Category Archives: Food Groups

Are Carbs The Enemy?

Of all the major nutrients, carbohydrates have gotten a pretty bad rap. Personally, I don’t think it’s justified.

Carbohydrates are the core energy source for our body and brain and can be converted into amino acids to serve as the building blocks for protein. Certain sources of carbs are also chock-full of nutritious vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Grains, milk, beans, fruit and starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn, all contribute to our daily carbohydrate intake. In fact, the U.S. government suggests we consume 45-65% of our daily calories from this nutrient group. So why the notoriety?

Not all carbs are created equal. There’s a big difference (nutritionally-speaking) between “refined” and “complex” carbohydrates. Refined carbs include chips, cake, candy, cereal, sweetened beverages (e.g., juice, lemonade, soda) and bread and pasta made with white flour. These foods are literally stripped of nutrients during processing. Due to their lack of fiber, they don’t fill us up and are digested quickly, causing our blood sugar to spike. Refined carbs contain few vitamins and minerals and likely end up replacing healthier foods in our diet. Eating too many of these foods can also lead to high triglyceride levels.

On the other hand, many complex carbohydrates are packed with nutrients. Examples include brown and wild rice, whole wheat pasta and bread, oatmeal, quinoa, bulgur and barley. Such whole grains are naturally low in fat and added sugars and supply iron, folate, zinc, magnesium, B-vitamins and fiber – a nutritional powerhouse. Fiber cannot be digested by the human body and therefore, this complex carb passes through our system without adding calories! Fiber can help lower cholesterol, regulate bowel function, reduce spikes in blood sugar, protect against colon cancer and help us lose weight by warding off hunger! The fiber in whole fruit is what makes it a much better choice than juice, which is high in sugar and calories and not a dieter’s friend.

When it comes to weight loss, the low-carb Atkins diet certainly gets a lot of press. However, weight loss occurs when you consume fewer total calories than your body needs, whether you’re cutting back on fat, protein or carbs. A sustainable strategy for weight loss should reduce calories from all nutrient groups, so that you do not feel deprived. Reduce your intake of sugary beverages, desserts and foods made with refined flour, like white bread and pasta and be sure to include nutrient-dense and fiber-packed sources of complex carbs in your meal plan!

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Filed under Dairy, Food Groups, Fruits and Vegetables, Grains, Heart Healthy Choices, Weight loss

Get into Gear for the New Year

I’m no fortune teller, but I’m 99% certain that next month, there will be a huge spike in the number of Internet searches associated with weight loss and dieting. Actually, Google Trends tells me this happens every January. The phenomenon is probably related to those of us hoping to shed the pounds we gained this holiday season by creating a New Year’s resolution to eat healthier and exercise more.

Yet shortly after we ring in 2012, most of us currently yearning for a fresh start will fall off the resolution bandwagon and resort back to our more indulgent, less active ways. I find that success is usually hindered by vague or extreme resolutions that are too difficult to carry out.

If you’re looking to create a resolution that’s built to last, try the tips I’ve outlined below:

1. Be specific. If you claim you’ll “exercise more often,” you’re not likely to stick to that plan. Instead, identify the type of exercise you’ll do and how often. How about this one? “I will walk for 20 minutes during my lunch break four days per week.”

2. Make it measurable. For example, “I will snack on one piece of fresh fruit daily.” This technique will help you judge if you’re following through on your commitment.

3. Set a realistic goal. Instead of saying “I want to lose 50 pounds,” aim for one pound per week and take it one step at a time. Losing just 5-10% of body weight can greatly improve your health. And, this amount can usually be achieved and maintained.

4. Put it on paper. By writing down your resolution, you’re turning a desire into a concrete goal. You may also want to note why you have this goal, which will help keep you motivated. If you want to lose weight, is it to improve the sleep apnea you’re suffering from? Or to be able to keep up with your energetic grandchildren?

5. Lastly, stay positive. Focus on things you can do, rather than things you shouldn’t. For example, instead of saying “I will not buy breakfast sandwiches on my way to work,” pledge to prepare your own breakfast four mornings per week. And if you slip up, go easy on yourself. Refocus by reviewing why you’re committed to your resolution.

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Filed under Food Groups, Fruits and Vegetables, Meal Tips, Weight loss

Gobble, gobble…Could turkey be making us sleepy?

Technically, Thanksgiving commemorates the day when pilgrims and Native Americans joined together to celebrate the autumn harvest. At my house though, Thanksgiving becomes an excuse to indulge in a great meal, watch professional football and catch some extra Zzz’s on the couch.

