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Diabetes Is On The Rise – Do You Know Your Risk?

Did you know someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with diabetes every 21 seconds?  According to research by the American Diabetes Association, diabetes affects 30 million children and adults in the U.S – that’s 1 in 11 Americans.  Even more shocking is that 84 million Americans have prediabetes and are at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but 90% of them don’t know they have it.

November is Diabetes Awareness Month, and as the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, it is important to bring attention to this chronic disease.

There are several types of diabetes: type 1, type 2, and gestational diabetes (or high blood sugar in pregnancy that usually resolves soon after the baby is born. Be aware, even though it usually goes away, this type of diabetes increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life).  Type 1 diabetes is a condition that develops in response to an immune reaction, and it cannot be prevented.  When this occurs, the beta cells of the pancreas stop producing insulin, a hormone required to move glucose (otherwise known as sugar) from the bloodstream into our cells where it can be used for energy.  Insulin is necessary to sustain life since glucose is the body’s primary form of energy, so people with type 1 diabetes must take insulin multiple times daily to survive and maintain healthy blood sugar levels.  In type 2 diabetes, the body still produces insulin, but cells have become resistant to its effect.  This is called insulin resistance and means the body isn’t working as it should to move glucose from the blood in to cells.  Diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors are pillars in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, and often medicine is required as well.  Type 2 diabetes is by far the most prevalent form of diabetes (95% of people with diabetes have type 2), and unlike type 1 diabetes, it can be prevented with awareness of risk factors and healthy lifestyle choices.  We will get to more on this in a minute.

Hemoglobin A1c (HgbA1c) is a blood test that correlates to a person’s average daily blood sugar from the previous three months and is used as the primary diagnostic marker for diabetes.  HgbA1c is measured as a percentage – for example, 7.0% – because it indicates the amount of a hemoglobin molecule (a protein in red blood cells) that is covered by glucose.  As glucose builds up in the blood stream it binds to hemoglobin, so the higher the percentage, the higher the average daily blood sugar level, and vice versa.  To further illustrate this concept, imagine this: the more glucose, or sugar, that is in a person’s blood stream on a daily basis, the more that glucose will stick to the hemoglobin molecule and coat the outside.  So, a result of 12.2% indicates that 12.2% of the molecule is coated in glucose.  A normal HgbA1c reading for a person without diabetes is less than 5.7%, and diabetes is normally diagnosed at a level of 6.5%.

Prediabetes – a condition diagnosed when a person’s HgbA1c is between 5.7% and 6.4% – indicates that a person’s blood sugar is higher than normal, but not yet high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes.  Don’t let the ‘pre’ in the name fool you though!  This diagnosis increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.  And most importantly to understand, prediabetes is reversible.  The development of type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed with proven lifestyle changes and regular monitoring at doctor visits; and some providers will prescribe a drug called Metformin, which can help lower blood sugar.  Knowing your risk factors is also helpful.

Because prediabetes is rarely accompanied by symptoms, one can live with the condition for years without knowing it.  That’s why it is important to talk to your doctor about getting your blood sugar tested if you have any of the following risk factors for diabetes:

  • Being overweight, as classified by body mass index (BMI)
  • Being 45 years or older
  • Having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes
  • Being physically active less than 3 days per week
  • Ever having gestational diabetes or giving birth to a baby who weighed more than 9 pounds
  • Belonging to one or more of the following racial and ethnic groups: African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and some Asian Americans

If you have been diagnosed with prediabetes, think of this as your red flag warning.  Ignore it, and your risk for developing type 2 diabetes goes up.  Make some small changes, and your risk goes down.  In fact, research has shown that a person with prediabetes can reduce their risk for developing type 2 diabetes by 50% by making just two changes: get regular physical activity and lose a modest amount of weight.  Modest weight loss means 5% to 7% of body weight, which is just 10 to 14 pounds for a 200-pound person.  And regular physical activity means getting 150 minutes of moderate activity weekly – that’s just 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.  To make it even more manageable, consider that time could be divided into two 15 minutes bouts of exercise.  Moderate activity includes brisk walking, bike riding, or other physical activity performed at a pace where holding a conversation would be difficult.

