A few years ago, when I was drinking the paleo kook-aid (yes, I drank it, yes I know “paleo kook-aid” is an oxymoron), I used to bristle at the advent of plant based diets and things like “Meatless Monday”. I felt tired of people pushing the no meat thing, annoyed that vegetarian diets are always deemed healthier despite the fact that studies on them are essentially comparing a group who has made a conscious decision about their health to a wider group of many who haven’t, and that many people do it wrong and just eat lots of pasta, rice, and bread. And THAT IS NOT HEALTHIER, I ranted.
The Plant Based Diet
Given that I’ve just written much of the above paragraph in the past tense, most of you have correctly guessed that my attitude has changed. The more I look at my own diet, at the paleo diet, and at research, the more I’m convinced that plant based diet IS the way to go. But what is a “plant based” diet? Based on a Google search, “plant based diet” is poorly defined (kind of like “fitness” before CrossFit). So, I’m making one up. According to the dictionary of Alexandra Black MPH, RD, LD, a plant based diet is:
A diet in which plant are the foundation of the diet. This diet consists primarily of non-animal nutrient sources. This includes vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and grains, although some animal foods – meat, eggs, dairy – can be included from time to time.
Of course, as with any diet, there are healthy and not-so-healthy plant based diets. Eggo waffles with Aunt Jemima syrup for breakfast, vegetable pizza for lunch, and a rice and beans Lean Cuisine for dinner is plant based, but not so healthy. Whereas a banana with peanut (or almond) butter for breakfast, vegetable stir fry with quinoa for lunch, and grilled chicken with vegetables and baked sweet potato for dinner is much healthier.
Plant Based V. Paleo
The thing is, right now the consensus among experts is that eating meat at every meal increases your risk for heart disease, among other things. Right now there isn’t enough good research contrasting the “meat eating diet” (which, in most studies, is anyone who eats anything) compared to meat eaters who choose predominately organic or grass-finished animal products. There also isn’t any good research I”m aware of comparing vegetarians to the organic meat eaters. So it’s kind of a “what we know right now says X but we think it might say Y if research was different”.
Another point I’d like to make is that most of our paleo ancestors also likely ate a plant based diet. Excepting the northern populations like those on the Aleutian Islands, most paleolithic people ate a lot of plants. They couldn’t go into the supermarket and buy all the meat they needed for the week at anytime. They had to hunt and kill their meat, so they only got it when they were able to do that. Otherwise, they ate plants and fruits and whatever else they could gather.
So yes, plant based diets and paleo diets can – and should – live in harmony. Paleo is not supposed to be an excuse to eat bacon everyday, it is supposed to be one of many ways to find a healthful, sustainable diet.
18 Feb 2015
Yes, you heard right. After 40 years of warnings that the amount of cholesterol in the American diet was a public health concern, the nation’s top nutrition advisory board is this year planning to do away with that warning. Because what fun would it be if we weren’t changing our minds about what’s healthy every other decade? You can read a little more about the announcement in the Washington Post.
Does This Mean All The Eggs And Bacon You Can Eat?
No, this does not mean you can pull a Ron Swanson. Basically, they’re saying the concern is less about dietary cholesterol itself, which isn’t really linked to blood cholesterol levels, and more about too many portions of foods high in saturated fat. The nutritionists list whole milk and butter as concerning, but I disagree a little bit. As I said in an earlier article on saturated fat, some of the traditionally forbidden foods – red meat, butter, whole milk, can have nutrients if you’re getting them from the right source. I am far more concerned about saturated fat from processed foods than I am about organic, pasture raised cream in your coffee. As an example, one serving (4 oz) of 85-15 lean ground beef has 6.6 grams of saturated fat. That’s comparable to 12 Oreo cookies, 5 Eggo waffles, and 2 hostess cupcakes. While 5 waffles or 12 oreos sounds like a lot, they’re not completely unreasonable portions for the average American. But while the ground beef has nutrients like protein, zinc, and iron, the other foods just offer sugar and and refined carbohydrates (not that carbohydrates are not a nutrient, you just don’t need that many poor quality ones).
