Sugars and Sweeteners and Substitutes, Oh My!

Plain and simple, added sugar is the single worst ingredient in the modern diet. I think by now we all understand the serious risks that sugar consumption poses to our health. Okay, but in all seriousness: we can’t go through life without satisfying our sweet tooth! So what’s the alternative?

As awareness of sugar’s harmful effects increases, so does the marketing for other “healthy” sugars, sweeteners and substitutes. So can we keep the sweet without the sick? Does “healthy” sugar really exist? Are artificial sweeteners safe to use? Or is it all just a ploy contributing to more consumer confusion? Take off your blind folds people, because In this post I break down the most popular sugars, sweeteners and substitutes. Take a read and decide for yourselves:

Agave Nectar

The sweet nectar of a medicinal plant- harmless right? Although it is marketed as being natural and a healthier alternative to regular cane sugar, agave nectar is just as bad for you if not worse. Here’s why: agave nectar is made using a harsh manufacturing process that destroys all of the health promoting properties of the Agave plant. Agave is also about 85% fructose (regular sugar is about 50% fructose). Our bodies are only equipped to handle fructose in small amounts and an excess of fructose contributes to a whole slew of health problems including insulin resistance, belly fat accumulation, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. My recommendation is to avoid agave nectar as you would regular table sugar.

Coconut Sugar

The manufacturing method of coconut sugar is very natural. Coconut sugar even contains some fiber and a few nutrients. In addition, it only contains 35-45% fructose, which is slightly less than regular cane sugar. With all this being said, coconut sugar can be considered a better choice than cane sugar- just keep in mind that doesn’t make it “healthy”- it’s still sugar!

Honey

Similar to coconut sugar, honey is slightly less harmful than regular sugar. It’s entirely natural and even contains antioxidants and small amounts of vitamins and minerals, which is a plus. But it’s still sugar- so consume it in moderation.

Maple Syrup

Pure Maple syrup is 100% natural and contains a decent amount of minerals and antioxidants, but it is still very high in sugar. Maple syrup is a less harmful alternative to regular table sugar, but as will any sugar, don’t over-do it. (Keep in mind we’re talking about pure maple syrup here, not Mrs Butterworth’s)

Artificial Sweeteners

These include but are not limited to aspartame, neotame, sucralose and saccharin. You may know them better as Equal, Sweet ‘n Low and Splenda. What all of these have in common is that they are artificial- they are made from chemicals. The pros to these sweeteners is that they contain zero calories and they don’t have the harmful metabolic effects of sugar (which is why they are often recommended for diabetics). The use of them remains highly controversial though and they haven’t been proven to be entirely safe. The bottom line is they are chemicals, so I personally do not use or recommend them for the average individual.

Stevia

Stevia is the best of both worlds: it is 100% natural AND contains zero calories. Too good to be true? Nope! Current research confirms that stevia is perfectly safe and even has a number of health benefits. All of these things make stevia an excellent alternative to sugar and artificially made sweeteners. You can buy stevia in liquid or powder form and use it to sweeten anything from beverages to baked goods. Just look for a brand that has no unnatural additives. (*tip: different brands also tend to taste different so try to read reviews or get recommendations of ones that taste the best)

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol are the other natural sweeteners. They are lower in calories than regular sugar and have a few health benefits, but can’t quite hold a candle to stevia. When consumed in high doses they can also cause digestive problems so I usually don’t heavily promote them.

Take away message: Sugar is sugar. Your body digests all sugar the same way and doesn’t care whether it’s “natural”  or not. Some natural forms of sugar like honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup offer nutrients and antioxidants and are lower in fructose than regular cane sugar making them “less bad” options. You may benefit from replacing regular cane sugar in your diet with natural sugars like honey, coconut sugar or maple syrup, but ALL sugar should be consumed in moderation. Artificial sweeteners like Equal, Sweet ‘n Low and Splenda are zero calorie alternatives to sugar, but the question remains whether or not consuming these chemicals is entirely safe. I tend to stay away from them for that very reason. Sugar alcohols act as natural sweeteners and are lower in calories than regular sugar, but consuming to much of them can cause digestive issues. Stevia is a natural sweetener with no calories and is not only proven to be safe, but to have several health benefits as well. In conclusion, If you want to sweeten something, stevia is your best bet. Followed by natural sugars like honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup when used sparingly.

