Get ready for a shocker: you’re probably eating too much protein. Surprisingly, almost all Americans are not protein deficient; with very few exceptions, no matter who you are or what you eat, you’re meeting your Recommended Daily Intake for protein. Just how much protein should you be consuming? Unlike other nutrients, recommended protein intake is mainly determined by body weight; the average person needs to consume .8 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. To calculate your protein needs, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 (this equals your weight in kilograms), and then multiply that number by .8. To give you a real-world example, I weigh 110 pounds, which equals 50 kilograms. I need to eat 40 grams of protein each day to meet my body’s needs.
There are certain segments of the population whose protein requirements are higher, most notably those who frequently perform high-intensity strength training exercises (think bodybuilders). If you’re one of the minority of people who fall into that group, then your protein needs will be slightly higher, at 1.2 – 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (the longer, more intense, and more frequent your workouts, the higher the multiplier you should use) .
If all this math is making your head spin, then you’ll be glad to know that there are also general guidelines for protein consumption, mainly that protein should comprise 10-35% of your diet. This seems like a wide range, and it is, as we are each going to respond differently to protein, and we all need varying amounts to keep our bodies functioning properly. The best advice I can give is to include lean protein at every meal and keep track of how full protein makes you feel. Some people, like me, feel more satisfied if they eat a meal that contains mostly carbs; other people only feel satisfied if their meal is protein-centric.
While it’s possible to play around with how much protein you consume each day, there is one major rule to follow when it comes to the source of that protein: like almost all other nutrients, protein is best absorbed when it comes in its natural form – food. This means that you’re better off consuming protein from naturally-occurring sources like eggs; skinless white meat chicken and turkey; low-fat and fat-free dairy; peanut butter; nuts; soy products; beans and legumes; and quinoa. The protein found in shakes or powders is mostly manufactured, so it’s not going to be absorbed or used as well as the real stuff. Protein shakes and powders are mainly hype, anyway – even if you strength train regularly, it’s definitely possible to meet your protein requirements through food alone. If you must choose a protein supplement, however, pick one made with whey, casein, or soy, as these forms of protein are usually metabolized more efficiently.
Just because your protein requirements may be lower than you previously thought, that doesn’t mean you have to completely overhaul your diet. Protein is essential for tissue development, maintenance, and repair, so it’s important that you’re getting enough of it. As long as you stick with the lean sources of protein mentioned above, and avoid pricey and unnecessary shakes, powders, and supplements and limit your intake of high-fat choices like red meat, your protein needs should be met – and you’ll still be able to enjoy the taste and benefits of a balanced diet.
Contrary to what its name might suggest, buckwheat doesn’t contain any wheat at all – it’s actually a gluten-free plant that’s related to rhubarb. Buckwheat is normally cooked like a grain, but compared to actual grains like rice and corn, it has a lower glycemic index and higher protein content. It’s also high in fiber and a good source of several B vitamins. Buckwheat is a staple of several different ethnic cuisines; you may have already eaten it in the form of kasha (roasted buckwheat groats that are common in Eastern European cooking) or soba (buckwheat noodles that show up in a variety of popular Asian dishes). One of the recipes below spotlights buckwheat in noodle form, while the other makes use of buckwheat flour, which can usually be found at your local grocery store, near the other gluten-free flours.
Grapefruit-Soba Noodle Salad with Spicy Peanut Sauce
Spicy Peanut Sauce
¼ cup seasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter (natural is preferred)
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons agave nectar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tsp. chili oil (substitute 1 tsp red pepper flakes if you don’t have chili oil)
1 clove garlic, minced (1 tsp.)
Soba Noodle Salad
1 small red bell pepper, sliced (1 cup)
5 radishes, thinly sliced (⅔ cup)
5 green onions, sliced (⅓ cup)
6 ounces snow peas
8 ounces 100% buckwheat soba noodles
2 teaspoons canola oil
8 ounces seasoned tofu, cut into small cubes
3 grapefruit, cut into segments
1. To make Spicy Peanut Sauce: Purée vinegar, peanut butter, soy sauce, agave nectar, sesame oil, chili oil, and garlic in blender or food processor until smooth.
2. To make Soba Noodle Salad: Toss together bell pepper, radishes, and green onions in large bowl.
3. Bring large pot of water to a boil, add snow peas, and cook 2 minutes.
4. Transfer snow peas to bowl of ice water with slotted spoon; drain, and add to vegetables. Return water to a boil.
5. Cook soba noodles in same pot of boiling water according to package directions; drain, and rinse under cold water. Drain again, and set aside.
6. Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add tofu, and cook 1 minute per side, or until lightly browned.
7. Toss tofu, grapefruit segments, and soba noodles with vegetables.
8. Divide among 6 bowls and drizzle with Spicy Peanut Sauce.
Recipe from Vegetarian Times
Buckwheat Crepes with Sweet Onion Filling
5 tablespoons vegetable oil-based spread
⅔ cup buckwheat flour
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
1¾ cups 1% milk
3 large eggs
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley (optional)
1 tablespoon butter
2 red or yellow onions, sliced
2 sprigs thyme
Pepper, to taste
1. Melt the vegetable oil spread in an 8-inch nonstick skillet.
2. Combine the melted spread, both flours, the milk, eggs, and salt in a blender and process until smooth (set the skillet aside).
3. Let the batter rest at room temperature at least 1 hour or overnight. Stir in the parsley, if desired.
4. Heat the skillet over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles in it. Lightly coat the skillet with non-stick cooking spray, then add a scant ⅓ cup batter and quickly swirl to coat the bottom of the pan.
5. Cook until the crepe sets and browns around the edges, about 2 minutes.
6. Carefully lift with a rubber spatula, flip over and cook about 30 more seconds. Transfer to a plate.
7. Repeat with the remaining batter, adding more cooking spray as needed and stacking the finished crepes. (You can make the crepes a day ahead. Just wrap in plastic and refrigerate, then reheat before assembling.)
7. Make the crepe filling: Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add 2 sliced onions and 2 thyme sprigs. Season with pepper and cook until the onions are lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Serve with crepes.
Recipe adapted from Food Network
“If you bite it, write it.” I’m not sure who coined this piece of advice, but it’s a good one. If you want to get a handle on your eating habits, and help get your diet on the right track, then keeping a food journal is the way to go. Studies have shown that one of the secrets to success for losing weight – and keeping it off for an extended period of time – is to write down what you eat (and how you feel before and after). Tracking dietary habits in the form of a food journal serves multiple purposes: you become aware of how much you’re actually eating; you can identify your eating patterns, such as stress eating or late-night snacking; and you will be more accountable for your food choices if you have to have a visual reminder of every food that enters your stomach (let’s be real – you’ll probably think twice before downing an entire pint of ice cream if you know that Ben and Jerry will be staring up at you from the pages of your food journal every day).
The more detailed your food journal is, the better you will be able to recognize which eating habits are helping you, and which may be doing you harm. A good food journal will include the following information:
- What you eat (be as specific as possible – write down serving or portion sizes and calorie counts if you can)
- When you eat (list actual times – not just non-descript terms like morning, noon, or night)
- Where you are (at home, at work, in the car, etc.)
- Who you’re with (alone, with a friend, with coworkers, etc.)
- How you feel – before and after you eat (this can include both emotions, like bored, as well as physical feelings, such as hungry or stuffed)
By writing down this information, you’ll be able to pinpoint trends like which meals keep you feeling full and satisfied, and which ones leave you feeling hungry a few hours later; excessive or late-night snacking; overeating when in a group setting; emotional eating; and binge eating. The patterns that appear in your journal can be eye-opening, and this visualization of your eating habits may be the motivation you need to change your diet for the better. It’s easy to be unaware of where all those extra pounds are coming from if you aren’t holding yourself accountable for every handful of nuts or candy you’re sneaking throughout the day. The beauty of a food journal is that you will no longer have the excuse of not knowing; all the information you need to start eating healthier is right there in front of you – all you have to do is use it to your advantage to make small tweaks to your daily routine.
Keeping track of every detail listed above may seem too difficult or time-consuming – and that’s okay. Your food journal can be as detailed or complex as you want it to be, and the act of writing down the details of all your meals and snacks will get easier with time. If you want to start slowly, begin by writing down what you eat, and the rest of the details will soon follow. For those of you who want to simplify things by keeping an electronic journal using your smart phone, there are several quality apps that serve this purpose. Two to try are Lose It and My Fitness Pal. Remember, though, that your journal doesn’t have to be fancy – it can even consist of some bullet points on a few sheets of loose-leaf paper. The key is to keep some sort of record of your eating habits, no matter what form that record may take.
