What are You Bringing to the Table?

Ask yourself this question at your next meal. It is a very simple way to take a pause and check-in. You can do this in a number of ways:

  • How hungry am I?
  • What thoughts and emotions am I feeling?
  • Am I tense or relaxed?
  • What am I about to eat?
  • How do I feel about this food?
  • Is this the right amount for me?

This is an example of the approach that Andrea Lieberstein takes in her new book Well Nourished. Based on principles of mindfulness, this book guides you through a complete evaluation of the health of your life; using straight-forward exercises to increase awareness of patterns of thinking around food and consumption and so much more. Andrea takes a holistic view of nourishment, recognizing that we need to address the health of not just our physical body but also our social, intellectual, spiritual, psychological and emotional selves as well. Creating wellness in all these aspects of our lives helps us heal underlying issues that may be holding us back from accomplishing our goals. As she states:

“Practicing mindful awareness opens the door to experiencing the piece and spaciousness that are available to you as you identify with awareness the unchanging part of you, rather than over-identifying with the changing nature of your thoughts, feelings, struggles, and experiences. This helps free you from the part of yourself that struggles with food and eating and opens up the space to make true change.”

Just like the wellness program at the San Francisco Free Clinic, this is not a diet book. Instead you will be exploring, experimenting, and finding the right way for you to eat, move, think, and be in the world that supports your life of health and happiness. Using concepts like “beginner’s mind” to see your present moment experiences with a fresh perspective and an ever present intention of kindness towards your self to break free from the struggles we tend to spend much of our energy on.

This kind of deep change doesn’t happen quickly, nor does it fade quickly like most diets. Mindful awareness is a way to be in your body and relate to your mind that takes practice. Andrea provides worksheets and techniques for journaling, meditation, and nurturing social support to make it easier for you to succeed.

“This awareness helps to bring a sense of perspective in the challenging moments…and help connect us to our essential self.”

Do you struggle with:

  • food cravings?
  • a pervasive sense of loneliness?
  • difficulty expressing emotions?
  • pursing creative outlets?
  • overeating or emotional eating?

If so, this book has a path to help you uncover the root of what is holding you back and a way to make daily changes in your habits, behaviors, and patterns of thinking to improve your relationship to food and your health.

Happy eating,

Jason

 

Weight Loss and Health

nature-2387108_1920The way we categorize body weight makes it appear that you have to fall into a certain range to be healthy. Based on BMI (an estimation of body fat based on weight in relation to height), it is officially know as “normal weight”. But is this true?

One way to evaluate this question is to look at what is going on inside the body. Last year I wrote about a study  where researchers evaluated progressive weight loss in overweight people on markers of disease (inflammation, blood sugar control, abdominal fat); finding  the largest improvement in the first 5% of weight lost. While the metabolic effect continued with further weight loss, the initial 5% was enough to make clinically significant improvements to health. This does not mean getting to a certain healthy weight. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, losing 10 pounds will give you this result. Think of the lily pads floating in the pond, their health is dependent on what you can’t see; the health of the water underneath that nourishes them.

Additionally, studies of overweight people indicate that about half the increased risk for heart disease and stroke is due to these metabolic dysfunctions and half to excess body fat.

Another way to evaluate the relationship between body weight and health is to look at the correlation between disease and BMI. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this month analyzed data from 68.5 million people around the world and reported that 70% of deaths attributed to excess body weight (overweight or obese on the BMI scale) were caused by heart disease. This makes sense as heart disease risk increases with elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar- the metabolic dysfunctions common with excess body fat. In fact, the authors suggest that health promotion efforts should focus on reducing these risk factors and not on weight loss.

Why do they make this statement in an article showing the strong connection between excessive body weight and disease? They point to two key factors:

  1. both public health and individual interventions have failed to reverse the increase in body weight, while
  2. clinical interventions are effective at decreasing blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

The reality is that while most people struggle with weight loss, success rates at controlling the internal markers of disease are much more promising.

So health is not dependent on a specific body size. While there is a strong correlation between increasing body weight and risk for disease and death, the number on the scale only tells you part of the story.  How much you move, what you eat and how you manage stress in your life contribute more to your health than the number on the scale.

Here is one simple way to get started improving your metabolic health- the unseen factors that nourish your life.

