The center of the standard American plate is consistently some type of meat, fish, or eggs. When confronted with the potential health benefits of a plant-based diet, many are understandably reluctant to sacrifice what they know to be the primary source of protein available – meat. For decades, there has been a perpetuated belief that meat is the only complete protein source, and without it we cannot achieve total health. In fact, the opposite is true.Continue reading “What’s So Bad About Meat, Anyway?”
Cape Health Fair Handout
Nutrition & Fitness – What the Experts Aren’t Telling You
I’ve studied nutrition for more than 12 years. I have a certification in Holistic Nutrition. I’ve read countless articles, blogs and social media posts on health and fitness. There is loads of advice on nutrition, weight loss, and every kind of exercise. But there is one thing I’ve read little about over the years: the fickle nature of the human body, which makes every health experience as unique to us as our DNA.Continue reading “Nutrition & Fitness – What the Experts Aren’t Telling You”
Eating Plant-Strong for Fitness
Welcome to Spring! It is that time of year where the sunny and warm days draw us back outside and we become naturally more active. You might be thinking of your fitness routine, or of starting one up, in preparation for the upcoming “bathing suit season”. You may have heard it said before that abs start in the kitchen. This expression is meant to highlight how difficult it is to have defined abs, because if there is a layer of fat over the abdominal muscles then no amount of working out will get you where you want to be, and therefore diet is the key. Diet is the key not only to defined abs, but to the overall quality of a fitness routine.
We can spend hours in the gym pushing weights, run several miles per week, take all of the spin classes or hit up a Crossfit gym – but how much weight we lose, energy we have, and how good we feel does begin in the kitchen. There is a common idea that has been around for decades, that we may eat whatever we wish as long as we workout hard enough to burn off the calories. This is a pretty basic idea of how calories in vs. calories out works. And while it may be true for some people if they spend enough hours working out or are blessed with a high metabolic rate, all calories are not created equal.
A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol will lead, sooner or later, to plaque build-ups on arterial walls even if you run a marathon every single day. In fact, the “father” of running for fitness, Jim Fixx, died of a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 52. He was overweight and a heavy smoker who decided to cut the smoking habit and drop the weight by starting to run. After successfully losing weight, he wrote a book that revolutionized the runner’s world and continued to engage in daily running until his death. Despite the cessation of smoking, the loss of weight, and his enviable fitness level, Fixx had severe blockages in his coronary arteries, one almost completely closed off at 95%.
Plenty of speculation exists around how he could have died so young, and everyone seems to agree that it was “in his blood”. There was a strong genetic link in his family for heart disease and heart attacks, his own father dying in his early 40’s. Genetics, however, are only one piece of the puzzle. As the saying goes, genetics load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger. In Jim’s case, rumor has it that he had quite the love affair with fast food and adopted the common ideology that he could eat whatever he wanted, so long as he exercised enough to burn the calories off. It appears this thinking might have been flawed.
Unfortunately, diet and lifestyle is not something you will hear much about in the doctor’s office – although this is making slight improvements as the knowledge surrounding plant-based nutrition and its impact on pre-existing conditions continues to surge. The typical course of action is – do you have a family history, do you smoke/drink, and which type of pill will work best to mask your symptoms? Some doctors have been cautioning patients against red meat and fast food for quite a while now, but most truly don’t know how powerful nutrition is because nutrition is not taught in medical school. They are learning about medicine and procedures, which is how they then treat their patients. If we want to know how diet and lifestyle effects us, we are left to learn that for ourselves.
When it comes to any fitness routine, before you begin it is important to remember this statistic – it is 80% what you eat, and 20% what you do. In other words, to get yourself in shape it is significantly more important to focus on your diet than on your fitness. The best diet for your body, especially when weight loss is a goal as well, is one low in fat and cholesterol, and high in whole grain carbs, antioxidants and phytonutrients. In short – a plant-based diet is the absolute best at fueling our cells. It provides everything we need for an active lifestyle, and none of the things that contribute to heart attacks, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
We need protein in order to live, as well all know, but when protein was discovered it was largely inflated in significance. It is important, but it is not a nutrient that we need much of and, unless you’re living in a third-world country with no access to food and are suffering from starvation, there is no need to fear a protein deficiency. Protein exists in every single living thing, from the grass under our feet to the leaves over our heads and everything else that moves, breathes or grows in between or below the surface. Every plant, animal and living being contains protein – in fact the living beings that people are eating – namely pigs, cows and chickens – also receive their protein from plants. When it comes to protein and a plant-based diet, as long as you are eating sufficient calories, you are getting sufficient protein.
