Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Skinny on Fats in the Diet

After talking about body composition last week and how a high percentage of body fat can poorly influence overall health, I decided it was important to clarify the role of fat in the diet.  If you’ve been confused about what type and how much fat to include in your diet, you’re not alone.  Yet one thing is certain:  after many years of being told to avoid fat because it will make you fat, we now realize that fat is absolutely necessary as part of a healthy diet, and if eaten sensibly, will help to keep you lean and looking and feeling good. 

In general, our diets should include approximately 20 – 35% calories from fat.  So for example, in a 2,000 calorie/day diet, this would amount to 400 – 700 calories.  At 9 calories per gram, this converts to 44 – 78 grams of fat per day.   If that sounds like a lot to you, consider why fat is so important in the diet: 

  • It’s a source of concentrated energy
  • It is a major structural component of cell membranes
  • It’s a source of insulation
  • It’s necessary for healthy skin and nails
  • It slows down digestion
  • It’s needed to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients
  • It keeps our vision strong
  • It’s involved in cell signaling
  • It’s a major component of the central nervous system and necessary for proper brain function

As you can see, fat wears many hats in the body and it’s important to include it in some form at every meal.  But what kinds of fats should I be eating, you may ask?  In general, we need a combination of saturated fats, unsaturated (mono- and poly-) fats, and essential fatty acids in the diet.  

Although we’ve been led to believe that saturated fats lead to elevated cholesterol levels and heart disease, in his extensive study of primitive cultures, Weston Price found that saturated fat was an integral component of a number of diets supporting excellent health, development, and vitality.  This includes the addition of animal fats in the forms of butter, eggs, full fat dairy products, and the fats from animal tissue.  However, with our relatively sedentary lifestyles today, I recommend that they be eaten in small amounts.    

Still, many others believe that only unsaturated fats should be consumed.  However, high consumption of polyunsaturated fats, which are more unstable than saturated fats, in the forms of commercially available oils, such as corn, safflower, and soybean can lead to inflammation in the body that underlies diabetes, heart disease, cancer, digestive disorders, and premature aging.   Therefore, these fats should be used sparingly too. Hydrogenated, or trans fats, often found in processed and packaged foods are another source of unhealthy fat that can promote inflammation. 

To make fat part of a healthy diet, consume foods that already contain healthy fats since they are naturally protected in their whole state.  These include nuts, grains, legumes, eggs, fish, fruits and vegetables, and clean sources of meat.  Butter, ghee, grapeseed, and coconut oils have high smoking points so they are great for sautéing.   The benefits of extra virgin olive oil are preserved when used at low heat.  A high quality olive oil works well for drizzling on foods, in dressings and as a dip for breads. Nut and seed oils are also best used unheated as a condiment on vegetables and grains.   Here are fats to include by category:

Saturated Fats:
  • high quality or organic dairy products such as fermented yogurt, kefir, or raw cheeses, organic butter
  • eggs from pasture-raised chickens than were fed organic feed (antibiotic- and hormone-free)
  • grass-fed, wild, organic meats and poultry raised without hormones, antibiotics, or grains produced with pesticides
  • unrefined coconut oil
 Monounsaturated/polyunsaturated fats:
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • high quality canola oil
  • grapeseed oil
  • avocado
  • nuts and seeds and their oils
 Essential Fatty Acids:
  • ALA (omega-3) - flax, walnuts, hemp, tofu
  • LA (omega-6) - sunflower, pine nuts, pecans, brazil nuts, sesame oil
  • EPA/DHA  (long-chain omega-3) - herring salmon, black cod, anchovies, mackerel, tuna, halibut, herring, small amount in poultry and egg yolks, algae
 Image courtesy of m_bartosch 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Does This Diet Make Me Look Fat?