So, enjoy your eggs and bacon. In moderate portions. And maybe lay off the Oreos
Walgreens, GNC, Walmart, and CVS don’t always sell supplements. But when they do, they’re fake. Oh wait, they actually DO always sell supplements. And they’re still fake. At least according to New York’s Attorney General (aka my new favorite politician), who is going after these fraudsters. My previous rants on supplements and GNC have focused on the fact that a teenager making minimum wage with no nutrition experience or education can advise you on dietary supplements that are very poorly regulated by the FDA if he happens to work at GNC (or Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, etc).
This time though, the focus is on the fact that not only did these four retailers try to sell you poorly regulated crap you don’t need, they also lied about the crap that was in it! According to a write up in the New York Times:
“The authorities said they had conducted tests on top-selling store brands of herbal supplements at four national retailers — GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart — and found that four out of five of the products did not contain any of the herbs on their labels. The tests showed that pills labeled medicinal herbs often contained little more than cheap fillers like powdered rice, asparagus and houseplants, and in some cases substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.”
In addition, some supplements at Target also tested negative for the herbs on their label. Basically, those ginkgo baloba pills you bought for “vitality” were really powdered garlic and powdered rice. Hell, I could have just made you some stir fry!
The New York State AG sent cease and desist letters to those four retailers. And of course industry reps are trying to pass this off as “bad practices from fringe companies”. Sorry guys, CVS is not a “fringe” company.
The morel of the story (rant)?
If you put it in your mouth, it should come from a trusted source (I know, I know, that’s what she said). Don’t get me wrong, I like CVS and shop there often for anything from bandaids to makeup to all of my life saving insulin prescriptions (although if you’ve read my blog long enough you know I can’t stand GNC and Vitamin Shoppe). I just don’t think you should be getting your supplements there.
Think You Need A Supplement? Follow these steps:
- Identify exactly what problem or deficiency you are addressing with it, and if you can reap the same benefit from a dietary change. For example, if I am tired all the time and find I have low iron, I may choose one of the following: take iron supplements, increase my intake of iron rich foods, or take iron supplements for a few weeks to replete my stores, while increasing iron intake from food over the long term.
- Do your research, to make sure that supplement actually addresses your problem. To use the iron example above, it is pretty well established that taking an iron supplement improves blood iron levels. It is not as established that garlic pills promote weight loss, that a cranberry supplement can prevent UTIs (there is some evidence this works for some women, but nothing is concrete), or that ginkgo paloba will increase your vitality.
- Make sure you get it from a safe, quality source. Third party tested products are best, and NSF tends to be the cream of the crop of that testing. If a supplement is tested, it will have a label on the bottle indicating so. You can also search the NSF International Directory for certified products.
You can read the full article about what the NY AG is doing in the New York Times.
14 Jan 2015
Superfoods are still all the rage these days (at least according to those I follow on Twitter). But are they really so super?
What is a super food?
Entering “super foods” into a Google search provides a variety of definitions. According to Wikipedia, super foods contain “essential nutrients with proven health benefits and few properties considered negative”, and per the Oxford dictionary they are “food considered especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health and well-being”. Basically, they are foods that are nutrient dense and have known health benefits while producing no adverse effects to the consumer. Below I’ll discuss the health claims and research surrounding a few of the more well known”super foods”.
Bananas are a good source of fiber, carbohydrates and energy, potassium, and vitamin B6. Potassium is an electrolyte, important for maintaining electrolyte balanc
e and normal heart and muscle function and preventing muscle cramps. Vitamin B6 is involved in a number of reactions, mostly with protein metabolism, and has in some cases been associated with lower risk for certain cancers and improved sleep. One study showed that bananas were just as good as sports drinks for maintaining performance while providing healthier sugars and more vitamins and antioxidants in endurance cyclists. Bananas are a great source of carbs and energy for athletes, and make a great pre or post workout snack.
