Should You Eat: Kale?

kaleYou are probably thinking it’s a no brainer, right? Kale is a vegetable. So why would a dietitian tell someone not to eat a vegetable?! Well, that’s not what this blog is about. Clearly vegetables should be a part of everyone’s diet, and most people probably don’t eat enough, but what I’m questioning is whether or not kale really lives up to all the hype. It’s been touted as a super food that fights cancer, slims waistlines, and improves mood and brain health, just to name a few. Anyone who has read this blog before already knows that I am not a fan of labeling any one food as “super”.   No one food alone is enough to sustain human life. We need variety, not just for nutrient balance, but for pleasure. People seem to forget that eating too much of a healthy food can cause problems too, which is why I believe it’s all about balance and moderation. Case in point, did you know that kale contains oxalates, which in high amounts can impair calcium absorption and cause kidney stones? That sure doesn’t sound fun! I even have a friend whose good friend got on a kale kick and started eating it daily. After awhile he started feeling unwell and got a weird rash on his palms. He even had blood thickening problems. His doctor told him to quit the kale. I know that’s just one person’s (extreme) experience and not exactly a scientific experiment, but it still points to the problem of too much of a healthy food.

So we shouldn’t over do it, but my real question is, is kale so darn great that we should all be shunning our spinach and other leafy greens in favor of it?

First, what exactly is kale? It’s only become mainstream the past couple of years. Kale is part of the cruciferous vegetables family, which also includes veggies such as cabbage, broccoli, spinach, and Brussels sprouts.

At first glance, nutrition-wise kale does look pretty good: 1 cup of kale contains about 35 calories, 2 grams protein, 3 grams fiber and a small amount of omega-3 fats in the form of alpha linolenic acid. Not too shabby. Kale also contains high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin K (hence my friend’s blood-thickening issue), as well as iron, calcium, copper, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus. Man, sounds like a multivitamin!

It is important to note that vitamins A and K are fat soluble vitamins, which can be stored in the body if eaten in excess. This means it is possible to get vitamin toxicity if you get too much of them (unlike water soluble vitamins, which your body will typically just excrete excessive amounts of through the urine). To put this in perspective, the recommendation for vitamin K is 90 mcg per day and 1 cup cooked kale contains 1062 mcg- that’s over 10 times the recommended daily amount! Although one day of eating an excessive amount of vitamin K won’t hurt you, doing it day after day on an ongoing basis could. A lot of people (present company included) are on green smoothie kicks these days, but if you are drinking one daily you could be getting more of some of these vitamins than you need, especially if also taking a multivitamin.

But back to the positive. Kale is also a good source of many phytonutrients, including carotenoids and flavonoids, among others, which act as antioxidants in the body, protecting the body from free radical damage.   The carotenoids lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene promote eye health as well. So kale certainly is packed with health promoting nutrients.

That’s all great, but how does it compare to its sister leafy green spinach?

  Spinach (1 cup cooked)* Kale (1 cup cooked)*
Calories 41 35
Protein (g) 5 2
Fiber (g) 4 3
Vitamin A (%DV) 105% 98%
Vitamin C 24% 71%
Vitamin K 987% 1180%
Manganese 84% 27%
Iron 36% 6.5%
Calcium 25% 9.3%

*All numbers taken from http://www.whfoods.com

As you can see, Popeye’s favorite green is not too shabby itself. Although lower in some vitamins (which as noted above, it is possible to get too many of anyway), spinach is actually higher in protein and fiber. Spinach also contains many of the same phytonutrients as kale, including lutein and zeaxanthin. So should you dump your spinach in favor of kale? I say no. Both are nutritious and because they taste slightly different they can be used in different dishes.

One other consideration with kale is pesticide residue and overall cleanliness. I’ve ran across some slimy doodads while washing my kale-I don’t even want to know what they were! It’s easy for dirt and bugs to get stuck within kale’s curly leaves, so be sure to wash your kale thoroughly. Another consideration is pesticide residue. You’ve probably heard of the “dirty dozen”, the list of the top 12 fruit and vegetables with the highest level of pesticide residue. Kale isn’t on the list, but it’s not too far off (perhaps it’s part of the baker’s dirty dozen). If you can afford organic kale that helps since organic vegetables are grown without the use of pesticides. It is of note that most dietitians, self included, believe that the benefits of eating vegetables probably outweigh the cost, even if you can’t afford organic. Again, just be sure to wash thoroughly!

 

Bottom Line: Kale is a nutritious vegetable, but certainly not the only one. Fruits and vegetables should be a large part of your diet (5-9 servings/day) but if you don’t like kale there are plenty of other nutritious leafy greens to try, such as spinach or arugula. Aim to incorporate kale or other cruciferous veggies 2-3 times per week (a serving size is one cup raw). Remember, different colored vegetables have different nutrients, so aim to eat a colorful mix!

