Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Eating Outside Your “Comfort Zone”

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom

Many of us are walking encyclopedias of food information, but we still tend to return to the same foods over and over again, week after week. While structured eating is healthful, and having some reliable, go-to foods can help keep you on a calorie-controlled track, this can get boring. And boredom often leads to straying from the path of healthy eating.

Nutrient recommendations have been updated, and new fresh and prepared foods continue to surface on supermarket shelves. Now is the time to add some new foods to your eating repertoire, to both revitalize your taste buds and expand your eating horizons.

Often this means going outside your comfort zone, whether it’s a matter of texture, taste, or just the thought that “It doesn’t sound good to me.” It means adopting the mindset of being an adventurous eater and willing to at least try new foods.

An easy start is replacing an animal protein with a plant version. Try a black-bean or soy burger – both can be found ready-to-cook in the freezer section. Topped with lettuce and tomato and your favorite condiments, this alternate “burger” is a winner. Or try some “soy crumbles” (bagged, also in the freezer aisle), which have the look and texture of beef, in a marinara sauce topping your favorite pasta. You might try a whole wheat version of pasta instead of rice.

A crock pot can help make this an easy task. Mix and match your favorite lean protein, fresh or frozen vegetables, and tomato sauces/broths for endless variations. Check out recipes online or in one of the small paperback recipe books found at the supermarket checkout. It’s a great way to add some new ingredients to your old favorites.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Is Obesity “Contagious”?

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom

Can you actually catch obesity from someone else, like a cold? No, of course not! What I mean by obesity being contagious is the presence of a giant social component to lifestyle habits that strongly contributes to obesity.

Scientific studies continue to document that both health-promoting and health-damaging habits are fostered by our social connections. And when it comes to lifestyle behaviors like eating and physical activity, most of us are strongly influenced by what our friends and family are doing. The good news is that you can learn to recognize what I call “lifestyle sabotage” and choose another path for yourself.

I’d like to share the story told by one of my patients. She had lost about 30 pounds and had a strong commitment to making lifestyle changes. She came to see me one day, very forlorn, after meeting some friends at a restaurant the evening before. She chose vegetable soup to start. While she opted out from their usual order of a large fried onion loaf, she encouraged her friends to order whatever they wanted. When it came time to order dessert, she suggested they share two desserts among the four friends (this restaurant had hefty portions!), as she didn’t want a whole one for herself (she had pre-planned a few bites).

At the end of that meal, her friends told her, “You’re no fun anymore – you don’t like to eat.” This lady was very hurt, since she believed the friendship and socializing were the key features, not the food. Sadly, her friends, who had their own weight struggles, felt the opposite way and expressed discomfort that she wasn’t eating “like she used to.”

You may have found yourself in a similar situation, demonstrating how easy it is to get in a pattern of accidental sabotage. This can make it harder to both create and sustain positive lifestyle change.

Such lifestyle sabotage also pertains to physical activity. You might want to go for a long walk, but others discourage you in favor of a new movie or “can’t be missed” TV show.  

You can only control your own behavior. If you see yourself in these examples, try to create an environment of positive health patterning with people who are like-minded. This is one sure step to continued engagement in a healthy lifestyle, and it will almost certainly help support your long-term effort.

How have you changed your social networking to avoid lifestyle sabotage and promote good health?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thinking Outside the Whole Grain Box

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom

The message that we should include fiber-rich starches as part of a healthy diet is one that comes across loud and clear. But 100% whole wheat, brown rice, whole oats – while tasty – can produce taste bud fatigue over time. I’m often asked what other options are out there.

I’d like to expand your whole-grain repertoire with some of my favorites. They’re easy to prepare and will keep your taste buds stimulated. 

It’s time to shake up your whole grain starches! The following grains are all readily available in local supermarkets and are gluten-free for those of you on this dietary regimen.

Buckwheat: This fiber- and protein-rich grain has no connection to wheat, despite its name. It’s the base of Japanese soba noodles. Also known as “kasha,” it can substitute for your morning oatmeal as a hot cereal.

Quinoa: This grain has a nutty flavor and a slightly crunchy/chewy texture, and it cooks up in less than 15 minutes. Rich in fiber and protein, it’s a wonderful side dish that can be served hot or cold.

Millet: While we in the U.S. might associate this grain with birdseed, most of the world uses millet as a protein- and fiber-rich starch in multiple ways. It can be mashed or fluffed up and added to a variety of soups, stews, and salads.

