Health & wellness articles and infographics

Simple Plant-Based Breakfasts for Hassle-Free Mornings

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The Perfect Healthy Breakfast Menu for Your Busy Life

When you spend the morning trying to get ready for work, get the kids out the door and make sure your husband doesn’t accidentally leave his smartphone in the refrigerator (don’t act like it hasn’t happened!), putting a nutritious breakfast on the table can seem impossible. It’s tempting to toss a granola bar in everyone’s backpack or let the kids forage for themselves from the half-empty boxes of cereal in the pantry.

Never fear — a fast plant-based breakfast is possible, even if you think you don’t have any time at all. These three make-ahead options are the perfect solution for hectic mornings.

Oatmeal is Your Friendoatmeal for make ahead plant based breakfast

If oatmeal is already a go-to breakfast staple in your house, you can turn it into a nearly instant meal by cooking up a big pot in advance. Whether you prefer rolled or steel-cut oats, all you have to do is measure out how much you need to feed everyone for the week; toss it in a pot, Crock Pot or Instant Pot with water or nondairy milk and let it cook up while you go about your business.

  • For rolled oats, use a 2:1 ratio of water or milk to grain
  • For steel cut oats, use a 4:1 ratio
    • Note that liquid amounts for Crock Pots and Instant Pots may vary

Store the cooled cooked oats in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 6 days, or portion them out into glass jars with tasty mix-ins like nuts, seeds, dried fruit or shredded coconut. In the morning, simply reheat in a pan or the microwave with an extra splash of water or milk. Stir, add mix-ins if you haven’t already and serve!

In hot weather, skip the cooking altogether and go for overnight oats, which only require soaking. Measure out individual portions of oats into jars, add nondairy milk in a 2:1 ratio, toss on your toppings of choice and refrigerate for up to 5 days. To serve, just stir and eat!

How to Win at Oatmeal:

  • Buy or gather up glass jars or containers
  • Pre-cook oats in the evening or over the weekend
  • Portion out cooled oats and add toppings
  • Grab prepped jar(s) in the morning and reheat (or stir if it’s overnight oats)

Two Words: Breakfast. Casserole.

Savory morning meals more your thing? Make vegan brunch possible any day of the week with a big batch of breakfast casserole.

That’s right; casserole isn’t just for dinner! There are plenty of healthy plant-based breakfast recipes out there for dishes featuring combinations of beans, veggies, vegan cheese sauce, potatoes, whole-grain toast, vegan “eggs” — pretty much any breakfast food you might want, you can stick in a casserole. Even french toast.

The best part? You can make casseroles ahead of time. If you have a lazy Sunday afternoon (or any day that counts as your “weekend”), schedule some kitchen time and reap the rewards of for the rest of the week. Make a casserole and bake it in the morning, or bake it when you make it if you have the time.

Use a glass dish that’s fridge-, freezer- and oven-safe so that you can easily store and reheat your casserole as needed. Casserole dishes with airtight lids are best for keeping food fresh and preventing accidental spills. An entire cooked casserole can be stored in the fridge for up to 4 days or divided into portions and frozen to thaw whenever you want.

Turn Every Day Into Brunch Day by…

  • Investing in a really big casserole dish with an airtight lid
  • Prepping a full (or double!) batch of your favorite casserole over the weekend
  • Cooking or reheating the casserole in the morning
  • Storing leftovers for the week and reheating as needed

avocado beet toast with tomatoesA Toast to Breads

Aside from oatmeal, muffins and quick breads are some of the simplest plant-based breakfast options. Just like a casserole, breads can be made in advance using whole-food ingredients like whole wheat flour, spelt flour, oat flour or your favorite gluten-free blend.

Muffins are the ultimate “grab and go” food, and you can stuff them full of just about anything, including savory pumpkin puree or sweet apples and dried fruit (and yes, banana bread is always an option). Recipes for full loaves of bread can easily be doubled, sliced once they’re cool and stored for a speedy breakfast on your most hectic mornings. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container lined with paper towels to prevent moisture buildup. If you stack muffins inside a container, place additional paper towels between the layers.

To store plant-based breads for more than 4 days, wrap loaves, slices or individual muffins in wax paper or freezer paper and place them in an airtight container or Ziploc freezer bag. Reheat in the oven, toaster or toaster oven any time!

(And of course, there’s nothing wrong with serving up whole-grain or sprouted toast with oil-free nut butter and low-sugar jam or some smashed avocado with tomato slices when you’re completely strapped for time.)

To Bake and Enjoy Beautiful Breads…

  • Find a recipe you and your family will love (or try a bunch!)
  • Make a full or double batch
  • Store in the fridge or freezer
  • Reheat as desired (and slather on that nut or seed butter, if you like!)

With these make-ahead plant-based breakfast ideas in your dietary lineup, mornings get just a little easier. Choose your favorites or experiment with all three for easy plant-based breakfasts on the go. You’ll never have to worry about what to feed your family again — and you’ll always know everyone is heading out the door powered by whole-food nutrition.

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Smack Down Your Stress for Lifestyle Success

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You hear it all the time, probably out of your own mouth more often than not:stressed woman at desk “I’m so STRESSED!”

In fact, stress is so ubiquitous that it’s become our way of life. We barely notice it because we don’t know what it’s like not to be stressed. Being busy is hailed as a virtue, and productivity is regardless of the cost.

At the same time, we pursue plant-based diets and carve out time for exercise, rightly assuming these things will help our bodies be stronger and healthier. But there’s one problem:

Stress can sideline your health journey.

As with any health concern, the more you understand how and why stress is affecting your body, the better equipped you are to take steps toward healing.

What is Stress?

Google defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” It comes in two forms:

  • Acute: “I’m changing lanes now and HOLY TOFU WHERE DID THAT TRUCK COME FROM?”
  • Chronic: “I’m stuck in traffic yet again on the way to a job I hate, drinking my third cup of coffee and still feeling exhausted.”

In other words, acute stress spurs you to life-saving action, whereas chronic stress wears you down little by little in ways you may not even be aware of.

