3 Warming and Nutritious Beverages

As winter approaches I find myself constantly preparing different types of warming beverages to sip on throughout the day. Waking up to an energizing cup of hot water with lemon and settling down in the evening with a soothing mug of herbal tea has been part of my winter routine for years.

These beverages also have many nutritional properties such as aiding in digestion, lowering inflammation, and providing beneficial antioxidants!  

My Favorite Types of Tea

  • Green tea has been used for medicinal purposes in China and Japan for thousands of years. It has been boasted for its powerful antioxidant content (100x more than vitamin C!), along with its ability to reduce inflammation, lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and boost metabolism. Caffeine content ranges from 30-50 mg per 8oz (compared to 95 mg for coffee). 
  • Tulsi tea is a more bitter type of tea that enhances liver detoxification and can help prevent cancer by inducing cell death in precancerous and cancerous cells. It is most well know for its natural adaptogenic properties, or its ability to help the body adapt to stress, making it a perfect beverage during the stressful winter holidays!
  • Hibiscus tea has been shown to decrease both systolic and diastolic blood pressure by an average of 7.58 mmHg and 3.53 mmHg, respectively (according to a 2015 review of 5 studies). 

*I prefer to buy organic, loose-leaf tea – it is cleaner, cheaper, and has less packaging so it’s better for the environment!

Hot Water With Lemon

The benefits of water with lemon should not be underestimated. Drinking a warm cup first thing in the morning on an empty stomach has been part of my routine for years! Below is a list of some of its wonderful benefits.

  • It can help improve digestion by increasing production of hydrochloric acid (HCl) in your stomach, which further helps to increase important digestive enzymes. 
  • An increase in acid and digestive enzymes can lead to more regular bowel movements (at least 1 per day is optimal).  
  • It can be a natural remedy for acid reflux. This may sound counter-intuitive, but many people with heartburn are actually under-producing acid! When you increase your digestive secretions you may notice a decrease in your symptoms.
  • Aids in detoxification of of anything potentially harmful or toxic (such as pesticides, alcohol, caffeine, prescription drugs, and chemicals from personal care products) by increasing the livers detoxification processes.  

*Be sure to drink a cup of plain water after to rinse your teeth of the acidity

Healthy Hot Cocoa

An obvious fan favorite during the winter. However, with all the sweets floating around this time of year, sometimes I want that amazing chocolaty flavor without all the added sugar. Many commercial hot cocoa mixes also contain artificial flavors, caramel coloring, artificial sweeteners and trans fat. This recipe eliminates those toxic ingredients, replacing them with healthy fats and antioxidants.

Recipe

  • 1 cup boiling water or warmed nut milk
  • 1 heaped Tbs cacao powder
  • 1-2 tsp MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil or (my favorite) coconut butter
  • 1/2 tsp monk fruit extract or natural sweetener of choice (I prefer local honey)
  • Dash of cinnamon
  • Optional: 1 tsp Ashwaganda
  • Optional: 1 tsp Lion’s Mane mushroom
  • Blend until frothy and enjoy!

What are your favorite healthy winter beverages? Share below!

5 Tips Help Recover from a Gluttonous Thanksgiving

No matter how mindful we intend to be during Thanksgiving festivities, it is a safe bet that most of us will leave the table feeling overfull and defeated. There is no shame in allowing yourself some food freedom once in a while, especially on what may be consider the ultimate cheat day of the year! From my experience, it is not Thanksgiving Day itself that sabotages health goals or weightless efforts; it is the days following filled with endless amounts of leftover pie and stuffing. To avoid being set off track from your long term goals, I put together a list of some of my favorite ways to recover and detox post tryptophan binge (an amino acid found in turkey commonly proclaimed to make people sleepy).

