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.

4 Good Reasons You Should be Drinking Tea…Every Day

Written by: on Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
Green tea in pot

Home-brewed green tea has more antioxidants than anything you’ll find in a bottle. For best results, steep for no more than 3 minutes.

You know when Starbucks—the king of coffee—buys a tea brand like Teavana, and opens the first Tea Bar in Manhattan, tea is going to be the next big thing. Or maybe it is already, if you look at the stats from the Tea Association of the U.S.A. which says that on any given day, more than 158 million Americans are drinking tea. But there are plenty of reasons you should be one of them; here are the four top ones:

1) Tea—particularly green tea—may help prevent cancer. The magic number: three to five cups a day, according to a 2009 review of 51 green tea studies conducted by the Center of Integrative Medicine at the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany. Research has focused on the fact that tea is rich in disease-fighting polyphenols, specifically catechins that appear to have cancer-fighting and health-promoting properties. (Green tea is particularly rich in catechins.) What’s the big deal about these? Polyphenols are thought to rid the body of harmful molecules known as free radicals, which can damage a cell’s DNA and may trigger cancer and other diseases.

Teavana Bar in New York City

Teavana’s first tea bar is located at 1142 Madison Avenue at 85th Street. Next tea bar location: Seattle…of course!

Note: if you don’t like the bitter taste of green tea, try white tea. This tea is also high in antioxidants but has a more mellow, sweeter flavor than green teas. (Note that herbal brews, like chamomile and peppermint, are not technically considered tea; they’re infusions of plants. Tea is technically black, green, white, or oolong teas—all of which are made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant.)

2) It may lower your risk of Parkinson’s 

Alice's Tea Cup in Manhattan

An Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea shop located in New York City.

Disease. Drinking up to four cups of green or black tea daily has been linked with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease (a progressive disease of the nervous system), according to the National Institutes of Health.

3) It may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Black and green tea have been linked to a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke. One Japanese study, in particular, found that adults who drank five or more cups of green tea daily had a 26 percent reduction in heart attack or stroke death when compared with those who had one cup or less. What’s more: the benefit seemed to be greater in women than in men.

4) It can reduce stress. That’s because the very ritual of sitting down for a cup of tea is relaxing. “If you look at different cultures, like Japan and China, they have a very elaborate ritual for the taking of tea,” says Nancy Baker, founder of AnaBeall’s tea room in Westfield, New Jersey. “We look at tea differently than coffee; you don’t hear about coffee rituals” [unless your idea of a ritual is grabbing a cup of joe to go!].

Alice's Tea Cup in Manhattan

You’ll find plenty of sweets, plus an amazing brunch, at Alice’s Tea Cup.

From Teavana’s newest Manhattan outpost to small tea rooms like AnaBeall’s or Alice’s Tea Cup (which has various locations throughout New York City), you’re sure to find a spot to relax and de-stress. We got a chance to visit Alice’s Tea Cup—which boasts over 100 exclusive teas—from black and green tea to red and white blends—from around the world (not to mention Alice in Wonderland effects), as well as an amazing brunch. (All food is served on a three-tiered silver platter, and tea, in a personal-sized, colorful teapot.) If you’re looking for a sweet savory brunch with a delicate, Victorian ambiance, Alice’s Tea

CupsofGreenTea

Tea —first said to be discovered in China in 2737 B.C.—was first considered a tonic, used for medicinal purposes only.

Cup will make you feel like you’ve stepped inside the page of a fairy-tale! (Kate Holmes—and Suri—are fans.)

Our favorite teas at Alice’s: Drink-Me-Detox Tea, which is white tea blend with Pai Mu Tan, Silver Needle, Jasmine, and white teas with organic Rooibos, mixed together for a subtle brew; Alice’s Birthday Tea, which is described as a classic blend of black teas with tropical fruits and flowers; and Tranquil Tummy Tea, which is a blend of red teas with organic ginger, and peppermint. Alice’s Tea Cup’s has three locations: 102 West 73rd St, 156 E. 64th st, and 220 East 81st St.

Wherever you decide to have your cup of tea—know that it’s good for your health (unless you eat too many scones along with it!).

Love this Organic Green Tea!

Written by: on Wednesday, September 11th, 2013
OrganicGreenTea

Drink at least three cups of this a day, and you may (say some studies) raise your metabolic rate.

