Tips For Staying Healthy This Cold and Flu Season

As the holidays approach, we’re also entering peak sickness season.  I’ve spoken to several people who have fallen ill due to the flu, stomach viruses, and severe colds. Nutrition plays a big part of whether or not you get sick and the severity of symptoms. A poor diet has an influence on your immune system and if your diet is lacking in several vitamins and minerals, you might be more susceptible to illness.  Here are some ways you can prevent getting sick this winter:

  • Wash your hands, and do it frequently. I know this is a no-brainer, but it is really important for your hands to stay clean especially when illnesses are going around. If soap makes your hands feel dry and irritated, try keeping a small tube of moisturizer with you.  It’s also imperative to keep your hands, cookware, and utensils clean when you’re serving guests to prevent the spread of germs and disease during food preparation.
  • Increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veggies are great sources of Vitamin C. Although the research is mixed some studies claim that increased amounts of vitamin C can help prevent colds. Even if the research is lacking, eating more fruits and veggies can’t hurt.
    It's always best to get your vitamin C from fresh produce, but if you don't have access to fruits and veggies, you can try adding vitamin C through supplements (always read the label of supplements, because excess vitamin C can cause digestive issues).

    It’s always best to get your vitamin C from fresh produce, but if you don’t have access to fruits and veggies, you can try adding vitamin C through supplements (always read the label of supplements, because excess vitamin C can cause digestive issues).

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    one serving of kiwi and strawberries provides about 100% of the RDA for vitamin C

  • Make sure you’re getting enough zinc, especially if you’re suffering from a cold. Again, the research is not concrete at this point, but some studies show that sufficient zinc amounts can help shorten the duration of a cold. Animal foods (such as oysters and other seafood, lamb, and beef) are typically listed as the best sources of zinc, but if you’re a vegan/vegetarian, you’re in the luck because zinc can also be found in sunflower seeds and legumes. Zinc is often found in homeopathic cold remedies such as “Cold Eeze” and others, but the best way to get your vitamins and minerals is always through a nutritious diet.
  • Stay hydrated. Make sure that you’re drinking enough water throughout the day. The standard is 8 cups (64 ounces) but water needs depend on your sex and body size. It’s especially important to stay hydrated if you do get sick and have stomach virus symptoms.
  • Rest. Although it might be tempting to go to every holiday party you’re invited to, if you’re sick, the best thing to do is stay home and rest. You’ll feel better quicker and you won’t run the risk of getting others sick.

Stay Well!

-Jess

When Counting Calories Becomes Harmful, Instead of Helpful

For anyone that has been reading my blog since I started posting regularly, I tend to take moderate approach to eating and diets. That is, I don’t advocate for elimination diets or encourage people to worry about every morsel that goes into one’s mouth. I write this way because I feel moderation and mindfulness are the two keys to having a good relationship with food while staying healthy. I know from experience that for many people, myself included, going on a restricted diet or being obsessed with calories often is just that—an obsession. I’ve known for a while that I’ve wanted to write about this issue from my own perspective, so I’m going to dedicate this entry to my experiences with calorie counting. Some of you reading may disagree with my own personal feelings on the matter because calorie counting is a legitimate way to lose weight (assuming there is an actual deficit of calories burned vs. consumed). I’m not disagreeing with the laws of thermodynamics, rather I am writing this for people who have counted calories and feel obsessive about it, and for people who have suffered from disordered eating and want to break free of their obsessions with food and calories.

In my experience, once you get into the habit of counting calories and start to get obsessive about it, it can become more destructive than it is helpful. Food becomes only about calories and a lot of judgment can occur based on whether you were “good” or “bad” that day, depending on whether you stayed under your calorie allowance. The pleasure of food is often reduced or eliminated once you begin to see food as calories, which are unwanted to any dieter aiming to lose weight. This is a very destructive mindset to get into, because food is fuel. It can also backfire heavily and lead you to eat in rebellion, because as soon as you eat the forbidden food or go above your allotted calories for the day, you might feel like a failure and simply give up on attempts to be healthier. In a worst case scenario, when this goes on repeatedly it can lead to restricting/compensation eating disorders or binge eating disorder.  Sure, on a “good” day of eating, you may feel powerful and in control, but on a “bad” day of eating, you may feel like an utter failure. This disordered way of viewing food can be avoided by using a different method other than calorie counting to achieve health and weight loss (if desired).

