Tag: Nutrition

Lessons Learned From My Elimination Diet Trial

Diet Last week I wrote a post updating my progress on the elimination diet, and then I promptly stopped following it. Seriously, within an hour or two I brought back the last of the foods I had been keeping out. I had a glass of wine with dinner and some devilish chocolate-covered caramels for dessert. In fact, the only thing I managed to stick to for the entire length of the trial was no caffeine.

On the surface, it would seem as though the diet failed, or rather,  I failed the diet, but this past week something amazing happened: I got my energy back! Honestly, I can’t even say that I got it “back,” because I can’t remember ever feeling this good in my life. While I can’t attribute this remarkable turnaround entirely to the elimination diet, I do feel that it played a very key role for three reasons. Those reasons are alcohol, caffeine and sugar.

I brought back nightshades and soy very early in the trial, gluten and citrus somewhere around the middle, but I kept out caffeine the entire time, consumed sugar very sparingly (the chocolate caramels were a short-lived reprieve), and I had a total of 10 ounces of red wine, spread over three or four different occasions during the whole four-week trial. Toward the end of week three, I noticed that I was generally sleeping better and my energy levels were more consistent throughout the day. I attribute the better sleep to no caffeine or alcohol, and the constant energy levels to no sugar. I was feeling pretty good, but still not great. What led to that was something else entirely.

A couple of weeks ago, I downloaded the Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen app. It helps me track servings of healthy whole foods throughout the day. I’ve been using it every single day since I downloaded it. For the first week and a half, I was averaging a score of around 80 – 85% each day. But a few days ago, I announced at bedtime that the next day I was going to hit the recommended servings for each food group. I stuck to my promise the next day and achieved 100% for the first time. The next day, I felt amazing. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. feeling actually awake despite a short and broken night’s sleep. I had incredible energy levels throughout the entire day, right up until 10:00 p.m. But the really amazing thing is that I had the best workout I’ve had in months. I did 30 pull-ups (not all in one set!) and followed them up with a tough, 5 mile run. It was the furthest and fastest I’d run since last summer. I thought I’d need a nap later in the day, but to my surprise, I had so much energy, I was pacing around all afternoon. The next day, same thing – great energy levels, amazing workout intensity, happiness levels through the roof.

It just goes to show that when you really treat your body right, it appreciates it and returns the favor.

Winding Down My Crazy Diet Experiment

It’s only been two solid weeks on the elimination diet, but already I’ve let a lot of things back in. The only things that have stayed resolutely out have been caffeine, alcohol, gluten and oranges. I’ve also only had soy on one occasion, and haven’t had any added sugar except what’s in the chocolate I’ve been eating after dinner. Generally, I’ve been sleeping better and my workouts have been more energized, but I still feel that afternoon lag nearly every day.

Ever the experimenter, I’ll continue tweaking things until I hit upon a diet and sleep routine that makes me feel like I’m 25 again (actually, I hope to feel a lot better than I did when I was 25, because I certainly didn’t eat very healthfully back then). I know it’s possible, because I’ve been close before. Interestingly, the best I’ve felt in a few years was when I did a 3-day liquid diet consisting of vegetable blends and soups. I’m toying with the idea now of going raw for a week or so, just to see what that does.

It’s important to note that I don’t intend for any of this to be permanent. Rather, I’ll use what I learn to make small adjustments going forward. That’s the goal of every “crazy” experimental diet I ever do. What I’ve learned so far on this one is that there are dozens or hundreds of delicious meals that can be made with absolutely no processed ingredients and no added sugar of any kind. We’ve even come up with a delicious dessert made entirely of Medjool dates, almonds and coconut oil.

I’m giving the experiment one more full week and then I’ll relax it a little or change it up. I’ll let you know at the end what new healthy habits I take away from it. Bon appetit!

No-Fail Whole Wheat Bread Recipe

WholeGrains Yesterday was the final day of the month-long Whole Grain Challenge. If you participated, I hope you found some new ways to work whole grains into your diet.

I didn’t get in as many meals with whole grains as I had hoped, but taking the challenge did result in one permanent change for me – I started eating Overnight Oats almost every morning for breakfast. This is a big nutritional improvement over what had been my usual breakfast (cold cereal), so I think the challenge was worth it for that alone.

