The Importance of Both Optimism and Skepticism

Today I want to talk about a topic that I feel many individuals either don’t understand or fail to address- the importance of being both and optimist and skeptic when it comes to the modern health, nutrition and medical environments. Now, I realize that these two traits (optimism and skepticism) fall on opposite sides of the spectrum, yet when it comes to your health, I believe both are important traits to have in certain situations. Optimism, by definition, is roughly defined as being open about what the future holds for a certain event. For example, if I were to tell you that reducing your dietary carbohydrate intake will prove beneficial in lowering your blood sugar, an optimist would take that advice, believe it to be true and work to reduce their intake. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have skeptic’s, who tend to doubt the efficacy of a desired outcome. In the same situation described above (reducing dietary carbohydrate), a skeptic would be more likely to either: 1) Ignore the advice completely or 2) Approach said intervention with little belief that it will be effective at achieving the desired outcome (reduced blood sugar). In the sections below, I am going to outline why, in certain situations, I believe using both of these approaches can help you make the best decisions for your health and the health of your families.

The Necessity of Optimism- If you don’t believe in it, it won’t happen.

Let’s address the importance of being optimistic first. In medicine, it is a well-known idea that if you begin a treatment protocol with the belief that it’s not going to be effective (skepticism), there’s a greater chance that you won’t get better. I am not going to claim to understand the mechanism by which this occurs via the brain-body connection, but this idea should make sense when we take a step back and look at the broader picture. In all of our lives, we tend to be more successful in areas that we hold the most confidence. It’s very easy to be optimistic about things we are comfortable with. Now, where I believe optimism becomes most important is when we are presented with an alternative or uncomfortable approach to a problem in our lives. For example, say you’ve been following the same diet for most of your adult life and have maintained roughly the same body weight, despite not exercising or eating all that well. Now, all of a sudden, in your mid-to-late thirties, you begin to gain weight. As a result, you see a well-respected nutritionist and explain to them that you’ve “always eaten the same way and don’t understand why you’re gaining weight.” They run some tests and determine that your deficient in some nutrients, have poor blood sugar control, and are predisposed for cardiovascular disease. For good reason, this news shocks you because you haven’t changed anything! The nutritionist recommends you begin exercising, eat more leafy greens, and take a vitamin D supplement. However, you dislike veggies, haven’t exercised in years, and don’t like the idea of supplementation. This is where optimism comes in. Assuming this is the first time you’re receiving this advice, your nutritionist is knowledgeable and your best health interests are being taken into consideration, following the above advice and approaching the situation with optimism could drastically improve your health. Now, what if the advice doesn’t prove effective? What if after months of believing, trying, and struggling, you’ve seen no results? What if you’re being provided with information or advice that hasn’t proven effective for you in the past?

The Unavoidable Place for Skepticism- Don’t believe everything you hear.

I want to start by saying that approaching everything in life with skepticism is not appropriate and will probably leave you very unhappy and bored. However, in certain health-related situations, I believe we all need to harness our inner-skeptic. We have all heard of the “magical diet that leads to weight loss” or the “medication that solved it all”. It seems like everyday we are given advice that contradicts something we previously perceived as beneficial. Now, sometimes this works wonders for individual’s health and well-being (probably those who are most optimistic about said intervention). For example, if someone is having terrible digestive issues, has poor complexion, and has low energy levels, chances are they are going to feel some degree better from improving their diet and exercise habits. However, what if they already eat a diet rich in vegetables, exercise for 30-60 mins each day yet have the same symptoms? Someone in the ladder situation should be skeptical about the advice to simply “clean up their diet and exercise more” and question their provider. Yes, some of this falls into the hands of the provider who should know the health history of the patient/client, but if you are skeptical of the information you receive, you can avoid the viscous cycle of poor health advice.

The Big Takeaway

When it comes to your health and well being, do your research. If you’re suffering from ill-health, you should by all means be optimistic about the information you receive from trusted health professionals and work your hardest to adhere to interventions. However, if time goes by and your health fails to improve, your inner-skeptic should begin to shine through and question the advice you have been given. I have seen too many friends, family members, and loved ones go too long in suffering when perhaps an alternative approach could have done wonders.

Improving Snack Options for Children


Good Afternoon,

In 2017, I completed an hour internship with a non-for-profit out of Boston titled Eradicate Childhood Obesity (EChO). Our initiatives focused mostly on the ill-effects of added sugar consumption to the development of obesity in children, which I have written on before in this article (attach link).  However, in the process I realized that added sugar is far from the only issue that parents face when trying to provide their children with a nutritious and healthy diet.  You see, experts in the food industry are very smart people.  These individuals know that as humans, we innately prefer certain foods, in particular those that contain sugar, fat, and salt.  So, instead of working to develop products that provide us (and our children) the most nutrients, they work to produce products that target our innate preferences for sugar, fat, and salt.  Don’t believe me? I took a look at some of the USDA food availability data, which looks at food consumption patterns over the years and summarized some of the big points below, followed by my own interpretation of the information and it’s implication on children:

**For reference, here is the USDA information- https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/food-availability-and-consumption.aspx#.U44CfJRdVor

1)      Compared to 1970, Americans consume greater amounts of fruit, vegetables, grains, and meat. 

2)      The availability/consumption of chicken has increased steadily since the 1940’s, while that of fish has remained staggeringly low. 

3)      We eat massive amounts of corn and grain-based products

4)      Refined sugar is replacing corn sweeteners (HFCS) as the main driver of sugar consumption.

5)      The most consumed vegetables in the American diet are potatoes and tomatoes (sorry Brussels Sprouts!).

6)      Apples and Oranges top the fruit list.

Graphically, this is what the data shows.  However, looking at it in a bit more detail paints a more-complete picture. 

1)      Fruit juice counts towards fruit consumption.  Looking at apple and orange consumption, more than 50% of the intake is via fruit juice.  A single serving of apple juice contains 40 grams of sugar. 12 ounces of OJ contains 33 grams of sugar.  We are not eating more fruit, we are using more fruit to make products that drive obesity. 