Salad Sabotage: The Truth About Salad Dressing

Most people hear the word salad and automatically think “healthy.” Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. In fact, more often than not, it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, salads have the potential to be one of the world’s healthiest and most well-balanced meals. A heaping pile of fresh fruits and veggies topped with lean protein, a little bit of dairy, and some healthy fat? This is what dietitians’ dreams are made of! How could you go possibly go wrong? The problem is, we’re smothering this should-be nutritious meal with unhealthy trans fats, sugar, chemicals and other harmful additives when we use store-bought salad dressing.

Most store bought salad dressings are made with highly refined oils that are full of harmful trans fats. As always, the truth lies in the ingredients so turn the bottle around and read. The following oils should be avoided: canola oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, grape seed oil & cottonseed oil. You may be wondering how an oil made from seeds and vegetables could be bad for you. The problem isn’t the seeds and vegetables themselves- its HOW the oils are derived from them. The process creates trans fats and they are extremely detrimental to your health.

Sugar is another popular ingredient in store bought salad dressings. Sugar can be disguised using about 60 different names on food labels so use the guidelines in my blog post Identifying Hidden Sugar to make sure you’re familiar with all of them.

Lastly, the components of salad dressings are not designed to be in a perfect emulsion nor should they be shelf stable for years. Nothing a solid dose of chemicals, preservatives, stabilizing agents and sweeteners can’t take care of!

Here are a few other harmful additives to avoid:

Disodium Guanylate

Disodium Inosinate

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Calcium Disodium EDTA

Gums

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Okay, I feel your frustration. But there’s good news!! I have been enjoying salads for years and haven’t purchased a single salad dressing! First of all there are several ways to dress your salad without using salad dressing at all. A few of my favorite alternatives are: guacamole, salsa, cottage cheese, hummus, olive oil & lemon and olive oil & vinegar. If you’re still not convinced to ditch your dressing, here are some simple, healthy recipes that may mimic a few of your bottled favorites:

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Honey Mustard

(6 servings, 24 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
½ cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
1 ½ Tbsp yellow OR dijon mustard
1 Tbsp honey

Directions:
1.Whisk ingredients together until well combined.

Refrigerate for 1 hour before serving.

*Works well as a dressing, dip, or spread

Ranch (8 servings, 20-25 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
2/3 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
3 Tbsp parsley
1 tsp dill
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1 clove garlic (or ½ tsp minced garlic)
¼-½ cup buttermilk
Salt & pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Stir together all ingredients (except for buttermilk) in a bowl. Slowly add buttermilk until desired consistency is reached. For the best flavor, refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.

Ceasar (10 servings, 40 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
¾ cup 2% plain Greek yogurt
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
5 anchovies
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove
½ tsp dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Combine all ingredients in food processor and blend until smooth. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving.

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Tzatziki

(8 servings, 15 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
¾ cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt (I highly recommend using Fage it gives the perfect thick and creamy consistency)
1 clove garlic (or 1/2 tsp minced garlic)
½ baby cucumber (about 4”)
1 Tbsp dill

Directions:
1. Cut cucumber in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds using a spoon (no need to peel)
2. Add all ingredients to a food processor and mix until well combined and desired consistency is reached (I like mine chunky).
*Makes a great veggie dip or salad dressing. Leave out the cucumber and experiment with different herbs and spices for limitless creamy herb salad dressing options.

Balsamic Vinaigrette (6 servings, 120 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup white or regular balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, crushed (or ½ tsp minced garlic)
½ tsp ground mustard
1 Tbsp Honey (*optional- if you like sweeter vinaigrettes)
Salt & Pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Whisk ingredients together in a bowl.

Keep in Mind:
1. These salad dressings do not contain preservatives like bottled dressings from the store. They will last 1week in your refrigerator so only make what you plan to use.
2. There aren’t any chemicals or additives in these dressings keeping the ingredients in a perfect emulsion. It is normal for ingredients to separate, just shake or whisk well before using.

Happy Eating!

