Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Changing Our Palate

Golden roasted garlicky Brussels sprouts, olive oil, a dash of cracked pepper and sea salt…mmm. My mouth is watering, yours? If your anything like much of the population, there’s a good chance that you’d rather put a fork in your eye than into a serving of these glorious green globes. Not to worry, I’m not here to preach about the numerous benefits of cruciferous vegetables but rather to provide insight as to why taste preferences vary and why some might shutter at the idea of eating any vegetable aside from a French fry (yes-French fries are considered a vegetable by some, but that’s a can of worms for another time) while others bask in the splendor of delicately braised kale or the earthy sweetness of luscious beets (I might be talking about me here).

It turns out that our taste preferences are influenced by genetics and environment. Genes that code for taste have been identified and explain why some people are more sensitive to bitter foods, like Brussels sprouts. However, studies show that children and mothers with the same taste genes have different experiences of bitterness. This has lead researchers to propose that bitter sensitivity is heightened in childhood and dulls over time,. These same children also showed greater preference for sweetness, which does not come as a surprise evolutionarily speaking.

The inherent response to reject bitter plants was important in protecting our caveman ancestors from consuming poisonous foods. In nature edible plants are often sweet (think wild berries), and were safer choices. The tendency towards sweetness was functional at one time to avoid bitter, poisonous plants but has now gotten us into trouble. Sugar is ubiquitous in the food system, and more often is consumed in processed items rather than what nature had intended.

Is it possible that our sugar laden environment has over-ridden the inherent gradual acceptance of bitter foods, like many vegetables? When our palate is conditioned to expect sweetness, unsweetened foods may well be refused, especially by growing children, which is why infants should be introduced to vegetables first rather than fruits. Salt, too, has played an important role in human history but is now over consumed, often unknowingly in processed items, and this over consumption corresponds to various health concerns.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans* pull in the reigns on sugar and salt. Stricter recommendations have been made in hopes of dramatically reducing intake to help manage weight, diabetes, hypertension, and many more related illnesses. However, a common question is: how will people accept and adapt to eating a diet that is so, well, bland? Thinking about all of the variety and flavors that real, whole foods, herbs, spices offer opens up infinite possibilities in the kitchen, but for those conditioned to highly sweet or salty foods, the answer to this question is simply this: like any habit or lifestyle change, it will take time, exploring new foods and flavors, and reprogramming our taste buds. 

So, if you’ve sworn off certain foods because you didn’t like them 10 or 20 years ago, be adventurous and give them another shot! There’s a good chance you might surprise yourself; life might just be a little more savory with a few more Brussels sprouts.    

*Generally, I’m not a huge advocate of nutrition recommendations propagated by the government (HHS + USDA), as I do not believe they have our best interest in mind (6-11 servings of grains/d!), but it’s a no brainer that we do need to dramatically decrease intake of sugar and salt from processed food-like items. Plus, the Dietary Guidelines have far reaching effects for many
populations, which is why I referred to them above.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Do You Pack (and USE) Running Shoes When Traveling?

Traveling can definitely throw a wrench into one's health/nutrition/fitness routines, in fact routines tend to go out the window when dealing with changing situations. This is especially true when a) your travels include flying to your destination and you don't have the car to toss anything and everything into, b) changing time zones (jet lag seems to be a valid excuse for anyone no matter the direction traveled), and c) trying to squeeze in as many activities (work or play) into the day as possible. Plus, people often prescribe to the "I'm on vacation, and I deserve to relax and splurge."

While I do not disagree with this statement, my thoughts are that we all deserve to be healthy and vibrant, too, especially when on vacation or traveling for business. These times can be draining, and maintaining a nutritious diet (which does not necessitate deprivation) and maximizing physical activity are two ways to keep your energy levels buzzing to make the most of your trip! Of course, you know this if you include a healthful diet and exercise program in your day-to-day life--that why you do it!

In my experience it's might be better to loosen up, relinquish some "rules," and simply resolve to getting back on track once home. I know that I've found myself in the position of being on vacation and stressing over when I'm going to fit in a run or will there be something on the menu that jives with my dietary preferences and considerations? I worry about getting home after being gone for a week and losing all of the fitness that I've worked so hard to build. After all, I'm getting so old--my body doesn't adapt the way it did 10 years ago when I was playing college soccer! I'm getting better about these rules, but nutrition and fitness are values close to my heart and a large part of who I am, which I cannot leave at home; those values travel with me, but I can be flexible.  