The excessive sleepiness that dominates this holiday has often been tied to a nutrient in turkey called tryptophan (trip-toe-fan). Even though our late-afternoon nap typically occurs right after the Thanksgiving feast, it’s probably not the turkey that’s making us drowsy. It’s more likely the carbohydrate-rich stuffing and mashed potatoes we just gobbled down.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s found in many protein-rich foods, like turkey. But if it was the turkey that was making us tired, we’d be nodding off every time we ate chicken, beef or certain kinds of fish too, since these foods contain similar amounts of this amino acid.

Now let’s talk science. Tryptophan is a precursor to a chemical substance called serotonin that acts on the nervous system. When tryptophan enters the brain, it’s converted to serotonin, which can make us feel calm and relaxed in large enough amounts. However, it’s actually a meal high in carbs that initiates this process. Large portions of carbohydrates cause a spike in insulin levels in our body, which makes tryptophan more available to the brain for conversion into sleep-inducing serotonin. Therefore, it’s likely the simultaneous consumption of delicious, high-carb side dishes, rather than the turkey that’s causing our drowsiness.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

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Filed under Food Groups, Meal Tips

Megan Madden, MS, RD quoted on SHAPE.com

Check out Megan’s comments on avocados, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, plant sterols & salmon as featured on Shape.com’s “20 Artery-Cleansing Foods You Should Be Eating”.  Here’s to a healthy heart!

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Filed under Fats & Oils, Food Groups, Grains, Heart Healthy Choices, Media, Medical Conditions

Are Nut Butters Worth The Hype?

Question:  I’ve heard that peanut butter alternatives, like almond butter, are better for you. The problem is, they can cost twice as much! Are the health benefits worth shelling out the extra dough?

Answer: A small container of peanut butter may cost $3.50, while an even smaller jar of almond butter might run you $7 bucks! The thing is, these “nut butters” are all very similar nutritionally and it mostly comes down to what your taste buds prefer.

Real butter comes from animal sources and contains a lot of artery-clogging saturated fat. Nut butters are made from plant-based sources, such as almonds, peanuts and cashews. Nut butters also contain a large amount of fat, but they are low in saturated fat and high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats.

The following table lists the nutrient profiles of 1 Tbsp of several nut butters. They generally have the same amount of calories, but peanut butter contains the most protein, which is what fills you up. Unfortunately, peanut butter also contains the most saturated fat (2 g per Tbsp), although not significantly more than the other nut butters.

Calories Protein Total Fat Saturated fat Monounsaturated fat Polyunsaturated fat
Peanut butter 95 cal 4g 8g 2g 4g 2g
Almond butter 101 cal 2g 9g 1g 6g 2g
Cashew butter 94 cal 3g 7.5g 1.5g 4.5g 1.5g
Sesame butter/Tahini 89 cal 3g 7.5g 1g 3g 3.5g
Sunflower butter 93 cal 3g 7.5g 1g 1.5g 5g

The nut butters highest in monounsaturated fats are the best for cardiovascular health, but all are great vegetarian options. Nut butters make great snacks, high in protein, calcium and iron! Here are a few healthful ideas: top a half a bagel or an apple with nut butter or spread nut butter on a whole-wheat tortilla and add sliced banana.

I found a 2003 study examining how eating different forms of almonds affect men and women with high cholesterol levels (Spiller et al). The subjects all followed a heart-healthy diet, which included 100 grams daily of roasted salted almonds, roasted almond butter or raw almonds for four weeks. All three forms lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, but only roasted and raw almonds lowered total cholesterol. HDL (“good”) cholesterol did not change in the raw or roasted almonds groups, but slightly increased with almond butter!

All nut butters are healthy choices when used in moderation and when substituting for an unhealthy snack. If you’re interested, you can choose “natural” varieties that contain no hydrogenated oils or trans fats. Regular peanut butter contains a tiny amount of partially hydrogenated oil (a.k.a. trans fat), which keeps the product from separating and makes it taste creamier. “Natural” nut butters made with zero hydrogenated oils may have a layer of liquid at the top of the container, which needs to be stirred into the mixture prior to consumption. However, since the amount of trans fat in regular peanut butter is insignificant, government regulations allow products to remain labeled as containing “no trans fats per serving!”

