Nutrition Misinformation and How to Spot It

Happy New Year! It’s officially the time of year where our news feeds are inundated with diet hacks, detox plans and juice cleanses. Unfortunately, many of these promising solutions fall short in evidence-based science. Worse, some misguided advice can even be harmful to our health (but, if you are looking for realistic health resolutions, check out my article here).

While the internet offers incredible access to educational resources, it also provides an open platform for misinformation. Social media, in particular, thrives off user engagement regardless of accuracy and is therefore a breeding ground for misinformation. In fact, the unique challenge of nutrition misinformation and its impact on practice was recently published in The Journal of Nutrition.

“This emergence of mistruths can create a momentum powerful enough to shape perceptions of food, nutrition, and diets, and the scope and scape of this problem and its impact on the public and public health are still largely unknown.”

Diekman et al. 2022.

So, where does nutrition misinformation come from? How can we spot it?  Let’s explore this.   

Photo by Tim Samuel from Pexels

Misinformation vs Disinformation

First, I think it’s important to address how misinformation is different than disinformation. Both misinformation and disinformation are forms of inaccurate information. Misinformation doesn’t necessarily come from a place of malice, but often stems from some truth that is misrepresented, taken out of context or exaggerated beyond its evidence – think a misleading headline. Disinformation, however, is a form of misinformation that is intended to deceive and is often influenced by political stakes or profit – think a deliberate smear campaign against a food or product that is funded by an interest group. Both are equally harmful and hurt our ability to make informed decisions regarding our health. For the purpose of this article, I won’t be the judge of intent and simply refer to both as misinformation.

Where does health misinformation come from?

Image from Pexels

Misinterpreted Research

Thanks to open-access journals, we’re easily able to read thousands of scientific studies (or at least their abstracts). However, the strength of evidence varies considerably by things like study design (case study vs. randomized controlled trial vs. meta-analysis) and publication (peer-reviewed journal vs. newspaper vs. opinion piece). So, just because a claim has a citation doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “evidence-based.” A few examples are below:

Cherry picking: aka incomplete research. This often stems from confirmation bias when authors find studies that support their claim while withholding (knowingly or unknowingly) conflicting evidence.

  • Case study: The Game Changers documentary. The film relies on studies and testimonials that support vegan health benefits, while grossly ignoring conflicting bodies of research.

Relative risk: one of my favorite fallacies. Relative risk is an arbitrary measurement that simply can’t be interpreted without knowing the absolute risk.

  • Case study: An extra serving of bacon increases bowel cancer risk by 18%. Sounds scary. But when the absolute risk of bowel cancer for the general population is 6%, we can then calculate that eating an extra slice of bacon increases risk of bowel cancer from 6% to 7%. Not as scary.

Misleading headlines: press release stories are rarely written by the authors from the actual research study. Clickbait headlines often exaggerate findings in order to grab attention and increase sharing. Unfortunately, many of us don’t read beyond the headlines.

  • Case study: a 2021 study found that on average, humans may consume between 0.1-5 grams of microplastics weekly – it’s a big range and not particularly sexy. However, this video shows how over time (and poor reviews and journalism) this result morphed into headlines like “You’re eating a credit card’s worth of plastic a week” – now that will grab your attention!   

Unqualified Interpreters

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc by Pexels

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” – Charles Darwin

The Dunning Kruger Effect

I recently read Adam Grant’s Think Again (highly recommend) which dives into the power of recognizing and even capitalizing on what we don’t know. One phenomenon he covers is called the Dunning Kruger Effect.

  • Dunning Kruger Effect – we often overestimate knowledge about a topic when we only know a little bit about it, but as we master the subject through education and research, we grow an appreciation for its complexity and nuances, and therefore underestimate our knowledge.

As a result of this effect, many undereducated but overconfident people (ahem influencers) don’t have the experience to spot their “blind spots” and continue to perpetuate their truth, attracting more followers with their compelling narratives. On the flip side, many true experts may not recognize what they bring to the table, because they’re so highly aware of what they don’t know. This means we’re often left with the loudest voices and not necessarily the most accurate information.  

Examples:

  • A wellness influencer takes one nutrition course and gives medical nutrition therapy advice – e.g. how to cure inflammatory bowel disease with lemon juice water (btw, there’s no cure for IBD).  
  • A ripped TikTok star promotes the ancestral diet of raw organ meat as his secret to a muscular physique – when in reality it’s just good old fashioned exercise and steroid use.
  • A celebrity finds weight loss success in cutting out certain food groups and therefore demonizes them as unhealthy – e.g. how grains are making us fat and sick.
  • A (non-nutrition-focused) celebrity physician claims a very specific diet is best for everyone – e.g. the carnivore diet is the next best thing that will change your life forever (yes, unfortunately many MDs receive little to no nutrition education).

How to spot misinformation

Image from Pixabay

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan

Red Flags

  • No references or weak ones (reliance on testimonials)
  • Sensationalism – one food/nutrient is the detriment or the savior of our health
  • False dichotomies (vegan vs. carnivore, organic vs. non-organic, low-fat vs. low-carb – it’s never that simple)
  • Eliciting a strong emotional response (fear, distrust, anger)
  • Conspiracy theory undertones (no, the government or food industry isn’t trying to poison you)
  • Aggressively pushing supplements
  • Shouting (why do they shout?)

Green Flags

  • References to scholarly sources – look for things like PMID numbers
  • Credentials – PhD, MD, RD, MS (this list is not full proof, but it helps)
  • Openly recognizing what they don’t know, accepting that “the research is limited” or referencing others who know the topic better than they do
  • Acknowledging when they have changed their belief about something – in my opinion, a telltale sign of integrity and professional growth
  • Neutral voice

Why this matters

Nutrition misinformation is a sensitive topic, but an important one. Misleading claims and messaging can considerably harm our most vulnerable. For example:

  • Promoting raw milk as superior to normal milk (spoiler – it’s not better but can actually carry harmful bacteria) can have dangerous consequences for folks who are older, pregnant or immune-compromised.
  • Pitching a miracle Alkaline Diet can lead a desperate cancer patient to forego traditional medical treatment (spoiler – the Alkaline Diet is bogus and its founder served prison time for it).
  • Shaming non-organic foods and calling them toxic (spoiler – they’re not) can keep families with tight grocery budgets from purchasing nutritious foods.  
  • Claiming cow’s milk is inflammatory (spoiler – it’s not and can even be anti-inflammatory) can cause a worried parent to unnecessarily remove it (and its essential nutrients) from their children’s diet.

Health professionals have their work cut out for them, stepping up to be the voices of reason and advocates for science in this saturated space of health and wellness advice. In the meantime, I encourage us all to be good stewards of information. Call it as you see it, read beyond the headline of the article before liking or sharing it, question things that don’t sound right, and report false or harmful messaging.

Cheers,

Megan

p.s. curious about fact-checking a popular health or nutrition book? Red Pen Reviews may have already done the work for you.

5 Misconceptions about Dairy

Image from Pixabay

In the spirit of National Dairy Month, I’m tackling dairy myths.  

There’s a lot of misinformation about dairy food and dairy farming. But when you look beyond the fear mongering and (sadly) hate messaging, and closer to the science or the perspective of a farmer, you can gain an appreciation for the nutritional value of dairy foods and impressive innovation of dairy farms.

So, whether dairy is a part of your diet or not, I hope this article shines some light on common misconceptions.

Top 5 Misconceptions

1. Dairy is bad for your health

Let me start with my favorite myth. Unless you have a cow’s milk allergy, dairy foods offer many health benefits.

  • One glass of milk packs 13 essential nutrients (that provide at least 10% of your daily needs), including 3 of the 4 nutrients of public health concern for Americans.
  • Dairy food consumption, as a part of a healthy diet, is linked to decreased risk of chronic disease like obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.1-5  
  • Contrary to popular belief, dairy does NOT cause inflammation, but can be linked to lower inflammation.6,7
  • For pregnant/lactating women, dairy foods are one of the few food groups that offer iodine – a nutrient that is essential to baby’s cognitive development (FYI – iodine needs increase by more than 50% during pregnancy and lactation).8-10
  • For infants, toddlers and children, dairy foods offer 7 of the 14 nutrients important for early brain development.11
  • As we get older, dairy’s protein along with calcium and vitamin D can help prevent sarcopenia (muscle loss) as well as fracture risk and falls.12,13
  • For athletes and active folks, dairy offers high-quality whey protein, specifically leucine – a branched chain amino acid linked to muscle mass growth.14
  • Paired with nutritious plant foods, dairy nicely complements plant-based diets, filling in nutrient gaps with each serving.

So, next time you see a recipe titled as “healthy” due to being “dairy-free,” I encourage you to join me in raising an eyebrow.

2. Dairy alternatives are healthier

Dairy alternatives are different. They offer another category of milk-like beverages and can be helpful for families with a cow’s milk allergy. However, claiming one is healthier than the other is challenging. How do you define healthy? Lower calorie, lower carb, lower fat, nutrition profile? Because non-dairy “milks” are most prevalent, I’ll focus on this category.

  • Fortified soy beverage is the only non-dairy alternative recommended by the US Dietary Guidelines. That doesn’t mean other options are bad or can’t fit into a balanced diet, it just means their nutritional profile doesn’t match that of dairy’s.
  • Nut varieties like almond and cashew beverage are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and are lower in calories/carbohydrates than cow’s milk. However, they fall short in the other essential nutrients cow’s milk offers like protein, B vitamins, phosphorous, iodine, zinc, and potassium.  
  • For children in particular, cow’s milk offers an affordable and accessible source of vital energy, fat, and nutrients important for physical growth and cognitive development.  That’s why expert organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Heart Association recognize milk as a “critical component of a healthy diet” for infants/young children and note that plant-based alternatives (except soy beverage) are “not nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.” 15

3. Lactose intolerance means no more dairy

Some of us don’t have enough of the lactase enzyme to digest the lactose found in dairy products, which leads to annoying GI symptoms like cramps, bloating, and diarrhea. Luckily, lactose intolerance does not have to mean dairy avoidance!  

  • Most dairy products come in lactose-free forms. It’s still real cow’s milk and offers the same taste and nutritional benefits, just without the lactose.
  • Milks that are ultra-filtered offer higher protein and lower lactose options that are easier for many folks to digest.
  • Research shows that most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate up to 12 grams of lactose at a time (about the amount found in a glass of milk) – this means many dairy products like cheese and yogurt (under 5g lactose) can still fit in their diet.16
  • The active live cultures in products like kefir and yogurt help digest some of the lactose, making them more tolerable.
My visit to a dairy farm in Ohio this spring

4. Dairy farmers treat cows poorly

Animal abuse is a serious problem and, quite frankly, a disgusting form of cruelty. Unfortunately, there will always be bad apples that mistreat undeserving animals from dogs to livestock to zoo mammals. Fortunately, there are many programs in place to prevent, detect and report such maltreatment. The majority of US dairy farmers not only participate in these programs, but take pride in keeping their cows happy and healthy.   