Today in the United States, ~35% of the adult population is considered obese and this number is expected to reach 50% by 2030.  This is a sobering statistic.  Even more worrisome is the rising rate of obesity among children and the potential for early onset of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  In the health survey I sent out a couple of months ago, 100% of the people who responded said they wanted to lose weight.   As much as total body weight is an important factor that determines overall health, the number staring back at you on the scale only reveals a small part of the picture.

To understand what’s not found in this number, let’s consider two people of similar body frame and weight who have lost a similar number of pounds. Suzie lost most of her weight in the form of fat and now has a body composition of 22% fat and 78% non-fat mass (muscle, bones, etc.).  Sarah, on the other hand, lost most of her weight as muscle and has a body composition of 35% body fat and 65% non-fat mass.  Both of them may look similar in size, but their bodies are functioning very differently biochemically.

The diet Suzie followed allows for a slow release of sugar into the blood stream and the pancreas to release insulin in a slow but steady manner.  Her cells are highly sensitive to insulin, which allows them to take up sugar easily.  Her cells are also efficiently producing energy and she maintains healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as hormone balance, which further supports healthy cell function.  She is energetic, well rested, can think clearly, and has good mood balance. 

Sarah’s diet causes her pancreas to rapidly release excess and unhealthy amounts of insulin.  Her excess body fat is likely in the form of visceral adipose tissue, or VAT, which accumulates around the organs and acts as an endocrine organ itself, dumping excess hormones and inflammatory molecules into the blood, leading to hormone imbalances and inflammation throughout the body.   The inflammatory signals weaken the insulin receptors on her cells, making it difficult for her cells to take up the sugar in her blood, so energy production is poor.  Excess sugar in her system increases triglyceride levels, and Sarah’s body composition raises her risk of high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2-diabetes.  Although Sarah is thin, she is metabolically fat and may also be suffering from low energy, depression, digestive problems, unexplained aches and pains, skin problems, hormone-related disorders, and more.

HOW you lose weight is just as important as how much weight you lose.   A healthy balanced diet along with supplementation, exercise and stress reduction versus fasting or crash dieting combined with unhealthy food choices, stimulants, and a sedentary lifestyle make all the difference in how you feel, and look, as you lose weight.   At the conference I attended last week, I met a woman who had lost sixty-five pounds on one of the popular already-prepared-foods diets, but when her body composition was analyzed, she discovered that she had an unusually high percentage of body fat!  The information immediately gave her the incentive to change her diet and lifestyle to improve her body composition.

Stay tuned, because after the holidays, I will be launching a three-week program designed to help you make changes to diet and lifestyle that your body, mind, and spirit will love!  

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Food and Lifestyle are Information for Your Genes

For most of us, when we think of the health and nutritional qualities of food, we think of calories, vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and fats.  Science, however, is demonstrating that food and even lifestyle, are offering far more information to our bodies than energy and nutrients.

Plant genetic material can regulate mammalian genes. For example, a recent study conducted in mice showed that when the animals were fed rice, a small, very specific piece of genetic material called a miRNA found in rice actually prevented the expression of an LDL receptor that works to lower LDL in the liver.  This made LDL levels go up.  Both plants and animals have miRNAs that regulate their own genes, but this study demonstrated that they work across species.   In fact, the researchers originally found the rice RNAs in both human and mouse blood samples.

What does this mean?  Although much more research needs to be conducted to understand which miRNAs from which types of foods can regulate mammalian gene expression, it suggests that the food we eat is affecting our health from multiple levels and vantage points.  I’ve said before that we haven’t even begun to understand all the benefits of eating whole foods and this supports that idea. 

But gene regulation doesn’t only involve food:

Dieting-induced stress affects future eating and can induce binge eating.  In support of stress as a contributing factor to the negative effects of yo-yo dieting (also known as diet cycling), another study in mice measured the stress response in mice that had previously been fed a restricted diet.   Compared to mice fed normal mouse chow, the calorically restricted mice had increased basal levels of the stress hormone corticosterone, exhibited a higher rise in response to stress, and took longer to recover from the stress tests. 