If you feel the need to lose weight, first you need to look at your habits of how you gained weight. Was it a decrease in activity? Increase in junk food?  A combination of both? Once you pin point the definite contributors, you may also want to take a look at what was going on during the period of weight change. Were you under stress for a particular reason? Did you use food to cope with the stress? If so, there are many ways to reduce stress that do not involve food (Listed at the end of this entry are some resources for reducing stress). The next step is to figure out what foods you are likely to overeat. Sweet, salty, high-fat foods are usually everyone’s weakness, which isn’t to say you should completely eliminate them from your diet, but if you keep a steady supply of junk food in your kitchen, you might want to reconsider and only have small portions available or only treat yourself to such foods as a special occasion.

Another change you can make instead of calorie counting is to become a mindful eater. I wrote a post about mindful eating earlier in October, but I will restate the importance of mindfulness with regards to food and eating. Being present during a meal or eating experience is essential for people who eat on autopilot, as well as those who view food solely as calories. It is difficult to truly enjoy a meal when you’re distracted or anxiously calculating the calories in each bite. It is also difficult to gauge your hunger and fullness when you’re not in the present moment. Being mindful allows you to consult your stomach (ask yourself if you are hungry/full/something in between) and your brain (decide what food choice would be both healthy and satisfying) without having to stress out about macronutrient minutia. As you become more in touch with yourself using mindfulness techniques, you’ll probably eat less due to not being distracted or anxious.  Food is also a lot more satisfying, and thus you may require less of it to feel satisfied, when you are actually paying attention to all the sensations that eating involves.

Some of you, especially dieters who’ve relied on counting calories for a long time, may find it difficult to get out of the calorie counting habit and I can definitely relate. I find it very difficult to NOT count calories because I’ve been a calorie counter since my early teens. My wish for anyone that feels obsessive about calorie counting is to get out of that habit as soon as possible by being mindful and using food as fuel. If calorie counting is working for you or you have a detail-oriented mindset and don’t judge yourself for minor food indiscretions, then keep doing what’s working. For anyone that suspects their relationship with food has taken a destructive turn, please visit the following link for a self-assessment to determine whether you may have an eating disorder.

http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/online-eating-disorder-screening

You can also find additional resources on the National Eating Disorder Association website.

Here are some tips for stress relief without using food:

  • Get out of the house/out of the area where junk food is present. Take a ride or walk around your neighborhood.
  • Paint, draw, make beaded jewelry…or take a trip to the nearest art supply store and buy the materials for all of the above!
  • Make an inspirational collage (not using model’s bodies that you wish to attain) but instead, fill it with words of encouragement and pictures of scenery you enjoy. My favorite magazines to use for collages are Outside and Travel + Leisure.
  • Text or call a friend.
  • Take a hot bath or shower.
  • Give yourself a manicure.
  • Get a massage
  • Go to an animal shelter and hug some furry friends
  • Go outside and take pictures
  • Do yoga. Instead of judging yourself for any flexibility limitations, enjoy the way it feels as your body stretches.
  • Organize your closet
  • Listen to music and do one or more of the above

Eating disorders go beyond issues related to food and dieting. Although this post was specifically about calorie counting and its relationship with eating disorders, not everyone with an eating disorder is focused on calories specifically and not everyone who counts calories has an eating disorder. In my experience, calorie counting has not been a positive thing for me to focus on and I know many others in the eating disorders and dietetic communities also agree that obsessive calorie monitoring can lead to a distorted relationship with food.

-Jess

What You Need to Know Before Going Vegan

Have you ever thought about going vegan? A vegan diet appeals to many people for different reasons, such as weight loss, religious beliefs, ethical concerns, or just improving the content of their diet in general. There’s no denying that a vegan diet which focuses on whole foods (rather than convenience foods) is a healthy one, but what do you need to know before you eliminate several food groups from your diet?

