Spring Clean Your Diet, Satisfy Cravings

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If warmer weather and fresh air send you into tidying mode, don’t forget your pantry. Spring clean your pantry and refrigerator and you’ll make better food choices and improve your health in the long run.

Count on Color for Protecting your Body

The colorful compounds in fruits, vegetables and grains protect plants from diseases and pests. In your body they help protect your tissues including skin, bone and muscle, from harm. Think of all forms of produce and grains in a variety of colors (see below). Fresh, frozen, 100% juice, dried or roasted veggie snacks and dried fruits with no added sugar (I often turn to figs and raisins when I want something sweet).

Here’s an example of of what color can do for you:

Orange fruits and vegetables may be protective against bone loss.

Black, deep red and dark purple produce and grains (examples: black rice, purple carrots, 100% grape juice made with Concord grapes, 100% pomegranate juice) are good for artery health; they help expand arteries to accommodate greater blood flow (very important for maintaining healthy blood pressure).

Dark greens are good for skin and eyes. They can help eyes adjust to bright light and also support night vision. Some examples include spinach, kale, turnip greens, collard greens, broccoli, zucchini, Brussels sprouts and romaine lettuce.

Add Snacks that Satisfy Hunger and Taste

When you want to satisfy hunger, look for foods high in protein and fiber. If you want to satisfy hunger and taste at the same time, consider options that fulfill your cravings. Looking for salty and crunchy? Beanitos hint of lime chips are amazing with guacamole. Searching for something sweet? Yogurt parfaits, granola + milk (Purely Elizabeth’s and The Toasted Oat are 2 of my favorites). There are also a number of bars that satisfy hunger and taste at the same time. Check out the newest Luna bars including chocolate dipped coconut (you won’t miss Mounds or Almond Joy). Find a few other crave worthy options here.

Discover Missing Nutrients

Vitamin D has been the rage for years but there are other nutrients that are ‘shortfall nutrients,’ those most of us do not consume in adequate amounts. Among them are potassium and magnesium.  Potassium is important for healthy blood pressure, nerve and muscle functioning and removing waste products from cells. Branch out from bananas and consider including leafy greens, carrots and potatoes and citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits for potassium. Think out of the box with kale chips, roasted carrots and potatoes or slow cooker vegetables with potatoes. Magnesium is  necessary for muscle and nerve functioning, blood sugar control, bone health, blood pressure regulation, energy production and normal heart rhythm. It also helps with sleep and muscle relaxation. Get a little more magnesium with beans, nuts, seeds, dark green leafy veggies, avocados and potatoes.

In addition to focusing on the food mentioned here, place foods you want to consume at eye level and treats you want to eat rarely in the back of the cabinet or bottom of the freezer out of sight and reach. Chances are, you’ll forget they are there.

 

The Ketogenic Diet Craze: Fat-Filled Lies, Part 1

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ketogenic diPicture this: a thick, juicy, tender eventeak grilled to perfection with melted butter glazed on top, gently dripping down the sides. Lying next to the steak there’s a side of dark green asparagus sautéed in coconut oil and dusted with a sprinkle of sea salt. Could a diet loaded with fat help you lose diet-resistant body fat that’s been taunting the seams of your dress pants and poking through buttons on your shirt? Will eating fat turn you into an all-star athlete? This is part 1 of a 2 part series on the ketogenic diet.

Here is what I will cover in this blog post:

  • What is the ketogenic diet?
  • Adverse health effects.

Here is what I will cover in tomorrow’s blog on this topic:

  • The issue with ketogenic research studies.
  • Is the ketogenic diet superior for losing fat?
  • How will the ketogenic diet affect muscle?
  • How will the ketogenic diet impact athletic performance?

What is the Ketogenic Diet?

For nearly a century, epileptic patients have used ketogenic diets to control seizures when common medications provide no relief. Scientists aren’t sure why following a ketogenic diet decreases the incidence and severity of seizures but it works.

The ketogenic diet contains – 80-90% of calories from fat, 15% from protein and 5% from carbohydrate (1, 2). Food choices may include heavy cream, bacon, eggs, non-starchy vegetables, mayonnaise and sausage while fruits, starchy vegetables, breads, pasta, cereal and other carbohydrate-rich foods are not allowed.