Some (Not So) Surprising Stress Statistics

According to Statistic Brain and the American Psychological Association, the top causes of stress in the U.S. are:

  • Job pressure
  • Money
  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Media overload
  • Politics

When asked, around 48 percent of people say their stress has increased in the last five years, and the same percentage also admit stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional lives.

The Stress Effect

Not surprisingly, 77 percent of people say they have poor physical responses to stress — although I would imagine the true number is higher because stress isn’t always considered as a culprit when you’re feeling out of sorts.

But stress is a powerful thing. When you come up against a stressor, you body reacts with a cascade of changes meant to give you a short-term way to deal with an immediate problem:

  • Digestion and other non-essential functions slow down
  • Cortisol is released
  • Blood sugar and epinephrine rise
  • Blood pressure becomes elevated

After the stressor has passed (you slam on the brakes, don’t hit the truck and arrive safely in the intended lane), your body’s processes are supposed to normalize as you come back down from the jolt of the acute response.

In today’s society, when we go from traffic jams and coffee to tedious jobs to smartphones constantly interrupting us with news we’d rather not hear, our bodies never have a chance to normalize completely.

Cortisol Complications

Why? The main culprit is cortisol. This hormone, triggered through a cascade of chemicals from the brain and adrenal glands, prompts your body to break down stored glycogen and convert it to glucose for a quick source of energy during the stress response. Chronically elevated blood sugar decreases insulin sensitivity, meaning your body has to keep making more in order to get sugar into cells. Eventually, you could find yourself in the beginning stages of Type 2 diabetes as your cells simply refuse to respond or insulin production begins to drop off.

stressed lego man at desk

Cortisol can also break down proteins for fuel. Add to this a decrease in growth hormone production and problems dealing with stomach acid, and you could be at risk for muscle loss. Stomach acid is a key player in breaking down the proteins you eat, and if it’s not doing the job, your cells won’t get the protein they need.

And of course, we’re all familiar with the feeling of our hearts racing during times of acute stress. Blood pressure that stays high when it shouldn’t puts a strain on blood vessels, especially small vessels in areas like the eyes and brain. The heart itself is also affected as the body asks it to work harder than it’s meant to when you’re at rest. It’s little wonder some of the most common stress symptoms reported are fatigue, headache and muscle tension.

Stolen Hormones

The other problem with cortisol? It’s a hormone. This wouldn’t be a big deal if it didn’t share some of the same precursors as other hormones you need — namely, sex hormones.

Your body has a specific and efficient process for making sex hormones. Part of this process involves pregnenolone, a hormone precursor normally used to make DHEA and, in turn, estrogen and testosterone. It’s also used to make progesterone and aldosterone through a different pathway.

When you’re not under stress, this process should work just fine, but stress “steals” your pregnenolone to make cortisol. As this continues to happen during chronic stress, important hormonal balances are disrupted and your blood sugar goes even further out of whack due to lower insulin sensitivity from a lack of DHEA.

Together, the effects of chronic stress can spell trouble for anyone, even those who practice healthy habits in other areas of their lives.

The Missing Link

Which brings me to my most important point in this post: Even if you have your diet on track and stick to a regular exercise regimen, you could be putting yourself at risk for some serious problems if you’re constantly under stress. A 2016 study provided a graphic illustration of this when it suggested stress has the potential to negate the effects of healthy meals by making the body react the same way as it would to a large influx of saturated fat, namely by increasing inflammation.

Just like the stress response, your body’s inflammatory cascade is helpful when it works the right way. It sends the proper immune cells and compounds to damaged areas to clean up and speed healing. That’s why you experience redness and swelling when you get an injury.

But what happens when the process becomes chronic? A constant state of low-grade inflammation appears to be at least one of the major underlying factors in heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases. One possible reason for this could be an increase in “adhesion molecules,” compounds that facilitate the formation of the arterial plaques associated with heart disease. Excess cortisol circulating in the blood can also lead to a less robust immune response, leaving you vulnerable to all manner of invaders and making it more difficult for your body to repair itself.

Smacking Down Your Stress: Techniques to Trystress relief this way

I don’t think I have to tell you how to know you’re under stress. As I said at the outset — just about everyone is! You may feel tired, apathetic or just plain “blah.” You may struggle with headaches or stomach aches with no apparent triggers. You’re probably not sleeping very well. And all of it is undermining your plant-based diet and the time you spend at the gym, running trails or whatever you like to do for exercise.

Identify Your Stressors

The first step in breaking the cycle and gaining control over your stress is to pin down the causes. To do this, grab a notebook and start a stress diary. Every time you feel stressed out, write down:

Over time, you’ll begin to see patterns. For example, if you look back at your diary for the week and see a lot of entries like,

“Boss called another last-minute meeting. Critical; everyone had to go. Got angry and fumed through the whole thing. Ate too much Chinese takeout for lunch.”

Or,

“Husband called ten minutes before kids needed to be picked up and asked me to get them. Essential; couldn’t make other arrangements. Didn’t talk to him all through dinner. Stormed around slamming things until I felt better.”

…you know you need to learn a better way to cope.

Rule Your Stress

Fortunately, you don’t have to do anything fancy or mystical to bust stress. You don’t have to go on a retreat and do nothing except sit next to pools of calm water and listen to yourself breathe (unless you want to!). Here are some of my favorite simple, calming activities that I suggest to clients and have seen work for friends and family:

  • Reading favorite books
  • Adult coloring
  • Crafts like knitting or sewing
  • Stretching and/or restorative yoga
  • “Unplugging” from devices and media
  • Spending time with laid-back, supportive friends
  • Having a cup of chamomile tea before bed
  • Spending time in prayer, reading the Bible and connecting with God

You can engage in these activities any time during the day, but I recommend incorporating one or more into your evening routine. Stretching, fixing yourself a cup of tea and settling in to relax without your phone blaring push notifications at you every ten seconds helps you unwind from the day’s events and prepares you for a good night’s sleep — the ultimate restorative stress-buster!

