have more fiber and other nutrients like vitamins and minerals (that occur naturally, not through fortification) and are less energy dense. Which carbohydrates you choose will depend on your goals (I’ll get to that in a minute).
The carbohydrates to avoid include baked goods, simple sugars (like table sugar and syrups), processed grains (or “white” grains), and other processed snack foods.
How many should you be eating?
How much carbohydrate you need depends on the intensity and volume of training, gender, and type of sport. Research indicates that elite (college and professional) athletes need 6-12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (weight in kilograms = weight in pounds divided by 2.2). Women and less active athletes will be on the lower end of that range, while men or endurance athletes will be on the higher end. However, most recreational athletes will need fewer carbohydrates, as they are not training over 2 hours per day as those athletes do. For most people I recommend 3-6 grams/kg of body weight, depending on your training. For example, a runner who does CrossFit twice a week and is trying to maintain weight will want to eat more carbohydrates than someone who does CrossFit four times a week and is trying to lose weight.
The thing about carbohydrates is there is not enough evidence to recommend exact levels to everyone. How much you need depends on your training, weight, and goals, but also on your subjective feelings. Two people might eat the same proportion of carbohydrates, and while one person feels fantastic, the other feels low energy and lethargic. All things considered, if you can’t focus at work you likely need to eat more carbohydrates.
Should You Be Giving Up Grains?
During the Transformation Challenge, a lot of us are giving up grains for 6 weeks. But after the challenge, how should you deal with reintroducing them? Or should you at all? Here are a few tips:
- Keep your weight goals in mind. If you’re trying to lose weight, keeping grains mostly out of your diet - while allowing yourself greater liberation in other areas – is a good way to cut out unnecessary calories. If you’re trying to gain weight (or have trouble maintaining it), it is much harder to get enough calories and carbohydrates without grains. It’s possible, but far more difficult (and expensive).
- Keep your fitness goals in mind: Endurance sports will require more carbohydrates than anaerobic sports (like CrossFit).
- Keep the grains healthy. Even if you do add back in grains, don’t add in the Eggo waffles, Oreos, and white grains. Add back in bread with only a few ingredients in it (less than 5),brown rice, oats, barley, etc.
We can talk more about carbs in this week’s nutrition session. Free for anyone who bought (or buys – there’s still time!) my transformation challenge package and $15 to drop in.
07 Jan 2014
You’re going to eat restaurant or convenience food sometime over the next six weeks. You just are. I mean, maybe you are a freak of nature who is ALWAYS prepared and never feels like socializing. Power to you. But most people are going to run into work lunches, dinner with the girls, happy hour, pure laziness, or some other similar non-ideal situations. And while it’s not always easy, there are strategies for sticking to your diet while you eat out.
1. Do some research ahead of time.
This will be especially helpful if you’re in a situation like a work lunch, where you don’t want to be this guy who orders your meal like Sally orders dinner in When Harry Met Sally. So look at the menu ahead of time. If you’re just grabbing Panera for lunch, it’s easy to look online for the nutrition facts and ingredients for every food. If it’s a nicer place, the menu likely won’t list all ingredients but they’ll generally indicate what’s in the sauce. If you have a few good options identified, you won’t have to study the menu intensely for the right option once you’re there. If you’re really dedicated, you can probably even call ahead and inquire about anything that concerns you.
2. Stick to the basics.
Meat. Vegetables. Oil and vinaigrette. You can usually get a basic steak or fish and side of vegetables or basic salad at at most places.
3. Don’t go to Cracker Barrel (or any place like it).
Or any place like it. Look, while I”m of the firm belief you can make a good choice or a bad choice almost anywhere, I’m also fairly convinced (despite the guy who lost 37 pounds eating only McDonald’s) that some places just don’t offer anything worth buying. A few months ago Patrick and I were starving and driving through the middle of rural New Hampshire, so we stopped at Cracker Barrel. We figured it was better than Wendy’s, right? And I had pretty good memories of playing checkers when I was a kid. But the food was awful – processed, cheap, and not even appealing. Your sides of vegetables were maybe 1/3 cup while you got almost a whole plate of white pasta. My point being, even when you order the best thing on the menu there, it’s a far cry from a healthy meal. So avoid places like that as much as you can. Better places include Chipotle or Panera, where you can get a decent salad.
