Which beverages are worth the buy

A colleague of mine recently told me that one of her clients spends hundreds of dollars a month on beverages. Just beverages! This is absolutely absurd to me, because the most important beverage to our health is practically free. Do you spend lots of money on beverages? Read on to find out where your dollars are best spent.

Soda and “fruit drinks”

We all know that soda is bad for our health, so this is the first and most obvious place to cut back. Soda is simply empty calories. Liquid candy that provides absolutely no health benefit. The same goes for “fruit drinks” such as fruit punch, lemondade, or Sunny Delight. While there may be some real fruit in these beverages (although oftentimes, not) the main ingredients are sugar and water.

glass water bottle

Water

For anyone that argues that soda is cheaper than water, why are you paying for water in the first place? At home, invest in a water purifier or drink from the tap. When dining out, ask for tap water or a cup of water (not a bottle). When out and about, bring your own refillable water bottle and fill up at water fountains. We are lucky that public water is neither expensive nor largely dangerous in this country. In What to Eat, author Marion Nestle explains that “under current federal regulations, bottled waters do not have to be tested as rigorously as tap waters or disinfected to the same extent,” and that tap water and bottled water often comes from the same place anyway.

Juice

When cutting back on soda, some people use juice as a “healthier” way to satisfy their cravings for sweet beverages. While orange juice is a natural source of many vitamins and minerals, and definitely a step up from soda, it is still unnecessary. As trendy as they may be, even 100% juice, or “superfood” fruit and vegetable juice blends are not a necessary part of a healthy diet, and in fact, are less healthy than eating the fruits and vegetables themselves. By discarding the pulp and solids (the difference between juicing and making a smoothie), you are missing out on the fiber and some of the micronutrients. This is one reason that I am not a huge proponent of “juice fasts”. If you are looking to consume a diet high in fiber and antioxidants, don’t just sip nature’s sugar water; eat the whole fruit! Additionally, do not be fooled into thinking that juice is a low calorie or no calorie beverage. Many juices pack just as much sugar and calories per cup as soda.

Sports drinks

Many people buy sports drinks thinking that they are more hydrating than water and a necessary component of an athletic lifestyle. While sports drinks can definitely provide an advantage for long duration exercise, do not be fooled into thinking that sports drinks are necessary for the everyday fitness enthusiast. If you are exercising for 1 ½ to 3 hours, sports drinks can help improve endurance. After the first hour of exercise, aim for 100-250 calories per hour to keep your body going, mainly from carbohydrates (such as from sports drinks, but could also come from crackers, pretzels, or nutrition bars). Your body won’t rely on the sports drink until the end of your workout, so it is best to stick with water for the first 30-60 minutes. Sports drinks will also help to replenish any electrolytes lost in sweat (as will salty snacks, such as crackers). That being said, for most workouts less than 1 ½ hours, water is your best bet.

jar and glass of milk

Milk

Milk is a beverage of considerable debate. It is the beverage with the highest amount of naturally occurring protein, and has a great combination of nutrients to help support growth and development. However, despite the importance of calcium and other minerals, one cannot ignore the fact that countries with the highest levels of dairy consumption also suffer from the highest levels of osteoporosis. Additionally, milk has been associated with increased risks of ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and acne. Much more research is needed on the effects of dairy foods, and until these connections get clearer, here is what I suggest. Two cups a day for children and three cups a day for adults is the most that we need, and that number goes down if you consume other calcium rich foods such as yogurt or cottage cheese. Nonfat milk is an excellent source of lean protein and can definitely be included in a healthy diet, but remember that you can still be perfectly healthy and osteoporosis free without consuming dairy foods; you will just need to make sure to obtain calcium and riboflavin from plant foods such as broccoli, almonds, and legumes. Nowadays, there are many different milk substitutes on the market. While each has its advantages and disadvantages, remember that none have as much protein as cows milk, and that not all nondairy milks are fortified with the micronutrients found in milk. So read the labels carefully.

