Category Archives: Fruits and Vegetables

Coconut Water: Nature’s Gatorade?

Happy Summer! I’m hoping the warmer weather inspires more of us to dust off our sneakers and get active! But, considering we’re currently enduring an East coast heat wave, we need to take precaution and rehydrate properly when exercising under the mid-day sun.

A typical workout lasting less than 60 minutes usually only requires you to rehydrate with water. However, with more strenuous exercise (indoor or outdoor), it’s necessary to replace both water and electrolytes that are lost through profuse sweating.

Lately, coconut water has been touted as the ultimate post-workout hydration beverage! Coconut water is naturally packed with potassium, which plays a key role in fluid balance and muscle contraction. However, little potassium is actually lost in sweat. During intense physical activity, sodium becomes the more significant mineral to replenish. While pure coconut water straight from the fruit may contain adequate sodium, the amount of sodium in commercial brands of coconut water is not sufficient to replace what’s been excreted.

Electrolyte replacement beverages or “sports drinks” are specifically formulated for athletes. They contain the right proportions of sodium and carbohydrates for proper rehydration and easy digestion. For example, the carbohydrates (i.e. sugar) in Gatorade help the intestine better absorb sodium and fluids, which fights fatigue and prevents dehydration.

My take? Cool off with coconut water while lounging by the pool or after a light workout. When sweating for longer than 1 hour, choose a sports drink that has approximately 120 mg of sodium per 8 ounces. This will help replenish lost sodium and minimize the risk of cramping.  In addition, beverages containing about 6 grams of carbs per 8 ounces will be most effective in maximizing water absorption in the gut. That said, many sports drinks are made with about 14-16 grams of carbohydrates per cup. This quantity of carbs is unlikely to cause stomach upset and, with more calories, can offer an extra energy boost during a marathon workout.

Coconut Water:

Vita Coco

Coconut Water:

Zico

Gatorade:

Original G

Gatorade:

G2 – low cal

Carbs

14 g

7 g

14 g

5 g

Sodium

28 mg

91 mg

110 mg

110 mg

Potassium

485 mg

325 mg

30 mg

30 mg

 *Nutrient quantities were calculated per 8 oz of each beverage.

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Are Potatoes Good For You?

Happy St. Patty’s Day! In honor of my Irish ancestors who subsisted on potatoes, I’m celebrating this holiday by highlighting the spud’s nutritional benefits. Potatoes are a humble vegetable, often judged by starch load and preparation method, instead of their rich potassium, fiber and antioxidant content!

The typical American diet is low in fruits and vegetables and, therefore, most of us consume only half the daily potassium recommendation (4,700 mg/day). Potassium is a mineral that plays a role in nerve function, muscle contraction and fluid and electrolyte balance. When combined with an effort to curb your sodium intake, high potassium consumption is associated with the prevention and reversal of high blood pressure. Bananas are a famous source of potassium, yet they contain only 50% of the whopping 844 mg of potassium that a baked Russet potato has to offer.

Put down the peeler! One of the healthiest parts of a potato is the skin, which is packed with fiber and antioxidants. The skin of a medium Russet potato packs 4 grams of fiber (20-35 gm/day is recommended). Fiber can help lower cholesterol, maintain bowel regularity, slow the absorption of carbs into your bloodstream and may decrease the risk of colon and rectal cancer.

Potatoes come in a variety of colors, from red, white and blue, to the orange flesh of a sweet potato. Phytochemicals are plant compounds responsible for these colored pigments. When they act as antioxidants, phytochemicals are thought to be beneficial in protecting against cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Despite their many health benefits, I’m not encouraging you to chow down on scalloped potatoes, French fries, or a baked tater stuffed with all the fixings! Nix the butter, bacon, cheese and sour cream toppings in exchange for steamed broccoli, sautéed onions, fresh herbs and Greek yogurt. I also suggest you try making oven-baked potato wedges. Slice an Idaho potato into 6-8 segments and toss in a bowl with olive oil and rosemary or thyme. Place wedges flat side down on a cookie sheet and bake at 400°F for approximately 20-30 minutes, flipping them at the half-way point. Alternatively, you can use the same technique to prepare bite-sized, oven-roasted, red potatoes (my personal favorite!)

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Detox Diets: Beneficial or Bogus?

de·tox  The metabolic process by which the body rids itself of poisonous substances. A “detox diet” (or “cleanse”) usually promises to aid this natural process by suggesting you (1) steer clear of foods that contain toxins, and (2) consume more of certain nutrients like antioxidants, fiber and herbal extracts.

A typical detox promotes the exclusive consumption of raw fruits and vegetables and liquid meals. Most cleanses suggest drinking large amounts of water, juice or a special concoction, such as one made with lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper.