  • More than 99% of the US milk supply comes from farms participating in the FARM Animal Care Program – a national program that holds high standards regarding cow health, hygiene, facilities, handling, and veterinarian oversight.
  • Farmers ensure their cows are comfortable, happy and healthy. In fact, they want their cows to be happy! If dairy cows are stressed, it can negatively affect their milk production.17,18 Cow’s have access to:
    • Fresh food and water all day
    • Shelter that keeps them warm in the winter and cool in the summer
    • Soft and clean bedding
    • Veterinarians to prevent and treat infections and disease
  • Many live in free stall barns, where they can choose to walk in or out of the open shelter at their leisure.

People may envision “Big Dairy” as a factory-farm, profit-focused industry. But in reality, more than 97% of US dairy farms are family owned! Farmers are incredible. They work 365 days a year to support our food system. To learn more about farmers, I encourage you to visit a local farm, ask questions and follow educational (and very entertaining) farmers on social media like Farm Babe or Iowa Dairy Farmer

5. Dairy is bad for the environment

Dairy cows and food processing do contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. You know who else does? You and me – via transportation, electricity, heat, and food waste. And just like the strides we take to reduce our impact (energy-efficient appliances, electric vehicles, recycling), the dairy industry is no different. Here are some facts:

  • US dairy’s greenhouse gas footprint is less than 2% of the US total.19
  • Cow burps contribute significantly to methane emissions. While this is important, remember that methane makes up 11% of US greenhouse gases, while CO2 (fossil fuels) makes up 79%. Furthermore, methane lives in the atmosphere for about 12 years, while CO2 can remain for 100’s to 1000’s of years.20,21
  • US dairy has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
  • Producing a gallon of milk used 90% less land and 65% less water, with a 63% smaller carbon footprint in 2007 than in 1944.22
  • Due to sustainability efforts like regenerative agriculture practices, producing a gallon of milk in 2017 required 30% less water, 21% less land and a 19% smaller carbon footprint than it did in 2007.23
  • Cows are great upcyclers and consume about 27 pounds of byproducts (food leftovers that humans cannot eat) each day, resulting in less methane and nitrous oxide emission from landfills. 24
  • Technological advances like methane digestors (a machine that converts methane into renewable energy) are exciting innovations to support dairy sustainability efforts.  
  • When considering sustainable diets, nutritional quality plays a role. Cow’s milk and soy beverage have a better protein quality to carbon footprint ratio compared to oat, almond, coconut, and rice beverages.25

Is there more work to be done for dairy regarding environmental progress? Yes, as there is for all of us. Should dairy farmers be vilified as careless contributors to climate change? Absolutely not.

After about 12 years, 80-89% of methane (CH4) in the atmosphere is removed by a process called hydroxyl oxidation. Therefore, it’s important to consider how much more/less methane is being emitted over a period of time (rate of emission), because as it is being emitted it’s also continuously being removed, making it a flow gas.21

Honorable mentions (just for fun)

  • Dairy is high in sugar – the sugar you see on the nutrition label is simply the natural lactose sugars (it’s just like the lactose found in breastmilk and even helps us absorb more calcium) – not to be confused with refined added sugar.
  • Raw milk is better – raw milk is not pasteurized (heated to kill pathogens), therefore it contains harmful bacteria like E. coli, listeria, and salmonella – not to be confused with healthy probiotics found in kefir and yogurt.
  • Milk is full of antibiotics – unless farmers want to pay a hefty fine, milk cannot contain any trace levels of antibiotics. Sick cows need medicine too. If they’re treated with antibiotics, their milk is not used until the medicine is completely out of their system.  
  • Milk is full of puss – ew and no. Unless a cow is sick with infection, there is no pus in milk (and remember milk is rigorously tested for any traces of unwanted material).
  • It’s unnatural to drink another animal’s milk – not sure how you define natural, but it makes me wonder if it’s natural that humans cook eggs, take vitamins/supplements, ferment beer, or eat tofurkey? Milk and dairy products have been consumed for thousands of years. If it ain’t broke …
  • Milk causes phlegm – no scientific link here, however the sensory feeling of milk coating the mouth and throat may be mistaken for phlegm.

So, let’s raise a glass of milk and make a toast to the natural nutritional goodness of dairy foods and the hardworking farmers who care for these animals to feed our country.  

Cheers,

~ Megan

Disclosure

Megan proudly works for National Dairy Council to support America’s dairy farmers. However, all views in this blog are her own.

References

  1. Bhavadharini B, Dehghan M, Mente A, et al. Association of dairy consumption with metabolic syndrome, hypertension and diabetes in 147 812 individuals from 21 countries. BMJ Open Diabetes Res Care. 2020;8(1):e000826. doi:10.1136/bmjdrc-2019-000826
  2. Dehghan M, Mente A, Rangarajan S, Sheridan P, Mohan V, Iqbal R, Gupta R, Lear S, Wentzel-Viljoen E, Avezum A, et al: Association of dairy intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 21 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study. The Lancet 2018, 392:2288-2297.
  3. Mozaffarian D: Dairy Foods, Obesity, and Metabolic Health: The Role of the Food Matrix Compared with Single Nutrients. Advances in Nutrition 2019, 10:917S-923S.
  4. Bhavadharini B, Dehghan M, Mente A, Rangarajan S, Sheridan P, Mohan V, Iqbal R, Gupta R, Lear S, Wentzel-Viljoen E, et al: Association of dairy consumption with metabolic syndrome, hypertension and diabetes in 147 812 individuals from 21 countries. BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care 2020, 8:e000826.
  5. National Dairy Council. Science Summary: Dairy and Blood Pressure. 2021.
  6. Bordoni A, Danesi F, Dardevet D, et al. Dairy products and inflammation: A review of the clinical evidence. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017;57(12):2497-2525. doi:10.1080/10408398.2014.967385
  7. Nieman KM, Anderson BD, Cifelli CJ. The Effects of Dairy Product and Dairy Protein Intake on Inflammation: A Systematic Review of the Literature. J Am Coll Nutr. 2021;40(6):571-582. doi:10.1080/07315724.2020.1800532
  8. Cria G. Perrine, Kirsten Herrick, Mary K. Serdula, Kevin M. Sullivan, Some Subgroups of Reproductive Age Women in the United States May Be at Risk for Iodine Deficiency, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 140, Issue 8, August 2010, Pages 1489–1494, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.109.120147
  9. Adalsteinsdottir S, Tryggvadottir EA, Hrolfsdottir L, et al. Insufficient iodine status in pregnant women as a consequence of dietary changes. Food Nutr Res. 2020;64:10.29219/fnr.v64.3653. Published 2020 Jan 6. doi:10.29219/fnr.v64.3653
  10. Bath SC. The effect of iodine deficiency during pregnancy on child development. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2019;78(2):150-160. doi:10.1017/S0029665118002835
  11. Schwarzenberg SJ, Georgieff MK; COMMITTEE ON NUTRITION. Advocacy for Improving Nutrition in the First 1000 Days to Support Childhood Development and Adult Health. Pediatrics. 2018;141(2):e20173716. doi:10.1542/peds.2017-3716
  12. Du Y, Oh C, No J. Advantage of Dairy for Improving Aging Muscle. J Obes Metab Syndr. 2019;28(3):167-174. doi:10.7570/jomes.2019.28.3.167
  13. Iuliano S, Poon S, Robbins J, et al. Effect of dietary sources of calcium and protein on hip fractures and falls in older adults in residential care: cluster randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2021;375:n2364.
  14. Phillips, S.M. The impact of protein quality on the promotion of resistance exercise-induced changes in muscle mass. Nutr Metab (Lond) 13, 64 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12986-016-0124-8
  15. Lott M, Callahan E, Welker Duffy E, Story M, Daniels S. Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood: Recommendations from Key National Health and Nutrition Organizations. Consensus Statement. Durham, NC; 2019.
  16. Bailey RK, Fileti CP, Keith J, Tropez-Sims S, Price W, Allison-Ottey SD. Lactose intolerance and health disparities among African Americans and Hispanic Americans: an updated consensus statement. J Nat Med Assoc. 2013;105(2):112-127.
  17. Broucek J, Uhrincat M, Mihina S, Soch M, Mrekajova A, Hanus A. Dairy Cows Produce Less Milk and Modify Their Behaviour during the Transition between Tie-Stall to Free-Stall. Animals (Basel). 2017;7(3):16. Published 2017 Mar 3. doi:10.3390/ani7030016
  18. Hedlund L, Løvlie H: Personality and production: Nervous cows produce less milk. Journal of Dairy Science 2015, 98:5819-5828.
  19. Thoma G, Popp J, Nutter D, Shonnard D, Ulrich R, Matlock M, Kim DS, Neiderman Z, Kemper N, East C, Adom F: Greenhouse gas emissions from milk production and consumption in the United States: A cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment circa 2008. International Dairy Journal 2013, 31:S3-S14.
  20. US Environmental Protection Agency. Overview of Greenhouse Gases.  
  21. UC Davis Clarity and Leadership for Environmental Awareness and Research. Why methane from cattle warms the climate differently than CO2 from fossil fuels. 2020.
  22. J. L. Capper, R. A. Cady, D. E. Bauman, The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007, Journal of Animal Science, Volume 87, Issue 6, June 2009, Pages 2160–2167, https://doi.org/10.2527/jas.2009-1781
  23. Judith L Capper, Roger A Cady, The effects of improved performance in the U.S. dairy cattle industry on environmental impacts between 2007 and 2017, Journal of Animal Science, Volume 98, Issue 1, January 2020, skz291, https://doi.org/10.1093/jas/skz291
  24. de Ondarza MB, Tricarico JM: Nutritional contributions and non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions from human-inedible byproduct feeds consumed by dairy cows in the United States. Journal of Cleaner Production 2021, 315:128125.
  25. Singh-Povel CM, van Gool MP, Gual Rojas AP, Bragt MCE, Kleinnijenhuis AJ, Hettinga KA. Nutritional content, protein quantity, protein quality and carbon footprint of plant-based drinks and semi-skimmed milk in the Netherlands and Europe [published online ahead of print, 2022 Feb 23]. Public Health Nutr. 2022;1-35. doi:10.1017/S1368980022000453

MSG: The magical seasoning that’s missing in your kitchen

When you hear MSG, what comes to mind? Processed, chemicals, toxic, headaches, intolerance, Chinese food …? If so, you’re not alone. MSG has been subject to decades worth of misinformation based on unsubstantiated evidence and, quite frankly, xenophobic fearmongering.

What if I told you that MSG is not only used in Asian cuisine, but also found in American favorites like Doritos and KFC’s “finger lickin’ good” chicken? What if I told you that MSG is not only safe, but adds incredibly delicious flavor at a fraction of the sodium of table salt? Let’s break it down …

What is MSG?1-3

MSG stands for monosodium glutamate. It’s simply the salt of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid found in foods like cheese, meat, tomatoes, and mushrooms. In fact, we consume about 13 grams of glutamate from foods every day.

