Dairy for Athletes

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If you took a look in my refrigerator, you’d see Friendship cottage cheese, Stonyfield Farms yogurt, organic milk, Cabot cheese, Laughing Cow light cheese and various other dairy products.  The four brands mentioned are among my all time favorite brands for both taste and nutrition value. Because I don’t eat chicken or turkey every day, I choose to get a good bit of the protein I need (and vitamins and minerals) from dairy foods. And, there’s no shortage of research telling me that I’m making a smart move.

Dairy products are jam packed with two of the best sources of protein for muscle, whey and casein, plus vitamins and minerals. Some are also loaded with probiotics, the healthy bacteria that keep your immune system running well and improve some symptoms of gastrointestinal upset (yogurt, kefir, Yakult, Bio-K are good bets). Studies tell me that cereal + milk is as effective as traditional sports drinks for recovery, chocolate milk is great for recovery and casein (cottage cheese is a great source) and whey (milk, protein powders) are fantastic for building muscle and decreasing body fat.

So why do so many people skimp on dairy? Some do so because they are worried about lactose. However, a recent NIH Consensus Development Conference on Lactose Intolerance and Health came to the following conclusions (after thoroughly looking through the literature):

  • Without milk and milk products, it’s tough to meet nutrient needs (such as calcium, vitamin D and potassium)
  • People with lactose intolerance can tolerate at least 12 grams of lactose (that’s one cup of milk)
  • Gradually reintroducing dairy to the diet can help people with lactose intolerance manage their symptoms better
  • If you are lactose intolerant, choose small doses and incorporate cheese (which is relatively low in lactose; especially hard cheese which has very little lactose) into your diet. You can also try lactose free milk.

If you want to build a strong body from the inside out, choose dairy. The protein will satiate your appetite and build muscle tissue. The calcium and vitamin D will build your bones and teeth, keep your immune system running strong, and help with nerve transmission and muscular contractions (calcium does this). Dairy is one of nature’s most perfect foods for athletes.

Red Wine, Good for Muscle?

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Organic grapes and wine in Tuscany

After a conversation I had with a colleague in Italy, I began to wonder if there really was something special about the compound resveratrol, found in the skin of grapes and red wine. Resveratrol serves an important function in grapes helping protect this fruit from invasion by bacteria and fungi. And, my colleague said they consider resveratrol an anti-aging compound and one of the reasons people in Southern Italy have beautiful skin despite significant sun exposure.  If resveratrol can protect skin cells, can it slow down the aging process in other cells and potentially benefit muscle tissue?

Studies in mice show that resveratrol can slow down the aging process and enhance motor coordination in older mice. In addition, mice on a high fat diet supplemented with resveratrol didn’t gain as much weight, ran further on the treadmill and lived longer than the group of control mice. Resveratrol may work, in part, by boosting enzyme activity in the mitochondria (power house) of muscle cells.

Though there are a few promising studies in mice, it’s way to early to start popping resveratrol pills in hopes of waking up one day looking 10 years younger and running a PR. However, you can include natural sources of this compound in your diet by consuming grapes, red wine (in moderation), Concord grape juice, peanuts, blueberries, bilberries and cranberries. Just like wine varies in taste based on the grapes used, region it was produced in and climate conditions, resveratrol content also varies based on some environmental factors.

Inflammation Limits Muscle Strength & Strength Gains

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There are a number of studies that show the best way to produce muscle soreness and inflammation is through eccentric contractions (muscle lengthening; a good example is lowering a dumbbell after a set of biceps curls).  And some soreness is natural, after all, you have to challenge your muscle tissue to get stronger and bigger. But, excess inflammation can limit your strength and strength gains in the weight room.

A study from the Netherlands looked at low grade inflammation and muscle mass and strength in older persons. There are changes in muscle tissue and a decrease in muscle strength gains from exercise in the elderly (Sarcopenia). But, this study outlined one of the potential contributing causes: chronic, low grade inflammation. They examined changes in thigh muscle area over a 5 year period in 2,177 men and women and found that greater levels of inflammatory markers (IL-6, C-reactive protein, TNF-alpha) were associated with a greater decline in muscle thigh area. In addition, higher levels of one marker of inflammation, TNF-alpha, were associated with a decline in grip strength.