Fortunately for you, I have much experience on this subject because I became a vegan as a teen and learned so much about veganism and about nutrition in general. In fact, I would consider my experience as a vegan as one of the factors that led me to go back to school to study nutrition.

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One of the most helpful books on transitioning to a vegan diet.

First off, what is a vegan? A vegan is someone who does not consume any animal products whatsoever (so, that means no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and some also consider honey to be an animal product, although some vegans will consume honey).

What does a vegan eat?

A healthy vegan diet will consist of whole grains, legumes (beans), nuts, vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, and the occasional vegan treat. Whole grains can come in form of eating the actual whole grain (brown rice, barley, quinoa and so on) or consuming products made from 100% whole grains (whole grain pasta, whole or sprouted grain bread, etc.). Legumes (or beans) include garbanzo beans (also referred to as chickpeas), black beans, pinto beans, etc., and also soy. Soy can be made into many different products, including tofu, tempeh (fermented soy, which kind of tastes like mushrooms, in my opinion), soymilk, veggie burgers, soy cheese, soy yogurt, and the list goes on. Some concerns about soy include its phytoestrogen content, which some scientists postulate could mimic the role of estrogen in humans, although the verdict is still out. I’d recommend eating soy in moderation, due to the mixed research findings behind it. Vegetables and fruit are a staple in the vegan diet and can be consumed in any way imaginable. A vegan diet typically contains high amounts of vitamin C, fiber, and phytochemicals because of this.  Healthy fats in the vegan diet come from using plant oils, like olive and coconut oil. Nuts provide healthy fats along with some protein and fiber. Walnuts, in particular, contain the highest amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential and not consumed nearly enough in a typical American diet.  Due to the lack of animal products, the vegan diet can lead to deficiencies in some nutrients, which leads me to discuss the next issue…

Protein Needs and B-12 Supplementation

Vegan sources of protein

Vegan sources of protein

Meat, eggs, and dairy contain the highest amount of bioavailable protein (protein that is most easily absorbed and used by the human body). Without animal products, protein consumption is usually less, but there are ways to achieve an adequate protein intake on a vegan diet. Protein needs vary by sex, age, weight, and activity level. A rough estimate for an average person, is 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, (to calculate your weight in kg, divide pounds by 2.2). Protein needs will be higher in athletes, people recovering from illness, and those who are trying to build muscle mass. Sources of vegan protein include beans, plant protein powders (soy protein, pea protein, hemp protein, and a few others), and nuts. One issue with vegan protein is that beans and nuts lack certain essential amino acids (Amino acids are the building blocks of protein).  One way to achieve a complete vegan protein is to combine beans/nuts with whole grains. This combination provides all the necessary amino acids. This is actually a common practice in many societies around the world (Latin American cuisine typically combines rice and beans in many dishes, for example).

Another issue with the vegan diet is the lack of B-12, which is only found in animal products. Vegans must supplement their diets with vitamin B-12 or else they will run into health problems, such as lack of energy, pernicious anemia, and nerve damage if the deficiency is long-term and extreme. In my own experience, I went a few months without B-12 supplementation and experienced a constant tingling sensation in my left arm and chest which was scary and forced me to become better educated about my diet as a vegan. Once I began supplementation, my health returned to normal but I can’t stress how important it is to supplement if you are a vegan!

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It's not necessary to have mega-doses of B-vitamins, but most supplements go above and beyond to ensure you're getting adequate amounts.

It’s not necessary to have mega-doses of B-vitamins, but most supplements go above and beyond to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts.

Calcium Concerns

In addition to making sure that you get adequate protein and vitamin B-12, Calcium can also be an issue in the vegan diet. Most Americans get their calcium through consuming dairy products. In the vegan diet, calcium can be found in fortified soymilk, almond milk, rice milk, or other imitation milks. Tofu, spinach, kale, and fortified orange juice are also good sources of Calcium. Most women, both vegan and not, don’t meet the RDA For calcium (around 1200 mg is needed), so if that is a concern for you, you can also take calcium supplements.