Like table salt (sodium chloride), MSG is used as a flavor enhancer and preserver. What makes MSG so unique is that its glutamate offers a distinct and savory fifth taste known as umami. The seasoning is made by fermenting foods like corn, cassava starch, and sugar cane into a neutralized colorless powder.

There’s no difference in the chemical structure between MSG and the glutamate found in natural food sources. We digest and metabolize them the same way! Once MSG reaches a liquid (like your saliva), the sodium and glutamate separate – making its metabolism no different than parmesan cheese (which contains both glutamate and salt).  

Is MSG safe?4

Don’t ask me, ask these folks:

The safety of MSG is well researched and well documented. In fact, newer research is no longer exploring it safety, but its potential health benefits from a sodium reduction standpoint. MSG has 1/3 the amount of sodium as table salt. Studies have shown it can reduce the sodium content in foods by 30-50% without compromising taste!5,6 When nearly half of Americans have high blood pressure, sodium-reducing solutions like MSG have considerable public health implications.

Why the bad rap?2,3,7-9

The origin of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” stems back to 1968 in an editorial letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. A physician described symptoms like numbness, palpitations, and generalized weakness after eating at a Chinese restaurant. He hypothesized that the cause was possibly linked to the soy sauce, the wine that the food was cooked in, the high sodium content, or the MSG used. Of these theorized culprits, MSG was targeted by mainstream media and the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” frenzy began.

Initial studies explored the effects of MSG by injecting neonatal mice with extremely (unrealistically) high doses of MSG and (shocker) found concerning effects on their health, further contributing to MSG’s malignment. Extensive follow-up research today shows these initial studies do not model comparatively to human consumption. However, the damage was done. The effects led to decades of misinformation, fueled by misaligned science, confirmation bias, and xenophobic beliefs about Chinese cuisine. For years, many of us grew up with “No MSG” or “MSG-free” messages on food labels or windows of Chinese restaurants. So, it’s completely understandable that an entire generation lives with these deep-rooted beliefs.

But … “in science, truth always wins” – Max Perutz.  

Don’t call it a comeback: MSG’s revival

MSG has been around for over 100 years. While its reputation took a hit from “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”, over the last five years or so, the story on MSG has changed.

  • Chef David Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, has spent years advocating for MSG and addressing the underlying racial tones when it comes to its criticism. And he’s right – why don’t we hear complaints about MSG regarding Doritos, KFC’s chicken, or Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing (all tasty examples of MSG’s flavor)?  
  • In 2018, the International Headache Society removed MSG from its list of causative factors for headaches
  • In 2020, Ajinomoto, an industry leader in MSG, launched a campaign called “Know MSG” in an effort to set the record straight and educate the public on its safety and culinary benefits.
  • In 2020, Merriam-Webster Dictionary identified “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” as “dated, sometimes offensive” and changed the entry to “MSG symptom complex.”
  • Food Science Babe, a writer and social media influencer who focuses on the science behind food, has become an advocate for its use and debunking its myths.
  • In 2022, the Whole30 Diet announced it would no longer rule out MSG in its off-limits list of additives.

Tell me more

Now that we know MSG is safe and delicious, where can we learn more about it?

  • Useful Tips
    • MSG Facts
      • It works well in dishes with meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, soups, casseroles, egg dishes, gravies, and sauces
      • Use ½ tsp of MSG per pound of meat or 4-6 servings of vegetables, casseroles or soup
      • Popular brands for MSG seasoning include Ac’cent®, Ajinomoto®, or Vedan

I hope this article is informative and addresses any concerns you may have around MSG. Now, I challenge you to call BS when you see or hear misguided messages around the tasty seasoning.

Cheers!

~Megan

References:

  1. U.S. Food & Drug Admin. Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Jan 2018. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/questions-and-answers-monosodium-glutamate-msg
  2. Ajinomoto. KnowMSG.com
  3. Tennant DR. Review of Glutamate Intake from Both Food Additive and Non-Additive Sources in the European Union. Ann Nutr Metab. 2018;73 Suppl 5:21-28. doi:10.1159/000494778
  4. Ronald Walker, John R. Lupien, The Safety Evaluation of Monosodium Glutamate, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 130, Issue 4, April 2000, Pages 1049S–1052S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/130.4.1049S
  5. Halim J, Bouzari A, Felder D, Guinard J-X: The Salt Flip: Sensory mitigation of salt (and sodium) reduction with monosodium glutamate (MSG) in “Better-for-You” foods. Journal of Food Science 2020, 85:2902-2914.
  6. Wallace TC, Cowan AE, Bailey RL. Current Sodium Intakes in the United States and the Modelling of Glutamate’s Incorporation into Select Savory Products. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2691. Published 2019 Nov 7. doi:10.3390/nu11112691
  7. Wahlstedt A, Bradley E, Castillo J, Burt KG. MSG Is A-OK: Exploring the Xenophobic History of and Best Practices for Consuming Monosodium Glutamate. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2022;122(1):25-29. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2021.01.020
  8. Gore M: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. In Adverse Effects of Foods. Edited by Jelliffe EFP, Jelliffe DB. Boston, MA: Springer US; 1982: 211-223
  9. Pomitcher, Sam. Dispelling the Danger of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Journal of Young Investigators. 2019. https://www.jyi.org/2019-april/2019/4/1/dispelling-the-danger-of-monosodium-glutamate-msg

Organic: What does it really mean?

We’ve all been there … perusing the produce section to find ourselves deciding between the $3 mixed greens and the $4 organic mixed greens. They both look equally mixed, equally green, and equally fresh. So, which do you choose?  

“Organic.” It’s a term that’s become synonymous with “healthy,” “high-quality,” and “natural.” But is organic food healthier? Is it better for the environment? Should we avoid non-organic foods? Let’s break it down …

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

What does organic mean?

Organic refers to the way food is farmed and processed. It’s governed by the National Organic Program under the USDA. Goals of the organic program include enhancing soil quality, conserving biodiversity, and promoting animal health and welfare. Standards are strict and regulate farming practices, livestock care, pest management, and food processing. See below.

  • Organic Produce
    • Grown in soil free of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers
    • Free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
    • Not irradiated (a technology that removes insects and bacteria)
  • Organic Animal Products (meat, poultry, eggs, dairy)
    • Livestock have living conditions that support their natural behaviors (outdoor access and pasture grazing)
    • Livestock are only fed organic feed and forage
    • Free of antibiotic or hormone use
  • Organic Processed Foods
    • Made from organic ingredients. Exceptions include things like vitamins, baking soda, enzymes, and allowed synthetic substances  
    • Free of artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors

Is organic food healthier?

Nutritionally speaking – There is still room for debate. For produce, some studies show that organic foods are higher in phosphorous and antioxidants than conventional foods.1,2 However, some studies show no significant differences.3,4 For meat and dairy products, the high grazing/forage-based diets often contribute to higher omega-3 fatty acid (good fat) profiles in organic livestock.3,5

Unfortunately, the research in this field is quite heterogeneous (varied in methodologies).2-7 Things like climate, soil type, harvest time, grazing time, and storage processes all affect nutritional properties and make comparisons challenging. Not all organic farms are the same, and not all conventional farms are the same. So, it’s difficult to generalize the two. Also, while higher nutritional levels might be statistically significant in a study, they often aren’t clinically significant (medically relevant).2 The antioxidant disparities are modest, and the omega-3 profiles in meat and dairy products are a fraction of what you would get from a serving of fish, chia/flax seed, or walnuts.5

Bottom line: Organic food may come out on top as far as some nutrients. However, the body of research isn’t strong and the differences in nutrient levels are likely trivial. Just eat your fruits and vegetables. 

Health outcome speaking – There’s no conclusive evidence that links organic food to health benefits or disease protection.3,8-12 Studies have investigated the risk of obesity, fertility, allergies, and various chronic diseases. While diets rich in organic food show promising results, the overall body of evidence is weak due to lack of human trials and long-term studies. There is research, however, that shows that consumers who purchase organic food are (1) more health-conscious, (2) wealthier, and (3) have higher levels of education – all of which considerably affect health status. 8,10-12

Bottom line: The jury is still out on any definitive differences in health outcomes. However, you can rest assured there’s strong evidence that diets high in plant-based foods, regardless of farming method, improve our health. Just eat your fruits and vegetables. 

What about growth hormones and antibiotics in conventional livestock?

Photo by Steyn Viljoen from Pexels

Hormones – Growth hormones are used to increase animal growth rates and feeding efficiency. In the U.S., hormones are only used for beef and sheep. Use in dairy cows, pigs, and poultry is illegal (FYI any “hormone-free” chicken is a marketing gimmick). They’re heavily regulated by the FDA to ensure safety for the animals, for us, and for the environment.13  Growth hormones reduce the amount of cattle, land, manure, feed, water, and energy needed for meat production – this helps reduce food cost and overall greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).14 As far as residual hormones in our food? The amount found in cattle is thousands of times less than what’s naturally occurring in our body, and levels found in soy, tofu, pinto beans and more.15

Antibiotics – Antibiotics were once allowed to be used on livestock as an alternative way to promote growth and improve feed efficiency. This practice was highly criticized due to concerns of residual antibiotics in food and possible microbial resistance. In 2013, the FDA started phasing out the use of antibiotics for production purposes and increased mandatory veterinarian oversight.16 By 2017, when its regulations went into effect, antibiotic sales decreased dramatically.17 Many farms still use antibiotics to treat sick animals and stop the spread of disease. Treated animals must undergo a specific withdrawal period before they can be used for slaughter to prevent any antibiotic residue in food. To ensure compliance, animal products are tested under the National Residue Program (who found a violation rate of <0.5% in 2019).

Bottom line: Growth hormones are generally less of a cause for concern than antibiotics. Each farm is different as far as its protocol for sick animals and veterinarian oversight. While there are federal regulations and testing measures in place to ensure food safety, organic animal products offer consumers assurance of no residual hormones or antibiotics.

What about “toxic” pesticides?

We’ve all seen it. Homegirl at brunch refuses non-organic eggs to avoid toxins, as she enjoys her coffee (toxin) and bottomless mimosas (toxin).

Image from thoughtcapism.com

Pesticides are used to prevent and kill insects, weeds, fungus, and disease. As 20-40% of our global crop production is lost to pests each year, pesticides are essential to maintain a safe, sustainable, and affordable food system.18 Both conventional and organic farms use pesticides. Organic farms can use natural pesticides, but sometimes require synthetic pesticides too. Conventional farms can use synthetic pesticides, but may choose to use natural ones or none at all. Every farm is different. 