In another study scientists found that reducing low grade inflammation (through ibuprofen) blunted muscle mass loss in older rats in comparison to a control group of rats.

Collectively, these studies (and others) show that chronic inflammation is related to decreases in strength and muscle mass gains from exercise. Though I don’t recommend taking ibuprofen for long periods of time but, there are other diet measures a person can take to blunt the inflammatory response.  An anti-inflammatory diet should include fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, halibut, lake trout, sardines) or omega 3 fats from fish oil (EPA and DHA), dark colorful fruits and vegetables (especially those with deep red, purple and blue colors – these are rich in anthocyanins), herbs and spices, healthy fats (nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil, expeller-pressed canola oil) and other foods loaded with antioxidant compounds (aged vinegar, black, white, green and oolong tea, dark chocolate).

When you think about muscle tissue, most people thing about protein, amino acids and creatine. And, all of these can help boost strength and size if taken with a good training program. But, if you really want to improve your health, blunt inflammation and maximize muscle strength and strength gains, eat a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods.

Female Athlete Gains Weight, Performs Better?

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Certain sports are known for their emphasis on weight – long distance running, skating, gymnastics and cheerleading to name a few.  And it’s tough to convince many young females that they actually need to eat more and possibly even work on gaining weight for better athletic performance.

So when I read a New York Times story about American ice dancer Tanith Belbin I was impressed with her and her coach. Belbin’s coach Natalia Linichuk convinced the ice dancer that 10 pounds of muscle would help her perform better on the ice.  In a world where thin is in and disordered eating is common, Belbin is an excellent role model for young female athletes who struggle with their body image and disordered eating. Yes, she is still slim for her size but her BMI is in a healthy range and given that she is happy about her stronger body, Belbin has gotten over the mindset that she must be ultra thin to be competitive.

I’ve seen some female athletes compete very well at a very low weight (or even with a full blown eating disorder). But, it always catches up to them.  Performance drops, they end up with stress fractures or other injuries, get sick or a combination of these things happen.  Whatever the reason may be, I’ve never seen a female athlete who can maintain their performance and health at an unhealthy weight and with disordered eating or an eating disorder.

What Most Women are Missing from Their Diet

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I love playing detective and sitting down with clients and figuring out what their diet is missing, what they are consuming too much of and helping them shift their food and supplement intake to meet their goals. But when it comes to women, I can sit down, look at their 3-day diet record and over 90% of the time I see the same pattern. Athletes or non-athletes, most of these women fall short on the following nutrients: protein, heart-healthy fats, calcium, vitamin D and iron.

  • Protein – why are women short on protein? Because many prefer carbohydrates, sweets and pre-packaged carb snacks. And I am right there with them.  I’d rather eat good bread than poultry, meat, fish or a pseudo-meat product. But I know better. I know that too much carbohydrate at one meal is the surest route to falling asleep on my keyboard. And if I want to keep every ounce of muscle tissue I have and gain strength, protein at every meal is a must. Plus, protein keeps you full for a longer period of time. So what do you do if you tend to fall into the carbo-lovers category? Find protein foods you like and try new dishes. I know what protein-rich foods I like and I stick with them and keep them in my refrigerator and freezer. Plus, I consume good quantities of whey protein. Its convenient, portable and one of the best types for athletes or those women who are training.
  • Fat – there seems to be some fat-phobia left over from the 90s or possibly the calorie-rationing theory at work here. Calorie -rationing (aka points rationing for those  on Weight Watchers) works like this: “I have 200 calories I can eat at this snack so rather than blow it on a tiny serving of nuts, I’ll consume crackers or a bagel.” Skimp on fat and you’ll end up hungry with dry skin. Plus good fats are necessary for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, hormone production, a healthy brain, heart, and keeping inflammation at bay. Nuts, seeds, nut butters, fatty fish, oils – are all great choices.
  • Calcium & Vitamin D – take one look at my fridge and you’ll see dairy in every form possible – cheese, milk, yogurt, Greek yogurt… I have yet to hear  a valid reason for skimping on dairy intake. Milk is basically the star of vitamin D (unless you want to bake in the sun without sunscreen – great recipe for bad skin).  If you want calcium and vitamin D (and trust me, you do), consume milk, milk products fortified with vitamin D or whey shakes with D and calcium. If you don’t, go get your vitamin D tested asap (especially if your skin is dark, you use sunscreen or you are over the age of 60).
  • Iron – Yes, leafy greens contain iron. So does my all time favorite cereal – cream of wheat. But, you won’t absorb much iron from plant foods, grains etc. (the iron is a different form than the kind in meat).  If you like red meat, eat it once a week. If not, choose dark turkey or chicken every once in a while. If you are a vegetarian, (especially a vegan), load up on plant based sources of iron and get your iron checked the next time you go to the doctor.

