The Goodness of Green Tea

I’ve been drinking a lot of green tea lately on account of fighting off a cold. Why do I do this every time? I’m not really sure! Does it really help or is it the placebo effect (and does that matter)? I know fluids are important when sick, and green tea can help with that, but mostly you hear about green tea as it relates to weight loss and cancer. So what’s the truth?

Legend has it that tea was discovered when some leaves blew in through an open window and landed in a pot of boiling water, or something like that. I’m not sure if the story is true, but I’m glad tea was discovered.  It’s a comforting beverage on a cold day and a refreshing one on a hot day, and it’s generally regarded as good for you. Here’s the scoop:

Health benefits– Green tea contains epigallocatechin gallate (or EGCG) which is an antioxidant. It is thought to help prevent the spread of cancerous cells and possibly the development of cancer. Some studies have also found a link between green tea consumption and decreased risk of heart disease. There are some promising studies out there, and some not so promising, so it’s too soon to say for sure, but so far the results do look good.

Fat burning– Green tea gets a lot of publicity for its implications in speeding up the metabolism and potentially promoting weight loss. While studies have found a spike in metabolism after consumption, it is probably not enough for any significant weight loss. On average, drinking 3-4 cups of green tea was found to increase calorie burning by 80-179kcal/day. Although this could help augment a weight loss program, alone it’s not enough to result in any significant weight loss.  Also, if you’re adding sugar to the tea you’re pretty much negating the extra calories burned anyway.

Supplements-There are some green tea supplements out there, mostly marketed for weight loss. As always, it’s better to eat real food (and drink real drinks) than to take a supplement as there are complex interactions in whole foods that cannot be duplicated in supplements. Also, they could be dangerous. Most green tea supplements contain a fair amount of caffeine which may cause jitteriness and there have been cases of liver toxicity with green tea extract supplements. It’s also unlikely that a green tea supplement will do much for weight loss.

Bottom line-Green tea is generally regarded as safe and may provide health benefits so it’s worth incorporating into your diet (assuming you like it). Studies generally find that you need to drink 3-4 cups a day to reap the health benefits. Be careful about adding too much sugar to it since excess sugar comes with its own health concerns. Don’t expect the pounds to melt off though. Stick to healthy eating and exercise if you are trying to lose weight and think of green tea as a bonus, not a solution.


Sugar and Elf (and you)

“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup!”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I am borderline obsessed with the movie Elf. That particular quote is one of my favorites, although as a dietitian I have to question the nutritional balance of a diet like that! Sugar is a popular nutrition topic these days, and it is generally all bad publicity. Want to know my opinion on it? It’s all about moderation.

I’ve probably used the words “moderation” and “balance” a thousand times in my nutrition consulting sessions and on this blog, and that’s because I truly believe they are the key to a healthy and well-rounded diet (and life). I don’t believe that sugar in of itself is bad. One of the first rules of working with eating disorders is not to place judgment on foods or to label them as good or bad, because in essence, they aren’t. There are just different foods that serve different purposes. I like to point out that even water, which is typically considered “good” or “healthy” can be deadly if drank in excess.

That being said, most Americans aren’t so great with the moderation piece when it comes to sugar. Sugar, in various forms, is added to a lot of food products, and some you might even not expect- peanut butter, breads, cereals (not just the little kid kinds) and salad dressings just to name a few. So it’s easy to over-do it. Excess sugar can definitely be a health problem, especially if done in excess over a long period of time and particularly for those with health concerns such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome.

The American Heart Association has put out guidelines for sugar intake: women should consume no more than 100 calories (6 tsp or 25 grams) of added sugar daily and men should consume no more than 150 calories (9 tsp or 37.4 grams). Those numbers are just for added sugars, so they don’t include naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruit and dairy products, but that still isn’t a whole lot. If you put 2 tablespoons of sugar in your morning coffee you’ve already met that number (if you’re a woman). Reportedly the average American consumes closer to 355 calories (22 tsp or 90 grams) from added sugars every day. Okay, so that’s quite a bit more than recommended, but honestly I think these guidelines are ridiculously difficult for the average American to follow, so don’t feel bad if your sugar intake is above those numbers, I know mine is. After all, what’s life without a little sweetness? That being said, if you have health issues such as those mentioned above you should definitely be careful about your sugar intake. If you are generally healthy, however, while it would still be wise to eat high sugar foods such as soda (which packs 40 grams of sugar per can on average) and candy in moderation, it would also be important not to be overly restrictive with your eating habits. This can set you up for problems with disordered eating and frankly makes life less enjoyable. Enjoyment is one of the purposes of food after all! Instead of dwelling on grams of sugar, focus on broader nutrition goals such as increasing fruit and veggie intake or making sure you get enough lean proteins and healthy fats.