You can’t escape all stress, but you can beat the stressors life throws at you every day. A stress management program is an essential part of staying healthy — without one, all the kale and burpees in the world won’t help you stay well!

Are you ready to get off the stress train and stop feeling “blah” all the time? Book a personalized 4-week package! I’ll walk you through the lifestyle changes you need to find relief and gain control over what’s stressing you out.

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It’s Okay to Hate Healthy Foods — Really!

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Ever feel like you’ll never learn to like some of the foods you’re “supposed” to eat? It seems like a new “superfood” appears on the scene every other week, so you go and grab some at the store only to find you really, really hate it. No matter what you do, you just can’t warm up to it, and you’re left feeling guilty for despising the amazing healthy food everyone else is raving about.

I’ll tell you a secret — and this is going to sound nuts coming from a wellness consultant. It’s okay if you hate healthy foods. Really, it is. There’s no dietary law stating you must enjoy every health-promoting food in existence. While I tend to encourage clients to try preparing new foods in more than one way before deciding they’re not fans, it’s silly to try and force yourself to eat something you truly can’t stand.

Of course, I’m not giving everyone carte blanche to toss the kale in the trash and stockpile dairy-free Ben & Jerry’s and Oreos. What I want to do is put healthy eating in perspective, because sometimes it seems as though people think of it as all-or-nothing. How often do we hear — or say — “I was good today!” when meal choices include a lot of whole, fresh foods? Or the opposite: “I was bad” or “I blew it” when a processed treat was on the menu?

This kind of mindset is what’s behind the idea that we need to somehow pile on the healthiest foods possible to give our diets superpowers, when the truth is much simpler and involves absolutely no food-related guilt trips. So let’s take a look at why it’s not going to kill you to leave the goji berries for someone else and why you’re not a horrible person if quinoa isn’t your favorite thing ever.

Personal Tastes (and Restrictions) Guide Choices

The foods you ate growing up did a lot to shape the tastes you have now. This includes ethnic flavors, favorite dishes your parents made on special holidays and any influence the food industry had on your family’s meals. The latter is where most people get into trouble when it comes to food choices and where the majority of “food guilt” comes from. These tastes — the deeply ingrained preference for sugar, salt and fat — are the ones worth changing, and they can be overcome by shifting dietary choices toward whole plant foods.

Intolerances, allergies and diseases also need to be considered when choosing which foods to eat. According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), over 170 foods are known to cause allergic reactions, and as many as 15 million people in the U.S. have at least one food allergy. Reactions range from mild, such as an itchy tongue or a skin rash, to severe, including fatal anaphylaxis.

I’m often upset when I hear a doctors are advising patients to take Lactaid pills and continue consuming dairy when suffering from lactose intolerance or when I hear stories of people struggling with non-celiac gluten intolerance for years because the medical establishment isn’t convinced of its existence. If you eat a food and get sick every time, you don’t have to eat it. No matter what nutrients it contains, no matter what anyone tries to tell you, the best thing to do is give it up.

Superfoods Aren’t Always So Super

The term “superfood” has become an almost magical word most often used to describe exotic, expensive or hard-to-find ingredients. Trying to track down acai berries and spirulina when you don’t have a specialty store or food co-op nearby can be a challenge, and hitting the internet to order some can leave your credit card smoking.

You don’t have to spend a fortune to get the nutrients found in some of the most hyped superfoods. Common foods like blueberries, bell peppers, broccoli and lentils pack just as much of a punch at a fraction of the price. Yes, some nutrients may be more concentrated in foods touted as super, but if you’re already eating a plant-based diet, you’re getting an abundance of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients every time you enjoy a meal. All whole plant foods have beneficial nutrients, and balancing your food intake between whole grains, beans and legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds in their unprocessed forms is one of the best ways to take care of your body.

It’s All About Diversity

With that said, you don’t have to eat every plant food to enjoy superior nutrition; you just have to mix things up during the day. That’s one of the hidden perks of realizing you don’t like some healthy foods: There are so many others waiting to be discovered and a multitude of delicious combinations to experiment with. Mainstream food and nutrition news tends to only highlight the latest fads, loudly proclaiming the benefits of whatever the most recent study has found to be “good” for you. The next day, there’s either a new superfood celebrity or the darling of the previous day is being denounced as not so good after all.

Don’t let it all confuse you. Thanks to creative plant-based doctors, there are a couple of easy ways to envision a healthy, diverse diet. Dr. Greger has his Daily Dozen, and Dr. Fuhrman champions G-BOMBS. Both provide firm foundations on which to base your meals so that you get the best bang for your buck with every dish — no superfoods required.

Try an Alternative

Although it might feel like you’re missing out if the trendy superfoods — or even some plant-based staples — don’t excite your taste buds, an abundance of alternative choices makes it possible to thrive. Give these choices a go the next time you’re looking to pack super nutrition into a tasty meal.

Don’t like kale? Try…

  • Rainbow chard
  • Mustard greens
  • Dandelion greens
  • Broccoli raab
  • Beet greens
  • Turnip greens

Don’t like quinoa? Substitue…

  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Spelt berries
  • Millet
  • Brown, red or black rice

Not a chickpea fan? Say hello to these legumes…

  • Red, brown or black lentils
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Kidney beans
  • Black beans
  • White beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Edamame
  • Adzuki beans

However, as I mentioned at the start of this post, try some new ways of preparing a food before you write it off completely. When people tell me they “hate” a food, I almost inevitably find out it was either cooked to death or not used in a way that brought out its best flavor. If you try something a few times and still can’t get past the taste or texture, don’t feel guilty removing it from your menu.

What’s the takeaway here? All diets, even healthy diets, are influenced by individuality, culture, experience and tastes. Even though tastes do change over time, there will always be some foods you don’t like. Building your daily meals around the variety of choices you enjoy and trying new foods to add even more diversity will create a menu you can feel good about.

And those popular “superfoods?” Most of the time, they’re not bad. There’s nothing wrong with splurging on some hemp seeds or throwing a bit of maca in your smoothie, if that’s your thing, but none of them have to be staples of your diet for you to eat well and feel great. So the next time the mainstream media tries to send you on a guilt trip because you’re not mainlining coconut water and green smoothies, remember how much your tastes have changed so far, think about all the great food you are eating and happily ignore the hype.