When I was little, I used to watch Popeye cartoons and wonder why he always ate a can of spinach anytime he was in a jam. Now I get it – spinach is a nutritional powerhouse, and although it can’t instantly give us superhero powers, the nutrients it contains do provide a number of benefits to our bodies. In addition to being low in calories and high in water (which makes it a filling addition to any healthy meal), spinach is an excellent source of Vitamin K (one cup contains almost 200% of the Recommended Daily Intake) and Vitamin A and a good source of Vitamin C and folate. One of the nicer attributes of spinach is that it’s so versatile – it can be sautéed, blended into smoothies, and eaten raw in salads. One of my new favorite uses for spinach is as a base for pesto sauce. And one of my new favorite kitchen experiments is making healthy, veggie-packed grilled cheese sandwiches. This recipe combines both of these things into a hearty, healthy, tasty meal.
Spinach Pesto Grilled Cheese
2 cups baby spinach, loosely packed
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon cashews (substitute walnuts if you don’t like/don’t have cashews)
1 tablespoon olive oil
Black pepper, to taste
4 slices 100% whole wheat bread (I like Pepperidge Farm German Dark Wheat)
Vegetable oil spread or spray
4 thin slices provolone or mozzarella cheese
2 small handfuls baby spinach
½ red pepper, chopped
1. To make the pesto, place ingredients into a food processor and pulse until thickened. If pesto is too thick, add more olive oil to reach desired consistency. (Note: Pesto can be made up to 5 days ahead of time and refrigerated until you’re ready to use it.)
2. Sauté red peppers with a little bit of olive oil in a small frying pan, stirring often, until they have softened, about 3-5 minutes. Set aside.
3. Heat up a griddle or skillet over medium heat.\
4. Lightly cover one side of each piece of bread with vegetable oil spread (or, spray griddle with vegetable oil spray if you prefer not to use the spread).
5. Flip bread over and place one piece of cheese on each slice. Cover one piece of cheese with a layer of pesto and sprinkle red peppers on top. Add a handful of spinach to the other piece of bread. Close sandwiches.
6. Place sandwiches onto heated griddle/skillet and cook until first side is golden brown, then flip sandwiches and cook until second side is golden brown and cheese is melted. Makes 2 sandwiches.
In the next few weeks, the WellMASS Take 10! Exercise Challenge will be rolled out at agencies across the state. The Challenge is designed to encourage you to add 10-minute bursts of activity into your daily routine, with the goal of turning short-term improvements into long-term behavior and lifestyle changes. Take 10! focuses on four different types of activities that can be completed in 10-minute spurts, but its core philosophy of starting small and gradually increasing your activity levels can really be adapted to any type of exercise.
At the beginning of this month, I embarked on a 30-day Plank Challenge that my sister encouraged me to try. Planking, for those of you who, like me at the start of the challenge, have never tried it before, involves holding a push-up position, with your elbows and forearms on the floor, for an extended period of time. The instructions for the Plank Challenge I’m following are simple: Gradually increase the amount of time you plank each day, working all the way up to a 5-minute plank on day 30. I’m currently up to a 2- minute plank, and it actually hasn’t been that difficult to get to this point, since I’ve built up my “tolerance” for planking slowly and consistently. If you’d like to try the 30-Day Plank Challenge yourself, here’s how you can do it:
Days 1 & 2 – 20 seconds Days 3 & 4 – 30 seconds
Day 5 – 40 seconds Day 6 – rest
Days 7 & 8 – 45 seconds Days 9, 10, & 11 – 1 minute
Day 12 – 1.5 minutes Day 13 – rest
Days 14 & 15 – 1.5 minutes Days 16 & 17 – 2 minutes
Day 18– 2.5 minutes Day 19 – rest
Days 20 & 21 – 2.5 minutes Days 22 & 23– 3 minutes
Days 24 & 25 – 3.5 minutes Day 26 – rest
Days 27 & 28 – 4 minutes Day 29 – 4.5 minutes
Day 30 – 5 minutes
If planking isn’t your thing, try this type of challenge with another form of exercise, like doing sit-ups or lifting weights. You can work your way up to a longer duration or more repetitions of an exercise – the point is to slowly increase your endurance and physical fitness so that it doesn’t seem like you’re putting a lot of effort in at all. If you start slowly, you’re more likely to stick with an exercise program. But as with any exercise program, always talk with your doctor if you have any concerns before starting a new workout routine.
I was really surprised last week when I saw a new addition to the shelves of my local Market Basket’s rice and grains aisle: freekeh. I first read about freekeh, a young, green wheat that’s been toasted to bring out its flavor, a few weeks ago, but apparently I’m a little late to the game, as freekeh was predicted to be one of the top food trends of 2013, and it’s been around a lot longer than that – thousands of years, to be exact. Compared to most other whole grains, freekeh is higher in fiber, protein, and many vitamins and minerals. It also has a low glycemic index and is a good source of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which promote eye health. Freekeh takes about 20 minutes to cook on the stove, and it can be substituted for rice in most dishes. Here, I feature freekeh in two ways – as a side dish you can easily add to your next meal, and as a fun addition to a healthy dessert.
