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.

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.

COVID-19 Got You Depressed? Could Probiotics Help?

Whether COVID-19 has you sheltering-in-place, quarantining, or just frustrated by not being able to have your usual life, lots of people seem a little down in the dumps, grumpy, and yes,  even “depressed”.  The “life sucks now” feelings are real, but different from true clinical depression, which can happen for no observable reason. 

Could “Bacteria” Improve Mood?

The right kind of bacteria – probiotics – just might help truly depressed people, even those who on antidepressant medication.  This just-published study reviewed clinical research on the impact probiotic supplements had on people formally diagnosed with clinical depression.  

Probiotics are what give Greek (& regular) yogurt that tangy taste. 

Probiotics are live healthy bacteria, found in cultured foods like yogurt, kimchi, and kefir.  These are different from PRE-biotics, which are various types of dietary fiber found in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and beans.  Prebiotic fiber feeds the growth of probiotic bacteria in the gut.  

What The Results Showed

In the 7 studies that met the criteria for inclusion in the review, all found that probiotic supplementation “demonstrated a significant, quantitatively evident, decrease/improvement of symptoms and/or biochemically relevant measures of anxiety and/or depression for probiotic or combined prebiotic– probiotic use.”  Whether the studies used one strain of probiotics or multiple strains, the results showed improvement in reducing depression symptoms. 

Moreover, in one of the studies that also measured “quality of life”, it increased with supplementation but returned to baseline 8 weeks after the supplementation stopped.

Why Probiotics Helped

If something works, I always want to know WHY, and this paper suggests a mechanism for how probiotics might help depression.

The gut is known to be the center of our immune system, and when probiotics have been found to be useful, as they have with conditions like ulcerative colitis, it’s often because of their ability to reduce inflammation by suppressing the production of some annoying substances, called “cytokines”. 

The gut also is known to connect with the brain via the “gut-brain axis”, part of the central nervous system, so “food and mood”, or the notion that what’s happening in one’s GI tract could impact one’s emotional state has weight behind it.

The “Fine Print” 

It would be great to learn that just by having some yogurt, your mood would soar, but alas, reality must be acknowledged.  These studies looked at persons with diagnosed, measurable depression.  Those who got the probiotic supplements seemed to become less depressed, but those supplements contained higher doses of probiotics than you’d get from a cup of yogurt. 

Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans & contains lots of probiotics, plus protein & fiber!

Probiotic foods and supplements may not be useful mood-boosters if you’re just having a down day, but there are plenty of reasons to eat foods that naturally contain probiotic bacteria, like these:

  • Yogurt, including Greek yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Tempeh
  • Miso
  • Kimchi

Look for “Live and Active Cultures” on yogurt and kefir labels, to be sure they contain useful amounts of probiotics. 

“Live & active cultures” guarantees a high amount of probiotic bacteria.

These being dairy foods, they also have a whole lot of essential nutrients we need, especially calcium and potassium, to help fill gaps in most people’s diets.

The main ingredient in kimchi is cabbage, and it’s fermented soybeans in tempeh, so they both have PRE-biotic fiber, too.  Heads up, if you’re sodium-sensitive: Miso and Kimchi can be loaded with sodium.  

Is there a down side to getting probiotic bacteria?   So far, there doesn’t seem to be, especially if you get them from food.  Getting some probiotics daily though, gives you the most benefit, and the study found this as well: depression returned when the probiotics stopped. 

Even if probiotic foods don’t lift your mood, you can definitely feel good about adding some healthy foods to your eating style!

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!

No, I Don’t Care If Kids Eat Candy on Halloween

Letting kids loose on Halloween doesn’t have to mean all hell breaks loose afterwards.

Halloween is a once-a-year occasion.  I’m focused on what kids do the other 364 days of the year.  If they’re eating well on those other days, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with letting them enjoy Halloween!

Every year around this time I get a ton of questions from parents about what to “allow” kids to eat on Halloween, how much candy to let them collect and keep, and what kind of candy is “best” to give out on Halloween.

Sugar Shakedown

No, sugar won’t make them hyperactive.  They might have a burst of energy, but the whole “sugar-gives-them-a-buzz” thing has been completely dismissed.  The rigorous science just doesn’t show anything.  Actually, a high-sugar snack has even been shown to help keep you on-task.  I’m NOT encouraging more sugar.  It’s not angel food, but not devil’s food, and it’s not a new food, either.  Just keep it real.

Your Homework: Laying the Groundwork

Planning ahead is everything here.  Kids (and adults) don’t like sudden, unexpected changes, especially to their eating habits.  Here are a few tips to help things go smoothly on the big day:

  • Be real about how much you buy. You know how many kids typically visit you, so get enough for THEM.  Buy with an eye to having as few leftovers as possible.
  • If you’ve already bought the candy, let the kids know ahead of time about the plan for leftovers: share with neighbors, you’re bringing them into work for co-workers, making up a bag for a child who couldn’t Trick-or-Treat (a nice thing to do for a child who is ill), and so on.
  • Buy only the smallest portions of candy! No full-sized bars, just the little mini things.  That way even with leftover stuff, the treat is reduced to a bite, not a commitment.

Tricks Before Treats

The idea to reinforce to kids is to “take care of business” first, by spending calories on the foods we need.  If there’s anything left, have a treat and enjoy it.  That’s the eating style I want kids to have 364 days a year.