I did want to share one more recipe with you to wrap up the challenge. This is my homemade 100% whole wheat bread recipe. It takes about 5 minutes of active time if you have a bread machine, and the bread comes out great time after time.

1 1/4 cups warm water (not too hot)
3/4 tsp kosher or sea salt
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp honey, brown rice syrup, agave syrup or molasses
2 1/2 cups whole wheat bread flour (this is 100% whole wheat flour with a higher gluten content – find it in the bulk bins at your natural food co-op)
1/4 cup vital wheat gluten
2 tsp active dry yeast

Place all of the ingredients in the bread machine in the order listed. I set it to the dough cycle, then transfer it to a bread pan and bake in a 375 oven for 40 minutes after it has risen in the pan again, but you can just run the bread machine on the whole wheat cycle, too. It’s the perfect bread for a veggie sandwich!

What’s the Glycemic Index, and Should You Care?

Carbs Today’s post addresses this question from a regular reader of the blog: “Glycemic index – does that matter? A lot of “good” carbs (whole grains) seem to have really high glycemic index.”

For those who don’t know, the Glycemic Index is a carbohydrate ranking system that was developed over 30 years ago in an effort to classify foods according to how quickly they introduce sugar into the bloodstream. A lower number on the Index means that sugar is released into the bloodstream more slowly, while a higher number means the food could potentially cause blood sugar to “spike,” having negative effects on the body’s insulin response.

Early on, there was much excitement in the scientific community, because studies of single foods, usually conducted on rodents, showed great promise in terms of regulating blood sugar and insulin response. Over the years, however, a number of drawbacks have been found. The biggest problem is that we almost never eat just one food by itself, so a lot of the benefits associated with eating a low-GI food are undone when that food is naturally paired with other, higher-GI foods in a recipe or meal. A second problem is that the Index is based on a serving size containing 50 grams of available carbohydrate (or 25 grams for lower carb foods). This means that a “serving size” for the GI can be starkly out of line with typical serving sizes in a normal diet. For example, to get 50 grams of carbohydrate from raw carrots, you’d need to eat about 1.75 pounds (that’s nearly two bags of baby carrots), but to get 50 grams of carbs from whole wheat bread, you’d only need to eat two slices. So, the Glycemic Index could be considered accurate in a useful way for whole wheat bread, but not for carrots.

To rectify this problem, researchers in the GI camp created the Glycemic Load, which applied the Index to normal serving sizes of carb-containing foods. This is much more useful, but still has its limitations. For one thing, it still only considers individual foods. Also, method of preparation can vastly alter GI and GL values (any processing or cooking normally makes a food move higher on the Index). Finally, food labels don’t list GI or GL values, so if you really want to pay attention to this, you have to do a lot of research on your own. Might it be worth it to do that research? That largely depends on your dietary concerns.

For individuals diagnosed with or at high risk for Type-2 Diabetes (T2D), the Glycemic Load can be a useful way to keep blood sugar levels and insulin regulation in check. But that’s pretty much where the benefit stops. A 2014 review of relevant research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that following a low-glycemic diet had no effect on BMI, obesity or heart disease. What’s more, the studies reviewed showed a much stronger correlation between BMI and T2D than between GI or GL and T2D. In other words, individuals who ate a high-glycemic diet but who were not overweight were at a relatively low risk for Type-2 Diabetes.

What the study didn’t look at, but what is probably of interest to many of us, is the effect that high- or low-glycemic foods can have on our energy levels. Indeed, eating foods that quickly spike blood sugar levels can be taxing on our bodies’ systems and leave us feeling jittery and then lethargic. So it could be useful to choose lower-glycemic single foods for between-meal snacks. Eating an apple would be much better than eating a cup of fresh pineapple, for example. If you’re interested in seeing where some of your favorites fall, here’s a handy list. Just be sure that you’re comparing like foods when you use the list. The reader’s initial observation, that whole grains tend to be higher on the Glycemic Index, is only true when comparing them to non-grain items. Brown rice, for example has a higher GI and GL than grapefruit or yogurt, but it’s much lower than white rice. Of course, foods without carbohydrate (fish, meat, poultry, oils and other pure fats) have a GI and a GL of zero, so working small amounts of them into your diet can naturally help stabilize blood sugar.