Synthetic vs. Natural – which is better? It’s complicated. First, let’s be clear about one thing: both synthetic and natural pesticides are toxic at some level. The term “cide” is Latin for killer. All pesticides are used with caution and are applied in purposeful and safe quantities. Just because a pesticide is natural, doesn’t make it any less toxic (Rotenone is a good example). Natural pesticides are, however, less “persistent” and breakdown much faster than synthetic pesticides. While this trait is desirable from an environmental perspective, it also means that repeated doses (and a higher overall volume) are sometimes necessary to fight persistent pests.19 Sometimes a synthetic pesticide may better target specific bugs, thereby requiring a smaller dose. Farmers must consider the pros and cons of each type of pesticide based on their unique needs.  

The good news? Pesticides are rigorously tested for years before they’re used. Under the Food Quality Protection Act, the Environmental Protection Agency takes significant precautions to regulate pesticides and ensure the food we eat is safe. Additionally, detected pesticide residue on food is far below the chronic reference dose levels (see next section). Still concerned? Give your produce and extra rinse with water before eating.

Bottom line: Pesticides are a vital part of our food system. Both organic and conventional farms use pesticides. Natural and synthetic pesticides are both toxic at a certain level, and have unique benefits and drawbacks. Pesticide residue found on food is far below acceptable tolerance levels. Just rinse your fruits and vegetables

What about the “Dirty Dozen”?

The Dirty Dozen is a list of 12 non-organic foods that are ranked based on levels of pesticide residue. It’s published annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an NGO not to be confused with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EWG is highly criticized by the science community for its fear-based messaging, spread of misinformation, lack of scientific credibility, and funding from the organic industry. I won’t go into all the details, but you can read more about it from AG Daily, Forbes, or the Journal of Toxicology.

The Dirty Dozen is based on absolute values of detected pesticide residue – which really tells us nothing without a reference point. What the EWG fails to mention, however, is that these residue values are hundreds to thousands of times below the chronic reference dose levels.20,21 Want to play a fun game? Visit safefruitsandveggies.com to calculate the number of servings you can safely eat in a day (even with the highest pesticide level).

The EWG’s Dirty Dozen list is not only misleading, but its fear-based messaging hurts non-organic farmers and folks who cannot afford organic food.22 If price keeps consumers from purchasing organic produce, and fear keeps them from purchasing conventional produce, we have a problem. When only 1 in 10 Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables, all fresh produce should be encouraged without unnecessary confusion or fear. 

Bottom line: In my personal and professional opinion, the Dirty Dozen is garbage. It shouldn’t affect your decision to eat organic food or not. Just eat your fruits and vegetables.

Is organic food better for the environment?

Short answer? Yes. Long answer? It’s complicated.

Image by Franz Bachinger from Pixabay

Short answer: Organic farming encourages sustainable ecological practices like crop rotation, foraging, and restricted pesticide use. These methods help conserve biodiversity, improve soil health, and reduce GHG.23,24

Long answer: Organic’s lower crop yields, restrictions on pesticides, and resistance to biotechnology may also pose harmful effects on the environment and sustainable eating efforts. Because organic farms often produce less food per acre than conventional farms, there is a reliance on more land use and exportation of foods, which ultimately increases GHG emissions.25 Without herbicides, many organic farms rely on tilling to control weeds. Tilling is a considerably energy-consuming, polluting, and an expensive weed controlling process.26 Additionally, organic foods are not irradiated. This is unfortunate because irradiation is safe, destroys harmful bacteria, improves shelf-life, and reduces spoilage and food waste.27,28  As previously mentioned, the use of growth hormones in conventional beef reduces the number of cattle per acre, decreases the cost of meat, and cuts GHG.14 Lastly, the organic restrictions on GMOs undermine the movement toward a more sustainable food system. First and foremost, GMOs are safe despite public skepticism (another article for another day). GMOs increase crop yield, reduce land use, improve farmers’ profit, lower the cost of food, and help the fight against hunger and malnutrition.29-31 A side perk? GMOs considerably reduce pesticide use as well.30

Bottom line: It’s complicated. On a small scale, the direct effects of organic farming practices fare better for the environment. On a larger scale, however, the indirect effects of organic restrictions may be more energy-consuming and less sustainable. When possible, buy local and support your community farms.

My thoughts

Organic vs. conventional? It shouldn’t be a dichotomy. There is no right or wrong answer. You don’t have to choose sides (phew). Agricultural practices vary considerably by farm. Small-scale conventional farms may embrace the spirit of organic farming practices without the expensive certification. Large-scale organic farms may value profit over ecological sustainability.

Organic vs. conventional isn’t a question of health or quality, but a choice of unique food systems. How fortunate and privileged we are to be so selective in our food options!  It’s fantastic that many of us care about our food’s sourcing and processing. We should all strive to be better stewards of our health and environment. Talk with your grocer about where their food comes from. Ask your local farmer about how they grow their food. Join a CSA or Food Co-op.

I hope this article shines light upon common misconceptions and empowers you as a more informed consumer. As I’ve said before, choose the foods that best fit into your lifestyle, your nutritional needs, and your individual health goals.

~Megan

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about agricultural myth busting and seeing what modern farming really looks like, follow Farm Babe! If you’re interested in learning more about food science and safety myth busting, follow Food Science Babe!


References

  1. Barański M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, Seal C, Sanderson R, Stewart GB, Benbrook C, Biavati B, Markellou E, Giotis C, Gromadzka-Ostrowska J, Rembiałkowska E, Skwarło-Sońta K, Tahvonen R, Janovská D, Niggli U, Nicot P, Leifert C. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr. 2014 Sep 14;112(5):794-811. doi: 10.1017/S0007114514001366.
  2. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012;157(5):348-366.
  3. Forman J, Silverstein J. Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012;130.  
  4. Suciu NA, Ferrari F, Trevisan M. Organic and conventional food: Comparison and future research. Trends in Food Science & Technology. 2019;84:49-51.
  5. Średnicka-Tober D, Barański M, Seal C, et al. Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr. 2016;115(6):994-1011. doi:10.1017/S0007114515005073
  6. Bernacchia R, Preti R, Vinci G. ORGANIC AND CONVENTIONAL FOODS: DIFFERENCES IN NUTRIENTS. Italian Journal of Food Science. 2016;28:565-578.
  7. Gomiero T. Food quality assessment in organic vs. conventional agricultural produce: Findings and issues. Applied Soil Ecology. 2018;123:714-728.
  8. Brantsæter AL, Ydersbond TA, Hoppin JA, Haugen M, Meltzer HM. Organic Food in the Diet: Exposure and Health Implications. Annual Review of Public Health. 2017;38(1):295-313.
  9. Hemler EC, Chavarro JE, Hu FB. Organic Foods for Cancer Prevention—Worth the Investment? JAMA Internal Medicine. 2018;178(12):1606-1607
  10. Barański M, Rempelos L, Iversen PO, Leifert C. Effects of organic food consumption on human health; the jury is still out! Food & Nutrition Research. 2017;61(1):1287333.
  11. Mie A, Andersen HR, Gunnarsson S, et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environmental Health. 2017;16(1):111.
  12. Hurtado-Barroso S, Tresserra-Rimbau A, Vallverdú-Queralt A, Lamuela-Raventós RM. Organic food and the impact on human health. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2019;59(4):704-714.
  13. U.S. FDA. Steroid Hormone Implants Used for Growth in Food-Producing Animals. April 2020. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/product-safety-information/steroid-hormone-implants-used-growth-food-producing-animals  
  14. Beef Cattle Research Council. Q&A On Conventional Production Of Canadian Beef. October, 2018. http://www.beefresearch.ca/blog/qa-on-conventional-production-of-canadian-beef/
  15. Loy, Dan. Iowa State University. Understanding Hormone Use in Beef Cattle. March, 2011. http://www.iowabeefcenter.org/information/IBC48.pdf
  16. U.S. FDA. FDA’s Strategy on Antimicrobial Resistance – Questions and Answers. December, 2013. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/fdas-strategy-antimicrobial-resistance-questions-and-answers
  17. Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. FDA reports major drop in antibiotics for food animals. December, 2018. https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2018/12/fda-reports-major-drop-antibiotics-food-animals#:~:text=Under%20Guidance%20for%20Industry%20(GFI,turkeys%2C%20and%20other%20food%20animals.
  18. FAO. New standards to curb the global spread of plant pests and diseases. April, 2019. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1187738/icode/#:~:text=FAO%20estimates%20that%20annually%20between,production%20are%20lost%20to%20pests.
  19. Virginia Cooperative Extension. Organic vs. Conventional (Synthetic) Pesticides: Advantages and Disadvantages. 2020. https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/ENTO/ento-384/ENTO-384.pdf
  20. Winter CK, Katz JM. Dietary exposure to pesticide residues from commodities alleged to contain the highest contamination levels. J Toxicol. 2011;2011:589674. doi:10.1155/2011/589674
  21. Winter CK. Pesticide Residues in Imported, Organic, and “Suspect” Fruits and Vegetables. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2012;60(18):4425-4429.
  22. Huang Y, Edirisinghe I, Burton-Freeman B. Low-Income Shoppers and Fruit and Vegetables: What Do They Think? Nutrition Today. 2016;51:242-250.
  23. Guyader J, Janzen HH, Kroebel R, Beauchemin KA. Forage use to improve environmental sustainability of ruminant production. J Anim Sci. 2016 Aug;94(8):3147-3158. doi: 10.2527/jas.2015-0141. PMID: 27695772.
  24. Rahmann G. Biodiversity and Organic farming: What do we know? Landbauforschung Volkenrode. 2011;61:189-208.
  25. Smith LG, Kirk GJD, Jones PJ, Williams AG. The greenhouse gas impacts of converting food production in England and Wales to organic methods. Nature Communications. 2019;10(1):4641.
  26. Šarauskis E., Kriaučiūnienė Z., Romaneckas K., Buragienė S. (2018) Impact of Tillage Methods on Environment, Energy and Economy. In: Lichtfouse E. (eds) Sustainable Agriculture Reviews 33. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, vol 33. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-99076-7_2
  27. Ravindran R, Jaiswal AK. Wholesomeness and safety aspects of irradiated foods. Food Chemistry. 2019;285:363-368.
  28. Adeyemi, Toni. Stanford University. Reducing Our Food Waste through Radiation. March, 2019. http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2019/ph241/adeyemi2/
  29. Zilberman, D.; Holland, T.G.; Trilnick, I. Agricultural GMOs—What We Know and Where Scientists Disagree. Sustainability 2018, 10, 1514
  30. Klümper W, Qaim M. A meta-analysis of the impacts of genetically modified crops. PLoS One. 2014;9(11):e111629. Published 2014 Nov 3. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111629
  31. University of Göttingen. Plant genetic engineering to fight ‘hidden hunger. October, 2020. Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201016090222.htm  

Viral Misinformation: The Spread of False Coronavirus Claims

The stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 has many of us researching ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Unfortunately, where there’s public interest … there’s misinformation.