The Best Meal Ideas
- If you’re at a fast food joint (Panera, Sebastian’s, Chipotle…) – go for the basic salad. Lettuce, meat, beans, veggies, avocado, etc.
- If you’re at a nicer place – steak, fish, or chicken and a side of vegetables, sans any featured sauces. If you’re not on the transformation challenge but still trying to stay healthy, you can add a side of roasted potatoes if they have them.
- If you’re at a sports bar – bun-less burger topped with lettuce, tomato, and onion, mustard, and avocado with a side of vegetables.
- If you’re skiing/riding – chili. Almost every ski lodge has it, and it’s usually mostly beans, meat, veggies, and tomato sauce. Yes that sauce might have sugar in it, but it might be the best non-salad item you can get there. I don’t know about you but salad doesn’t sound so good when I’m coming off the slopes freezing with ice down my back.
The Best Drink Ideas
To be perfectly clear, none of the below booze-y beverages are transformation challenge compliant. But if you must have a drink (no judgement here, it is football season afterall…) these are going to be the best options.
- If you want to appear social but don’t feel like alcohol – seltzer water with lime. Because sometimes “why aren’t you drinking?” and “ugh you diet too much” get old. Order the soda water with lime and you can fly under the radar in social situations without playing paleo 20 questions.
- If you want the booze – red wine is the best choice here. Yeah, yeah, Rob Wolf says tequila is paleo. And I’m pretty sure that’s because he likes tequila and recognizes (correctly) that in our world abolishing all alcohol is unrealistic for most. But red wine is the one with science-demostrated heart health benefits, so I’d stick with the Merlot/Cabernet.
In short, if you do some research ahead of time and stick to basic meat and veggie dishes, you can absolutely enjoy a nice meal out with friends or a date without abandoning your diet. What’s your go-to paleo-approved restaurant meal?
REMINDER: I’ll be hosting a group meeting this Saturday 1/11/14 at 12 pm. Free to anyone buying the transformation challenge nutrition package and $15 to drop in. Hope to see you there! Email me at [email protected] for more details.
For most people, a jar of multivitamins on your countertop is a marker of a healthy person. Of course, I have always been convinced that you can get all the nutrients you need from food if you eat the right foods. Looks like science might be proving my point. An article yesterday from Science Daily reported on 2 articles published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which found that taking a daily vitamin/mineral supplement really has no clear benefit for most healthy people.
What does this mean?
This means you don’t need to spend $17.99 a month for vitamins at CVS. It means vitamins and minerals do the most for your body when they come from food.
Where do I get my vitamins and minerals?
From food, duh. These foods in particular…
- Vitamin A – orange and red colored vegetables like red and orange bell pepper, sweet potato, carrots, pumpkin, cantaloupe, apricots, tomatoes, etc as well as broccoli, ricotta cheese, and black eyed peas.
- B Vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, etc) – green leafy vegetables, fortified grains (but the vegetables are a way better option).
- Vitamin B12 – animal products, including meat, dairy, and eggs.
- Folate – beef liver, green vegetables including spinach, asparagus. brussel sprouts,and lettuce, and avocado.
- Vitamin C – strawberries, citrus fruits, kiwi, broccoli, brussel sprouts
- Vitamin D – fatty fish like swordfish, salmon, and tuna, fortified OJ, fortified milk, sardines, and egg (found in the yolk).
- Vitamin E – sunflower seeds, almond, peanut butter, safflower oil, and boiled spinach and broccoli.