During the first several days on a ketogenic diet, your body’s limited supply of carbohydrate stored in liver and muscle tissue decreases dramatically. As a result, you will feel like you have mono – exhausted, with headaches and easy exercise will feel like you’re climbing Mount Everest (3). Once your stored carbohydrate has dwindled, ketones, formed from the breakdown of dietary fat, become the primary source of energy for brain and body. Ketogenic means “ketone forming.” It takes at least seven days to reach nutritional ketosis and several weeks to fully adapt to the diet (12). If you aren’t in nutritional ketosis (as measured by blood, urine or breath ketones; ketone levels > 0.5 mmol/L), then you aren’t following a ketogenic diet, you are on a low carbohydrate diet.

Adverse Health Effects from the Ketogenic Diet

Much of the research on adverse effects comes from studies in epileptic children since they have been on the diet for long periods of time. These studies show soon after starting a ketogenic diet, blood cholesterol levels and artery stiffness increase (4, 5). High total and LDL cholesterol are risk factors for cardiovascular disease (diseases of the heart and blood vessels). When arteries are stiff, they cannot expand as well in response to changes in blood pressure. Think of this like a garden hose when you turn up the water pressure, your hose either expands or the water bursts out of the space between the faucet and the hose. When arteries cannot open widely to accommodate increases in blood flow, blood pressure increases leading to microscopic tears on artery walls, development of scar tissue and the perfect surface for plaque buildup (6). Blood cholesterol levels returned to normal in patients who went off the diet and in those who stayed on it, they returned to normal after 6 to 12 months. Artery stiffness returned to normal after 24 months on a ketogenic diet.5 Studies in obese patients suggest ketogenic diets improve blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels over time, either due to the diet, weight loss from the diet, a combination of the two or carbohydrate restriction (7, 8). Lose weight, regardless of what you eat and blood cholesterol, blood pressure, inflammation, blood sugar and many other disease risk factors will improve.

Ketogenic diets are typically low in calcium, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, folic acid and fiber. There are several potential consequences associated with consistently low intake of each of these micronutrients including softening of the bones, decreased bone density, muscle damage, muscle weakness or spasms, and abnormal heart rhythm. However, with careful planning, a fiber supplement, multivitamin and under the guidance of a physician who may prescribe potassium and sodium supplements (blood sodium could drop to dangerously low levels while on this diet), nutrient needs can be met. Also, to prevent constipation when on a ketogenic diet, a fiber supplement may be necessary along with more water / fluid intake then you are used to.

Here are some other potentially bad side effects from following a high fat diet:

  • Harm to your Brain. Studies in mice show a high fat diet, even when followed for as little as two months leads to chronic inflammation, sedentary immune cells in the brain – these cells typically act like janitors picking up trash and infectious compounds but when they become sedentary they stop doing their job, leading to cognitive impairment (9). Does this happen in humans and resolve over time? We don’t know.
  • Mad Bacteria in Your Gut. A diet with no probiotics (healthy bacteria) and low in prebiotics (certain types of fiber that the healthy bacteria much on for food keeping them happy) will likely change the composition of bacteria in your gut so you have more harmful and less beneficial bacteria.
  • Leaky Gut. High saturated fat meals increase bacterial toxins (endotoxins) in the intestines and intestinal permeability. In other words: leaky gut (10, 11). If you are on this diet, consider opting for foods lower in saturated fat and higher in unsaturated fats (liquid oils, avocado, nuts, seeds, olives).
  • Free radicals in overdrive? If you can’t eat a number of colorful foods including blueberries, beets, corn, oranges, and more, chances are you won’t get a wide array of antioxidant compounds to quench free radicals (compounds that are important for good health but can wreck your body when they aren’t tamed by antioxidants) as well as other plant-based compounds that keep your arteries, muscles and other parts of your body healthy. Will your body adapt? We don’t know at this time.

Are the side effects and potential negative side effects worth it if you can lose weight on this diet? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on how the ketogenic diet impacts body fat and athletic performance.

References

1 Freeman JM, Freeman JB, Kelly MT. The ketogenic diet: a treatment for epilepsy. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Demos Health; 2000.

2 Paoli A, Bianco A, Damiani E, Bosco G. Ketogenic Diet in Neuromuscular and Neurodegenerative Diseases. BioMed Research International 2014, Article ID 474296, 10 pages, 2014.

3 White AM, Johnston CS, Swan PD et al. Blood ketones are directly related to fatigue and perceived effort during exercise in overweight adults adhering to low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss: a pilot study. J Am Diet Assoc 2007;107(10):1792-6.

4 Tanakis M, Liuba P, Odermarsky M, Lundgren J, Hallböök T. Effects of ketogenic diet on vascular function. Eur J Paediatr Neurol 2014;18(4):489-94.

