CHOCOHOLICS REJOICE! It’s Healthy(ish)! Here’s the Evidence!

I love chocolate, particularly dark chocolate.  I make no apologies, and the more I learn about chocolate and the cocoa bean, the more I realize no apologies are needed.  It’s no joke, cocoa has health benefits.  Indeed, if I ruled the world, dark chocolate would be a deductible medical expense. 

Perhaps the science isn’t quite sufficient to justify chocolate as a deductible medical expense, but it ain’t junk food either.  There’s enough info on Theobroma cacao to warrant treating it with respect.  

What Makes Chocolate “Healthy-ish”?

Chocolate is loaded with antioxidants.  It contains flavonoids, a group of phytochemicals with anti-inflammatory powers and benefits for the immune system.  There are several subgroups of flavonoids, such as anthocyanidins that give foods like Concord grapes and red cabbage their purple color, and flavones, found in celery and bell peppers.  It’s the  flavanols however, that give chocolate (and other foods like tea and blueberries) it’s healthful properties.

So, What’s Chocolate’s Impact On Health?

Improved blood flow: This review of the research studying the combination of eating cocoa flavanols and doing aerobic exercise improved cardiovascular risk factors and vascular function (read: improved blood flow).  Cocoa helps reduce blood pressure by relaxing the walls of the blood vessels, improving blood flow, not only to the heart, but also to the gray matter of the brain.  This doesn’t mean eating a candy bar will make you a genius, but there may be bennies from eating some dark chocolate regularly.

Cholesterol benefits: Cocoa consumption seems to raise the HDL cholesterol (the good form) and reduce the “LDL cholesterol” (the bad one you want less of).  It works best when your total cholesterol levels are high.

Reduces “oxidative stress”: In a just-published systematic review of 48 studies on cocoa, the researchers found that cocoa consumption “plays an important role in the human metabolic pathway through reducing oxidative stress.”  Oh, bring it on.  

What’s oxidative stress?  It’s caused by “free radicals”.  Free radicals in your body can “nick” or damage the cells in arterial walls, making it easy for plaques to adhere and build up, clogging arteries. Cocoa consumption seems to help prevent free radicals from forming.  Ever taste rancid oil or nuts?  You’re tasting “oxidized” food damaged by free radicals.

Adapted from Tuenter, et al.

In the Mood

In this review of studies that looked at chocolate, mood, and cognition, the authors developed a “mood pyramid”.  They placed more general mood benefits from the flavanols at the bottom, since these are benefits associated with flavanols in other foods as well.  Secondary mood benefits appear to come from the caffeine-theobromine combination in chocolate. 

More specific is a possible dopamine effect from a substance in chocolate called salsolinol.  This is emerging research, but the hypothesis is that salsolinol may play a role in the impact of chocolate on mood.  Just how much chocolate you’d need to eat is still unclear. 

The Fine Print

Yes, there is some.  Some of the research found benefits from low intakes of chocolate, as little as 7.5 grams.  Other studies used significantly more however, up to 100 grams a day and produced good results.  (How do I sign up?)

These cocoa flavanols are NOT present in all chocolate foods.  Read labels: if it says, “cocoa processed with alkali” you can pretty much forget getting any flavanols.  This form of cocoa is also known as “Dutch-processed”.  The process makes cocoa appear darker (see photo) and taste a tad less acidic but it blows the antioxidant content to smithereens.  Some chefs and bakers prefer this type of cocoa for recipes.  I do not.  Give me the lighter powder on the right.  I like my flavanols, thanks.

Chocolate isn’t calorie-free.  Solid bars have about 150-170 calories per ounce.  I keep it to a max of 2 ounces a day, but an ounce of good chocolate, at 170 calories, makes for a rich snack or even a lower-calorie dessert.  Fair enough.  Cocoa powder however, is low in calories and the most concentrated source of cocoa flavanols, so use it to make your own hot chocolate.  I sweeten with stevia or a no-cal sweetener to minimize added sugar calories, and often add some cinnamon or other spice (smoked paprika is a favorite of mine).   

Get a high — in percent cocoa.  The most benefits are seen with chocolate that has at least 70% cocoa solids.  Not a problem for me, but it takes getting used to.  Go gradually!

Diet Or Exercise: What Matters More For Weight Loss?

“Exercise doesn’t matter. You just have to eat less” 

“Diet doesn’t matter much, as long as you exercise.”

A new study in the Journal of Nutrition says being more active not only won’t help you lose weight, it won’t even burn extra calories overall, at least in kids. The authors found that active kids and sedentary kids burned the same amount of calories, just doing different things. The active kids – rural Ecuadorian children who did a lot of subsistence farming activity – burned fewer calories when active, compared with the sedentary kids from “peri-urban” Ecuador.

Conversely, when the active kids were at rest, they burned more calories than the city kids did, so over the course of the day, they all burned about the same number of calories.

There were no differences between the two groups of kids with respect to height, weight, or BMI, but here’s where they did differ:

  • Active kids had less total body fat and percent body fat.
  • Active kids also had significantly more “fat-free mass” (read: muscle)

Hmmm, doing more laborious activity, they had more muscle and less body fat than their sedentary counterparts, but still didn’t burn any more calories at the end of the day? Seems odd?

