Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Fish - the Ultimate Brain Food

Growing up I decided I didn't like fish. A shame really considering I lived beside the Pacific Ocean where the salmon and fishing opportunities were plentiful. Fortunately I've had a change of taste and have come to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of seafood. I also developed an appreciation for sashimi until a meal of vegetarian sashimi sent my gestational diabetes sugars through the roof. Did you know they put sugar in sushi rice? I digress.

Fish is good for us. Populations that eat more fish live longer. Of course these types of studies (epidemiological) only find possible associations and you can't assume their findings to be cause and effect (it could be that they also have less cars and walk more, or have stronger community support etc.). However their findings were so strong they have spurred a great deal of research into fish and the components of fish (omega 3 fatty acids) that may contribute to good health. In brief our North American lifestyles promote inflammation in our bodies (high omega-6 fat intake, stress, lack of sleep etc.), whereas omega-3 fatty acids are precursors to anti-inflammatory agents in our bodies. Ultimately re-tipping the scales towards a balance. They also play an important role in the development and function of the central nervous system. Hence the expression that fish is brain food.

What are the three main Omega-3 fatty acids? 
ALA- alpha-linolenic acid, the smaller (less carbon and double bonds) omega-3 fatty acid that is found in vegetable sources (flax seed, chia seed, hemp seed, walnuts, canola oil, soybean).

EPA - eicosapentaenoic acid, the fatty acid that is converted into anti-inflammatory messengers in the body. It's good for your heart.

DHA- docosahexaenoic acid, the fatty acid that is incorporated into the cell membranes of nervous tissue and retina. Because of it's structure it makes these membranes very fluid/flexible. It's good for your eyes and brain.

How much should I be eating per day?
The dietary reference intakes recommend consuming 1.1g/day (females) and 1.6g/day (males) of ALA. For children ages 1-3 years old, it is 0.7g/day and 0.9g/day for 4-8 years old. This recommendation was based on the average intake of North Americans. The DRI is to prevent deficiency, and it is difficult to determine optimal intake for health.

Unfortunately our bodies ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA is limited, therefore in addition to ALA we need a dietary source of EPA and DHA. We don't have an official recommendation for DHA and EPA intake. An expert panel of researchers concluded in 2008 that there was sufficient evidence to recommend 250-500mg of DHA+EPA per day for cardiovascular health. (Harris et al. 2009 J.Nutr.)

A consensus statement in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2007 recommended that pregnant women consume 200mg/day of DHA.

So my next goal is to evaluate my family's intake and try to get the adults up to a minimum of 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day with 300-500mg being DHA+EPA (averaged over the week). I am not a big fan of supplements as omega-3 fatty acids may not be the only part of fish that is beneficial for our health, therefore I will look to food sources primarily. However I will be open to them if we fall short of the mark.

Food Sources of DHA/EPA: (this is not an exhaustive list just some of the foods we eat on a regular basis)
Salmon (75 grams): 1900 mg
Rainbow Trout (75 grams): 900mg
Omega-3 eggs (chickens can convert the ALA to EPA/DHA so they feed them flax seed): 75mg DHA
Light Tuna canned in water (75 g or 1/2 cup): 200mg
(I usually buy canned light, not albacore/white because it is from smaller fish and contains less mercury, although it also has less DHA/EPA)
Anchovy (1 fillet 4g): 84mg
Sardines and Mackerel are good sources too.

Food Sources ALA:
Flax Seeds (1 Tbsp): 1.6 grams
Chia Seeds (1 Tbsp): 1.9 grams
Hemp Seeds (1 Tbsp): 0.84 grams
Walnuts (30g or 1/4 cup): 2.6 grams
Canola oil (1 Tbsp): 1.3 grams
My source is the Canadian Nutrient File. An excellent database if ever you want to look up the detailed nutrition information of your foods. The American one did not contain omega-3s.

So general plan will be two meals of fatty fish a week with a serving of a food source rich in ALA daily (ground flax on yogurt, or snack of walnuts). Do you like fish? If not, what are your food and/or supplement sources of DHA/EPA?