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The 5 Mistakes You’re Probably Making When Choosing Healthy Foods

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You know the feeling: You’re standing in the grocery store, eying a selection of cereal, snacks or frozen foods and wondering which ones to buy. Should you choose the cereal with “35% less sugar!” or the chips made with coconut oil instead of vegetable oil? Is the “light” meal better than the others surrounding it in the freezer case? Should you even be eating any of these things on the restrictive fad diet plan you’re trying to follow?

Believe it or not, eating healthy really is straightforward. It’s only in the recent past that the simplicity of eating has become obfuscated by the insane amount of choices the food industry puts before us every day. Just a few generations ago, planning meals and snacks didn’t involve wading your way through a dizzying selection of processed food-like products. Food, for the most part, was recognizable, and it wasn’t necessary to have a degree in food science to understand what you were putting in your body.

Making healthy choices in today’s over-saturated food environment can be more than a little baffling. Food companies make wild claims apparently backed up by science, the media takes nutrition studies out of context and a host of dubious “authorities” fill the remaining space with conflicting opinions on every type of diet known to man. It’s no wonder people have a hard time knowing what to eat.

When you walk down store aisles stuffed with stuff and feel confused beyond belief, you’re not alone. There are several common mistakes people make when trying to sort out what’s healthy and what’s not.

Are you making these healthy eating mistakes?

5 Healthy Eating Mistakes

1) Choosing Packaged Goods with Health Claims

The health benefits emblazoned on food packages are there because food companies want consumers to buy their products, not necessarily because the product is good for you. Chances are you’ve seen most of these labels as you shop:

  • Zero trans fat
  • Gluten-free or vegan
  • Natural, organic or made with organic ingredients
  • Heart healthy whole grains
  • Contains antioxidants
  • Superfood power
  • % daily value of vitamins and minerals
  • More anything potentially healthy than the leading brand

Many of these labels are exaggerated or downright misleading. A product claiming to have no trans fat can have as much as half a gram per serving and still list zero on the package. The term “natural” has no official definition, and using organic ingredients can’t turn a highly processed product into a health food. The synthetic vitamins and minerals added to processed foods are often synthesized in factories overseas from products such as lanolin  and likely don’t have the same benefits as nutrients found in the original context.

Have you ever noticed food such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes rarely carry these sorts of labels? These foods contain nutrients packaged together with other compounds, many with functions yet to be documented, which are designed to work together in our bodies to deliver essential nutrition on a cellular level. There’s no need to add anything or make any claims because the health benefits you experience from eating unadulterated foods speak for themselves.

2) Switching to “Healthier” Oil

Olive oil and coconut oil have enjoyed an almost mystical status, being touted as “healthy” additions to any diet. Although these two oils are technically better for you than the highly processed vegetable oils used in most restaurants and packaged foods, no oil can be rightly categorized as healthy. Repeated consumption of oily foods causes stiffening of the arterial walls, making it difficult for blood to flow as it should and increasing your risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Olive oil isn't a health miracleSince this is the case, why do you hear so much about the benefits of switching to olive, coconut or another “healthier” oil? Any move away from processed vegetable oils, which are usually made from soy or canola using a chemical-laden process resulting in the extraction or destruction of nearly all nutrients, is likely to show some improvement.

The high levels of omega-6 fats in processed oils cause inflammation. When combined with oil’s artery-stiffening effects, this can promote the formation of plaques in your blood vessels and potentially leading to heart attacks or strokes. Coconut oil doesn’t trigger inflammation, so people who make the switch after years of slamming their circulatory systems with heavily processed oils will probably feel better, at least at first. The anti-inflammatory polyphenols in olive oil may provide a similar effect.

With that said, more research is necessary to determine if consuming small amounts of oil on occasion as part of a diet otherwise made up of unprocessed plant foods has similar harmful effects in the long term.

This doesn’t mean some oils have superpowers or can magically turn a bad diet into a good one. Oil usually contains between 120 and 130 calories per tablespoon, which adds up fast, especially if you’re eating foods containing the stuff at every meal. These calories can be better obtained from unprocessed foods, including the whole fats found in nuts, seeds and avocados. Whole foods also contain anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, which can help to combat inflammation instead of causing it.

What can you eat for the same amount of calories found in a tablespoon of oil? Here’s just a small sample:

  • One medium apple or pear
  • Two small oranges
  • 3 1/2 cups of kale
  • Just over half a cup of cooked brown rice
  • 1 1/2 slices of sprouted bread
  • About 1/3 of an average avocado
  • 3/4 ounce of most nuts

3) Ordering the Diet or “Light” Option

Remember the Snackwells craze when consumers snapped up and scarfed down more low-fat cookies and snack cakes than stores could keep on the shelves? The thought at the time was, if the label said low fat, the treats were automatically healthier. Unfortunately, people wound up eating more calories — and more processed food-like substances — than they would if they’d stuck with the originals.

The same confusion prevails today in fad diets (see point #4 below) and fad foods like “100-calorie” snack packs and “lean” frozen meals. Restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon with “lighter” menu items for health-conscious diners. To understand why these labels don’t mean you’re getting a more nutritious product, take a look at what’s really in a few mainstream options masquerading as healthy choices:

  • The “Mediterranean Veggie” sandwich at Panera Bread contains 1,090 milligrams of sodium and 12 grams of fat. Add a “seasonal greens” salad, and you get an additional 11 grams of fat.
  • McDonald’s breakfast menu boasts oatmeal, but unlike the kind you make at home, their version contains 33 grams of sugar and a collection of preservatives and thickeners.
  • Nearly all of Lean Cuisine’s vegetarian meals contain some form of cheese, butter or milk. The “Classic Cheese Lasagna” has five varieties, and is made with “blanched macaroni product.”