2)      Chicken is fine, I like chicken.  However, I can almost assure you that the increased consumption of chicken is not in the form of organic chicken thighs on the grill.  Why do I make this assumption? On the link above, notice that chicken consumption has continued to increase dramatically since 1940.  You know what was founded in 1940? MacDonald’s. You know which chicken-based foods have dominated the US economy since then? You betcha- chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, and even chicken fries. Coincidence? I think not.  To further emphasize this point, in 1889, more than 90% of food was prepared in homes. Today, that figure is down to less than 50%.

3)      Real vegetables aren’t subsidized by the government, but corn, wheat and soy are! Start looking at labels in the grocery store and you will be shocked by the number of products that contain these items. 

4)      From a metabolic standpoint, refined sugars are just as bad as corn-based sugars.  The reasoning for this is really just price.  

5)      Hmmm….tomatoes and potatoes.  I wonder what could be contributing to the dominance of these two less than perfect foods? Let’s start with potatoes.  According to the USDA data, it is true that potato consumption increased.  However, take a look at the figure below (Source- Stephan Guyenet):

Potatoes.png

We are not eating more whole potatoes.  We are eating more potatoes fried in vegetable oil (fat).  So we are taking a food very high in carbohydrate (potatoes) and saturating it in fat (vegetable oil).  Remember what I said about food producers targeting our innate preferences?

6)      I bet you can figure this one out for yourself, but I’ll spare you the time.  Yes, our consumption of apples and oranges is high. However, more than 50% of the consumption of these fruits is in the form of fruit juices.  Fruit juices most often always are devoid of fiber and contain added sugar.  The lack of fiber in addition to the added sugar increases the glycemic response. 

Summary

We are not eating more fruits and vegetables and our diets are not nearly as healthy as our ancestors.  We process everything, eat in excess, and move less throughout the course of the day.  Most children are cooped up in classrooms all day and then sit in front of screens when they return home.  This is not okay.  Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone and I realize that obtaining nutritious food is a difficult task in today’s stress driven society.  This is why I have provided a brief list of more nutritious choices for foods that are common choices for today’s generation of children. 

Healthy Snack Replacements for Children

1)      Lunchables- While it won’t be exactly the same, there are some ways to provide your children with a nutrient-dense meal that will satisfy their desire for lunchables.  Try adding grass-fed beef jerky sticks with mashed avocado and carrots for dipping. 

2)      Potato Chips- Ditch the vegetable oil dressed chips and opt for a healthier option such as: homemade kale chips, celery or carrots w/ guacamole, or my personal favorite, homemade sweet potato chips. 

3)      “Fruit” at the bottom yogurt- Anything with greater than 10 grams of sugar is artificial.  Replace these fake yogurts with either cashew yogurt (I like forager project) or a raw, full-fat Greek yogurt.  Add in your own fruit for sweetness.

4)      On-the-go breakfast options- This is a big one.  Steer clear of the pop-tarts, cereals, and cereal bars and opt for hard-boiled eggs, avocado toast on Ezekiel bread, or a protein smoothie with fresh berries and veggies.

I hope this information is helpful and aids you in better understanding the current food culture of the US.  My goal is for children to eat healthier to feed their brains and bodies in an effort to optimize their physical and mental performance.  If I can be of any assistance to you or your family in accomplishing this mission, please reach out to me directly. 

 

Understanding the BMI Classification

Happy Monday Friends,

Today’s post is going to be pretty brief, but I believe it is an important one. I’m going to address the topic of BMI which stands for Body Mass Index as I feel individuals often misunderstand the value given to them at their doctors office. The BMI is used as the universal measure of weight classification. This is the number that is used to determine if you are under, normal, or overweight. Overall, the BMI allows for us to compare weight changes across different time periods and track trends in populations. However, as I will get into below, there are some major flaws when using the value on an individual basis to assess healthy (or unhealthy) weight status. Here is a chart outlining the current BMI normative values:

https://tanita.eu/tanita-academy/understanding-your-measurements

https://tanita.eu/tanita-academy/understanding-your-measurements

So, as you can see, a BMI of 18.5 or less is underweight, 18.5-24.9 is normal and above 25 is overweight. The number is calculated using the following equation:

BMI= body weight in kg/height in meters squared.

As an example, here is my BMI calculation:

Height- 6 feet, 1 inch Weight- 191 lbs

BMI= 86.63 kg/3.44 meters squared= 25.18 (Overweight)

Now, I realize that not everyone reading this post knows me personally, but I can assure you that this is not an accurate representation of my body size. This brings me to the issues associated with BMI:

1) Lean body mass is not taken into account. Essentially, the BMI calculation assumes we are all just balls of material with identical proportions when in reality some of us carry more muscle and less fat than others.

2) What classifies a healthy body weight? There is not a lot of research that can show with certainty what weight is “most” healthy. While it is well-supported that being extremely underweight or overweight is associated with adverse health effects, there is a ton of variation in between.

3) Weight is gender dependent. Men and women have different body structures, this is a fact. BMI fails to account for this, leading to women often being classified as overweight or obese when it may not be the case.

The Main Point

This post is not meant to destroy BMI. Like I mentioned before, BMI is a very useful tool in comparing populations and is really helpful in research. I suppose my main point would be this- if you go to the doctor and are told you are overweight, ask them to provide you with how much lean mass you carry vs. fat mass. This can be estimated using skinfold techniques or more advanced metrics. Now, if you are classified as obese (unless you are an extremely muscular specimen) or underweight, that still should serve as a sign to manage your weight to a more healthy number.

Methods For Fueling Your Workouts

Nothing frustrates me more than hearing people say “carbs are your worst enemy,” especially in the very active and athletic population. While I do think carbohydrate restriction is necessary within the context of the modern American diet and especially in those with blood sugar issues, depending on the intensity and frequency of your training, you may need more carbs than you think. I truly find that people are overloaded with information that is often times contradictory, especially when it comes to the role of carbs, fats, and proteins in the diet. That’s why I decided with today’s post to try and explain the role of different macronutrients during different intensities and modes of activity. My hope is that after reading this, you will better understand the roles different energy sources play, both at rest and during exercise.

