Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Your Snacking Style Might Sabotage Weight Loss

It has been said that eating more frequently can help with weight loss. The reason why this usually works, if done properly and mindfully, is that eating regularly helps to maintain blood glucose and insulin levels, preventing spikes and dips that might eventually lead to overeating, and also helps boost your metabolism.

The downside to this seemingly simple strategy is that people sometimes eat more regularly but don't scale back their portion sizes, meaning they end up taking in more food over all and ultimately sabotage their weight loss efforts. Instead of three smaller meals with three snacks spaced in between, they end up just eating 6 small meals. This perhaps alludes to the findings of a recent study concerning snacks and weight loss published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

In the study, the dietary and exercise habits of over 100 overweight to obese women aged 50 to 75 were monitored for a year. One interesting result was that the women who snacked between breakfast and lunch lost less weight than those who skipped their AM snacks (7% vs 11%, respectively). Interestingly, a snack was defined as any food or beverage taken in between meals. I'm not clear on what foods or beverages the participants were choosing but drinks like coffee, tea or water with nothing added to them have no calories. And certainly there has to be a difference in outcomes between choosing a snack like an apple or some trail mix versus a chocolate bar or croissant.

In any case, the researchers don't think the results have much to do with the actual time of day that the meals and snacks were taken but rather more to do with the spacing, frequency and necessity of food intake. They suggest that mid-morning snackers might be "mindlessly" eating rather than satisfying true hunger.

Intuitively, if you throw in an extra snack in the morning and you're active, you'll work up an appetite soon after and continue eating regularly the rest of the day (that is, unless you watch every calorie and plan out your meals and snacks accordingly). On the other hand, if you wait a while and consider snacking later on in the day, perhaps closer to dinner, your day is winding down and you might be more conscious of what you've eaten throughout the day. Your decisions at that point might actually be based on true hunger.

The main message the researchers are driving home is that snacking does play an important role in weight loss, but when calories are limited, every single one counts. You've really got to get the most bang for your buck for every single calorie by choosing nutrient-dense whole foods rather than empty calories. Whole foods are naturally satisfying, particularly when they contain protein and some fats. If meals and snacks are planned appropriately and "absent-minded grabbing" is avoided, healthy eating and weight loss really can be a cinch (or at least easier!).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some Vino Might Lower Diabetes Risk in Carb Lovers

Plenty of research shows that the typical North American diet is carbohydrate heavy. We adore our pizzas, pastas, breads and cereals. Much of this focus on carbs and fear of fats has to do with the advocacy health professionals and researchers of adopting a low-fat diet and the inadequacy of the average diet in terms of protein.

Certainly, carbs are necessary for good health, but consuming excessive amounts, particularly of refined carbohydrates and processed foods, significantly contributes to weight gain and the risk of developing diabetes, among other chronic diseases. So without making too radical a change, what can carb-lovers do to improve their health? According to Harvard researchers, raising a glass might help.

Recent research from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that alcohol-drinkers whose diets are carbohydrate-rich are at a 30% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than non-drinkers with similar dietary habits.

The study followed about 80,000 women over a span of 26 years and kept tabs on their dietary habits. By the end, it was revealed that those who regularly consumed large amounts of refined carbohydrates but moderate amounts of alcohol (about 2 drinks per week) fared better in terms of their diabetes risks compared to non-drinking carb-lovers.

The researchers aren't saying that alcohol necessarily protects people with high-carb diets from diabetes nor are they encouraging alcohol consumption. They think that perhaps alcohol can affect the body's release of insulin and other substances after a meal, attenuating the blood sugar highs and lows that may lead to diabetes, however more research needs to be done in this area to gather more conclusive evidence. For now, their advice remains the same as what we're always told- follow a diet lower in refined carbohydrates for better health, and if you drink, do so moderately.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cheese Given the Green Light for Heart Health?

Going against the grain in any capacity can be risky and uncomfortable. Now consider that your reputation is on the line and that you're trying to win over a world of skeptics. Oftentimes, that's the harsh reality of research. But slowly, as more scholars and researchers take the plunge to challenge the existing nutrition dogma that has for so long been accepted, we're learning that lots of formerly "blacklisted" foods are really just fine for our health after all.

Just as we've learned that the longstanding messaging around lean red meat was wrong (it has about the same effect on blood cholesterol levels as lean white meats and no association with colorectal cancer in moderate daily amounts e.g. Canada's Food Guide servings), we're learning that scientists are coming to similar conclusions about another food containing natural saturated fats: cheese.