- Vitamin K – green leafy vegetables; the darker the vegetable, the more vitamin K.
- Iron – red meat, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale,
When Should I take a vitamin/mineral supplement?
This study found that in healthy people, daily vitamin and mineral supplements aren’t really necessary. However, it IS a good idea to take a vitamin or mineral supplement in some cases. Some of these include:
- If you have a vitamin deficiency. If the deficiency is low enough, you may be able to correct it by taking a multivitamin that includes that nutrient. If you are very deficient in a vitamin, your doctor may recommend more aggressive supplementation (for example, if you have severe iron deficiency anemia). Of course, while you are correcting the deficiency with a supplement, you will also want to increase your intake of foods high in that nutrient so you don’t become deficient again later on.
- If you are at high risk for vitamin deficiency. Vegans – and sometimes vegetarians – need to supplement B12, because it is only found in animal products, while female athletes are at a higher risk for iron deficiency and northerners (that’s us!) are at high risk of vitamin D deficiency during the winter months due to minimal sunlight exposure.
- If you are pregnant. Since research has very clearly demonstrated the benefits of folate for preventing spina bifida and other neurological disorders in newborns, mothers are encouraged to take folate while they are pregnant.
If you’d like to read more for yourself, here’s the article from Science Daily.
What are your thoughts on multivitamin/mineral supplements?
On Saturday I talked about the nutrition piece of the Transformation Challenge, but if you missed it, here’s a recap.
Qualities of a Healthy Diet
1. Unprocessed foods. Eat what came from nature – vegetables, fruits, quality meat and dairy (I’ll elaborate on that in #3), nuts and seeds, beans, etc. Avoid things that come in a box like processed wheat, crackers, cookies, chips, sweets, etc.
2. Dominance of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are high in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber) but low in calories and mostly low in carbohydrates (except for the starchy ones). That means they are unlikely to cause sharp rises in blood glucose, leaving you with stable energy levels.
For the challenge, all common vegetables are included except for white potatoes – but sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, etc are all OK. We’re keeping white potatoes off the OK list because sometimes it can be easy to eat them in place of green vegetables, and they are higher on the glycemic index. I explain more about white potatoes in this post.
3. Quality meat and dairy. I’ve said before that you want your food to come from happy cows, chickens, and pigs, not sad ones. A lot of meat in the US is made in factory farms, where animals are fed “all vegetarian diets” (don’t let that fool you – chickens should actually be eating insects too) of corn and soy and pumped full of antibiotics to prevent diseases rampant in the close quarters they’re kept in. Choose organic, grass-fed cows and free range chickens and eggs. Bison is also a good option, as they are naturally grass-fed (thank goodness we haven’t put them in factories yet!).
4. Fat +fiber = fullness. Both fat and fiber keep food in your stomach longer, keeping you full longer. This is an important part of avoiding hunger.
5. Avoid “starvation hunger” or “hangry-ness”. Aside from eating fat and fiber regularly, try to eat every 4 hours or so and avoid skipping meals. It’s easier to make healthy decisions when you’re just a little hungry and a packed lunch is in the kitchen ready to be heated up, than when you haven’t eaten in 7 hours and you are dreaming of cheeseburgers and Chipotle burritos.
6. Be prepared and DIY. Making your own food at home is the best way to be assured that it is healthy. In addition, keep snacks on hand in case you need them. Almonds, dried fruit (with no added sugar), fresh fruit that keeps well (apples are good), plain yogurt, etc are all good snacks to keep on hand. If you can’t refrigerate, though, nuts are usually easiest.
Transformation Challenge Nutrition Package
During the challenge, I am offering some extra help. For $75 you will receive:
- A 3-day meal planning template for 1800, 2300, or 2800 calories to help you plan meals
- Recipes and quick, easy meal ideas
- 5 group sessions – nutrition lesson and open discussion (meeting Saturdays throughout the challenge, except 1/18 when myself and others will be competing)
- Weekly email check ins.