*Please remember that I am not a biochemist. If you want to dig deeper into substrate utilization during exercise, there are complete textbooks on the topics. This post is meant simply to serve as an introduction to the role of different macronutrients at rest and during training.

Fats-

Always opt for quality over quantity when it comes to food

Always opt for quality over quantity when it comes to food

Let’s start with the most misunderstood macronutrient of them all, fat. Fat is the most energy dense of the macronutrients, with each gram adding up to about 9 calories. Our body uses fat for a lot of things (many of which I will not cover in this post). For the purposes of today, let’s focus on the role of fat during different levels of activity. At rest, stored fat will be our main producer of energy, especially if we are in the fasted state. This makes sense because fat takes a long time to be broken down and turned into energy (ATP). During exercise, the story is a bit different. At low intensities (mild walking), fat will still be our primary energy producer, as our demand for energy still isn’t too high. However, as the intensity increases to a more moderate level, we being to rely more on stored carbohydrates. Now, here is an important point- we only have so much stored carbohydrate in our muscles and liver and when these stores get depleted (such as during the running of a marathon or a long bout of very intense exercise), fats are then again called upon for energy production (fat in muscle and stored fat). So, if you’re a marathon runner or someone who engages in long-bouts of low-moderate intensity exercise, adding some high quality fat in the form of avocados, nuts, and olive oil to your diet can be extremely beneficial to improve your performance.

**Note- The other population who will benefit from increase far consumption is anyone struggling to manage their blood glucose. In addition to implementing an exercise routine, replacing high amounts of carbs with some beneficial fat is a good step towards controlling spikes in blood sugar. The key point here is to replace carbs with fat, don’t eat large amounts of both.

Carbs-

Everyone’s favorite! When it comes to physical performance during exercise, carbohydrates are the most-rapidly accessible form of energy. Compared to fats, carbohydrates are much more rapidly broken down to produce ATP. This is exactly why I think a moderate amount of stored carbohydrate is necessary for individuals who engage in high-intensity exercise such as HIIT training, CrossFit, anaerobic sports such as hockey, football, basketball, and power lifting. These activities place a massive demand on the body for rapid energy and oxygen. Thus, someone engaging in these activities on a chronically low-carb diet is likely to see some impairments in their performance. The best way to ensure proper replenishment of carbohydrates is to consume them post-workout. In this state, you’ve: 1) depleted your muscles (and potentially your liver) of glycogen and 2) created a state where blood glucose (from the carbs you eat) can be rapidly taken up by the muscles. This means you’re less likely to have a crazy blood sugar spike with the meal, this is a good thing! So I guess my take on carbs is that they certainly have a place in exercise performance, especially high-intensity exercise, but the issue is that individuals often take this to mean that crushing 4 pieces of pizza post-workout is a good idea. I would not suggest this. Lastly, I don’t believe eating carbs immediately before a workout is necessary unless: 1) you’re previous meal was very low in carbohydrates or 2) it’s been more than 15 hours since you’ve consumed carbohydrates. However, tis will vary from individual to individual, so be mindful of how you feel and use that to gauge your nutrient/meal timing.

**Here’s a trick that I find helpful (again, this is highly variable to take it as you please). I train in the morning, so I consume a moderate of carbs following my training. At lunch (3-4 hours later), I don’t eat a ton of carbs to avoid a blood sugar spike. When dinner rolls around, I’ll add some carbs back in to replenish my glycogen stores for the next morning.

Favorite Sources- Sweet potatoes, plantains, blueberries, coconut, bananas, apples.

Protein-

In reality, I think protein is underappreciated. In the active population, I’ve seen recommendations as low as .8 gram of protein per kg of to bodyweight as high as 2.5 grams per kg of bodyweight. Proteins make up all of the tissues in our body and serve vital roles in immune function, bone strength maintenance and organization of enzymes (which are really just proteins). So, anyone who is active is going to have an increased protein demand. Now, some populations will require higher intakes based on the amount of microdamage that occurs as a result of the training stimulus. For example, Person X who does CrossFit 5 times a week will require a ton of protein while Person Y who goes to 3 Pilates classes will have a much lower need. Additionally, it’s important to realize that protein can be converted to glucose in the liver, making it useful as a secondary fuel source during high-intensity exercise. For those of you engaging in resistance training, protein synthesis (building of new proteins indicating growth and repair) has been shown to remain elevated for 24-49 hours post-workout, so don’t buy into all of the “anabolic window” claims.

Travel Essentials: Maintaing Health and Fitness on The Road

Happy Thursday everyone!

This week, I’m traveling with my good friend Liam Cavanagh (@cavanagh42 on IG) to Manchester, New Hampshire to do a talk on student-athlete mental wellbeing at Southern New Hampshire University. For those of you interested in learning more about my (and Liam’s) work in the mental health community, head over to our website at www.nguradio.org for more information and to check out our podcasts, educational materials, and more. I really enjoy giving these talks to collegiate student-athletes because I remember what it was felt like to be in their shoes- excited, scared, anxious, and motivated all at the same time. There’s just so much to balance and a lot of student-athletes struggle to fit it all in to a 24-hour period. School, work-outs, relationships, social life, and family obligations can make the experience very stressful and without proper support, a lot of athletes suffer from mental health issues at one point or another. Add to this the undeniable stigma associated with mental health disorders and serious issues arise. So, when I get the chance to return to campuses and speak to athletes about the importance of maintaining balance, managing their time, and committing to their physical and mental health, it’s a really cool opportunity for me to do my part in ending this stigma and letting the athletes know that it’s okay to not be okay.