  1. Move. I always tend to feel better after a good sweat. Doing something active that you enjoy is a great way to get back into the swing of things. If you want to get the most bang for you buck, HIIT, or high intensity interval training, will help you burn the most calories in the least amount of time.
  2. Hydrate. Especially if alcohol was involved in the festivities. Hot water with lemon is a wonderful way to help detoxify your liver and boost your metabolism. A good rule of thumb is to drink half your body weight in kilograms each day.
    • Example: If you weigh 200 pounds, divide by 2.2 = ~91 kilograms. Therefore, a 200 pound individual should drink approximately 90 ounces (~11 cups) of fluid each day!
  3. Utilize your freezer. Rather than aiming to eat all your leftovers in the few following days, freeze the less healthy options. This will not only make it inconvenient for you to grab as a quick snack, but it will also encouraged you to eat it over a longer period of time and (ideally) in smaller portions.
  4. Fast. Fasting has been associated with a host of benefits including increased metabolism, reduced inflammation and improved blood sugar control. Visit my blog post What is Intermittent Fasting? Key Components for Success for the specifics.
  5. Drink a smoothie. Smoothies are a great way to obtain a ton of nutrients in one meal. Blending the foods can improve digestibility and make them more palatable, particularly for those spinach and kale haters. I love referring to Simple Green Smoothies for inspiration and recipe ideas!

Guide to Healthy Protein Sources

Vegetarian fed. Cage free. Natural. Free range. We all see these labels on packaging but understanding what they actually mean is a different story. Despite consumers’ interest in reading food labels and willingness to spend more money for a superior product, many do not actually know what labeling terms actually entail or what regulations accompany them. This guide will help you navigate the various terms and certifications to ensure you choose the foods best for you and your family.

Most Reliable Labeling

American Grassfed Association Certified

  • Applies to: beef, bison, lamb, goat, sheep, milk
  • PROS
    1. Indicates animal was raised primarily on pasture and fed only grass and forage
    2. Grain feeding and GMOs prohibited
    3. No antibiotics allowed (sick animals treated no longer qualify for this certification)
    4. Pasture management to maximize soil fertility
  • CONS
    1. No audits to ensure humane slaughter

Food Alliance Certified-Grassfed

  • Applies to: beef, bison, lamb, goat, milk
  • PROS
    1. Raised outside on pasture or range for their entire life
    2. Fed only grass or forage (no grain)
    3. No antibiotics allowed (sick animals treated no longer qualify for this certification)
  • CONS
    1. No audits to ensure humane slaughter

*Note: Be sure the term “grass-fed” is used on all Food Alliance Certified products, as this this is a more rigorous certification.

*Additional note: Meat will commonly indicate “grass-fed”. However, if it does not specifically say “grass-fed, grass-finished”, “100% grass-fed” or is not accompanied by one of the above certifications, then it is possible the animal only spent a small amount of time in pastures.

USDA Organic

  • Applies to: beef, lamb, goat, milk, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs
  • PROS:
    1. Animals fed only certified organic feed
    2. GMO feed prohibited
    3. No antibiotic allowed (sick animals treated no longer qualify for this certification)
    4. Animals must have year-round access to outdoors. Cows, sheep and goats must have access to pasture.
  • CONS:
    1. No audits to ensure humane slaughter
    2. Some use of feedlots allowed (where they are fed corn, grain, etc. in confined areas)

Marine Stewardship Council

  • Applies to: seafood
  • PROS:
    1. Only certifies wild-caught fish (this will ensure the fish were not treated with antibiotics/growth hormones or fed inappropriate diet)
    2. Only certifies fisheries that minimize environmental impact on ecosystem and keep fishing at a sustainable level
    3. Requires ocean to table traceability, which results in a best-in-class fraud rate of <1% (this industry averages an overall 30% fraud rate).

Fair and Potentially Misleading Labeling

AMERICAN HUMANE CERTIFIED

  • Applies to: beef, bison, milk, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs, duck
  • PROS:
    1. Specifies a minimum about of space required for each animal
    2. No growth hormones allowed
    3. Annual on-farm inspections
  • CONS:
    1. Animals can be confined in cages or crates
    2. No requirement for outdoor access
    3. Permits use of antibiotics to prevent disease associated with unsanitary conditions or confined space
    4. No audits to ensure humane slaughter

grassfed, pasture raised, no beta agonists, no antibiotics

  • PROS:
    1. USDA requires documentation from farms to be able to use these terms
    2. Implies animals were raised by specified healthier practice
  • CONS:
    1. These are very “loosely” defined terms with no federal standards
    2. No annual inspections to verify correct use of these terms

*Note: Beta agonists are growth hormones given to animals to promote the growth of lean muscle over fat.