I’m not surprised, and here’s why:

The kids doing the farm labor every day are in better physical condition. Their greater muscle mass and lower fat percent attest to this. Their bodies have adjusted to doing more physical activity by becoming more efficient with how they spend calories. The result: less difference between the energy needed for their activity and what they burn when they’re sitting.

Take an extreme example: a 150-pound runner who runs 10 miles a day, and a 150-pound sedentary guy who never exercises. Who is going to exert more effort on a 10-mile run? The sedentary guy of course, because his body isn’t conditioned for it. The runner’s body just sees it as another typical day, whereas the sedentary guy is gasping for air after a half-mile. The runner still burns calories while running, to be sure, but the sedentary guy burns more.

On the other hand, the runner may also burn a few more calories when at rest, because his metabolism doesn’t slow down to the degree the sedentary guy’s does. The runner’s body is anticipating getting back to physical work before long.

Is exercise useless?

Hardly – and we shouldn’t entertain that thought. Being physically active has endless benefits, and the study’s authors say so. However, their suggestion that overweight and obesity are driven primarily by diet, with a minor – if any – role played by physical activity, is not shared universally, and definitely not by me. I CANNOT separate the two.

Diet & activity changes often happen simultaneously, making it difficult to know which one has more influence. When kids (and adults) move to urban centers and do less physical activity, their diets typically also change to include more refined grains, and added sugar and fat, and fewer fruits and vegetables. They also snack more. They also do far less physical activity.

Instead of thinking it’s “either/or”, let’s try a different approach: Look at how people successfully lost weight and kept it off.

Enter the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR)

The NWCR, started in 1994 by James Hill and Rena Wing, has amassed a database of over 10,000 people. To qualify for inclusion, you must have lost at least 30 pounds and maintained the loss for at least a year, all objectively documented, so no fakes here. The NWCR has published many research papers about the results, finding that people lost weight in a wide variety of ways, yet there were surprisingly common factors about how weight loss was maintained. Just a few:

  • 47 out of 50 have increased their physical activity, most commonly by walking.
  • 9 in 10 exercise an average of 1 hour a day.
  • 49 out of 50 did modify their food intake in some fashion.
  • They’re doing fewer sedentary activities: 6 in 10 watch less than 10 hours of TV per week(!)

Cut-To-The-Chase Takeaway

Diet and physical activity: we all need to be mindful of both – for our health, our weight, and our enjoyment of life. Let’s make a point of enjoying the benefits of each, and be glad we can.

HERE’S YOUR PRIMER ON “FINE” CHOCOLATE!

**NEWSFLASH**  I’ve joined the website The Chocolate Life, as author and contributor.  Check out my posts here

It’s nearing Valentine’s Day, a.k.a., The Big Chocolate Holiday, and fine chocolate is top of mind for many. (It’s on my mind 365 days a year.) Describing chocolate as “fine” however, may not mean what you think.

The National Confectioner’s Association has their own way of distinguishing “fine” chocolate from what they call “premium” and “mainstream” chocolate. I’ll “cut-to-the-chase”:

  • Mainstream: This is your widely distributed, familiar-to-everyone chocolate you see in the supermarket, convenience stores, newsstands, airports, etc. Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars are some of the largest companies in the US making mainstream chocolate. Typically less than $8/pound.
  • Premium: You’ll find it in supermarkets, on the “higher-end” shelf.  Think Lindt, Green and Black, Ghirardelli, Ferrero, and the like. Some of these companies also operate their own boutiques, with varieties or flavors that may not be available in mainstream chocolate. Typically at least $11/pound.
  • Fine: Here we get into the “craft” and artisan chocolate. Usually the makers are smaller companies that source their cocoa beans from specific nations, regions, or directly from the cacao farmer him/herself. Sometimes they do “varietal” bars using only cacao beans from a particular nation or region of a nation. They often tell you on the wrapper the process they go through to make the bar, and some tasting notes to look for, similar to a label on fine wine. Price? High and higher. I’ve seen bars that might be $9 but are tiny, only 25 GRAMS (less than an ounce!). That translates to over $150/pound.  See below for an explanation.

The Cocoa Beans

Cocoa beans come in many varieties, but the three main ones are:

  • Forastero: grown in all cacao-growing regions but most comes from West Africa. It’s the heartiest and the easiest cocoa bean to grow, and makes up about 80% of global production. Flavor-wise, it has a reputation for having a less complex flavor profile, but there are some exceptions, noted below.
  • Criollo: the finest variety without question, prized for its nuanced flavor, dependent on the “terroir”, soil conditions, and of course, how the farmer handles it. It brings the highest price, so all fine chocolatiers want it, but it’s also finicky to grow. Most is grown in South America and it makes up only 5% of the global supply of cacao. A sub-category is the Porcelana cocoa. Absolutely fabulous, and the “Tiffany” of chocolate. Melts in your mouth and melts your credit card.
  • Trinitario: this is a hybrid of the first two, first developed in Trinidad but now grown in other regions. It has some of the fabulous flavor nuances of the Criollo bean but also some of the heartiness of Forastero, so it’s a lot easier to grow than Criollo beans.
  • Heirloom: these are varieties – often of Forastero beans – that are not widely grown and usually native to a particular region. Best known is the Arriba Nacional bean from Ecuador. It has a designated origin, meaning that no bean can be so named unless it’s from this varietal grown in this region.