I’m waiting for my next female client who breaks this pattern by consuming 20-30 grams of protein at a meal, isn’t fat phobic, consumes dairy and somehow, some way gets their iron .

Eat Right for a Healthy Heart

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Today is National Wear Red Day to raise awareness of heart disease in women. Heart disease is the number one cause of death and disability in both men and women in the United States and in many other westernized countries. In fact, it kills more women than the next five causes of death combined.

What can you do to prevent heart disease and stroke?  The top 5 steps you can take to prevent heart disease are:

1) Eat a heart healthy diet.

  • Avoid all manmade trans fatty acids (partially hydrogenated oils) and choose fats that are liquid at room temperature (oils), nuts, seeds, avocados and olives.
  • Choose a diet rich in fruits and vegetables which contain an array of antioxidants, fiber and vitamins and minerals.
  • Consume less than 1,500 mg sodium per day if you have high blood pressure.
  • Drink in moderation. That means a maximum of 1 alcoholic drink per day for women and 2 for men. If you don’t drink, don’t start.
  • Cut down on the refined carbohydrates in your diet – especially if you have type 2 diabetes.

2) Don’t Smoke, Dip, Chew Tobacco

3) Maintain a Healthy Weight

4) Exercise Several Days Per Week

5) Take Charge of Your Health.

  • Get health screenings including blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose regularly.
  • Be pro-active and make dietary changes even if you are on medicine to help lower your blood sugar, blood pressure or blood lipids.

And for all the women out there, know the warning signs and symptoms of heart disease and stroke which may include indigestion, sleep disturbances, weakness in the arms, discomfort in the jaw, shoulder, neck or upper back, shortness of breath, sweating, lightheadedness or dizziness, unusual fatigue, chest pain (though not all women experience chest pain).

Lastly, do your part and spread the word to raise awareness of heart disease in women. Tell your sisters, moms, aunts, daughters, friends and coworkers. Get them out there exercising, encourage them to maintain a healthy weight and eat a heart healthy diet and lend support when they need it. Be a role model and a friend.

Stay Strong, Play On: National Girls & Women in Sports Day

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Celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day by encouraging your daughters, sisters, nieces and every young girl in your life to participate in a sport they love.

As a kid I was very lucky, my father took the 3 of us kids to see minor league baseball, the King and His Court (a traveling 4-man fastpitch softball team with a history that dates back to WW2), Georgetown & American University women’s basketball, women’s softball, ice hockey and many more sporting events. I enjoyed every moment from the time I was 4 and asking minor league ball players for a signed baseball to the time I played on the very field in Washington, DC that the King’s team and some of the best female softball players played on.
Sports gave me direction, college scholarships, and more opportunities than I can possibly list here.  I took to track & field by age 5 and later softball, basketball and soccer.  I was fairly shy (hey at least I spoke, unlike my sister at that age 😉 but very comfortable and confident when I stepped onto the field, court or a track.  I learned many lessons about teamwork, winning, disappointment and working hard to earn my playing time. I stepped on an airplane for the first time (for a summer travel softball team trip to AZ – where we ended up playing Lisa Fernandez’s team) and later learned to juggle college classes, practice, road trips and injuries.

I’ve been so fortunate for the opportunities participating in sports gave me and the lessons learned that I still use today. I hope to pass those lessons on to other young girls and create more opportunities for females to participate. To get more involved, check out the National Women & Girls in Sports events across the country and, don’t forget to encourage the young girls in your life!

For Events across the country and an outstanding video put together by Ann Gaffigan, check out this page.