Acai Berries were popularized several years ago by reality TV star Lauren Conrad and is regularly marketed as a weight loss supplement in a variety of forms including juices and tablets. The acai is a dark purple berry found on acai palms, which are native to South and Central America. Claims about acai are numerous and include weight loss, help fighting heart disease, cancer prevention, improved digestion, and overall health. However, little evidence supports these claims, and in 2009 the Center for Science in the Public Interest actually issued a warning to consumers regarding internet acai berry supplement scams. In 2011, a small pilot study found that the acai berry may help improve choleterol and triglyceride levels in healthy adults, but more studies are needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn.
Garlic has been claimed to have a variety of health benefits including lowering LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) and raising HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind), lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of blood clots, and helping the body fight infections. There is some evidence to support these claims but it is limited at best. In addition, there is little evidence supporting the use of garlic as a supplement, and taking garlic supplements or eating large amounts of garlic can interfere with certain heart disease medications, namely blood thinners like aspirin, and increase risk of bleeding. Garlic supplements may also decrease the effectiveness of certain immuno-suppressants and birth control.
Kale is a cruciferous green vegetable thought to be high in antioxiants, play a role in lowering cholesterol, help fight cancer, and reduce inflammation. According to a 2009 review, green vegetables like kale contain glucosinolates, which have been associated with a reduction of risk for some cancers. Kale is a healthful, nutrient packed vegetable, low in calories but high in vitamin K which reduce blot clotting, and vitamin A which helps maintain eye health, promotes cell formation and is needed for the normal forming and maintaining of heart, lung, kidney, and other organ tissues. It is also a good source of fiber, calcium, and potassium.
Tart Cherries have been up and coming in the sports nutrition world as a recovery supplement. In fact, when I was in college we used to drink a Tart Cherry Juice with added protein after every weight lifting practice, and currently several collegiate athletic teams use tart cherry juice as a recovery beverage. Benefits are thought to come from anthocyanins, the pigment responsible for the dark red color of cherries. Research has associated anthocyanins with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and tart cherries have the highest concentration of the anthocyanins known to reduce inflammation. There is evidence that drinking tart cherry juice post workout can reduce inflammation and improve muscle recovery. In addition, one study found that drinking tart cherry concentrate may increase levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps maintain normal sleep rhythms, and improve sleep in healthy adults.
It is difficult to find in the average grocery store, although you can find dried tart cherries, which make a great addition to salad or trail mix.
Red Wine is everyone’s favorite “health food”. OK it’s not really a health food. But ever since the first large scale observational study, the Framingham study, found that people who drank moderately, 1-2 glasses of red wince per day, had a lower risk of heart disease, there has been interest. Specifically, a polyphenol called Resveratrol, found in the skins of grapes, has been isolated as the potential key compound in red wine that protects the heart. Some studies have been promising, but more research is needed to definitively conclude that resveratrol is the protective agent. In addition, the alcohol is also beneficial. Research has shown that moderate drinking of any type of alcohol (including beer and hard liquor) can help raise HDL cholesterol and reduce blood clotting. You can get resveratrol from red grapes, but there has been no study to determine if the health benefits are comparable to drinking red wine.
All of the foods (including the wine, in moderation) mentioned above are good for you of course, and will provide a nutritious addition to any healthful diet. Eating an adequate amount of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables has long been associated with lower cancer risk, although researchers have yet to successfully replicate that effect by supplementing individual nutrients. One study isolating beta carotene actually increased risk of cancer among the supplement group. To make a mid 90′s cartoon reference (or two), diet is much more like Captain Planet than Superman. There is no one “super” food, but the powers of quality protein, healthy fats, and plenty of nutrient rich fruits and vegetables combined will provide numerous health benefits, give you more energy, and make you a better athlete.