Scroll through any social media platform and you’ll find articles promoting foods or supplements that can “boost” or “supercharge” your immune system. What’s even more alarming is the endorsement of natural remedies to prevent or cure the coronavirus. Let’s get one thing straight, according to the World Health Organization, there’s currently no recognized treatment to prevent or cure the coronavirus.1

While COVID-19 misinformation topics grow by the day (conspiracy theories, hand dryer treatments, etc.), I’ll stick to my lane. Below are four nutrition-related areas I want to address.

1. “Boosting” Your Immune System

Here’s the tough truth: there’s no quick fix or way to supercharge your immunity. In fact, if an immune system is “boosted” or overactive, it’s considered an autoimmune disorder. Not good. The good news? For most of us, our body is well equipped to fight back against foreign invaders … if we take good care of it.

Think of it like regular maintenance for a vehicle. An oil change won’t “boost” your Prius to drive like a Bugatti. But if those oil changes are neglected, it will lead to decreased performance, reduced efficiency, and increased risk for mechanical problems.

Here’s what you can do:

Take care of your body, and it will take care of your immune system. In a recent article, I summarized five research-backed ways to support a strong immune system: (1) eat a nutritious diet, (2) stay active, (3) destress, (4) go outside, and (5) get sleep. Together, these lifestyle habits will keep your immune system naturally sharp.

2. Excessive Supplements

Dietary supplements should do exactly what their name suggests, “supplement” a diet. While a supplement certainly won’t prevent or treat the coronavirus, some can support your nutritional status, and therefore support your immune health.

Micronutrients like vitamins and trace elements are essential to immune processes, and deficiencies can increase our risk of infection.2-4 While most folks get enough micronutrients from (a healthy) diet alone, certain populations are encouraged to consider supplementation – older adults, pregnant/breastfeeding women, vegetarians, vegans, individuals with little sun exposure, and those with certain chronic diseases.  

Here’s what you can do:

Aim to eat a balanced and well-rounded diet, and use supplements to fill gaps if necessary. There is research to support the preventive effects of vitamin C and vitamin D supplementation for immune health, and zinc supplementation for shorter cold symptom duration.4-7 However, more is certainly not always better.8 Additionally, supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Therefore, their ingredients may be suspect and they may interact with medications. Always check with your healthcare provider about starting a new supplement and ask for advice on dosage and trusted brands.

3. Natural Remedies

Food is not medicine. There, I said it.

I’m all for using what nature gives us. There is research to back cold symptom relief from home food remedies like chicken soup, tea, garlic, honey, salt water, probiotics, and ginseng (perhaps an article for another day). I’d also caution against unnecessary use of antibiotics, as excessive use contributes to antimicrobial resistance.9 However, food is not medicine. Medicine is medicine. Vaccines and drugs are the products of researchers, physicians, epidemiologists, pharmacists, and other health experts. They require a rigorous development process, clinical trials for effectiveness and safety, and ultimately FDA-approval (something that your ginseng supplement just can’t claim).10,11

With the outbreak of COVID-19, many natural remedies have been promoted as alternative therapies (much different from “complementary” therapies). While foods, herbs, and spices are likely harmless, marketed supplements like colloidal silver can be dangerous.12

Can a healthy diet support a strong immune system and reduce our risk of disease? Absolutely. Can certain foods and practices ease our symptoms? For sure. Can these home remedies prevent or treat viruses like COVID-19? Absolutely not.

Here’s what you can do:

Follow the advice of the CDC. Protect yourself and others by washing your hands, wearing face masks, and social distancing. Monitor your symptoms, and seek medical attention if necessary.

4. Food Safety Practices

There have been growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus through food sources and packaging. According to the USDA, there is currently “no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19 … [it’s] thought to spread mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets that can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby.”13

Unfortunately, this fear has led to the spread of unnecessary, and potentially unsafe, practices. Do not leave perishable foods on the porch or in the garage to air out. Food must be kept at proper temperatures and out of the “danger zone” to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Additionally, while it’s always a good idea to rinse fresh produce with cold water, do not start washing with soap. Produce can absorb soap, which can lead to toxic ingestion.

Here’s what you can do:

Perhaps, this pandemic can teach us all to be better stewards of general hygiene and food safety guidelines. I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to always rinsing produce or disinfecting my grocery totes after every trip (yeah right).

But during these times, it’s more important than ever to practice the four steps of food safety: (1) clean, (2) separate, (3) cook, and (4) chill. In addition to these standard guidelines, extra precautions with COVID-19 include: (1) less (unnecessary) trips to the grocery store, (2) less time in the grocery store (bring a list and move with a purpose people), (3) washing your hands before and after trips, and (4) disinfecting your cart, store freezer doors, and reusable bags.


Slow the Spread of Fake News

Just as we can help slow the spread of the coronavirus, we can also help slow the spread of its misinformation.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Read beyond the headline. The title can be misleading based on the content of the article. Even the results of legitimate studies can be exaggerated, as the primary authors rarely write (or approve) the press release post.
  2. Have a critical eye. Does the article seem too good to be true? Does it instill intense fear? Check out the source and/or author credentials. Take a few minutes to research the claim before sharing or liking it.
  3. Report questionable or harmful articles.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay informed friends.

~ Megan


References

  1. World Health Organization. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters. Accessed from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters.
  2. Wu D, Lewis ED, Pae M, Meydani SN. Nutritional Modulation of Immune Function: Analysis of Evidence, Mechanisms, and Clinical Relevance. Frontiers in Immunology. 2019;9(3160).
  3. Maggini S, Wintergerst ES, Beveridge S, Hornig DH. Selected vitamins and trace elements support immune function by strengthening epithelial barriers and cellular and humoral immune responses. Br J Nutr. 2007;98 Suppl 1:S29-35.
  4. Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University. Nutrition and the Immune System. Accessed from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/sites/lpi.oregonstate.edu/files/lpi-immunity-infographic_0.pdf
  5. Carr AC, Maggini S. Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017;9(11).
  6. Martineau AR, Jolliffe DA, Hooper RL, et al. Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. BMJ. 2017;356:i6583.
  7. Rao G, Rowland K. PURLs: Zinc for the common cold–not if, but when. J Fam Pract. 2011;60(11):669–671.
  8. Chen F, Du M, Blumberg JB, et al. Association Among Dietary Supplement Use, Nutrient Intake, and Mortality Among U.S. Adults: A Cohort Study. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2019;170(9):604-613.
  9. Llor C, Bjerrum L. Antimicrobial resistance: risk associated with antibiotic overuse and initiatives to reduce the problem. Ther Adv Drug Saf. 2014;5(6):229–241. doi:10.1177/2042098614554919
  10. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. FDA’s Critical Role in Ensuring Supply of Influenza Vaccine. March, 2019. Accessed from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/fdas-critical-role-ensuring-supply-influenza-vaccine.
  11. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Development & Approval Process | Drugs. October, 2019. Accessed from https://www.fda.gov/drugs/development-approval-process-drugs.
  12. NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Colloidal Silver. April, 2017. Accessed from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/colloidalsilver.
  13. United States Department of Agriculture. Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) FAQs. Accessed from https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus.

Ditch the Detox: 10 Realistic Resolutions for a Healthy New Year

The holidays have come and gone. If you’re feeling a little less Merry and Bright, but more Dreary with pants a bit tight … that’s okay! There’s no need to punish yourself with a restrictive detox or cleanse. Below are 10 ways to feel back on track without sacrificing your wallet or your sanity.

(1) Ditch the Detox

Lizzo once saidtruth hurts, needed something more exciting.” The boring truth is that any food, supplement, meal plan or diet labeled “detox” is likely a marketing gimmick. There, I said it.

Before becoming a buzz word, detoxification was solely termed as a medical procedure performed to remove life-threatening toxins (poison, alcohol, drugs). Today, a simple internet search provides thousands of hits promoting ways to “flush your body of toxins,” and “boost health and wellbeing.” Unfortunately, there is little evidence supporting that what we eat removes toxic materials from our body.1-5 Furthermore, detox and cleanse diets are often challenging, unsustainable, promote unnecessary supplements and restrict our bodies from essential nutrients.

But don’t worry friends, our bodies have an impressive detox team hard at work every day: the liver, gastrointestinal tract and kidneys. Our liver filters and converts any suspect substances into compounds that are then excreted by the intestines or kidneys. It’s quite a remarkable process.

Does a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle support the function of these detoxifying organs? Absolutely.5,6 Do you need to fast, juice or guzzle lemon water to reap the benefits? Nope! Save your esophagus from the apple cider vinegar cleanse, let’s talk realistic resolutions …

(2) Clean the Kitchen

Turn on some music, grab the trash can and channel your inner Marie Kondo. A clean and organized kitchen can spark the feeling of a fresh start.

  • Take everything out of your cabinets and fridge
  • Toss (or compost) dated, stale or not-gonna-finish-it food items
  • Pack up remaining holiday baked goods to take into the office or share with neighbors
  • Stock up on the good stuff – fruits and vegetables (frozen works too), dairy, lean proteins, nuts, legumes and whole grains
  • Get organized – a clean look can feel motivating

(3) Back off the Booze

Give your liver a break from working overtime this holiday season. Our livers are very resilient organs, but do need a break to recover. It can help your sleep, skin, wallet, waistline and even those post-holiday Sunday Scaries. In fact, a 2016 study found that folks who did a “Dry January” reaped these benefits and drank less six months later, regardless of their January success.7

(4) Stay Hydrated

Water is the MVP in our body. It’s essential for all our biochemical processes. Water supports digestion, absorption and waste elimination. Therefore, hydration is key for the flushing properties of the gastrointestinal tract and kidneys.8

How much water do you need? Well there’s no perfect answer. It depends on things like your body size, environment, health, and activity levels. According the folks at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, women should aim for 2.7 liters (~90 oz) and men should aim for 3.7 liters (~125 oz).9 This intake should come mostly from water, followed by foods (fruits, vegetables, soups, etc.).

What’s the easiest way to know if your hydrated? Just check out your pee.

(5) Aim for Whole Foods

Making whole foods the foundation of your diet can encourage the good stuff (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy and lean proteins), while reducing the not-so-good stuff (added sugars, refined carbs, excess sodium). Foods without an extensive ingredient list are often a safe bet. However, whole foods don’t necessarily exclude all packaged foods. Nutritious packaged options can include frozen/canned fruits and veggies (unsweetened and low-sodium), nuts, legumes, whole grains and plain dairy products.

(6) Focus on Fiber

Fiber does a lot of great things. It lowers cholesterol, feeds healthy gut bacteria and improves blood sugar control.10 Fiber also keeps us regular by eliminating waste – a key part of our natural detoxification process. Incorporate fibrous foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes into each of your meals.

(7) Add More Plants

Americans can eat more plants. The majority of the U.S. does not eat the recommended amount of whole grains (98% of us), vegetables (90% of us) and fruit (80% of us) – yikes!