People with diabetes have healthcare costs 2.3 times greater than those without diabetes, and the costs continue to rise every year as medications become more expensive.  Further, because diabetes affects nearly every major organ in the body, people with diabetes have an increased risk of serious health complications including stroke, blindness, heart disease, kidney failure, and loss of toes, feet, and legs.  These complications are a direct result of poor blood glucose control, so it is critical for people with all forms of diabetes to learn and practice good self-management.  This may include following a modified diet, getting regular exercise, taking medicine, monitoring blood sugar at home, checking feet for cuts and wounds, completing eye exams, and attending regular doctor appointments.

If you have diabetes or prediabetes and want to learn more about how you can better manage your health, please talk with your doctor and use the following resources to get more connected to reliable information:

Resources:

Economic Costs of Diabetes in the U.S. in 2017. Diabetes Care journal, March 2018.  Accessed via the American Diabetes Association website on November 13, 2018: http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2018/03/20/dci18-0007.

The Staggering Costs of Diabetes.  American Diabetes Association website: http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/infographics/adv-staggering-cost-of-diabetes.html. Accessed November 13, 2018.

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Health Through the Holidays

Holidays are often a time of more frequent family gatherings, parties with friends, rich foods, and indulgence.  Even so, it’s important to maintain healthy habits through the holidays, especially if you’re managing a chronic disease such as diabetes or high blood pressure.  Below are 8 tips to help you balance healthy choices with enjoyment of the season.  Remember, a healthy lifestyle is all about sustainability, balance, and moderation so you can savor your favorite traditions of the season while ensuring wellness for future holidays to come!

  1. Keep Your Routine

Often people will choose to eat lighter meals or skip snacks ahead of a large holiday meal, but this only primes a person to overeat.  Instead, plan ahead for meals and snacks so you continue to eat on a regular schedule, about every 4-5 hours.  A satisfying breakfast that includes a lean protein will start your day right by stabilizing blood sugar and giving you energy for the day’s events.  Try a scrambled egg with tomatoes, peppers, and 2 tablespoons avocado wrapped in a small whole wheat tortilla; oatmeal or low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit and chopped nuts, add a hard-boiled egg for extra protein; or a piece of whole grain toast with peanut butter, a glass of low-fat milk, and fruit.  Eat a small snack if the main meal is more than 5 hours after breakfast to help regulate appetite and prevent overeating.

  1. Be Selective

Meals at the holidays often include many dishes and a variety of options to get your balance of nutrients.  Some of these dishes may be regulars that are served year-round – such as bread, rolls, mashed potatoes, or rice – and others may be special holiday traditions, like stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, or tamales.  Rather than eating some of everything, pick the foods that only come out on special occasion and leave the other foods off your plate.  If you must have a little of everything, take a small sample (2-3 bites) rather than a full portion.  If you’re watching carbohydrates for diabetes management, identify similar foods and pick one or the other.  For example, maybe you prefer stuffing instead of a roll, sweet potatoes rather than mashed potatoes, and gravy on your turkey more than gravy on your stuffing.  Even if you like it all, it’s important to pick your favorites and limit carbohydrates to those choices.  If you can’t choose only 2 or 3 carbohydrate foods, take very small portions or samples.

  1. Watch Your Portions

Holiday meals not only tend to be much larger than everyday meals, they also frequently include dishes prepared with more fat, sugar, and salt than average meals.  For this reason, it’s important to keep portions small.  Try using a smaller plate, prepare only one plate of food instead of two, serve smaller portions than normal (significantly smaller if taking a little of everything), split a full portion with someone else, avoid piling food on the plate, and eat slowly.  It takes the brain about 20 minutes to catch up with the stomach and recognize fullness; so talk with others, chew slowly, sip on water through the meal, and set your fork down between every few bites to help slow down.  Remember, you can always have leftovers the next day!  If someone else is hosting, ask if you can bring a small container to pack up one portion of leftovers to take home.