Perhaps the best guidance on Glycemic Index, though, comes from the Mayo Clinic, which advises us to choose foods higher in fiber, such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables and some fruits, and to eat them raw or as minimally processed or cooked as possible. This way, all your meals and snacks will naturally be lower on the Index, giving you a nice, sustained release of energy throughout the day.

Take the Whole Grain Challenge in February

WholeGrains Cold winter nights beg for comfort food, but so many of those meals are low-nutrient calorie bombs, loaded with saturated fats and processed carbs. Luckily, by making a few simple substitutions you can still satisfy your cravings while fueling your body in a much healthier way. Enter whole grains.

Whole grains are pretty much what they sound like – minimally processed complex carbohydrates that still look like they did when they were growing on a stalk. Of course, they’ve all been husked and many have been cut, crushed, roasted or sprouted in order to make them easier to cook and digest, but these grains are about as close to nature as you can get. Nutritionally, they are high in complex carbohydrates and fiber, low in fat and they derive 15% to 20% of their calories from protein. Perhaps more importantly, however, are the culinary benefits of whole grains. Often described as nutty or toothy, whole grains offer a much higher level of satisfaction than even whole grain versions of processed foods like whole grain bread or pasta. Their high fiber content fills you up, while their slow rate of digestion supplies you with a well-regulated supply of energy and makes you feel full longer. So what are some of these magical foods? A few of my favorites include quinoa (technically a seed, but one that acts like a grain), bulgar, wild/brown/red rice, barley and steel cut oats.

If you don’t have much experience cooking with whole grains, you might not know where to start. Cooking times can vary depending on which grain you’re using and what form you buy it in. Barley, for example, can be bought hulled (the closest to the stalk), semi-pearled (lightly processed) or pearled (technically not a whole grain, but still healthier than other processed grains). Pearled barley can cook in about 10 minutes, while hulled barley can take closer to an hour. The same is true of oats. Steel cut oats have been cut, but contain the entire kernel, while rolled oats have been steamed and flattened, losing some of the kernel in the processing. If you buy your whole grains in bulk (not in a bag with cooking instructions) you can find out how to cook them to a nice, chewy consistency at the Whole Grains Council web site. There you’ll find a handy table with amounts and cooking times and a much more extensive list of grains than I’ve mentioned here.

Cooking whole grains is actually easy and doesn’t take that long, but may of us still opt for processed carbs because that’s what we’re used to. So in order to introduce you to cooking with more whole grains, I thought it might be a good time for a challenge. If you took the Rainbow Challenge the week after Thanksgiving, then you know a little bit about how this works, but with the Whole Grain Challenge, instead of trying to cram a bunch of whole grains into one week, I thought it might work better to spread it out over a month and only concentrate on a few whole grains.

February lends itself nicely to a challenge like this because it is exactly four weeks long. So, beginning tomorrow, pick one whole grain for each week in February and try to incorporate it into your meals for that week. There are unlimited recipe resources for whole grain recipes on the web. There are healthy sites like OhSheGlows and ForksOverKinves, which pair whole grains primarily with other whole foods and limit the use of oils and saturated fats, or you can just go to your favorite cooking site (like Epicurious.com) or the Whole Grains Council recipe resource and search for recipes that incorporate whole grains into virtually anything you want to make.

You can actually save a lot of time during the week if you choose a grain and cook up a big batch of it on Sunday, then incorporate it into different meals throughout the week. Most cooked grains will keep in the refrigerator for at least 4 days.

By the numbers the Whole Grain Challenge is this:

1 Month
4 Weeks
4 Different Whole Grains
__ How many different meals will you make?

A Carb is Not a Carb

Carbs As a health coach, one of the most common questions I get asked is whether carbs are good or bad for you. It’s a question that is so open to interpretation that dozens of books and hundreds of scientific articles have been written on the subject. In this post, I’ll suss out the known facts about carbohydrates and give you the straight scoop.

First, it’s important to distinguish between the two common definitions of the term “carbs.” On the one hand, you have the scientific definition: a carbohydrate is a macronutrient consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The various combinations of those elements create different kinds of carbohydrates (simple sugars, starches, complex carbohydrates, etc.), which the body processes in different ways. The second definition is the one more commonly used to refer to that category of foods that derive most of their calories from carbohydrates. I’ll spend a few sentences talking about the scientific use of the term and the rest of the post talking about the more common one.