As we don't live and eat in a vacuum. Those of you interested in reading more about the best seafood choices for sustainability, there is a great table at National Geographic. http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/take-action/impact-of-seafood/#/seafood-decision-guide/

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Food for Thought: Apple vs Juice

Which one fills you up more? Although both have the same calories and sugar content, our bodies do not react the same way to them. There is an increasing amount of evidence to show that our body is not able to recognize the amount of calories we consume when it is in the liquid form. Rather than waiting for research to tell us this maybe we just need to listen to our bodies. Honestly, how many of us eat three apples in a sitting?
As an aside - the equal sign is a bit of a misnomer because in reality the apples have fiber, folate, vitamin A, and beta-carotene, all of which have been removed in the processing to make juice.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Is it Hunger or is it Thirst?

My eldest turned four years old this past week. I can't believe how fast the time has gone by. It feels like yesterday that I was hit by the mack truck of motherhood. I have heard recently that when they your children are young it is physical exhaustion that consumes you, but hit the teen years and you are into the emotional exhaustion. Another reason to get my body humming along at it's maximal healthy potential. 

As for making healthy choices the afternoons can be my nemesis. My energy bottoms out and I usually find myself in front of my cupboards having the same debate, sometimes multiple times a day. I want something to eat, but not really sure what and I don't really feel hungry, just tired and missing something. Usually I end up reaching for a quick carbohydrate type snack such as crackers and end up feeling more sluggish an hour later. There are multiple variables that could be contributing to my afternoon slump. A few of them being not enough protein at breakfast and lunch, too many simple carbohydrates which are sending me on an insulin/sugar joyride with the inevitable crash, lack of physical activity and lack of quality sleep. All of which I plan on tackling over the next little while. But as I stand there, there is one question I am starting to ask myself more often. 

Am I really hungry or am I thirsty? Sometimes I think that I am walking around in a constant state of low-level dehydration. I don't drink water between my meals and sometimes after a meal when I'm cleaning up I'll realize I've only drank 1/2 of my glass of water. We have all heard of the maxim to drink 8-10 cups of liquid a day (2-2.5 Litres). Looking back I think I am averaging 3 cups per day or 750ml. The general guideline of 2-2.5 litres of total water is based on the average intake of female North Americans  (males it is 3.7L). This includes water in our foods. According to national surveys in the U.S. approximately 20-28% of our liquid comes from water, 28% from our food and 44% from other beverages (juice, milk, soda etc.). So if 25% is coming from my foods then perhaps I need to just drink 1500-1600ml (6 cups) per day. Which feels more manageable to me.
The recommendation is to drink when you are thirsty. But am I mistaking my thirsty signals for hunger? If I wait for the thirsty signal to scream at me am I already dehydrated?

My quick fix solution for the moment? Start the day with 500ml (2 cups) water before breakfast. Next time I'm standing in front of the cupboard ask myself, when was the last time I had something to drink? I think I'll reach for a glass of water with lemon slices before those goldfish crackers and see how I feel.

For now I'm going to favour water as my source of liquid. Where does your liquid come from? How much do you drink a day? 

Up next: Are we drinking ourselves to obesity? (referring to those other beverages)

Monday, 14 May 2012

Sly Sugar: Is it a treat or is it an everyday food?

Growing up my favorite after dinner treat was a Root Beer Float. Thinking of it right now I can taste the foamy rootbeer soaked vanilla ice cream and hear the clink of the spoon against the glass as I scooped out the last dredges of ice cream. That being said I had a float maybe a few times a year, it was considered a treat. In high school I remember being jealous of the kids who brought cash to school everyday to spend in the vending machines. Their lunches consisted of a can of soft drink and a chocolate eclair from the cafeteria. Wow treats every day! Looking back on it now they probably didn't feel so hot by the time 3pm rolled around when their bodies crashed from the sugar-high. But the green-eyed monster doesn't notice these things.

So what foods do we consider treats? Should I even be using that word? Have foods that I once considered treats become a daily part of our diet?  For Canadians 35% of our daily sugar intake is coming from so-called Other Foods, which accounts to 7% of our daily calories. Other foods are nutrient-poor foods that don't fall under a food group, such as soft drinks, candy, fruit drinks, and chocolate bars. I am loath to even call them foods, but that is a whole other can of worms.
Enough with the numbers. Below are some pictures to illustrate our intake of sugar from these nutrient poor foods. *Rather than buying 65 pounds of sugar to illustrate my point, I used a 2kg (4.4 pound) bag of sugar and did some photo multiplication. If you have suggestions as to a better way to illustrate that much sugar - I'm all ears, as I'm not entirely satisfied with the end result of my attempt.