While the talks and experience is amazing, I am not a great traveler. It’s hard to eat healthy, maintain a fitness regimen, and stay in my normal day-to-day routine. That leads me to today’s topic for discussion- how can we maintain our health and fitness on the road? A few years ago, I had no idea. Luckily, I’ve gotten into a good routine since and now enjoy traveling much more. I’ve outlined some of the simple tips and tricks that I’ve found useful below and I hope you find them helpful!

Travel Essentials

Snacks- This is a big one as obtaining healthy meals can be difficult. Here are some go-to items of mine:

Essentials.jpg
  • Almond Butter Packets- good source of high-quality, energy dense fats. Offers a mild amount of protein.

  • Hard-boiled eggs- probably my biggest go-to item. Great to have at hotels when you are trying to avoid hotel eggs (anyone smell rubber?!). High in protein, choline, and essential fatty acids.

  • Raw nuts- pistachios are my favorite, but I also travel with walnuts and pecans.

  • Epic Meat Bars- these things are awesome! I’m a big fan of the bison bar with bacon and cranberries. Also, I’ve seen these at airports, which is helpful for those of you who are flying.

  • Forager yogurt- I’ll take a few plain yogurts, grab some walnuts from the hotel breakfast bar and have a simple, healthy breakfast.

  • Protein powder single packs- easy for an on-the-go protein source.

Choosing Where to Eat- This can be challenging. The longer the trip, the harder this is, here’s my advice:

  1. Depending on the length of the trip, research 1-2 restaurants that fit your needs and make reservations in advance.

  2. Prep some items to store in the hotel fridge for easy lunches, breakfasts, etc. My go-to’s are grilled chicken or steak, hard-boiled eggs, and avocados.

  3. If you don’t have time to meal-prep, research local health-food stores that may have healthier options. Just beware here because often times hot food bars contain suspicious ingredients.

**The key to this is planning beforehand. People make mistakes when they are forced to scramble.

Fitness- Let’s be clear, I am a firm believer that your body is all you need to get a good workout. The hotel gym offers all you need for the most part. Don't believe me? Hit a few rounds of dumbbell thrusters, pushups, and sprint intervals and you’ll be surprised. However, for those of you (like myself) who enjoy trying new gyms, here’s some things to look for and keep in mind:

  1. Search gyms that offer a free first class- who doesn't like to save? This is most often the case at cycling and yoga studios.

  2. If looking for a CrossFit box, do your research- not all gyms are created equal. Go to a facility with good coaches and programming.

  3. Look for facilities with attractive environments- my favorite aspect of trying to gyms is meeting new people. There’s no point in paying for a class or session at a dark, cold, unfriendly gym.

I hope this information proves useful during your travels. Do you have any items that you find essential to maintaining your health and fitness on the road?

Dieting vs. Mindful Eating

As usual, I will begin by stating what this article is not focused on to avoid confusion:

  1. This article is not going to state that calories don’t matter. Calories do matter. Research has proven this time and time again. While I don’t believe you should dedicate your life to calorie counting and personally find macro counting to be a joke, I do believe you should avoid overconsumption of certain food groups that pose risk for your health.

  2. This article is not about discrediting diets aimed at specific diseased populations (autoimmune, type-II diabetics, etc..). In fact, I believe some of the protocols used in these populations are the most effective treatments available.

  3. This article is not meant to down-talk diets and bash trends like keto, paleo, vegan, etc.. Again, quite the opposite. If these diets help you adopt a healthy lifestyle that fits your needs and aids you in maintaining your health, then go for it.

thT4SDHJQR.jpg

Okay, so now on to what I am aiming to discuss with this post. Today’s post is about establishing a relationship with food and nutrition that allows you (and your family) to enjoy and appreciate what you eat rather than food-shaming, hating, and avoiding. My biggest problem with modern diets is that they lead to us treating food as a chemical equation, a punishment, or a genuine fear. Here are a few honest quotes I have heard regarding food recently:

  • “I’m just not going to eat anymore, I give up”

  • “I can’t go out to dinner, I won’t find anything I can eat”

  • “Anything I eat will make me fat”

  • “I fear every meal, because I don’t know what to eat to stay healthy and lean”

As someone with a fairly strong understanding of the importance of obtaining nutrients (both micro and macro) from food to optimize health, performance and longevity, this makes me both scared and sad. Scared because I truly believe that many people have gotten so frustrated with failed dieting attempts that they’ve decided to give up on obtaining high-quality nutrition all together, putting their health at serious risk. Sad because food should not be intimidating, it should be pleasurable, nutritious, and enjoyable.

While I admit dieting isn't all to blame for the creation of this food environment, I do think that the obsessing over avoiding/including certain foods that comes with certain diets can do more harm than good, especially in the long-term. Further, long-term dieting has been shown to not work as individuals often gain back weight that was lost early on. I don’t think this chronic battle to find the “perfect diet” is sustainable for our physical or mental health. This brings me to mindful eating, a concept that I feel offers a better, more sustainable approach to eating and nutrition than long-term dieting. So what is mindful eating? The definition is going to vary depending on the individual (as it should). Mindful eating is learning to understand your body and your needs in an effort to optimize your diet, wellbeing, and life in general. Mindful eating is not about eating whatever you want all the time- as you all know by now, there are certain foods that we should never consume, packaged foods and vegetable oils to name a few! However, mindful eating is about determining what foods and supplements (if necessary) work best for your body and your goals and not punishing yourself for indulging from time-to-time. For example, personally, I know after years of self-experimentation and even from my blood work that I don’t do well on a high-carbohydrate diet (higher blood glucose levels and even higher cortisol levels). I simply function better off a high-fat, moderate protein, moderate carb diet. I’m not afraid of carbs and I certainly don’t punish myself after I eat a damn banana, I simply try to avoid overconsumption because I know that works for my body. This is what separates hard-core diets from mindful eating- if I were on a strict low-carb diet, every time I overdid it on carbs I would be failing, and I would feel miserable for it. Taking the mindful approach, I simply use how I feel to guide my meals, no food-shaming, no self-hate, and certainly no avoidance of foods as I fu**ing love food!