In addition, if you’d like to drop in to one of the group sessions without buying the whole package, you can do so for $15.
If you’d like to purchase a nutrition package, email me at [email protected]
03 Dec 2013
By Sunday night, I (and probably most of us) had finished up several days of eating and family and now find ourselves with a fridge full of turkey. I find that holiday food gets boring after a while, so I like to re-purpose it whenever I can. So when I found myself with a pound of smoked turkey, I threw together this soup.
- 1-2 tsp olive oil
- 4 carrots, chopped
- 5 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 sweet onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, diced
- 3 cups turkey, shredded
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 1/4 tsp sage
- 8 cups chicken broth
Heat oil in a large pot. Add carrots, celery, onion, and garlic and cook about 4 minutes. Add the spices and mix well, then add the turkey and mix again. Add the broth and bring to a boil, then reduce to low heat and cook for 10 minutes.
What do you make with leftover holiday food?
26 Nov 2013
Thanksgiving marks the first feast of the many you’ll eventually have during a typical holiday season. While Thanksgiving is a time to eat good food, celebrate family and cultural traditions, and enjoy being around loved ones, it can be those things without completely derailing the diet you’ve been crushing lately. Because, the holidays don’t have to be a 6 week hiatus from all healthy habits. Here are a few tips to help you stay on track AND enjoy delicious, tasty foods this holiday season.
Tip 1: Designate Your “Cheat Days”
You remember when I wrote about cheat days right? Well, if you don’t have time to read it, let me sum it up for you: cheat days have beneficial effects on hormone levels and mood that can help you in the weight loss or maintenance process – if done right. So pick a few cheat days. Maybe, say 6 over the next 6 weeks. For example, mine will probably be
This way, you have set days to enjoy holiday goodies, and the rest of the time you stick to a healthy diet of plenty of fruits and veggies, lean proteins, healthy fats, and a little dairy.
Tip 2: Cheat Right
According to the research, the best cheat day meals (to have those beneficial effects on hormones) are high in protein and carbs, and lower in fat. Keep this in mind as you eye the spread this Thursday. That means plenty of turkey, potatoes, a dinner roll, and cranberries. Go easy on the butter and heavy casseroles.
Tip 3: Keep the Veggies at the Party
I know, I know, I just said this should be your cheat day. But “cheat day” doesn’t mean “eat nothing healthy all day”, it just means there’s wiggle room. So make sure you get some veggies on feasting holidays by either eating some throughout the day (spinach in a smoothie at breakfast, raw veggies and guacamole for a snack), or include them in the meal in the form of a side salad or some green beans with toasted almonds. Not only do veggies (and fruits) have important vitamins and minerals, they also have fiber, which will help you digest all that turkey later in the day.
Tip 4: Spread it Around
My favorite thing about Thanksgiving (and Christmas) dinner is….
LEFTOVERS! What this means is, you don’t have to eat everything on the table Thanksgiving day. Didn’t make it to the sweet potato casserole? No worries, have a small taste the next day with eggs to fuel your Black Friday adventures. In the photo to the right, you can see an example of this – I paired my sweet potato casserole from a recent Friends-giving with a lean, grilled hamburger over salad.
Tip 5: Don’t Stop Moving!
This one is important for a few reasons. While I always like to say “you can’t out train a bad diet”, exercise is still really important, especially this time of year. Not only does exercise burn calories, some research has shown that morning exercise may reduce your appetite throughout the rest of the day. So get a morning workout in on Thanksgiving day (maybe a run, a bike ride, or some burpees…) before the Thanksgiving day parade, dog show, and eating begin.
19 Nov 2013
Dairy isn’t paleo. Most people who have read about/heard of the paleo diet know that. But WHY isn’t dairy allowed? Is it really that bad for you? I like looking at pros and cons so I’m going to break it down that way.