I would also like to point out that besides the enjoyment factor, there are other times when sugar can be appropriate, such as immediately before, during, and after endurance exercise when sugar is necessary for fuel.  So sugar doesn’t totally deserve the bad rap.

Me, I just ate a piece of chocolate as I was writing part of this blog. I might have 2 or 3, but I won’t eat the whole bag, and that’s what enjoying food in moderation is about!

A New Year, New Resolutions

 I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I’ve always thought that if you want to change something you should do it now and not wait until the start of a new year, so I don’t usually set resolutions. Sure, there are those that want a “fresh start” and so the first of the year makes sense to embark on a goal, but statistically speaking most New Year’s resolutions fail within the first half of the year. Another potential problem I’ve noticed is that sometimes when we set a start date for a goal we give ourselves permission to do exactly the opposite until then, such as eating or drinking as much as we can before giving up alcohol or starting a diet.

I recently read a statistic that by the end of January over a third of resolutions have been given up on. Anyone who goes to a gym can witness this trend. The gyms are packed in January to the point that it’s nearly impossible to find a machine, but by March they’ve generally returned to normal levels.

I’m not totally pessimistic about resolutions though. A majority of resolutions involve health in one way or another which I am all for, and setting goals can be a good way to stay on track and change one’s life for the better, just make sure to be SMART when setting your resolution!

SMART goals are often used in the business world, but they can work for health and fitness related goals as well. You’ll see some variations, but SMART generally stands for specific, measurable, attainable (or achievable), relevant, and time sensitive (or timely).

Specific– A specific goal is easier to stick with than a general one, so instead of saying “I will lose weight” or “I will work out more” make it specific, such as “I will work out 4 days per week in order to improve my body composition”.

Measurable– You’ll need a way to know if you are meeting your goal, so make sure it’s measurable. For the above goal you could say, “I will do 30 minutes of cardio at the gym 4 days a week”. You could also use body composition measurements as an indicator of staying on track.

Attainable– They say reach for the stars, but if you set your goals too high you’ll likely get discouraged and give up. I recommend setting mini goals that feel manageable and work you towards the greater goal. For instance, what’s the goal for this week? This month? Don’t focus too far into the future and don’t set unrealistic goals (like losing 20 pounds in a week or running your first marathon next month when you’ve never ran more than a mile in your life).

Relevant– You gotta want it to stick with it so don’t set a goal you don’t really care about. If it is not really relevant to your life or worth the effort to you, you’ll likely get bored with it quickly. So make sure it’s a goal you really care about.

Time Sensitive– Put an end date on it. Having a deadline can be motivating (as long as it’s realistic and attainable!).

Good luck and Happy New Year!

Coffee: Is it Good or Bad for Your Health and Sports Performance (or Just Delicious)?