Tea and Coffee

Many adults like to start their morning with a cup of tea or coffee; a ritual so engrained in routine and productivity that it is unlikely to be discarded. If coffee or tea is a part of your routine, save money by preparing it at home, rather than buying elaborate coffee drinks at cafes or coffeeshops. Oftentimes, many offices also have complimentary tea or coffee, so take advantage of that if your place of work offers such benefits.

Alcohol

This is one a no brainer, but it’s still worth a mention. If you are looking to cut back on your food budget, don’t forget to look at your alcohol spending. Not only is alcohol considerably more expensive than other beverages, but it is also unnecessary for health.

When trying to cut back on unnecessary spending at the grocery store, the easiest place to start is with beverages. Somewhere along the way, Americans got accustomed to drinking their calories. Getting back to the basics and enjoying water with most meals is healthier for both you and your wallet. Additionally, drinking water with meals is shown to encourage healthier food choices. Cheers!

Images: 1 // 2 (purchase bottle here!) // 3//  4 // 5 // 6 // 7 // 8

-Kelly

 

 

Taking Food out of the Context of the Diet

I work in University dining, so for National Nutrition Month (March, in case you missed it), I had an “Ask the Dietitian” table for students. Most questions had to do with the sustainability of the foods served or how to navigate the dining halls with a particular allergy. But one question really stuck with me. A boy (holding a greasy plate of pizza, might I add) asked “What are pineapples good for?”

These are the kinds of questions that really irk me as a Dietitian, because they miss the point of nutrition. Sure, pineapples are filled with antioxidants such as Vitamin C and caroteniods (which give them their beautiful yellow color). And sure, these antioxidants are great at preventing cancer and allowing us to live healthy lives. But in order to get the cancer fighting benefits of fruits and vegetables (such as pineapple), you have to eat a diet rich in these foods. Eating a few pineapple slices now and then isn’t going to save you from cancer if you eat a diet rich in greasy, processed foods.

To quote one of my favorite nutrition professionals, Marion Nestle, “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science… is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of the food, the food out of the context of the diet, and the diet out of the context of the lifestyle.”

Indeed, many food system activists such as Michael Pollan and Julie Guthman have critiqued the reductionist tendencies of nutrition science. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As a Dietitian, I find it very important to help clients place their food choices in the context of their overall diet, and I hope that other nutrition professionals do the same.

In my opinion, trying to figure out which fruits and vegetables are the healthiest is a waste of time. Here is a secret: they are all healthy! Instead, let’s focus on how to get more servings of fruits and vegetables. Let’s focus on how to make produce the star of our plates. And let’s work on getting a variety of healthy foods, rather than supplementing our diets with one or two “superfoods”.

– Kelly

Nutritional Risks and Benefits of the Paleo Diet

A friend recently asked for my professional opinion on the “Paleo Diet”. Because this diet is still fairly popular, I thought I would share my research of the nutritional risks and benefits with a wider audience.

Introduction

What is the “Paleo diet”?

The Paleo Diet, or Hunter Gatherer diet, refers to a way of eating that is meant to mimic the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors. Although there are several variations of this diet, the typical Paleo diet derives over 50% of energy from animal products, and is high in protein (19-35% of calories) and fat (25-58%) and low in carbohydrates (22-40%)1. The main food sources are foods that were hunted and gathered, including wild game, fish, shellfish, eggs, nuts, fruit, and vegetables. Restricted foods are those that were not widely available during this era, and include grains, dairy, alcohol, processed foods, sucrose and legumes1.

The Science Behind the Paleo diet

Paleo diet foods were selected for their prominence in a preagriculture Paleolithic civilization. These food choices are thought to benefit health due to their high nutrient density and soluble fiber content, low glycemic load, favorable sodium to potassium ratio, acid base balance, and low content of bioactive substances and antinutrients1. The Paleolithic era is thought to be nutritionally superior to our current era because our Paleolithic ancestors did not suffer from the chronic diseases that plague western cultures1. However, chronic diseases tend to occur later in life and Paleolithic peoples did not live as long as we do today. And although it has been noted that extant hunter-gatherer cultures have more years of good health and less chronic disease than people in Western civilizations, the standard American diet is known for its link to chronic disease1.