5 Coppola G, Natale F, Torino A et al. The impact of the ketogenic diet on arterial morphology and endothelial function in children and young adults with epilepsy: a case-control study. Seizure 2014;23(4):260-5.

6 Cecelja M, Chowienczyk P. Role of arterial stiffness in cardiovascular disease. JRSM Cardiovascular Disease 2012;1(4):1-10.

7 Dashti HM, Mathew TC, Hussein T, Asfar SK, Behbahani A, Khoursheed MA, Al-Sayer HM, Bo-Abbas YY, Al-Zaid NS. Long-term effects of a ketogenic diet in obese patients. Exp Clin Cardiol 2004; 9(3): 200–205.

8 Volek JS, Feinman RD. Carbohydrate restriction improves the features of Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome may be defined by the response to carbohydrate restriction. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2005;2:31.

9 Hao S, Dey A, Yu X, Stranahan AM. Dietary obesity reversibly induces synaptic stripping by microglia and impairs hippocampal plasticity. Brain Behav Immun 2016 Jan;51:230-9.

10 Mani V, Hollis JH, Gabler NK. Dietary oil composition differentially modulates intestinal endotoxin transport and postprandial endotoxemia. Nutr Metab (Lond) 2013; 10: 6.

11 Lam YY, Ha CW, Campbell CR, Mitchell AJ, Dinudom A, Oscarsson J, Cook DI, Hunt NH, Caterson ID, Holmes AJ, Storlien LH. Increased gut permeability and microbiota change associate with mesenteric fat inflammation and metabolic dysfunction in diet-induced obese mice. PLoS One 2012;7(3):e34233.

12 Paoli, A, Grimaldi K, D’Agostino D, Cenci L, Moro T, Bianco A, Palma A. Ketogenic diet does not affect strength performance in elite artistic gymnasts. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2012;9:34.

Which Fat is Best for Heart Health?

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Butter

If you are more confused than ever about dietary fats, you’re not alone. Can a high fat diet help you lose body fat? Which fat is best for heart health – butter, coconut oil or vegetable oil?

What is Cholesterol & Why is it Essential?
Cholesterol is an essential component of all cell membranes and a precursor to hormones, vitamin D and bile acids (needed for the digestion of fat). It is so important that your body regulates cholesterol balance to ensure your cells receive a continuous supply of cholesterol.

How does High LDL Contribute to Cardiovascular Disease?

Though cholesterol is critical for life, low density lipoprotein cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, is considered a risk factor for heart disease because excess LDL can lead to an increase in plaque buildup in your arteries. Think of this process like a garden hose with gunk stuck in it. The gunk interferes with water flowing through the hose. If too much debris gets in there, no water will flow through.  Likewise, plaque in your arteries will decrease the amount of blood that moves through your arteries at one time and a complete blockage could lead to a heart attack or stroke.  Now, this is a simplistic view, especially considering LDL isn’t just one particle but instead, several that contain different amounts of cholesterol. Some research suggests that smaller, more dense LDL particles are more artery clogging. However, in addition to particle size, total number of LDL particles and oxidation of LDL contribute to the disease process.

As LDL particles travel through the bloodstream, excess LDL particles can stick to artery walls (particularly walls that are damaged due to smoking, high blood pressure and other insults). Trapped LDL becomes oxidized and sets off an inflammatory cascade resulting in the development of plaque (gunk) stuck to arteries – atherosclerosis.

Coronary Artery Disease

How Can I Lower my LDL Cholesterol?

Cholesterol in food has little effect on your blood cholesterol.

Years ago we were told to stay away from shrimp, eggs and other high cholesterol foods. Yet this advice wasn’t based on sound science – cholesterol in food has little effect on your blood cholesterol levels. So there is no need to take these nutrient-rich foods out of your diet. Shrimp is loaded with protein, and is a good source of iron plus it contains just 80 calories per serving. Eggs are also packed with nutrition – the whites are an excellent source of protein and the yellow color you see in the yolk is from antioxidants – plant compounds that protect plants from disease and protect your body from the damaging effects of free radicals, compounds that are essential but can cause damage as well.

Coconut Oil, Butter and Other Solid Fats are Not the Best Options

Man-made trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) are the worst kind of fat you can eat. However, they should, finally, be making their way out of our food supply over the next few years. High levels of *saturated fat, the kind that is solid at room temperature like butter, increases HDL (the “good” cholesterol but not a target of therapy – doctors don’t focus on HDL levels because increasing HDL does not lower heart disease risk) and LDL cholesterol in the blood. In controlled diet experiments where saturated fat is replaced with polyunsaturated fat rich vegetable oils, risk of heart disease is reduced. Replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat, the kind found in olive oil, also lowers LDL but not to the extent that polyunsaturated fat does.