Happy eating,

 

Jason

Health at Half Time

Welcome to the second half of the year. Summer brings longer days, warmer weather- except for us coastsiders where the fog has set in- and maybe a chance to slow down and reflect on the year so far. I am taking advantage of this calendar moment to look back at some of the highlights in health and nutrition that I’ve been focused on this year:

  1. The pattern of your diet matters more than the specific meals you eat. Letting go of striving for perfection may be the secret to successful long term change. Focus on seeking health as your goal instead of eating the perfectly balanced nutritional meal. This is a way to change your mentality about food instead of following the latest diet trend. Keep it simple, reduce your food stress and embrace food as nourishment instead of entertainment. Studies illuminate how cooking, sharing meals, and social connections will all help you along this path.
  2. Our reductionist approach to nutrition has led us to evaluate individual nutrients and categorize them as  good or evil, when in reality food is more complicated. Instead, embracing a whole food approach and making the majority of your meals healthy will create lasting health and longer lives. There are many well established approaches to creating these healthy patterns, I’ve written about a number of them this year:
  3. Research continues to illuminate the impact of food on our health, uncovering ways nutrition can support the healthy function of our guts, brains, lungs, and livers. In general these studies highlight the way our bodies absorb nutrients from unprocessed foods, providing the fuel and raw materials for all our organ systems. Amongst their many health benefits, these nutrients support the immune system to decrease risk of cancer. Some foods show specific promise when eaten regularly- the G-BOMBS, leafy greens and bitter flavors, as well as fruits and high potassium vegetables.

Happy eating in the second half of the year –

Jason

Breathe Easier

We do it 16 times a minute, 960 times an hour, and 23,040 times a day. While breathing is an automatic function of the body, several factors impact lung function and when working well can have a powerful impact on how we feel physically and mentally. While you can exert some control over your breath, how you live- eat, move, manage stress, and your exposure to toxins impacts both the breath and the health of your lungs. The key is keeping your cells happy – avoiding inflammation and damage from unhealthy foods- namely excessive sugar, high fat animal meats, and some processed food additives.

Recent evidence

A good way to evaluate the impact of lifestyle on lung health is to study conditions that impact the most common lung disease- asthma. A recently published study in the Journal Thorax found a direct association between cured meat intake and asthma symptoms. This study followed 971 French adults for an average of 7 years and used the most commonly consumed processed meats in France: ham and sausage. Those who consumed the most cured meats (defined as more than 4 servings per week) had the worst symptoms over time. While they found no association between cured meat intake and body weight, they did report that 14% of the asthma worsening affect of cured meat was related to obesity. That is, excessive body weight makes the impact of eating cured meats worse.

In fact, obesity can worsen, and in some cases cause asthma. There appears to be  a direct connection between increasing body weight and development of this breathing disorder.

Why processed meats?

Both red and cured meats have been getting lots of attention lately, a highly publicized report by the World Health Association (WHO) identified them as carcinogenic (processed meats as a class 1 carcinogen, the highest level due to strong evidence of colon cancer). Their consumption is also linked to earlier death as well as several chronic diseases. It is likely that every organ in the body is negatively affected by frequent cured meat consumption, impaired lung function  may lead to lung cancer and obstructive lung diseases.

Cured meats are high in nitrates which are associated with increased inflammation and cell damage (through oxidative stress) and may be the culprit driving this disease process. These foods are also high in salt and saturated fats which may also contribute to asthma risk and increased symptoms.

What are processed meats?

The WHO classifies processed meats as being salted, cured, fermented or smoked. Meats included in this group:

  • bacon
  • ham
  • hot dogs
  • lunch meats
  • salami
  • sausage
  • beef jerky
  • smoked meats

What you can do to breath better

While avoiding processed meats is clearly a wise health choice, what you eat, how you move, and how much you weigh can also promote healthy lung function.

  • Whole foods plant based diets may help prevent and treat COPD, the 3rd highest cause of death in the US.
  • Healthy diets strengthen your immune system, in part by nourishing your gut bacteria.
  • Avoid foods that promote inflammation – excessive sugar, processed foods, and high fat animal meats.
  • Exercise regularly – at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • Weight loss – if you are over weight.

