Monday, October 29, 2012

The Incredible Whole Grain

When I grew up, our family, like most families then and now, didn't really focus on eating whole grains. My mom did, however, use the old "Basic 4" nutrition guidelines. Our staple grains were wheat, rice, oats and corn, though most of them were refined like white pasta, white rice and white bread. I remember thinking those nice, square slices of Pepperidge Farm white bread made the very best toast when smeared with real butter. Like most kids, we liked to pick out cereals made from processed, refined grains and coated with plenty of sugary stuff like Sugar Smacks and Captain Crunch. 

We did eat an occasional whole grain or two. My parents ate shredded wheat (whole grain) though Kellogg's cornflakes (refined) also showed up in the cereal cupboard. Sometimes oatmeal (whole grain) was made for a cold winter's breakfast, though I preferred that nicely refined texture of cream of wheat. My dad's huge garden supplied plenty of sweet corn (whole grain) in the summer, and what we didn't eat was frozen for use throughout the year. Of course, every supper every Sunday night included popcorn (whole grain!) popped in a stainless pan on the stove in oil, and served in wooden bowls. 

General Mills, 2012
These days, we understand the tremendous importance of consuming whole grains and minimizing refined grains that are so deeply embedded into our processed food supply.

What exactly is a whole grain? 
Consider the single grain. It's made up of 3 parts. The outer protective covering is called the bran. This is where all the fiber and some B vitamins hang out. The smallest part is the germ. It's considered the mother-lode of nutrients, with a rich source of B vitamins, vitamin E, antioxidants, protein, and healthy fat. The largest part of the grain, is the endosperm. This whitish area is made up almost entirely of carbohydrate along with a small amount of protein.

A whole grain contains all 3 parts of the natural grain; the entire nutritional package.

Refining (milling,) is a process which separates the bran and germ from the endosperm. Unfortunately, a large part of it's nutrient level is also removed. To make white flour, wheat endosperm is ground into a powder. Though lower in nutritive value, refined grains are easier to digest, have a longer shelf life, and makes lighter, fluffier baked goods. 

Many people assume that breads and cereals made from enriched flours are just as healthy as whole grains. Not true. Enriching simply means that some of the vitamins and minerals that were originally present in the grain before processing are added back, not all. Fiber and protein are not normally replaced in the enrichment process. 

Why eat whole grains? Diets rich in whole grain have been shown to significantly lower cholesterol, LDL's, triglycerides, and insulin levels. This equates to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes.

Reach for whole grains whenever you have a choice, and minimize your consumption of refined grains. Whole grains = Green Light. Refined Grains = Yellow Light, proceed with caution!

What are some of your favorite whole grains? How do you use them?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hungry as a Bear

As the weather gets colder and fall settles into winter, many people experience an increase in appetite. Once they start eating, they can't seem to stop.  Appetites are out of control. What causes this "hungry as a bear" syndrome?

A days become colder and shorter, nights are longer; you become more exhausted as each holiday passes. Cravings for high-calorie, high carbohydrate foods increase---hot breads, pasta, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy. Studies have shown than the average person tends to eat more during the winter months, and gains at least 1-2 pounds. Those who are already overweight or obese tend to gain much more. 

Some believe this winter appetite and body fat gain is similar to bears preparing to hibernate. Many, many years ago, people did need an extra layer of body fat to survive harsh winters and less available foods. These days, not so much.

Most experts think winter food cravings are more about human physiology. As outside temperatures go down, body temperatures also drop. The internal "self-preservation" mode kicks in, creating cravings for high carbohydrate foods. Body feels cold; brain says carbs. These starches and sugars burn quickly, increase blood sugar, and you feel warmer. Unfortunately, as blood sugar zips up and subsequently crashes, it sets off the urge to reach for more of these carbs again and again...creating a vicious surge/crash/eat cycle. 

Short days and long nights create a lack of light affecting 6% of the population with seasonal affective disorder or SAD. Studies have shown that people with SAD tend to have lower blood levels of serotonin and have higher intakes of foods rich in carbohydrates which increase the level of serotonin in the brain. Self-medicating with carbs.

Nasty weather conditions and less light make exercising outdoors less enticing. Without indoor alternatives, many people are less active in the winter months. Less exercise, lowers the level of endorphins and serotonin in the brain; carb cravings increase. To avoid the move less, eat more, weigh more trap, be sure to decide now what your cold-weather alternative exercises will be.