And those snack packs? They may have only 100 calories, but most of these come from processed flour, sugar and oil. (One exception is these 100-calorie roasted edamame packs from Seapoint Farms.) Fortunately, as noted above, there are plenty of low-calorie, nutrient-dense “grab and go” options available right from nature.

4) Compartmentalizing Foods by Macronutrient

Low-carb. Low-fat. High-protein. All these popular diets have one thing in common: they demonize one macronutrient while singing the praises of the others. Such an approach ignores the health benefits that may be gained from whole foods in the “forbidden” group. High-carb diets are prime examples of this mentality. These diets lump all types of carbohydrates together, creating confusion over the difference between processed and whole grains and making vegetables and fruits seem like dietary enemies.

The problem with this approach? Nearly all food is composed of more than one type of macronutient. Beans have protein, but they also contain complex carbohydrates. Nuts provide both beneficial fats and protein. Even green leafy vegetables deliver trace amounts of fat. Diets advocating severe restriction of an entire macronutrient category put you at risk for deficiencies in essential micronutrients and often perpetuate false information about why such a diet is healthier than others. Pay attention to the rhetoric, and you’ll often discover proponents of these diets make their claims seem like something new and revolutionary, a stunning “expose” proving something you always thought was good for you has actually been killing you slowly your whole life. After convincing you of the error of your ways, they’ll probably try to sell you something.

There are certain medical conditions requiring specialized restricted diets, but healthy people should aim to consume foods containing all three “macros” every day. Choosing whole plant foods the majority of the time and eating a variety of different types of food should deliver the right balance of major nutrients.

5) Assuming All Sugars are the SameFructose in fruit isn't the same

Thanks to “low carb” diet fads and the persistent idea that consuming sugar causes diabetes (fat has a lot more to do with it), there’s a great deal of confusion about the difference between naturally occurring sugar and sugar added to products. The biggest offender? Fructose, the same sugar found in both high fructose corn syrup and fruit.

It’s become common to question whether fruit’s concentration of fructose makes it unhealthy. The demonizing of sugar in all its forms makes it easy to become wary of a food that’s been a staple of our diets since God placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. However, putting products like soda in the same category as whole, unprocessed fruits ignores a much bigger picture.

In terms of context, the fructose added to beverages and packaged foods bears about as much resemblance to fruit’s fructose as bleached white flour does to whole wheat berries. As this article on Whole 9 points, out, “fruit isn’t just fructose. It’s also a rich source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber – things that make you healthier.”

Because fruit’s sugars come in a package containing all these other compounds, blood sugar doesn’t rise as quickly. In fact, one study showed adding berries to a sugary meal can actually prevent the expected “sugar high,” in which the body releases large amounts of insulin in response to an onslaught of undiluted sugar. You’re also much less likely to over-consume fruit than soda or sweetened processed snacks. It takes a lot more effort to crunch your way through an apple than it does to polish off a bottle of your favorite brand of sugar water.

So what’s the best way to make truly healthy food choices?

  • Consume whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods whenever possible, including fresh and frozen vegetables, low-salt canned vegetables, fresh fruits, unsweetened frozen fruits, whole grains and legumes.
  • Shop in bulk bins or seek out mail-order co-ops for whole grains and dried beans. These are not only healthy choices but also typically much cheaper when purchased in bulk.
  • Flavor foods with fresh or dried herbs, spices and low-salt condiments instead of relying on artificial ingredients.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the white noise in the world of nutrition and the constant battles between proponents of conflicting dietary dogmas. But when you stick with the basics and eat a variety of unprocessed plant-based foods, it’s easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle — and enjoy delicious meals every day.

Want to learn more about living a healthy plant-based lifestyle? Join “A Greener Gut” on Facebook for articles, videos, Q&A and more!

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Secrets of the World’s 3 Healthiest Nuts

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Did you know November is National Peanut Butter Lover’s Month? (It’s also National Stuffing Month, but we’ll save that for Thanksgiving.) Being a peanut butter lover myself, I spent some time a couple of weeks ago scouring the Internet for some tasty vegan peanut butter recipes to share, which have been popping up on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn in recent weeks.

I also got to thinking about nuts as part of a plant-based diet. Nuts seem to be either much maligned or joyfully celebrated depending on dietary views. Some people avoid them like the plague, fearing their high fat content. Others liberally munch on them and merrily drizzle nut-based sauces on anything and everything. I fall somewhere in between, preferring to get a dose of whole-food fats from a variety of nuts and seeds every day without going overboard.

There’s no reason to avoid these nutritional powerhouses in your own diet. Nuts are much more than a source of unprocessed fats, and looking at the top three healthiest choices shows why they deserve a place on your plate. (Or in your hand, on salads, in baked goods…)

california-almonds-by-blary54-free-images

blary54/FreeImages

Almonds

Almonds are a personal favorite of mine. Back when there was a shortage of Trader Joe’s raw almond butter, I freaked out when I found jars of it at the Northampton location and promptly bought every single one. I’ve also been known to snack on apples, raisins and almonds pretty habitually in the afternoon to the point where I still refer to the combination as the “old-school Sam snack.”

While you don’t have to be quite so obsessive, it’s a good idea to munch on almonds or enjoy almond butter stuffed dates once and a while. Almonds contain high levels of vitamin E, a natural antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Eating the skins increases the antioxidant power.

Compared to other nuts, almonds are high in fiber (3.5 grams per ounce) and protein (6 grams per ounce). They’re also an excellent source of biotin, part of the B vitamin family responsible for helping to metabolize macronutrients, keep nerves healthy and aid in amino acid production. Monounsaturated fats support a healthy heart and cholesterol levels, and eating almonds has been shown to be beneficial for blood sugar levels.

Almonds are perfect in muffins, sprinkled on salads, stirred into oatmeal or used as garnish on Moroccan-spiced dishes!

Pecans

For years, my mom has made the pumpkin pie from The Joy of Vegan Baking for Thanksgiving. The recipe calls for exactly 16 pecan halves, which I’ve diligently picked up from the co-op’s bulk section just in time for baking.