  1. Eat Your Veggies

Vegetables are not usually in abundance at holiday meals, but as with any other time of the year, they are one of the most beneficial foods we can eat!  Non-starchy veggies are naturally low in calories, fat, carbohydrate, and sodium, while they are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  With this nutritional make-up they support good blood sugar control, healthy blood pressure, and weight management.  By filling half your plate with veggies, you will get a healthy dose of fiber and nutrition that can help to fill you up and prevent overeating.  If veggies aren’t a common dish at your holiday gatherings, offer to bring a salad or roasted veggies.  Raw veggies and dip can also be a great appetizer!

  1. Limit Alcohol

Calories in alcohol can quickly add up and sabotage your weight loss efforts made in food choices and exercise.  One 5-ounce glass of red or white wine has about 120 calories, a 12-ounce light beer ranges from 110-150 calories (many craft beers are higher calorie), and a mixed drink with 8 ounces juice or regular soda and 1.5 ounces distilled spirit (80 proof) packs nearly 200 calories.  For comparison, you could eat a half cup of stuffing (178 calories) or mashed potatoes made with milk and butter (120 calories), 1 cup of green bean casserole (142 calories), 2 ounces of pumpkin pie (about a 1 inch sliver – 130 calories), or 3 cups of mixed veggie salad with 1 tablespoon dressing (165 calories) for about the same calories as a single drink.  You’d also be getting the nutritional benefit of some vitamins, minerals, and fiber with any of these food choices.  Rather than having it all, think about how you most want to nourish and care for your body; then make your choices accordingly.  Also consider, for best health it is recommended that women have no more than 1 drink per day and men no more than 2 alcoholic beverages per day.  For weight management, try one of these drinks that minimizes calories:

  • 1.5 ounces vodka, 6 ounces grapefruit-flavored sparkling water, a splash of 100% grapefruit juice; garnish with a slice of grapefruit and mint.
  • 1.5 ounces tequila, 6 ounces mineral water, squeeze of fresh lime juice; garnish with a lime wedge
  • 1.5 ounces whiskey or rum and 6 ounces diet coke
  • 1.5 ounces scotch on the rocks
  • Budweiser Select, Beck’s Premier Light, Anheuser-Busch Light Pale Lager, Michelob Ultra
  • Various mocktails:
    • Sparkling water, a splash of pomegranate juice, and a few pomegranate arils
    • Iced tea with a splash of mineral water for bubbles, a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime, and mint leaf
    • Sparkling water, fresh-squeezed orange, and a sprig of fresh rosemary
  1. Stay Physically Active

Make physical activity a part of your holiday traditions.  Rather than watching TV or taking a nap after a big meal, go for a walk, play a friendly game of flag football, toss a frisbee or play catch, go bowling, play active video games (like Wii tennis or Dance, Dance, Revolution), or get competitive with an active group game like charades.  You can also take advantage of extra time off work to exercise before family gatherings and parties, take a brisk walk around the mall before shopping, turn on music to add a pep in your step as you do chores, or do a fun activity like ice skating or snow shoeing with the family.  Whatever you do, continue to move!

  1. Try Healthier Versions of Your Favorite Foods

Most recipes can be modified to include less added sugar, fat, and therefore, calories.  Use the ideas below to improve the nutritional benefit of your holiday favorites!

  • Use whole grain dinner rolls instead of highly processed white rolls
  • Swap regular mashed potatoes for half mashed potatoes and cauliflower
  • Roast sweet potatoes to bring out the natural sugars rather than loading with brown sugar and marshmallows. (Hint: leave the potato skin on for extra fiber and use half the oil for less calories)
  • Add twice as many green beans to your green bean casserole recipe for an extra serving of veggies and less calories.
  • Bring a festive green salad or colorful roasted veggies as a nourishing side dish.
  • Try this apple crisp recipe rather than apple pie to reduce the fat, sugar, and carbohydrate and increase fiber.
  • Bring an alternative to the standard pumpkin pie dessert. These tarts can be topped with a dollop of ‘lite’ vanilla yogurt instead of whipped cream.
  1. Gather Support

One of the most important factors in successful health behavior change is having a good support network.  Talk with your family and friends to let them know you are working on change and share how they can help you.  This may mean asking your aunt to make a less-tempting dessert (or only 1 dessert option), inviting your cousins to join you for a walk after the big meal (plan ahead so everyone can have comfortable walking shoes and warm clothes), requesting your mom to only give encouraging words or nothing at all, allowing someone to remind you of your 1 or 2 drink limit, or gathering support and accountability from friends to help you keep up with your goals throughout the season.