Plants contain phytochemicals which give food their unique color and taste, and help reduce the risk of many diseases.11 Furthermore, many of these plant-derived compounds act as antioxidants, scavenging dangerous free radicals in our body and supporting the liver with detoxification.5,6  

Make plant-based foods the base of your plate and eat the rainbow. Aim for a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes to reap the benefits of the different nutrients and phytochemicals.

(8) Get Moving

Exercise not only helps with weight management, but improves our cardiovascular health, energy levels, sleep, confidence, sex life and mental health.12,13 No need to sign up for a race (unless you want that motivation), even small steps can go a long way: take the stairs, park in the back of the parking lot, or schedule walking breaks at work. If a gym or fitness class is too costly or intimidating, you can pick from thousands of free exercise videos on YouTube.

(9) Take a Breath

Scheduling time to meditate or disconnect can go a long way. Mindful meditation has been linked to decreased stress, increased emotional intelligence, and improved mental health.14 Practicing meditation may also support self-control efforts – an extra benefit for folks with New Year’s resolutions.15

There’s no need to pose in a cross-legged position. Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated. Schedule an alarm to step away from work for a moment of peace, use apps like Headspace, Calm, or Simple Habit for guidance, start your day with intentions, and/or finish your day with gratitude.

(10) Be SMART about your Goals

Setting goals is a great way to foster direction, purpose, and motivation towards a targeted behavior.16,17 However, for many of us, these intentions remain in our head and become an afterthought by February. Reflect on what’s important to you and why, and write down your goals in the SMART way:

  • SpecificI will practice meditation
  • Measurable3 times a week
  • AttainableI have the Headspace app
  • RelevantI’m working on stress-reduction techniques
  • Time-basedFor the next month (then I’ll try 4 times a week)

Share your goals with loved ones, revisit them on a regular basis, and stick with it! It often takes more than two months to form a habit, and even slip-ups here and there won’t kill your efforts.18

Conclusion

While these 10 tips aim to support sustainable healthy habits, do what works best for you and fits into your lifestyle.

For some folks, committing to a New Year’s diet or challenge is a necessary kick-in-a$$ way to get back on track. If that’s the case for you, go for it! Aim for plans that incorporate all food groups (sadly donuts don’t count), focus on nourishment and not restriction, and encourage lifelong habits.

Wishing you all a Happy and Healthy New Year

Cheers, Megan

References:

  1. Klein AV, Kiat H. Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015;28(6):675-686.
  2. Sears ME, Genuis SJ. Environmental Determinants of Chronic Disease and Medical Approaches: Recognition, Avoidance, Supportive Therapy, and Detoxification. Journal of Environmental and Public Health. 2012;2012:15.
  3. Heaner, M. Detox Diets: Myths vs. Reality. Idea Health and Fitness Association. 2013. Accessed from https://www.ideafit.com/personal-training/detox-diets-myths-vs-reality/
  4. Harvard Women’s Health Watch. The dubious practice of detox. Harvard Health Publishing. 2008. Accessed from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-dubious-practice-of-detox
  5. Schaeffer, J. Diet and Detoxification. Today’s Dietitian. 2014; 16(3).
  6. Cline, John C, MD,B.Sc, I.F.M.C.P. Nutritional aspects of detoxification in clinical practice. Altern Ther Health Med. 2015;21(3):54-62. https://search-proquest-com.ccmain.ohionet.org/docview/1696478074?accountid=50452.
  7. de Visser RO, Robinson E, Bond R. Voluntary temporary abstinence from alcohol during “Dry January” and subsequent alcohol use. Health Psychology. 2016;35(3):281-289.
  8. Popkin BM, D’Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Water, hydration, and health. Nutrition Reviews. 2010;68(8):439-458.
  9. Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2005. https://doi.org/10.17226/10925.
  10. Mudgil D, Barak S. Composition, properties and health benefits of indigestible carbohydrate polymers as dietary fiber: A review. International Journal of Biological Macromolecules. 2013;61:1-6.
  11. Zhang YJ, Gan RY, Li S, et al. Antioxidant Phytochemicals for the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Diseases. Molecules. 2015;20(12):21138-21156.
  12. Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry8(2), 106.
  13. Guszkowska, M. (2004). [Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood]. Psychiatr Pol, 38(4), 611-620.
  14. Chu L-C. The benefits of meditation vis-à-vis emotional intelligence, perceived stress and negative mental health. Stress and Health. 2010;26(2):169-180.
  15. Friese M, Messner C, Schaffner Y. Mindfulness meditation counteracts self-control depletion. Consciousness and Cognition. 2012;21(2):1016-1022.
  16. Pearson ES. Goal setting as a health behavior change strategy in overweight and obese adults: A systematic literature review examining intervention components. Patient Education and Counseling. 2012;87(1):32-42.
  17. Cullen KW, Baranowski TOM, Smith SP. Using goal setting as a strategy for dietary behavior change. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2001;101(5):562-566.
  18. Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2010;40(6):998-1009.

Food is …

It’s the day after Thanksgiving. How are we feeling? If you enjoyed a day off, filled with food and family, I hope your hearts and bellies are both full. If you’re feeling more guilt than gratitude, I encourage you to read on. This brief post shares how food is so much more than something to ever feel bad about.

Ever hear the phrases “food is fuel” or “eat to live, don’t live to eat”? I have too. While food provides our body with energy in the form of glucose (carbohydrate), fatty acids (fat), and amino acids (protein), it offers us so much more.

Food is …

  • Memories – from the kitchen or table
  • Celebration – of birthdays, weddings, holidays, and special occasions
  • Gratitude – for the food on our table and the time spent with loved ones
  • Culture – honoring the history and heritage of our ancestors
  • Art – expressed by creative preparation or beautiful presentation
  • Sacrifice – from the animals that feed us
  • Adventure – when trying a food or cuisine for the first time
  • Hard work – by farmers from seeding to harvest
  • Spiritual – deeply rooted in religion and tradition
  • Love – an expression of affection, care, and devotion
  • Pleasure – offering us sensations of comfort and nourishment

Food is not bad. Food is not dirty (unless dropped on the floor). Food should not be feared or shamed. Are some foods more nutritious than others? Yes. Should we aim to eat a mostly healthy and wholesome diet? Absolutely. But when it comes to holidays, celebrations, and special occasions … enjoy the pleasure of food with the comfort of loved ones.

Happy Thanksgiving,

~ Megan

To Fast, or Not to Fast?

What do Kourtney Kardashian, Halle Berry, and Moby all have in common? Well, besides their eight-digit net worth, they’re all promoters of intermittent fasting.

Fasting for health reasons has gained a lot of attention recently. But is the hype merited? Is life in the fast lane right for you? Let’s break it down …

History of Fasting

While it may be trendy now, fasting has been practiced for thousands of years and is deeply rooted in religion. The word itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word fasten, or “to hold oneself” from food.1 The sacrificial act of abstinence is still commonly practiced today during holy observations like Ramadan, Lent, and Yom Kippur.

The Physiology of Fasting

Mammals need food to survive and make babies. Period. Therefore, our bodies have evolved to adapt to hard times when food isn’t readily accessible.2 After 12 hours without food, we start a process called “lipolysis” and pull energy from fat tissue.3 Humans can live off fat stores for a few weeks, followed by protein breakdown and eventual organ failure.4 Unfortunately, there lies the reason why that McFlurry gets stored as fat in our butt, belly, and liver. Fat acts our reserve energy source, if we should ever need it.  

Popular Fasting Approaches

Continuous Calorie Restriction: This approach is different from most forms of fasting. Instead of fasting or “restraining from” food all together for a given period of time, calorie restriction reduces our overall intake of food without restricting to the point of malnutrition. This approach mimics most reduced-calorie diets.

Alternate Day Fasting: This one on, one off method allows you to eat as you please for one day, followed by a day of fasting (no calories or very few calories). 

Modified Fasting: Instead of fasting completely, this modified approach limits food intake to less than 25% of your estimated needs. A popular form of this diet is the 5:2 method. The two on, five off approach (and its #1 New York Times bestselling book) sparked a lot of today’s interest in intermittent fasting.5  Basically, you do a modified fast for two days of your choice (<500-600 kcal per day) and then eat normally for the other five days.

Time Restricted Fasting: This fasting approach confines the hours you can eat, rather than the amount you eat. For example, a common approach is limiting your food intake to 8 hours on from 12pm to 8pm, and 16 hours off from 8pm to 12pm the next day. Another popular method is only eating during the daylight hours (if you’re from New England or Alaska, you may want to rethink this approach during winter months).

Possible Health Benefits

Fasting is gaining a lot of attention in the research world. However, many studies have relied on rodents and not human subjects. While animal models are an instrumental part of research, there are disadvantages from methodological and pathophysiological perspectives.11,12 Therefore, I’ll focus on the evidence from human studies.

Weight Loss

By cutting back on how much we eat or when we eat, weight loss is expected thanks to, well, math (caloric deficit). The majority of research backs this up too. Each type of fasting approach has been linked to improved weight loss efforts.2,3, 5-10, 14, 17,18 This includes folks of all body sizes too.8

Worried about negative effects on your hunger or metabolism? A few studies found that time-restricted fasting actually reduced appetite and had no effect on metabolic rates.13,15,16 However, caloric restriction has historically been linked to metabolic adaption (slowed metabolism).21,22 So keep an eye out for more research on the specific effects of fasting.

Which approach is best? Well, it’s not exactly clear. There isn’t a ton of research directly comparing fasting approaches, however current literature shows that both intermittent fasting and caloric restriction have similar weight and fat loss effects.2,7,9,10,18 Intermittent fasting might be better at preserving lean body mass (muscle), however more research is needed to draw conclusions.10

Bottom Line: When it comes to weight loss and fat loss, intermittent fasting works … but it’s nothing magical. Its results are comparable to typical calorie-reduction diets. However, fasting may have an edge as far as muscle mass retention.

Disease Prevention

Various forms of fasting have been linked to protective effects against heart disease, diabetes, and possibly cancer.

Heart healthy effects:

  • Decreased LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides8,9,17
  • Decreased blood pressure13,14
  • Decreased oxidative stress13

Diabetes prevention:

  • Improved glycemic control and insulin resistance3,13,17,18
  • Improved adipokine concentrations (fat tissue-related hormones)3,8,15,20

Cancer:

  • Only animal models have linked fasting and calorie restriction to reduced rates of cancer 19,20 
  • Indirect protective effects include decreased inflammatory markers (CRP, tumor necrosis factor-α, interleukin-1β)8,15,20 and oxidative stress13

But are these preventive effects simply due to the weight loss? Possibly. Weight loss is associated with the same observed improvements in cardio, metabolic, and inflammatory markers. However, a recent small study found that time-restricted fasting improved blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, oxidative stress, and appetite, without weight loss.13 Perhaps fasting has unique protective effects beyond weight management. Keep an eye out for more research.