But what if I’m hitting the weights extra hard at the gym? Loren, I need extra protein for muscle growth!
True! But there is something more to consider here. When you are working out extra hard at the gym you need extra calories to fuel that workout. Calories = energy, and if you burn more energy you need to eat more energy. Do you know what you get more of by eating more food for those extra calories? Protein! The more calories you eat, the more protein you consume. So if you are an athlete or are training extremely hard at the gym, the extra calories you are consuming to fuel your hard work already contain the extra protein that you need. If you’re still not convinced, you can always try a plant-based protein powder as a supplement – just check the label for sugars and toxic ingredients first. If you need guidance, check out Eat Move Rest as they have high plant-based standards and use a good quality protein powder that you might find intriguing. You can click the link, or go look them up on YouTube.
The safest and healthiest sources of protein – the ones that come without saturated fat and dietary cholesterol – are beans, lentils, peas, tofu, soybeans/edamame and tempeh. Plant sources that do contain some saturated fat (avoid for weight loss or if battling heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes) but no dietary cholesterol are seeds and nuts. At least three servings of legumes per day will have you on the right track. Increase for higher activity levels.
Carbohydrates are key for fueling workouts. This may come as a surprise since carbs have been persona non grata for a while now. Just like calories, all carbs are not created equal. Processed, refined carbohydrates should be avoided at all costs. However, whole, unrefined grains are a necessity for optimal health. Glucose is the number one fuel source for all of the cells in our bodies – especially muscle cells. While protein may help muscle growth, glucose is what provides them with fuel to function. The ability for muscles to move, power through a workout, and recover comes from glucose.
When it comes to macros, protein should only make up about 10-15%, whereas carbohydrates should make up about 75%. The remainder should come from healthy fats, although this is something you’ll want to keep very low (no more than 10%) if your goal is weight loss or you are working to reverse heart disease or type 2 diabetes. The best sources for carbohydrates are any unrefined grain – brown or wild rice, oats, quinoa, farro, bulgur, etc. Avoid breads as even the whole grain ones are processed and usually have salt and sugar added. If you are going to eat bread, choose Ezekiel Bread, which is the only one that is minimally processed (as close to whole grain as possible), with no added salt or sugar. If you are going to eat pasta, choose whole wheat – but keep this minimal.
This literally means “plant nutrients.” This covers all of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and other beneficial compounds that come from eating fruits and vegetables. These are the things that keep our cells thriving and protect us from the free radicals that cause oxidization and promote inflammation, chronic disease and cancer. Phytonutrients are like a suit of armor for our bodies and without them we are exposed and vulnerable. It is vitally important to eat greens and berries daily. An excellent pairing with greens and berries is ground flax seed, which is a healthy fat (omega-3) that is shown to be highly protective against disease. It is recommended to have two tablespoons of ground flax per day, or four tablespoons for those fighting heart disease.
Citrus is an excellent pairing with leafy greens, as it doubles the absorbability of the calcium in leafy greens. Kale, arugula and romaine lettuce are the best sources of calcium (aside from beans), so a lemon dressing ensures that your body will absorb as much of that calcium as possible. Weight-bearing exercise improves bone density, so calcium intake is an important component of fitness as well. Leafy greens, especially kale, arugula and spinach, also provide powerful protection against cancer and inflammation, as do other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts.
Great antioxidant-rich foods are berries, lemons, walnuts, almonds and greens. Antioxidant is the opposite of pro-oxidant. Oxidant = oxidization, or the process by which our cells become damaged by free radicals in the body. These free radicals are the result of stress, toxins, environmental factors, and processed or animal-based proteins. This is what promotes disease in the body, and antioxidants help protect against these things.