Why’s The Price So High?

Fine chocolate — especially “craft” or artisan chocolate — isn’t cheap. It just isn’t. Small craft chocolatiers can’t buy in bulk, and the best cocoa beans are produced in relatively small quantities. At every point on the road from bean to bar, it’s labor-intensive work.

Be sure what you’re paying for, though. Elaborately decorated boxes and packaging, especially around special holidays, make a great gifts, but when buying for myself, I skip it. If it’s truly fine chocolate, I also shy away from bars that have lots of “bulk items” added. When bars are loaded with whole hazelnuts, macadamias or dried cranberries, they bring curb appeal but also add non-chocolate weight. If I’m paying $10 or $12 for a 75-gram bar of artisan chocolate, I don’t want cheaper add-ons taking up space!  Flavorings, OK. Groceries, no. Just a personal preference. 

Mindful Enjoyment!

I liken a high-quality craft chocolate bar to good wine. I don’t gulp either one. Just savor, enjoy, and don’t rush it.

Final word: The above is my take on fine chocolate.  You deserve your own preferences so eat the chocolate YOU enjoy!  

 

Resolutions? OUT! Habits Are The New Black

New Year’s resolutions?  Ho-hum.  According to a new study, most New Year’s resolutions, at least those related to eating and dieting, peter out by mid-February. These researchers tabulated data on Internet-searches for recipes from popular diets. This methodology has weaknesses, but the results were interesting.

Best Diets for “Adherence”

New Year dieters stayed longest on Weight Watchers, Paleo, and Low-Carb diets, if you can call 6 weeks “long”. South Beach fared the worst – after only 3 weeks people wanted out.
Lots of people made diet-related resolutions that were more vague: eating less overall (63%) and eating more fruits and vegetables (50%). Exercising more was also popular (63%). Great in the abstract, but generalized goals don’t often translate into concrete steps, which might explain what I’d call the “peter-pout principle”.

Popular Diets ≠ Quality Diets

Other than Weight Watchers, none of the most popular diets were highly valued by the experts in the, US News’ overall “Best Diets of 2021”. Once again, their experts ranked these 3 diets as best overall:

Mediterranean Diet: Plenty of fruits, vegetables, fish, emphasizes healthy fats like olive oil, and nuts, and doesn’t “forbid” anything.

DASH Diet: Helps fight hypertension and manage diabetes but, with its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods, it works for everyone in the family. Also – nothing is prohibited.

Flexitarian Diet: Not a vegetarian diet, but “vegetarian-forward,” focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based protein. Dairy foods, meat, poultry and fish are included, just less.

Experts also rated the Flexitarian Diet tops for weight loss, but remember that weight loss isn’t just about what you eat, but also how much. Any of the above three can work for weight loss and help you eat better.

Unlike the top 3 diets above, popular fad diets get tons of buzz, but their sensationalism come at a cost: strict rules, exclude many foods, or entire food groups. After a few weeks, people feel deprived, so adherence begins to fade.

If you’ve flirted with fad diets, make 2021 your year to get real. Swap out gimmicky diets for evidence-based eating styles that you can stay with long-term and that deliver the goods health-wise. Here are some great tips for achieving your goals:

Goals Are YOURS, No One Else’s

Forget what someone else things you should weigh or how they think you should be eating or exercising. Make a goal that YOU are comfortable with.

Be A Baby About Goal Steps!

Biggest mistake is changing things too fast. We all want fast, dramatic results, but let’s learn from the past: that doesn’t work! Instead, set very small goals that you KNOW you’ll accomplish. Success breeds success, and gives us a mood lift as well.

Losing only 5% of your body weight brings a huge health benefit. If you’re 200 pounds now, that’s just 10 pounds away from better health. When you reach that goal, re-evaluate. Want more? OK, but it’s fine to just sustaining your goal for a while.

Losing 2 pounds per month sounds slow, but it’s 24 pounds in a year, and you may not even have to lose that much.

Go Into The Weeds

Make goals simple and bite-sized. Instead of “eating more fruits and vegetables”, start by just making sure you get one of each sometime during the day. Not a ton, just a half-cup of veggies and a small piece of fruit. Done.  Hate kale?  Ditch it.  Pick a veggie you like — they’ re all fine.

Instead of “I’ll exercise every day”, start with a mini-goal of walking 10 minutes three times this week.

Example: If you’re working from home, borrow 10 minutes from what used to be your commuting time. Each 10 minutes is half a mile and it adds up!

Setbacks Are Normal! So is Pivoting

Having an unplanned cookie doesn’t “shoot the whole day’s (or week’s) diet.” It’s not fatal, it’s a cookie. Keep it in perspective and just resume your goal track. If the setback was something that couldn’t be helped, accept that. It’s called “life.” If it’s something you could have influenced, make a note to anticipate it next time, and how you’ll handle it.

My own example: If a full gym workout isn’t possible, I try and go anyway, for whatever time I can spare. Sometimes I’m in and out in 15 minutes, but it helps me keep the habit going so I don’t get used to skipping it. Gym is closed? Switch to walking. Just do what you can. Not perfect, just better.

Perfect” Is Arbitrary & Useless

It’s also unsustainable, making failure a certainty. Lose the term.  Better is better than perfect! 