Average Canadian's sugar intake from Other Foods such as, soft drinks, candies, chocolate bars, fruit drinks, and added sugar and syrups is around 7.6 tsp per day for a total of 13.9 kg/ year (30.6 pounds). The picture is of 2 kg (4.4 pounds) bags of sugar.

Topping out the charts are those teenage boys aged 14-18 years old who consume 16 teaspoons of sugar from Other Foods per day, resulting in 28.8 kg per year (63.5 pounds).

For the little ones aged 1-3 years. 3.3 teaspoons per day from Other Foods for a total of 6 kg per year (13.2 pounds).

Other Foods for the preschooler and elementary-aged children 4-8 years provides 6.5 teaspoons per day, which equals 11.8 kg/year (26 pounds).

If you are interested in seeing more of the numbers and percentages, my data is from Statistics Canada.


Unfortunately the way they present the data, it is difficult to provide an accurate quantity of sugar per day from specific food sources per sex and age group, such as soft drinks. They do list the top food sources of sugar. For children ages 1-8 years old it is milk. Can you guess what it is for the 9-18 years old? Soft Drinks. Which says to me that they are drinking soft drinks everyday and getting more sugar from soft drinks than fruit. I guess soft drinks aren't considered as treats anymore.

How often do you eat foods that you consider treats? Daily, weekly, monthly? Should I be even using the word treat to describe these foods?

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Rainbow update

How are you doing with your colours? I found myself yesterday afternoon wanting a snack and rather than reaching for the ever accessible children's Goldfish crackers I thought, "I haven't had anything orange yet today", so I finished the little bag of baby carrots languishing at the back of my fridge. Yes Goldfish crackers are orange...wrong orange my friends.

Here are some photos of my colours this week.

Last night's dinner, thought to take a picture after eating half of it. 
Chicken and Quinoa stir-fry with red and yellow peppers, asparagus, onion and garlic.

Arugula Salad last night.
After dinner blueberries and yogurt - photo very unattractive.

Ingredients for Monday night's dinner. See end result below.

Spinach and Mushroom Frittata with Roasted Cauliflower.
Carrots eaten while prepping dinner.

The colours for today! Plan is:
Breakfast: Spinach Omelette, banana
Lunch: Stir-fry leftovers with salad 
or a  tomato, avocado & cheese sandwich
Dinner: Spaghetti squash with tomatoes, shrimp and feta cheese 
(it's really tasty, I promise)
Snacks: orange pepper, blueberries and yogurt, cucumber

Up next is Sly Sugar Sunday. Wishing you a day of delicious colourful eating!

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow

When I first graduated from school I used to joke with my friends that we needed to publish the next best-selling diet book. We were going to call it the Rainbow Diet, as in eat the colors of the rainbow. Not very original, I know. The idea of eating different colored plant-based foods has been around for a while but I have noticed recently that this simple idea is starting to catch on. All you have to do is search, "eating the rainbow".

So what is the benefit of eating different colored plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes? There is a multitude of naturally occurring organic compounds in plant foods known as phytochemicals. A subset of these phytochemicals are antioxidants that play an important role in protecting our body from oxidative stress, which can contribute to heart disease, cancer, degenerative eye disease and dementia. The individual chemical structures of antioxidants are what give these plant-based foods their colors. For instance lycopene, an antioxidant in tomatoes and watermelon reflects the color red and beta-carotene provides carrots with their orange color. Rather than remembering their complicated names and combinations, eat a variety of colors and you're covered.

Below is an incomplete list of the colors and foods associated with them.

Red: beets, red onions, red potatoes, tomatoes, radicchio, radishes, red bell peppers, pink or red grapefruit, blood oranges, rhubarb, strawberries, cherries, red plums, raspberries, watermelon, red apples, cranberries, red grapes, red pears, pomegranates, red chili pepper

Orange:  carrots, sweet potatoes, orange bell peppers, orange squash (butternut, acorn), mango, navel and mandarin oranges, papayas, apricots, canteloupe (orange melons), nectarines, peaches, pumpkins

Yellow:  yellow bell peppers, corn, yellow squash (spaghetti), yellow tomatoes, golden beets, rutabagas, grapefruit, lemons, pineapples, yellow apples, yellow pears

Green: artichokes, asparagus, green bell peppers, endive, green beans, lettuce, peas, spinach, watercress, arugula, cucumbers, okra, zucchini, bok choy, broccoli, broccoli rabe, brussel sprouts, green cabbage, endive, kale, leeks, swiss chard, celery, kiwi, limes, green pears, avocados, green grapes, honeydew melon, green chilies, parsley, cilantro, other green herbs