5 Tips Towards Adopting a Mindful Approach to Eating:

  1. Pay attention to how you feel before and after meals: Too often we just eat our food as fast as possible, without paying attention to our energy levels prior to and after the meal. Try noting your energy levels before eating and every half hour after to gauge how you feel.

  2. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full: Here’s my opinion on this- you don’t need 6 meals a day and you don’t need to weigh all of your food. If you’re hungry, eat a nutrient-dense meal. Once you’re full, stop eating. This is more difficult than it seems, but once you develop the skills to listen to your body, you will see a big difference in how you eat and more importantly, how much you enjoy your food.

  3. Focus on nutrient-density, not calories: Again, this is my opinion and as I mentioned above, calories do matter. However, if you focus on meals consisting of bioavailable, nutrient-dense meals (vegetables, high quality proteins, nuts, seeds, etc..), I would be surprised if you didn’t like the way you felt about your food-consumption patterns.

  4. If you eat the cookie, enjoy the damn cookie and forget about it: Most important point? Possibly. Don’t punish yourself for indulging from time to time. It happens and it’s completely fine. If you follow #3 above, these indulgences will be more scarce and less interesting but if it happens, enjoy it!

  5. Dedicate meal-time to enjoying your food: Turn the TV off, close the laptop, tell Shirley you’ll call her later and enjoy your meal. Food is too good to be overshadowed by your office drama!

As always, I hope you find this post helpful. Please comment below with any thoughts!

The Importance of Choosing Healthy Cooking Fats

healthy-oils-2[1].jpg

Today’s focus is going to be on cooking oils and how to choose the best oils for your health. I feel that this post is of vital importance, mostly because it seems that the majority of the population is unaware of the impact cooking oil choices can have on our metabolic health. For example, most people don’t realize that the consumption of trans fats exposed through the heating of products like margarine, canola oil, soybean oil and vegetable oils has been shown to increase ones risk for heart disease, stroke, endothelial dysfunction (including erectile dysfunction in males). I don’t know about you, but if simply using a more-stable oil will help me maintain a healthier heart, cardiovascular system, and reproductive capacity, I’d say it’s worth the switch. I will start by attempting to explain why certain oils (those that are unstable and prone to oxidation upon heating) should be avoided before moving on to the oils that are more stable and thus a safer bet for your kitchen.

Unstable Oils (Avoid As Much as Possible)

When I say “unstable,” I am referring to the stability of the chemical backbone of the oil. All cooking oils are made up of a certain percentage of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Now, if you take nothing else from this post, I want you to remember this: saturated fats are more stable than unsaturated fats. What does this mean? Simply put, those oils with the highest percentage of saturated fats will be able to maintain stability at high heats and are often more solid at room temperature, while those with the highest percentage of unsaturated fats will be liquid and more prone to oxidize. This is an issue for multiple reasons:

  1. Oxidation increases free radical production, which can lead to a variety of negative health effects, inflammation being the most obvious and dangerous.

  2. Many of the most used oils today (vegetable oils, canola oils, soybean oils) are partially hydrogenated and often heated at very high temperatures. During refinement and heating, the oils are often reach a point where portions of the molecule undergo a chemical shift to become a trans fat. Trans fat consumption is linked to increased risk of many diseases, such as CVD, cancers, and even obesity.

Generally speaking, cooking fats with the highest percentage of saturated fats perform much better at high-heat. These would include coconut oil, butter, ghee, and avocado oil, to name a few. Oils and fats that don’t perform so well upon heating or already contain trans fats and should be avoided are the following:

  1. Vegetable oils (sunflower, corn, soybean)- these oils consist of mostly polyunsaturated fats. In the unrefined state (before processing), they have very low smoke points. In the refined state (usually the case), they contain trans fats.

  2. Canola Oil- The processing of canola oil dramatically increased the trans fat content and limits the omega-3 content. **Note that often times the trans fat content of the oil is not listed on the label after refinement has occurred. Further, canola oils are very high in Omega-6 fats, which should be avoided in large quantities.

Best Oils for Dressings and Low-Moderate Heat Cooking (300-400)

Okay so now that you know which oils to avoid, let’s focus on the oils you should stock up on. Remembering what I said above, you can probably predict that oils in this category will contain more saturated fats and less polyunsaturated fats than vegetable and canola oils, but not quite as many saturated fats as some of the more stable oils that I will discuss below.

This is very important as some of the oils with the greatest health benefits fall in this category. However, if you heat these oils above their smoke point the same problems described above arise (free radicals get produced, which leads to inflammation, etc..). The oils that fall in this category are:

  1. Olive Oil- My favorite oil if extra virgin and unrefined. In it’s purest form, you should not heat olive oil above 350. I find it to be best used for low-heat simmering and salad dressings.

  2. Macadamia Nut Oil- Smoke point is fairly high at 410. Contains a good fat profile (low in polyunsaturated fats).

**Note that with all oils, the best bet is getting the unrefined version as these have not undergone processing like their refined counterparts.

Best Fats for High-Heat Cooking (400 and above)

Simmering some steaks? Roasting some sweet potatoes? Heck yeah! Just make sure you choose one of these super stable fats to avoid all of the issues described in the previous sections! Here’s my list of high-heat fats:

  1. Ghee- Smoke point is around 480. Contains primarily saturated fats with some monounsaturated fats. I’m a big fan of ghee because it also contains some vitamins and a compound called Butyric Acid, which is great for gut health.

  2. Avocado Oil- Probably my favorite oil with a smoke point around 520. Best in the unrefined form.

  3. Coconut Oil- I can’t say I love cooking with coconut oil, but it’s a stable fat. If you enjoy the coconut flavor, the unrefined versions will be best for you.