 

 

Feeding Your Immune System Takes Guts! How’s Yours?

One nutrition trend that peaked everyone’s interest in 2020 was “immune-boosting foods”. Understandable, too, with COVID-19 keeping the entire world terrified and “sheltering in place”. Outside the home, people were running scared about getting COVID from any place they went for necessities and from everything they touched.

Marketers got right on the fears, emphasizing on their products’ labels and in their ads how their food or supplement “boosted” immunity. They know fear is a great motivator, always has been.

Gut-Level Immunity

Taking good care of your immune system though, means taking care of your gut — vaccine or no vaccine.  Why? The gut, especially the colon, is the nerve center of the immune system. Indeed, 90% of our immune system is located in the gut, so taking good care of your gut also serves your immune system quite well.

The gut is loaded with bacteria though, both good and bad types. The right foods can nurture the good gut organisms and minimize the bad ones that work against us. A few definitions first:

  • PRObiotics: These are live, “good” bacteria that are already in fermented foods we eat.
  • PREbiotics: Fancy term for plant fiber. Since we can’t digest it, it passes through to our colons, where it becomes food for healthy bacteria, helping them grow and proliferate.

Examples of Probiotic Foods

  Yogurt: Look for “live & active cultures” on the label.

To “cut-to-the-chase” and get good bacteria right into your gut immediately, eat foods that already have good bacteria, the PRObiotic foods. Look for “live and active cultures: on food labels to make sure the food contains enough good bugs to actually matter. Some excellent ones:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Tempeh (fermented soybeans and often includes some whole grains)
  • Miso – another type of fermented soybean, usually seen as a paste. Adds great flavor to soups and foods like salad dressings.
  • Kimchi (this is high in sodium, so not ideal for everyone)
  • Miso (fermented soybean paste)
  • Sauerkraut (another high-sodium choice)
  • Some cheeses – but the bacteria in cheese has to survive the aging process. Some that do: mozzarella, cheddar. Have another look at cottage cheese. It can have probiotics too, if the label says, “contains live and active cultures”.

Examples of Prebiotic Foods

These don’t have bacteria, but they have lots of good fiber to FEED the good guys in your gut and help grow more. These take the longer-term approach, but these are also foods that healthful diets need anyway, so forge ahead. Some great ones are:

  • All fruits and vegetables. Yes, all of them, so eat the ones you like, preferably one or more at each meal. Raw ones will have more fiber, but don’t obsess about this.
  • All beans – kidney beans, pink beans, the ever-loving garbanzo, and my personal favorite: elephant beans from Greece.
  • Peas and lentils. Beans are actually a vegetable, but they’re also loaded with protein and get placed into many food groups. Doesn’t matter, get some beans on most days, please.
  • Whole grain bread and cereals.
  • Brown rice, wild rice.
  • “Ancient grains” like quinoa, teff, and spelt.

Refined grains don’t have much fiber, so eat whole grains whenever you have the option. Whole grain cereal is super-easy now, as most of the “big name” cereals have at least half their grains as whole grains. Some pastas are made with partial whole grains, so they’re another source.

Can Pre- & Probiotic Foods “Boost” Your Immune System?

Yes and no. A vaccine is really the only way to truly “boost” the immune system and produce antibodies. Moreover, you don’t WANT a supercharged immune system – that results in over-recognizing substances as harmful agents when they really aren’t. It’s what happens in auto-immune disorders, where the body turns on itself, causing inflammatory responses that shouldn’t be there.

Immune SUPPORT should be the goal, and the foods listed above can help.

The Science Behind The Food: HOW Pre- and Probiotics Work

A just-published review of clinical trials of probiotics and fermented foods found that these directly influenced certain circulating immunoglobulins (Ig), especially salivary secretion of IgA, one of the blood proteins your body makes to help fight disease.

Beyond the immune system, prebiotics have been shown to have metabolic and health benefits.  This scientific review acknowledged, “The prebiotic effect has been shown to associate with modulation of biomarkers and activity(ies) of the immune system.” The authors specifically noted evidence supporting a healthy gut in modulating conditions such as type 2 diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome.

Cut To The Chase Takeaway

Evidence is building: probiotic foods and foods with prebiotic fiber have a positive influence on our health, including our immune systems.  They’re also delicious, and there are lots of options to enjoy.  

Know MSG & You’ll Never “No MSG”!

NO:TE: I’ve partnered with The Glutamate Association for many years, but this post is strictly my own – all based on science and any views are my own.

I love dispelling food myths. There’s so much “fear of food”, and how food myths get started is as varied as the myths themselves.  

No food or ingredient illustrates this better than monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Based on a physician’s single letter to the editor of a medical journal, back in 1969, noting symptoms after having eaten in a Chinese restaurant.  Of the possible causes he suggested, the only one that stuck was MSG: Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was born and went viral immediately – WAY before the internet! 

MSG had been used for decades with no reported issues, but suddenly fear of MSG dominated and all hell broke loose, launching dozens of research studies on the effects of MSG. 

Bottom line, years of clinical studies showed nothing: no connection to headaches, palpitations or any of the symptoms attributed to MSG.  A new website, knowMSG.com is loaded with the facts — and lots of delicious recipes (including for the dishes you see here), demonstrating what MSG can do to enhance the flavor of healthful food. 