 



Recipe- Kale Chips

1 small head kale, washed and ripped into small pieces (remove stems if desired)

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tsp salt

 

Toss kale pieces in olive oil to coat evenly. Bake at 350°F until crisp, but not browned, usually 10-12 minutes. Sprinkle salt on cooked chips and enjoy!

 

 

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Should You Eat: Chia Seeds

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia! If you wephoto(15)re around in the 80s your first association with chia seeds was probably the same as mine, that is that they are for growing weird little grass pets.  I have to admit that because of this association I was at first skeptical about eating them when they started to get popular.  Nowadays chia seeds are toted as a nutrition superstar, capable of everything from controlling hunger and aiding in weight loss, hydrating you, fueling your workouts, and fighting cancer and heart disease.

But do they live up to the hype?

One tablespoon of chia seeds contains approximately 60 calories, 5 grams of carbohydrate, 5 grams of fiber, 5 grams fat, and 2 grams of protein.   Most of those 5 grams of fat are from polyunsaturated fats, specifically alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is an omega-3 fat.  It’s probably not new news to anyone these days that omega-3 fats are full of health benefits including promoting heart and brain health.  In those 2 grams of protein are all of the essential amino acids, making them a complete protein source and a good option for vegetarians in particular.   In addition, chia seeds are a good source of calcium, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium and zinc.  That’s quite the nutritional punch!

So what about sports performance?  The omega-3 fats in chia seeds are anti-inflammatory, meaning they could be helpful with recovery from strenuous exercise.  Chia seeds were supposedly used for energy by the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who were said to be able to run hundreds of miles after drinking chia seeds soaked in water.  Chia seeds can help with hydration, as they are highly absorbent. Soak chia seeds in a glass of water for 10 minutes and you’ll see how much they soak up the water, becoming thick gelatinous blobs. Gross? Kind of, but this is why they are able to help with hydration.

Chia seeds also contain magnesium, which is thought to help with muscle cramping, another possible benefit for athletes who struggle with cramping.  So chia seeds could be beneficial for athletes, although studies on sports performance and chia seeds are scarce.

And what about all the other hype?  Chia sees are said to help with weight loss and feeling satiated.  They are high in fiber, which can help aid weight loss by helping you feel fuller longer.  It’s also believed that because chia seeds expand  in water they can help create a feeling of fullness as they expand in your stomach.  Chia seeds (and all seeds really) are pretty calorie dense however, so the calories can add up pretty quickly.  So if you are watching your weight stick to 1-2 tablespoons per day.

Chia seeds are a good source of antioxidants, which help eliminate free radicals in the body. Since free radicals may cause cellular changes that could lead to cancer, chia seeds could potentially be helpful with cancer prevention, but this by no means guarantees that eating chia seeds will prevent or cure cancer.  They could, however, along with other antioxidant packed fruits and vegetables, help form the base of a healthy diet that would provide potential cancer protection benefits.

As I mentioned above chia seeds contain omega-3 fats, which is why they have been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fats help raise the HDL or “good” cholesterol as well as lower trigylcerides. Because they are anti-inflammatory this means they can help reduce inflammation in blood vessels, thus helping stave off heart disease.  Unfortunately the only omega-3 that chia seeds contain is ALA, where as the omega-3s DHA and EPA have been correlated with greater health benefits.  Some ALA is converted in the body into DHA and EPA, but it may be best for heart health to eat foods that contain DHA and EPA, such as fish.

 

Bottom Line:

Chia seeds are certainly packed with nutrition and may provide some benefit for weight loss and heart health, however studies on this are limited.  Chia seeds are not a superfood though, because there are no superfoods! Sorry to burst your bubble, but there is no one magical cure-all food. It’s best to aim to eat a wide variety of foods, since different foods contain different nutrients.  That being said, because chia seeds are highly nutritious they are worthwhile to incorporate into your diet.

Chia seeds are a bit pricey. I paid about $17 for a 15 oz bag (35 tablespoons).  Granted they were organic and I bought it at Whole Foods so I’m sure there are better deals to be had.  A little bit goes a long way though, as 1-2 tablespoons a day is sufficient.

If you want to try chia seeds for sports performance, consider soaking them in water and drinking them as part of your pre-workout fluids.  Remember never to try anything new on race day!  Make sure to experiment with this on training runs or rides first as the fiber could cause GI distress for some people.

Chia seeds can be eaten raw or cooked, ground or whole. Unlike flaxseed, the human body is able to digest whole chia seeds.  They can be sprinkled on top of oatmeal, yogurt or salads or even baked into breads and other baked goods.  Beware that chia seeds have a tendency to stick to your teeth when eaten in oatmeal and yogurt!

Or try this delicious dessert recipe that contains my last “Should You Eat” blog topic as well, chocolate!

Chia Seed Pudding

  • 2 cups of coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup chia seeds
  • 2-3 tablespoons cocoa powder (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla (or to taste) or cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon or more sweetener of choice (optional)- honey, agave, Stevia, pure maple syrup

Put in a blender and blend until smooth. Divide amongst 4 small bowls or cups and put in fridge to thicken. Pudding will thicken in about 10 minutes in the fridge.