What it Looks Like
Breakfast could be a bowl of oats made with almond milk, ground flax, chia seeds and berries. A great lunch might be a large kale salad topped with wild rice, black beans, blueberries, walnuts, ground flax, some quick-pickled red onions and an oil-free lemon dressing, with some type of fruit for the side. Dinner could be grilled tempeh with a quinoa-broccoli salad and roasted carrots. And for snacks – fruits, edamame, Ezekiel toast, a smoothie made with a frozen banana, some berries and almond milk…the possibilities are endless!
These are the foods that will fuel your body and provide a noticeable boost in energy levels to help you sustain your workouts. If you are not currently plant-based but are interested in giving this a try, I recommend dedicating three weeks to eating entirely plant-based. If you’re not sure where to start, there is a great program called the 21-Day Kickstart by PCRM that might be beneficial. Or, you can start searching plant-based recipes (avoid or modify any that recommend the use of oil – a simple substitution with water for cooking or applesauce for baking will do the trick, as will air frying vs. roasting or deep frying) on Pinterest or Instagram until you feel you have enough to get you started.
Take a little time to do some research first so you can have the resources to prepare yourself for the three-week challenge. Remember that this is a lifestyle change, so be patient with yourself, and expect resistance. Your default settings and habits will try to take over and convince you to give up, so be ready for this and have a plan of action to combat it. If you prepare yourself ahead of time, it will help you stick to your plan.
If you’re not ready to take on a plant-based life, simply eliminating processed foods and oil, and reducing the amount of animal-based foods you are consuming (this includes eggs and dairy), while increasing whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes will still make a big difference. Give it a try! I think you’ll like the results.
Inflammation & Autoimmune Disease – What You Can Do About It
We live in a time where chronic disease is at its highest in history, and the same is true for autoimmune diseases. Approximately 24 million Americans, or 1 in about every 14 people, are now afflicted with some type of autoimmune disease. While genetics plays a part in the possibility of developing an autoimmune disease – called a predisposition – lifestyle makes the biggest impact on whether an autoimmune disease actually develops in a majority of cases.
I had the opportunity to ask a question on The Exam Room, a daily podcast by Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, about blood cancers that affect both my boyfriend and my grandmother. In my boyfriend’s case in particular, the type that he has is an autoimmune condition due to the fact that he has T-cells that are attacking otherwise healthy skin cells. His cancer (Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma) is rare, and Dr. Jim Loomis admitted that not much research has been done on the link between diet and some of these specific blood cancers. However, his opinion is that they are most likely driven by inflammation in the body.
To summarize – high levels of inflammation over time weaken the body’s immune defenses. All that is needed for the inflammation to give way to an autoimmune disorder is the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back”. A sudden and acute spike in inflammation can cripple the immune system, causing it to “break” in a way that it cannot recover. Something like, in my boyfriend’s case, an unexpected divorce that sends cortisol, the highly-inflammatory stress hormone, sky-high. It was during the divorce process that his cancer made itself known. And this seems to be the trend for so many who develop autoimmune conditions – a sudden high-stress situation, a sudden illness – something that places a lot of stress on an already-inflamed body. The autoimmune condition that has been threatening for so long, is finally born.
Unfortunately, we now exist in a time where inflammation is common. You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response to stress, and this response was inborn in all humans during primitive times to keep us safe. When faced with a sudden danger, like the need to escape a predator, this stress response kicked in to save our lives. It was intended as a sudden and acute response to stress, but now live in a world where stress is chronic. In other words, it is constant and ongoing, never letting up or giving us much time for relief. So many of us are now living in a constant state of stress, and the fight or flight response is activated regularly. Demanding jobs, worry about the state of the country and/or world, volatility in our relationships, even social media, tend to keep people stressed all the time.
In addition to chronic stress, we have devolved in our health. The 1950’s brought with it a new, faster-paced life, filled with convenience foods and fast food. Fresh, homemade food was replaced with nutrient-poor, fatty and additive-laden processed foods. Smoking and drinking exploded in popularity. While the dangers of smoking have finally made the practice taboo, eating processed, fatty, heavily-sweetened foods and drinking alcohol have been normalized despite being equally as dangerous as smoking. In fact, processed meats such as lunch meats, hot dogs, sausages and bacon have been classified as class 1 carcinogens just like cigarettes – and yet advertisement for these products is still allowed and no warning labels are required on the packaging.
