10 Superfoods for Better Health and More Energy

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Superfoods are full of good nutrition. They are important for health and well-being. Everyone knows about salmon for heart and muscle health and blueberries for your brain. So I skipped over these and included 10 other foods you should include in your diet:

Kefir

Kefir is a tangy cultured milk product made by fermenting milk with several bacteria and yeasts. Kefir tops the list of superfoods because it is rich in beneficial bacteria called probiotics. Probiotics are good for gut and immune health. Kefir is an excellence source of calcium and vitamin D for bone health and several B vitamins (your energy vitamins). Opt for plain kefir or mix a little flavored kefir (generally high in added sugars) with plain kefir for great taste but less sugar. If you are lactose intolerant kefir is easier on the stomach because enzymes in the bacteria help break down lactose.

Other Options: Though most yogurts don’t contain the wide variety and number of probiotics as kefir, they are a great option as well. Other probiotic-rich foods include: unpasteurized sauerkraut, miso soup, naturally fermented pickles, and good quality sourdough bread.

Beets

Beets come in brilliant shades of dark red, yellow and orange and have a nice sweet earthy flavor. They are a good source of potassium for nerve and muscle functioning as well as healthy blood pressure. Beets are also a good source of vitamin C and fiber. Beets have more nitrates than most other foods. Nitrates help the body make nitric oxide, a gas that expands blood vessels to make room for greater blood flow. Regular intake of high nitrate foods can help lower blood pressure and improve blood vessel functioning. If you drink 16 oz. of beetroot juice (containing 300-500 mg of nitrates) 2.5 – 3 hours before you hit the gym, you may notice a bump in energy thanks to greater blood flow to working muscles. There’s one caveat: antibacterial mouthwash kills the good bacteria in your mouth. This bacteria is needed for the first step in nitric oxide production. Some research suggests antibacterial mouthwash may increase blood pressure and raise heart disease risk.

Other Options: Celery, argula, spinach are good sources of nitrates.

Ginger

Ginger soothes an upset stomach and helps ease symptoms of motion sickness. Make ginger a regular part of your diet and you’ll also benefit from its ability to decrease muscle soreness after tough bouts of exercise.

Other options: Combat excess muscle soreness with tart cherry juice.

Sunflower seeds

One serving of sunflower seeds will help you meet one-half of your daily vitamin E needs – a nutrient that most Americans aren’t consuming in recommended amounts. Vitamin E protects your cell membranes (including muscle cells) from damage, supports immune functioning and helps expand blood vessels to accommodate greater blood flow. Vitamin E deprived muscle cell membranes do not heal properly yet a healthy balance is important. Get enough, but not too much, of this vitamin as both deficiency and excess may impair your training gains. Plus, more than recommended amounts will not improve athletic performance.

Other Options: Snack on almonds, pine nuts, and peanuts to help you meet your vitamin E needs.

Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds are one of the best sources of magnesium, a mineral that is so widely under-consumed. Magnesium keeps muscles and nerves functioning properly and is also necessary for your body to produce energy. Pumpkin seeds are also an excellent source of zinc, a mineral important for immune health and wound healing.

Other options: Sesame seeds and Brazil nuts are also excellent sources of magnesium. For a magnesium-packed meal, brush firm tofu (also a source of magnesium) with sesame oil and coat with sesame seeds before stir-frying.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is a staple in Italy and Spain where the Mediterranean Diet is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and improved brain health. Replacing dietary saturated fats, such as butter or shortening, with olive oil may help reduce risk of coronary heart disease. Replacing other cooking oils with olive oil may help lower blood pressure and improve blood cholesterol. Use olive oil in moderation, because it is high in calories. There are some sketchy companies out there who mix cheaper quality oils with olive oil to lower their costs. Make sure you’re getting good quality olive oil by looking for a seal of approval from the USDA Quality Monitoring Program or the North American Olive Oil Association (NOOA).

Other Options: For baking, cooking, stirfrying and other high heat cooking, consider almond, hazelnut, peanut, or pecan oil.

