Super Foods: Do They Need to be Exotic?

Written by: on Sunday, September 7th, 2014
turrmeric

Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammtory long used in Chinese and Indian systems of medicine. The yellow or orange pigment in turmeric is curcumin.

Do you ever get tired of reading yet-another headline about The 10 Best Super Foods, only be instructed to buy exotic fruits, ancient grains, and other unusual items? Do we really need chia, spelt, and quinoa? Is anything wrong with old-fashioned peanut butter, broccoli, and brown rice? Doubtful! Powerful nutrients are found in standard foods that are readily available at a reasonable cost. You know, oranges, bananas, berries, oatmeal, almonds, hummus, lowfat yogurt, brown rice, tuna … basic, wholesome foods. Are those foods exotic? No. But do they still do a great job of offering super nutrition? Yes!

To add to the confusion about exotic foods, the sports food industry touts their list of engineered super sports supplements. Ads lead you to believe you really need to buy these products to support your athletic performance. The question arises: Are there really special nutrients or components of food that can help athletes to go faster, higher or stronger? If so, can they be consumed in the form of whole foods or do we actually need special commercial supplements?

At a 2014 meeting of Professionals in Nutrition for Exercise and Sport (PINESNutrition.org), exercise researchers from around the globe discussed that topic and provided answers to these questions:

Cup of coffee

Coffee is also rich in health-promoting antioxidants.

Is there any difference between consuming pre-exercise caffeine in the form of pills, gels or coffee?

Regardless of the source of caffeine (pill, gel, coffee), it is a popular way to enhance athletic performance. Take note: High doses of caffeine (2.5 to 4 mg/lb body weight; 6 to 9 mg/kg) are no better than the amount athletes typically consume in a cup or two of coffee (1.5 mg/lb; 3 mg/kg). Hence, drinking an extra cup of coffee is unlikely to be advantageous, particularly when consumed later in the day before an afternoon workout, which is when it ends up interfering with evening sleep!

Do tart (Montmorency) cherries offer any benefits to sports performance? If so, what’s the best way to consume them?

Tart cherries (and many other deeply colored fruits and veggies) are rich in health-protective antioxidants and polyphenols. Tart cherries can reduce inflammation, enhance post-exercise recovery, repair muscles, reduce muscle soreness, and improve sleep. Athletes who are training hard, participating in tournaments, or traveling through time zones might be wise to enjoy generous portions. Yet, to get the recommended dose of cherries that researchers use to elicit benefits, you would need to eat 90 to 110 cherries twice a day for seven days pre-event. Most athletes prefer to swig a shot of tart cherry juice concentrate instead! (One study found that drinking 8 ounces of tart cherry juice twice daily helped insomniacs sleep 84 more minutes per night than when given a placebo juice.)

Blueberries

Colorful fruits like blueberries are rich in antioxidants called polyphenols as well as other nutrients; organic is always best.

What about food polyphenols such as quercetin and resveratrol?

Polyphenols are colorful plant compounds that are linked with good health when they are consumed in whole foods. Yet, polyphenol supplements, such as quercetin or resveratrol, don’t offer the same positive antioxidant or anti-inflammatory benefits. An explanation might be that once in the colon, where most polyphenols go, parts leak into the bloodstream during heavy exercise. These smaller compounds create the anti-inflammatory effect. Athletes who routinely eat colorful fruits during endurance training offer their gut the opportunity to distribute good health!

Does curcumin reduce chronic inflammation?

Curcumin (an active constituent of turmeric, the spice that gives the yellow color to curry and mustard) has beneficial properties that have been shown to help prevent cancer, enhance eye health, and reduce inflammation. Subjects with osteoarthritis (an inflammatory condition) who took curcumin supplements for 8 months reported less pain (due to less inflammation) and better quality of life. Unfortunately, curcumin is rapidly metabolized and therefore has low bioavailability when consumed in the diet. To increase absorption, supplements often contain curcumin combined with piperine (black pepper extract).

Green tea is rich in catechins, antioxidants that fight and may even prevent cell damage.

Green tea is rich in catechins, antioxidants that fight and may even prevent cell damage.