These same factors – processed and fast foods, smoking, and drinking alcohol – are leading factors of inflammation, which we now know to be a leading contributor to autoimmune diseases. Add to that a much more sedentary lifestyle than we had in the past, and it’s the perfect storm for immune system failure.
The good news is – where diet and lifestyle can be a cause of autoimmune diseases, it can also be a “cure”. I put this in quotations because autoimmune diseases really can’t be cured, but they can go into remission – and stay there. By eliminating inflammation, you eliminate what is driving your autoimmune disease. In a majority of people this allows symptoms to subside and remission to become possible.
What does an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle look like? I could give you a short list of inflammatory foods to avoid, and anti-inflammatory foods to eat, but I don’t want to take half-measures. I want to arm you with the full information you need to take control of your disease. Many times health professionals will not give their patients full information on what is needed, because they believe that if something seems too difficult, their patients won’t even try. But I want to give you full information, so that you can decide for yourself what to do with it.
Some of the most inflammatory foods that we consume in the American diet are animal products – meat, eggs, and dairy of all kinds. Dairy is especially inflammatory, which may be troubling to hear for those who have been drinking skim milk and eating low-fat yogurt believing that they are healthy foods. The truth is these are not healthy foods for anyone, but especially not those with autoimmune conditions or chronic inflammation (or at risk for hormonal cancers, but that’s a topic for another day). Dairy drives up acidity in the body and triggers a hard immune response to combat it. This is why dairy is a common irritant for allergies, acid reflux and sinus troubles. It also creates an inflammatory environment in the body.
Other non-animal based inflammatory foods are alcohol and wheat gluten. Alcohol is inflammatory for everyone, and much like cigarettes there truthfully is no “safe” amount. In fact, the amount we are told is safe by the “experts” is double the amount that is recommended as safe by the actual science. But, thanks to the power of the alcohol industry influence, the information has been manipulated to work in their favor. What is actually considered to be the “safest” amount is only one drink per day for men, and one drink every other day for women. In reality, when it comes to inflammation, no amount is safe and alcohol should be avoided – sorry to deliver the bad news!
Wheat gluten is a horse of a different color. Just like meat, dairy and eggs, wheat gluten is a large protein that is broken down before being absorbed through the small intestine and processed through the liver. Where gluten becomes problematic is in people who have leaky gut. Leaky gut is not uncommon in those who have been consuming a poor diet for a long period of time. There is a membrane lining our intestines, and when consuming a poor, low-fiber diet that is lacking in strong and healthy gut microbes, but is rich in the disease-promoting variety of microbes, the membrane can start to break down. Once it thins out enough, it no longer offers protection from the gluten being passed through without first breaking down into small-chain amino acids via the digestion process.
These whole proteins, are recognized by the body as foreign invaders, and so the immune system is activated and goes into attack mode – queue the high inflammation! So while it is not important for everyone to avoid wheat gluten, if you have an autoimmune condition and have been consuming a diet high in animal products and processed food, but low in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains for a long period of time, cutting out gluten at least in the forefront is not a bad idea. After some time has passed and your body is healing (believe me, you will know when this happens!), you may try to reintroduce gluten and see whether you have a reaction. If you do, then you likely need to eliminate gluten entirely.
The keys to an anti-inflammatory diet are these – cut out all animal products and alcohol. Load up on fiber- and antioxidant-rich plant foods. However, you will probably not want to do this all at once. You can try it if you wish, to see how your body will react. But if your gut microbiome is in poor condition – especially if you have IBS or other autoimmune conditions that directly effect your digestion – you will likely experience extreme discomfort by making the sudden switch. Simply put, your gut just doesn’t have the environment needed to process these new fiber-rich foods, so they will need to be introduced slowly. Beans especially can be difficult to digest on a gut microbiome that isn’t used to fiber-rich foods because of an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase, the digestive enzyme responsible for gas production when digesting beans.
Some people can only tolerate a tablespoon or so of beans per day in the beginning, but your gut is much like a muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. For some the process may be easy, but for others it may be extraordinarily long. But don’t give up – it will be worth the reward. If you do find the process challenging, I recommend seeing a dietician who promotes a plant-based lifestyle. He or she will be able to work with you to create a diet plan that will get you to where you want to be and help you with the discomfort along the way.