Multi Billion Dollar Supplement Industry: Is It Worth All the Hype?

As a dietitian, I am often asked for my opinion on using protein powders, shakes and other nutrition supplements so I’ve decided to share my response with everyone.

Nutrition supplements can be an excellent addition to a well-balanced diet and are sometimes necessary for individuals to meet specific nutrient needs. It almost sickens me though how heavily nutrition supplements are marketed- with promises of leaner bodies, longer hair and younger looking skin- it leaves the average health-conscious consumer feeling like they need to be taking x, y, and z supplements in order to be healthy. So, before you spend hundreds of dollars on supplements and choke a handful of pills down with your post-workout muscle milk, take a few minutes to evaluate whether or not you really need them. Here are a few things everyone should understand about nutrition supplements:

1. Supplements Are Designed to Supplement

Supplements are not meant to be your sole source of nutrients- food is. Supplements were designed to help close a nutritional gap and treat deficiencies. For example, someone who is lactose intolerant may need to take supplemental Calcium + Vitamin D and probiotics. Similarly, someone who is vegan may want to drink a daily protein shake and take Vitamin B12- to supplement what may be lacking in their diet. We should aim to meet our daily nutrient needs with food by eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, meat, seafood and dairy. When in-tolerances and allergies get in the way of your ability to do this, you should take a supplement to ensure you are giving your body what it needs.

*The majority of our population has inadequate intakes of essential vitamins and minerals and can benefit from taking a daily multivitamin.

2. You Can NOT “Make Up” For a Bad Diet with Supplements

The majority of your nutrition needs to come from whole foods. The reason for this is because whole, healthy foods contain tens of thousands of phytochemicals, proteins, fiber, and fats that work together as a whole. This concept simply cannot be replicated into a pill or supplement form. The bottom line is that a poor diet made up of processed foods, refined sugar and grains CANNOT be counteracted with supplements. There are no short cuts here…eat whole, natural, nutrient dense foods and supplement as needed.

3. Supplements Can Be Dangerous

Just like everything else we put into our bodies, we need to be careful when taking supplements. For starters, there are many nutrients that we can overdose on so make sure you are not taking more than the recommended amount of any supplement unless under the care of a licensed health care professional and instructed to do so. Secondly, there aren’t a lot of regulations when it comes to what goes into nutrition supplements. Many contain toxic ingredients, chemicals, dyes, fillers and other unwanted additives- you know, a lot of the same crap that shows up in our food supply. So do your research, read your labels and get your questions answered before purchasing a supplement. Symmetry Global is one company that I recommend for high-quality nutritional products backed by years of research, development and extensive laboratory testing. I have been using their products for years.

4. Protein Shouldn’t Taste Like a Double Fudge Brownie

If you hate meat, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, nuts and legumes and your favorite dessert-flavored protein shake is the ONLY way you’re going to get your protein in, then by all means drink it. What I want to bring to everyone’s attention (especially those of you who believe drinking a daily protein shake is going to make you “healthy”) is that many protein powders, shakes and bars on the market today are so full of sugar you might as well just eat a slice of cake. In addition to the sugar and extra calories often comes chemicals, dyes and other unwanted ingredients. Have you ever read the ingredient label on your protein supplement… let alone try to pronounce it? Bottom line is adding the dessert flavored protein products may be doing you more harm than good. With all that being said, there are protein products that I highly recommend and use. Both Tera’s Whey and The Naked Co. are companies that specialize in all natural, certified organic protein powders with no added sugar, chemicals or artificial ingredients. They contain few, pronounceable ingredients and taste delicious.

Take away message: Although you should aim to nourish your body with nutrients from whole foods, I understand that is not possible for everyone. I am a supporter of nutrition supplements, but it is important to remember that meeting nutrient needs with a supplement does not give you a free pass to eat potato chips and ice cream for dinner. You should not replace food with supplements. Rather, focus on meeting your nutrient needs with foods first and supplement your diet as needed. When choosing a supplement make sure you do your research and ask questions to ensure you are selecting a high quality one. If you are unsure whether or not you should be taking a supplement talk to registered dietitian.