In a new study from the University of Copenhagen, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Danish researchers found that the daily consumption of hard cheese did not raise LDL ("bad" cholesterol) or total cholesterol levels in nearly 50 healthy participants.

For two separate 6 week periods, participants consumed 13% of their daily calories as fat from either cheese or butter. In between, there was a 2 week 'wash out' period where the participants followed their regular, lower-fat diets. Compared with their baseline diets, lower in total and saturated fats, the participants' LDL and total cholesterol levels showed no increase when eating cheese daily; there was no difference. However, when they switched to butter, their cholesterol levels rose about 7% on average.

The researchers aren't totally clear yet as to why cheese and butter could have such different impacts on human blood cholesterol levels, but there could really be any number of reasons for the difference observed. For one, the researchers pointed out that cheese has more calcium than butter, which has been suggested to bind and excrete fat. In the study, however, fecal fat excretion was measured and was not shown to be different across the conditions. Other possibilities could include the foods that were paired with the butter or cheese and the participants' overall dietary patterns; cheese and butter are used and enjoyed in different ways.

The bottom line once again is to realize that in the end, humans were meant to eat whole foods in their natural forms. If we focus on whole foods that by default are rich in the nutrients our bodies need, we will naturally move towards a dietary pattern that promotes good health. Milk is highly nutrient rich, natural and good for us. Milk also contains fat, and it makes good sense that products made from milk should also contain these fats so as not to manipulate what nature provided us with. Perhaps butter isn't as stellar for us in terms of our blood cholesterol levels based on the findings of this study, but on that note, butter doesn't contain as many nutrients as cheese, and that might suggest that we should eat less of it than we would cheese anyways. Besides, almost any food can fit into a healthy dietary pattern so long as moderation is the rule. So really, what else is new?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Bright New System to Shine Some Light on Healthy Food Choices

"Nutrition choices made simple." Does that sound like an oxymoron to you? If you said yes, you're not alone. It can certainly be tough to get a clear idea of what constitutes a healthy food choice and what doesn't when you're shopping for groceries. With the realization that many if not most consumers continue to be confused by nutrition messages, there's a new program being rolled out that is designed to clear up some of that confusion and guide you to making healthier food choices. It's called Guiding Stars program and it's coming to a Loblaws store shelf near you.

It's pretty simple and usually safe to say that whole, natural, single-ingredient foods are the best options for our health, but things can get a whole lot trickier when looking at those items on the store shelves with long ingredient lists seemingly written in code with difficult to interpret nutrition facts panels. Trying to figure out what foods are best for us and our families can feel like trying to solve the daVinci Code. In the past, we've received tips and guidance on how to make informed, healthy choices, and certain programs or initiatives have been created along the way to better guide us, such as the health check program. Since plenty of confusion and mixed messages continue to exist, the new Guiding Stars program aims to silence all that kerfuffle and literally make choosing healthy foods a simple(r) task.

According to the Guiding Stars website, "Nutrition can be as easy as 1-2-3. Guiding Stars analyzes foods and translates the nutrition information to a rating system that is easy to understand". The system is designed to rate foods based on nutrient density (amount of nutrients per calorie) using a scientific algorithm (higher nutrient density is better, with penalties for "unhealthy" nutrients). Foods that are part of the program are marked with tags indicating 0, 1, 2, or 3 stars. Simply put, the higher the nutritional score the food receives, the more Guiding Stars it receives. Zero stars suggests that a food has a poor nutritional value, while three stars indicate the best nutritional value.

While this system is great in theory (that's usually the case), it certainly isn't perfect or without flaws. For example, an extremely nutritious food such as real cheddar cheese receives zero stars because it contains a large percentage of fat (even though the fats are not unhealthy and cheese also contains calcium, phosphorous, vitamin D and magnesium, among other nutrients). Meanwhile some fortified, processed foods like cheesy popcorn or cheese puffs get a better score because they have nutrients added or less fat. Clearly, some re-evaluation needs to be done.