MSG Is Simple: 2 Components

It’s just sodium and glutamate, and we have BOTH in our bodies at all times. Sodium is an electrolyte that’s critical for numerous body processes, including the nervous system, heart and circulatory function, every organ needs sodium. Yes, we get too much, but MSG can actually help there. Keep reading.

Glutamate, or glutamic acid, is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein. Glutamate is in all protein foods, but we don’t need to get it from protein because our bodies MAKE IT THEMSELVES – to the tune of about 50 grams a day. That’s why it’s not an “essential” amino acid. It’s far more than you’d ever get from eating anything with MSG.

True Or False: “Umami” = Glutamate

TRUE!  Chefs speak about “umami”, the fifth taste, and it’s what every chef wants more of in food, that intensity of flavor that makes food of all cuisines so delicious. Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, anchovies, seaweed, beef, even broccoli — they’re they’re all NATURALLY loaded with glutamate, giving them a savory umami taste.

It’s always been in breast milk, too.  Human breast milk has 10 times more free glutamate than cow’s milk — maybe to make it appealing to infants, so they’ll feed more readily?  

10 Reasons Why This Nutritionist Likes MSG:

  1. It’s simple, just 2 components, sodium and glutamate. 
  2. Glutamate has many roles in the body, but mostly fuels the functions of our digestive and immune systems – that’s why 95% if it is in our gut.
  3. Virtually ALL credible research shows no ill effects from MSG.
  4. Safety of MSG is backed by science, and confirmed by all global regulatory bodies. MSG is safe, period.
  5. It’s LOWER in sodium than salt! Gram-for-gram, it has 62% less sodium than sodium chloride (the familiar salt used in cooking).
  6. By swapping half a recipe’s salt for MSG, you intensify flavor BETTER but also lower the sodium. Lower sodium, but enhanced taste — I like “win-wins”.
  7. Glutamate is in many foods I don’t want to live without: parmesan cheese, tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, and many more. These foods are loved my many cultures for their unique flavor, and glutamate is an important part of that flavor.
  8. Nearly everyone needs to eat more vegetables.  MSG can help us get there by amping up the flavor of those veggies.  Another win-win.
  9. MSG is derived from plants, and made through fermentation – much like the process to produce beef, soy sauce or vinegar. What’s fermented? Usually starch from corn, or molasses from sugar cane or sugar beets.
  10. Glutamate = “umami”.  Umami is the 5th taste that all chefs aim for, and is a critical component of the umami taste. Research suggests having umami-rich broth before meals may even help promote healthful food choices and eating behaviors in people at risk for obesity. 

Cut to the Chase Take-Away

It’s time to swap food myths for food FACTS.  With MSG, the facts TASTE better and are better for us — there’s that win-win again!

Comfort Food Alert! 3 Top Nutritionists Share Theirs (No Kale Here!)

If there were EVER a time when we want comfort food, it’s now.  Sure, we want nutrition, but “in these challenging times” (getting overused!), we want what we know will make us feel better, even if just for a while.

What makes a food a “comfort food”? 

There’s no single comfort food; everyone has their own.  They can be specific (“my mother’s meatloaf”) but can also be a category of foods: “any kind of cheese.” 

How a food becomes a “comfort food” is as diverse as each person.  Registered dietitian-nutritionists (RDNs) like comfort food, too, so I asked some registered dietitian-nutritionists what their fave comfort foods are, and their responses might surprise you: 

Leslie Bonci has an arsenal of comfort foods.  “To me, comfort food is sense-surround with eye appeal, aroma, flavor and texture,” she said.  Her comfort foods range from spicy chili with crushed tortillas, to a bowl of pasta fagioli with crispy onions on top, or a season-specific pumpkin pie with a gingersnap-orange zest crust. 

Any time of year she’s up for sharp cheese, crispbread, pickles and grapes.  I’d bet the feature photo (courtesy of  Aliona Gumeniuk) would be VERY comfortable for Bonci!

Nicole Rodriguez believes whatever food you like can be worked into your healthy eating style (Go Nicole!).  “When I think comfort food, it has to be something unfailingly satisfying.  And for me, that’s a cheeseburger!  Combining beef, dairy, grains, and maybe just a smidge of vegetables (pickles and ketchup count, don’t they?), this American classic never fails to please.” 

Rodriguez doesn’t leave home for her comfort food, either.   “Instead of it being a restaurant indulgence, I prepare them at home with a side of roasted vegetables or a salad.”  She also has a hack for keeping the indulgence in check by keeping it all about the cheeseburger, not the fries.  “The fries have become an unnecessary afterthought.”   

 

Comfort Food Brings Memories

All of Barbara Baron’s comfort foods take her back to childhood and her Italian heritage, and family food experiences.  Like Bonci, Baron has several comfort foods.  “Shucking FRESH cranberry beans in their shells/pods and preparing them with green beans, garlic, olive oil and tomato sauce, as every good Italian dish starts.” 

That healthy “Holy Trinity” of garlic, EVOO, and tomato sauce pop up in the Swiss chard her mother made, “adding some cubed end chunks of Parmesan, if they were around.”  She loved how the cheese would remain firm on the inside but melted on the outside and she looked for these specially.  “It was like finding Waldo amid the Swiss Chard,” she said. 