Note that there are other, non-dietary aspects of the paleo diet that include physical activity, regular sun exposure, adequate sleep and a lack of chronic stress and pollutants1. The purpose of this review is to narrow in on the nutrition regulations of the Paleo diet in order to evaluate the various risks and benefits of this eating pattern.

Nutrition Risks of the Paleo Diet

Restriction of Grains

One of the most controversial aspects of the Paleo diet is the elimination of grains. Without grains, followers of this diet are unable to benefit from the various health effects associated with whole grain consumption, including a decreased risk for type 2 diabetesC, cardiovascular disease, and cancers of the colon and rectum, as well as well as decreased plasma concentration of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol4.

Grains are primarily a source of carbohydrate, and by eliminating grains, the Paleo diet has a carbohydrate level of only 22-40% of calories. Low carbohydrate diets have been cycling in and out of the media over the years masked as The Atkins Diet, the Zone Diet, and now the Paleo Diet. Low carbohydrate diets work to deplete liver and muscle of glycogen stores. However, in order to maintain blood sugar, both fat and muscles are broken down into ketones to be used for energy in a process known as ketosis. Converting fat to energy through ketosis does promote weight loss, although muscle is broken down for an energy source as well. Once a normal diet is resumed the body no longer has to resort to ketosis, so the weight eventually returns rendering the fad diet as unsuccessful. Studies also show that after one year, the weight loss from a low carbohydrate diet is no more than the weight loss from a low fat diet3.

Low carbohydrate diets also pose a risk for kidney disease. Although proponents of the Paleo diet are quick to point out that the diet does not seem to pose a threat to people without preexisting kidney disease1, recent research suggests that the negative health effects of low carbohydrate diets are not always consistent with serum biochemical markers for kidney function, therefore masking underlying organ and tissue damage3.

High in animal proteins and fats

Animal based diets are linked to chronic disease including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease5. Because the paleo diet is relatively high in animal proteins and fats, followers of this diet may be at an increased risk of chronic disease. Diets high in meat, particularly red meat, also tend to be high in saturated fat.  Saturated fat has long been associated with an increased risk for heart disease. Supporters of the Paleo diet point out that replacing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates actually increases heart disease risk1. However, this research does not indicate replacing whole grain carbohydrates with animal fat. A more heart healthy alternative would perhaps be to replace saturated fat laden meats with lower fat cuts of meat or even photochemical rich plant protein sources. There is also controversial research regarding the positive effects of certain types of saturated fat found in coconut oil1. However, coconut oil is a plant source of saturated fat, so high consumptions of animal fat do not appear to have any of these health benefits.

On the other hand, plant based, vegetarian diets are linked to lower body mass indexes, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and blood pressure, as well as decreased incidence of hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer5. These plant based, vegetarian diets tend to be high in “fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, legumes, nuts, and various soy products”. Legumes are beneficial sources of protein because they contain slow release carbohydrates as well as soluble fiber5. Legumes can also protect against stomach, colon, and prostate cancer5. In contrast, the Paleo excludes grains, legumes, and soy products while promoting meat consumption.

Low in Calcium

Calcium is an extremely important mineral for bone health and is one of the essential nutrients required for normal body functioning. Because the Paleo diet excludes dairy products, one of the greatest sources of highly bioavailable calcium5, followers of this diet are at an increased risk of calcium deficiency. Some Paleo diet researchers believe dairy products to net acid yielding and therefore damaging to the kidneys1, yet, as mentioned previously, research suggests that it is the restriction of carbohydrates that saturates the blood stream with acidic ketones that can pose a threat to kidney health3.