Coconut oil is popular and calorie for calorie it might be better for weight management than other fats. However, coconut oil raises our total, good and bad cholesterol levels. And therefore, it is not the best option for heart health.

Excess Carbohydrate Intake can Increase LDL

Overconsumption of carbohydrate-rich foods can also increase VLDL cholesterol (very low density lipoprotein). Foods with added sugars, in particular, are potent stimulators of VLDL production when the energy (calories) aren’t needed right away for energy or increasing glycogen stores (stored carbohydrate in your liver and muscle).

Best Fats for Your Heart

Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and liquid oils are your bets for heart health. Oils with more polyunsaturated fat have a greater impact on LDL cholesterol than those rich in monounsaturated fat. Make sure you are choosing the right oil for the right cooking application. Many oils can’t stand high heat and they break down, damaging the structure (and function) of the oil.

Fatty Acids in Oils

Conclusion

Many factors contribute to high blood cholesterol levels, including genetics, overweight/obesity, inactivity, smoking, diabetes and age, making cholesterol management a multifactorial issue. Saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol but, as I’ll say over and over, we are all different and, people vary in their response to dietary saturated fat due to intrinsic differences in fat metabolism as well as other factors including obesity, insulin resistance and high triglycerides.

Replace fats that raise cholesterol with liquid oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives. Consider your overall diet as well. Eat a plant-based diet including vegetables (non-starchy veggies as well as beans, lentils and peas), fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains (oats, barley etc.). Consume fatty fish ( salmon, mackerel, herring, halibut, sardines etc.) at least two times per week. Limit your intake of foods with added sugars and refined starches as well as your alcohol consumption. 

* There are differences in specific saturated fatty acids and their effects on blood cholesterol. Therefore, some foods high in saturated fat do not raise LDL cholesterol. Also, oils have a different array of vitamins (primarily vitamin E) and plant-based compounds that may be beneficial for heart health.

Fatty acids composition of oils taken from the USDA Nutrient Database.

Pros and Cons of Grain Brain, Wheat Belly and the Paleo Diet

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Diet books are tempting. They tell you the reason you’re overweight, what foods are “toxic” and how to get rid of them while strolling down the yellow brick road to lasting weight loss and good health. But there’s one main issue – many of these books aren’t based on scientific evidence but instead theories that are pulled out of thin air. “But my neighbor lost 50 lbs. following Paleo!” Well your neighbor cut out potato chips, beer and fried food in the process so of course he lost weight. The Paleo diet just gave him a convincing (even if scientifically inaccurate) reason to cut these foods out.

All of these diets have some pros and cons which I expand upon in this TV segment I did for Fox 5 and below the video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQyfQ5hf_Qc&feature=youtu.be

Gluten is a protein formed from other proteins (gliadins and glutenins; any single wheat plant may produce > 100 gliadins and > 50 glutenins) naturally found in wheat foods when wheat flour is mixed with water (the mechanical action of mixing plus the water are necessary). Other proteins that are similar to gluten are found in barley (hordiens) and rye (secalins). Gluten gives dough it’s tough elastic structure and contributes to the light and fluffy texture of baked goods. If it sounds complex, it is but here are the important points:

  • Wheat today doesn’t have more gluten (or create more gluten when mixed with water) than varieties from 70 years ago unless the manufacturer adds vital wheat gluten back to the food itself (J Plant Reg 2012;6(1)).
  • Wheat breeding is complex and focuses on creating varieties of wheat that meet what food makers and consumers are looking for – a flaky pie crust or nice soft wheat bread for instance.
  • Gluten isn’t an easy to digest protein (there are many foods we eat that are not completely broken down) but, this isn’t a problem for most people – only those with celiac disease, wheat allergy and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (which might not be due to gluten alone but instead FODMAPs).

Paleo: What You Need to Know

The Paleo diet is based on one main principle: if we eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived between 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago, before the start of the agricultural revolution, we will avoid modern diseases such as heart disease as well as infections.

This diet is based on grass-produced meats, fish/seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds and “healthful” oils. Everything else is off limits.