Baron can go more indulgent for comfort food, too, noting, “Great family gatherings of making homemade potato gnocchi with my grandmother. When I see them on the restaurant menu it brings a smile to my face and a flood of memories of making these in my grandmother’s kitchen with my aunts and uncle.  It was a full-blown family affair!”

 

Eating For Comfort: What Does the Research Say?

Readers of this column know I like evidence.  Is there a health or emotional benefits from eating your comfort food? 

The evidence suggests some people get more benefit from comfort food than others do.  This paper reviewed the research on comfort food and concluded that people scoring higher on tests of emotional eating were more likely to find immediate benefit from comfort food.  Not surprising, but it’s normal to sometimes find yourself eating to feel better or cope with some stresses of life.  Most of us do that at least once in a while. 

No Comfort Food?  It Happens!

Not everyone heads to food when they need some TLC.  Some people do just the opposite – they turn away from food when stressed.  There seems to be a gender difference also. This study found that women experiencing stressful events such as the deaths of family or friends, relocation, or job changes are more likely to gain weight and see increases in body mass index (BMI).

This doesn’t mean that men don’t get stressed from life events, only that they may be less likely to head to food as a coping mechanism.  

Cut-To-The-Chase Takeaway

The effect of comfort food is immediate, but not long-lasting.  If you find yourself overdoing the comfort food, it’s time to cultivate other ways to cope with everyday stress.    Developing “non-food” interests that give us satisfaction, is a must.  Physical activity gets those brain endorphins hopping too, making us feel a little (or a lot) better and more able to handle what comes our way (and burns off some of those comfort calories!), but hobbies, a hot bath, or spending some time playing with your pet are other examples.  Especially in “these challenging times” have as many varied ways as you can to push that comfort button.

Post-Halloween! Where to Cut Back on Sugar – And Where NOT To!

Every diet, whether faddish or sensible, recommends cutting back on sugar.  Even if your weight is fine, sugar reduction is top-of-mind when you’re talking about strategies to improve your diet and health.

The World Health Organization recommends cutting sugar to 10% of calories, but strongly encourages no more than 5%.  The 2020 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recent recommendations were to keep added sugar calories to a max of 6% of total calories. 

What The Heck Does “6% Of Total Calories” Look Like? 

Using a 2000-calorie “reference diet”, which is just an average amount of calories needed by the “average person” (and that’s an average of men’s and women’s needs, so very general), it means added sugar would be limited to 6% of 2000 calories, or 120 calories a day.  Looked at in grams, it’s about 30 grams of added sugar, just a tad over one ounce!

That’s a modest amount, compared to the 93 grams – about 372 calories – that the “average” person eats each day now.  It adds up to 75 pounds of sugar in a year – more than triple what is recommended.

It’s Not All Bad

On the plus side, we’re eating less than we have in 20 years.  A recent analysis from the Pew Research Institute found that, in 1999, “each person consumed an average of 90.2 pounds of added caloric sweeteners a year,” or about 449 calories a day. 

A decline of 75 sugar calories a day is great, but we have a long way to go to meet up with current recommendations.

Where Are Our 93 Grams/day Of Sugar Coming From?

Media will have you believing that added sugar is everywhere, in our cereals, yogurt, even in condiments like ketchup and, salad dressing.  But the vast majority of our added sugar comes from 2 sources: sugary drinks, and empty-calorie sweets.  Let’s look at the data

Beverages  47%
Snacks/Sweets 31%
Grains 8%
Mixed Dishes 6%
Dairy (milk/yogurt/kefir) 4%
Condiments 2%
Vegetables 1%
Fruit Juice 1%

 

How “Empty” Is Your Diet?

Some quick math tells us that calories from beverages like soda, powdered drink mixes, fruit-flavored drinks, and sports and energy drinks along with sweets like pastries and candy add up to 78% of our added sugar calories.  These are all “empty-calories” because they deliver just calories, and few, if any, nutrients, even if they’re homemade and really taste good.  Note: 100% fruit juice has no added sugar, so isn’t included here.

We can also see that 22% of added sugar calories are coming from other foods, including dairy, grains, fruits and veggies, and mixed dishes (think a little added sugar to the sauce in the frozen lasagna, that sort of thing).

Getting Cultured & Grainy

The breakfast cereal you worry about?  The sugar in your yogurt?  The chocolate milk your kids And many of us adults) like? These are in the grains and dairy groups and here’s why probably don’t need to be concerned with the added sugar here:

  1. These foods are loaded with nutrients, and
  2. These food categories are providing only 12% of the added sugars in most diets.

That 12% is important.  It means that, of our 75 grams of daily added sugar, only 12%, or about 9 grams, is coming from those foods. 

Added Sugar: Cutting Back Is Easier Than You Think

A little more math: 22% of the 93 grams of average daily added sugar intake amounts to 21 grams/84 calories.  That’s even less than the 30 grams/120 calories recommended by the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee!

If you choose to “spend” your 120 calories of added sugar each day on foods like whole-grain sweetened cereal and/or fat-free yogurt, you won’t hear a word from this nutritionist.  Indeed, a little added sugar can help drive consumption of nutrient-rich foods.  Personally, I favor Greek yogurt because it’s higher in protein, and usually has even less added sugar.  That’s quibbling though.  The choice is yours. 