Bottom Line: Intermittent fasting can have protective effects against chronic disease risk factors. Whether or not it’s related to weight loss is yet to be determined.

Cognitive Health and Aging

Caloric restriction has been linked to brain benefits via mechanisms like adaptive stress resistance, anti-inflammatory and regeneration markers, neuron synapsis, and neurogenesis (basically things that keep our brains healthy, sharp, and resilient).23-25,28 Unfortunately, the majority of this research comes from animal studies … womp womp. However, there is a growing body of research testing intermittent fasting and caloric restriction on human cognitive performance and age-related disease. The results are both promising and disappointing, so keep an eye out for more research.26-29

Bottom Line: The effects of fasting and caloric restriction may support healthy aging and cognitive health. However, more research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms and draw conclusions for humans.

Sleep and Circadian Rhythm

This is another grey area that’s based mostly on animal research. However, theories propose that daytime eating (and nighttime fasting) are a natural way to align with our sleep-wake cycle. Research links this alignment to improved hormone function, GI movements, gene expression, and metabolic phases.17,30 Additionally, human studies do show that late-night eating and night shift work are both associated with disrupted circadian rhythm and increased risk of cardio and metabolic disease.17

Bottom Line: Fasting during evening hours may support a natural “reset” in our body. However, more research on human subjects is needed to understand how.

My thoughts on Intermittent Fasting

What’s promising:   

  • It makes things black and white (good for folks who do better with routine and structure)
  • It discourages late-night (and usually mindless) eating
  • For weight management, it may feel more doable than a typical reduced-calorie diet
  • It’s linked to reduced risk of chronic disease, healthy aging, and improved circadian rhythm (directly or indirectly TBD)

What makes me hesitate:

  • Potential consequences of fasting on eating behavior (overeating, compensating, non-balanced meals, disordered eating)
  • Potential effects of meal skipping (skipping breakfast has been linked to increased risk of diabetes and heart disease)31,32
  • Potential impacts on metabolism
  • People who are pregnant, manage diabetes or a chronic health condition, or have a history of an eating disorder should consult their Doctor/Dietitian

Where you can start:

Intermittent fasting doesn’t have to be a rigorous lifestyle change. Just giving your body a little R&R from digesting foods can be a good thing. If you’re interested in trying it out, below are a few tips for time-restricted fasting:

  • Eat an early dinner
  • Make sure your dinner is balanced (includes protein, quality carbs, and healthy fats)
  • Rethink evening snacks – are they due to hunger or habit? If hunger, then adjust your dinner to be more satiating   
  • Aim to eat a healthy and balanced diet during your non-fasting periods
  • Finishing dinner by 7pm and eating breakfast after 7am can be a doable and natural way to fast for 12 hours

Conclusion

The research on intermittent fasting is fascinating! But I think more studies are needed to make any conclusions — specifically, long-term studies on humans, randomized controlled trials, and studies on clinical outcomes (disease incidence, not just disease risk factors).

If intermittent fasting works for you, rock on! If even the thought of fasting frightens you, no worries! As I’ve said before, choose the diet that best fits into your lifestyle, your nutritional needs, and your individual health goals.


Side note: If you’re interested in all things fasting, be sure to follow the work of Dr. Krista Varady. She is considered queen in this field of research and has published over 50 studies related to fasting.  


References

  1. Sabaté, J. (2004). Religion, diet and research. British Journal of Nutrition, 92(2), 199-201. doi:10.1079/BJN20041229
  2. Mattson, M. P., Longo, V. D., & Harvie, M. (2017). Impact of intermittent fasting on health and disease processes. Ageing Res Rev, 39, 46-58. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2016.10.005
  3. Cho, Y., Hong, N., Kim, K. W., Cho, S. J., Lee, M., Lee, Y. H., . . . Lee, B. W. (2019). The Effectiveness of Intermittent Fasting to Reduce Body Mass Index and Glucose Metabolism: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Clin Med, 8(10). doi:10.3390/jcm8101645
  4. Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. (2002). Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman. Section 30.3, Food Intake and Starvation Induce Metabolic Changes. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22414/
  5. Orenstein, B. (2014). Intermittent Fasting: The Key to Long-Term Weight Loss?Today’s Dietitian, 26(12), 40. Accessed from https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/120914p40.shtml
  6. Patterson, R. E., & Sears, D. D. (2017). Metabolic Effects of Intermittent Fasting. Annual Review of Nutrition, 37(1), 371-393. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-071816-064634
  7. Schubel, R., Nattenmuller, J., Sookthai, D., Nonnenmacher, T., Graf, M. E., Riedl, L., . . . Kuhn, T. (2018). Effects of intermittent and continuous calorie restriction on body weight and metabolism over 50 wk: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr, 108(5), 933-945. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy196
  8. Varady, K. A., Bhutani, S., Klempel, M. C., Kroeger, C. M., Trepanowski, J. F., Haus, J. M., . . . Calvo, Y. (2013). Alternate day fasting for weight loss in normal weight and overweight subjects: a randomized controlled trial. Nutrition Journal, 12(1), 146. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-12-146
  9. Varady, K. A., Bhutani, S., Klempel, M. C., & Kroeger, C. M. (2011). Comparison of effects of diet versus exercise weight loss regimens on LDL and HDL particle size in obese adults. Lipids in health and disease10, 119. doi:10.1186/1476-511X-10-119
  10. Varady, K. A. (2011). Intermittent versus daily calorie restriction: which diet regimen is more effective for weight loss? Obes Rev, 12(7), e593-601. doi:10.1111/j.1467-789X.2011.00873
  11. Even, P. C., Virtue, S., Morton, N. M., Fromentin, G., & Semple, R. K. (2017). Editorial: Are Rodent Models Fit for Investigation of Human Obesity and Related Diseases?. Frontiers in nutrition4, 58. doi:10.3389/fnut.2017.00058
  12. Baker, D. H. (2008). Animal Models in Nutrition Research. The Journal of Nutrition, 138(2), 391-396. doi:10.1093/jn/138.2.391
  13. Sutton, E. F., Beyl, R., Early, K. S., Cefalu, W. T., Ravussin, E., & Peterson, C. M. (2018). Early Time-Restricted Feeding Improves Insulin Sensitivity, Blood Pressure, and Oxidative Stress Even without Weight Loss in Men with Prediabetes. Cell Metabolism, 27(6), 1212-1221.e1213. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2018.04.010
  14. Gabel, K., Hoddy, K. K., Haggerty, N., Song, J., Kroeger, C. M., Trepanowski, J. F., … Varady, K. A. (2018). Effects of 8-hour time restricted feeding on body weight and metabolic disease risk factors in obese adults: A pilot study. Nutrition and healthy aging4(4), 345–353. doi:10.3233/NHA-170036
  15. Moro, T., Tinsley, G., Bianco, A., Marcolin, G., Pacelli, Q. F., Battaglia, G., . . . Paoli, A. (2016). Effects of eight weeks of time-restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance-trained males. Journal of Translational Medicine, 14(1), 290. doi:10.1186/s12967-016-1044-0
  16. Ravussin, E. , Beyl, R. A., Poggiogalle, E. , Hsia, D. S. and Peterson, C. M. (2019), Early Time‐Restricted Feeding Reduces Appetite and Increases Fat Oxidation But Does Not Affect Energy Expenditure in Humans. Obesity, 27: 1244-1254. doi:10.1002/oby.22518
  17. Patterson, R. E., Laughlin, G. A., LaCroix, A. Z., Hartman, S. J., Natarajan, L., Senger, C. M., . . . Gallo, L. C. (2015). Intermittent Fasting and Human Metabolic Health. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 115(8), 1203-1212. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.02.018
  18. Barnosky, A. R., Hoddy, K. K., Unterman, T. G., & Varady, K. A. (2014). Intermittent fasting vs daily calorie restriction for type 2 diabetes prevention: a review of human findings. Transl Res, 164(4), 302-311. doi:10.1016/j.trsl.2014.05.013
  19. Lv M, Zhu X, Wang H, Wang F, Guan W (2014) Roles of Caloric Restriction, Ketogenic Diet and Intermittent Fasting during Initiation, Progression and Metastasis of Cancer in Animal Models: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLOS ONE 9(12): e115147. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0115147
  20. Harvie, M. N., & Howell, T. (2016). Could Intermittent Energy Restriction and Intermittent Fasting Reduce Rates of Cancer in Obese, Overweight, and Normal-Weight Subjects? A Summary of Evidence. Adv Nutr, 7(4), 690-705. doi:10.3945/an.115.011767
  21. Redman, L. M., Heilbronn, L. K., Martin, C. K., de Jonge, L., Williamson, D. A., Delany, J. P., & Ravussin, E. (2009). Metabolic and behavioral compensations in response to caloric restriction: implications for the maintenance of weight loss. PLoS One, 4(2), e4377. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004377
  22. Martin, C. K., Heilbronn, L. K., Jonge, L. , DeLany, J. P., Volaufova, J. , Anton, S. D., Redman, L. M., Smith, S. R. and Ravussin, E. (2007), Effect of Calorie Restriction on Resting Metabolic Rate and Spontaneous Physical Activity. Obesity, 15: 2964-2973. doi:10.1038/oby.2007.354
  23. Gillette-Guyonnet, S., & Vellas, B. (2008). Caloric restriction and brain function. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 11(6), 686-692. doi:10.1097/MCO.0b013e328313968f
  24. Shojaie, M., Ghanbari, F., & Shojaie, N. (2017). Intermittent fasting could ameliorate cognitive function against distress by regulation of inflammatory response pathway. Journal of advanced research8(6), 697–701. doi:10.1016/j.jare.2017.09.002
  25. Martin, B., Mattson, M. P., & Maudsley, S. (2006). Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting: two potential diets for successful brain aging. Ageing research reviews5(3), 332–353. doi:10.1016/j.arr.2006.04.002
  26. Witte, A. V., Fobker, M., Gellner, R., Knecht, S., & Flöel, A. (2009). Caloric restriction improves memory in elderly humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(4), 1255-1260. doi:10.1073/pnas.0808587106
  27. Van Cauwenberghe, C., Vandendriessche, C., Libert, C., & Vandenbroucke, R. E. (2016). Caloric restriction: beneficial effects on brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Mamm Genome, 27(7-8), 300-319. doi:10.1007/s00335-016-9647-6
  28. Brandhorst, S., Choi, In Y., Wei, M., Cheng, Chia W., Sedrakyan, S., Navarrete, G., . . . Longo, Valter D. (2015). A Periodic Diet that Mimics Fasting Promotes Multi-System Regeneration, Enhanced Cognitive Performance, and Healthspan. Cell Metabolism, 22(1), 86-99. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2015.05.012
  29. Cherif, A., Roelands, B., Meeusen, R., & Chamari, K. (2016). Effects of Intermittent Fasting, Caloric Restriction, and Ramadan Intermittent Fasting on Cognitive Performance at Rest and During Exercise in Adults. Sports Medicine, 46(1), 35-47. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0408-6
  30. Longo, V. D., & Panda, S. (2016). Fasting, Circadian Rhythms, and Time-Restricted Feeding in Healthy Lifespan. Cell Metab, 23(6), 1048-1059. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2016.06.001
  31. Rong, S., Snetselaar, L. G., Xu, G., Sun, Y., Liu, B., Wallace, R. B., & Bao, W. (2019). Association of Skipping Breakfast With Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 73(16), 2025-2032. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2019.01.065
  32. Ballon, A., Neuenschwander, M., & Schlesinger, S. (2018). Breakfast Skipping Is Associated with Increased Risk of Type 2 Diabetes among Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. The Journal of Nutrition, 149(1), 106-113. doi:10.1093/jn/nxy194

Nutrition, Exercise, and Mood: Tying it all together

This past Thursday was World Mental Health Day. Didn’t know? Read more about it here. In support of its cause to raise awareness and promote a conversation, I’m sharing what research shows about the role of nutrition and exercise in mental health care. I feel passionate about this field, and credit it towards my purpose in becoming an RD and starting this site on Food, Fitness, and Feels. I hope you enjoy it and can find a nugget or two that’s of value to your wellbeing.