Benefits of a Vegan Diet

Hopefully the things to consider before becoming a vegan haven’t scared you off yet. Despite needing to plan a little more on the vegan diet, it still has many benefits such as

  • Vegans typically have lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and weigh less than meat-eaters
  • A diet based on whole grains, fruits, and veggies provides ample fiber and is rich in certain vitamins and minerals.
  • Higher consumption of vegetables and fruits is strongly associated with lower risk of cancer
  • Low-fat vegan/vegetarian diets are useful for people with heart disease and diabetes.
  • Lower consumption of saturated fats and little trans-fat intake is correlated with better heart health (saturated fats are highest in animal foods)
  • Increased fiber consumption leads to better digestive health (the less time your digested food is just sitting in your lower large intestine, the better).

Other benefits of a vegan diet can be found in the book “Becoming Vegan” by Brenda David and Vesanto Melina shown above.

My own take on the Vegan Diet and what you can learn from my experience

I became a vegan at the age of 15 and my reasons for doing so ranged from my love of animals to vanity. Looking back, I wish I was better educated about what makes up a healthy vegan diet instead of trying to do it on my own, especially at a young age where the desire to be thin can overtake any intention of good health. If you’re considering a vegan diet, do so because you genuinely want to live a healthier, more compassionate life, not because you want to lose weight and think veganism is the way to go. Truthfully, you may lose weight, but you shouldn’t make that your focus because it’s not sustainable and the goal of any diet should be overall health improvement. More health issues are created when we shift our focus towards immediate physical results rather than long-term health.  That being said, I do believe the vegan diet is a very healthy one when it is properly planned and supplemented with the necessary vitamins and minerals. Veganism can be fun and exciting because you constantly find new ways to reinvent favorite recipes. More restaurants are offering vegan options and stores are selling more meat-alternative products.

To be a vegan means that you have compassion for all living creatures and that you value your health, and that is something to proud of.

Lastly, for anyone who is seriously considering a vegan diet, this is a sample of what an adequately planned day could look like. This plan provides 2,200 calories (which is ideal for an active adult female looking to maintain their weight). The macronutrient breakdown is 49% carbs, 33% fat, and 18% protein.  Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron all exceed recommended values which just goes to show how easy it is to have a nutrient-dense vegan diet.

Breakfast:

Green Smoothie (1 cup spinach, 1 cup unsweetened fortified almond milk, ½ banana, 1 cup berries of your choice), ice (alternatively, you could use frozen berries and omit the ice).

1 slice of sprouted grain bread with 1 tbsp. peanut butter topped with the remaining banana

B-Vitamin Complex or  B-12 Supplement (take with food)

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Lunch:

Veggie burger with spinach and salsa in a whole wheat wrap, kale salad consisting of chopped kale, cherry tomatoes, and baby carrots, 2 tbsp. cilantro dressing (or dressing of your choice).

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Snack:

Apple and Protein Bar (Clif Builder bar provides the most vegan protein out of all the vegan protein bars I’ve looked at).

Dinner:

Falafel (chickpeas, onions, and spices ground, molded, and sautéed in olive oil) over ¾ cup bulgar (a type of whole grain) or quinoa with veggies of your choice, 2 tbsp. tahini sauce,  ½ a whole wheat pita with 2 tbsp. hummus

Post Workout Snack:

1 cup soymilk with a scoop of vegan protein powder

Recommended Reading:

For more information on veganism, I encourage you to read the book, “Becoming Vegan” by Brenda Davis, R.D., and Vesanto Melina, R.D. If you need ideas of recipes, the picture below shows some of my favorite cookbooks and recipe sources.

Obviously, they've been used many times (pretend you don't see the grimy book edges).

Clockwise LR- The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas, VegNews Magazine, Fresh & Fast Vegan Pleasures by Amanda Grant, Vegan With A Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz

-Jess