Detox diets will often avoid caffeine, sugar and alcohol. All of us could benefit from cutting back in these areas, but most cleanses are so limiting that your diet becomes deficient in protein and many essential vitamins and minerals. Some cleanses require strict adherence to the plan for a few days, while others want you to stick with it for an entire month! Consuming an extremely restricted diet long-term is not necessary and may even be harmful to your health. Many detox plans also encourage drinking only liquids to “give the body a rest.” However, this claim is scientifically unfounded, since the digestive system is meant to be put to work!

Can a detox diet help you lose weight? Many plans claim to kick start a sluggish metabolism by helping to purify the body. Our bodies, however, are designed to eliminate harmful substances without any help. The kidneys help excrete waste products, while the liver filters blood coming from the digestive tract and metabolizes drugs, alcohol and environmental toxins. There is no evidence that proves a detox diet helps your organs do this more efficiently. Restricting your diet to raw produce or low-calorie beverage blends will help you shed pounds quickly, but this does not mean it’s advisable. Depriving yourself on a month-long cleanse is not a sustainable strategy for weight loss and you’ll likely regain the pounds as soon as you resume your usual eating habits.

In his 2010 book, “Clean,” Dr. Alejandro Junger outlines a three week detox program that allows you to nosh on more than just vegetables. His “pesto baked salmon” recipe sounds appetizing, but you’re still only allowed one solid-food meal per day! In addition to eliminating red meat, alcohol and sugar, Junger also suggests you exclude from your diet many nutrient-rich foods, including dairy, wheat and soy. Lastly, Junger’s website advertises for Clean Program supplements, which are taken throughout the day to “cover daily health basics.” Any detox that requires a cocktail of supplements is likely unbalanced and should not be sustained for more than a few days. Despite allowing you to eat certain fresh, solid foods, even this detox appears too restrictive. Any weight lost will be temporary unless Junger’s more nutritionally sound tenets, like daily exercise and mindful snacking, can be adopted and sustained.

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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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The Acai Berry: A Superfood?

Q: What are the health benefits of Acai?

A: The Acai berry is a small, round, black-purple fruit that grows on a certain species of palm tree found in Central and South America. You may have seen acai juices, snacks, powders and capsules flood the market in the past few years, as companies increasingly tout the berry as a “superfood,” packed with antioxidants that can protect against aging and cancer. Acai berry products are also said to help people lose weight, fight heart disease and improve arthritis.

In short, evidence to support these health claims is limited. Studies of the antioxidant capacity of acai berries are conflicting. Though supported by a competing company (POM), one study found that pomegranate juice, red wine and blueberry juice have greater antioxidant potency than acai juice (Seeram et al, 2008). In addition, acai products are marketed as dietary supplements, so they escape FDA regulation. The acai berry may not necessarily be harmful, but its presumed power – to enhance sleep and guard against wrinkles, for example – has yet to be verified scientifically. If you’re looking to save a buck, stick to what’s proven to work. Get your daily dose of antioxidants by meeting the recommend 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day.

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Antioxidants: Free radical scavengers

Q: What’s an “antioxidant”?

A: Antioxidants are compounds that offset damage to the body’s cells. Antioxidants, including certain vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, defend against injuries caused by free radicals. But what’s a free radical? Simply, free radicals are oxygen molecules floating around in your system that contain an unpaired electric charge. This single “electron” looks for a buddy to gain stability and so it destructively steals a second electron from substances like cell membranes and DNA.  Free radicals form naturally during the metabolism of food, but are also caused by cigarette smoke, air pollution and UV sun rays. While there are some benefits to free radicals, these highly reactive, unstable molecules are implicated in aging, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. Fortunately, antioxidants can destroy free radicals, limit their formation and stimulate repair activity at the site of damage.

Antioxidant Food sources Recommended Daily Amount
Vitamin C Orange, grapefruit, mango, strawberries, broccoli 90 mg for men75 mg for women
Vitamin E Wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds, peanut butter 15 mg
Beta-carotene (Vitamin A  precursor) Carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli None established
Selenium Brazil nuts, tuna, turkey, rice 55 µg
Lycopene Tomatoes, ketchup, watermelon None established
Lutein Dark, leafy greens (e.g. spinach) None established
Resveratrol Red grapes None established
Anthocyanin Blueberries, raspberries, plums, red grapes None established

There is no set daily recommendation for most antioxidants; however, eating more fruits and vegetables is the best way to boost your intake. Rely on whole foods, not supplements, since popping high dose capsules can have negative health effects. For example, beta-carotene supplements are associated with higher rates of lung cancer in men; however, smokers are recommended to increase vitamin C intake, due to smoke-induced oxidative damage. My take? Get your antioxidants from food sources, steer clear of mega-dose pills and stick to recommended daily amounts of vitamins & minerals.

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