Garlic

Garlic adds favor without calories. When used in a marinade or added to beef, fish, chicken or turkey patties, garlic helps limit the formation of nasty compounds that cause cancer in animals, heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs are formed when your protein-rich food is cooked. High dry heat leads to more HCAs formed so make sure you add garlic to any meat, poultry or fish you throw on the grill or in the smoker.

Other Options: Rosemary and Caribbean spices also decrease HCA formation.

Dark Chocolate, one of the Ultimate Superfoods?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could bite into a rich, smooth, dark piece of chocolate with complete confidence that you were doing something good for your body? Dark chocolate is made from cocoa powder – the defatted powder from cacao beans. Cocoa powder contains flavanols, a group of antioxidants responsible for the association between dark chocolate and lower blood pressure. Unfortunately you can’t rely on the percentage of cocoa or cacao in a bar as an indicator of total flavanol content. Here’s your best option for  getting that dark chocolate taste you are craving and health benefits as well.

Tempeh

In your local grocery store, tucked in a remote refrigerator between tofu and non-dairy “cheese,” you’ll find long, thin light brown colored sheets of tempeh. Tempeh is fermented soybeans. Unlike tofu, tempeh includes the whole soybean so it is higher in protein, fiber, and vitamins. Tempeh is also an excellent source of iron (for oxygen delivery throughout your body), magnesium and vitamin B-6 (an energy vitamin) and good source of calcium.

Tempeh has a firm, chewy texture and slightly earthy, bean-like taste. Replace deli meat with tempeh, try it sautéed in sesame oil and garlic, grilled or served on top of salad.

Other options: Pick up plan or flavored tofu.

Green peas

Green peas are so ordinary. Why did I add them to the list of superfoods? Green peas are an excellent source of fiber and vitamin C, good source of vitamin A (important for your eyes and a “nutrient of concern”) and also contain decent amount of magnesium, vitamin B6, folate (a “nutrient of concern,” folate helps build healthy new cells and prevents some birth defects) and iron. Look for pea protein in bars and protein powders. It boosts a leucine (the key amino acid that turns on muscle building and repair) content equivalent to whey protein and will give you the same muscle-building results as whey protein.

Try peas in multiple forms including pea protein powder, split pea soup and peas mixed into burritos, wraps, in other dishes. Add peas to your rice pilaf, pasta dish, casserole, or stew.

Other Options: Consider yellow whole or split peas. They have a similar nutrition profile to green peas.

Superfoods add vitamins, minerals, fiber and plant compounds important for good health. They support your daily energy needs while improving your overall health.

References

Balk E, Chung M, Lichtenstein A, et al. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Intermediate Markers of Cardiovascular Disease. Summary, Evidence Report/Technology Assessment: Number 93. AHRQ Publication Number 04-E010-1, March 2004. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.

Kromhout D, Bosschieter EB, de Lezenne Coulander C. The inverse relation between fish consumption and 20-year mortality from coronary heart disease. N Engl J Med 1985;312:1205–1209.

Kromhout D, Feskens EJ, Bowles CH. The protective effect of a small amount of fish on coronary heart disease mortality in an elderly population. Int J Epidemiol 1995;24:340–345.

Mozaffarian D, Rimm EB. Fish intake, contaminants, and human health: evaluating the risks and the benefits. JAMA 2006;296(15):1885-99.

Ahmet I, Spangler E, Shukitt-Hale B, et al. Blueberry-enriched diet protects rat heart from ischemic damage. PLoS One. 2009; 4: e5954. PloS ONE 2009, 4:e5954.

Malin DH, Lee DR, Goyarzu P, Chang Y, Ennis LJ, Beckett E, Shukitt-Hale B, Joseph JA. Short-term blueberry-enriched diet prevents and reverses object recognition memory loss in aging rats. Nutr 2011;27:338-342.

