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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.

6828593967_5b72d1e0f9_zAcai 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.

4505297355_886bc13511_zKale 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.

Sources

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/

Photo 1 c/o Eli Duke  Photo 2 c/o Elana Amsterdam Feature image c/o Brian Garrett 

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: 

  • Banana
  • Rice
  • Applesauce
  • Toast 

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

So Basically….

  • 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.

Photo c/o Jes (Mugley)

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? 

 

Photo c/o Bryan Kennedy 

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.

http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/palaeolithic-diet-and-unprovable-links-our-past

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

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 11.28.11 AM

Photo c/o Paola Kizette Cimenti

15 Oct 2014

Fuel for Strength Seminar TONIGHT

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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

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 chicken2369726343_483ab16539_z
  • 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.

My Advice

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? 

 

Image c/o I-5 Design Image 2 c/o Sea Turtle

54062182It is only the third week of September, and yet so far I have seen the Pumpkin Spice Latte return early, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin beer… you get the idea. And don’t get me wrong, I like pumpkin thinks – pumpkin pie is a classic Thanksgiving staple, pumpkin beer is one of my favorite parts of fall (although if you guys could wait until it was actually a little cool, that would be great -I do not want to drink pumpkin beer in a sundress. End rant), and pumpkin seeds toasted with a little bit of salt and cinnamon are the best fall snack. And pumpkin is pretty good for you, as it is:

  • High in key vitamins like vitamin A, C, and B complex
  • Low in calories and fat but high in fiber and antioxidants
  • Rich in minerals the body needs like copper, calcium, potassium, and phosphorous
  • Seeds are a good source of heart healthy fats
  • Seeds are also high in zinc (important for wound healing and immune system strength) and iron

Pumpkin Spice V. Pumpkin

The thing about pumpkin is, it’s not all that delicious raw. It usually needs some salt, sage, or other herb, or on the flip side some cinnamon, sugar, and/or pumpkin pie spice, which is made of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice to make all the delicious pumpkin-y things we love. Which is totally fine – I have no problem with pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, or roasted pumpkin because they actually CONTAIN PUMPKIN.

Pumpkins!

 

My philosophical beef is with the pumpkin posers – most importantly the Starbucks “pumpkin spice latte”. The PSL contains espresso, steamed milk, whipped cream, pumpkin pie spices atop that whipped cream, and pumpkin coffee syrup, which contains pure cane sugar, water, natural flavors, citric acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate (to preserve freshness), and caramel color. Of course I don’t know what these “natural flavors” are, other than that natural flavors are generally any product of or derived from spices, herbs, vegetables and other things found in nature. So, the only pumpkin thing about the PSL is the pumpkin pie spice on top of the whipped cream, and maybe some derivative of pumpkin or pumpkin pie spices hiding under that “natural flavors” moniker. The PSL is also 380 calories and 49 grams of sugar for a 16 ounce serving. Ouch. 

As for pumpkin beer, that’s somewhat in the gray area. According to Beer Advocate, some brewers hand cut pumpkin and drop it in the mash, or use pureed pumpkin, and most brewers use the pumpkin pie spices. It seems other brewers may opt for flavorings instead of real pumpkin. 

Get Your Pumpkin On The Right Way

There are lots of delicious and healthy things to make with pumpkin. I have a pumpkin soup recipe that I love making every year. There is a whole Pinterest thread dedicated to paleo/primal things one can make with pumpkin, and as a bonus, roasting the seeds after you’ve used the rest of the pumpkin makes a very tasty snack (there are too many great recipe variations to link to just one, so Google it yourself). Just remember:

  • Make it with a real pumpkin
  • Avoid adding too much sugar

What pumpkin-y things do you like to make?

Photo 2 c/o Jeremy Seitz

17 Sep 2014

It’s Chili Time!

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IMG_0507I’m generally a little sad this time of year, as summer and warm weather turns to crisp mornings and changing leaves. But there are enough things about fall that I love to help me get by. Chili is one of those things. I love my mom’s chili as a kid, I loved when she made a whole batch, froze it, and drove it to Gainesville on track meet weekends to put in my freezer. And now I love having a meal that, while a bit laborious, gives me lunches and dinners for days. 

A few great thing about home-made chili:

  • All those vegetables! My pot of chili has 5 bell peppers of varying colors, 4 hot picstitchpeppers, 2 onions, as well as a bunch of tomatoes in different forms (sauce, salsa). 
  • Iron – chili is generally made with red meat (we made ours with grass-fed beef, but you can also use bison, humanely raised sausage, venison, etc). Most red meat has iron, a component of hemoglobin, which is responsible for transportation of oxygen throughout the body. 
  • It makes your house smell awesome – I don’t think I need to explain this.
  • It’s super adaptable – in its normal state, chili is basically paleo. But it’s easy to adapt for vegetarians, vegans, those avoiding red meat (just add turkey), etc.

How do you make your chili?

Patrick and I made chili last night, using his recipe, which I’ve posted on my Wicked Good Nutrition Blog. Lots of vegetable chopping but totally worth it!

How do you make your chili? Post your recipes!

55928950_6a535def18_zI’ve heard a couple of people over the past few years talk about cutting out carbs and sugar to such an extent that even the usually neutral fruit was eliminated. I’ve heard people reference bananas and grapes as “very high in sugar”, and something to be avoided. Now we all know sugar is the opposite of awesome for you and that cutting back on carbs and sugar can produce weight loss. But do you really need to cut the bananas to achieve or keep a healthy body?

 

Fruit vs. The Rest Of ‘Em

There is a fundamental difference between the sugar in fruit from the sugar in grains, baked goods, and sweetened beverages: FIBER. Yep, that fiber – the “gluten free” of the 1990’s. The thing is, fiber (along with protein and fat) modulates the rise in blood sugar following the consumption of sugar. (If you don’t recall the glycemic index, this should refresh your memory). Basically ,eating sugar alongside fiber slows the uptake of sugar by the body, thus lessening the insulin required to deal with it all at once. That burst of insulin needed to deal with the flood of sugar is what leads to insulin resistance. 

There is also the point that the sugar in fruit is 100% natural and not added in or processed in any way.

photo-2The bottom line is, human beings still need carbohydrates to survive (yes, I know some people can function in ketosis. But that’s a lot of work and sounds pretty miserable to me. Right now I am talking to the 99% of people at the gym who want to be healthy without going bananas – pun intended). And whole foods like fruit, starchy vegetables, and the occasional unprocessed whole grain or plain dairy product can be a great source of those needed carbohydrates. Bananas make a pre WOD breakfast, grapes and watermelon are deliciously hydrating after a workout, and I find apple (with a little PB added) to make a satisfying snack. (Side note: I have warned about eating too much fiber before a workout in the past. The beauty of fruit is that while it has some fiber, it doesn’t have as much as green vegetables or fortified cereals or bars, so most people can generally eat some within 30 minutes of a workout and not experience any discomfort). Although, obviously, I wouldn’t recommend eating 10 bananas at the same time. 

So basically – keep eating fruit guilt free. It’s almost peach season. 

What are your thoughts on fruit? 

Photo 1 c/o Chuan Chew


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