Out with the old: Saying goodbye to 90’s nutrition advice

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In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions and goals, I thought I’d share this really great article I found recently on nutrition “myths.”  

Fitness Magazine interviewed registered dietitians on how their perspectives on healthy eating have changed over time.  These RD’s talk about some of the conventional wisdom regarding nutrition coming out of recent decades, how it influenced them, and how a lot of it turned out to be wrong.

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As a teenager struggling with body image issues in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I encountered much of these same nutrition trends myself from magazines and books, as well as from the nutritionist I saw for help with my eating disorder.

I remember– I was terrified of fat.  When I went out to eat, I insisted that I found mayonnaise and salad dressing “gross,” because I had read that cutting those things out was the best way to cut calories.

Each day, I only ate a certain number of calories at set times, and carefully adjusting the amount depending on the number of calories I had burned through exercise.  My treat at the end of the day would be some kind of “low-fat” dessert or “snack pack” of cookies.  Most of the food I ate was low fat– Healthy Choice ham for my sandwich at lunch, with low fat cheese.  Lean Cuisines for dinner.

It is so strange, now, to realize that so many of the “rules” I based my life around were, in fact, actually all wrong.

One of the quotes I related to the most in the article came from Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Nutrition Starring You.  She says:

“When I became a dietitian in the mid 1990s, we were in the middle of the fat-free craze. Bagels, fat-free frozen yogurt, and Snackwell cookies were all the rage. Our hospital diet materials recommended limiting nuts because of their fat content and limiting shellfish because of their cholesterol. Now, we know much more about the health benefits of fats derived from nuts and seeds, and we’ve also learned that high-sugar, fat-free foods are not nutritious choices. Unfortunately, people have long memories and to this day, so many of my patients are afraid to eat shrimp if they have elevated cholesterol. It’s exciting to work in a field with ever-evolving research.”

Yes– it absolutely was a fat-free craze.  Fat-free dressing, fat-free cheese.  Sometimes I’d even come across bread that was labeled fat free.  I always thought I was doing something great for myself when I reached for that label, not understanding that my body actually needed fat in order to function.  

I also really related to this quote from Emily Cope, M.S., R.D.N., Owner & Consulting Dietitian at Emily Kyle Nutrition:

“When I was in college, I remember being obsessed with those ‘100-calorie packs’ of cookies and crackers. I thought they were a great option—less than 100 calories for all of those tiny wafers!! Little did I know those calories were being replaced with chemicals and unnatural ingredients. These days, now that I am older and wiser, I am less concerned with calories and more concerned with the quality of my food—whole fruit and nuts are my current go-to snacks!”

Yes.  Unfortunately, that was so me as well.  I felt comfortable with pre-packaged, processed foods because they were marketed for weight-loss, and it was easy to know how many calories were in them.

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These days, I have come so far in terms of my outlook to food that sometimes I almost forget that I ever had a problem.  (After all, I’ve had to deal with so much else with my body over the intervening years!).

I will talk more about how I overcame my eating and body image issues in future posts.  But for now, let me say that these days I think I live and eat pretty holistically.  I don’t get caught up on the idea of depriving myself of something if I really want it; I don’t count calories.  

And the funny thing is, now that I allow myself to eat whatever I want, I find that most of the time, I generally tend to crave pretty healthy choices.  Now that I’m actually well-nourished, I find myself more in touch with how my body responds to different foods, and I tend to gravitate towards the foods that make me feel best.

I’m sharing this with you for a few reasons:  

A) There’s some really good advice contained in this article, and

B) It serves as a reminder to me– and maybe to you– that things can get better.  Even if you have a problem that goes on for years; if you feel trapped and you truly seem stuck, things can change when you don’t expect it.

I truly hope this post was helpful to you.  Happy New Year!

Sunlight in the Kitchen

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Here’s something you probably didn’t know about me:

As much trouble as I’ve had with chronic pain over the past ten years, I’ve had almost just as much trouble with digestive issues.

I haven’t written about those issues yet for a few reasons.  For one thing, they’re embarrassing.  Really embarrassing.  I’d much rather talk about running injuries and muscle pain.

For another, I wasn’t sure how many different topics it would make sense to talk about on one blog.

But digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, are actually pretty closely related to fibromyalgia.   From the time I’ve spend interacting with other bloggers, it seems like most people with fibro have some digestive issues.

I happen to know a little something about all of that.

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In the past ten years, I have been through six gastroenterologists, four nutritionists, and four pelvic-floor physical therapists.