And all the holidays don't help: Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas to Hanukkah: candy, potatoes, bread, pie, cookies, and more candy. These comfort foods and seasonal favorites supply readily available carbs provide a quick fix of serotonin and calories, feeding that ongoing vicious surge/crash/eat carb cycle.

How do you calm the hungry bear? 

  • The biggest key is to keep your blood sugar levels steady. Consume regular small meals and healthy snacks, eating 5 - 6 times each day.
  • Be sure to include lean protein, high fiber, and healthy fat which digest more slowly and provide a more lasting supply of energy. A good snack would be peanut butter on half a whole wheat English muffin or low fat cheese stick and a whole grain cracker. These frequent healthy mini-meals increase the internal furnace, keeping your warmer.
  • Lighten up your favorite high carb comfort foods. Whole grain pasta, lowfat milk and cheese make your mac and cheese healthier. Whip up mashed potatoes with non-fat milk or a little chicken broth without the fat. 
  • Staying warmer actually helps squelch those carb cravings! Wear warm socks and clothing to stay warm when the outdoor temps drop. 
  • Clear the counters and keep high carb snack foods covered and out of sight. 
  • Exercise; stay active.
  • Laugh. Watching a favorite comedy show or reading a funny story zips up serotonin.
  • Pet your dog or cat---it's also been shown to increase serotonin.
  • Give someone special a hug! Hugs are calorie-free and serotonin stimulating.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Practice Before Competition?

One of my sisters gave me a call recently, the day after my niece had a big color guard competition. Evidently, the team was asked to be on site at one in the afternoon, had a 3 hour hard practice, then waited for their performance after 8 in the evening. The end result? Dropped rifles, sabres, flags---poor performance. What went wrong?

There's no doubt that twirling and throwing guns, swords and flags on long poles while dancing is exercise. These teens are athletes. Was it just an off day, or was their performance predictable? 

Practicing the day of any athletic event is highly unusual. When muscles are used repetitively or are heavily challenged for any length of time, they become fatigued. During prolonged strenuous exercise, lactic acid is produced as a by-product of anaerobic metabolism. This acidic environment creates a burning sensation in overworked muscles. Lactic acid actually protects muscle cells from permanent damage, but it also slows the key system needed for continued muscle contraction. That means slower muscle response and decreased performance. 
Rest and recovery are necessary to remove lactic acid. 

Another issue is the microscopic tears that can develop within the muscle fibers when vigorously challenged. Rest is needed for these to recover, heal, and then build strength. This is one reason that a day of rest is recommended between weight lifting or strength training the same muscle groups. Without proper rest, the likelihood of pain and injury increase. 

The other challenge is energy. Glucose, a simple carbohydrate, zips around the bloodstream providing the quickest, most readily available type of energy to cells. Glucose cannot provide sustaining fuel as it diminishes quickly during exercise. Glycogen, a carbohydrate stored in muscle and liver cells, is the next go-to fuel that supplies fairly rapid energy. Once glucose and glycogen are drained, athletic performance decreases. 

To maximize performance, athletes should continually focus on overall good nutrition, hydration, adequate sleep and rest.

Recommendations to prepare for competition:
  • Day before the event: 
    • Rest or minimal exercise
    • Plenty of carbohydrates throughout the day
  • Night before event:
    • Balanced meal to focus on energy reserves for the next day
      • Include lean protein, healthy fat, and high in carbohydrates (avoid any that cause gas) to top off glycogen
    • Plenty of water
    • Good night's sleep
  • Day of event: 
    • Minimal exertion prior to the competition to maximize muscle strength
    • Practice visualization of routine for muscle memory
    • Maximize hydration by doubling water, but don't overdo it and become "sloshy"
    • Fuel your body wiselyWhat you eat and drink the day of competition can really make a difference to performance level!
      • Balanced meal to start the day for lasting energy
      • Consume small meals 2-3 hours before event to normalize blood sugar levels
      • Eat breakfast 2 - 3 hours before
        • Use slow-release carbohydrates 
        • Small amount of protein
        • For example: 
          • oatmeal or wheat flakes, low fat milk, banana and honey
          • low-fat yogurt, toast with jam
          • eat what's worked well for you
  • Post exercise: eat something within 15 minutes to rebuild muscle glycogen most efficiently and speed recovery.
And my niece's color guard team? I hope that next time the last heavy practice is no more than 2 days before competition, light exercise the day before, and a light warm up prior to the event. I'd also love to hear that their team or parents organized a small, healthy, high carb mini-meal 2-3 hours before their scheduled routine, along with plenty of water. Best performance means smart rest, hydration, and proper fuel.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Hungry School Kids