Above all, remember that health and wellness is a journey.  If your day doesn’t go as planned, you skipped your daily exercise, or you ate and drank more than you wanted to at the party, it does not mean you failed and all is lost.  Every day is a new opportunity to make healthy choices.  Think ahead, prepare adequately, be patient with yourself, and know the key to health is moderation and balance.  Happy holidays!

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Fall Into Good Food

Fall has arrived! And with it comes shorter days, football-watching marathons, cozy comfort foods, bulky sweaters, and all things pumpkin spice.  Don’t use these as excuses to let yourself get off track if you’re making healthy changes, though.  There are plenty of benefits to the fall season that will support your health goals, such as longer evenings to spend inside food-prepping, cooler weather for exercising outdoors (or during commercial breaks – everything counts!), and ALL the fantastic seasonal foods that make healthy eating delicious, too!

Eating seasonally not only tastes better and is cheaper, but it’s also better for you.  This is a whole other topic for another time, but in a nutshell: foods are highest in nutrients when picked at their peak ripeness.  So, foods will be most nutrient-dense in their prime growing season, when they are harvested closest to where they are sold, and conveniently, when they are most flavorful!  Use the list below to enjoy fruits and vegetables at peak production through the Fall months (September, October, November).

  • Fruits: apples, cranberries, date plum, grapes, guava, passion fruit, pears, persimmons, pineapple, pomegranate, quince, tart berries (huckleberry, gooseberry)
  • Vegetables: broccoli, brussel sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, Chinese long beans, jalapeno peppers, daikon radish, radicchio, endive, kohlrabi, mushrooms, squash (acorn, butternut, chayote, pumpkin), sweet potatoes, swiss chard, turnips
  • Herbs and Spices: Garlic, ginger

Fortunately, many fruits and veggies have a growing season which spans more than one calendar season, making them optimally nutritious for much of the year.  For example, apples and pears belong to the list of both Fall and Winter seasonal foods, and eggplant and zucchini are two veggies that produce most heavily from late Summer well into Fall.  Try one or more of the recipes below to enjoy the season’s most flavorful foods in a healthy and delicious dish!

Ratatouille This is a hearty, plant-based dish from France that is loaded with seasonal veggies and flavor!

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium eggplant, medium diced
  • 3 cups zucchini, medium diced
  • 3 cups tomatoes, medium diced
  • 2 cups yellow onion, medium diced
  • 2 cups green bell pepper, medium diced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper

Preparation: Before beginning to cook, cut all veggies to roughly the same size (this will ensure equal cooking and consistent texture).  Mince and measure your garlic, salt, and pepper into a small bowl.  Once prepped, heat the olive oil over medium heat and add all veggies, garlic, and seasonings.  Cook for about 10 – 12 minutes, until veggies are tender but not mushy and tomatoes have cooked down to create a “sauce.”  Serve over cooked barley for a heart healthy meal full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and plant-based protein.

Roasted Fall Vegetables – a delicious and quick side dish.  Add to baked fish, grilled lean steak, or roasted chicken and some wild rice for a complete meal.  (Hint: 90 second microwave bags of rice and rotisserie chickens are a great short cut when you don’t have much time.  If you prep your veggies on the weekend, this meal can be ready in 5 minutes!)

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound carrots
  • 1 pound brussel sprouts
  • 1/2 head cauliflower
  • Olive oil
  • Seasoning of choice (try garlic or dried onion with black pepper; rosemary; sage and thyme; shaved Parmesan cheese; or dried red pepper flakes. Go very light on salt, if at all.)

Preparation: Pre-heat oven to 400⁰.  Wash your veggies with warm water, and then chop to equal size (brussel sprouts: cut off the bottom and discard, then cut in half; carrots: peel, remove ends, cut in half lengthwise, chop approximately 1-2” in size; cauliflower: chop into small florets roughly the same size as other veggies).  Spread veggies in an even layer on a large baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and toss to coat (using a spatula).  The oil will add heart-healthy flavor and prevent veggies from sticking to the pan.  Roast in oven for about 20-25 minutes, until veggies are tender but crisp and lightly browned on the outside.  Stir once about midway through roasting time.  Season lightly with sea salt and black pepper, or get more creative.  Try garlic powder and dried onion; lemon pepper; rosemary and pepper; shaved Parmesan cheese; sage, thyme, and black pepper; or dried red pepper flakes if you like a little heat.

Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal – a quick and tasty breakfast

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup dried rolled oats (makes about 1 cup prepared)
  • Water, milk, or milk alternative
  • ½ an apple of choice, chopped (tart – granny smith, sweet – honey crisp or gala)
  • 2 tablespoons pecans, chopped
  • Cinnamon, about ¼ teaspoon or to taste preference
  • Nutmeg, just a pinch

Preparation: Place oats in a microwave safe bowl and add water, milk, or milk alternative just until oats are covered.  Cook for 1 minute in microwave.  Remove and stir, adding liquid if needed to achieve desired texture.  Stir in chopped apple and pecans.  Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg.  Enjoy!

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Importance of Immunizations

Let’s talk about immunizations, or vaccines as they are also known.

Many common illnesses and contagious diseases are preventable with proper vaccination.  A vaccine is a weakened or killed form, or piece, of a disease.  When given as a shot, this triggers the body’s immune system to either produce antibodies that protect against that particular sickness or otherwise enhance immunity.  This way, if you’re ever exposed to the actual disease-causing bug, your immune system is prepared to fight the infection.  Usually, the vaccine will prevent the development of the disease or lessen the severity.

Thanks to immunizations, many diseases that once posed serious health threats to children – including death – had decreased to their lowest levels in decades.  However, in recent years, outbreaks of infectious disease among certain pediatric communities has increased due to the rising number of parents declining vaccines for their children.

Vaccines are safe and effective against disease.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most recommended childhood immunizations are 90 – 100% effective.  Some children, however, will not develop full immunity against a disease despite receiving the vaccine.  This makes it even more important for all children to get vaccinated.  Those in whom the vaccine is 100% effective will protect others who did not develop full immunity, thus lessening everyone’s chance of exposure.  Even in cases where a child did not develop 100% immunity, the symptoms will usually be milder than if the vaccine had not been received at all.

Despite the known benefits of immunizations, many still choose not to properly vaccinate their children.  Here are some common misconceptions about immunizations, along with important information to know.

Misconception #1: There are side effects associated with vaccinations.

As with any medication, vaccines can have side effects; however, they are usually mild.  The most common reactions associated with vaccines are redness and soreness at the injection site and low-grade fever.  These reactions usually disappear within a few days.  More serious reactions have been known to occur, including allergic reaction.  This will usually happen very soon after receiving the vaccination, and doctors’ offices are well equipped to handle these situations.  Be sure to tell your child’s healthcare provider if he or she has had a reaction in the past or may be allergic to any part of the vaccine.

Misconception #2: There are dangerous ingredients in vaccines.

Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative that has been used in some vaccines since the 1930s.  According to the CDC, no harmful effects have been noted from the amounts of thimerosal used in vaccines, aside from expected reactions such as redness and swelling at the injection site.  Regardless, since 2001, no US vaccines used to protect preschool-aged children contain the preservative thimerosal.

Aluminum is another ingredient in some vaccines that is used to boost the immune response to the vaccine.  This allows for lesser quantities and fewer doses of the vaccine to be needed.  Aluminum has been used for this purpose in vaccines since 1926 and extensive testing in clinic trials is required before a vaccine is licensed for use.  It is also important to understand that aluminum is a natural element found in plants, soil, water, and air.  In fact, it is the third most abundant element after oxygen and silicone.  To give some perspective, infants will receive about 4.4 milligrams of aluminum from vaccines in the first 6 months of their life, while they receive more than that from their diet.  Breast fed infants ingest about 7 milligrams aluminum in the first 6 months of life, formula-fed infants ingest about 38 milligrams, and infants who drink soy-based formulas ingest almost 117 milligrams aluminum by 6 months of age.

Misconception #3: “Vaccines cause autism.”

Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder usually appear around the same age that children receive the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.  For this reason, some have assumed that there is a link between the MMR vaccine, thimerosal, and autism.  However, the MMR vaccine has never contained thimerosal, and neither have the vaccines for chickenpox or polio.  Further, a 2004 study by the Institutes of Medicine concluded that there is no link between autism and vaccines that contain the preservative thimerosal.  Serious health problems, disabilities, and even death can occur from measles, mumps, and rubella, so a child is at much more risk for harm when he or she is not vaccinated.

To learn more about childhood immunizations and see the recommended schedule of vaccines, visit the CDC website and talk with your child’s healthcare provider.

Because the proven preventative benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks of the minimal side effects associated with them, medical providers agree that all children and adults should receive age-appropriate vaccinations.

Often vaccines are associated with children, but there are many vaccines available and necessary for optimal adult health.  This is partly because childhood vaccines wear off over time and partly because adults are at higher risk for exposure to different diseases.  Additionally, age, health conditions, certain jobs, lifestyle, and travel can pose greater risks to adults.

All adults need a flu vaccine every year, as well as regular booster vaccines for tetanus.  It is recommended to get the flu shot before the end of October for best protection.  To learn what other vaccines may be appropriate for you, visit the CDC website and talk with your healthcare provider.

References:

  1. Vaccines and Immunizations via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/index.html . Accessed Oct 5, 2018.
  2. Immunizations and Vaccines via WebMD website. https://www.webmd.com/children/vaccines/immunizations-vaccines-power-of-preparation#1. Accessed Oct 5, 2018.
  3. Percent of Children Aged 19 – 35 months Receiving Vaccinations. “National Center for Health Statistics – Immunization” page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/immunize.htm. Accessed Oct 16, 2018.
  4. Vaccine Ingredients – Aluminum. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia website. https://www.chop.edu/centers-programs/vaccine-education-center/vaccine-ingredients/aluminum. Accessed Oct 16, 2018.
  5. Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Found online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK25349/. Published 2004; Accessed Oct 5, 2018.
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Snack Smart

Does hunger strike you midafternoon?  Do you begrudgingly ignore your body’s signals and wait until dinner time rolls around?  If so, you may not be doing yourself any favors.  Snacking can be beneficial for portion control at meals, avoiding an afternoon slump in energy, and even offer an extra opportunity to sneak in some fruits of veggies through your day.  Used well, snacks can be a part of any healthy diet.

Snacks are an excellent way to boost the nutritional value of your daily intake, and I always give my patients two tips.  First, include foods from at least two food groups to make a nutritious snack that provides a variety of nutrients.  Second, always make sure to include a fruit or a veggie as one of the two food groups.  Following these tips, you’ll get a well-balanced snack that includes healthy carbohydrates, fiber, and lots of vitamins and minerals.  If you want to take your snacking up a notch and you’re familiar with the food groups, it’s best to include a lean protein or healthy fat to provide some staying power for long-lasting energy and satiety.

Here are some examples of healthy snacks:

  • Small apple and string cheese
  • 7 whole grain crackers and ¼ cup red pepper hummus
  • 1 cup cottage cheese and fresh peaches
  • 3 graham crackers, 4 ounces 1% milk, and 15 grapes
  • 1 cup celery topped with 1 tbsp peanut butter
  • Sliced sweet peppers and 1 ounce almonds
  • 10 tortilla chips and fresh veggie salsa

Make the recipe at home – Corn and Bean Garden Salsa

Ingredients:

  • 1 can low-sodium black beans
  • 1 can low-sodium corn
  • 5 tomatoes, diced
  • 1 jalepeño pepper, diced
  • ½ small red onion, diced
  • ¼ cup cilantro, minced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • Fresh lime juice from 1 lime
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

Place first 7 ingredients in a bowl and stir until well-mixed.  Add lime juice, salt, and pepper, to taste.  Hint: start light and add more, if needed.

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What’s the Scoop on Coconut Oil?

Coconut oil has made news headlines countless times in recent years for everything from being the new superfood to most recently being called “pure poison” by a Harvard professor.  It’s no wonder that many of us are left scratching our heads with confusion about what we should or should not eat.  So, let’s break it down and look at the facts.