Paleo’s Glaring Oversights:

  • there was no one single Paleo diet – diets varied based on region and time period (check out Christina Warinner’s TED talk on this)
  • In several regions, well over 10,000 years ago and possibly even a few million years ago, people ate grains and legumes.
  • Examination of mummies tells us that all people from this time period had clogged arteries.
  • The fruits, vegetables and meats we have today look nothing like what our ancestors ate (ex: fruit were small, tough and bitter).
  • Our ancestors hunted and gathered food – in other words, their daily lives included physical activity (both strength training which builds muscle and bone and aerobic exercise).

Paleo – What’s Good:

  • The Paleo diet cuts out our top sources of calories in the US including alcohol, desserts and sugar sweetened beverages.
  • It’s loaded with protein which will keep you full for a longer period of time after eating and help you build muscle.
  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables!

Paleo – What’s Bad:

  • No legumes (peas, beans, lentils and peanuts) – legumes are rich in fiber, potassium, magnesium (some), iron (some), antioxidants and more.
  • No grains. Grains provide a good bit of the fiber in the average American diet in addition to folate, other vitamins and antioxidants.
  • No dairy – our top source of bone building calcium and vitamin D. Now, I know what some self proclaimed nutrition experts will say here – people in Africa (or insert other country here) don’t consume much calcium and they don’t have as many cases of osteoporosis as we do in the U.S. Go to Africa, conduct dietary recalls (to see what they are indeed eating) and then follow a group of women around for several days. The women I met from Africa a few years ago were big and strong thanks to farm work (in their particular country the women do all the farming). They walked (far) with buckets of water on their head daily (fantastic way to build bone density in the spine!). I don’t know any females in the U.S. who get near the bone building activity these women are getting on a daily basis. So, this is far from a valid comparison. (SN: I haven’t even bothered to research the incidence of osteoporosis here vs. Africa because I’d be comparing a largely sedentary desk-sitting population to one with different genetics that also gets bone building activity for hours each day).

Diet magic? Follow anything that makes you cut calories and you’ll lose weight. Eat more protein and you’ll tend to lose more fat than muscle.

Post-Workout Power Smoothie

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Many people eat the same 25-30 foods each week. And, one of my favorites is this super easy post-workout smoothie. I typically don’t feel like eating right away after training but know that I have a 30 minute window of opportunity to replace the carbohydrate stores in my muscle tissue (glycogen) and boost muscle growth and repair.

So, I created this shake with tasty, functional ingredients that refuel my body, build and repair muscle and provide antioxidants to help tame muscle tissue inflammation. Here are the ingredients and the benefits each one provides below the recipe:

Power Smoothie

Ingredients

  • 8 oz milk (whole if you need to gain weight, otherwise choose skim, 1 or 2%)
  • 1 scoop protein powder (containing at least 20 grams whey protein)
  • 3-4 chunks of frozen mango
  • 1/3 cup frozen mixed berries
  • ginger root, shaved (if you don’t shave it you may break a cheap blender 😉

Directions

Mix, add ice if desired.

Rationale for each ingredient:

  • milk – calcium, vitamin D & magnesium all play roles in muscle functioning and bone health; plus milk is a great source of quality protein
  • protein powder – whey contains the optimal amount of specific amino acids you need for muscle tissue growth and repair
  • mango – in addition to making your shake thick like a milkshake, mango may help combat inflammation
  • red, blue and purple berries contain antioxidant flavonoids that may attenuate inflammation, limit tissue breakdown and improve circulation while promoting a nice strong collagen matrix
  • ginger –  research out of the University of Georgia found that 2 grams of ginger per day can help reduce exercise-induced muscle pain.
Looking for more great Summertime beverages? Check these recipes out from my colleagues:

Muscle Injuries in NFL Players Related to Low Vitamin D?

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A new study presented at this month’s American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine conference suggests that low vitamin D levels may increase the likelihood of muscle injuries in athletes, specifically NFL players.

Vitamin D deficiency is rampant. Few foods contain this vitamin (fortified milk and other fortified products, fish – but you must eat the bones) and many of us aren’t getting the sunlight required to make vitamin D (not the best route anyway if you want to protect your skin). And, football players – even though they practice outside, are covered up in so much gear that little to no skin is exposed to UV rays from the sun.