Buyer Beware

Natural

According to the USDA, this refers to “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed” and the product could not have been “fundamentally altered”. It does NOT:

  • ban use of GMO feed or hormones
  • mean the animal was raised in sufficient open space or grass-fed
  • indicate the animal was not treated with antibiotics

This term is commonly misinterpreted to mean the animal was raised more humanely and by healthier means than it actually was.

cage free

As many industrial egg producers use cages, this term implies that the egg-laying chicken was not caged. However, cage free environments can often be worse compared to caged as chickens are at higher risk for injury and pecking each other.

  • Pertains to: eggs (chickens and turkeys are never caged, so this term is especially meaningless when listed on poultry products)
  • PROS:
    1. The birds are free to roam and potentially engage in normal behavior
  • CONS:
    1. There are no regulations specifying the minimal amount of space per chicken
    2. There is no legal definition, so practices vary
    3. No regular on-farm inspection to verify this claim
Example of a cage free farm

free range

Implies that the animal had some type of access to the outdoors.

  • Pertain to: turkeys, chickens
  • PROS:
    1. USDA requires documentation from farms to be able to use this claim
  • CONS:
    1. No regular on-farm inspection to verify this claim
    2. No specification on the size or conditions of outdoor range
    3. No specific time frame on how long the animal must have been outside

humanely raised

  • Pertains to: beef, bison, lamb, pork, goat, milk, turkey, chicken, eggs, duck, geese, mutton, seafood
  • PROS:
    1. None.
  • CONS:
    1. No legal definition
    2. No regular on-farm inspection to verify this claim

For a more extensive list, visit the EWG’s Decoding Meat and Dairy Product Labels user guide.

Eating Healthy: Lessons From Serbia

I recently had the opportunity to take an impromptu one week trip to Belgrade, Serbia. Prior to leaving I knew nothing about Serbia aside from it being directly north of Macedonia, the country my maternal grandma was born. As a dietitian and professional food connoisseur, of course I wondered what the food would be like. I was also curious about the chronic health issues typical of the country. Were they experiencing diseases associated with obesity, such as type two diabetes and heart disease, as frequently as the USA? Surely not. 

Turns out I was right. During my stay I was able to pick the brain of several Serbians, specifically doctors! They told me overall their food is processed with very few additives. There are no GMOs (genetically modified organisms); in fact, they are “against” them. The use of herbicides and pesticides is very minimal, and only when absolutely necessary. They are extremely proud of their country and culture, and pride themselves on eating high quality, authentic food (though albeit, a lot of it!), especially meat and cheese. They do have fast food, including multiple McDonald’s within Belgrade, but it is not a regular part of their diet as it is seen as unhealthy and lower quality. These thoughts definitely correlated with my own experience and observations. Although bread and potatoes were often served with the meal, additional simple carbohydrates such as pasta, corn or rice, were uncommon. Beans, mayo-free coleslaw, grilled vegetables and cucumber-tomato salad were common alternatives. 

We quickly learned how uncommon it was to see an overweight Serbian (or one shorter than 5’5” for that matter), and joked that if we did see someone overweight, they were probably American. 

I recently read a statistic stating 117 million Americans (about half of American adults) have one or more preventable chronic disease, and over 71% are overweight or obese. It is evident the disconnect is multifactorial — culture, lack of education or awareness, stress, minimal access to healthy food, or the “well I’ve got to die of something” non-caring mentality, all play a part. 

The United States is starting to suffer the consequences of this impending obesity epidemic through obscene health care debt, decreased quality of life, and a growing population that are non-contributing members of society, despite being of working age.

Nutrition and health can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve heard the following quote many times, and I think it summarizes basic dietary advice well. In the words of journalist Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  

The following are some of my favorite resources and local organizations I personally use that you may find inspiring to help stay motivated at whatever point you may be on your health journey:

  • Cleveland Roots: Offers free gardening and cooking classes.  Also has a community garden and weekly food stand. I’ve been to them — they are excellent!
  • North Union Farmers Market: Farmer’s Markets around the Cleveland Area
  • Joyous Health Blog: For excellent recipes!
  • VA Whole Health Library: Great handouts on a variety of nutrition topics 
  • The MindBody app: View all the different fitness and wellness resources in your area. Also shows when the businesses are having a promotion
  • The Blue Zones: Book on the commonalities of the “Blue Zones” of the world, or areas with the largest number of centenarians

You can also refer to my Resources page for a more comprehensive list.