It turns out you don’t need to make excuses to garnish dishes with (or scarf down) pecans during the holidays. The nutritional profile speaks for itself:

  • 12 grams of monounsaturated fat per ounce
  • Lowers LDL and raises HDL for a more favorable cholesterol balance
  • High in antioxidants, including carotenes and ellagic acid
  • High in B vitamins for energy production and metabolism
  • Good source of trace minerals, including copper, manganese, phosphorous and zinc
  • Packed with anti-inflammatory magnesium, which may help lower blood pressure

Of course, if you’re eating pecans covered in sugar or as part of a gooey pie, you’re getting a lot of bad along with the good. Stick to raw or lightly toasted nuts most of the time, and save the treats for special occasions. (Sweet potato casserole, anyone?)

walnuts-by-crispul21-free-images

cripul21/FreeImages

Walnuts

Walnuts are stars when it comes to omega-3 content. High in polyunsaturated fats, these nuts have been studied quite a bit for their heart-healthy qualities. Omega-3s reduce inflammation and promote good blood flow, making them key players in cardiovascular health. One study showed walnuts may be beneficial for bones, too, citing a correlation between high consumption and lower levels of certain bone turnover markers in the body.

Tossing some walnuts on your salad or in your granola also delivers:

  • Phenols
  • Flavanoids
  • Tannins

These all have antioxidant properties, with tannins in particular showing anti-carcinogenic and antimicrobial effects. Some of the antioxidants found in walnuts are hard to get from other foods, so make room for them in your meals whenever you can.

In a (Healthy) Nutshell

I chose these three nuts as “the healthiest” based on Dr. Michael Greger’s video ranking nuts by antioxidant content and several other sources linked throughout the post. But that doesn’t mean other nuts aren’t just as good for you! Peanuts, for example (because, hey, Peanut Butter Lover’s Month!), are high in protein, monounsaturated fats, antioxidants and important trace minerals. Macadamia nuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, pistachios and their other nutty companions are also worth checking out.

So go ahead, get creative. Have some peanut butter toast in the morning. Sprinkle pecans in your salad. Try out cashew butter in your next cookie recipe.

Or get your fix any time of day with these nutty ideas:

Need help making nuts (and other healthy foods) a regular part of your diet? I can get you on track! Start a consulting program with GreenGut Wellness today to get a personalized health plan.

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5 Compelling Reasons to Eat Whole Grains

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These robust plant foods offer a wealth of benefits

Grains. Love them or hate them, they’re the foundation of many traditional diets around the world and continue to be a staple in modern civilization. Most of the grains eaten today, however, have been refined to the point where they no longer provide the nutritional value that makes the original whole forms such an amazing staple food. These “empty calories” have given rise to the prevailing thought that grains are bad, carbohydrates are killing us and we all need to run in the other direction every time we see a bowl of rice.

Whole grains, however, are something we should be running to. Slowly but surely, the public eye is being opened to the fact that grains in their original, unrefined forms are among the healthiest foods out there. These grains are nourishing, power-packed choices that can be enjoyed at any meal. They’re delicious savory or sweet, with vegetables or fruit, tossed with herbs or seasoned with spices. However you like to prepare them, grains like rice, quinoa, millet, barley, amaranth, teff, corn and wheat can do amazing things for your health.

Better Heart Health

In How Not to Die, Dr. Michael Greger cites a study showing consumption of three servings of whole grains a day — which is about 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of cooked grains — reduced the risk of a heart attack by 15 percent and strokes by 25 percent. The Whole Grain Council reports higher numbers, showing a 25 to 28 percent risk reduction for heart disease and a 30 to 36 percent drop in stroke risk among those including whole grains in their diets.

stalk of whole grain oatsThe high fiber content of whole grains may have something to do with these benefits, according to Brenda Davis in her detailed compendium, Becoming Vegan. High fiber diets have been linked with a lower overall risk of cardiac events as well as a reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the first place. Fiber combines with cholesterol-rich bile acids and lowers fatty acid synthesis in the liver, leading to lower blood levels of these potentially damaging substances. Fiber may also work to remove undesirable blood clots by breaking down the fibrin necessary for clots to form.

Methyl donors may be another reason why grains are so good at protecting heart health. When the body metabolizes the amino acid methionine, an intermediate compound called homocysteine is formed. Unless homocysteine is remethylated — that is, unless it gets a methyl group from another compound such as choline, betaine or inositol, all found in whole grains — it may lead to an increase in inflammation and promote adhesion within blood vessels. Inflamed blood vessels don’t heal well, and prolonged damage to the inner lining, called the endothelium, can promote clot formation and increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Whole grains also contain vitamin B6, folic acid and zinc, which also play a role in controlling homocysteine levels.

Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Fiber is at least partly responsible for the statistics showing that consuming three servings of whole grains a day can lower diabetes risk by one third. A study by Harvard Medical School showed similar benefits in a group of 11 overweight and obese subjects consuming six to 11 servings of whole grains per day. Even with partially refined foods such as breads, pasta and baked goods included in the serving count, subjects experienced a 10 percent drop in fasting insulin, lower insulin secretions and greater glucose infusion into cells when compared to a similar diet containing refined grains.

When fiber-rich foods are ingested, the fiber delays absorption of both fat and carbohydrates, resulting in a more stable glucose response, which in turns reduces the need for high levels of insulin to normalize blood sugar. Since high blood sugar and excessive insulin production may both contribute to type 2 diabetes risk, it makes sense that whole grains appear to confer benefits. The Whole Grains Council places total risk reduction between 21 and 30 percent for people who consume whole grains.

Cancer Risk Reduction

Phenols, lignans and saponins are phytonutrients found in whole grains, and they’re superheroes in the fight against cell damage. Cells throughout the body are bombarded every day by artificial compounds in food and body care products, chemicals in the environment and the daily effects of metabolism. When left unchecked, the effects of these encounters have the potential to initiate cancer as cells mutate and multiply. Phytonutrients have antioxidant properties to prevent the damage from getting out of hand. The compounds found in whole grains are particularly effective against colorectal cancer. Eating three servings per day has the potential to lower the risk of the developing the disease by 20 percent.