 

Happy eating and breathing,

 

Jason

Embrace the Bitter

Do you like the taste of black coffee? How about Brussels sprouts? Or dark chocolate? While these bitter foods and drinks can be a challenge to enjoy, research consistently points to these compounds as some of the most beneficial to our health. The taste of bitter is complex and a bit of a catch-all, as there are thousands of bitter compounds in nature; some of which have specific genes identified with their taste perception. So you may like some, but find others overpowering. However, abandoning bitter will cut you off from some of the healthiest foods in nature.

Why are bitter flavors unpleasant and yet healthy?

Compounds in fruits and vegetables protective of health are part of the plants defense mechanisms- its immune function. By consuming them, we incorporate these chemicals into our immune systems as anti-oxidants, anti-tumor factors, and anti-inflammatories. These compounds protect plants from insects by either being unappealing or even toxic. Not surprisingly, we interpret bitter flavors as potentially dangerous, a sign that we may be consuming a poison. Additionally, strong bitter flavors don’t always appeal to modern pallets used to sweet tastes.

And yet, the very compounds associated wth danger in the short term, are highly protective of health in the long term. Perhaps to help us navigate this seeming contradiction between life and death, humans developed nearly ten times as many taste buds for bitter flavors as sweet ones. As a result, the taste of bitter is more complex and nuanced than sweet.

Bitter flavors are also digestive stimulants. Bitter drinks are traditionally used both before and after meals, promoting digestion in two ways:

  • activating digestive “taste” receptors which release enzymes and acids to help us break down our food
  • stimulating digestive muscles to keep food moving through our system

How you can embrace the bitter

  • Train your taste buds. Our taste buds are adaptive, we can learn to enjoy new foods and flavors over time. Most people don’t like their first sip of coffee and find vegetables less appealing as children, but come to enjoy both over time.  Part of this adaptation is age driven, children have many more taste buds that are more sensitive than adults.
  • Try using bitter flavors in foods to remind you to tune into the experience of eating. These strong tastes can help us pay attention to our food and appreciate the health benefits that we are providing our bodies by consuming them.
  • Most phytochemicals don’t degrade in heat or acid, while the flavors are softened by both. So cook your bitter greens and finish them off with a squeeze of lemon. If you are a fan of bitter flavors, eat some raw bitter foods and know that you are maximizing the health benefits.
  • Challenge yourself to include a bitter food in your daily meal plan every day for 30 days. Currently bitter foods comprise only 5% of our daily intake.
  • Check out this prior post on cooking greens or Jennifer McLagan’s cooking blog and cookbook for inspiration.

Some bitter plant foods to keep you healthy

  • Cruciferous family: cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli. These contain high levels of sulforaphane which may account for the anti-cancer benefits of regular consumption of this group of vegetables. Several studies report a 30-50% decreased risk of prostate, colon, pancreatic, and breast cancer associated with eating 3-7 servings per week.
  • Leaves: kale, beet greens, arugula, collards. Luetin is a phytochemical that may promote healthy vision and skin while protecting against chromosome damage.
  • Roots: turnips, rutabagas, radishes.
  • Citrus: grapefruit, lemon peel.
  • Cacao, green tea, and moderate amounts of coffee: bursting with phytochemicals and anti-oxidants, these foods help protect cells from damage, improve blood flow, and reduce inflammation.

What to know more about these mysterious health promoting compounds and how we relate to them in our food? One of my favorite podcasts about food, Gastropod has an entertaining episode all about bitter.

Happy eating,

 

Jason

 

Fruit is Super Food

As a nation, we don’t eat enough fruit- less than 1/3 of US adults consume at least 2 cups per day. What? Given our desire for sweet flavors and convenient, ready to eat food, you might assume we eat too much fruit. Not only is that not happening, but it may not even be possible, as the health benefits of fruit are legion. Imagine a sweet burst of juicy flavor that helps to control blood sugar, maintain fullness, regulate digestion, keep skin clear and reduces the risk of heart disease and some cancers. Oh yes, pass that bowl of fruit!

But wait, doesn’t fruit have too much sugar?