What wellness resources have you found that have been helpful for you? Share below!

Healthy Office Snacks

As a dietitian working in a hospital setting, I am constantly exposed to treats and sweets. Whether it’s the weekly Tuesday doughnuts brought by volunteers, or the cannolis and cake at a coworker’s baby shower, they are everywhere…just staring at me.

From what I have heard, this is the case for many people in their workplace. Despite not buying junk food or sweets, and eating healthy at home 98% of the time, temptations at the workplace always seem to get in the way. So what can we do about it? Plan ahead!

In an effort to avoid noming on sweets or afternoon trips to the cafeteria when I’m craving a snack or feeling extra hungry, I have started to keep a few simple, strategic items at my desk. Let me share:

  1. Tea bags or instant coffee: Hot tea or coffee is a terrific way to stave off cravings and maintain focus. One brand of instant coffee I particularly like is Four Sigmatic’s mushroom coffee (no, it doesn’t taste like mushrooms) as it has half the amount of caffeine, but it does wonders for focus without the jitters! I like to leave a reusable coffee cup at my desk so I always have one on hand.
  2. Prunes: Yes, I keep prunes at my desk. They are super filling and perfect when you are craving something sweet!
  3. Peanut or almond butter: When I am running late in the morning, I will grab a banana or apple to go. Having some type of nut butter at my desk makes it more convenient, and adding the healthy fats and protein will keep you full much longer than eating the fruit alone.
  4. Skinny Pop popcorn (or similar brand): This popcorn does not contain any artificial ingredients, is non-GMO, and high in fiber.
  5. Trail mix: Most store bough trail mix is high in added sugar, expensive, and may contain undesirable additives. For this reason, I have started to make my own by adding a variety of nuts, gogi berries (or some type of dried fruit containing no added sugar), a sprinkle of cacao powder, and perhaps a drizzle of honey — mix it together and vwa-la! I keep mine in a mason jar at my desk.
  6. 70% or Higher Dark Chocolate: For the days those doughnuts are staring at you.

What healthy snacks do you keep at your desk? Share below!

What is Intermittent Fasting? Key Components for Success

If you are interested in wellness or weight loss, you have probably heard the term “intermittent fasting” and like most health and diet crazes, have also most likely heard conflicting information about it.

So what exactly is intermittent fasting? Unlike specific diets that manipulate what you eat, intermittent fasting manipulates when  you eat. The most typical time people fast is from the time they eat their last bite of food in the evening until their first meal the next day. Unless you tend to wake up for a little midnight snack, you are already fasting! However, this pattern of eating prolongs the amount of time you go without eating to achieve a level of benefit.

Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

  • Improved blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity  –> reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Weight loss via increased metabolism and decreased caloric intake    
  • Reduces oxidative stress and inflammation –> reduced risk of disease overall
  • Improved memory and learning
  • Improved cardiovascular function
  • Appetite control

According to a study from the National Institute on Aging:

Although all cells in the body require energy to survive and function properly, excessive calorie intake over long time periods can compromise cell function and promote disorders such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and cancers. Accordingly, dietary restriction (DR; either caloric restriction or intermittent fasting, with maintained vitamin and mineral intake) can extend lifespan and can increase disease resistance. Recent studies have shown that DR can have profound effects on brain functions and vulnerability to injury and disease.  DR can protect neurons against brain degeneration in animal models of Alzheimer’s Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases and stroke. Moreover, DR can stimulate the production of new neurons  from stem cells (neurogenesis) and can enhance synaptic plasticity, which may increase the ability of the brain to resist aging and restore function following injury.

How to Incorporate Intermittent Fasting

There are several ways to perform intermittent fasting so you can choose the method that would be most realistic with your lifestyle. Individuals have been shown to benefit from fasting windows lasting anywhere from 12-20 hours, though 14-16 hours seems to be ideal for most people.

For example:

  • If you stop eating at 8pm, start eating at 10am (14 hour fast, 10 hour eating window)
  • If you stop eating at 7pm, start eating at 11am (16 hour fast, 8 hour eating window)

Intermittent fasting has the ability to be very flexible based on individuals work schedule, eating habits, ability to control blood sugar, etc. Those that tend to be late night snackers may benefit from a later dinner, and starting their fast at their last bite of food to help avoid those late night trips to the pantry.