In addition, the diet deprived mice displayed epigenetic changes (i.e., changes in their DNA) for genes involved in regulating stress that were not reversed even when they were allowed to eat a high fat diet.   And during a 10-day period where they were exposed to stress, the dieters consumed a significantly greater amount of high fat food compared to the mice that were allowed to eat normally.

Imagine, after dieting for several weeks, coming home from a stressful day at work and eating too much of a heavy cheese pizza or devouring a pint of Haagen Dazs.  If you’ve been feeling deprived, this study suggests that you’re more likely to do that on a regular basis and that you’ll be more sensitive to stress overall.

Another study that examined yo-yo dieting in mice also showed that mice who alternated between high fat and low fat diets throughout their lives ate 20% more when given the low fat food than the control mice that were always fed the normal, low fat diet. 

This suggests that chronic dieters consistently eat more even when not put under stress.

Remember, ultimately, diets don’t work, not because you’re a failure and you have no willpower.   Any feeling of deprivation will ultimately backfire, which is why, for losing weight, the best alternative is to slowly make changes to your eating habits and lifestyle that provide pleasure and feel right.

And as much as you can, base your eating plan on whole, intact foods rather than processed foods with lots of additives, since the real gold from the food-based ingredients has likely been removed. 

Image courtesy of luigi diamanti

Thursday, November 3, 2011

How Productivity Can Improve Your Health and Wellbeing

by Ciara Conlon

The word productivity on the outset may appear like a word reserved for the business community, but the reality is that productivity can be a benefit to each and every one of us. We all need to get things done and if we can organise ourselves in such a way that we get what we need to get done efficiently, quickly and with the least stress possible it can improve our quality of life, our health and our wellbeing.


Modern life is full of responsibilities, demands, hassles and frustrations. If you find yourself regularly feeling overwhelmed or with too much to do, you are likely to suffer from stress. Stress can make you feel angry, irritable, or withdrawn, different people respond in different ways. Long term exposure to stress can be very serious and people can suffer from reduced immune function, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack and stokes and many more.

It is important to learn how to manage and control your stress. Learning how to organize yourself better can help you to take control of your life and get things done. Here are some of the things that I do when my life is demanding:

1.     Clear the Clutter

Decluttering involves clearing your life and your space of all the unnecessary items in your life. It helps to clear the mind and make way for greater things to come. Organizational Expert Barbara Hemphill describes clutter as postponed decisions. A clean environment allows you to feel more in control, fosters creativity and greater focus to name but a few of the benefits.

2.     Reassess Goals

When you have too much to do it is easy to get confused about what is highest priority. Redefining your goals will help you with this. Whether you work for yourself, for an organisation or simply need to organise your home life. Having goals or knowing the goals of your organisation will help you to decide what you should be working on. A question I often ask myself when I get side-tracked by different ideas and projects is the following: “What one thing if completed this week/month/year will make me the happiest?” This helps me to decide what I need to work on next to make this happen.

3.     Organize and Schedule Work

“If you fail to plan you plan to fail” Remember these words of Peter Drucker, what gets scheduled gets done. If you don’t already do it, get yourself a diary or use an online calendar such as Google Calendar. By scheduling your work and planning your tasks you will feel more in control of your life and your work and you are much more likely to get things done.

4.     Exercise and Healthy Eating

When Richard Branson was asked at an interview what his number one productivity tip was he replied “Workout”. Regular exercise improves the mood by stimulating brain chemicals that leave you feeling happier and more relaxed. Exercise delivers oxygen and nutrients to your tissues and helps your cardiovascular system work more efficiently. Exercise can also decrease stress hormones like cortisol.

To learn how healthy eating can help you be more productive check out this article by Linda How Productive is your Diet

Taking on board these tips will help you to take control of your life, and stay healthy and stress free.

Good Luck!

Ciara Conlon is a personal productivity coach and author. You can read more from Ciara at her blog Productivity and Positivity (Getting things done with a smile) or sign up for her free eBook Clear the Clutter Find your Life.