I didn’t find any answers at all until I met my fifth gastroenterologist in 2011.  Even then, what really made the difference is that I had started doing a lot of my own research about what I thought might be causing my issues, and this doctor was open-minded enough to humor me.

At that point, I finally started to figure things out.  None of my issues turned out to be terribly rare, or even hard to diagnose.

It was simply that I had fallen through the cracks– that I was a young, relatively healthy-looking woman, and that the first four doctors I saw found it easier to write my problems off as being caused by stress, rather than ordering some pretty basic testing.

The fact that I had fibromyalgia made it even more likely that these doctors would write me off, because pretty much every medical person knows that these issues are so closely connected.

But just because there are connections between fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome does not mean that treating one will automatically treat the other.  And just because a patient has fibromyalgia does not mean there cannot be other causes and contributing factors to her IBS.

So I have decided to start sharing my experience with digestive issues with others.  To raise awareness about the basic things that most gastroenterologists and other health professionals already know, yet don’t always bother to investigate with their patients.  Once you know about these potential issues, and the tests that can be done to diagnose them, you can begin to take charge of your own health.

I have decided to write about these issues on a second blog, simply because I don’t want to completely overwhelm the people who are already following this one.  I plan to post a lot of recipes/cooking inspirations on the new blog, which I know might not interest every single follower here (and that’s totally ok!).

I hope you will check out my new blog, Sunlight in the Kitchen.

**Strawberries photo courtesy of Sharon Mollerus**

Arsenic levels in rice… too high for comfort.

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This was all over the news a few months ago, but in case you missed it, Consumer Reports published a report in November 2012 showing surprisingly high levels of arsenic in dozens of brands of rice and rice products.  This is not good news for people who eat a gluten-free diet, or for people who just plain eat a lot of rice.

Arsenic is a chemical element that exists naturally in the earth’s crust.  It is toxic to humans, affecting the nerves, heart, and blood vessels, and is a known carcinogen.  Arsenic is nothing new– it has been around for the duration of our evolutionary history.  But all of the human activities of the past few centuries– farming, mining, construction– have disturbed the ground and allowed higher levels of arsenic to seep into our soil and water.  Arsenic is also found in many pesticides, which is why it ends up in even higher concentrations on rice farms.

The Food and Drug Administration currently does not have any restrictions on arsenic levels in food, however there is a limit for the maximum allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water.  This is currently set at 10 parts per billion (ppb), although the Environmental Protection Agency originally requested it be set at 5 ppb.  Consumer Reports says,

“Using the 5-ppb standard in our study, we found that a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter.”

This is scary, especially when you consider that people on a gluten-free diet and those who eat traditional cultural diets which rely heavily upon rice are going to have way more than one serving of rice a day.

Now, all of the articles I’ve read on this subject have been quick to point out that there haven’t yet been any studies published proving that higher levels of rice consumption leads to health drawbacks.  But it’s pretty obvious that’s because no one knew about the high levels of arsenic until now.  It’s not as if there have been any studies proving that high levels of rice consumption doesn’t have any health consequences.  I would bet money that there are researchers submitting grant proposals right now for funding to examine this very issue.

Until those studies start to be published, I think it’s best that people don’t make rice a cornerstone of their diet.  Here are some of the best pieces of advice that I’ve gathered from various articles on how to deal with this issue.