Nutritional Benefits of the Paleo Diet

High in fruits and vegetables

High consumption of fruits and vegetables has numerous documented health benefits, and there have been a number of campaigns in America that have worked to increase produce consumption. Fruits and vegetables are an excellent source of soluble fiber, as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals. In fact, fruits and vegetables have a higher micronutrient density than other food groups, including grains and dairy1.

Choosing nutrient dense foods over energy dense foods also lends itself to weight loss and weight maintenance, because nutrient dense foods have much less calories. In addition, the soluble fiber found in these foods helps promote satiety and movement through the digestive tract, and it also aids with glycemic control1. Various fruits and vegetables have been shown to exhibit a protection against various cancers, including prostate, lung, colon, stomach, and esophagus5. Because the Paleo diet encourages a high consumption of fruits and vegetables, followers may benefit from these health effects.

Animal Products that are Free Range and Grass Fed

There is an increasing amount of research being done on the health benefits of animal products that are free range and grass fed (rather than caged and grain fed). Because wild game and other animals hunted during the Paleolithic era weren’t fed grain, caged up, or pumped full of antibiotics and other additives, grass fed and free range cuts of meat and eggs are recommended in the Paleo diet. Eggs and meats from grass fed animals tend to have a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, which is thought to be favorable for heart health1.

Limiting Refined Sugars

Refined sugars are essentially empty calories, and they are hidden almost everywhere in the Western diet. Refined sugars are packed full of energy and flavor, but unlike fruit juice and other unrefined sweeteners, completely devoid of micronutrients and soluble fiber1. High intake of refined sugars, including high fructose corn syrup, has been linked to “obesity, dyslipedemia, gout, hypertension, kidney disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease”1. Because refined sugars were not consumed during the Paleolithic era it is restricted in the Paleo diet. Therefore, followers of the Paleo diet may not be subject to the harmful effects associated with refined sugar consumption.

Discussion

While there is little argument the standard American diet is less than ideal, the current dietary guidelines for Americans reflect the latest in evidence-based research2. The Paleo diet encourages a very natural way of eating and a diet high in produce and low in food additive and refined sugars is a step in the right direction. However, as with most fad diets, anytime a food group is restricted one should proceed with caution. Eliminating whole grains from the diet could potentially lead to long-term health effects such as kidney damage, as well an increased risk of cardiovascular disease or colon or rectal cancer4. The Paleo diet does not appear to be harmful to short-term health, especially when carbohydrate levels do not fall below the low range of the spectrum and when lean protein sources are chosen over fatty red meats. However, there is not enough evidence to warrant recommending this diet to patients over a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins2.

Resources:

  1. Carrera-Bastos P, Fontes Villabla M, O’Keefe JH, Lindeberg S, Cordain L. The western diet and lifestyle and diseases of civiliazation. Res Rep Clin Cardiol 2011; 2: 215-235.
  2. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” Your Portal to Health Information from the U.S. Government. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/Default.asp&gt;.
  3. Frigolet ME, Raymos Barragon VE, Tamez Gonzalez M. Low-carbohydrate diets: a matter of love or hate. Ann Nutr Metab. 2011 Oct;58(4):320-34.
  4. Montonen J, Boeing H, Fritsche A, Schleicher E, Joost HG, Schulze MB, Steffen A, Pischon T. Consumption of red meat and whole-grain bread in relation to biomarkers of obesity, inflammation, glucose metabolism and oxidative stress. Eur J Ntr. 2012 Mar 18. [Epub ahead of print]
  5. Winston, John C. Nutrition Concerns and Health Effects of Vegetarian Diets. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010 Dec;25(6):613-20.

– Kelly

Why I Drink Organic Milk

I was raised in a “milk with dinner” kind of family, and my taste for skim milk has carried with me into adulthood. Milk, after all, is the number one reason I could never go vegan. When I went off to college and started grocery shopping for myself, I got into the habit of purchasing organic milk. At upwards of $6 a gallon (although closer to $5 in Texas), one might question if the expense is worth it. My answer? Yes, indeed.