Krikorian R, Shidler MD, Nash TA, et al. Blueberry supplementation improves memory in older adults. J Agric Food Chem 2010, 58:3996-4000.

Davis C, Bryan J, Hodgson J, Murphy K. Definition of the Mediterranean Diet; a Literature Review. Nutrients 2015;7(11):9139-53.

Food Labeling, Summary of Qualified Health Claims Subject to Enforcement Discretion. Food and Drug Administration.

Fernandez-Janne E et al. Risk of first non-fatal myocardial infarction negatively associated with olive oil consumption: a case-control study in Spain. Int J Epidemiol. 2002 Apr;31(2):474-80.

Rozati M, Barnett J, Wu D et al. Cardio-metabolic and immunological impacts of extra virgin olive oil consumption in overweight and obese older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Nutr Metab 2015,12:28.

Grassi D, Necozione S, Lippi C, et al. Cocoa reduces blood pressure and insulin resistance and improves endothelium-dependent vasodilation in hypertensives. Hypertension 2005, 46(2):398-405.

Hooper L, Kroon PA, Rimm EB, et al. Flavonoids, flavonoid-rich foods, and cardiovascular risk: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88(1):38-50.

Mastroiacovo D, Kwik-Uribe C, Grassi D et al. Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study—a randomized controlled trial.. Am J Clin Nutr 2014.

Miller KB, Hurst WJ, Payne MJ et al. Impact of alkalization on the antioxidant and flavanol content of commercial cocoa powders. J Agric Food Chem 2008, 56(18):8527-33.

Product Review: Cocoa powders, dark chocolate, extracts, nibs and supplements – sources of flavanols. ConsumerLab.com

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2012. Total Nutrient Intakes: Percent Reporting and Mean Amounts of Selected Vitamins and Minerals from Food and Dietary Supplements, by Family Income (as ! of Federal Poverty Threshold) and Age, What We Eat in America, NHANES 2009-2010. Available: www.ars.usda.gov/ba/bhnrc/fsrg.

Powers SK, Jackson MJ. Exercise-induced oxidative stress: cellular mechanisms and impact on muscle force production. Physiol Rev 2008, 88(4):1243-76.

Sharman IM, Down MG, Norgan NG. The effects of vitamin E on physiological function and athletic performance of trained swimmers. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 1976;16:215–225.

Institute of Medicine (IOM). Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Vitamin D and Fluoride. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997.

Smith JS, Ameri F, Gadgil P. Effect of marinades on the formation of heterocyclic amines in grilled beef steaks. J Food Sci 2008, 73(6):T100-5.

Notice of GRAS Exemption – Pea Protein as a Food Ingredient http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/GRAS/NoticeInventory/ucm464894.pdf

Babault N, Paizis C, Deley G et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. whey protein. JISSN 2015, 12:3.

Peas Commodity Fact Sheet. https://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/agriculture-and-food-security/food-assistance/resources/peas-commodity-fact-sheet

 

 

 

 

 

Why “Avoid Processed Foods” is Bad Advice

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Countless internet blogs preach about the dangers of processed food, how eating a diet with processed food will make you gain weight and your health will suffer. Yet anyone who writes this nonsense doesn’t understand the real definition of processed foods (and I bet large sums of money they eat many processed foods) and the benefits they provide.

A processed food is “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity (“food that is in its raw or natural state, including all fruits that are washed, colored, or otherwise treated in their unpeeled natural form prior to marketing”) and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling (1, 2).” Fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, livestock – these are all agricultural commodities. And therefore, all of the following are processed foods: frozen broccoli, frozen chicken breast, dried beans, dried pumpkins seeds. Who in their right mind would dare say any of these foods are harmful or will make you pack on the pounds? Someone who has no clue what they are talking about. Not to mention there are many reasons why processed food are healthy:

Versatility

If you want to get a wide array of nutrients and healthy plant compounds (such as antioxidants) you should eat a wide variety of foods. If you take all processed foods out of your diet you’ll only eat what is in season and hasn’t been altered.