In this study, 80% of the NFL football team studied had vitamin D insufficiency (they weren’t deficient per se, but their levels certainly weren’t optimal). Of the 89 NFL athletes on this team:

  • 27 were vitamin D deficient (< 20 ng/ml)
  • 45 had low levels (but not true deficiency; 20 – 31.9 ng/ml)
  • 17 players had normal vitamin D levels (> 32 ng/ml)
Among the players who were deficient in vitamin D, 16 suffered from a muscle injury. Though this study doesn’t show cause and effect but instead a relationship between vitamin D and muscle injuries, there are some clues from other studies about the role vitamin D plays in athletes:
  • skeletal muscle has a receptor for vitamin D (which in the body acts like a steroid hormone)
  • vitamin D deficiency has been tied to pain, specifically low back pain
  • vitamin D deficiency is tied to fat infiltration in muscle tissue (fatty muscle = less effective functioning of muscle tissue)
Athletes have a greater risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency if they:
  • live in the Northern half of the country (above Atlanta, GA)
  • play indoor sports or are covered in clothing outside
  • have darker skin
  • those who take in little to no vitamin D in their diet (fortified milk, fish with bones)
Signs & Symptoms of deficiency:
  • fatigue
  • muscle weakness or cramps
  • joint pain, lower back pain
  • constipation

If you are an athlete and want to perform at your best, it makes sense to get tested. Go to your primary care physician, campus health center or a local testing facility (Lapcorp, Quest, directlabs.com). Ask for a 25(OH)D test and, get the results (don’t settle for them telling you that your levels are normal, low etc.). Ideally, for good health, your vitamin D should be 50 – 70 nmol/L or > 20 ng/ml (depending on the measure used).

 

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.

Best Weight Loss Program: Weight Watchers

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The absolute best way to lose weight is to get a customized nutrition program from a Registered Dietitian who specializes in both weight loss and whatever else you need help with (PCOS, kidney disease, PKU, diabetes, sports nutrition etc. – there are a number of specialty areas) and combine that with a good training program that meets your current state of health and physical capacity.  However, for a multitude of reasons, some people like what I call Canned Weight Loss Programs. Programs that work with the masses and give a one size fits all approach. And, there’s nothing wrong with this but, you should go into it knowing what to expect.

Programs that give you meals like Nutrisystem, work if you follow them.  And, they take the guesswork out of dieting if you just want to lose weight asap without having to put any thought into it. These programs are fantastic for busy people on the go but those who need variety may get sick of the meal options sooner rather than later. Nutrisystem like programs get you used to appropriate portion sizes but, they do not teach you how to pick and choose and put together your own meals.  And while that sounds easy, it is typically where people fail.  They fail to plan and end up making poor choices because they are hungry and have no food with them or come home and can’t figure out what to make for dinner.

As a professional who has worked with many clients who are on Weight Watchers, I feel this is one of the better, more sound dieting approaches out there.  While you count points (which are determined based on calories, fiber and fat in food) versus calories, you’ll get used to sticking within a basic calorie budget with some room for those days you go out to eat, hit a party etc. (each person gets 35 extra points per week). And, aside from learning portion sizes and re-training yourself with how much food you should be eating in a given day, Weight Watchers forces you to plan at least some of your meals.  When you choose a higher calorie breakfast, you’ll start thinking about how many points you have left and what you should eat for lunch and dinner to stay within your point allotment.

Like all canned programs, Weight Watchers falls short in a few areas. First, you are only required to eat 2 dairy per day. In a world where many people have blood levels of vitamin D that are deficient or insufficient and we aren’t consuming enough of this vitamin:  55% and 68% of U.S. men and women aged 31-50 consume below the Adequate intake for vitamin D, 2 dairy just aren’t enough. In addition to making it more difficult to get vitamin D, dairy is your best bet for getting calcium and 42% and 67% of U.S. men and women consume less than the Adequate intake for calcium*.  Secondly, Weight Watchers encourages a high fiber (good), higher carbohydrate diet. Many women I’ve met with are falling short on protein and healthy fats on this diet. And, high carbohydrate (even if you cut calories) just doesn’t work well for some people especially those with blood glucose issues, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) or insulin resistance. Anyone who fits in one of these categories needs an individual tailored program that manages their blood sugar levels.

For a Canned Diet Program, Nutrisystem works, Jenny Craig works, and Weight Watchers works and teaches you something about portion sizes in a supportive group environment. But, if you choose Weight Watchers, know ahead of time you are very likely to fall short on both vitamin D and calcium (a multivitamin will not make up for the calcium shortfall and in many people it won’t help your vitamin D levels too much either) and if you have PCOS, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, diabetes or any blood sugar abnormalities, I do not recommend Weight Watchers. Instead, talk to a dietitian who specializes in weight loss and these issues. It’s worth the time and cost – you’ll end up less frustrated and with a better chance of being successful.

*NHANES data 2005-2006.

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 .