Regardless, a great deal of time and energy went into creating this program which truthfully has more good points than faults. Given that the criteria for the system is clearly laid out and transparent, there are no hidden agendas for labeling certain foods and not others. This program is ultimately designed to help guide consumers and build upon their existing knowledge of nutrition and health when making food choices. Consumers are still the ones making the final decisions as to what they want to buy and they have access to a world of other information on which to base their decisions. Hopefully this new system will achieve it's goal of helping consumers make healthier choices, and as far as I'm concerned, any help in that department which is based on sound science is better than none at all.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Whole New Perspective on Food

For me, this has been a very exciting week in the world of nutrition. One major point to note is that I have been introduced to the names and the work of Dr. Micha and Dr. Mozaffarian who have both been heavily involved in research surrounding diet and cardiometabolic health and have come to some very interesting conclusions.

Dr. Mozaffarian was one of the first people to openly question our current perceptions and recommendations surrounding the role of saturated fats in our diets and how they impact cardiometabolic health. It turns out, in fact, that we've been making strong recommendations based on weak and inconclusive evidence for many years about this topic and others. In terms of dietary fats including SFAs and heart health, it's been at least 30 years that we've been getting the wrong message. We need dietary fats - we're pretty clear on this concept now and we've progressed in a sense in terms of including them in our diets more, but we're still shaking in our boots about saturated fats. It turns out that there is no need for this nonsense. There's actually NO conclusive evidence to date linking SFAs to heart disease based on meta-analyses of huge numbers of studies. I know- it's OK - I was shocked too!

Now, what makes things even more interesting is the fact that we've been wasting our time focusing on avoiding certain individual nutrients for the longest time, like saturated fat for example, and over-consuming others instead of taking a more holistic approach and looking at whole foods as part of a healthy, balanced diet. We definitely know that nutrients don't act in isolation and they tend to 'work' better in our bodies when they are in their most natural forms, in whole foods. You want some vitamin D? Why pop pills or eat fortified products? Just drink milk or eat some beef more often.

In reality, people are replacing fats with way too many refined carbohydrates and useless (literally, from a dietary standpoint) junk foods that don't fit into any of the food groups or they're buying heavily processed junk that is masquerading as healthy food because it's been sprinkled with added nutrients. This trend has been largely responsible for the obesity epidemic we're seeing, which has a much greater impact on cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders than single nutrients ever could.

What also happens when we focus on single nutrients like sugar or fat is that we do silly things like telling kids to stay away from chocolate milk or yogurt with 'real' sugar, which is highly nutrient-rich, full of calcium, vitamin D, potassium and protein - all of which kids and adults alike aren't getting enough of as it stands, just because there might be some fat or sugar added in there. Instead we think it's better that they just drink water or diet pop, or consume other foods with added chemical sweeteners. Crazy, right? Or how about telling people to stay away from beef which is packed with satiating protein and actually contains the same amount of fat or less than chicken per 100g but way more iron, zinc, vitamin D and a slew of other essential nutrients - because of the negative messages surrounding red meat, which we now know are unfounded. You get the point - and yet the list goes on.

Well on that note, just today, a press statement has been released from Dr. Mozaffarian regarding whole foods. He says that we should stop focusing and nitpicking over single nutrients like fats, especially since they hardly account for any significant portion of calories consumed by most people. We should focus more on what we need more of in our diets, which should naturally guide us towards nutritional adequacy, good health, and avoidance of processed, added junk. If we eat the right stuff, we feel full, energetic and satisfied, which tends to make us eat less over all. In his own words, Dr. Mozaffarian said that “For most people, getting more of what’s missing will have a larger benefit than limiting certain nutrients,”.

So what should we be eating then? The current recommendations include:

- 4 to 5 daily servings each of fruits and vegetables
- 3-plus daily servings of whole, unrefined grain products
- 2 to 3 daily servings of low- or nonfat dairy products
- 2 to 6 daily servings of vegetable oils
- 2 or more weekly servings of fish or shellfish
- 4 to 5 weekly servings of nuts and seeds

Foods we should eat less of include processed meats, sugary beverages, sweets, and baked goods made with refined grains. Not to be eaten are any foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or other trans fats.

This information is not technically new - we do have our food guide which makes similar suggestions, but perhaps we needed reminding and a slightly different explanation or perspective on the situation.

Either way, we all need to pause for a moment, take a look in our kitchens from top to bottom (especially our pantries) and re-evaluate what we're eating. Why are we choosing the foods we do? Is the information we were getting still accurate? Do the 'rules' we were following still apply? If you're not sure, it's time to do a little digging or ask someone who knows so that you can start living a fuller, healthier life.