On the New York Times front page today: No Appetite for Good-For-You School Lunches. A photo shows a trash can filled with disposable school lunch trays laden with apparently untouched broccoli and fruit. High school teens in Kansas created YouTube video We Are Hungry, that's gone viral. Students are protesting healthier food changes in their school cafeterias across the country. It appears the USDA's new federal school lunch rules don't make the grade with the kids.

In response to the obesity epidemic in U.S. children, the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires public schools to adhere to lunches that provide more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, limit salty and fatty foods, and provide only low or non-fat milk. Each meal must fit within calorie ranges that are deemed appropriate for their age groups.

Sadly, the backlash from the kids was predictable. For too many kids, white breads and fatty, salty processed foods are the norm, while fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods are no where in sight. Why? Perhaps because fresh produce tends to be more expensive than Oreos, parents don't have time or know-how to cook healthier meals, or its just the way they were raised. Too many kids are growing up eating daily meals of Cheetos, nuggets that supposedly contain chicken, and frozen pizza for dinner. That's what they know and like.

Any time you make radical changes in meals, kids of any age are likely to protest. It takes time to adjust. Psychologists tell us to be patient as we watch the veggies trashed each day; kids need to be "exposed" to new foods 10-12 times before they'll even try them. Change is hard.

I applaud these nutritional changes being made at school. I am a tremendous fan of whole grains, fruits, veggies, lean protein and low fat milk. But, I'm concerned with the mandated upper limit of calories in school lunches. While 17% of our nations kids are obese and many more are overweight, others who are not. Granted, it's a small minority, but some kids are actually underweight. My cousin called me at the start of the school year, very upset. While all three of her young kids have been encouraged by their doctor to try eat more to put on weight, her youngest struggles with an illness that diminishes his weight which remains dangerously low. His dietitian wants him to focus on whole milk to supplement calories. Unfortunately, he keeps hearing in the classroom that full fat milk is one of the "bad" foods and it's no longer offered in the cafeteria. Schools and teachers need to take care not to label any food as "bad" when they teach nutrition. Just as different kids learn in different ways and may need different approaches, many individual people have different food needs.That can't be forgotten in our drive to make kids healthier. 

Some healthy weight pre-teen and teens who train for physically demanding sports (swimming, running, etc) may need more energy at lunch. Many will grab snacks after school and before practice. But some kids who qualify for free or reduced cost school lunches may not have the means for additional healthy food brought from home or purchased for an extra cost at school. These kids may need more food offered at lunch.

Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD, a highly respected parent and children feeding and family therapist, developed an approach to feeding children that really helps kids achieve and maintain a healthy weight by allowing them to learn to recognize and respond to their own internal hunger cues. In her book, Your Child's Weight, Helping Without Harming, she explains that, "Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding. Children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating." Now, consider these new school lunches. School provides the what, when, where, and the how much. An increase of fruits, veggies and whole grains is terrific, but an upper limit of calories may not deliver the results that we want: healthy kids at healthy weights. Reduced portions of main dishes and grains may not offer enough energy to all of these extremely active kids, even if they do eat all their fruits and vegetables and clean their plates. 

Plenty of fruits, veggies, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats are the basics for healthy eating at any age. That's where the Healthy-Hungry Free Act is absolutely right. As time goes on, more and more school kids should start accepting the healthier fare. And don't worry about all the food trashed at school, that was going on long before healthy foods were introduced. If kids throw away leftover food after they've eaten as much as their body needs, that's a good thing. Kids should not be forced or coerced to eat any food or demeaned when they ditch it. We'd all be better off learning to listen to our internal hunger cues, mindfully eat when hungry, and then stop when satisfied or full. It's one big key to maintaining a healthy weight at any age.