Lignans also act as phytoestrogens, notes Dr. Greger in How Not to Die. These “plant estrogens” create a buffer to control high levels of estrogen associated with hormone-driven cancers, especially those of the breast and prostate. By docking on hormone receptors, phytoestrogens block the more aggressive estrogens believed to play a role in the development of these cancers. To get the benefits of lignans, however, you need a healthy gut. Whole grains contain only the precursors to lignans; a strong community of friendly gut bacteria is necessary to transform them into the final product.

Improved Digestion

whole grain brown rice in a jarEven before people knew what fiber was or how it worked, its role in digestive health was clear. A visit to the General Store & Apothecary Shop at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT, reveals a surprisingly large collection of products created to counteract the effects of inadequate fiber intake in a population that ate a great deal of cured meat and other high-fat, low-fiber fare. The same problems are evident in the large amount of shelf space modern pharmacies devote to digestive aids.

Unfortunately, Americans and other cultures eating predominantly Western-style diets continue to consume levels of fiber far below the recommended amounts, with average intakes hovering around 15 to 17 grams. Adequate Intake (AI) levels are set at 38 grams for men ages 19 to 50 and 25 grams for women in the same age bracket. Older men should consume at least 30 grams and older women at least 20 grams.

Those eating vegan diets that include whole grains average between 35 and 50 grams of fiber per day, and whole-food plant-based diets may provide up to 60 grams of fiber per day. Grains often figure predominantly in these eating plans. Fiber consumed at these levels provides enough food for the diverse community of bacteria that thrives in the human gut. As these bacteria break down strands of fiber, they release short-chain fatty acids that strengthen colon walls. Complex sugars called oligosaccharides act as prebiotics to provide more nourishment for these bacteria.

A strong colon is a healthy colon, and people who eat more fiber may be at a reduced risk for diverticulitis, irritable bowel disease, hemorrhoids and colorectal cancer. In fact, one study showed that consuming ten extra grams of fiber per day reduced the risk of this type of cancer by 10 percent.

Nutrient Content

Refining grains strips away the outer bran and germ, removing up to 80 percent of the healthful compounds that give the whole forms their benefits. When eaten in their unrefined states, grains provide a range of nutrients, including:

  • B vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Selenium
  • Zinc

Each of these nutrients supports one or more essential bodily processes. Some, like selenium and zinc, act as antioxidants. Zinc is essential for over 100 enzymatic processes, and selenium is a critical component in thyroid hormone conversion. Many B vitamins support energy production and a healthy metabolism. Folate is essential for cell division, which is why pregnant women are encouraged to consume more of this nutrient. Magnesium balances out calcium to promote bone health. Other benefits for immunity and cell activity can also come from these vitamins and minerals.

Learn More About Whole Grain Benefits

The Vegan Health Guide: Whole Grains — Discover the health benefits of specific grains, why you should choose whole instead of refined and how to find the best grains when shopping!

Health Studies from the Whole Grains Council — Search by grain or health condition to find studies detailing the perks of including whole grains in your diet.

More Than Just Fiber? — This abstract discusses the “whole grain package,” suggesting the benefits of these foods may come from far more than the nutrients usually studied in isolation.

Lignans: The Linus Pauling Institute — An objective scientific look at the potential health effects of lignan consumption.


I’d love to hear about why you love whole grains. Share your favorite grains and recipes in the comments!

Note: This post contains affiliate links.

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Say Hello to Squash (and Other Seasonal Favorites)!

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Enjoying the benefits of diverse autumn produce

Every season has its signature produce, and each harvest provides just the right combination of foods to make dishes that complement the weather. (As I’m fond of saying, God knew what He was doing!) In autumn, we’re greeted with a delightful array of starchy and crunchy vegetables, chewy mushrooms and dense fruits. This combination not only makes for lovely soups, stews, casseroles and pies but also contains high levels of nutrients that support overall health by zapping common disease markers.

Squashes for Roasting and Stuffing

squashes by salsachia

salsachia/FreeImages

There are so many varieties of winter squashes that it’s impossible to list them all! Here are a few that should be on your radar this season:

  • Acorn
  • Butternut
  • Buttercup
  • Delicata
  • Hubbard
  • Kabocha
  • Spaghetti
  • Sugar pumpkin

Each has its own unique appearance and flavor, but the one thing they all share is the vibrant color that broadcasts their abundant antioxidant content. In fact, World’s Healthiest Foods reports that winter squashes are one of the top three food sources of cancer-fighting carotenoid compounds. High levels of fiber contain pectins that protect against inflammation and diabetes. A compound called cucurbitacin has a regulating effect on certain inflammatory markers in the body, meaning that squashes could hold promise for those with conditions that present with or are affected by inflammation.

In terms of nutrition, eating squash gives you a big dose of vitamin A, vitamin C, a range of B vitamins and several trace minerals. They’re also an unlikely source of omega-3 fatty acids despite being a low-fat, high-starch food.

More information about specific squash varieties can be found at Epicurious and The Kitchn.

Ways to Enjoy Winter Squash: Roast in the oven (cut in half or cubed), boil and mash the flesh with sweet spices, use spaghetti squash instead of pasta, hollow out and stuff with a mix of grains and beans or use as serving bowls for autumn soups and stews.

Picking Perfect Potatoes

The potato’s bad reputation stems from the typical Western practice of taking a perfectly healthy vegetable and turning it into deep fried junk food. When you skip the oil and enjoy potatoes in their natural state, they’re amazingly good for you. Browse any farmers market in the fall, and you’ll find Russet, Yukon gold, purple, red, fingerling and sweet potatoes. And that’s just a few highlights from the litany of tasty potato varieties.

white potatoes wikimedia commons

By McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Far from being the nutrient-poor “white vegetable” that they’re often made out to be, potatoes contain quite a bit of vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium and copper. Sweet potatoes are even more nutritious. The bright orange flesh delivers a dose of vitamin A, vitamin C and an impressive amount of B complex vitamins. All types of potatoes are rich in fiber.