 

Should You Eat: Chocolate?

chocolateI’ve decided to add a new feature to my blog, the “Should You Eat: XX” blogs!  Here I will choose a particular food, usually one with lots of hype around it, and break it down to see what it really offers in terms of nutrition and sports performance enhancement, and whether or not I think it’s worthwhile to incorporate it into your diet.

First up, chocolate.  Let me preference this blog with a confession:  I love chocolate.  Most days of the week I have a piece or two, and it’s not always the dark “healthy” kind.  I don’t do it for my health so much as for enjoyment, but I do sometimes wonder if all this chocolate is helping or hurting my health and sports performance (physical health that is, there is no doubt it helps my mental health!).

Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean, which is a good source of a group of phytochemicals called “flavanols”.  These nutrients have antioxidant properties and are thought to help reduce the risk of heart disease, improve blood flow, and lower blood pressure.  There have also been studies that found improvement in memory and cognitive function with an increase in flavanols from cocoa in the diet, possibly from increased blood flow to the brain.  So that’s why you often hear that dark chocolate is good for you.  The difference between dark chocolate and regular milk chocolate is mostly the cocoa content.  Dark chocolate also contains much less milk than milk chocolate and it is generally only dark chocolate that is thought to have health benefits.

The downside is that chocolate is full of calories in the form of fat and sugar.  There have been some studies (on animals mostly) about the addictive properties of sugar and fat combined, meaning you may have a hard time stopping after just 1-2 pieces!  I, however, would like to think that I have a little more mental strength than a rat so I’m not sure how applicable those studies are to humans.  Still, it’s important to consider that to get 200mg of flavanols from dark chocolate (70% cacao) you would need to eat 2 ounces, which would contain about 300 calories**.  That’s no small sum.  Milk chocolate is too low in flavanols to even pretend you are eating a health food, so no luck there, sorry.

The good news is there is another form to try if you want to reap the health benefits of chocolate- cocoa powder.  Because it’s less processed it contains more flavanols than any other form of chocolate.  And because it doesn’t have sugar and milk added to it like chocolate, it doesn’t contain the fat or sugar either.  To get 200mg of flavanols from cocoa powder, all you need is 1 ¾ tablespoons, which will only set you back 20 calories!  Chocolate lovers beware though, cocoa powder is not sweet. In fact, it’s quite bitter and, well, kinda gross tasting.

Wondering if chocolate or cocoa powder can improve your sports performance? It would make sense that increased blood flow could be beneficial.  After all, that’s part of the reason beet juice helps.  A quick search on Pub Med didn’t yield a whole lot of results though.  There was one study that found reduced oxidative-stress markers and increased mobilization of free fatty acids after exercise but no observed effect on exercise performance with regular dark chocolate consumption.   I also found an article referencing a study claiming “eating dark chocolate improves athletic performance just as much as exercise”, which I find hard to believe. Turns out it was a mice study. I didn’t realize mice liked chocolate!  Anyway, looks like we need more studies on athletes and dark chocolate. I’d volunteer for that!  The down side with chocolate and sports performance is potential weight gain.  As I noted above, you’d have to eat 300 calories worth of dark chocolate to get the health benefits.  That’s a pretty big chunk of your daily caloric needs if you are eating, say, about 2200 calories a day.

So, the question is, should you eat chocolate?  Like so many things with food and nutrition, I’m not going to give you a straight yes or no answer! First of all, I’m only talking about dark chocolate here.  There aren’t enough flavanols in milk chocolate to provide any health benefits, so if you really like milk chocolate make sure to have it as an occasional treat, not a daily occurrence, and don’t kid yourself into believing you are eating it for your health.  That being said, I think that there are some great possible health benefits to eating dark chocolate, but these must be weighed with the cost, i.e. lots of calories from fat and sugar.  However, if you don’t like dark chocolate and already eat a healthful diet there is probably no point in starting to add in dark chocolate.  If you are interested in amping up your diet but don’t care for dark chocolate, try incorporating cocoa powder.  Add a tablespoon or two to smoothies, recovery shakes/drinks, or coffee or even top your yogurt or oatmeal with it.  Now, if you do like chocolate then I say go for it!  Not only are there the potential health benefits, but there is also the pleasure factor to consider.  Depriving yourself of something you really enjoy is likely to make you want it more-and to end up eating a whole pan of brownies when you finally let yourself have some.  That will put way more of dent in your diet and health than a piece or two a day.  Plus, it’s okay to incorporate foods you enjoy into your diet (within reason of course). Just make sure to opt for dark chocolate (70% cacao minimum) most of the time and be sure to factor the chocolate into your daily caloric needs as well as your total sugar intake to avoid unwanted weight gain.

Next up, Should You Eat: Chia Seeds.  What other foods would you like to see featured?

**Statistics from Nutrition Action Healthletter, December 2013 issue