I suggest starting out by replacing one meal per day. Maybe do a smoothie in the morning for breakfast with berries, bananas, oats, flax seed and some sort of plant milk. If this goes well for you, then replace your lunch with a fully plant-based meal and see how your body responds to that. Working your way into a fully plant-based lifestyle to allow your gut time to adjust will likely be the most tolerable for your body.
You may also want to look into low FODMAP foods – a quick google search will bring up a ton of results. FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates that are difficult for the body to absorb. When transitioning to a plant-based diet if you have gut issues, a low FODMAP diet will help immensely. I highly recommend the book Fiber Fueled by Dr. Will Bulsiewicz for more information on this, as well as on fiber and gut health overall.
The biggest thing that Dr. Bulsiewicz recommends is consuming 30 different plant species per week. So as an example, in the smoothie I mentioned above there are:
- flax seed
- almond milk
That accounts for six different plant species in one meal. Diversity of plants is the single-most important component of a gut-healthy diet, which doubles as an anti-inflammatory diet. Fiber fuels the healthy gut microbes, which help to eradicate the bad microbes and bring your gut into balance. Once your gut is in balance with a fiber-rich plant based diet and inflammatory foods are no longer on the menu, inflammation will come down and your immune system can begin to heal.
It isn’t all about the food, however. Diet is key, but lifestyle is also important. Above, I talked about stress as a key factor in inflammation. A nutrient and fiber-rich plant based diet will work wonders for combatting inflammation, but keeping stress levels low is also essential. This may seem more daunting for many than a major diet overhaul. Diet is relatively easy to control when compared to stress, because so many factors that bring us stress are out of our control. This is where exercise, meditation and mindset come into play.
Physical activity, aka exercise, releases endorphins and serotonin which combat the stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a big trigger of inflammation, so bringing this down with exercise will also bring down inflammation. As an added bonus, the release of these stress-fighting endorphins and hormones also eases symptoms of depression and anxiety. Scheduling in some exercise each day, or at least a few days per week, will do your body good. Even something as simple as using a fitness tracker, like a Fitbit for example, can be a big help. I have a fitbit and it buzzes at me 10 minutes before the end of each hour if I’ve not taken 250 steps within that hour. It also sets a goal for you to take 10,000 steps per day, so you can keep track and remind yourself to get moving.
Another thing my fitbit has is a “relax” option. It guides you through controlled breathing to relax your body, very similar to meditation. It has a two minute option and a five minute option – I like to do the five minute option twice for a mini 10-minute meditation in the mornings before work. Even better yet is meditation, and if this is foreign to you there are loads of guided meditations out there for you to choose from for assistance. Headspace has some free guided meditations. Spotify has many guided meditations, and YouTube as well. Once you get the hang of it you won’t even need the guidance anymore – unless like me you just find the voice of Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe especially soothing!
I also strongly recommend mindset work. This is something I’ve done for several years now, beginning with a therapist in 2016. My parents divorced during my adolescent years, then I married young and went through a divorce myself at the age of 23. Without giving all of the grim details, I had some bad relationship experiences that impacted my mindset and self-worth, and I made the choice to work through them. All of the self-help in the world (I tried for years!) wasn’t enough to actually push me forward, but my counselor gave me the breakthrough I needed to grow by leaps and bounds. Since then I’ve focused a lot on mindset, adopting tools that she gave me as well as learning from motivational leaders like Mel Robbins and Brene Brown. The phrase “change your thinking, change your life” couldn’t be more true. Working on mindset and mental health will do wonders for depression, anxiety, and coping with stress.
Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease can be crushing, especially when you’re struck with the one-two punch of knowing it can’t be cured. But with the right diet and lifestyle, and the mindset that you’re ready to commit to giving yourself the best chance at a long and healthy life, you can persevere. Please know that you have options. Medications and procedures only treat the symptoms, but do nothing to treat the cause. By revamping your diet and lifestyle, you hit the disease where it hurts – right in the very root of its existence. This will be your greatest chance at achieving remission. You are not powerless, and I hope that knowing this gives you hope.
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I also strongly recommend following Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and Nutrition Facts on YouTube for excellent daily nutrition information. You can also check out my Instagram, linked to the right, to see who I’m following for the best recipes and plant based living information and inspiration.
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