Ever wonder if your daily cuppa joe is helping or harming you?  Heard that caffeine (such as that in coffee) can improve your sports performance?  Like so many foods and drinks, coffee gets a fair amount of press for its implications in our health.  Most of the press is positive, but some is negative too.  Since it’s such a commonly consumed beverage, and I myself enjoy a cup almost every morning, I decided to do a bit of sleuthing into the topic.  Here’s what I found
Good News:
  • Regular coffee consumption may lower your risk of developing: type 2 diabetes (via reducing insulin resistance), gout, Parkinson’s disease, gallstones, liver cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Coffee contains antioxidants which have health benefits and may in part explain the lower risk of some cancers (although this link is not clear).
  • Despite what Cher in the movie “Clueless” would have you believe, there is no truth to the rumor that coffee stunts your growth.
A caution, however, that the amount of coffee used in the studies varied and at least one study used 4-6 cups of regular coffee a day which is more than the average coffee drinker consumes and enough to cause side effects in some people.  The use of decaf vs regular coffee also varied. Decaf coffee was only found to be helpful with some of these conditions.
Bad News:
  • Too much caffeinated coffee can cause jitteriness, rapid heart rate, dizziness, anxiety, and nausea (all temporary).
  • Some studies have found an increased risk of pancreatic cancer and heart disease among coffee drinkers, although more recent studies have not.  However, some people cannot metabolize caffeine as well as others and these people are at an increased risk of heart issues.
  • Caffeine can temporarily raise blood pressure.  If your blood pressure is normal drinking coffee daily shouldn’t affect your blood pressure long term, but be aware of how much you are consuming if you have hypertension or pre-hypertension.
  • Large doses may not be good for pregnant women.  It is safe to consume 200mg/day or less, about the amount in 12 oz of drip coffee.
Sports Performance:
Athletes have long known about the ergogenic effects of caffeine.  That’s why you’ll find it added to many sports gels and drinks these days.  The main benefit is that caffeine helps enhance fat burning and since fat is the main fuel used during endurance exercise consuming caffeine can help you better utilize this fuel, resulting in the ability to work out longer and harder.  Caffeine also stimulates the brain, improving alertness and reaction time, delaying fatigue, and even providing a slight analgesic (pain relieving) effect.  Although once believed to be a diuretic, in moderation caffeine should not contribute to enough fluid losses to affect performance.
If you want to try using caffeine for sports performance, try using 3-6 mg of caffeine per kg body weight since that is the range studies found to be beneficial.  Some of these studies used a bolus dose of caffeine before the exercise, others used it spaced out during the exercise, so experiment with what works best for you.  For a 150lb athlete 3-6 mg/kg body weight would be 204-409 mg of caffeine, which is about the amount in 2-3 (6 oz) cups of home brewed coffee.  Note that this is a lot more than the amount found in most gels, which typically range from 25-100 mg per gel.
It’s important to point out that this performance enhancement applies only to endurance exercise.  Caffeine does not seem to benefit strength or speed sports as much.
Bottom Line:
Take these findings with a grain of salt (no, not literally!).  These studies cannot prove cause and effect but only an association. It could be that some other commonality among coffee drinkers results in the lower risk of these diseases.  However, it does appear that the news is mostly good, so don’t feel guilty about enjoying your coffee.  Just make sure you’re not relying on coffee to meet your body’s fluid needs.  Tolerance to coffee and caffeine varies from person to person, so stop before you start feeling jittery.  Although it’s unlikely to cause any health issues, don’t expect it to cure anything either.  It’s not worth choking it down just because you heard it was good for you if you don’t actually enjoy it.
If you are an endurance athlete, I believe that caffeine is definitely worth experimenting with.  Whether you do this by coffee consumption or not is a personal preference.