Boost Your Health: Eat More like a Mediterranean

May is National Mediterranean Diet Month and what better way to celebrate than being fully immersed in the Mediterranean way of life? My husband and I will be doing just that as we spend the next 3 weeks traveling Italy and Greece. If you have ever visited any of the countries around the Mediterranean Sea then you know that the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. (If you haven’t, you can see for yourself in a few pictures I’ve included from our last trip to Greece). It’s hard to say what’s better- the bright blue waters, gorgeous sunny beaches and towering beach-side cliffs…or the FOOD! The food is so bright, fresh and flavorful; offering the best of both worlds- taste AND nutrition. What’s more? The Mediterranean diet is more than just great cuisine- mealtime is used to relax, talk and spend quality time with friends and family. Sounds like a great means to a healthy and happy lifestyle to me! Turns out, research agrees. Numerous studies have linked Mediterranean-style eating patterns to several health benefits.

Studies show that adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with weight loss, a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke, a reduction in overall mortality- especially from heart disease and cancer and reduced rates of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Type 2 Diabetes. Bottom line- there is a wealth of evidence that eating like a Mediterranean is beneficial for your health.

So what are the foods and flavors that make up this remarkable way of eating?

The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes eating primarily plant-based foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables are staples- as are whole grains, legumes and nuts. Residents of Greece average six or more servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables per day. The average American consumes between two and three servings, or less than half of that. (Yikes!) The grains consumed in this part of the world are typically whole, fresh, and minimally processed- free of trans-fats and artificial preservatives. They are also enjoyed plain or dipped in olive oil rather than spread with butter or margarine. This brings me to another key component of the Mediterranean diet, which is healthy fat- primarily from olive oil, but also olives, nuts, seeds and avocado. Fish and seafood are also eaten on a regular basis in the Mediterranean diet, whereas red meat is eaten sparingly and in small (aka recommended 3-4 ounce) portions. Poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt, are consumed in moderate portions on a daily to weekly basis. Dessert is usually fruit and sweets are only eaten occasionally. Red wine is enjoyed in moderation (one glass for women, one to two for men), but water is the go-to drink. The preparation of foods in the Mediterranean diet is also important to address- almost nothing is processed, deep fried, or contains preservatives. For all of these reasons and more, other parts of the world are starting to take notice as research identifies the Mediterranean diet as one of the healthiest ways to eat.

Here are 10 tips to help you eat more like a Mediterranean:

  1. Load up on fruits and vegetables!! Aim to get at least 3 servings of each per day.
  2. Swap out butter, margarine and refined vegetable/seed oils for heart healthy extra virgin olive oil.
  3. DRINK WATER and enjoy red wine in moderation (optional).
  4. Choose fresh, whole grains that are minimally processed and free of preservatives.
  5. Make meat the garnish on your plate and not the centerpiece. Focus on vegetables, fruit, legumes and nuts.
  6. Eat fish/seafood twice a week and consume red meat sparingly.
  7. Season foods with herbs and spices instead of salt.
  8. For dessert, eat fresh fruit.
  9. Enjoy dairy products like plain Greek yogurt and fresh cheeses- just don’t go overboard.
  10. Eat slowly and in good company- take the time to enjoy your food and surround yourself with friends and family (and when possible beautiful scenery). 

8 So-Called “Health” Foods That Aren’t Necessarily Healthy

If you haven’t figured out already, there is a lot of nutrition nonsense out there. Savvy marketing and false health claims are to blame for most of the confusion. Unfortunately there aren’t many regulations on the labeling and marketing of foods. Therefore, many consumers shop under the spell of food manufacturers who have found several ways of promoting their products as “healthy” which in many cases is absolutely not true. Here are 8 foods and beverages commonly believed to be healthy that may actually be harmful to your health:

1. Vitamin Water. The first 3 ingredients listed on a product make up the majority of what’s in it. Ingredients 2 and 3 (after water) on every flavor of this popular “health” drink are sugar…and sugar. If you’re drinking Vitamin water for the nutrition benefits, you may want to reconsider. You’re better off taking a multivitamin and drinking regular water. Better yet? Focus on getting these essential vitamins and minerals from real food.

