Monthly Archives: December 2010

Are you on a sugar roller coaster?

No matter the reason that a client comes to see me for nutritional counseling, whether it’s to lose weight, gain weight or just improve their overall health, I start with the basics.  First, I check to see that they are drinking enough water, and then I check to see if they have balanced blood sugar.  I’ve already written about the importance of staying hydrated, so today I want to have a more in-depth discussion on the topic of blood sugar balance and overall sugar handling.

I would say that 9 out of every 10 patients that walks through our clinic door struggles with keeping their sugars balanced.  Most people tend to be hyperglycemic, meaning their sugar levels are consistently higher than they should be.  If you look at the stats, it’s no wonder we’re struggling.  We Americans are inundating our bodies with sugar and starchy carbohydrates.  The more we consume refined sugars, the more deficient we become in the nutrients we need to regulate our blood sugar, and so the nasty little cycle begins.

According to the USDA, each American consumed an average of 199 pounds of sugar in 2005.

The Sugar Roller Coaster

During the night, your blood sugar drops extremely low as you go 8-10 hours without eating.  Breakfast is the meal that brings your sugars back up into a more balanced zone, just one more reason why it’s the most important meal of the day!  But many Americans start out the day with a starchy carbohydrate such as donuts, a bagel or a bowl of cereal.  They may even think they’re making a really healthy choice by choosing a whole-grain cereal and using skim milk.  The problem is, many of the typical breakfast foods turn straight to glucose, spiking our sugars from a valley low to a mountain high.  Add a little banana to the cereal, and throw in some orange juice or a sugary coffee drink, and you’ll really send your sugars into overdrive!

Just like with any good roller coaster, whatever goes up must come down, and that’s where the sugar crash comes in to play.  A couple of hours after eating that morning cereal, waffle, pop tart, bagel or other high-glycemic food, your sugars will plunge back down into the valley.  That’s usually about the time that most office break rooms fill up as workers start prowling for more coffee or sweets to perk them back up and get them through until lunch.  In a school setting, that’s right about the time that students start struggling to focus or falling asleep.

And so the roller coaster ride continues all day long as we use caffeine, starchy carbs and sugary foods and beverages to lift us up after every crash.  We might feel happy and energized for a little while, but it doesn’t last long.  Look for another typical low point around 3 p.m., when most people go into what I like to call the carb coma as they crash from their high-glycemic lunches.  That’s when many people need those afternoon Dr. Peppers or a Snickers bars just to survive the rest of the work day.

Many of us ride this roller coaster every day and never even realize it.   We wonder why we”re tired all the time, why we feel more irritable at certain times of the day, and why our kids have focus and behavioral problems in school.  We resort to more caffeine or medications to try to resolve all these problems and regain our quality of life.  Meanwhile, diabetes, insulin resistance and other health issues related to blood sugar continue to soar.

The national cost of diabetes in the U.S. in 2007 exceeded $174 billion. $1 out of every $10 spent on health care is attributed to diabetes.

If you think you or your children are riding the blood sugar roller coaster, I encourage you to take a closer look at your meals and take steps to make them more balanced.  When we start the day out with a high-quality protein (eggs, a protein shake, turkey sausage, etc.), we set the tone for a more balanced day.  Fruit is a good thing, but it’s better to have it for a mid-morning snack when blood sugar is more stable than first thing in the morning.  As far as the lunch and dinner meals go, I’m a big fan of the 40-30-30 plan.  When our meals are balanced, so is our energy, mood and ability focus, and we’re less likely to struggle with sugar cravings.

Also, try to reduce starchy carbs to about 10-15% of your diet, or about one meal a day.  So, if you know you’re having pasta for dinner, choose the grilled chicken salad over the grilled chicken sandwich at lunch.  Make sweets a special, occasional treat instead of a diet staple. (Hint: If your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, reducing refined carbs and sugars will also help with that!)

Try to eat regularly throughout the day to prevent big drops in blood sugar.  Keep healthy snacks around and never go more than 3-4 hours without eating.

Last but not least, make sure you read labels and pay attention to the amount of sugar in your foods.  (Did you know a coke contains 39 grams of sugar?)  Some hidden names for sugar include turbinado, high fructose corn syrup, disaccharides, molasses, polysaccharides, sucrose, fructose, invert sugar, dextrose, glucose, lactose, sorbitol, mannitol, malt, maltose and golden syrup.  Basically, if it ends in -ose, it’s probably sugar!