According to the to the National Institutes of Health, carbohydrates (the scientific definition) are the body’s most important source of energy. As I mentioned in my post about sugar, the brain uses glucose as its primary source of fuel and it needs a ready and constant supply of it in the blood stream because it cannot store glucose the way muscles can. It is estimated that the average adult brain requires about 420 calories-worth of glucose every day. Not only that, but glucose is the only source of fuel for several crucial organs including the kidneys, the lens and cornea of the eye, the red blood cells, and the testes. It’s important to note, however, that not all the glucose our bodies require needs to be ingested as the macronutrient “carbohydrates” – our bodies can convert protein (and some fatty acids) into glucose during a process called gluconeogenesis. That’s not the most efficient way to fuel the body, but it works.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks and turn to the more common use of the word carb: the one that refers to that class of foods that get most of their calories from (the scientific definition of) carbohydrates. These foods cover a broad range across the typical human diet and include things like fruits, vegetables, legumes, breads, pastas, desserts and refined sugars, and many others.

Knowing this, you can see that there isn’t a simple answer to my clients’ question about whether carbs are good or bad. Some carbs are nutrient-dense, high in heart-healthy fiber, a good source of plant-based protein and relatively low in calories. Whole, unprocessed fruits, vegetables and legumes fall into this “A” carb category. Adding more of them to your diet is a great idea not only for weight loss, but also for boosting your immune system, reducing inflammation and possibly even fighting cancer.

Falling a bit further down the “healthiness spectrum” are whole grains and healthier versions of minimally processed foods from the “A” carb list (think tempeh, tofu, 100% whole grain breads and pastas). These foods tend to have fewer nutrients than the healthy carbs, but they still provide some very important ones, and the way your body digests and process these “B” carbs doesn’t place undue strain on the body’s vital organs. A word of caution, though – these carbs tend to be much higher in calories per serving than the “A” carbs, so add them to your diet in moderation. Also, these carbs taste kind of bland on their own, so we tend to dress them up with unhealthy additions – butter or margarine on bread, high-sodium sauces on pasta, rice and tofu, etc.

“C” carbs are those that are more highly processed, but which still retain some nutritive value. Canned fruit, white rice, bread, tortillas and pasta, juices and fruit or vegetable-based sauces (tomato, for example) are some examples. Here you’re getting a lot of calories, and mostly in the form of simple sugars, without getting a lot of nutrients. Often, these foods are also processed with other unhealthy additions, like preservatives, added fats and sodium. (In the case of 100% vegetable juices and sauces made from scratch, the nutrient value is higher, so as long as the sodium content isn’t overly high, these are actually probably “B” carbs.)

“D” carbs are basically junk food, and they are actually “F” carbs when consumed more frequently than once or twice per week. The only reason they don’t get a failing grade is because there is some “substance” paired with the sugar/fat/sodium. Don’t kid yourself, though, regularly indulging in these carbs is just as bad as choosing carbs on the “F” list. Chips, muffins, donuts, cookies and candy are a few examples. They don’t offer your body anything good, and there is plenty that’s bad for you. Ironically, most of  the calories in these “carbs” are often from fat, with processed flour and/or sugar just holding it all together.

“F” carbs work quickly to disrupt your body’s metabolic system. The body is ill equipped to break down these foreign “foods,” resulting in a number of toxic byproducts. Liver disease, kidney failure and diabetes are serious risks if you consume “F” carbs on a regular basis. These include regular sodas, fruit juice with added sugar, and all sweeteners including natural ones (again, see the article on sugar for more details). Basically, adding a sweetener to your coffee or cereal is like putting a little spoonful of poison in it. If you’re careful about the rest of your diet, then a small amount of these won’t kill you, but they certainly aren’t helping you in any way at all.

What about booze? With the exception of some beers (and of course mixed drinks with fatty or sugary additions), most alcoholic beverages derive the majority of their calories from alcohol. If I were to put them in a category, though, I’d say that your first serving is a “D” and anything over one gets an “F.”

To be healthy, to fuel your body for sport and to manage your weight, most of your food should be of the whole variety, with an emphasis on vegetables, fruits and lean proteins. Simply put, carbs are only as good or as bad as the choices you make.