  • Keep only the “top 10%” – their absolute fave candies. The rest gets donated or shared with others.  Quickly – like, get it out of the house the next day. (Note: For me, candy corn got tossed first thing!  Never could stand the stuff, even as a kid!)
  • Make it social! Halloween is also about dressing up, hanging with friends, and walking the neighborhood. This applies to all holidays or occasions.  It helps them see food and eating in perspective.
  • Never make candy a “reward” for good behavior (save that for training the dog), but see it as a teachable moment. Candy is an “extra”, it provides mostly empty “discretionary calories” so treat it that way.  It’s something to have in a small amount AFTER the rest of needs are met.

“What Does the Research Say”?

Yes, someone actually did a study on whether seeing Michelle Obama’s face (versus other political women’s faces) might influence them to choose a box of raisins or a small name-brand candy bar.  Connecticut home.  Three years of Halloween.  Kids were directed randomly to either of two sides of the porch – one with Michelle Obama’s pic, the other side pics of other political women (Hillary, Ann Romney, or no photo) and asked if they wanted a box of raisins or a small candy bar.  Authors described the community as politically liberal.

Result: The kids on the Obama side were 19% more likely to choose the box of raisins than the candy.

Great, but there was no info on whether the kids then ATE the fruit.  After all, no food can be nutritious until you EAT it.  Ironically, the box of raisins is about the same calories as the small candy.

Cut-To-The-Chase-Nutrition Take-Away

Halloween can be a blast.  It should be.  It’s also over in a day so enjoy it fully.  On other days, it’s about getting what you need first: the fruits, veggies, whole grains and dairy foods FIRST.  Be active, FIRST.  Those are the tricks, before the treats.

Wanna “Meat Up”? New Research Says Risks Are Lower Than Thought

Well, the meat wars have resumed. When new research suggests that the advice people have heard to eat less meat might have been based on weak evidence, and the New York Times sees fit to make it front page news, you know it’ll be one of the most talked about topics in the food and nutrition world. Pass the popcorn.

It was bound to happen: red meat has been touted as unhealthy, processed meat even worse. Yet lean meat is nutrient-rich and can have a place in your diet if you so desire it.  Several new studies, all published September 30 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, concluded the following:

• “The absolute effects of red and processed meat consumption on cancer mortality and incidence are very small, and the evidence is low to very low”.

• “Low- or very-low-certainty evidence suggests that dietary patterns with less red and processed meat intake may result in very small reductions in adverse cardiometabolic and cancer outcomes.”

• The panel conducting the research made a “weak recommendation” for consumers to continue their consumption of meat, noting that “the desirable effects (a potential lowered risk for cancer and cardiometabolic outcomes) associated with reducing meat consumption probably do not outweigh the undesirable effects (impact on quality of life, burden of modifying cultural and personal meal preparation and eating habits).”

• Regarding reduction of cancer and heart-related diseases, they found “Low- or very-low-certainty evidence suggests that dietary patterns with less red and processed meat intake may result in very small reductions in adverse cardiometabolic and cancer outcomes.”

• Omnivores happen to like eating meat and were averse to changing, even “when faced with potentially undesirable health effects.”

Meat Wars & Culture Wars

None of these latest studies addressed animal welfare or environmental impact of meat consumption. The EAT-Lancet report did however, and looked at an omnivore diet from an environmental and sustainability standpoint, namely that eating meat and all animal foods was unsustainable for the planet. This could be perceived as strategic, as it makes the consumption of animal foods an issue for virtually everyone, not just people interested in health. This “bad-for-the-planet” approach strives to change global dietary culture, almost excluding the consumption of meat and most animal foods.

One thing seldom addressed: meat and animal foods as part of food culture:

• Are the Spanish going to forego their famous Iberian ham, which goes into so many dishes, even diced and added to sautéed vegetables?

• Are the Italians ready to give up their prosciutto and melon?

• Is it realistic to expect cultures to bid farewell to Peking duck? Shish-kebob? Sauerbraten? Sega Wat (Ethiopian beef stew)?  

• Would the French give up omelets?  Cheese, yogurt and milk?

These foods are rooted in centuries of culture and history the world over. As for eating meat, people happen to like it. One of the studies in the Annals concluded that omnivores happen to like eating meat and were averse to changing, even “when faced with potentially undesirable health effects.”

But Are YOU overeating Beef?

Right now, average daily intake of beef is about 2 ounces, or 14 ounces per week. If you keep it to that, and choose the many lean cuts that are available now, you’re probably fine and are also getting the best of the nutrition that beef has to offer. Dairy foods are even more efficiently produced, provide excellent nutrition, and are under-consumed (and underappreciated, IMHO). Make sure to include these, especially low-fat yogurt and milk, if you eat animal foods.

Omnivores can – and should – maintain a plant-based diet, so aim for plenty of fruits, veggies, and beans.

As for the planet, all agriculture in the US generates about 9% of the country’s greenhouse gas, with beef taking up just about 2%. Beef production in this country is amazingly efficient, far more so than in the rest of the world. Indeed, one criticism – a fair one – of the EAT-Lancet report is that it lumped all agriculture together, not focusing on the efficient production of animal foods in more developed countries.

Given the difficulty of changing global food cultures, it may be more useful to help improve the efficiency of global animal agriculture to the level present in developed countries.