As for where to spend those leftover other 9 grams of added sugar, followers of CutToTheChaseNutrition.com know of my fondness for dark chocolate.  An ounce of 70% chocolate will have about 9 grams of added sugar.  Done. And happy!   

 

 

 

A REALLY Plant-Based Meal — With Beef!

When people tell me “I don’t eat meat, I’m plant-based,” the implication is that plant-based diets can’t include meat, poultry, or fish.

They can!  “Plant-based” means only that a majority of the diet comes from plants.  Period.  That said, being “plant-based” tells nothing about the QUALITY of someone’s diet.  You can eat nothing but candy and soda and have a “plant-based diet.”  You can live on nothing but kale — a terrific food and all-plant — but both diets would be unbalanced.

Balanced: The Size That Matters  

If you want to eat a plant-based diet but also include meat, what’s the right portion?

Less than you think.  Figure 3- to 4-oz. of meat, poultry, or fish are definitely enough protein in any meal, because this amount provides about 28 grams of protein.  You’ll have several more grams from the grains, starches, and vegetables that balance the meal, bringing you well over the 30 grams of protein for the meal.  That’s definitely enough protein!

Why?  Because the body can’t utilize more than 30-35 grams at a time, so any extra will just be converted to energy or, if the meal has too many calories, stored in fat tissue.

This huge platter has 4-oz. of ribeye. It served one, and is not vegan, but TOTALLY plant-based!

I’m an omnivore, but I’m also a huge fan of produce (seriously, I can’t get enough veggies and fruit).  The sliced ribeye in the platter you see at the right was exactly 4-oz., half the weight of the ribeye.  It’s one way we make an expensive cut of beef go farther — as it should.  It also leaves plenty of space on your plate for the other foods we like and need and that balance the meal.

Being a Plant-Based Omnivore

I like simple and easy meals, but they have to taste good.  Here’s how I made this dish.  It’s a “guide” and it’s quite adaptable:

  • Take an 8-oz. ribeye, grill or fry it (I used a grill pan) to medium doneness (internal temperature of 145°F ). Let it rest for about 10 minutes.
  • Combine all the fresh veggies you like in a large bowl. Include a little fruit if you like (we do). This one is a platter of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and red pears.
  • Divide the salad among two platters.
  • Slice the ribeye into 1/4″ slices and put half the slices on each of the two platters.
  • Add a fresh herb (optional, but if they’re on hand, add them). I topped the platter with julienned broad-leaf thyme because it grows like a weed on my windowsill, but fresh mint or basil is just as delicious.
  • A teaspoon of grated Parmesan adds umami.
  • Drizzle with EVOO and balsamic vinegar, or your favorite dressing, but please don’t drown it. You want the flavors of the ingredients to shine through.

All the produce here came from our local farmers market this time, but use whatever you have.  It’s easy to substitute leftover chicken, deboned, or grilled fish.  Salmon works especially well, but I’ve also done this with canned salmon and sardines.  (Laugh if you must, but both are loaded with omega-3s, inexpensive, and great to have in the pantry!  I like them packed in water.)  

This simple recipe is just a template, but there are dozens more chef-developed, delicious recipes at: beefitswhatsfordinner.com.  The Mediterranean Beef & Salad Pita in the featured photo is one of them.  Takes 30 minutes and uses budget-friendly 80% lean  ground beef, or go even leaner with 95% ground beef.  Adapt it with your own touches! 

More Than Ever, We Need “Polypills” & “Activity Snacks”

Even “BC” (before COVID), much of the world was pretty sedentary, and our new “pandemic lifestyles” haven’t helped. Now a new WHO report says worldwide levels of physical activity have been flat for nearly 20 years. This varies by country, but globally about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men, are not meeting guidelines for adequate activity.

What’s “Adequate Physical Activity”?

This is defined as 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (think brisk walking) per week, OR 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week (whatever has you huffing).

The WHO report was sobering. Sedentary lifestyles may be how our lives evolved in modern-day society, but they aren’t what we are built for. Still, such physical inactivity is a big negative on our health.

The Reasons We Don’t “Exercise”

I’ve used all of these over the years, so if they sound familiar, you’re not alone:

  • Gym memberships are expensive (and possibly still closed).
  • I’m not seeing changes I expected to my body.
  • I don’t know “the right way” to exercise. I don’t have the right shoes.
  • I’m too busy and stressed out.
  • It’s too cold/hot.

Add in family responsibilities and any physical limitations and the list seems endless.

Revving Back Up: Let’s Ask A Pro

I decided to call on an internationally respected colleague, Chris Rosenbloom, nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University, and author of Food & Fitness After 50 about ways to encourage us to be more active.
Dr. Rosenbloom knows the benefits of better fitness, but says communicating it well is key. “When we talk about ‘exercise’, some people are turned off but when put it in terms of ‘activity’, it can be more palatable.”

Rosenbloom also has the same feelings about “exercise” as everyone else. “I know for me, when I use an exercise bike in the gym I can’t wait for the timer to go off and be done with it, but when I ride my bike outside I can go forever.” Rosenbloom encourages everyone to do what they like to do. “Dancing, gardening, walking the dog, riding bikes…all of those are more fun than an hour of high intensity exercise in a gym.”