  • Limit Rice Consumpion.  Consumer Reports suggests that adults eat no more than 1.5 cups of cooked rice per week, and kids no more than 1 cup.  Honestly, if I had kids of my own, they wouldn’t be getting any rice until at least the age of 10.  Even small amounts of a toxin are a big deal when they’re in a smaller body.
  • Eat a variety of foods.  FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement, “Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains – not only for good nutrition, but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.”  While I think Ms. Hamburg may have been downplaying the potential risks of rice, she is right that the best approach is to eat a variety of foods, and that includes where those foods are grown.  We never really know what gets into our food, even when it is grown on an organic farm (acid rain, anyone?) so it can’t hurt to switch up which company you buy your food from.  In case there are contamination issues at a particular farm, shipping truck, or warehouse, you’re just kind of lowering your odds of being exposed to more chemicals over time by switching up what you eat.  Not only should we be eating a variety of different foods, but we should be buying a variety of brands and switching it up.  In other words, you shouldn’t just buy one brand of pasta that you’ve decided you like and eat it for your entire life.  Better to rotate brands.
  • Choose white rice over brown.   Unfortunately, Consumer Reports found that brown rice contained higher levels of arsenic than white rice.  This was true for every brand they tested.  This is because much of the arsenic collects in the outer shell of the rice grain.  This outer shell contains the extra nutrients and fiber that generally make brown rice a healthier choice than white rice.  When you remove the shell from brown rice to make white rice, you are removing a lot of the arsenic.  (Unfortunately, you are also removing a lot of the nutrients and fiber that generally make brown rice a healthier choice than white rice).
  • Avoid rice grown in the US South.  According to Consumer Reports, rice grown in different areas is likely to have different levels of arsenic.  In general, rice grown in the US South tends to have higher levels of the toxin because the rice is grown in a lot of areas that were once cotton farms.  Those areas were heavily sprayed with arsenic-containing pesticides to combat the boll-weevil.
  • Choose aromatic rice.  According to the Chicago Tribune, “Imported basmati and jasmine rices showed about half to one-eighth the level of arsenic as regular rices grown in the Southern U.S.”
  • Aromatic rice grown in Bangladesh has been shown to have markedly low levels of arsenic.  Of course, it’s not so simple as walking into a supermarket and finding “low arsenic Bangladeshi rice” on the shelf, but maybe it will be in the future.
  • Wash rice thoroughly.  Several of the articles I found mentioned this.  Apparently, the FDA has found that washing rice thoroughly can reduce arsenic levels by 50-60%.  The Chigago Tribune quotes Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports, who explains that he cooks and drains rice similar to pasta. “‘We say to use about 6 parts water to 1 part rice… And then drain off the water after it’s done.'”
  • Remember the other gluten-free grains.  There are lots of other yummy grains out there… at least, they’re yummy when you cook them right.  Some good choices are potatoes, corn, oats (the ones that are specifically labelled gluten-free) and buckwheat.  Yes, buckwheat is gluten-free.  Next time you’re in a Thai restaurant, order buckwheat pad thai (aka pad thai soba)… it’s so amazing.

Anyway, that’s it for now.  Hope this article was helpful!

Rice photo courtesy of sweetbeatandgreenbean on Flickr.

Coffee: a great tool for dealing with chronic pain

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Coffee is probably my favorite substance on earth.  It makes me feel amazing, helps me wake up on a morning when I haven’t had enough sleep, and even takes away some of my pain.

For a long time I felt a little bit guilty about drinking it because there is so much written about the evils of coffee within the world of alternative health.  People blame it for triggering anxiety, for worsening pain, and for causing digestive problems and insomnia.  The way some writers phrase it, abstaining from coffee is almost like a measure of one’s moral fiber.  If you really want to get better, you have to stop drinking coffee.

I once did a trial period of weaning myself off of coffee/caffeine and then went a few weeks without drinking it to see if I had any less trouble sleeping at night.  I didn’t, and I missed the productivity boost it gave me during the day.  When I drink coffee, it’s not as if my pain suddenly disappears.  But the caffeine seems to give me a rush of optimism and energy that temporarily relegates the pain to the back of my mind and makes it easier to get things done in spite of it.

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Like so many claims floating around the alternative medicine world, I have come to consider the anti-coffee chorus to be as much of a fad as anything else.  True, there are some people who don’t react well to caffeine, but it’s not necessary for so many alternative health practitioners/writers/self-promoters to be putting articles on the Internet claiming that everyone needs to stop drinking coffee.

The fact of the matter is that scientific studies have shown that drinking coffee has several health benefits.  I’m going to outline what I’ve learned about some of those benefits here.

Coffee as a pain-reducer

When I read that scientific studies were finding coffee reduced people’s levels of pain, I wasn’t surprised.  I love working out within a few hours of my morning coffee.  Here is some of the evidence thus far:

  • A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that runners who first ingested caffeine were able to complete a 1500-meter run more quickly than runners who’d ingested the placebo.  The caffeinated runners also had higher readings for V02 max, an indicator of the body’s ability to transport oxygen in the bloodstream.
  • Another study at the University of Illinois compared the pain-relieving effects of caffeine among male cyclists.  Not only did they find that caffeine reduced the cyclists’ perception of pain, but they also found it appeared to reduce pain equally among those who were regular coffee drinkers and those who were not.  This shows that people who drink coffee regularly do not need to worry about building a tolerance and needing to drink more coffee to get the same pain-relieving effects.
  • A study conducted in Norway found that coffee could reduce the back and neck pain among office workers who worked at computers all day.

This is not to say that coffee is some kind of magical painkiller, and there are definitely risks to having too much.  Once in a very long while I get heart palpitations if I accidentally have too much caffeine, and the idea of combining exercise and heart palpitations doesn’t sound great to me.  But if you always make your coffee the same way or buy it at the same place, drink it slowly, and stick to having one cup over the course of a few hours, you should be fine.  Everything in moderation– exercise in moderation, preceded by coffee in moderation.