What is the Acai Berry and Are There Health Benefits?http://www.journals.elsevierhealth.com/periodicals/yjada/article/S0002-8223%2809%2901606-X/fulltext
Effects of Açai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.) berry preparation on metabolic parameters in a healthy overweight population: a pilot study.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21569436
The impact of garlic on lipid parameters: a systematic review and meta-analysis.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19555517
E Med TV: Garlic Drug Interactions http://heart-disease.emedtv.com/garlic/garlic-drug-interactions.html
Vegetables, fruits and phytoestrogens in the prevention of diseases.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15235216
Cherry Health and Cherry Nutrition http://www.choosecherries.com/health/main.aspx
Anthocyanins – More Than Just Nature’s Colorshttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1082903/
Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22038497
The Mayo Clinic: Resveratrol: Good for your heart? http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/red-wine/HB00089/
Or a better question: is it even worth it? This past Sunday I woke up feeling like crap – nausea, fever, chills, body ache (although I am not sure how much of that “ache” was symptoms versus doing Friday’s WOD followed by Oly Saturday morning) and spent most of the day in bed (like I left my bed at 5 pm). Monday was better, but I still had trouble eating and had no energy (maybe eating only 200 calories the day before wasn’t so helpful). Since it sounds like a few other people in the gym caught a similar bug, I figured nutrition during a bout of cold/flu was a timely discussion.
My diet those two days consisted of water, Gatorade, toast, saltines, a few bites of soup, a few bites of Mexican plate with chicken and rice, and in a last ditch effort to get calories in, a vanilla milkshake. Basically, as far from a paleo, whole foods diet as you could possibly get. But I really couldn’t care less. I don’t know what I would have eaten were I trying to be strict paleo. I’m sure I would have figured it out – maybe some broth, potentially a banana or some applesauce. But at that point I was more concerned about getting nutrients in without feeling worse, and worrying about a healthy diet when I was well. However, if you keep a pretty dedicated paleo diet and have a strategy for managing sick days, please share!
As for non paleo, the best foods to overcome an upset stomach (symptom numero uno of this little bug) are the BRAT diet:
These foods are good because they are binding (make poop firmer) and bland, helping to ease the stomach back into normal eating. The bananas also contain potassium, which can replace nutrients lost from vomiting or diarrhea, or just give you nutrients you’re not getting because you’re not eating very much. BRAT food work best when you are done with your symptoms, though – if you are still experiencing vomiting or diarrhea stick to liquids like water or Gatorade until you can keep solid food down. You can learn more about the BRAT diet from FamilyDoctor.org.
- Stay hydrated – water, electrolyte beverages, and EmergenC all work great.
- If your stomach is upset, stick to bland foods like this on the BRAT diet until you recover.
03 Dec 2014
I feel like the question “why do we need to put a label on it?” is the purview of commitment phobic men in romantic comedies or friends in a sitcom storyline who’ve wound up in the sack together a few times. But I’m starting to feel that way these days – about food. Enough people ask “hey are you still Paleo” or wonder if I’ve gone vegetarian because I’ve opted for the quinoa black bean salad instead of the steak and potatoes. Or maybe if you’ve lost a lot of weight recently, and everyone wants to know what “diet” you were on.
Here’s the thing though: why are we labeling it? Why do we need to be “paleo” or “vegan”. Because, want to know what my diet is? I’ll tell you:
- I eat oatmeal for breakfast. But sometimes I also eat bacon egg and cheese sandwiches from home, or the deli in my office, who makes the best ones around.
- I try to mostly eat vegetables, grass-fed or humanely raised meat, and avoid additives I’m not familiar with. I definitely eat organic meat and dairy, but draw the line at produce because shits expensive yo.
- I avoid grains, because diabetes is hard and I’ve found that’s the easiest way to control my weight. But sometimes I eat sushi and I have a soft sport for a good cheeseburger and fries.
- I love beer but I try to keep it to Saturdays (but sometimes it gets into Fridays or Tuesdays, too. Hey, happy hour with girlfriends happens).
