Top 10 Heart Healthy Foods

Did you know February is Heart Health Month, hosted by the American Heart Association?! Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. It is an “umbrella” term that includes a number of conditions such as coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis), heart valve disease, heart attack, and heart failure.

Conditions such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol often lead to heart disease so dealing with (or avoiding!) these risk factors early on is crucial. Aside for a few uncontrollable factors such as age, race, and genetics, the majority of causes are modifiable and, as expected, include poor diet, lack of exercise, and obesity. Other factors such as stress and smoking may also contribute.

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Time to Up Your Fiber Intake: 4 Benefits You Never Realized

Although fiber is most well-known for keeping your digestive system rolling smooth, the benefits don’t stop there! Additional benefits include:

  • Slows stomach emptying: This suppresses a hormone called ghrelin — a hormones that triggers hunger — resulting in you maintaining a sense of fullness for longer
  • Balances blood sugar: Fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate, meaning it slows down the breakdown of foods into glucose. Balanced blood sugar not only means fewer high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia) but also fewer lows (hypoglycmeia)
  • Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol: Since fiber is not broken down in the intestine, a specific type of fiber, called soluble fiber (well get more into this) can bind to LDL cholesterol and remove it from the body. In addition, this study found that an intake of 30 grams or more per day may be helpful in increasing your HDL (good) cholesterol
  • Promotes healthy gut microbiome: Did you know that fiber is the food for our gut microbiome?! Without not only enough fiber, but a variety of different fiberous foods, our microbes will not have sufficient nutrients to thrive, resulting in “a loss of species reliant on these substrates”. This disruption could lead to a host of diseases. In fact, long-term studies consistently show an inverse relationship between dietary fiber intake and all-cause mortality!
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Your Quick and Easy Guide to Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral essential for overall body function. It is involved in over 300 chemical reactions including:

  • Supporting healthy bones and teeth
  • Maintaining proper muscle and nerve function
  • Keeping heart rate steady
  • Regulating blood sugar

While 50-60% of it can be found in the bones, the rest is in the tissues, muscles and organs.

Magnesium Deficiency

Despite magnesium being widely distributed in both plant an animal food sources, deficiency is extremely common, affecting about 50% of Americans. Those at risk include people with gastrointestinal diseases (i.e. Crohn’s, celiac disease, IBS) due to malabsorption, alcoholics, athletes, postmenopausal women, those taking medications causing excessive urination, and those consuming a highly processed diet.

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Got a Sweet Tooth?

If your holiday and end of year celebrations were anything like mine, they were probably overloaded with candies, cakes, your aunt’s delicious cookies, endless vino, and so forth. By the time New Year comes around I am exhausted, bloated, and feeling something like this:

This inspired me to complete 30 days of no sugar, no booze, no excuses. Since I started this past Monday, January 6, I have already lost count of the number of times I have been asked “….why?” Sugar has become so mainstream in our diet it has actually changed, for many, the ability to appreciate unsweetened foods. A perfect example of this is peanut butter. Many brands are loaded with high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar, and when individuals try clean, raw peanut butter with no additional ingredients, it tastes off. Sugar lights up the reward centers in our brain, similar as to cocaine for an addict. After going a period of time without it, as the body stars to rebalance, you start to crave them all over again.

Sugar is also a tremendous contributor to blood sugar dysregulation (another cause of sugar cravings). According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2015, an estimated 33.9% of US adults 18 years or older had prediabetes along with 48.3% of adults age 65 or older. An additional 9.4% (30.3 million) of the population has actual diabetes. My family has not been an exception, so preventative measures early on have been a priority of mine!

Chronically elevated blood sugar (BS) levels result in inflammation as high BS is damaging to our nerves and small blood vessels. High intake of refined sugar also results in the formation of AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, which are destructive molecules that trigger inflammation. Inflammation is thought to be the underlying cause of many chronic diseases.

If I have not yet convinced you that sugar is evil, this study demonstrated that ingestion of sugar can alter the function of phagocytes (cells that ingest harmful bacteria, particles and dead cells) for at least 5 hours. In other words, after eating a piece of chocolate cake, your immune system will become suppressed, leaving you more susceptible to catching a cold or flu. Not ideal this time of the year.

There are several steps I took to prepare for this little endeavor:

  1. Recruit a support system. Maintaining any type of lifestyle change is not only easier but can even be fun when you have a team that supports you, or even better, will do it with you! Two of my sisters and my fiancé have agreed to participate. This has been a gamechanger in maintaining my motivation.
  2. Prepare. Don’t start immediately. I took a couple days to get rid of any leftover holiday goodies and meal prep for the week ahead. My sisters also took time to read food labels and clear out any foods that would not be acceptable to avoid temptation. We also discussed healthy, sugar-free alternatives.
  3. Make specific goals. I wrote out a list of guidelines and ingredients that were to be avoided for the next 30 days including: all added sugar, artificial sugar, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, agave nectar, cane juice, caramel, barley malt, and glucose to name a few.
  4. DO NOT say “I will try”. This is one phrase I always make a point to avoid saying, otherwise I might as well not waste my time. It indirectly gives me permission to fail, which I do not want as an option.

What healthy habits have you committed to this year? If you are interested in trying 30 days No Sugar. No Booze. No Excuses. the guidelines are as follows:

30 DAys no sugar. no booze. no excuses. guidelines

  1. No sugar or hidden sources of sugar (refer to chart below)
    • Beware of foods such a bread, peanut butter, ketchup, dried fruit, chips, milk alternatives, and pasta sauce that could unexpectedly have some form of added sugar (TIP: if it has a barcode, check the ingredients)
  2. No honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, maple syrup or any other “healthy” form of sugar
  3. No alcohol (wine, liquor, beer, etc).
  4. Approved:
    • Fruit (beware of sugar added to store-bought smoothies or açaí bowls). Ideally no more that 2-3 servings per day. Berries are best as they are lower in sugar.
    • Stevia or monk fruit (0 calorie natural sweeteners) in small amounts

Healthy, Dairy-Free Eggnog! (AKA Banananog)

This time of the year we are bombarded with sugar overload! You can only resist turning down unhealthy sweets for so long (or maybe not at all). Rather than inflicting hyperglycemia, bloating, fatigue and food remorse secondary to 2-3 long weeks of gluttonous feasting, I prefer find healthy alternatives.

This eggnog recipe is a fun twist on the typical sugar loaded version. It has no added sugar and has great nutritional value. Bananas are an excellent source of prebiotics (the food for probiotics), are great for digestion, have high levels of vitamin B6, and contain nutrients to help lower blood pressure.

Coconut is loaded with healthy fats, particularly medium chain triglycerides, which can be used as a quick source of energy and to promote weight loss.

*This recipe serves 4

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 bananas
  • 3 cups coconut milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

*Note: For a creamier recipe, opt for full-fat coconut milk

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Add bananas, coconut milk, and vanilla extract to a blender
  2. Blend until creamy
  3. Pour into 4 serving glasses, and sprinkle nutmeg on top
  4. Enjoy!

*Optional (but more fun): add a splash of rum to make it an adult beverage

Need some inspiration? Chocolate Covered Katie is a healthy dessert blog with alternatives to almost any sweet treat!

What are your favorite healthy desserts? Share below!

Recipe courtesy of the Institute for Transformation Nutrition

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!