Image via USDA

According to the USDA website, “The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.” But what does this mean for the milk exactly? Read on to find out…

  • Does organic milk come from cows that are exclusively grass fed? Not necessarily, but we’re moving in the right direction. More recently (2010), cows are now required to obtain 30% of their feed from pasturing, and must be in the pasture for no less than 120 days. This is quite a victory not only for small organic farmers that adhere to the principles of grass fed livestock, but also for consumers. Grass fed cows are shown to produce milk that is higher in vitamins, antioxidants, and even Omega-3’s! This is why organic milk is said to be HEALTHIER.
  • Are hormones in milk a big deal? Unfortunately, there have been reports of female infants growing breasts, which scientists have attributed to the hormones in milk (baby formula). Although these cases were in China and Puerto Rico, the US also allows conventional (not organic) cows to be supplemented with growth hormones and estrogen. Despite a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics that concluded that the growth hormones in conventional milk break down and become inactive, and that the estrogen given to cows is in quantities too small to matter, this certainly is not something that I want to take a chance with. Additionally, milk from cows treated with growth hormones (rBGH) have higher levels of IGF-1, which is worrisome because elevated human levels of IGF-1 are thought to pose a risk for cancer.
  • What about antibiotics? Because antibiotic resistant bacteria can spread between people and food, the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates a preference for antibiotic free, organic meat. Why does this recommendation not extend to dairy products? Conventional milk is routinely tested for antibiotic residues, so the finished product should be free of them. Nonetheless, the fact remains that antibiotic resistance CAN spread to humans through what we eat, and is serious enough for the FDA to dub the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals “a serious public health threat”. And if the antibiotics don’t make it into our milk, do you know where they end up? In our waterways. As you could have guessed, organic practices are healthier for the environment as well.

For more information on organics and organic milk:

  • As with most organic products, there are a handful of industrial sized dairy farms that try to cut corners. In order to make organic dairy practices more transparent to consumers, the Cornucopia Institute put together a report card for organic dairy, rating producers on a scale of 0-5. This report card is meant to help consumers make informed decisions about dairy, based on the pasturing practices, feed, and treatment of the animals. My Whole Foods 365 milk scored an impressive 4/5, and was the highest rated private label milk. On the other hand, Horizon Organics scored a pathetic 0/5.  I highly recommend that all shoppers head over to the Cornucopia Institute and check this list out.
  • Are you still unsure how you feel about organics? Check out this debate (“Are Organics Worth the Expense?”) from the New York Times. Not surprisingly, I side with the Marion Nestle/Raj Patel/Tom Philpott arguments. But don’t just take it from me. Check out the debate for yourself.

Image via yelp

The way I see it, fruits and vegetables are going to be good for you no matter what. It is the more “controversial” or “questionable” food items, such as dairy, livestock, and eggs, that you want to be extra careful with. These foods definitely have the potential to nourish your body, just make sure that you shop with integrity.

Understandably, not all Americans are fortunate enough to be able to choose organic milk, and many health professionals will tell you that drinking conventional milk is much better than drinking no milk at all. I’ll be the first to admit that in freezing cold weather, the corner store’s conventional milk is a lot more tempting than making the trek to Whole Foods, which is why you’ll see quite a variety of dairy products in my recipe posts. But for those of you that do have the time and the choice, I urge you to consider organic dairy. My health is worth $6 a gallon. Is yours?

– Kelly

Learning to Cook

Learning to Cook

My roommate’s new years resolution (with no influence from me, might I add) is to learn how to cook. I 100% applaud this goal and I think that we should all take note. Learning to cook is an invaluable skill and no one is too old to learn. Cooking is important to health for 2 reasons:

1) You know what you are putting into your body. This is true not only of the homemade meals you whip up in the kitchen, but also with meals that you eat out. How so? Once you learn the basic ingredients and preparation techniques of classic dishes, you are better able to gauge what ingredients go into meals when you eat out, making you a more educated  consumer. Additionally, cooking also obviously allows you to know what you are putting into your body at home, as you have complete control over which ingredients to include or omit.