Safety

For generally healthy individuals, intermittent fasting is safe if done correctly. On the other hand, extended periods of food restriction is NOT recommend for diabetic individuals, those that tend to experience low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), breastfeeding moms, or moms-to-be.

Tips For Success

In order to have success with intermittent fasting, it is vital to have a plan on how to make it sustainable for YOU.

  1. Quality: Since you may now be eating slightly less or skipping a meal, it is even more important to eat healthy, nutrient dense foods. Fasting is not an excuse to eat pizza and ice cream during your eating window (sorry!) — this is not the purpose or goal. In order to experience the biological benefits, we must maintain healthy (and sustainable) habits.
  2. Quantity: It is important to make sure you still eat enough food and maintain your caloric requirements, especially if you are fairly active or exercise regularly. I recommend eating at least 2 meals plus a small snack if you are hungry.
  3. Be realistic: Start with a fasting time frame you know you can be successful with. For example, if you typically stop eating at 11pm and eat breakfast at 7am, start with extending the fast 1 hour each way until you feel comfortable extending it further.
  4. Use exercise to your advantage: Research has shown that exercise can enhance the benefits of intermittent fasting!

Example of Daily Routine With Fasting Exercise

I have personally noticed that exercising first thing in the morning while maintaining my fast can improve my physical performance (less sluggish) and increase my mental clarity and productivity throughout my workday. Here’s an example of what a typical day with a 13-hour fast could look like:

6am – exercise (only drink black coffee or water)

8am: eat breakfast

12pm- eat lunch

7pm: Finish eating dinner

Rest of evening: Drink water or unsweetened hot tea

In Conclusion…

Many of us have been conditioned to believe that we need to eat 3 meals per day plus snacks to maintain a healthy metabolism and blood sugar control. However, this can often lead to high blood sugar, excessive caloric intake and ultimately, weight gain.

Our bodies came with excellent feedback mechanisms to let us know when we are hungry. In additional to occasional intermittent fasting, a goal of mine has been to let my hunger guide my eating, rather than forcing myself to eat because it is a certain time of day. If I’m not hungry in the morning, I don’t eat.

If you are interested in experimenting with fasting, try out the Zero fasting app, which can make getting started easier and help you stick with a fast longer via the built in timer and Fast Journal.

Are you open to fasting? Have you already tried it, and if so, how was your experience? Let me know below!

Homemade Basil Pesto

Although the ingredients found in store-bought pesto tend to be fairly clean, nothing beats a homemade batch of the fresh stuff! I love being able to customize my pesto recipe as far as the types of nuts and seasonings I use. Basil is also an herb that is very easy to grow (even I haven’t killed mine) so I love making large batches when the basil is ready for harvest and freezing it for later use. This year we have multiple plants that have really flourished, so I have been using it in my salads, omelets and stir-frys as well.

Health Benefits of Basil

  1. It contains powerful antioxidants to fight free radical damage. Two particular antioxidants it contains, orientin and viceninare, help protect white blood cells responsible for immune function, as well as cellular structures where DNA is stored.
  2. Studies have demonstrated its ability to prevent and fight cancer by increasing antioxidant activity, positively changing gene expression, and inducing cancer cell death.
  3. It contains antibacterial properties effective against antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
  4. Has adaptogenic properties to help individuals adapt to stress
  5. Reduces inflammation

I have found that pesto is a fairly versatile food. I love it on Banza chickpea pasta, spaghetti squash, sautéed vegetables, or even on my eggs!

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 packed cups fresh basil
  • ½ cup raw almonds (I sometimes use a combination of nuts, such as almonds + pine nuts, depending on what’s available)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-2 Tbs Romano cheese (optional)
  • Sea salt

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Add basil, garlic and cheese (if using) to a blender.
  2. Turn on blender and slowly add olive oil until it is your desired consistency.
  3. Add salt and any other additional items (ex. pepper, lemon squeeze) to taste.

*Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, or freeze up to 9 months

Basil plant from my garden

Freezing Pesto

To freeze pesto, put a couple tablespoons in each compartment of an ice cube tray. When they are frozen, dump them into a larger container with a lid for easy storage in the freezer.

How do you like to use pesto? Share below!