2. Granola. Although granola does offer a decent amount of fiber and typically contains more protein than the average breakfast cereal, it’s often very high in sugar and calories. If you’re a granola lover read labels carefully to avoid loads of added sugar and stick with the recommended portion sizes (which are usually pretty small). Using a small amount of granola as a topping on fruit or yogurt is usually the best bet.

3. Sports Drinks. These are drinks fortified with electrolytes and marketed as an essential part of your post workout recovery. It is very important to re-hydrate after exercise and it is equally important to maintain normal electrolyte balance. But the body loses water a lot faster than electrolytes so drinking regular water is usually good enough for the average person.  Unless you’re someone with a very high sweat rate, are working out vigorously in extreme heat or suffer from frequent muscle cramps, it is usually unnecessary to replenish electrolytes during workouts lasting less than an hour. Sipping on a sports drink can actually offset your workout by providing unnecessary calories (usually from sugar) that you just worked so hard to burn off.

4. Salads. This is a tricky one. Salads can and should be insanely healthy offering fiber and essential nutrients found in vegetables and fruit. The problem lies in the toppings, dressings and other add-ons that can quickly pack on unnecessary sugar and calories. Carefully read labels of salad dressings as these are often high in sugar, chemicals and other unwanted additives- especially the fat-free ones! Make your own dressing at home or use oil and vinegar instead. Other healthy alternatives to traditional dressing are cottage cheese, fresh salsa or guacamole. Toppings you should avoid or use in small amounts are: cheese, bacon, croutons or crispy noodles, candied nuts and dried fruit. Aim for a variety of fruits and vegetables, add lean protein and some healthy fat- such as raw nuts, avocado or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

5. Smoothies. Although they may seem like a delicious way to get in recommended fruit servings, some smoothies can pack the same amount of calories and sugar as a milkshake. On top of it, studies show beverages are less filling than whole foods. If you’re a smoothie lover, make your own or look for those made with whole fruit and no added sugar.

6. Energy Bars. Although these popular snacks can provide protein and fiber, they are also typically highly processed and high in sugar and calories. As with everything, read your labels! More often than not you’re better off opting for real food. Equally convenient alternatives are a piece of fruit with nut butter, plain Greek yogurt topped with berries or raw nuts, string cheese, cottage cheese or veggie sticks with hummus.

7. Diet Soda. No calories and no sugar so it must be good for you right? Wrong! Diet sodas are loaded with harmful chemicals, dyes and artificial sweeteners. Studies show that drinking diet soda is associated with kidney problems, metabolic syndrome, weight gain, cell damage, tooth decay and reproductive issues (to name a few). Avoid it at all costs.

8. Low-fat Foods. Low fat almost inevitably means “high sugar.”  Many people still equate low fat in their food to lower fat on their body but this is simply not accurate. Eating fat does NOT make you fat! In fact, refined grains and sugars are more likely to cause weight gain. Low-fat foods are typically laden with sugar, artificial sweeteners and other unwanted additives that are harmful to our health. Low-fat dairy (milk, cottage cheese, yogurt) can be an exception to this, but always, always, ALWAYS read your labels to be sure!

Take away message: Things are not always as they seem. Food is no exception. Ignore the “health” claims made on the front of any food package. Instead, turn the package around and read the ingredients. Opt for products with short lists of easy-to-pronounce ingredients. Use the guidelines in my blog post Identifying Hidden Sugar to avoid added sugar as much as possible. If partially-hydrogenated oil- of any kind- shows up on your ingredient list, this means is contains trans fats- safely place the item back on the shelf and walk away. Your best bet is always to focus on eating fresh, whole, natural foods that don’t require a nutrition label at all.

An Everyday Task that is Harming Your Health

Sweat is associated with body odor and no one wants to smell right? Hence, applying deodorant or antiperspirant has become a non-negotiable part of every Americans daily hygiene regimen. In fact, I am willing to bet that most of you haven’t gone a day without wearing it since reaching puberty! Would you believe me if I told you I haven’t worn deodorant or antiperspirant in over 2 years? (And I don’t smell)! I made this change after learning about the harmful ingredients found in most deodorants and antiperspirants and the health risks associated with them.