Does green tea help improve body composition? What is the best way to take it?

Green tea reportedly enhances fat oxidation and helps with weight loss, particularly when combined with caffeine. But the amount of additional fat burned is minimal, and the 10 to 12 cups of green tea needed to create any effect is a bit overwhelming. (Hence, most studies use a green tea extract.) Because green tea has not been studied in lean athletes, we can only guess that it is unlikely to offer a significant improvement in body composition.

Is watermelon juice a powerful stimulant for sports performance?

Watermelon juice is a source of L-citrulline, an amino acid that contributes to production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps relax the blood vessels and thus enhances blood flow so more oxygen can get transported to the working muscles. One study with athletes who consumed L-citrulline supplements reports they attained a 7% higher peak power output as compared to when they exercised without L-citrulline.

slices of watermelon

Watermelon contains about 250 millligrams of citrulline per cup.

Yet, when athletes were given watermelon juice (contains L-citrulline) or apple juice (that has no L-citrulline), the peak power was only slightly higher and the L-citrulline gave no significant benefits. The bottom line: Watermelon is a nourishing fruit and a welcome refreshment for thirsty athletes. You would need to eat a lot of watermelon to get the equivalent of L-citrulline found in (expensive) supplements. Your best bet is to enjoy watermelon in standard portions as a tasty addition to your diet.

What can be done with pea, hemp, or other plant protein to make them as effective as whey for building muscle?

In general, plants (such as peas, hemp) contain less leucine than found in animal proteins. Leucine helps drive the muscle’s ability to make new protein. Hence, to increase the muscle-building properties of plant proteins, you need to either eat large portions of, let’s say, hemp or pea protein (to get a bigger dose of leucine), or you can combine those plant-foods with leucine-rich proteins, such as soy, egg, or dairy foods.

The bottom line: Your best bet to optimize performance is to optimize your total diet. No amount of any supplement will compensate for lousy eating, though a few just might enhance a proper diet.

5 Best Foods for Moms—and Kids

Written by: on Friday, March 8th, 2013
Fresh blueberries

Eat more than three servings of fresh (or frozen) blueberries or strawberries a week, and you’ll have a 32 percent lower risk of heart attack than those who eat less.

As a mom of three, I try…really, really try, to make sure my kids eat the right foods. But let’s just say that “yucky!!” is a common response to the good foods that I like to cook: veggies (like sweet peppers), quinoa, and beans (no surprise, right?).

But, after some very frustrating trial and error, I’ve found that there are some good-for-you foods that my kids will eat. Try these superfoods—for you and your kids!

1) Salmon This low-mercury fish is high in DHA (which also stands for something called docosahexaenoic acid, which is an essential fat called omega-3) and niacin or vitamin B3. Study after study shows that DHA is critical for the developing brains of babies (if you’re breastfeeding) and kids. One study even showed that it helped kids concentrate better. But it’s also a crucial nutrient for us moms trying to juggle it all! The vitamin B3 helps keep your energy up—a definite must as, like most moms, I struggle with fatigue from nighttime kid wakings. (If you’re pregnant or nursing, though, don’t eat too much salmon in one week because it does contain some mercury; two or three 2-ounce servings per week should be your max.)

chewable omega-3 supplements for kids

My kids love to chew on these...so they must taste pretty good!

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: there’s no way my kids are going to eat fish!! Ah…I thought exactly the same thing, but then I discovered that cutting up the salmon and breading it makes it look like kid-acceptable chicken nuggets—and it actually tastes yummy. My kids love them…and sometimes even dip them in ketchup!

If you want to steer clear of fish altogether, though, you can take fish-oil supplements. My kids love Nordic Naturals Nordic Omega-3 chewable Fishies in Tangerine flavor (you can get them for about $30 from omega-direct.com). I take the Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega supplements ($23.75 for 60; also from omega-direct.com).

2) Kale I know what you’re thinking: is she crazy?! There’s no way I’m going to get my kids to eat kale! I thought the same thing until I tried kale chips (see recipe below). My kids love them! But truth be told: if I try to sauté some kale in a pan with olive oil and seasoning, they literally gag on it and beg and plead with me to not eat it. Same stuff. Go figure!