A Practical Guide to Navigating Any Grocery Store

Let’s face it, our culture has created an environment that is not conducive for those of us looking to optimize the health of ourselves and our families. There is no better example of this blatant disregard for human health than the layout and products available in (most) grocery stores. Now, before I go off on my rant, please note that I am not referring to your local organic grocer, Trader Joes, or Whole Foods in this post (although much of this post can be applied to these stores as well). This post is aimed at helping you better understand where to locate the healthiest items in whatever grocery store you have available to you. I believe you should know where and how to locate the most nutritious foods available to you. Ultimately, grocery shopping should not be something you fear, we have enough to worry about on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s begin by looking at the layout of your typical grocery store:

Grocery Store Diagram.png

Okay yes I realize that not every grocery store will have this layout, but for the most part this is what you can expect to find in the majority of stores. Looking at the diagram, you will see a pattern that you probably already know (or have heard), which is to avoid the internal sections of the store. This advice usually comes via friends who say things like “Avoid the middle aisles!” or “Don’t ever leave the perimeter of the grocery store” or even worse, “The aisles make you fat!”, to name a few. While this advice isn't terrible, I think we’ve taken the idea a bit too far, hence the (mostly) on the diagram. I certainly agree that the majority of the best foods are on the perimeter of the store, but I don’t think you need to view the aisle sections as jail (as depicted jokingly in the image). More importantly, there is some complete garbage on the perimeter of the store too! To further dissect this issue and help you navigate the store, I’ve compiled a list of 1) healthy items you can find in the aisles and 2) unhealthy items located on the perimeter.

Healthy Food Items Often Located in The Aisles-

1) Nut Butters- Assuming the nut-butter contains no vegetable oils or added sugar, these items can serve as a great tool in your diet. I prefer almond, cashew, or sunflower butter, as these also contain some essential fatty acids and a moderate amount of protein.

2) Olives, Canned Artichokes, and Other Canned Organic Items- I make a massive salad for lunch most days. Olives are one of my favorite additions, as well as artichokes and sun dried tomatoes. Further, capers and other items that add flavor and nutrients to a meal are often located in the aisles.

3) Ghee, Avocado Oil, Olive Oil- I plan to do a post on choosing cooking fats, but for now just know that these are often in the aisles.

4) Herbs, Spices, and Some Condiments- Herbs and spices add a tremendous amount of nutrition and flavor to meals. Condiments like sugar-free ketchup, stone ground mustard, and fermented sauerkraut are also located in the aisles.

Unhealthy Food Items Often Located on the Perimeter-

1) Yogurt- My estimate is that 80% of yogurt products in the store are unhealthy. Why? Mostly due to added sugar. If you want yogurt, get plain greek yogurt or a dairy-free alternative with no added sugar.

2) Processed meats, cheeses, and certain dairy products- Deli meats, hot dogs, ultra-pasteurized milks and cheeses? No thank you!

3) Frozen dinners and deserts- Most frozen dinners have enough sodium to last you a week, plus vegetable oils and added sugars. Dessert items like ice creams, frozen yogurts, and all of the other heavily processed junk items should be mostly avoided in my opinion.

4) Prepared Food Items- This is a big one for me as this can trick many well-intentioned individuals. Almost every hot bar, salad bar, or prepared foods section I’ve ever encountered (including Whole Foods), contains products that are prepared with industrial seed oils, canola oil, or heavily processed vegetable oils. While this is unfortunate, it is the truth. If you don’t believe me, look at the labels of the food items at the next hot bar you encounter (if they are shown).

To summarize, there are plenty of healthy options in most grocery stores. While the advice to shop mostly on the perimeter is warranted, just know that you can find some great items on the interior and some terrible items on the exterior. Create a healthy list that works for you and your family and stick to it!

Dairy- Friend or Foe?

As with my post on gluten, I will preface my discussion on dairy consumption by stating that this article is being written solely to identify some comment misconceptions about dairy and help you make an informed decision about whether or not you choose to consume dairy products. This article is not and should not be taken as medical advice and is not meant to diagnose, treat, or cure disease. This is another difficult topic, so I will do my best to present information in a clear and concise manner. The difficulty here (like gluten) is that 5 “experts” will give you 5 contradicting opinions. This is because every individual has a different set of genes, lives in a different environment, and processes certain food groups better than others as a result. It is for these reasons that I have chosen to do this post- to hopefully give you a basic understanding of all the noise surrounding this topic. To start, I will begin by introducing some basic definitions before moving on to more detail regarding the risks and benefits (in my opinion) of dairy consumption.


Lactase Persistence vs. Non Persistence and Dairy Allergies vs. Lactose Intolerance:

With the topic of dairy, there is a lot to take in. As I don’t claim to be an expert on this topic, I will use this article to focus on the areas I find most important for human health. Similar to gluten, some individuals will have a genetically determined allergy to the proteins found in dairy products (casein and/or other proteins). This will lead to an immune response accompanied by symptoms such as rashes, coughing, chest tightness, and sneezing. While those with dairy allergies should just avoid dairy products unless using supplemental lactase, for the rest of the population, the situation get’s a little more complicated. To really understand this, we need to take a look at dairy consumption from an evolutionary perspective, which I will attempt to do below.

Upon birth, we are all born with an enzyme called lactase, which is present and necessary for us to consume and digest the vital breast milk from our mothers and contains the necessary raw materials for growth. However, between the ages of 2 and 4, most individuals lose the ability to produce the lactase enzyme, rendering them ill-equipped for processing dairy into adulthood. This would be classified as lactase non persistence or lactose Intolerance and is most common across our population (roughly 2/3rds). Now, just because you no longer produce the lactase enzyme, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to omit all dairy products. Those with lactose intolerance can often tolerate dairy products such as raw milk, plain yogurts and cheeses (which contain the lactase enzyme) but will typically get symptoms (typically GI or skin) with overconsumption OR more pasteurized dairy forms as pasteurization destroys the lactase present in the dairy product.