If you’re more home-based now, she advises checking into some great sites for online fitness classes. Among her favorites are FitnessBlender.com (totally free!) and, for older folks, Silver Sneakers (often free with Medicare plans).

The Value to YOU

Even a little strength training makes everyday tasks SO much easier!

 

It’s OK to make all the health benefits of activity secondary: focus on fitness that’s meaningful to you. Rosenbloom calls this “functional fitness” – having the ability to do things you like to do without being hindered by fatigue from weaker muscles. She’s encourages at least some strength training. “You can see the results very quickly…admire that bicep and it can keep you motivated to continue to lift weights!” Lugging those groceries gets easier, too.

“Sometimes it is hard to get to an exercise class, take that walk, or turn on the video,” Rosenbloom said, but keep your eye on the payoff. “I’ve never, ever said to myself, ‘Wow, I’m sorry I worked out.’” Instead, she gets a lift from a sense of accomplishment, “and that makes me feel good,” she noted.

Rosenbloom is spot-on – I’m always happier afterwards. My own motivation to be active daily is two-fold: it busts stress and really lifts my mood. If I don’t have time for the full exercise routine, then I just do what I have time for.

“Activity snacks”

Being active doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment to bring big bennies, Rosenbloom says. “Be active in 10-minute increments throughout the day.” Tied to your computer all day? She favors “activity snacks.” “Take 5 or 10 minutes every hour to do easy things like walk up and down the stairs, use therabands for bicep curls, do some walking lunges, or simply stretch in a forward fold.

I like this. It’s not just “being active” but also “less sedentary”. Doing those little things during the day also helps prevent muscle stiffness.

Taking a “Polypill”?

Yes, daily, or as often as you can.  Exercise is not only medicine, it’s a medication that has innumerable benefits, what Rosenbloom calls a “polypill”.  “It has many benefits that no prescription medicine can match,” she says, including physically, mentally, and even socially. “Activity helps in so many ways.”

This post dedicated to Diane Likas Ayoob, January 5, 1928 – September 21, 2020, who firmly believed in the polypill of physical activity.

Obese? Canadian Docs Say It’s About Health, Not The Scale

I’ve worked with so many overweight and obese adults and children whose weight was seriously impacting their health: diabetes, hypertension, back and joint pain, the works.  But not all overweight people experience these problems.   Some overweight patients have told me they’re happy with their weight and don’t feel hindered by it.   

As a health professional, I know and see the risks of having too much weight.  But what about the overweight person who has normal blood pressure and lab values, a good quality of life, generally feels good.  They ask, “do I still need to lose weight?”

Not necessarily, say the doctors of Obesity Canada.  The Canadian Adult Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines (CPGs), a two-year effort by the Obesity Canada and the Canadian Association of Bariatric Physicians and Surgeons, was authored by over 60 physicians.  They reviewed over 500 published studies and a formed a consensus of both clinical and scientific issues related to weight gain.

These guidelines focus on health & quality of life,                      not “ideal weight”, as goals.

Why I Like These Guidelines

They state the facts:  Obesity is a complex chronic disease that predisposes a person to many disease conditions, including:

  • Hypertension
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Gout
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Numerous cancers: colon, kidney, post-menopausal breast, esophagus

They also admit that the causes of obesity are multi-faceted, and can include genetics, individual behavior, metabolic factors, and the person’s living environment impact a person’s weight.  I’d add social factors to this as well.

BUT – and this is just as important – they emphasized that managing it is not all about the number on the scale!  It’s just as much about overall health, quality of life, and lifespan.  Bravo!

One Size Fits ONE!

These guidelines push personalized treatment.  It’s the INDIVIDUAL’s journey, not the physician’s.  Yes, the medical pieces are important.  You can’t advise which road to take if you don’t know where you are.  After that however, being effective takes more: meeting each person where they are at that point in time, how they live, and what their own goals are.  That may include not wanting intervention right then. 

All hands on deck!

These docs admit they can’t do it alone.  Obesity has many causes and therefore needs many components of treatment and a multidisciplinary approach: 

  • Medical nutrition therapy (MNT): Eureka! The physicians of Canada recognize that personalized counseling from a registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN) is critical!  It’s evidence-based but individually focused.   
  • Exercise: 30-60 minutes of “vigorous” activity on most days. No worries here – remember everything is individualized.
  • Use all appropriate tools: medication, if needed, referrals for cognitive behavioral therapy, even psychotherapy if needed, and bariatric surgery as a last resort.

It’s “Best Weight” Not “Ideal Weight”

“Ideal weight” may be an unrealistic goal for many, especially if they’ve been overweight for years.  That’s OK.  The goal should be better HEALTH first, and whatever weight you are when you’re doing healthy behaviors – whatever weight that is. 

Silver lining: Even losing 3-5% of initial body weight reduces your health risks.  Just do what you can. 

  QUALITY of life is everything!

Cut-To-The-Chase Takeaway

These CPGs don’t give permission to disregard the pursuit of healthy behaviors and lifestyles.  They focus on YOUR best health.  That means striking that sweet spot between doing what you need to do and not leaving out what you most enjoy.  It’s not the same for everyone, so have a chat with your doctor.   The goal is better health, and better QUALITY OF LIFE.  Obsession with the scale isn’t healthy!