1. If you buy the right stuff, it’s pretty natural. I’m not talking about cheesecake flavored yogurt, ice cream, or strawberry milk. I’m talking about grass-fed milk and butter, plain Greek yogurt, etc. Whole milk is removed from a cow, heated to 145 degrees F for 30 minutes or 162 degrees F for 15 seconds (that is the Pasteurization process) and then bottled. Of course, this can be different at a big factory farm type dairy. But if you are buying organic, grass-fed milk, you’re getting a pretty unprocessed product.
As a side note, milk that has not been pasteurized is called “raw milk”, and its legality is under debate. I’ll tackle raw milk vs. regular milk in another blog post.
2. It’s a staple food in many (rather healthy) countries. Milk and dairy are staples incountries like Germany and Switzerland. These countries also have low obesity rates. Yes, other factors like physical activity (they bike everywhere over there) and agriculture can play a role. The point is, some people drink milk and are perfectly healthy.
3. Milk and yogurt can be good for recovery (and a good protein source for vegetarians). Milk has 12 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of protein per 8 ounce glass. This means 16 ounces of milk provides the right mix of protein and carbs for post workout recovery, in a natural and convenient form.
4. Nutrition. Milk and yogurt are good sources of calcium and vitamin D, which help maintain bone density. Milk also contains vitamin A, vitamin C, and B vitamins.
1. Many people are lactose intolerant. According to the NIH, about 65% of adults have a reduce ability to digest lactose (the sugar in milk), but this varies by ethnicity. Among some East Asian populations ,the prevalence of lactose intolerance is 90%, but among Eastern Europeans it’s more like 5%. You can diagnose lactose intolerance with a breath test, but more likely than not if lactose doesn’t agree with you, you’ll know from the bloating and cramping. Because the issue in lactose intolerance is the inability to digest the SUGAR in dairy, lower sugar dairy like cheese tends to be easier to digest.
2. Some dairy is highly processed and/or unsustainably and unethically
produced. Like I mentioned before, Boston Cream Pie and Cheesecake flavored yoplait and Strawberry milk are still processed foods, even if they decided to stop using High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).
In addition, a lot of dairy in the US is produced by cows in factory farm/ dairy type situations. Cows who don’t have room to graze and exercise. These are sad cows. You shouldn’t get your dairy from sad cows. Look for dairy from happy cows – i.e. organic and/or grass fed milk and butter.
3. Milk could, in some context, be considered a high calorie drink. 8 oz of whole milk has 150 calories and 8 grams of fat. While this is better than soda, when you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to avoid drinking your calories and get them from more filling foods instead. Then again, if you’re trying to put on weight (or maintain it if you have difficulty doing so), the extra calories in milk are a bonus.
I have nothing against unprocessed dairy – which to me means milk, plain yogurt, butter, and some cheeses. It is not paleo because it only came about around 9,000 years ago. But,as I’ve said before, just because it’s not paleo doesn’t mean it’s not healthy. Obviously, if you have an allergy or intolerance to dairy, you should avoid it. But for most people, it can be part of a quality diet.
I personally don’t drink a lot of milk (even as a kid I never liked it unless it was in cereal) and eat yogurt, butter, and cheese only occasionally. But if you have no issue digesting lactose and want to incorporate it, 1-2 servings per day is a good amount (1 serving is 6 ounces of yogurt, 8 ounces of milk, 1 ounce of cheese). Choose dairy from happy cows (grassfed and/or organic) and avoid skim, as the fat in milk helps absorb some of the fat soluble vitamins it provides.
13 Nov 2013
Omega 3 fats – also known as “healthy fats” and monounsaturated fats – have gained wide attention for their potential health benefits. Omega-3′s are found in fatty fish like tuna, salmon, trout and herring. You can get about 1 gram of omega-3 fats in a 3.5 ounce serving of fatty fish.
Types of Omega-3 Fats
There are 3 types of omega-3 fats.
- ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) – is a short chain omega-3 fat found in plant oils like walnut, olive, and soybean. ALA can be converted into DHA, but only in small amounts.
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – is a long chain omega-3 fat found in fish oil, as well as breast milk and baby formula. DHA is a structural component of the brain, skin, and eyes and plays a role in cognitive health and mental health.
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) – is another long chain omega-3 fat, also found in fish oil. EPA is most associated with health benefits related to inflammation.
Most fish oil supplements contain a combination of EPA and DHA. There are a wide variety of purported health benefits to taking omega-3/fish oil supplements, and lots of research has been done to investigate them. Fish oils have been shown to be at least somewhat effective in reducing triglycerides, preventing heart disease, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and promoting good cognitive health. Fish oil may also benefit people with asthma, ADHD, and numerous other conditions. You can find a full list of conditions for which fish oil is effective, likely effective, ineffective, and not rate-able from the NIH here.
- The health benefits, obviously. We could all use a little heart disease prevention, whether we’re at risk or 22 and healthy.
- The American diet is woefully low in omega-3 fats compared to omega-6 fats, and a lot of research shows that this ratio is important for health. Even if you’re paleo, you could be getting plenty of omega-6′s from olive oil and nuts. We should be aiming for an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 2:1, or more ideally 1:1, but experts estimate most Americans ratio is closer to 6:1.
- They help you avoid mercury. Mercury is a metal found in a lot of seafood. The problem with mercury is that it accumulates, so there may only be a little mercury in the small fish, but by the time the big fish eats the medium fish that ate lots of small fish… a good deal of mercury has built up. The bigger, fatty fish have the highest levels of omega-3 fats, but also the highest mercury levels. This makes it hard to eat fatty fish 3-4 times per week, especially for pregnant women.
- Salmon can be expensive (and I’m not a sardine fan). If you’re watching your budget like I (and many Americans) am, a $30-40 bottle of fish oil that lasts over a month is cheaper than $26 per lb salmon 3 times a week.
- Quality fish oils can also be expensive. Canned sardines, if you like them, would be a cheaper alternative.
- It may not be effective if you take certain types of medications. For example, birth control pills can reduce the triglyceride lowering ability of fish oil, and statins can negate the effectiveness of fish oil in lowering cholesterol and reducing heart disease risk. It may also cause problems in people taking blood clotting or anti-coagulating medicines.
- It’s not paleo. For the same reason I said protein powder wasn’t paleo. That doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad for you. But if you’re committed to wearing sandals, living in a cave, and not consuming anything that’s been even remotely processed, clearly these aren’t for you.
How Much Should You Take?
The right dose depends on your particular condition and goals. For example, to lower triglycerides you’d take 1-4 g/day of fish oil, whereas for depression you’d take 9.6 grams per day along with an antidepressant.
But a lot of you are athletes, so how much should you take? The best recommendation for athletes is 1-2 grams per day, with a 2:1 ratio of EPA and DHA. Up to 3 grams per day is considered safe for most healthy people. If you regularly eat fatty fish, you can take less fish oil or take it every other day.
It’s no secret I almost always tilt in favor of food over supplements. But when it comes to fish oil, I’m a fan. It’s probably the only supplement I’d actively recommend to clients, and if you take one supplement, this is the one.
One final thought: it is important to pay attention and read labels when you’re picking a fish oil brand. I used to love recommending the Nature Made 1200 mg burp less variation, but after I did my research I realized it had gelatin and some other stuff in there, and didn’t really tell me where the omega-3s come from (which means probably not fish). I know, big time nutritionist fail. Then I bought the SFH fish oil from the gym (the tangerine and lemon flavors are pretty good), and realized it has 3.7 grams per serving. Make sure your label indicates that the fish oil is from FISH, doesn’t contain any other additives like gelatin, and the serving size is right.
Do you have a favorite brand of fish oil? Let me know in the comments!