Consuming regular potatoes may help to lower blood pressure thanks to compounds called kukoamines. The vitamin B6 content supports the creation of neurotransmitters, which are essential for proper brain and nerve function. Carotenoids are abundant in orange sweet potatoes, and sweet potatoes with purple flesh provide anthocyanins. These and other antioxidant phytonutritents might help reduce the risk of damage from heavy metals and free radicals as the food passes through the digestive tract, making sweet potatoes are a sweet treat when it comes to cellular health.

Ways to Enjoy Potatoes: Roast them in the oven, make baked fries with or without seasonings, make curry with cauliflower or spinach, layer in casseroles, add to soups, bake and top with nutritional yeast and vegan sour cream or serve baked and smothered in chili.

Beautiful Brassicas

Also called cruciferous vegetables, Brassicas include cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, radishes and rutabagas. One of the outstanding characteristics of these leafy and crunchy veggies is their reputation for being cancer-fighting powerhouses. Thanks to beneficial sulfur compounds, including sulforaphane, Brassicas may be able to modulate the development of tumors and aid in mechanisms that kill off cancer cells. Phytonutrients known as glucosinolates convert to other compounds during digestion and could also help lower the risk of certain types of cancers.

brussels sprouts by debsch

debsch/FreeImages

World’s Healthiest Foods offers and extensive breakdown of the Brassica nutrient profile. In a nutshell, adding these fall favorites to your diet gives you:

  • The highest amount of vitamin A carotenoids, vitamin C and folic acid of all vegetables
  • More fiber than any other vegetable
  • A high dose of bone-building, anti-inflammatory vitamin K

Omega-3 fatty acids appear in Brassicas at levels comparable to those in fish. Although these fats are in ALA form rather than EPA or DHA, you still get an impressive amount of essential fatty acids from eating your favorite crucifers.

Ways to Enjoy Brassicas/Crucifers: Toss raw into salads or slaws, steam lightly and season with mixed herbs, add to curries or stir fries, saute with garlic and mushrooms, add to soups, use leafy greens as wraps, use cauliflower to “lighten up” mashed potatoes, mix broccoli into mac & “cheese” or make hash with Brussels sprouts.

Note that you can enjoy pretty much the whole plant, including the leaves and stalks of broccoli and cauliflower. Chop the stems with the rest of the vegetable and use the leaves in place of another green veggie instead of throwing them away. Broccoli stalks are also great with hummus!

Appreciating Apples and Pears

I literally eat apples by the bushel this time of year, and for good reason. There are so many to enjoy: McIntosh, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, Crispin, Braeburn, Cameo, Empire, honeycrisp…the list goes on. You can even find out your “apple personalty” on the New York Apple Country website.

apples in a basket

By Oxfordian Kissuth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

No matter what kind of apples you eat, you reap the synergistic effects that various compounds in the fruit have when combined with the fiber. Along with a high phytonutrient content, this has a powerful positive impact on the health of the flora in the GI tract, which may help explain how apples lower both total and LDL cholesterol levels. Eating apples in their whole form helps to slow carbohydrate digestion, reduce glucose absorption, stimulate insulin release and improve insulin sensitivity at a cellular level. In short, apple lovers have healthier digestive systems, a lower risk of heart disease and more stable blood sugar.

Pears are at least as impressive as apples with their wide variety and numerous health benefits. They’re best consumed with the skins on, since that’s where half of the fiber and a majority of the phenols are found. This time of year, you might munch on Anjou, Asian, Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Forell or red pears. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods notes that all types of pears provide healthy doses of vitamins C and K, as well as copper and the powerful antioxidants known as epichatechins. In addition to fiber’s ability to lower the risk of both heart disease and diabetes, the type of fiber in pears may also be able to bind with excess bile acids to offer protection against gastrointestinal cancers.

Ways to Enjoy Apples and Pears: Eaten raw with or without nut butter, dried, cooked in oatmeal, baked into crisps and crumbles, in pies, stuffed with dried fruit and spices and baked, baked with sweet sauce or on top of waffles and pancakes.

Munching on Mushrooms

With their earthy flavor and chewy texture, mushrooms were one of the original meat alternatives for vegetarians and vegans. It’s hard to find a word other than “meaty” to describe varieties like portobello and oyster. White and crimini mushrooms are a bit less intense but no less delicious. When it comes to Asian dishes, shiitake are the king, and porcini make their way into a variety of unique recipes that require a deeper flavor.

In The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, Michael Murray highlights the cancer fighting properties of many types of mushrooms. Polysaccharides and beta-glucans give button mushrooms this power, and shiitake, maitake and reishi have been prized for their medicinal properties for centuries. Shiitake in particular are known for their lentinan content, a compound that not only boosts the immune system but may also help to lower cholesterol. Administering lentinan along with chemotherapy has been shown to improve survival rates among patients with certain cancers.

Depending on the type, eating mushrooms can give you a good amount of minerals such as selenium and iron along with vitamin C and protein. If you’re lucky enough to have a source for gourmet mushrooms like I do with the Mariaville Mushroom Men, don’t hesitate to try something new like pink oysters, puffballs or the oddly named (but completely vegan) chicken of the woods.

mushrooms by gogsy7

gogsy7/FreeImages

Remember, although guides like this visual one from Epicurious and this interesting article about fall foraging from Mother Earth News give a lot of information about different kinds of mushrooms, you should never pick wild mushrooms without a guide to show you which ones are safe. If you’ve been trained in foraging, pass the knowledge on to someone else to preserve the tradition!

Ways to Enjoy Mushrooms: Sauteed with garlic & greens, as a pizza topping, as a burger or steak substitute, sliced and sauteed as wrap ingredients, marinated and baked, in gravy, in stir fries or on salads (but make sure they’re safe to eat raw).

How is autumn produce making its way to your table? I’d love to hear how you’re enjoying these and other fall favorites!

Want to learn more about how eating fresh, seasonal produce can improve your health? Schedule a FREE 15-minute phone consultation with me and get started on the path to better living through plants!

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