What about the other 1/3rd of the population? Well, over the past 100,000 years or so, certain populations began to rely heavily on cows milk to obtain vital protein, fat, and vitamins and minerals in times of famine or decreased access to other food sources. This led to evolutionary pressure resulting in an increase in the number of individuals who retain the ability to breakdown the lactose sugars in milk (1/3rd of the population) into adulthood. This would classified as lactase persistence and refers to the continued production of the enzyme (lactase) into adulthood, allowing for continued consumption of dairy products with little to no adverse effects. I suspect that this number will continue to rise, but until then, it’s best to get tested for a dairy allergy or intolerance before housing a box of Ben and Jerry’s! Now that you’re aware of these basic definitions, let’s attack the real question, is dairy even healthy?

Okay, So Is Dairy Healthy?

First off, what defines healthy? If one were to ask me, I’d probably venture to say that nutrient density is the best measure of the “health” of a food, assuming no allergies or intolerances at play. Now, the issue in answering this question with dairy is that it comes in so many forms- cheese, cream cheese, raw dairy products, pasteurized milk, chocolate milk, yogurt, greek yogurt, Icelandic yogurt, and many more that I don’t have the time or energy to look up. A lot, right?

To make this easier, I’m going to identify some misconceptions associated with dairy consumption and let you make your own informed decision:

1) Milk consumption will not lower your (or your childs) risk of bone fracture- Yes, I said it, and it’s true. Research has shown that Vitamin D is a much more important factor in preventing fractures than calcium and/or dairy (https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/77/2/504/4689714). Some studies have even shown that milk consumption during teenage years will increase fracture risk later in life (this surprised me).

2) Not all dairy products are created equally- Pasteurization is a beautiful process that has allowed us to keep milk fresh for much longer periods of time. However, the heating involved in the process leads to the destroying of beneficial bacteria, nutrients, and carrier enzymes necessary for proper absorption. Thus, pasteurized milk really offers little to no health benefit in my opinion. Is it harmful? I can’t really answer that question with confidence, but I would tend to say that overconsumption of heavily pasteurized dairy forms will cause more harm than good (because most of us don’t product lactase in adulthood!)

3) Just because it’s Greek, doesn't mean it’s healthy (check the label)- I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but the yogurt industry is an absolute joke. From Gogurt to Yo-Crunch, this industry is certainly one of the contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Don’t get me wrong, some greek and Icelandic yogurts are filled with beneficial bacteria, protein, and high quality fats. However, the majority of what I see on the shelves today are nothing but cups full of sugar with no more nutritive value than a candy bar.

4) Low-fat dairy offers zero benefits to your health- In fact, studies show that full-fat dairy consumption is the main driver of the reduction of cardiovascular disease risk. **Note that the study also showed that dairy consumption in general showed no significant benefit in disease risk.

There are many more examples, but for the sake of time, I will stop here.


Now that I have identified some of the misconceptions, let’s look at some of the potential benefits of dairy consumption:

1) Raw and Fermented Dairy Products offer a variety of bioavailable nutrients, with the added benefit of lactase- This is good news! This means that for all you lactase non-persisters, you may be able to enjoy these products in moderation! Examples include- Kefir, greek yogurt, raw milks and aged cheeses.

2) Some studies have shown that dairy consumption is protective over type-II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome- The evidence isn’t huge, but a few studies have made associations. As stated above, full-fat varieties are always preferred over low-fat.

3) Consumption of local, raw milk may be protective over the development of asthma and allergies- This makes sense to me. If the cows graze on local grass to obtain nutrients, and you drink the milk produced from that cow, then you could potentially build up some immunity to pathogens in the environment. However, this only holds for raw milk consumption (from pasture raised animals)- https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2222.2006.02640.x

What if I’m Allergic, Intolerant, or Dairy-Free?

Can’t eat dairy for genetic, environmental, or personal reasons? Don’t sweat it! First off, you may want to try fermented products as a lot of the lactose is removed during the fermentation process, which may make it more easy on your digestive system. If you’re against all dairy forms, you can still obtain the same benefits from adding some other items to your diet. Calcium is present in high amounts in sardines, kale, almonds and broccoli. Vitamin D is available easily in supplemental forms as well as egg yolks, fish, and mushrooms. For the healthy bacteria (probiotics), you can supplement or even better obtain them in the diet through food items such as kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, and even fermented pickles.

If you’re looking for a milk substitute, I would suggest Almond or Coconut milk. Stay away from Soy Milk (This can be really nasty stuff for men and women). When buying alternative milk forms, avoid those with an ingredient titled Carrageenan to avoid potentially dietary distress.

Summary

All in all, I think you could do worse than having a cup of milk here and there, especially if you know you can tolerate it. However, I do think everyone should be sure they can handle dairy before going on a binge of pizza, ice cream, and beer. This is best done through doing a dairy tolerance test or direct testing for an allergy or intolerance. Once you are sure you can process dairy products, I would suggest sticking to fermented yogurts (i.e. kefir) or raw milks and cheeses from a trusted and local source. As always, just monitor how you feel and let that guide your decisions.

Lastly, I may have missed a lot with this post due to the vast amount of information to cover. If you feel I misunderstood a topic or have anything to add, please feel free to drop me a comment of message.

Common Names for Hidden Sugar in Processed Foods

A few years back, I did an internship in Cambridge, Mass with an organization titled EChO, which stands for Eradicate Childhood Obesity. I accepted the position for a few reasons, the main being that I was appalled by the number of youth that I observed to be overweight and obese. As I would learn throughout that internship, the numbers are increasing at a staggering rate and show no signs of slowing down. What could be the cause of this?! Aren’t children supposed to be the most active of all of us? While the answer to the increased rates of childhood obesity is multifactorial, I believe (in fact, I can almost guarantee that) one of the drivers of this epidemic is the increased access and consumption of processed foods rich in added and most importantly, hidden sugars by children across America.

What’s The Issue?

For those of you who know me, I get fired up rather easily about things I’m passionate about while working to see and understand alternative view points. A great example of this is the meat eaters vs. vegetarians/vegan debates. While I love meat and feel it offers tremendous and superior nutrition, I don’t dismiss vegans or vegetarians for their style of eating (as long as they’re supplementing properly to obtain the necessary dietary components). However, the topic of added and hidden sugar is one that I will never, ever turn back on. After looking at mounds of data, sifting through hundreds of research studies, and simply observing populations, I have no doubt that parents, children, educators, and health and wellness professionals need to do a better job of identifying sugar in all of it’s forms and working to decrease daily consumption (in both children and adults).