This is a common question and one that makes sense given the push to reduce our sugar and carbohydrate intake with programs like the Whole 30 and paleo diets.  Partially this is a consequence of our reliance on reductionism, where the health impact of food is reduced to its component parts. In this line of reasoning, the sugars and carbs in fruit are to be avoided like added sugar in sodas or refined carbs in breakfast cereals. But as the research consistently shows, fruit does not impair health, it promotes it. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Fruit is packed with fiber, slowing down digestion and keeping blood sugar levels from spiking, as well as promoting digestive health and feeding beneficial bacteria in our micro biome.
  • Fruit has multitudes of nutrients, some of which are essential to our health, others that promote optimal immune, cellular, and organ function – from your kidneys to your brain. These are the anti-oxidants and phytonutrients which also provide the color and complex flavors of fruit.

What does the research say?

As with all things food, it is difficult to parse the health impact of one specific nutrient or food group since we eat a wide variety of foods and it may take decades to see an impact on chronic disease. However, here are some of the results from studies on fruit:

  • The health impact of fruit is often combined with vegetables, as in a systematic review of 95 studies published this year in the International Journal of Epidemiology, finding that people who eat more fruits and vegetables live longer and have lower rates of heart disease and cancer.
  • Eating fruit every day decreases the risk of heart disease and stroke by 40% according to a 2014 study published in the European Heart Journal. In addition, those who ate the most fruit had the lowest risk.
  • According to a 2015 CDC report, people consuming at least 2 cups of fruit per day are more like to have a healthy weight.
  • The impact of fruit intake on diabetes risk is a bit more convoluted. Some studies show improved blood sugar control and reduced risk, others find no connection between fruit intake and diabetes. We need more research to have a clear picture for this specific disease.

The take away

Early summer is the best time for ripe, seasonal fruit. Citrus is still going strong while berries are at their peak and stone fruit is ripening away. Here’s how to ensure that you get the most from these natural bundles of healthful sweetness:

  • Eat lots of colors. Variety ensures you consume the breadth of nutrients available form fruit. Color is related to the bioactive compounds that tend to benefit our health.
  • Eat them every day. At least. Aim for a minimum of 2 cups per day.
  • Leave fruit out on the counter. We are visual creatures, engineer your environment to cue to you to eat healthfully.
  • Eat your food, don’t drink it. Juicing concentrates the sugar and removes or at least breaks down the fiber, resulting in blood sugar spikes. Small amounts of juice can be healthy for some people- if you don’t have blood sugar control problems and it fits into your overall eating plan.
  • Turn to fruit for that sweet taste you crave. If you are used to ice cream, cake, and cookies as your treats, this may take some getting used to; but fruit can be a dessert that satisfies the taste buds, the stomach, and the mind. You can feel good during and after you eat it. Often the biggest health benefit is from eating a healthy food in place of an unhealthy one. So replacing sugar rich desserts with fruit will compound the benefits to your health.
  • The perfect snack food. Fruits require no cooking and many have a built in package to keep them fresh on the go.

Happy eating,

Jason

You’ve Gotta Connect to be Healthy

Since 2011 Gallop has been polling US adults about their perceptions of well being. To understand physical health, they ask questions about exercise, disease, and diet. Their recent report on these interviews conducted with over 350 thousand people in 2015 and 2016 indicates that many healthy lifestyle factors have actually improved:

  • more people report exercising regularly
  • fewer smoke
  • and more have access to healthcare.

Some not so good news on the other hand:

  • more people are obese
  • have diabetes and heart disease
  • and fewer are eating healthy.

Of course, these are self reports so do not provide an objective view of health. However, they are useful to see trends over time and illuminate factors associated with healthier behaviors; helping us answer the question, how do people who eat healthy live their lives differently from those who don’t?

People who report eating healthy also report strong social connections, having:

  • friends and family who encourage healthy living
  • leaders who make them feel positively about the future
  • strong, and improving relationships with their significant other.

This isn’t surprising, as research consistently shows a link between health, longevity and social connections. Of course, there are many ways to connect with others, but finding social groups (either in person or over social media) who practice healthy habits is a key, according to this well-being poll. Some other ideas for cultivating healthy social connections around food:

Additionally, respondents indicate that health is associated with feeling that personal goals are being achieved and that learning is a regular part of life.  Having a sense that we can improve our lives and make a difference in our communities reinforces motivation and may lead to taking better care of ourselves.

Happy eating,

 

Jason