But this veggie is probably one of the single healthiest foods we can eat. It’s rich in so many nutrients—beta-carotene, iron (critical to give fatigued moms energy), immune-boosting vitamin C, calcium, potassium, folic acid, and

Kale

Try to eat kale as fresh as possible; the longer it's stored, the more bitter it becomes.

disease-busting antioxidants. An interesting study from Tufts University in Boston also found that folic acid (so important for developing fetuses) helps reduce depression—why this is particularly important for moms post-partum.

Kid-friendly recipe: Kale chips I got this recipe from Rachael Ray. First, buy a bunch of kale with smaller leaves, which have a milder flavor than larger bunches. (Otherwise, this veggie can be a bit bitter.) Wash and dry the leaves, then chop them into 2-inch pieces. (You want them to be a little larger than the size of a potato chip.) Toss with olive oil (and if you want, a bit of nutmeg). Then place on a parchment paper-lined cookie tray, sprinkle with salt, and bake at 350°F for about 8 to 10 minutes. But—let’s be honest here—whatever you do, don’t tell your kids they’re kale chips…just call them homemade potato chips and they’re more likely to take that first bite!

3) Blueberries These fruits are super high in disease-busting antioxidants—as well as immune-boosting vitamin C, fiber, and vitamin K (important for blood clotting and for building strong bones). But my advice to you: if you

My Super Snack

My kids love to snack on these new, all-natural snacks! (They're also available in Chocolate Chip and Apple Raisin.)

buy nothing else organic, always buy organic berries. The reason: more than 52 pesticides (which are carcinogens, neurotoxins, hormone disruptors…the long horrible list goes on!) have been detected on the skin of these berries— and it’s hard to get them all off through washing (http://www.whatsonmyfood.org/food.jsp?food=BB).

Some studies have also found that organic blueberries have higher concentrations of antioxidants than the conventional kind. But if you can’t find organic blueberries or they’re too expensive (as they often are in the off season), opt for frozen organic blueberries (which are just about as healthy as fresh).

Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that the blueberries that come in many cereals, muffin mixes, and snack bars are good for you. Many of these so-called “blueberries” are made from artificial colors, hydrogenated oils, and sugar. Look for real blueberries on the product label before buying. My fave new kids’ snack with real blueberries: nutrient-rich MySuperSnack Blueberry Banana Acai Granola Bites, with 17 essential vitamins and minerals—and no artificial anything ($3 a pouch; mysuperfoods.com)!

No-Sugar Added Sophie Greek yogurt

The mom who developed this yogurt is passionate about healthy eating!

4) Yogurt Not only is yogurt high in bone-building calcium and vitamin D (so important for nursing moms, women, and growing kids), but it also contains probiotics. Studies have shown that these healthy bacteria are important for digestion, as well as for the immune system. Just steer clear of the yogurt with fruit already in it; these products are high in sugar. Instead, opt for plain yogurt and add in the fruit and other toppings (like granola) that your kids like. My kids and I love Greek yogurt; it’s thick, creamy, and yummy!

But I recently had the opportunity to talk with fellow mom Sophie Anne Pachella; she’s a nutritionist, founder of EatStrong.com, and the founder of Sophie Yogurt (sophieyogurt.com)—a yummy brand of Greek yogurt that has no added sugar. It was Sophie who alerted me to the fact that some Greek yogurt—while seemingly all healthy—does have added sugars. (Be sure to check the label before buying.) That’s why she developed her own healthier product line (go Sophie!).

5) Dark chocolate I lovethis stuff because it’s super high in antioxidants, which help prevent diseases like heart disease and cancer. Plus, studies have shown that it helps reduce high blood pressure. I also find that when I eat dark chocolate, I’m satisfied after just a little bit (unlike milk chocolate, which I can literally not stop eating!).

Vita Chocolate Cacao Minis

This chocolate is probably the tastiest and healthiest around!