Okay, So How Does Sugar Hide?

I’ll start by showing you 56 ways sugar hides:

56 alternative names for sugar (http://oahuspineandrehab.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Hidden-Sugar-.jpg)

56 alternative names for sugar (http://oahuspineandrehab.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Hidden-Sugar-.jpg)

56 Names?! ARE YOU KIDDING?!

Let’s look at an example of a common “health food” to further explore:

First, I don’t believe the above list is even complete, I believe the list expands yearly, maybe faster. Here’s one of my favorite examples of the hidden sugar trick that companies use to fool Mom’s, youth sports coaches, schools, and even health-conscious athletes, health professionals, and others:

Nature Valley Bars- What couldn’t be healthy?! They have “whole grains” and provide “sustained energy” for all of you and your children’s needs. WRONG. Take a look at the label below and tell me how many different names for sugar are used.

https://www.amazon.com/Nature-Valley-Crunchy-Granola-12-Count/dp/B000EMM9WG?th=1

https://www.amazon.com/Nature-Valley-Crunchy-Granola-12-Count/dp/B000EMM9WG?th=1

How many did you count? I got four (okay technically three but I can almost guarantee that the “natural flavor” has some added sugar. The 3 others would be sugar, honey, and brown sugar syrup. Why in the world does a nature valley bar need honey AND sugar?! Not to mention brown sugar syrup.

This is sad my friends, but now you know how it’s done and can keep an eye out to avoid these type of products in the future.

Why I Think Added and Hidden Sugar Is Dangerous-

  • Sugar raises blood sugar and insulin, both of which are dangerous to health.

  • These hidden sugars are highly processed and refined, which poses risk to metabolic health.

  • Insulin promotes fat storage, hence the increased rates of childhood and adult obesity observed.

  • Individuals don’t realize how much sugar they’re actually consuming because they don’t know all of the names for sugar. This leads to a viscous cycle of chronic sugar consumption.

I hope you find this article helpful. If you have any comments, please share them below.

The Infamous Gluten Craze

Albee Coffee Shop.JPG

Before you read any further, I want to emphasize that I am not a medical professional (yet) and everything in this blog post is my opinion based on years of reading, observation, personal research and experimentation. This topic is extremely complex, which is why a google search yields roughly 53,000,000 results (yes that’s a million) ranging from “Why You Shouldn’t Go Gluten-Free” to “10 Steps To Begin a Gluten-Free Diet.” I am not writing this to promote any type of diet, nor is my goal to give you medical advice. My goal is to simply help you understand what the gluten-craze is all about and help you make your own decisions about the health of yourself and your family. Lastly, note that this is an extremely shallow dive into this topic and if you are interested in learning more, google has 53 million articles you can sift through.


Let’s start with some introductions:

Gluten- Gluten is a protein that helps to make up a variety of grains. The best way it’s been described to me is as the “glue” of grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, making up 80 percent of the protein found in these grains.

Celiac Disease-Celiac Disease is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system generates an attack against gluten, resulting in an inflammatory cascade. This means that the body is producing antibodies against gluten itself (alpha-gliadinin and/or tisse transglutaminase-2 are most commonly tested). There is also a genetic component to celiac, with the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes being the genes of interest.

Gluten or Wheat Allergy- First, note that I am bundling the two of these together for simplicity, but wheat allergies can be caused by proteins other than gluten. Allergies are not autoimmune conditions. An allergy to gluten or wheat generates an immune response, but through a different mechanism that Celiac Disease.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity- Okay, so this is where things get confusing for many people, even the experts from what I’ve read. NCGS is defined as a “clinical entity induced by the ingestion of gluten.(1)” I’ll be honest, that definition is a joke to me, so I’m going to provide my own spin on it- NCGS is when symptoms such as digestive issues, cognitive impairments, and even more serious chronic issues such as joint pain and dementia develop in response to gluten consumption but in the absence of Celiac Disease or a Gluten Allergy.

Okay, I Get It, But How The Heck Do I Know If I Should Eat Gluten?!

This is where things get really dicey! Here’s the deal- there is a lot of misconception on the prevalence of Celiac disease (CD). The prevalence of CD has risen since the introduction of wheat some 10,000 years ago. Currently, the number associated with CD is around 1%, though I suspect this to be higher (2). Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is difficult to quantify, as you can’t test for it. So, my suggestion for those of you who may suspect or fear gluten is to do the following before ordering a box of pizza and picking up a twelve pack of IPA’s:

1) Rule Out Celiac Disease, Wheat and Gluten Allergies- This is by far the most important as those in this population should adhere to a gluten-free diet at all times.

2) If You Still Suspect Gluten is The Cause of Symptoms, Test It! If you are not found to have CD or an allergy, but still suspect gluten is an issue, you can test it. This is most easily done by eliminating gluten products for 30 days, tracking your symptoms, and then re-introducing gluten to see if symptoms return (if they ever left).

If you do all of the above and see no difference, gluten-on in my opinion! However, I do believe overconsumption of gluten containing products is why CD and NCGS rates have risen dramatically and certainly think everyone should avoid excess consumption of gluten, especially in the form of refined carbohydrates and processed foods with zero nutritional value. Think of it this way, gluten is in almost everything we consume in a Western Diet: cereal, bread, pasta, crackers, pizza, and much more. This is a fairly recent change evolutionarily, which is why I tell people that can tolerate gluten to enjoy it in moderation and accompanied by a diet rich in meat, fish, vegetables, and fruits.

Again, this is a very basic dive into this topic, and I am by no means an expert. However, I hope this basic summary helps you better understand the gluten-craze and avoid getting caught up in the mess!

Resources-

1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-celiac_gluten_sensitivity

2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3496881