Making some small changes in your diet can make a huge difference in your blood sugar and your overall health.  Remember, when it comes to balancing sugar, WHEN we eat or HOW we combine our food can be just as important as WHAT we’re eating.

We’re about to start a new year, and now is as good a time as any to get off the sugar roller coaster and step onto solid, steady ground.  As always, your questions or comments are welcome!

The Great Butter Debate

When I think about well-known Southern chef Paula Deen, one word comes to my mind – butter.  I’m convinced she throws at least a stick of the stuff in every one of her recipes.  By the time she adds cream, sugar, white flour and Crisco and deep fries the heck out of whatever she’s preparing, you could gain five pounds just by looking at it!  (by the way, have you see this SNL skit?)

Paula Deen is a cook, restaurateur, author, actress and Emmy Award-winning television personality. She also has her own line of cookware and furniture.

While I don’t agree with many of her country cookin’ methods, I must say I don’t see anything wrong with a little bit of butter.  Although many Americans have become extremely fat phobic and view butter as one of the major food villains, people around the globe have valued butter for its life-sustaining properties for millennia.   In fact, when nutrition pioneer Dr. Weston Price studied the diets of cultures all around the world in the 1930s, he found that butter was a staple in the diets of many of the healthiest groups.

Here are just a few of the benefits of butter:

  • Butter contains many nutrients that protect against heart disease.  Vitamin A is needed for the health of the thyroid and adrenal glands, both of which play a role in maintaining the proper function of the heart and cardiovascular system.  Butter is our best and most easily absorbed source of vitamin A.
  • Butter contains lecithin, a substance that assists in the proper assimilation and metabolism of cholesterol.
  • Butter contains a number of antioxidants, such as Vitamin A and E and Selenium, that protect against weakened arteries and cancer cells.

A Medical Research Council survey showed that men eating butter ran half the risk of developing heart disease as those using margarine.

  • Butter is a good dietary source of cholesterol, a strong antioxidant (Yep, you read that right!)  Cholesterol floods into the blood when we consume too many harmful free radicals (usually from poor-quality fats from margarine and unstable vegetable oils).
  • Many of the saturated fats in butter have strong anti-cancer properties.  It’s  rich in short and medium chain fatty acid chains that have strong anti-tumor effects.  It also contains conjugated linoleic acid which gives excellent protection against cancer.
  • Vitamin A found in butter is essential to a healthy immune system; short and medium chain fatty acids also have immune system strengthening properties.
  • Vitamins A and D in butter are essential to the proper absorption of calcium and therefore necessary for strong teeth and bones.
  • Butter does not cause weight gain!  The short and medium chain fatty acids in butter are not stored in the adipose tissue, but are used for quick energy.  Fat tissue in humans is composed mainly of longer chain fatty acids from poor-quality oils and refined carbohydrates.

Ok, I think you get the point.  Butter has gotten a bad reputation, and it just isn’t justified!  Now let’s look at just a few of the harmful effects of margarine and other butter substitutes:

  • The hydrogenated fats and excess of long chain fatty acids found in butter substitutes are damaging to the immune system.  The varieties that don’t contain hydrogenated oils  (such as Pam spray) contain highly processed rancid vegetable oils, soy, and a host of additives.
  • Consumption of margarine and other butter substitutes results in cravings and bingeing because these highly fabricated products don’t give the body nutrients that it needs.
  • Margarine contains trans fats, which are linked to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and other degenerative diseases.  Trans fats have also been linked with lower birth weight of babies as well as declined fertility.
  • When unstable, low-quality oils and fats are processed, they become rancid or oxidized, releasing free radicals, which wreak havoc on the body.  They attack and damage DNA and RNA, cell membranes, vascular walls, and red blood cells, all of which leads to greater damage such as  tumor formation, accelerated aging, arterial plaque accumulation and autoimmune imbalances.

Moral of the story – butter is not a dirty word!  While I don’t advocate for throwing sticks of it in every dish like Paula Deen, I think it’s very beneficial in moderation, and I’ll take it over margarine, PAM or canola oil any day.  Toss out those tubs and cans and get back to the real thing, people!  If any diet program or nutritionist recommends margarine, you need to walk away!