It’s hard to find good, loose organic green tea. Or at least that’s what I thought until I found Mountain Rose Herbs organic Green Sencha Tea ($15.50 for 4 ounces); I brew this tea in the morning and then ice it—so I can drink it throughout the day. I don’t put anything in it (I’m a purist!), but some may not like sencha’s “astringent” (as it’s called) taste.

As an FYI: Sencha tea is a tea that’s grown in full sun—as compared with Matcha tea, which is grown in shade. Some experts say that, because it’s grown in the sun, sencha tea has more catechins (or EGCG, a type of antioxidant) than matcha or teas grown in the shade. It’s these antioxidants that are so critical to our health. Studies have shown that EGCG has anti-fungal (against things like yeast infections), anti-viral (against hepatitis B, herpes, and adenovirus—a common virus that causes respiratory infections), and anti-bacterial properties.

Green&WhiteTeaCapsules

One capsule (recommended dose) contains the equivalent of 24 cups of green tea and 6 cups of white tea.

Pretty amazing stuff.

Now, this kind of tea does contain caffeine, so if you’re trying to steer clear of caffeine, then you can take the Green & White Tea Max from Pastore Formulations (recommended to me by Jeffrey Morrison, M.D., one of the top integrative medicine doctors in New York City); $48.99 for 60 capsules. The capsules have no caffeine.

GREAT New Antioxidant Smoothie Mix-In (Even Kids Love)!

Written by: on Friday, May 17th, 2013
Berry Smoothie

Start your smoothie with organic berries (fresh or frozen)—and you're already getting a lot of antioxidants!

I am a HUGE fan of antioxidants. It’s the closest thing we have to the fountain of youth, in my opinion. Why? First, a very brief, but important, science lesson:

After we breathe in oxygen, it travels from our lungs to every cell in our body, helping to turn food into energy. But oxygen can also have negative effects. Body cells are stable when their molecules have a full set of electrons. When oxygen enters the picture, though, they can lose an electron, becoming unstable or oxidized—the same chemical reaction that causes metal to rust.

Stick with me here, the science lesson is almost over (but this is really important to understand, because free radicals are what trigger premature aging—of the body and the skin).

Losing an electron converts that cell’s molecule to an unstable, and damaging, atom known as a free radical. Free radicals can be formed in the body because of sun exposure; smoking (or exposure to secondhand smoke); car exhaust and factory pollution; exposure to allergens; exposure to pesticides (why organic is best) and chemicals (like home cleaning products); and even eating highly-processed foods. Exercise—while amazing for your body and mind—can also create free radicals in the body.

What to do? Well, that’s where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants are nature’s defense against free radicals; they donate missing electrons to free radicals and return them to a normal state.

That’s why I ingest as many antioxidant-rich foods as I can: organic berries; green tea; fresh herbs like oregano and cinnamon; dark

Healthy Smoothie Mix-Ins

Williams Sonoma also makes an Omega-3 Smoothie Mixer (with chia and flax seeds, and cranberries).

chocolate; almonds; beans; and brightly colored veggies like spinach, broccoli, and red/orange peppers. (I also slather antioxidant products on my skin—day and night.)

But I also look to other sources of antioxidants—and found this great Antioxidant Smoothie Mixer from, of all places, my local Williams-Sonoma (it’s also available online at williams-sonoma.com). It’s a brick-red powder that’s certified organic, vegan (and dairy free), and gluten free—and it’s made from crushed goji berries, pomegranate açai, blueberries, and camu-camu (all amazing sources of antioxidants).

Just mix it in with juice and fresh or frozen berries and some crushed ice (I added a frozen banana instead of ice). And you’ve got a powerhouse drink—for breakfast or a snack anytime. The only downside: it’s $24.95, but you only need one or two tablespoons per smoothie—so the bag should last you a couple of weeks, depending on how often you smoothie! (And if you buy three: one of these Antioxidant Mixers, the Omega-3 Mixer, and their Protein Mixer, you only have to pay $49.95—so definitely a better deal than just buying one.) If you’re into keeping your body as healthy as possible, this is definitely worth a try!

Bonus: my kids LOVE it. In fact, my 18-month old is having his second cupful as I type! But be forewarned: this is one smoothie that stains!