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Filed under Food Groups, Heart Healthy Choices

Planning A Vegetarian diet

The quality of any diet – inclusive of meat or not – depends on whether nutritionally-sound food choices are made. The term ‘vegetarian’ refers to people who steer clear of most or all animal-derived foods, including eggs and dairy. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, on the other hand, consume milk products and eggs, but exclude meat and seafood. Ovo-vegetarians include eggs, but do not eat meat, seafood or dairy. Lastly, pesco-vegetarians eat seafood, eggs and dairy, but not meat or poultry. Depending on what type of “vegetarian” you are, a carefully planned diet must include good sources of calcium, iron, zinc and B12:

Calcium: If you don’t eat dairy products, you should select calcium-fortified juices, soy milk and breakfast cereals. Other good sources of absorbable calcium include figs, fortified tofu, some beans, and certain green vegetables, such as broccoli, kale and turnip greens.

Iron: The iron in plant foods, such as beans, dark green leafy vegetables and whole-grain breads is poorly absorbed.Luckily, vegetarians tend to eat produce that’s rich in vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron more efficiently.

Zinc: Meat is the richest source of bioavailable zinc. Since soy interferes with zinc absorption, it’s important to include whole grains, nuts, and beans such as black-eyed peas, pinto beans and kidney beans in your diet.

B12: This vitamin, also known as cyanocobalamin, is only found in animal products. While soy products may contain some B12, it is not in the active form. The recommended daily intake for male and female adults is 2.4µg/day, although percent daily values (% DV) on food labels are based on 6µg. Your body stores about 5 years of B12, after which a deficiency in this vitamin can be extremely detrimental to your health. Strict vegetarians should not ignore this nutrient. B12 is absorbed with the help of intrinsic factor (IF), which is produced in your stomach. If you’re 60 or older, the loss of IF and low stomach acid levels may lead to B12 deficiency, whether or not you adhere to a vegetarian diet. If the deficiency is due to the loss of IF, you may need an intramuscular B12 injection.  If you’re younger, low B12 levels are more likely due to inadequate dietary intake and an oral vitamin supplement and careful food planning will help. Depending on what type of vegetarian you are, non-meat sources high in B12 include mollusks (e.g. clams), salmon, trout, tuna, egg, yogurt, American cheese and fortified cereal.

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Filed under Food Groups, Meal Tips, Vitamins & Minerals

Ditch The Soda

The typical 12-oz can of soda contains about 140 calories and includes 40 grams of sugar. That’s equivalent to pouring 9 teaspoons of table sugar straight into your drink.

Sure, sugar makes things taste sweet, but it may also be detrimental to your health in excessive quantities. Sugar can promote tooth decay, increased triglyceride levels, weight gain and poor nutrition. As you guzzle sugary drinks, you’re loading your body with extra calories with no nutritional value. You’re then more likely to skimp on the healthy foods, which do contain important vitamins and minerals. In 2006, a research team aimed to quantify the energy imbalance that is responsible for the recent trend of weight gain in children (Wang et al; 2006). The scientists found that behavioral changes amounting to 110-165 fewer calories per day were enough to avoid weight gain. To clarify this point, this could be achieved by either eliminating one sugar-sweetened beverage or walking just over mile every day.  Ditching the soda can is probably easier.

Some sugar is naturally found in nutritious foods like milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose). “Added sugar,” on the other hand, is the offender. Processed foods, such as sweets and non-diet soft drinks are rich in added sugars. The average American consumes a whopping 22 teaspoons (370 calories) of added sugar each day. This number far exceeds what’s recommended. Due to the potential consequences of excessive sugar intake, the American Heart Association has suggested that women should not consume more than 100 calories a day (6 tsp) from added sugar and that men should consume no more than 150 calories a day (9 tsp) from added sugar. Again, that’s the equivalent of one soda a day, not counting any other sugary snacks you nibble on.

The bottom line? Minimize your consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including iced teas, soda and fruit drinks. Water is still my #1 choice, but if you’re craving carbonation, try flavored club soda. Treat soft drinks as special snacks, rather than a staple at lunch.  Diet beverages are better than regular, at least for weight loss purposes, but some studies have shown that people believe that a diet soda entitles them to load up on extra junk; thus the phenomenon of ordering a double cheeseburger, super-sized fries and a diet soda at the drive-thru.

Lastly, remember to note serving sizes when checking the nutrition facts. For example, one 16-oz bottle of Snapple contains two servings. So while the label provides the info for one serving (80 calories & 21g sugar) you have to double that if you plan on drinking every last drop.

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Filed under Food Groups, Heart Healthy Choices, Weight loss