Just know that many kids can’t really tell the difference between milk and dark chocolate unless you tell them, which of course I don’t! To them, it’s just chocolate. Some of my other favorite snacks: dark chocolate-covered almonds, dark chocolate-covered goji berries (super high in antioxidants!), and Vita Raw Organic Chocolate Bars—amazing stuff! Try the Cacao Minis, which are rich in antioxidants; ($28 for half a case; vitachocolates.com). You can also find healthy, kid-friendly dark chocolates at naturalcandystore.com: they sell so many varieties (allergy free, vegan, fair trade, you name it!).

If you can try to incorporate these foods into your—and your kids’—diets, you’ll be on the path to a healthier family!

 

 

The 6 Best Pre- and Post-Workout Foods

Written by: on Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
Chocolate milk good workout snack

Who would have thought this childhood fave would turn out to be so good for you?!

If you ask most people what’s the best pre- or post-workout meal or snack, they’ll probably mention sports drinks, protein powders, protein bars, and anything but plain old food.

Well, this is continually being proven wrong by researchers, sports nutritionists, and exercise specialists.

The latest research by McMaster University professor Stuart Phillips shows that the top foods for athletes—and regular exercisers—are:

1) Chocolate milk: offers post-workout water, protein, electrolytes, and carbohydrates—and not to mention, it tastes good too! According to Phillips, chocolate milk helps rehydrate your body after exercise and recharges damaged muscles. For these reasons, it’s far superior, he says, to water and sports drinks when it comes to post-workout recovery.

For more information on chocolate milk, click on rechargewithmilk.ca (full disclosure: this site, recommended by Phillips, is sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Canada—but it’s actually quite informative and packed with good information—why I’m okay with linking to it. They’re also sponsoring the giveaway at the end of this piece…and free stuff is always good!)

steel cut oats

Try steel cut oats: they take longer to cook (about 30 minutes) but have double the fiber of rolled oats!

2) Oatmeal: contains carbs, fiber and B vitamins (which are key for the breakdown of carbs into glucose and energy in the body—among other things).

Oatmeal, with protein-packed almonds, is the perfect pre-workout meal (particularly if you’re exercising in the morning). I also like to add dried cranberries, zest from a lemon, cinnamon (which helps control blood sugar), and a drizzle of agave nectar into mine. Just had a bowl this morning!

3) Salmon: rich in protein, iron, vitamin B12 (critical for healthy nervous system functioning and making blood cells) and omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain function, reducing inflammation in the body, and normal growth and development.

My favorite way of cooking it: Marinate it in a little lemon juice and spices (try O&Co Salt & Herb Mix for Fish, $8.50; www.oliviersandco.com/salt-and-herb-mix-for-fish.html), drizzle with olive oil, and cook covered at 400ºF for 20 minutes. Shut off the oven, take off the cover, and let sit in the warm oven for another 15 minutes.

4) Blueberries: high in carbs (key for energy) and free-radical-fighting antioxidants (more free radicals are produced in the body during exercise).

I like to add frozen blueberries to almond milk and blend up with a frozen banana and some agave nectar—the perfect fuel-up smoothie!

grilled salmon

Did you know? Salmon is rich in selenium, a free-radical busting antioxidant.

5) Sweet potatoes: chockfull of iron (which helps your body produce oxygen during exercise) and antioxidants beta-carotene as well as vitamins C and E.

Don’t have the patience or time to cook them in the oven? Simply puncture a few times with a fork and cook them on high in the microwave, on a paper towel or plate, for 4 to 5 minutes.

6) Yogurt: high in calcium (important for strong bones and muscle contractions) and energy-boosting vitamin B12. Look for yogurts with little to no added sugar and gut-busting lactobacteria or acidophilus (healthy bacteria that helps digestion).

I love Greek Fage (pronounced “fah-yeh”) Total 2% yogurt with granola (for carbs and taste) and a tiny bit of honey mixed in.

There’s no Gatorade on Phillips’ list, no packaged protein bars, no fruity gummy chews.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ll probably still stick these into my bike “bento” snack pack (http://www.teamestrogen.com/prodFB_840200.html) for races because they’re so convenient, but the important take-home message from Phillips’ research: you don’t have to spend a lot of money on processed sports foods at other times.

Real food is still your best bet.

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