First of all, it is important to know that sweating is a natural and very necessary bodily function. Sweat is the body’s way of cooling itself down and eliminating toxins and impurities. It’s also important to know that sweat glands aren’t only for excreting waste from our bodies, they are highly absorbent too! Thus, what we put ON our body, usually ends up IN our body. And possibly the most surprising fact that I’ll share with you about sweating? Sweat itself does NOT smell! Body odor is actually caused by festering bacteria on our skin. Regardless, body odor is a very real thing and the universal solution has been regular underarm application of an anti-stink stick most of us would refer to as deodorant or antiperspirant.

Although the words “deodorant” and “antiperspirant” are often used interchangeably, it is important to address the fact that there is a huge difference between the two. Deodorant is designed to deodorize- aka cover up the pungent smell that can often occur in underarm areas. Some also have anti-bacterial properties to fight off odor-causing bacteria in an attempt to prevent the smell from occurring in the first place. Antiperspirants, on the other hand are designed to clog, close or block underarm pores with aluminum in order to prevent sweat, or perspiration.  This effectively changes the function and physiology of the body, classifying antiperspirants as a drug. Most deodorants on the market today are antiperspirants. Either way, if you’re using traditional deodorant or antiperspirant, you are most likely lathering several toxic chemicals and harmful ingredients directly into one of the most absorbent parts of your body.

Aluminum and parabens found in most deodorants and antiperspirants may be a risk factor for the development of breast cancer. Another common ingredient- Propylene glycol- is a neurotoxin known to cause contact dermatitis, kidney damage, and liver damage.TEA, DEA, Triclosan, FD&C Colors and Talc are more popular ingredients that are known to have carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects and may disrupt critical hormone systems and cause allergic skin reactions.

The good news is that there are better ways to tackle offensive body odor! So let’s talk alternatives. Several plant oils and extracts contain their very own antibacterial powers and lovely fragrances so in theory you can make your own deodorant- and the internet is flooded with recipes. If you’re not feeling that ambitious, here are a few of my favorite natural products:

Primally Pure makes a natural deodorant from all organic ingredients safe enough to eat. It works really well and comes in 5 scents including lemongrass and lavender.

Mineral salt is another option. It’s typically sold in a rock form and is completely odorless, gentle and fights odor by naturally killing bacteria. Thai and Crystal are two popular brands. Both can be found online or at any health store.

Baking Soda and Baby Powder are other popular alternatives.

Keep in mind that adjusting to 100% natural deodorant may take some time. The more you use it the better it works. Allow your body a couple of weeks to adjust. (During which time you may need to wash more often). It’s also important to note that the foods you consume play a huge role in body odor too. Eating toxic foods may cause you to produce a sour or more pungent smell whereas eating clean, natural foods is more likely to produce minimal smell or a slightly sweet scent.

Take away message: A healthy lifestyle is multifaceted- we must pay attention to every aspect of our lives and make decisions in the best interest of our whole selves.

5 Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Your Health

Contrary to what social norms may have you believe, a healthy lifestyle does not require growing your own food, shopping at expensive health stores, hiring personal trainers or spending hours in the kitchen! These are simply choices that some heath conscious individuals make. There are plenty of ways to be healthy that can fit into your personal life and meet your individual needs. Stop letting what others choose to do discourage or intimidate you. Being healthy looks different for everyone. With that being said, here are a few simple things just about anyone can do to improve their health:

1. Drink More Water: Your life depends on it. About 2/3 of our bodies are made up of water and every single one of our cells relies on water to function. Water increases metabolism, aides in digestion, prevents constipation, optimizes nutrient absorption, regulates body temperature, improves the immune system, helps flush out toxins, improves brain function, wards off illness and helps us look younger. Want to kick your water up a notch? Squeeze a slice of lemon or lime into it for added antioxidant benefits.

2. Eat More Fruits and Vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are packed with water, fiber, essential vitamins and minerals. They also contain phytonutrients that help your body fight off illness and can prevent chronic disease and cancer. Try to eat at least 3 servings of each per day and aim for a variety of colors.