If you’re looking for a few more resources on this topic, check out these articles:

Safer Fats for Cooking, Part 1

Safer Fats for Cooking, Part 2

Why Butter is Better

Know Your Fats

Have  a great weekend, and go get your butter on!

Can your cooking oil or spray take the heat?

I had a request from my friend Shira Miller for a post on the nutritional value of cooking sprays like PAM.  I thought this was a great idea, and I decided to expand it to include oils as well.  There are a lot of misconceptions out there about which oils are healthiest and which ones are best for cooking.

For example, I see clients every day who are cooking with olive oil because they’ve heard it’s good for them.  What they don’t realize is that olive oil is an unstable fat with a low smoke point (marks the beginning of both flavor and nutritional degradation), so it really shouldn’t be heated to high temperatures.  Organic, unrefined, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil has the lowest smoke point (200-250 degrees) of all the other forms of olive oil.  It’s one of the healthiest foods you can eat, but it’s better for marinades and dressings and not for high temperature cooking.  (The other night I had some brussel sprouts for dinner, but I waited until after I steamed them to drizzle a little olive oil on them.  I got to enjoy the flavor of the oil without losing the antioxidants and other health benefits.)

The problem with cooking sprays is that they’re often made with other unstable fats like canola or soybean oil, which also have a low smoke point.  Processing companies often refine these oils to raise their smoke points by another 100 degrees or so, but refining results in nutrient loss as well.

They may be convenient, but cooking sprays cause more harm than good when heated to high temperatures.

When you heat any oil to its smoke point, you inflict damage that comes in several forms:

  • Heating causes loss of available nutrients, such as fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin E and the phytonutrients that give oils their colors, smells and flavors.
  • Heating oils can cause the formation of free-radicals, molecules that can damage the oil by triggering unwanted oxidative reactions.
  • Unwanted aromatic substances can form in unstable oils when they’re heated, increasing the risk of chronic health problems like cancer.

When purchasing oil like olive, peanut and safflower, select the cold pressed. Cold pressed oils are produced at lower temperatures so they retain all of their flavor, aroma and nutritional value.

So if we shouldn’t use cooking sprays or unstable oils like olive, canola and soybean, what the heck are we supposed to cook with?  Don’t panic, there are a few healthy options out there:

  • Chicken broth –  It works great for sautéing.  It gives food a great flavor and it can be more cost-effective than buying expensive oils if your family is on a tight budget.
  • Butter – It’s a saturated fat, meaning it’s solid at room temperature and is highly stable (smoke point of 350 degrees).  (Toss out that margarine, which is full of hydrogenated oils and other harmful preservatives.)  Butter is great for cooking eggs and coating baking dishes.
  • Coconut Oil – As far as health benefits and flavor goes, this oil takes the prize, and it’s great for high temperature heating (smoke point of 350 degrees).  Of the saturated fat found in coconut oil, only 9% is palmitic acid, which is connected with increased risk of heart disease.  In fact, coconut oil contains a large amount of a heart-protective fat called lauric acid.  Coconut oil is also very easily digested and absorbed.  It gives a great coconut taste to stir-fry dishes, and I love to throw a teaspoon of it in my shake each morning.
  • Avocado Oil – With a smoke point of a whopping 520 degrees, avocado oil provides an ideal combination of vitamins, antioxidants and essential fatty acids.  It is supposed to improve skin and it helps lower cholesterol.  This would be a great oil for frying or grilling.  I think I’m going to give it a try!

When marinating meats before grilling, use an oil that has a high smoke point, such as avocado oil or high-oleic safflower oil, to lessen the amount of oxidative damage.

Long story short, even the healthiest oils can be bad for us if they aren’t used properly. For example, flaxseed oil is extremely beneficial, but its structure is too delicate for heating.  I’ve also tried cooking with red palm oil, which is another stable fat.  I’ll keep you updated as I continue experimenting.

In the meantime, say goodbye to all those sprays and unstable oils like canola and switch to coconut oil, butter or another stable fat for high temperature cooking.  Or, ditch the oil altogether and use chicken broth, and get the healthy fats into your diet through other foods like salad dressings, nut butters, fish oil, etc.

Here are a few more resources on this topic:

Raw Organic Coconut Oil Has A Hundred Uses For Health and Home

Why Olive Oil Is Bad For Your Stir-Fry

5 Health Benefits of Avocado Oil

Dirty Secrets of the Food Processing Industry

As always, feel free to contact me with questions!