2) You become less dependent on processed foods. By developing cooking skills, you become less dependent on fast food places to take care of the meal preparation for you. Experienced cooks are not intimated if they don’t quite have the exact ingredients, or don’t have a recipe in front of them. Experienced cooks can confidently adapt, and aren’t at the mercy of convenience foods and prepackaged junk. By taking time to cook things yourself, you also learn which steps of processing are unnecessary, and which ones are worth taking advantage of. Additionally, mastering a challenging cooking technique will help you better appreciate that food when eating out, and mastering an easy cooking technique will give you confidence to incorporate that skill into your normal routine.

DSC00068

Mallory in the kitchen

So how does one learn how to cook? Practice Practice Practice! Sure, you can sign up for a cooking class or read about techniques, but the best way to learn is hands on experience. My advice is to pick a cookbook that looks good to you and get started! Challenge yourself to make at least one new recipe each week, using a variety of ingredients and techniques. Once you master a new ingredient or technique, you have that in your repertoire for future use, and will slowly become less and less dependent on the food production system (or at least better appreciate its complexity).

Cookbooks

Mallory’s new cookbooks, chosen “because they had pretty pictures” 🙂

Mallory's cookbooks

All bookmarked and ready to go. Keys to the Kitchen has been her go-to so far.

If you are new to cooking, don’t give up! While it might seem to take forever at first, cooking gets much quicker and easier with practice. If you want to take up cooking but are worried about the cost, here is a helpful article about stocking a kitchen inexpensively. And let’s not forget that cooking things yourself often ends up saving you money.

Anyone else learning how to cook this year?

– Kelly

Tea Time

Nothing says cozy like a cup of tea. Since making the snowy streets of Boston my new stomping grounds, I now enjoy more tea than ever before. Sure, I love tea… but you should love it too! Not only is unsweetened tea a fun alternative to water or coffee, but drinking tea is also associated with several health benefits, most notably, a decreased risk of cancer.

The Steeping Room, Austin, TX

Black, green, white, and oolong teas all derive from the leaves of the Camellia plant, and contain the same beneficial polyphenols (health promoting, antioxidant compounds). They differ only in the various levels of processing undertaken.  On the other hand, herbal teas and Red Rooibos teas are not derived from the Camilla plant, and so scientific studies touting the benefits of tea cannot be applied to these beverages. Also note that decaffeinated teas contain lower levels of flavonols, and therefore don’t offer the same antioxidant punch as their full strength counterparts. Because most teas contain less that half of the amount of caffeine than coffee, full strength tea is recommended. Nonetheless, decaffeinated, herbal and Rooibos teas are still healthy, plant-based beverages that contain varying levels of antioxidants and are a healthy alternative to sweetened beverages. To learn more about tea, I highly recommend this article.

Although I almost always have a large supply of no-frills green tea on hand, I also really enjoy flavored teas. Flavored teas are also a great way for non tea drinkers to ease their way into the wonderful world of tea, and are a tasty, calorie free alternative to other beverages. Here are my top picks:

Ginger Peach Black Tea (The Republic of Tea)

White Ayurvedic Chai Tea (Teavana)

Vanilla Rooibos (Tazo)

And for any tea lovers that find themselves in the Austin, Texas area, I highly recommend the following places:

Tea Embassy

The Tea Embassy

Enjoy a leisurely cup of tea in the charming Campbell-Miller house in downtown Austin. You can buy a variety of unique teas, as well as teapots and other tea accessories. Enjoy your tea at the bar, or on period furniture near the fireplace in this adorable, historic home. (P.S. Juliana- thanks for taking me here!)

Steeping Room

The Steeping Room

This restaurant and tea lounge has a brunch that can’t be missed, as well as an excellent variety of teas. The menu is pleasing to both omnivores and vegans alike, and also boasts a large selection of attractive gluten free options.

– Kelly