Triple-Herb Freekeh Salad
1 cup cracked freekeh
½ a small red onion, finely diced (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 medium lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Add 8 cups water and the freekeh to a medium saucepan and boil until tender, about 20 minutes. Strain.
2. Meanwhile, soak the onions in ice water in a small bowl for 10 minutes. Strain well.
3. Whisk together the onions, basil, dill, parsley, oil, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a large bowl.
4. Add the cooked freekeh and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper if needed.
5. Transfer to a serving bowl and add the remaining 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Alternatively, serve chilled, adding an additional tablespoon of lemon juice just before serving.)
Recipe from Food Network
Chocolate Freekeh Muffins
1 cup cooked freekeh
½ cup whole wheat flour
3 heaping teaspoons baking powder
2 cups almond milk
2 teaspoons cinnamon
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 tablespoons brown suga
Pinch of salt
¼ cup semisweet chocolate chips
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Grease a 12-cup muffin pan.
3. Mix all the ingredients (except the chocolate chips) in the order they are listed until they are well-incorporated.
4. Pour into greased muffin pan and top with chocolate chips.
5. Bake for 20-22 minutes. Let cool to room temperature; muffins will taste sweeter as they cool.
Recipe adapted from BlogHer
At almost every nutrition-related Lunch ‘n Learn I conduct, I get at least one question about supplements. The supplement that most often comes up in conversation is calcium, a mineral that’s best known for its involvement in bone health (but also has a role in blood clotting, muscle and nerve action, and basic metabolic functions). Since calcium is involved in so many different aspects of our health, it’s important to make sure we’re getting enough of it. Calcium intake is often too low in the following groups of people: women, the elderly, and those who do not consume dairy. For these populations, and others for whom adequate calcium intake is a concern, doctors may prescribe a calcium supplement.
Calcium supplements have a lot of what I call “special considerations,” meaning that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all pill, and there are many factors that can help or hinder how well the calcium from a supplement is absorbed. Here are some key points to note about calcium supplements:
- Supplemental calcium normally takes one of two forms: calcium citrate and calcium carbonate. Calcium citrate is easily absorbed and digested, so it’s a good choice for many people. Calcium carbonate, which also happens to be the active ingredient in Tums, is best absorbed when taken with food. Calcium citrate supplements are probably better for people with digestive issues, and calcium carbonate supplements may be less expensive, but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter which form of calcium you choose.
- Calcium is best absorbed when it’s taken alongside Vitamin D. This is why many supplements contain both. Vitamin D is best absorbed when taken with food, especially food that contains fat, since fat helps transport Vitamin D throughout the body. If you’re taking a combined calcium and Vitamin D supplement, make sure you take it with a meal or snack.
- Our bodies can only absorb 500 mg of calcium at a time. Anything greater than that amount just gets excreted and isn’t used. It’s especially important to be aware of this fact if you take more than 500 mg of supplemental calcium a day, or if you take a calcium supplement alongside your multivitamin. It’s very easy to consume more than 500 mg of calcium at a time if you take a calcium supplement at the same time as a multivitamin. Make sure to take calcium-containing supplements or vitamins 4-6 hours apart so that your body has time to properly metabolize each supplement and none of the calcium in those supplements is going to waste.
It’s best to consume calcium, like most other nutrients, in its natural form – food. Dairy products like low-fat or non-fat milk and yogurt are some of the best sources of calcium, as the calcium they contain is present in high-quantities and is well-absorbed. If you are unable to or choose not to consume dairy, other good sources of calcium include fortified soymilk, orange juice, and cereal; okra; and green leafy veggies like kale, collard greens, and bok choy.
I’ve recently encountered a lot of recipes that feature artichokes, and now is as good time as any to cook with them, as they are in currently in peak season. You may be most familiar with artichokes in the form of spinach and artichoke dip, which, despite the presence of two different veggies, can often be anything but healthy. Artichokes on their own, however, are an excellent source of fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folate, and magnesium, and can be cooked and served in a variety of healthy ways, including braised, grilled, steamed, stuffed, and yes – even in a dip.
Turkey and Artichoke Fettuccine
8 ounces whole wheat fettuccine
1, 9-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts
1 pound turkey breast tenderloins, all visible fat removed
Vegetable oil spray
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon whole wheat flour
12-ounce can evaporated skim milk
¼ teaspoon dried basil flakes
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Shredded or grated Parmesan cheese, to taste
1. In a large saucepan, cook fettuccine according to package directions. Add artichokes to pasta during the last 5 minutes of cooking.