Instead of obsessing, make healthy choices when you can. Utilize the fitness center in your hotel, go for a run/walk outside to explore the place you're visiting, hike the stairs to your hotel room, don't skip meals, shoot for balance: lean meats, fish if you're on a coast, lots of greens/veggies, and be prepared with healthful snacks like nuts, fruit, hard boiled eggs, string cheese. These all travel well, and the proper combination will fuel you for whatever your travel itinerary may be. Most importantly, just because you're traveling and perhaps feel a bit out on sync, you can choose how to mitigate the situation to make the most of your trip and your health!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Kicking Back with Coffee

Good Morning Joe! I’ve come to the conclusion that sipping on my morning coffee gives me a sense of comfort and pleasure that I truly value and that this outweighs my concern potential negative effects on my health. Now, I am a big fan of the axiom, “everything in moderation,” so I drink a cup or two in the morning and am ready to move on with my day. All of those potent antioxidants bound up in the roasted aroma! It just may be the best part of waking up (except for snuggling, of course:).   
Like all nutrition topics, the debate about coffee’s effect on health will likely be forever that—a debate. However, a good deal of research shows that moderate coffee consumption may even confer some health benefits. Studies show that regular java drinkers tend to have a lower risk for type 2 diabetes, gallstones, Parkinson’s disease, and colon cancer. To an extent, coffee has also been shown to improve cognitive function and prevent neural degeneration responsible for aging and brain disorders, but do remember that once you cross your personal caffeine threshold, that perk can morph into jitters or even feelings of anxiety. No bueno for a clear head.
While some studies have found an association between coffee consumption and decreased cardiovascular problems, such as heart disease and stroke, it should be noted that caffeine is a stimulant and can increase heart rate and blood pressure, thus people with fibrillation may want to consider decaf.
Coffee has also shown improvement of endurance performance in long-duration physical activities. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that caffeine is a bronchodilator, lessening airway resistance and allowing for greater oxygen intake. Studies have shown that even small amounts of caffeine can improve lung function for up to four hours. More O2 in leads to better distribution to muscles for sustained performance, but before downing a triple Americano for your next trail run, remember to assess your GI sensitivity so you aren't desperately searching for a bush and some broad-leafed greenery! 
While research about coffee’s effect on women’s health has been largely inconclusive, many women find relief from fibrocyctic breast when they switch to decaf or eliminate it altogether. During pregnancy caffeine clearance from mom’s blood slows, and some observational studies have noted high caffeine intake may cause growth restriction, reduced birth weight, preterm labor or stillbirth. Baby can also suffer withdrawal symptoms if mom was really serious about her coffee drinking--eight or more cups per day! Talk about a cranky kid! No worries ladies, a couple cups a day in early pregnancy has shown no effect on birth weight, preterm births or growth restriction.

An important factor that I consider as a dietitian is whether the benign cup of coffee becomes a vehicle for less than desirable additives. I understand the need to cut through the tanic bitterness, but when I start thinking about all of the “crap” that might be hidden in a caramel macchiato or sugar-free snickerdoodle I start to wince. Ever (try to) read the ingredients on a flavored Coffee-mate bottle (here's a good summary: http://www.livestrong.com/article/402395-ingredients-in-coffee-mate/)? This is not just a calorie thing; it is an empty calorie, highly refined sugar and “other” chemicals thing. This is where health concerns really enter the picture!

Consider this: wean yourself from those sugar/chemical-laden drinks (can you really even taste the coffee?) and try a splash of plain cream and a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg. Similarly, when brewing coffee at home, you can sprinkle these aromatics in with your grounds prior to brewing for a simple, clean version of flavored coffee. No cinnamon “flavoring” here, just real ingredients, delicious taste.

*Note: As always, choose organic and fair trade when you can. Coffee growing and harvesting is well known to be high in pesticides and many companies take advantage of the farmers that labor those luscious beans.