When it comes to how we feel mentally, there’s a lot going on. Mental health is a multifaceted topic. It’s shaped by our environment, our relationships, our health, our job, our finances, our neurological makeup, and so much more. While we can’t control many of these factors, there are a few areas that we can certainly try. There’s considerable research that links nutrition and exercise habits to improved mood. Let’s break it down …

Nutrition and Mental Health

Food and mood. It’s a thing … and it’s catching on. Nutritional psychiatry is a promising field that’s bringing many health professionals together to address mental health. While we know that a poor diet can make us feel lousy physically, it can also affect how we feel mentally too. Research has connected nutrition (or lack thereof) to our mood via effects on our immune system, brain plasticity, oxidative biology, and microbiome.1,2

Hot off the press, a study published last week found that even just a 3-week diet intervention can improve depressive symptoms in young adults with depression. The findings are very encouraging and justify further research in nutritional psychiatry.

Foods that may help:

  • Healthy fats: Our brain relies on fat! In fact, our brains are made up of nearly 60% fat.3 Foods rich in omega-3 fats, like fish, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseed, influence our brain membrane, neurotransmitter activity, and neurological proteins like brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF).1-4,6
  • Zinc: This mineral, or lack thereof, has been associated with depression and psychosis.5,6 It has an important role in brain cells, hippocampus function, and neurotransmitter receptors.5 Incorporate foods high in zinc into your diet, like oysters, crab, beans, and chicken.
  • B and D vitamins: Research links deficiencies in these two vitamins to depression.2,6,7 Ensure you get enough B’s from whole grains, fish, leafy greens, legumes, eggs, and poultry, and D’s from fortified foods, eggs, fish, and sunlight.
  • Fiber: Fiber may have an indirect effect on our mental health through its role in our microbiome. There’s a lot of emerging research that connects our gut health to our mental health via a crazy thing called the gut-brain axis. Fiber acts as a prebiotic and feeds gut bacteria. Nourish those little guys with foods like onions, garlic, oats, bananas, and asparagus.  

Foods that may not help:

  • Red and processed meats: Studies have found that diets high in red and processed meat are associated with increased levels of inflammation and depression.8-11 However, unprocessed red meat is indeed a source of zinc and vitamin B12. Therefore, moderate amounts of red meat, while in an otherwise healthy diet, may have a protective role in mental health.12 Keep an eye out for more research.
  • Highly refined foods: Diets high in refined carbs, added sugars, and saturated fats can promote inflammation, affect brain function, and have been linked to depression and anxiety.8,10,13-15 So aim to be mindful of sweets, sodas, and fried-foods.

Physical Activity and Mental Health

In the wise words of Forrest Gump, these two areas go together “like peas and carrots.” Over the last 20 years, there’s been a growing amount of literature highlighting the positive effects of exercise on general mood disorders like anxiety and depression.16,17 Physical activity can directly and indirectly improve our mental health.   

Direct effects: Exercise and increased blood flow influence our brain function and how we respond to stress.18-20 It’s also associated with serotonin turnover and hippocampus neurogenesis, which affect our mood and mood regulation.17,20 The physical stress of exercise can also help with anxiety sensitivity too. The repeated exposure to sensations like heart racing, sweating, and rapid breathing (without any negative outcomes), can be an effective treatment for those who experience anxiety or panic attacks.17

Indirect effects: Physical activity can improve other areas in our life that affect our mood. Exercise is linked to improved sleep, confidence, energy, sex drive, and weight management.17-20 Additionally, it provides us with a healthy outlet to deal with day-to-day stressors.18,19 Outdoor exercise may give you an even bigger bang for your buck. Exposure to nature and green spaces has been associated with reduced stress and improve mood.21-22

How to get moving:

  • Take more walks. Better yet, take more walks outside. Promote walking meetings at work, walk while you call family or friends, park in the back of parking lots, incorporate walks into your after-work de-stress routine.
  • Change up your commute. Try biking or getting off at an earlier bus/metro stop and walking the rest.
  • Try out “Exercise Snacks
  • Join a recreational sports team. Bonus – joining a team can increase your sense of belonging and social support, which is also linked to improved mental health.23

One Size Does Not Fit All  

No need to take on multiple goals at once. Even small steps in your routine can make a big difference in how we feel. When it comes to our wellbeing, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. I hope you can find the nutritious foods or activities that fit into your lifestyle, your needs, and your personal goals.

Important note: Mental health conditions are complicated. While lifestyle changes are important and can make us feel better, they are just a few options in a growing field of potential treatments. For some folks, tweaking a diet or exercise regime cannot replace specialized treatment or medication. If you or someone you know needs help, reach out to your health care provider or mental health professional.


References

  1. Jacka F. N. (2017). Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to Next?. EBioMedicine17, 24–29. doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2017.02.020
  2. Sarris, J., Logan, A. C., Akbaraly, T. N., Amminger, G. P., Balanza-Martinez, V., Freeman, M. P., . . . Jacka, F. N. (2015). Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. Lancet Psychiatry, 2(3), 271-274. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(14)00051-0
  3. Chang, C. Y., Ke, D. S., & Chen, J. Y. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan, 18(4), 231-241.
  4. Logan, A. C. (2004). Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: A primer for the mental health professional. Lipids in Health and Disease, 3(1), 25.
  5. Petrilli, M. A., Kranz, T. M., Kleinhaus, K., Joe, P., Getz, M., Johnson, P., … Malaspina, D. (2017). The Emerging Role for Zinc in Depression and Psychosis. Frontiers in pharmacology8, 414. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00414
  6. Rao, T. S. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. J. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian Journal of Psychiatry50(2), 77–82.
  7. Penckofer, S., Kouba, J., Byrn, M., & Ferrans, C. E. (2010). Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine? Issues in Mental Health Nursing31(6), 385–393
  8. Berk, M., Williams, L. J., Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Pasco, J. A., Moylan, S., . . . Maes, M. (2013). So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from? BMC Med, 11(1), 200.
  9. Sanchez-Villegas, A., Toledo, E., de Irala, J., Ruiz-Canela, M., Pla-Vidal, J., & Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A. (2012). Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of depression. Public Health Nutr, 15(3), 424-432.
  10. Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2010). Stress, Food, and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge. Psychosomatic Medicine72(4), 365–369.
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A New Kind of Snack

You just finished your 6am spin class. You’re glistening. You refuel with a high-protein, flaxseed, green smoothie. You feel healthy and ready to take on the day. Your body is a temple. And then you sit

You sit in traffic on your way to work, you sit in front of the computer at work, you sit to eat lunch, you sit in traffic on your way home, you sit to eat dinner, and then you sit on the couch to scroll through insta stories or watch TV.

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Most Americans sit for 6 to 8 hours a day.1 This amount of sedentary behavior can be problematic for our health, even if we exercise regularly or have a healthy weight.2-4

Bummer, but wait I thought you were talking about snacks?

Yes, yes, this is where the snack comes in. Exercise “snacking” that is. It’s a growing health trend that breaks up exercise into short bouts, or “snacks,” spread throughout the day. The idea is that quick bursts of strenuous activity can increase your heart rate and, over time, improve your cardiorespiratory health.

A recent study looked into this.5 The study specifically investigated the effects of exercise snacks on aerobic fitness. Researchers randomly assigned a group of young, inactive adults into a training group or a non-training control group. The training group briskly climbed 3 flights of stairs, 3 times a day, for 3 days a week. After just 6 weeks, the training group had significantly higher peak oxygen uptake and peak power output than the control group. Although the study was small, the results are promising and encourage future research on the benefits of small bouts of exercise.

Cool, cool, cool, so what does this mean for me?

Exercise snacks can improve your cardiovascular health in less than 2 months! Whether you’re a religious exerciser or just trying to hit your daily steps, these snacks can be healthy addition to your daily routine.

Help me out. Give me some snack ideas.

Here are some exercise snacks that offer a quick, free, and convenient way to improve your aerobic fitness and overall health:

  • Climb 3 flights of stairs as fast as you can, 3 times a day (just like the study)
  • Set an alarm to do 30 squats/lunges/push-ups/high knees/jumping jacks, 3 times a day 
  • Channel your inner Phoebe, and add 30-second quick bursts of running/jumping when walking with your friends, kids, or dog

Have your own idea or personal tip that keeps you moving? Leave a comment below!

Cheers friends! Happy snacking.

~ Megan


References

  1. Ussery, E. N., Fulton, J. E., Galuska, D. A., Katzmarzyk, P. T., & Carlson, S. A. (2018). Joint Prevalence of Sitting Time and Leisure-Time Physical Activity Among US Adults, 2015-2016. JAMA, 320(19), 2036-2038. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.17797
  2. Panahi, S., & Tremblay, A. (2018). Sedentariness and Health: Is Sedentary Behavior More Than Just Physical Inactivity? Frontiers in public health6, 258. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2018.00258
  3. Després, J.-P. (2016). Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviours, and Cardiovascular Health: When Will Cardiorespiratory Fitness Become a Vital Sign? Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 32(4), 505-513. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cjca.2015.12.006
  4. Mainous, A. G., 3rd, Tanner, R. J., Rahmanian, K. P., Jo, A., & Carek, P. J. (2019). Effect of Sedentary Lifestyle on Cardiovascular Disease Risk Among Healthy Adults With Body Mass Indexes 18.5 to 29.9 kg/m(2). Am J Cardiol, 123(5), 764-768. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2018.11.043
  5. Jenkins, E. M., Nairn, L. N., Skelly, L. E., Little, J. P., & Gibala, M. J. (2019). Do stair climbing exercise “snacks” improve cardiorespiratory fitness? Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 44(6), 681-684. doi:10.1139/apnm-2018-0675