The Pitfalls of the Quest for Perfect Nutrition

 bagelI once overheard a personal trainer at my gym say to another trainer “I was so bad today, I had a white bagel!”   The other trainer gasped in horror as I cringed to myself and debated whether or not it was worth telling the trainer how silly she sounded.  I don’t like when people refer to themselves as bad because of something they ate. That’s classic eating disorder talk and it’s sad to think that some people genuinely feel so guilty about something they ate.  Sometimes I think things like the trainer said are said as an exaggeration or for effect, but it’s still not a good habit.  Eating a less than healthy food does not make one a bad person! Lying, cheating, stealing…those things make you a bad person, but not your nutrition choices.
The problem I see with striving for perfect nutrition is that it doesn’t exist.  Think about it: two of the most popular ways of eating out there currently, vegetarianism and Paleo, are just about as opposite as you can get.  So how do you even begin to define what “perfect” would look like?  There is no consensus on what the best diet is, even amongst nutrition professionals.  Another problem with trying to attain perfect nutrition is that there is almost always a next step that could be taken.  Eating lean meats isn’t good enough; you have to marinate them to help reduce development of carcinogenic compounds during cooking.  Oh and make sure it’s grass fed and free range. And local.  Maybe it starts with decreasing sweets, then it’s decreasing refined grains, then it’s all grains, then it’s an eating disorder.  Okay, now I’m exaggerating but you know what I mean.  Where do you draw the line?  To me, this means that trying to reach nutrition perfection will result in inevitable failure, and you’ll end up feeling bad about yourself and possibly set yourself up for disordered eating.
So what do you do if health is important to you but you don’t want to feel bad about your nutrition choices?
  • Eliminate food rules.  If you have rules, you’re more likely to want to break them and then feel guilty about it afterwards.
  • Practice mindful eating. Pay attention to what you are eating and enjoy it.
  • Find balance.  A white bagel isn’t going to ruin your health as long as it’s not the main staple.  Set more realistic goals, like choosing whole grains more often than not, that way you don’t have to shame yourself for the occasional appearance of a white bread product.
  • Practice moderation.  Allow yourself less nutrient dense foods, such as dessert, on occasion. Totally denying yourself of it will just make you want it more.
  • Don’t stress about the occasional indulgence. That’s normal and that’s part of what makes life enjoyable.  One brownie will not change the course of your life (okay maybe if it has an engagement ring in it or something!)
  • Reward with food in moderation.  But also try to find other forms of reward, like getting a massage or buying yourself that new gadget you’ve been wanting.
  • Never punish with food (yourself or your kids).  Even taking away dessert can backfire. I once worked with a patient whose parents locked up all the candy in the house when she was a kid. Years later when she got a car she started driving to the store daily to buy her own candy to binge on.
  • Focus on the positive. Instead of thinking about what you “shouldn’t” eat, focus on getting plenty of nutritious foods.  If you’re getting enough of them you just might find you don’t even want the less nutrient dense stuff.
  • Get to the bottom of the bad feeling.  Chances are it’s not really about the food, so if you are feeling really guilty about your food or eating habits or your body enlist the help of a dietitian or even a therapist to explore your relationship with food and your body.

I Swear I’m Not Slacking (Eat Your Vegetables)

 Okay, so I haven’t written a blog in what feels like forever, but it’s not for lack of want. I have ideas in my head, and some even half written down.  However, I am currently working on a 3 hour presentation that I will be giving March 2nd (yes you read correctly: 3 HOURS!) on the dietitian’s role in the treatment of eating disorders and not only is that taking up a lot of my time, but it’s also sucking my will to do anything other than stare at the wall with the little free time I have.  Okay, maybe it’s not that bad, but it’s my excuse for lack of blogging. So in the meantime I’m going to copy and paste a blog I wrote a long time ago on vegetables.  If there is one thing the plethora of diets out there can agree on, it’s that vegetables are good for you and you should probably be eating more off them.  In fact, if you ever come across a diet that says not to eat vegetables you should probably run the other way!

Vegetables are an integral part of a healthy diet, regardless of your health and fitness goals. Not only are they packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, but they are also low in calories.  The general recommendation is 5-9 servings of fruits and veggies a day, and most of those should be vegetables not fruit, but most people find it easier to get in fruits than vegetables.  It’s not an easy target to hit (a serving is 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw veggies). Most people don’t even come close, and sadly white potatoes are the most frequently eaten vegetable in the U.S.  Which I think barely counts! I find the best way to get in enough vegetables is to add them to foods I already eat. It’s much easier to throw some extra veggies on top of your sandwich then to try to incorporate plain veggies into your diet as snacks or sides (but those are good ideas too), especially if you’re not too keen on the taste. Below are some tips on sneaking extra veggies into your diet.

1. Put bell peppers, onion, spinach, broccoli, or mushrooms in your morning omelet.
2. Add bell peppers and onions to hash browns and serve them with a little ketchup or salsa on the side.
3. Make a homemade veggie pizza with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and even broccoli if you’re feeling adventurous.
4. Try a veggie quesadilla on a whole wheat tortilla with part skim mozzarella and oven roasted zucchini, bell peppers, and onion.
5. Spice up spaghetti sauce with mushrooms, peppers, onions, zucchini, diced carrots, or sauteed spinach.
6. Load up your sandwiches with veggies-not just lettuce and tomato but spinach, cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts, bell peppers, and onions.
7. Place a few slices of tomato and spinach on a whole wheat grilled cheese sandwich.
8. Add layers of spinach or eggplant to lasagna.
9. Blend cooked cauliflower or broccoli into mashed potatoes.
10. Add your own extra mixed veggies to store bought soup.
11. Blend a handful of kale or spinach into a fruit smoothie.