3. Go for a Walk. Our bodies were made to move. Regular physical activity is one of the most important things we can do for our health. Walking alone can help us control our body weight, prevent chronic disease and cancer, improve our mental health and mood, strengthen our muscles and bones and relieve stress.  Get up and move every day. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity 5 x per week. It may be easier for you to divide your daily active time into two or three segments of 10-15 minutes. Remember, being active doesn’t require a trip to the gym!! Go for a walk on your lunch break or alternate doing jumping jacks, burpees and mountain climbers during the commercial breaks of your favorite evening television show. Whatever you need to do to get your heart rate up, do it.

4. Drink Tea. Tea is a healthy beverage that is high in antioxidants and offers many health benefits (if you skip the cream and sugar). Brew your tea for at least 3 – 5 minutes to bring out beneficial polyphenols.

5. Smile More. Smiling releases endorphins which can improve our mood, decrease stress and temporarily relieve pain. Smiling can also lower our risk of illness and disease by improving immune function and lowering blood pressure.

How to Eat Healthy on the Road

Our bags are packed and my husband and I are headed to Paris for the weekend! Preparing for a 4 hour drive in each direction, I took the liberty of packing some car snacks. In fact, food is usually the first -and last thing I think about when traveling…okay, always. All I ever think about is food. Staying on track when traveling is difficult to do 100% of the time and to be honest, I choose not to! But in anticipation of the fresh local pastries, salted caramel crepes and decadent European chocolates and macaroons I will find in Paris, I am choosing NOT to go off track for a fast food cheeseburger or a truck stop slurpee. Call me crazy, but I like to say I choose my indulgences wisely.  Here are a few tips that can help you do the same:

Pack Healthy Snacks

Your packing list shouldn’t just include your toothbrush, toiletries and an extra pair of underwear… Whether you’re catching a quick flight or planning a ten hour road trip, you should plan to pack healthy snacks. Options on the road are often limited to drive-thru windows and corner store gas stations, so take the extra time to pack something nutritious. Examples of healthy, on-the-road snacks are raw veggies and hummus, string cheese, fresh and dried fruit, yogurt, nuts, granola, and hard boiled eggs. Another one of my favorite snacks to pack, which you will see pictured above, are my 3 Ingredient Chocolate Almond Truffles. (*fun fact: I have never had a problem getting through airport security with a “sack lunch” and I have been known to eat all of the above during my flights*)

Choose Your Stops Wisely

When you’re on the road and deciding where to stop to replenish, choose wisely. If you stop for fast food, your options are limited to fast food. Instead, stop at a supermarket or grocery store that has a salad bar or whole, healthy food options.

Drink Water

Do not avoid drinking water in order to make fewer rest stops. Water is essential during travel to keep you hydrated. It will also help you avoid travel lag and junk-food cravings.

Coffee: Should You be Drinking It?

In this post I shed light on yet another controversial health topic: COFFEE. Coffee has been demonized for decades. Recent studies, however, are finding it may belong in the same category as healthy beverages like green tea. Therein the question lies- Should you be drinking it? My hope is to provide you with enough information about coffee to help you make an educated decision that is in your best interest.

First, let’s take a look at some benefits to drinking coffee…

Antioxidants

Coffee contains a small amount of several essential vitamins and minerals, which can add up over time, but where coffee really excels is in it’s high antioxidant content. Coffee is the number one source of antioxidants for the average American. I’m not saying coffee the best source of antioxidants, but it is the source the average person consuming a typical Western diet is most likely to get them from. (Which really just speaks poorly of our fruit and vegetable consumption!) Regardless, it’s high antioxidant content has linked coffee to a number of health benefits. Studies have shown that coffee drinkers have a significantly lower risk of developing depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Type 2 Diabetes, cirrhosis and liver cancer. Given that coffee drinkers have a reduced risk of many deadly diseases, some studies are even saying drinking coffee can help you live longer.

Caffeine

As you probably already know, caffeine is the active ingredient in coffee. Something you may not know is that this stimulant does more than just keep you awake. Caffeine has positive affects on brain function and metabolism too. Many controlled trials have shown that caffeine can improve memory, mood, energy levels, reaction time and overall cognitive function. Caffeine also boosts metabolism, improves athletic performance and is one of the very few natural substances that has been proven to increase fat burning.