Value

Dried beans, oatmeal and rice are processed foods that are very affordable. All cost pennies per serving (about 15 cents for a serving of brown rice). Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are another great example of affordable foods that are picked at their peak of ripeness, preserving nutrition value and flavor. In addition, 100% juice is a bargain, thanks to food processing.

Concord Grapes
Concord Grapes
Welch's 100% Grape Juice made with Concord Grapes
Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made with Concord Grapes

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see a Concord grape farm – where they grow and   process the grapes into Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made from Concord Grapes. Nothing is wasted during this process. The Concord grapes are crushed – skin, seeds and all (so more of the grape is in the bottle) – and heated to release healthy polyphenols (plant based compounds) straight from the grape into the juice. In fact, 40 whole Concord grapes are in every 8 oz. serving of Welch’s 100% Grape Juice made from Concord Grapes. This is important because over a decade of research indicates that, thanks to the Concord grape, 100% grape juice made from these grapes helps support a healthy heart. Because the Concord grape harvest season is very short, lasting approximately 12 weeks, juice processing delivers the benefits of Concord grapes to us year round.

I consider all of these processed foods a good nutrition bargain. Plus, you may end up with less food waste, thanks to a longer shelf life, if you buy canned and frozen produce and poultry as well as 100% juice.

Convenience

In between long days and traveling, there are days I like meals that take me 5 minutes or less to throw together (not to mention if I’m hungry I want to eat asap). Frozen and canned foods allow me to do this. Steamed vegetables? They take about 7 minutes in my stovetop steamer. Canned? Less than 1 minute to open the can (because sometimes I don’t even heat them up). Frozen chicken breast? Perfect, I don’t have to go by the grocery store late at night if there is nothing in my fridge.

So the next time you hear someone say you should eat fewer processed foods, ask them to define “processed food.” And if you read it in a blog, move on to nutrition advice grounded in science.

Disclosure: I am an advisory board member of family-farmer owned Welch’s.

1) 21 U.S.C. United States Code, 2010 Edition, Title 21 – Food and Drugs. Chapter 9 – Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, Subchapter II – Definitions.

2) SEC. 201. [21 U.S.C. 321]. CHAPTER II—DEFINITIONS 1.

How Your Body Image Affects Your Weight & Health

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Today I’m going on a slight rant about something that has been on my mind for a while – body image. And because the majority of my clients (all but 1) are male athletes, I don’t run into the overt self-degrading body comments as often as many of my dietitian colleagues who work with women. However, I’ve run into a number of women lately who either put their bodies down, avoid social situations or the beach / pool / bathing suits because they feel “fat”, obsessively cover up their bodies, obsessively diet or exercise (or both) or engage in other self-depreciating comments and related behaviors stemming from how they feel about their body. And I always walk away thinking “one day she is going to look back and think ‘damn I looked good’ and regret wasting so much time and energy hating a body that helped her cross finish lines, hike mountains, pick up small children, build a beautiful garden and do so much more.”

And though I won’t get into the psychology behind body image and self worth or how to improve your body image (you can read more about that in this article), I do want to talk about how this affects a person’s overall health and sense of well-being. First and foremost, the people around you might not notice the subtle behaviors and words you speak (unless you have dietitian or psychologist friends) but your kids will (children, grandchildren, children you teach or coach). Anyone who has spent 5 minutes with a child knows they pick up everything. Now, let’s say you are that female who won’t wear shorts in the summer because you hate the way your legs look. Your little girl will stop wearing shorts and at some point think her legs look bad too. Or maybe you are the grandma who won’t wear a bathing suit to the beach because you can’t fit into the one you wore last year. Your grandkids will wonder why you aren’t going in the water with them. And finally, if you are a coach of young girls, an entire team will learn about how they should be viewing their bodies from what you think of yours.