2. Drain; if necessary, halve any large artichoke hearts.
3. Rinse turkey and pat dry. Cut into bite-size pieces.
4. Coat a large non-stick skillet with vegetable oil spray and place over medium-high heat.
5. Add turkey pieces and garlic to hot skillet. Cook 3 minutes, or until turkey is tender and no longer pink.
6. Stir in flour. Add remaining ingredients except Parmesan cheese. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly, about 6 minutes.
7. Add turkey mixture to saucepan with drained fettuccine and artichokes. Add Parmesan cheese to taste. Toss until well-combined. Serves 4-6.
Recipe adapted from The American Heart Association Quick and Easy Cookbook.
Hot Artichoke Dip
2, 14-ounce cans artichoke hearts, rinsed
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
½ cup low-fat plain Greek yogurt
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
Cayenne pepper, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
2. Chop artichoke hearts in a food processor.
3. Add 2 cups Parmesan, yogurt, garlic, lemon zest, cayenne, and pepper; puree until smooth.
4. Divide between two 2-cup gratin or other shallow baking dishes. Sprinkle each with 1 tablespoon Parmesan.
5. Bake the dip until golden on top and heated through, 10 to 20 minutes.
Recipe adapted from EatingWell
High cholesterol is becoming more and more common, due to higher rates of both screening and obesity, a major driver for developing the condition. As mentioned in a previous post, one of the best and safest ways to lower cholesterol is by following the TLC (or Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes) Diet, developed by the National Institutes of Health to help Americans lower their cholesterol levels by eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising regularly.
For some people, diet and exercise alone are not enough to get their cholesterol levels to where they need to be. These people are usually prescribed cholesterol-lowering medications, like statin drugs, which they often need to take for the rest of their lives. If the prospect of taking a prescription medication for the next 40 or 50 years seems daunting, there is what I consider to be an “in-between” option for when diet and exercise don’t work and taking a prescription drug isn’t the first choice on your list: over-the-counter supplements.
Supplements can be seen as a more “natural” way to lower cholesterol, since their active ingredients are naturally-occurring, rather than man-made. A “dietary supplement,” as defined by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, is a product “taken by mouth that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to supplement the diet.” These dietary ingredients include vitamins, minerals, herbs, and enzymes. While cholesterol-lowering medications, particularly statins, are some of the drugs most commonly-prescribed by doctors, cholesterol-lowering supplements are just as popular among consumers.
Perhaps the most well-known (and well-studied) cholesterol-lowering supplement is fish oil. Fish oil supplements contain the omega-3 fatty acids that are naturally found in oily fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines. These concentrated sources of heart-healthy omega-3s are commonly sold in capsule form and have few side effects, the most common being belching and a fishy aftertaste (although “belch-free” formulations are becoming more and more prevalent). Fish oil is generally safe to consume, although adverse effects such as an increased risk of stroke have been reported in people who consume greater than 3,000 mg, or 3 g, of fish oil a day. However, fish oil taken in lower amounts has been shown to be effective in lowering total cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reducing inflammation, and preventing heart disease and heart attacks.
Two other cholesterol-lowering supplements that have been in the news lately are krill oil and flaxseed oil. Krill oil is an up-and-coming “designer” alternative to fish oil. While krill oil may seem trendy, it also comes with a much higher price tag than fish oil, and its safety and effectiveness haven’t been adequately studied. What studies have shown, however, is that krill oil comes with a higher risk of side effects than fish oil, so it might not be a worthwhile investment, since it may not be safe and it hasn’t yet been proved to be effective. Flaxseed oil, a vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids, is generally thought to be safe to use, but it isn’t as effective as fish oil. Our bodies don’t absorb plant-based omega-3 fats as well as those that come from animal sources, so flaxseed oil doesn’t offer as much “bang for the buck” as fish oil does, since its cholesterol-lowering effects aren’t as potent. It remains, however, a good alternative for vegetarians or those concerned about the mercury content of fish oil supplements.
Before starting any supplementation regimen, talk with your doctor, as certain supplements can interact with medications or other supplements you may be taking. Also be aware that supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so you can’t be 100% sure if the supplements you purchase are going to be as safe and effective as their labels tout them to be. But if you must choose a supplement to lower your cholesterol levels, go with fish oil, as there is the most evidence out there on its safety and effectiveness.