The New Milk: from Cows infused with genetically modified SDA-rich Soybean Oil

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Last week I watched King Corn, a documentary about the corn industry. The worst part of it was watching the gut of the cow process corn – something that is not only unnatural for cows but dangerous. They have to give them antibiotics so they can feed them corn and then slaughter them at the right time or the cows will die from being force fed corn to make them fat.

Equally disturbing to me was an abstract I just read from the Journal of Dairy Science. In this particular study, they infused the guts of the cows with SDA soybean oil. SDA soybean oil is a product of biotechnology. Monsanto Company took soybeans and made them rich in stearidonic acid through genetic modification (SDA is an omega 3 fat; yet not all omega 3s are created equally; SDA must be broken down by an enzyme in our body to two of the most heart health omega 3 fats – EPA and DHA and the conversion rate is not very high).

Though this study worked- i.e. the milk produced from these cows was 5x higher in omega 3s than normal cow milk, they really had to put those cows through a lot (abomasal infusion) for more human consumption of omega 3 fatty acids.

I’m in favor of functional foods and write about them often. However, I’m not a fan of force feeding an animal foods that are bad for their health or infusing genetically modified oils into their gut for the sake of omega-3 enriched milk. Pop an omega-3 capsule, eat fatty fish or consume a functional food created a little more naturally – through omega 3 fortification.

Suppress Your Appetite with Citicoline

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I’m the first person to admit that I find most types of shopping a chore, not a pastime. So, I often stick to certain brands of clothes, running shoes, and of course sports nutrition products and dietary supplements.  I am brand loyal mainly because  I want something that is convenient and works.

So when Kyowa Hakko, a company known for basing their products on science and testing the finished product, came out with Cognizin citicoline, I had to give it a shot.  Citicoline is CDP choline and choline is a precursor to a neurotransmitter that controls memory, muscle function and other actions. It may also decrease certain measures of inflammation such as homocysteine.

Supplemental citicoline may help with memory and brain function. And, interestingly enough, a recent study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders found that it may also affect the area of the brain responsible for appetite. In this study, scientists gave 16 subjects either 500 mg/day or 2,000 mg/day Cognizin citicoline for six weeks.  Both groups showed a decrease in appetite ratings and the group given 2,000 mg/day showed significant changes in brain response to images of high calorie foods (as measured by magnetic resonance imaging). The scientists found  a direct relationship between activation of the appetite control centers of the brain and a decline in appetite for high calorie foods.

Research has yet to elucidate exactly how citicoline may impact the appetite centers of the brain but, this research is promising, especially considering the ever-growing obesity issue.  As I see it, there are a 2 components that control our food intake: 1) appetite (physiological hunger and satiety), 2) desire to eat (for whatever reason including boredom, depression, anxiety, we know we need calories, you just like the taste of chocolate cake etc.).  If we control both of these well and make healthy food choices, we’ll maintain a healthy weight. And, citicoline may help with the former of the two.  Behavioral control (a concept called Intuitive Eating) can fix the the desire to eat part.

Does Your Food Contain More Calories the Food Label Indicates?

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If you rely on counting calories on your food labels and restaurant menus, you may be getting more calories than you bargained for according to a study published in this month’s Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Tufts University researchers examined the accuracy of labels and nutrition facts information on 29 reduced-energy restaurant foods and 10 frozen meals purchased from grocery stores. Total calorie content from the quick-serve and sit-down restaurants averaged 18% more than what was listed on the restaurants nutrition facts. What’s really disturbing though was that there was a large range that averaged out to that 18%.  Some individual restaurant items contained up to 200% more than their stated calorie level and with the free side dishes (which some restaurants don’t count in their nutrition facts), these meals contained up to 245% more calories than what was listed.

It’s frozen food month and overall, the frozen meals fared much better – they came in at an average of 8% more calories than what was stated on the nutrition facts panel.

If you are red hot mad and blaming your favorite restaurant for your lack of weight loss progress, hold on just a minute and think about logical this data is.  Frozen foods stuffed into a small piece of plastic and slightly larger box are fairly consistent on portion sizes and preparation (thanks to the consistency of machines).  However, restaurant chefs and cooks like to make people happy and happiness to them involves butter, grease and yet another tablespoon of dressing.

So, if you eat out but want to watch your waistline, ask how the food is prepared or request that it is prepared a certain way. Oh, and share those meals that are large enough to 2-3 people.