In addition to affecting the people around you, I’ve noticed that women who don’t love the bodies they live in spend entirely too much time thinking about food and exercise. And by cutting out certain foods, going on cleanses or popular diets or drastically slashing their food intake, they are cutting out a number of nutrients necessary for good health. And the effects might not be obvious at first, but over time they will catch up to you. Cut calories and it will be difficult to get a number of vitamins, minerals and protein in your diet (And when you fall short on protein you will start losing muscle mass. Over time less muscle means you burn a few less calories each day and you won’t be able to exercise as hard in the gym so you burn fewer calories while working out. Both of these make it challenging to keep weight off over time. Plus less muscle means activities of daily living like gardening, picking up kids, or lifting groceries may be tough). Switch to a vegetarian diet and you better really plan on incorporating protein since you will need more total protein to keep and build muscle. Drop dairy and your bones, teeth and nails will suffer over time (yes you can eat kale, spinach and other leafy greens but you will need at least 10 cups of raw leafy greens a day if this is your only source of calcium). I’ve seen women in their 20s with osteopenia (low bone mass, this often comes before the brittle bone disease osteoporosis). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. But, here’s the most important point: your body image affects what you eat (more than just total calories) and don’t eat. And over time I’m going to make a stretch here and say (from observation) that body image-induced changes in diet affect your intake of vitamins and minerals and over time, consistent vitamin and mineral shortages will affect how your body functions and could impair several aspects of health. So, if you feel like you fall into this category of women or men who loathe your body, make the commitment right now to work on this. I promise you that you are wasting time as well as mental and physical energy. Plus, the changes you are making in an effort to keep weight off may be doing more harm than good.

Heart Healthy Chocolate Muffins

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Just a few weeks ago I had an athlete ask me if he should start eating chocolate for better recovery. If you’ve read the media reports you have probably heard a number of potentially great things about chocolate:

Despite the fact that chocolate may actually be good for us, not all chocolate is created equally. Chocolate candy, for instance, oftentimes has added sugar and fat (and sometimes that horrific manmade trans fat in the form of partially hydrogenated oil).

So, if you want to get the most out of your cocoa or chocolate, choose non alkalized or lightly alkalized cocoa (alkalized is also called “dutched”) or dark chocolate (not milk chocolate – milk binds to chocolate’s antioxidants making them unavailable).

For more information about the health benefits of chocolate, click here. For information about how the process of alkalization affects the antioxidants in chocolate, click here.

I added peanut flour to this recipe for a little more protein. If you want an additional chocolate boost – add chocolate chips or chunks! I always recommend tasting something as you cook or bake it so use pasteurized egg substitute in any recipe you want to taste before it goes in the oven!

Chocolate Muffins

  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup peanut flour
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup unsweetened non alkalized cocoa
  • 1 ¼ cups packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  1. Preheat oven to 375°F and line muffin pan with muffin cups or spray.
  2. Whisk together the butter, eggs, yogurt, and vanilla extract.
  3. In another bowl whisk together both types of flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  4. Very gently fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and fill muffin tins ½ – 2/3 full.
  5. Bake for 20 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
  6. Let cool on wire rack immediately after the muffins come out of the oven.
If you are looking for peanut flour, you can find it online (Byrd Mill: www.byrdmill.com) in addition to Harvey’s grocery stores in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia; and Whole Foods in Virginia under the brand Montebello Kitchens and at www.montebellokitchens.com. That last one contains a pre-biotic – a unique and very cool option, especially for people dealing with gut issues and those who just want to  promote healthy gut bacteria.

Keep Your Heart Health

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By Sara Shipley, nutrition student, University of Central Oklahoma

February is National Heart Month. With heart disease as the leading cause of death in the US and the leading killer of women, an increased awareness of this disease is important. The American Heart Association encourages awareness through their GO RED campaign and promotes a heart healthy lifestyle, including physical activity and smart eating habits. In fact, this past Friday, February 3rd marked “National Wear Red Day”, which promotes awareness and advocacy for the prevention of heart disease.

Although most Performance Nutrition readers are active, there are several important issues to consider when it comes to risk factors related to heart disease.

High cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and tobacco use are all factors that can normally be controlled without medication(some exceptions apply to certain people). In general, minor adjustments to your eating habits can have significant benefits to lowering your risk for developing heart disease.

These adjustments include:

  • Keep your blood pressure low by watching your sodium intake– high levels will increase BP.
  • High cholesterol levels will increase your chances of developing atherosclerosis. When your arteries are hardened- your heart works harder to function, if it works at all. This directly leads to heart attacks.
  • Lower your saturated and trans fat intake, as these types of fats             have been determined to increase ‘bad’ cholesterol levels in your blood.
  • Eat foods with more fiber– whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Increased dietary fiber is linked to decreased risk of high cholesterol levels, controlled blood sugar and weight loss. Obesity makes your heart work harder, and counters every benefit just listed above from fiber.
  • Sugar control– natural, unprocessed sugar found in fruits and vegetables is great! However, baked goods and sodas should be moderately consumed and not a staple in your diet.
  • Smoking is bad for you. Do I need to explain any further?

This message may be old news to you or maybe you forgot all the repercussions that a poor diet can have on your health. Regardless, take this short message to heart and remember that without a healthy, beating muscle in your chest- you will not be able to run, jump, swim, bike, shoot hoops or do anything. Heart health is essential, especially to athletes with added stress to our bodies.

Have a great day and don’t forget to wear red not just on Friday, February 3rd to support the GO RED initiative but throughout heart health month!

Could “Bad” Cholesterol be Good for Muscle Growth?

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I’m all for maintaining a healthy heart. But, could America’s quest for heart health be damaging muscle tissue (and keep in mind that your heart is the most important muscle in your body)?

For decades dietary fat, and especially saturated fat, was demonized to the point where “fat free” and “low fat” rolled off of our tongues with ease. Our friends, family and the kids behind the counter at frozen yogurt shops became so used to the question “how many grams of fat are in that?” that they often beat us to the punch, proudly exclaiming “it’s fat free!”
But in our quest  to live heart healthy our recommendations for cutting salt and saturated fat have sometimes hit the wrong crowd – young athletes who have no issues with blood pressure or cholesterol. Athletes who cut their salt intake too low could overheat and increase their risk for dehydration and low blood sodium (which can be very dangerous). And, cutting your total fat intake too low could make you feel fatigued, constantly hungry and impair your body’s absorption of fat soluble vitamins and antioxidants. But, here’s the real kicker, cut your total fat or saturated fat too low and your testosterone levels could drop.

If we need fat and some saturated fat (ah, coconut, one of my favorite sources of saturated fat), is blood cholesterol important? You bet. Despite it’s bad reputation and our quest for low cholesterol, our body depends on the stuff for several essential functions in the body (it is a component of cell membranes, precursor to bile acids, steroid hormones and vitamin D). In fact, our cells need a continuous supply of cholesterol.

And according to recent research from Texas A&M, our “bad” cholesterol may be even more important than we once thought. In this particular study, previously inactive adults were put through a training program. The adults who gained the most muscle mass had the highest levels of LDL cholesterol indicating that we may need a threshold level of LDL for gaining muscle mass. In this case, low LDL may be too low if you want a strong body.

Given that heart disease is the #1 cause of death in the U.S. and LDL cholesterol  is the stuff found stuck like glue against our artery walls, slowing down blood flow and contributing to heart attack and stroke, how can we achieve a delicate balance between having enough LDL but not too much? Keep your cholesterol levels within normal limits, be mindful if your LDL gets very low and incorporate other practices that keep your heart healthy – maintain a normal weight, get and stay active, eat antioxidant-rich foods and heart healthy fats (fatty fish, oils, nuts, seeds). If you want a strong body, don’t cut your total fat or saturated fat intake too low unless your physician tells you to do so.

As a random aside, could lowering LDL be one of the mechanisms through which statin drugs lead to statin-related myopathy? Maybe the answer doesn’t lie completely in Co-Q10.