If you’re not a huge fan of vegetables, try roasting them in olive oil. I swear it makes any vegetable taste better, plus you’ll get in some healthy fats!

Jumpin’ on the (green smoothie) Bandwagon

 I’ve never been one to go for whatever the fad du jour is.  If it’s trendy, fashionable, or in vogue (en vogue? I don’t even know!) I’m not usually drawn to it, whether that be fashion, food, or life.  I’m not sure if this stems from not wanting to conform, not paying attention, or not caring about what’s “in”, but it’s just the reality of how I am. This is particularly true when it comes to food trends.  Raw foods? No thanks. Paleo? Nah. Gluten-free? Not for me!  I guess I just don’t want to do something because it’s popular.  If I actually like something and believe in it, well that’s another thing.  Case in point: green smoothies.  At first I was skeptical.  Liquid spinach?!  But in reality they’re a great way to get in more veggies, which is a food group most people don’t get enough of.  They are refreshing on a warm day, pretty tasty, and frankly, they are kind of fun. Okay so I’ve only made one so far but I like the concept and I plan on experimenting with them more and hopefully posting more recipes.  Yes, ladies and gentleman, I have joined the green smoothie trend.

Here’s what I did for my first one:

8 oz coconut milk
1-2 handfuls spinach
1/2 cucumber, cubed and preferably frozen
1 green apple, cubed

1/4 avocado

Another Good Reason to Eat Almonds and Stop Counting Calories

National Nutrition Month (March) has come and gone and I have failed to even mention it! Whoops.  Well, Happy Belated National Nutrition Month!

One of the first lessons taught in Nutrition 101 is the caloric value of the macronutrients:
Protein= 4 calories/gram
Carbohydrate= 4 calories/gram
Fat= 9 calories/gram
Calories are basically units of energy.  Technically, a “calorie” (or more accurately “kilocalorie”) is the amount of energy it takes to raise 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.  Now you’ve probably lost all interest, but hear me out.  These numbers are based on the Atwater system, which was developed using a bomb calorimeter.  If I recall correctly, that’s a machine you put food in and basically blow it up, then measure the heat it took to do so (or something like that, but much more complicated).  Anyway, these numbers are the basis of the calorie totals that we find on nutrition labels today.  Seems straight forward enough, right?  Well maybe not.  Recent research is questioning the accuracy of the Atwater system, particularly as it pertains to some fats such as nuts.  The theory is that the chemical composition of nuts does not give an accurate picture of the metabolizable energy (i.e. how many calories you will actually absorb) due to reduced digestibility.  One study found that Atwater overestimates the measured energy value(calorie) of almonds by 32%!  This means that when you are eating a supposedly 185 calorie serving of nuts, your body may only be getting (and therefore utilizing) 140 calories.  As if you needed another reason to eat nuts!  Even if other studies don’t validate this one, nuts are still a great source of unsaturated fats and packed with vitamins and minerals!  I eat them almost every day.
But the real take home message of this study is that maybe not all foods can be thrown into a simple 4/4/9 category when it comes to calories.  Which brings up the question of what foods besides almonds might not be what they seem calorie-wise?  And the further question of So What?!  I don’t recommend counting calories anyway.  It’s no way to live and also not the best way to ensure you are eating healthfully (you can meet your calorie needs through jelly beans and soda after all).  For many people calorie counting can become a compulsive and unhealthy activity.  To add further confusion, opposite of what this study has found are studies examining restaurant foods which have found that entrees tend to contain more calories than the restaurant menus state.  So you may be getting less calories in some instances, and more in others.  You can’t win when counting calories, so don’t do it.
So what can you do if you are concerned about your weight and/or health?
  •   Watch your portion sizes.
  • Eat from a wide variety of foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains.
  • Hydrate with non caloric beverages (water is the best!)
  • Incorporate exercise on a regular basis.
Yup, that’s it.  Keep It Simple, Smarty!