So, how do you classify that diet? Am I 80/20 paleo? Am I flexitarian? Honestly, I don’t even know. What I know is, i have energy. I feel good when I stick to this basic template (and go easy on the cheeseburgers and beer). I’m happy with my weight. I don’t need to count calories. So why label it? I’m happy.
PS I think it’s the same with exercise. I wouldn’t say I’m a runner, or a CrossFitter. I’m certainly not a pole vaulter anymore (very sad sad face for that fact). I play tennis and golf occasionally, but I’m not a golfer or tennis player. What am I? Maybe I’m just active?
So what do you all think? Am I being the nutrition version of Barney Stinson, or do I have a point going here?
30 Nov 2014
So I know I’m not the one who normally talks about food, but I was browsing the interwebs and stumbled upon this article. It’s a pretty short and interesting read. I think we sometimes reject others’ perspective because of our preferences and preconceived biases. I challenge you to read this with an open mind, regardless of whether you adhere to the paleo diet/lifestyle or the “see-food” diet (like myself as of recently). I know that food is a pretty sensitive topic for most people, but we must realize that science is constantly changing our working knowledge of what, when and how we should eat for both general health & fitness and performance. Does this stir-up any visceral emotion/reaction in you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
05 Nov 2014
I started out writing about good calories vs. bad calories, until realizing that most of my blogs over the past year have had at least a little to do with weight loss. In the US, we’re so used to focusing on obesity and weight we sometimes forget there are other things to write about when it comes to nutrition and health. But I don’t want to be part of that problem, mainly because sometimes I’d like to read a Women’s Health article without having to select between “I’d like a FREE 20 week weight loss plan” and “I already have a bikini body”. So, this time I’m going a different direction, and addressing a question I’ve gotten from a couple of people: how to gain weight. Below are a couple of simple tips for gaining weight healthfully.
1. Add some fat (the good kind).
Fat is the most dense macronutrient at 9 calories per gram. Of course, fat is more filling, so too much of it can be counter productive. Still, try to up your fat content where you can. Whole or 2% instead of skim milk (organic/grass-fed, of course), nuts, nut butters, a little extra olive soil, avocados, some salmon, etc. The salmon (and other omega-3’s) have the added bonus of helping to counteract some of the inflammation from training.
2. Embrace the starchy carbs.
This one is going to be the key. Nobody puts on weight eating paleo unless putting on weight is something they do fairly easily. A lot of people have cut out or reduced grains in order to lose weight and improve their health but guess what? If you want gains, you should do the opposite! Grains like rice and pasta will add calories to your meals without being too filling, and more calories generally = more weight gain. Keep in mind that you still want to avoid junk like overly processed bread, cookies, crackers, etc. And of course, it’s still good to keep up variety and shoot for whole grains the majority of the time. There are lots of great ancient grains to try too, like farro, quinoa, and wild rices. See the end of the post for a great farro recipe I just made this week.
3. Pair your starch with protein, fiber, and fat.
Starchy, higher carbohydrate foods can lead to blood sugar highs and lows, which are associated with insulin resistance and diabetes. Paring starches like rice with meat, nuts, vegetables, or healthy fats is a good way to keep your blood sugar stable.
4. Keep eating your vegetables.
Putting on some extra weight shouldn’t come at the sacrifice of long term health. Keep adding green, purple, orange, and red things to your foods. Vegetables are great sources of all sorts of vitamins and minerals your body needs.
Farro With Squash and Kale Recipe
I can thank Pinterest for this one. Courtesy of Love and Olive Oil
15 Oct 2014
Do you eat food? Do you want to get stronger? Good, then I should see you tonight!
At 7:30 pm (after the 6:30 class) I will be covering what you need to know to optimize your strength gains and performance. Topics include:
- The Macros (A Quick Review)
- Strength Training & Your Body – the role of glycogen
- Eating before, during, and after workouts – checklist of qualities
- Suggested Options – examples of whole foods and products you can try before, during, and after workouts
- Real world examples – we’ll do some calculations that will help us get comfortable calculating our dietary needs around workouts
- Supplements – which ones do you need?