Although these benefits may be enough to classify coffee as a true health tonic, it is important to discuss the negative aspects of coffee as well…

Caffeine

Even though I just got done discussing the many benefits of caffeine consumption, too much caffeine can be problematic. Unwanted side effects of caffeine consumption include jitteriness, anxiety, heart palpitations and difficulty sleeping. Caffeine is also an addictive substance. As you consume it regularly you can become tolerant to it. Caffeine can stop working the way it used to or a higher dose may be required to receive the same desired benefits. When regular consumers refrain from drinking coffee, they can experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches, drowsiness, and irritability.

Other Considerations

Certain people should avoid drinking coffee or severely limit their consumption. These include women who are pregnant or nursing and people with anxiety issues, high blood pressure or suffering from insomnia. And something EVERY coffee drinker needs to consider is how they’re drinking it. Believe it or not, the BIGGEST problem coffee poses lies in what we add to it. Store bought sweetened creamers are laden with sugar, chemicals and harmful trans fats. Similarly, some specialty drinks from our local coffee shop contain sugar and calories equivalent to eating a row of Oreos for breakfast! These are NOT healthy and will counteract any health benefit your coffee offered in the first place. If you are someone who can’t enjoy coffee unless it tastes like your favorite dessert, I urge you to try one of these alternatives: Drink your coffee black or switch to caffeinated tea, buy coffee that is already flavored, flavor your coffee with coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk or cream, add cinnamon, nutmeg or other spices and if you really can’t live without sweetened coffee creamer, there are coffee creamers on the market that are trans fat and chemical free. I know Nestle has a line called “natural bliss” because my mother-in-law uses it.

My Personal Opinion

If you’re a coffee drinker and enjoy it without any negative side effects, there is no reason to stop. For most people, the health benefits of drinking coffee seem to far outweigh the risks. If you are not a coffee drinker on the other hand, I don’t think this evidence is good enough reason to start. I personally do not like the idea of being dependent on something, so although I do drink coffee, I consume very little of it. I am fairly sensitive to caffeine so a few ounces of coffee in the morning is enough to energize me for the entire day. Seriously, one 20 ounce black coffee will last me an entire week. Coffee is addictive and extremely habit forming and for that reason some days I simply choose not to drink it. I only drink it if I feel I “need” it. If you drink coffee, I encourage you to find a system that works best for you. For healthy adults with no medical issues, consuming 300mg-400mg of caffeine (or two to three 8-ounce cups of coffee) each day is thought to be safe. I would encourage you not to exceed this safe limit. But, as always, my best advice to you is to listen to your body and determine a comfortable limit for you.

The Healing Power of Sleep

Sleep better, live better. It’s as simple as that.

Hundreds of studies have proven the importance of getting enough sleep, but how much is enough? It is recommended that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Much more or much less than that can put your health at serious risk. For those of you who claim to be “too busy” for adequate sleep, I’m willing to bet there may be some television or computer screen time that can be sacrificed in order to squeeze in an extra hour or two of shut eye each night. The bottom line is that sleep is essential for every aspect of our health: mind, body and soul. It’s not something you want to skimp on and here’s why:

Healthy Mind

Quality sleep is vital for learning, memory, focus, attention and decision making. When we sleep our minds are able to process our day and make memories and connections during a process called consolidation. Adequate sleep also keeps us alert, thinking clearly and ready to seize the day!

Healthy Body

Our hormones, immune system and metabolism are all affected by sleep. Inadequate sleep suppresses our immune function making our bodies more vulnerable to infection. Getting enough sleep will help fight off colds, the flu and other illnesses. Sleep deprivation also causes an increase in inflammation in our bodies. Chronic inflammation is the cause of common aches and pains and has been linked to things such as heart attack, diabetes and stroke. Lastly, inadequate sleep affects metabolism. When we are sleep deprived certain hormones increase in our blood, which drive appetite and can lead to weight gain. Our bodies are much happier and perform more efficiently when they are well rested.

Healthy Soul

Adequate sleep can help reduce stress and support emotional stability. Getting enough sleep won’t guarantee a sunny disposition, but I think we all know that being overtired is when we’re most likely to be cranky. Insufficient sleep has also been shown to contribute to depression. Basically, you’re in an all around better mood when you get enough sleep.