Coffee has a ton of antioxidants

Antioxidants are amazing substances found in food that help protect your body’s cells from cancer-causing agents called free radicals.  Multiple studies have shown that coffee is high in antioxidants.

  • A 2005 study at the University of Scranton in Pennslyvania showed that coffee has one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants out of all of the foods in the “standard” American diet.  Granted, this is probably in part a measure of how terrible the standard American diet actually is, but I’ll take it.
  • Although most studies focus on other antioxidants, there is some evidence to suggest that caffeine itself can act as an antioxidant, too.

If you’re like me, you probably could be better about including fruits and vegetables in your diet.  As the author of the Scranton study points out, fruits and vegetables are still better than coffee from an “overall nutritional point of view” because of their vitamins, minerals and fiber.  But still, it’s nice to know that on the days when eating well doesn’t end up happening, coffee is there to pick up some of the slack.

Coffee may reduce your risk of developing many different health problems

At this point, most of these claims are still in the research stages, but it all sounds promising.  I’m looking forward to reading more on the following topics as more studies are done:

  • It may also reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, although the major study that was done showed you needed to have three cups of coffee to get the most benefit.  I’m personally not sure I can handle that much, but I’m sure a some coffee is better than nothing.

Again, most of these studies are in the preliminary stages, but when you look at all of them in total, I think it’s pretty clear that something awesome is going on here.  Assuming you react well to caffeine, it can be a great tool to help you get to the gym on a day when you’re not feeling great but know you should go.  I’m not an advocate of forcing yourself to work out, but after having a cup of coffee you might find you actually want to.

If you still don’t like coffee, I understand.  I’m not going to tell you you have to drink it.  But I will tell you that you’re missing out. :)

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I’m going to start eating more “bad” fat

I read this article last night on my phone while pretending to listen to some loveable relatives butcher some Christmas music, and it made me sad.

http://phys.org/news/2012-12-fat-decisions-brain-cells-production.html

Like pretty much every other girl who was unhappy in school in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s, I used to starve myself.  I mean, I ate, but if I ever get brave enough to post pictures of myself from that time period, you’ll see what I mean.  It was not good.

The one thing I absolutely avoided was fat because, of course, everything around me said that it was bad.  I had low-fat cheese on my sandwich (gross) at lunch.  I even had fat-free, cholesterol-free salad dressing in our refrigerator at home.  I had problems.

I get sad when I see people still trapped in that mindset, especially when they’re also engaging in extreme exercise. These are the people who pay more attention to their health than anyone else, but are in fact the ones doing the most damage.  It’s only a matter of time before their bodies break down (I know, because mine did).

We need fat, and we need cholesterol.  The article I linked to includes a quote from Ernest Arenas, a professor of stem cell neurobiology, on the role cholesterol plays in the body:

“‘We are familiar with the idea of cholesterol as a fuel for cells, and we know that it is harmful for humans to consume too much cholesterol.  What we have shown now is that cholesterol has several functions, and that it is involved in extremely important decisions for neurons. Derivatives of cholesterol control the production of new neurons in the developing brain. When such a decision has been taken, cholesterol aids in the construction of these new cells, and in their survival. Thus cholesterol is extremely important for the body, and in particular for the development and function of the brain.'”

You literally need cholesterol to form new brain cells.  Though we are conditioned to think of this substance as bad, it actually plays a vital role in the body.

There is also new research coming out that says there might not be as much of a risk from saturated fat consumption as previously thought.  Like cholesterol, you need saturated fat to perform certain functions in your body.

While the jury is still out on this, I personally am going to stop being so strict about avoiding saturated fat.  Our ancestors didn’t know anything about the different types of fat– to them, fat was fuel.  The fact that fat and cholesterol play so many vital roles in the body says to me that these nutrients played a significant role in our evolutionary history, and my body is tired of missing out.

This is not to say that I’m going to drop everything and head to McDonald’s (there’s plenty of other bad stuff in fast food!).  I’m not going to start eating bacon every single day.  But maybe I’ll actually let myself eat it when someone else offers it to me.  I think that if I can do this, it will be letting go of the last piece of me that’s still afraid of the things I eat.

I will be writing more on the saturated fat controversy.  Like anything, it’s important to be well-informed and do research from a variety of reliable sources, and it’s important to me that I don’t write a health-oriented blog based on opinion.  But this is how I’m feeling this morning.  If you enjoyed this post, eat a big hunk of cheese for me today.