- A look at the evidence on caffeine use and performance
- Other Lifestyle Factors
Dan from RacePak will also be joining us with some free samples of products you can use before, during, and after a workout.
Here is the condensed info:
Fuel For Strength: Nutrition Strategies for Strength and Performance
Where: CrossFit Boston 114 Western Ave; Allston, MA
When: Wednesday, October 15th 2014 at 7:30 pm
Cost: Free for strength challenge participants or $12
There will be a sign in sheet at the door, or you can REGISTER HERE.
01 Oct 2014
One of the more popular food tips out there these days is “shop the perimeter of the grocery store”. This makes sense on some level – most of the meat, vegetables, and dairy are on the perimeter of the store, while the not so great stuff like Cheez-Its, Oreos, boxed rice, canned soup, and additive riddled salad dressing are all in the aisles. But if you’ve read this blog before, you know nothing irritates me more than a nutrition platitude (like “drink 8 glasses of water a day” or “only eat the most colorful foods”, but I can go into why those are wrong another time), so I’m going to go ahead and debunk this one for two reasons:
1. There’s healthy stuff in the aisles
Now, I realize that the aisles are full of junk, and really the intended benefit of the “shop the perimeter” advice is to help shoppers get what they need without being tempted by what they don’t. But you can get to a lot of good stuff on the inside without walking past 18 flavors of Doritos and 10 different Oreo variations. Why? Well, usually the healthy stuff is down slightly less tempting aisles than the cookie/cracker and chip aisle. For example, coffee, tea, and nut butters are in the cereal aisle. Canned tuna is near the condiments and pickles. Olive oil is in the aisle with pasta and sauce. Beans are with canned vegetables. Usually last minute grab purchases are on the snack aisles (I have never passed a box of Barilla penne, canned string beans, or mayonnaise and thought “OOH that looks delicious I must buy it right now!” as I have done with Stacy’s Pita Chips or Ginger Snaps, or those sneaky chocolate covered everythings at Trader Joe’s). The point is, there is convenient, healthy stuff on the inside if you know where to find it.
2. There’s unhealthy stuff in the perimeter
Now, if you compared all things perimeter to all things aisle you’d probably win. But if I shop the perimeter at my local Star Market (the one in Porter Square), I can still buy:
- Fried chicken
- White baguette
- Tortilla chips
- French onion dip
- Flavored dairy creamer
- Cranberry cheese log
- Caramel dip for fruit
And, if we were in a state that doesn’t have silly laws about selling beer in the grocer store (or frequent Trader Joe’s), you’d also find beer on the perimeter. Now, I don’t remember this always being the case, so my guess is the food industry caught on to this little trend and started trying to tempt you out in the perimeter too. Either way, my point is this: sticking to the perimeter doesn’t remove temptation. And it’s not guaranteed that everything there is better for you.
The hands down BEST way to walk into the grocery store and walk out with bags full of healthy loot is to do the following:
1. Plan ahead – think of what you’d like to eat for the meals and snacks in the days between this and the next grocery shopping day.
2. Make a list of everything you need. Now, it’s fine if you just write “fruit” or “salad greens” and decide which kind at the store. It’s unlikely you’ll be standing in the produce section and find an unhealthy type of salad green. But if you just write “snacks” and wander down the snack aisle…well that’s another story.
3. Start with the stuff that takes deciding. For me this is usually the produce and anything that requires label reading. I find that patience runs low by the end of the grocery trip, and I like to just knock the last row of items off my list quickly without having to read 8 salad dressing labels (before deciding to google a recipe and make my own anyway). If you’re losing patience and have to read a lot of labels, it’s more likely you just pick up the first thing that looks good.
4. When you list is done, don’t think. Go pay the cashier and get out!
What’s your grocery shopping strategy?