Coconut oil, which comes from the tropical coconut plant, contains the following nutrition per 1 tablespoon of oil: 120 calories and 13.5 grams of total fat.  From the total fat, 11.2 grams are saturated fats and approximately 1 gram is unsaturated fat.  It contains no protein or carbohydrate.1

Years of scientific research have proven that saturated fats are harmful to our health and increase the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.  They do this by altering the levels of the good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol in the blood, which contribute to the build up of plaque in the arteries. When HDL cholesterol is too low and LDL cholesterol is too high, these plaques begin to form and overtime clog the flow of blood, leading to high blood pressure.  When plaque breaks away from the artery wall, it blocks the flow of blood and results in a heart attack or stroke.

For this reason, it is important to limit saturated fat in the diet.  The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 5 – 6% of total calories come from saturated fat each day.  For someone following a 2000 calorie diet, that is about 11 – 13 grams of saturated fat.  Foods that contain saturated fat include fish, poultry, meat, dairy products, butter, cream, fried foods, processed foods, palm and palm kernel oil, and coconut oil.

Bringing the focus back to coconut oil, it has gained popularity in recent years due to many claims that it boosts fat burning and weight loss, increases mental clarity, improves immune function, and provides anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and even anti-viral benefits, among other health claims.  However, it is important to know that none of these benefits have been consistently demonstrated across multiple studies nor shown in studies of adequate size, and the Natural Medicines Database states there is insufficient evidence to rate the effectiveness of coconut oil on many health conditions.2

So, despite the mixed evidence of its health benefits, what makes coconut oil different from any other saturated fat?  The answer lies in the specific type of fatty acid that coconut is most rich in – medium chain triglycerides.  Fat molecules range in length from 2 to 22 carbon atoms, and medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) refer to the group of fatty acids that are composed of only 6 to 10 carbon links.  Due to their smaller chemical structure, they are digested and used differently in the body than the longer chain fatty acids.  It is the difference in size and how the body processes the fat that differentiates MCTS from other saturated fats and holds the key to the supposed health benefits claimed.

However, it is critical to bare in mind that most of the studies citing benefits are often measuring only one marker of health rather than the total health and wellbeing of the subjects.  For example, one study of only 19 healthy overweight men showed that MCT oil increased body weight loss by 0.41 kilograms over a 28-day period compared with the group who consumed olive oil3; but blood cholesterol levels, exercise, and other lifestyle factors that contribute to heart disease were not considered.  It should also be noted that in this study (and most other related studies) MCTs were consumed in a synthesized oil form rather than from a whole food product such as coconut oil.

This is perhaps the most important takeaway from the topic at hand.  Overall health and wellbeing are not achieved through consumption of individual nutrients, practice of a singular activity, or measure of independent health markers.  Our body works together as a whole, and thus we must treat it as such.  A diet rich in non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, whole fruits, nuts and legumes, and fish and seafood that is complimented with moderate amounts of other lean proteins and low-fat dairy provides the ideal nutrition for best health.  Lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, moderate to low alcohol intake, adequate sleep, appropriate stress management, and avoiding smoking further improve health and reduce risk for a myriad of diseases and health concerns.  As much as it would be loved, there is no magic pill, supplement, or quick solution to our health problems.  It requires effort, self-care, and moderation and balance of all good things.

The bottom line: Coconut oil is a saturated fat rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).  Despite some health claims that MCTs have positive effects on weight loss, mental clarity, immune function, and even diabetes, there is not sufficient evidence to prove their effect or benefit towards health.  However, there is significant evidence that saturated fats contribute towards weight gain, elevated blood cholesterol, and increased risk of heart disease.  For this reason, coconut oil and other saturated fats should be limited to 5 – 7% of the total daily calories consumed (this is approximately 11 – 13 grams for a person following a 2000 calorie diet).

References:

  1. USDA Food Composition Databases website. Accessed August 30, 2018.
  2. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Accessed August 30, 2018. Subscription required.
  3. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders. Greater rise in fat oxidation with medium-chain triglyceride consumption relative to long-chain triglyceride is associated with lower initial body weight and greater loss of subcutaneous adipose tissue. Accessed via PubMed.gov on August 30, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12975635
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