Blue: blueberries, blue plums, blue grapes

Purple: eggplant, purple-tipped Belgian endive, purple cabbage, purple carrots, prunes, black currants, figs, plums, figs, grapes, raisins, blackberries, dates

White/Tan: cauliflower, onions, mushrooms, jicama, parsnips, potatoes, shallots, turnips, white corn, kohlrabi, garlic, ginger, bananas

So my family goal for this week is to increase the variety of colors we are eating every day. I think we'll aim for 4-5 as 7 may be a bit ambitious to start with. I see a great deal of blueberries and eggplant in my near future. How many colors have you eaten today? By the way, yellow fast food french fries don't count.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sneaky Salt Saturday: Salad with a Side of Salt

One of my first rotations as a nutrition intern was at a small community hospital. As we sat down for lunch each day I saw the cook open up her lunch salad, reach for the salt shaker and douse it in table salt. I thought, "people put salt on their salads? how odd." I hadn't yet considered what was in that bottled salad dressing I poured over my own salad. 

Canadians and Americans consume about 3400mg of sodium per day (1 1/2 teaspoons of salt). Which is more than double the 1000-1500mg ((2/3 teaspoon salt) recommended daily amount and 50% more than the recommended maximum amount (1 teaspoon). It is estimated that 75% of our sodium comes from processed foods and not the table salt we add at home. So what is the danger in eating so much extra sodium? I'll keep it simple: it leads to high blood pressure which leads to heart disease, stroke and kidney failure. Not a numbers person? I personally prefer visuals, so here it is. This is how much extra salt we are eating each day and over the entire year.

Since my time as an intern I have married an Italian who prefers a basic splash of balsamic vinegar and olive oil to the bottled preparations I would bring home. Although I have to admit I enjoy his (and that of my friends) homemade salad dressing, I still occasionally succumb to the lure of a good sale price and the convenience of 30 seconds saved. So my first baby step to healthy eating will be to cut back on the sneaky sources of excess sodium in my diet, starting with salad dressing.

The average commercial balsamic or italian salad dressing has between 100-250mg sodium per tablespoon. The one I have in my fridge at this time has 150mg per tablespoon. So rather than boring you with my math, below is a picture to show the difference over the year. Eating one tablespoon of the commercial salad dressing in place of my homemade olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano dressing every day is equal to 2/3 cup of extra salt per year. My apologies for the photo quality.

Although this post isn't about sugar, salad dressing can also be a significant source. Even if you are making your own dressing at home, balsamic vinegar can be up to 33% sugar, which is why I now choose red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar instead. Below is a recipe of a dressing my mother-in-law prepares and keeps in the fridge for a week at a time.

Nonna's salad dressing
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon Mustard
2 Tablespoons Plain Yogurt

Do you have a favorite homemade salad dressing recipe? What are your sneaky sources of sodium? Soup? Fast Food? Cereal? Condiments? Pizza? Cheese?

Friday, 4 May 2012

What Motivates Your Food Choices?

If you were to approach someone on the street eating an apple and ask they why they chose that apple what do you think their response would be? Other than the obvious odd look of course.....

1. I like apples (taste)
2. It was the easiest thing to grab on the way out the door (convenience)
3. It was on sale (economy)
4. I have to fit into a size 4 bridesmaid dress this weekend and am dieting (physical appearance)
5. It is good for me (health)
6. I heard it will make me smarter (myths and beliefs)
7. We always ate apples in the mornings growing up (culture)
8. I saw someone eating an apple on TV this morning and I had a craving (not sure what to call this, external influence?)
9. I was sad and it makes me feel better (emotional eating)

Do you know what motivates your food choices? There are many variables that influence our food choices and I'm sure I haven't covered them all.

One thing I have learned over the years is that number one, taste, is non-negotiable. If it doesn't taste good it won't be eaten more than once. That being said taste preferences can adapt over time with gradual changes. Here in North America we are adapted to a diet high in sugar, fat and salt, all of which are shortcuts to tastiness. Unfortunately an excess of refined sugar, bad fats and salt are bad for our health. One of my main goals with my family journey to health is to re-educate our taste preferences back to the basics of whole foods, herbs, spices, and healthy fats. First up is Sneaky Salt Saturday, discovering and reducing excessive sodium.