Ways to Upgrade Your Breakfast & 6 Healthy Recipes

Walking through the breakfast isle in the store, I can’t help but think, this is what America is serving our youth…breakfast cereals laden with sugar, artificial flavors and colors, and highly processed white flour with virtually no nutritional value aside from the vitamins and minerals added back in after the fact. Unfortunately even those are minimally beneficial as fortified vitamins and minerals are rarely added in a form our body can easily digest.

Granola bars, toaster waffles, brown sugar and cinnamon instant oatmeal — these are all in the same category. They are highly processed “franken-foods” (thanks Dr. Mark Hyman) with little to no fiber, healthy fats, or protein. When protein, fat and fiber is removed, foods become less filling, resulting in a higher than desirable intake. This process also increases the speed of digestion, resulting in higher blood glucose levels.

Growing up I would live off these foods for breakfast (though add toaster strudel into the mix). Now, with the obesity rates rising and over 52% of the U.S. adult population having either prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, I am here to provide you some better options!

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5 Shocking Facts About Coffee

For many, coffee is the elixir of life every morning, and rightfully so! It’s caffeine kick makes it a desirable beverage in the American fast-paced lifestyle, and it has been long promoted for its nutritional value (when not doused in sugar). In fact, coffee is actually the highest source of antioxidants in the Standard American Diet.

A Little About Coffee

Coffee beans are the seeds of a fruit called a coffee cherry. The fruit itself is also extremely high in nutritional value, higher than blueberries in fact. With this in mind, food manufacturers have started to find ways to incorporate it into the food system. For those of you that have heard of Bai Antioxidant Beverages, this red pulp is the main ingredient!

However, like any other food, quality and processing methods are a huge determinate of the actual nutritional value. The popularity of coffee has resulted in poor production practices which can compromise health attributes of coffee at nearly every step of the coffee making process.

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3 Things You Need to Know About Buying Oil

Fats and oils are a huge part of a healthy diet and should be included at every meal. Optimizing your choice of oils is essential in preserving cognitive function, reducing inflammation, and creating hormones. Unfortunately, understanding what types of fats to eat and avoid has been a huge source of confusion, and as more options become available, I feel the confusion has only increased. This article will serve as your shopping guide on what to use and when to use them.

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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

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.

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!

11 Food Swaps For Better Health

Improving your nutrition starts by making simple changes, particularly with items you tend to use on a daily basis as these changes will have a more significant impact on your health. If you’re looking for inspiration to make heathy swaps, I’ve got 11 here for you!

  1. SWAP JIFF FOR A MORE NATURAL PEANUT BUTTER Peanut butter is one of those foods manufacturers tend sneak in unhealthy ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. Instead, choose a nut butter with only one ingredient: the nut. Freshly ground is even better (and it tastes better)!
  2. SWAP MARGARINE FOR BUTTER OR GHEE This previously deemed “healthier option” has nothing healthy about it as it is a highly processed product made with low quality vegetable oils. It initially gained popularity as it is lower in saturated fat but we now know saturated fat is not as bad as it was made out to be. Try butter, ghee or even coconut oil instead. FUN FACT: The more yellow the butter the higher the nutrient content!
  3. SWAP BREAKFAST CEREAL FOR ROLLED OR STEEL CUT OATS Dessert for breakfast anyone? Breakfast cereals are typically loaded with sugar and lacking in fiber and protein, leading to spikes in blood sugar and sugar cravings later in the day. Plain oatmeal is a much healthier option as it is a whole grain and higher in fiber and protein, meaning it will help to stabilize blood sugar and keep you feeling full for longer. Add berries, cinnamon and a spoonful of peanut butter for some flavor.
  4. SWAP CANNED FOR FRESH FRUIT Although any fruit is better than none, canned fruit often contains added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and even artificial sweeteners (when in light syrup). BPA, a known hormone disrupter, from the cans can also leech into the syrup and fruit. Choose fresh fruit when possible. Frozen fruit is also a great option,  especially when a particular fruit is not in season.
  5. SWAP POP FOR KOMBUCHA It is nothing new that pop contains up to 40 grams of refined sugar, carcinogenic caramel coloring, and toxic artificial flavors. Swapping pop for kombucha is a great switch because it is similar in taste and fizziness but without the added sugar. Kombucha is also a healthful beverage plentiful in polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals that help boosts digestion and immunity.  It is also simple to make if you don’t want to spend $3-4 for it in the store.
  6. SWAP TABLE SALT FOR SEA SALT Salt is a vital mineral that I feel often has a bad reputation, most commonly due to its connection to elevated blood pressure and fluid retention. However, this is typically only and issue when consuming it in excess from process foods such as lunchmeat, fast food, canned soups, and potato chips. Table salt is a manmade product that highly refined and contains anti-caking agents. During the refining process the salt is heated to high temperatures, a process which removes any existing minerals and makes it behave differently in the body than other unrefined salts.  On the other hand, sea salt, especially Himalayan pink salt, is an unrefined product containing a wide profile of 50+ trace minerals! Its lower sodium profile and high mineral content allow it to be assimilated more easily by the body. FUN FACT: Its pink color comes from its iron content!
  7. SWAP ICEBERG FOR DARK LEAFY GREENS If your go-to lettuce is iceberg, it time to make an upgrade. While iceberg lettuce has a mild flavor and provides a satisfying crunchy texture, it provides very little nutrition. Try switching it up with spinach, arugula, kale or spring mix.
  8. SWAP SPORTS DRINKS FOR COCONUT WATER It is important to stay hydrated during exercise, especially as summer starts to approach. Unfortunately, some of the most popular go-to beverages marketed for this are loaded with refined sugar and are artificially flavored and colored. Products such as Gatorade and Powerade do help replace beneficial electrolytes that are lost through sweat, but coconut water is a much healthier alternative. It naturally contains electrolytes (potassium and sodium) providing all the same benefits as sports drinks without the artificial ingredients. It naturally contains sugar but you will want to look for brands that don’t contain added sugar.  
  9. SWAP WHITE OR WHEAT BREAD FOR 100% WHOLE GRAIN OR SPROUTED BREAD Sometimes there is nothing better than an egg sandwich or avocado toast. White and wheat bread is highly processed which removes the majority of the nutrients. Some micronutrients are fortified back into the bread but will be in a poorly digestible form. If you are looking to upgrade your bread, choose a high fiber, multigrain loaf or sourdough bread. Even better, choose a sprouted brand, such as Ezekiel bread. When wheat is sprouted, it makes the gluten more digestible and the nutrients more bioavailable, so you’re getting more bang for your buck!
  10. SWAP CANDY FOR DARK CHOCOLATE (75% COCOA OR HIGHER) Dark chocolate is lower in added sugar and high in polyphenols. Cacao has long been promoted for its cardiovascular and mood enhancement properties. Cacao may also help decrease inflammation and control appetite.
  11. SWAP WHITE PASTA FOR CHICKPEA OR LENTIL PASTA White pasta is void of nutrients and fiber while chickpea or lentil pasta varieties are high in fiber, protein and complex carbohydrates. This makes for a more balanced and filling meal. Lentil or chickpea pasta will also not cause spikes in blood sugar like regular white pasta will. Note: For those that are hesitant to try it, I have served it to multiple friends and family members – they all loved it and could barely taste a difference! 

What healthy swaps have you made recently to improve your health?