For the more adventurous palate…here’s a new grain I’ve tried. It’s not readily available in stores, but it’s easy to find online (bobsredmill.com).

Teff: With a sweet, nutty flavor, this favorite of Africa is calcium- and iron-rich. Try it as a hot breakfast cereal. It’s also a great fat-free thickener for soups, stews, and sauces.

As with many nutrient-rich foods, “healthy” doesn’t always mean “low-calorie” when it comes to grains. But because these grains are all fiber- and protein-rich, a modest portion (½ to 1 cup cooked) is going to be very satisfying as part of any meal. Enjoy!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Eating Underground: Discovering Root Vegetables

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom

Looking for delicious, nutrient-rich, economical, easy-to-prepare food? Take a look at root vegetables. These beauties are some of nature’s most versatile foods.

While carrots and onions are the most familiar members of the root family, other increasingly popular root vegetables include parsnips, beets, turnips, rutabagas, and leeks. (If you’re wondering why potatoes are not on this list, they are not root vegetables – they are tubers!)

Root vegetables are just what they sound like – the “roots” of edible green plants, grown underground. While many of us enjoy the convenience of bagged and cleaned root veggies, try buying the “originals” with the greens attached. A 100% edible experience!

Be creative and think beyond a simple “side dish.” Try replacing mashed potatoes with low-calorie mashed parsnips (prepared the same way as potatoes). Cut up several different roots into large pieces, put them in a shallow pan with a spray of olive oil, and roast them in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Or, puree one or more root veggies together along with some reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth for a delicious soup. Add about ½ cup of broth for every 1 cup of pureed vegetables for a thick soup – or add more to broth for your preferred consistency.

Beets are a root vegetable favorite for many people – myself included! But the complaint of stained fingers and countertops often deters people from regular consumption. For all you beet lovers out there, I have great news! Local supermarkets now have vacuum packed fresh beets, ready to eat in whatever form you like. Canned beets have always been a staple, but they don’t have the texture and flavor of the fresh ones (but they’re still good in a pinch).

Do you have some favorite root vegetable recipes? Please share with us!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Revisiting Vitamin D

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom

While “strong bones” most often comes to mind when we think of vitamin D, recent studies demonstrate loads of additional health-promoting benefits, including contributions to the prevention of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, certain types of cancer, and some immune-system diseases.

How do you know if you’re meeting your daily needs? Guidelines have recently been updated for both children and adults. While vitamin D needs vary with age and other factors, the only way you can know your vitamin D “number” is with a blood test – and a score of 30 or higher is the new goal.

Vitamin D is not naturally found in foods, except for fatty fish (like salmon and tuna), and is added to all dairy products. Nature’s way for us to obtain vitamin D is from exposure to daily sun light, where our skin can help us meet our daily needs for this vitamin. Just 10-15 minutes a day (without sunscreen) is sufficient.

To meet your needs, you might need a simple dietary change, more time outdoors, a supplement, or a combination of these.

Here are some general guidelines to review. It’s important to talk with your doctor about your specific needs, as these values are approximate and don’t always apply to an individual:

Age RDA (IU/day)

Up to 18 600 IU

19 – 50 600-800 IU

51+ 600-800 IU

Pregnant/ 600 IU


In addition to fatty fish and vitamin D-fortified dairy products, dietary sources of vitamin D include egg yolks, beef liver, and fortified cereals.

Talk to your doctor about the best ways to meet your needs. And don’t exceed the daily recommended dose with dietary supplements without an okay from your doctor. As a fat-soluble vitamin (retained by your body over time), too much vitamin D can be a health negative.

Before talking to your doctor, first add up the total up the amount of vitamin D you consume in a day from these 3 sources: (1) dairy products and other foods; (2) calcium supplements fortified with vitamin D, and (3) daily multivitamin/mineral supplements. Based on your blood level, your current health, and your lifestyle habits, you and your doctor can figure out the best combination of sources for optimal vitamin D health.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Are You Salt Savvy?

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that most of us are consuming nearly twice the recommended amount of sodium in our daily diet. While the daily sodium recommendation for healthy people is 2300 mg, nearly 90% of Americans (including toddlers and children) struggle to stay under that number. And for those at risk, the recommended intake is even lower: 1500 mg daily. 

For most people, the term “cutting back on salt” is interpreted as a major drop in flavor. That doesn’t need to be the case. In fact, only about 10% of the sodium we eat daily comes from the salt shaker! The use of spices and sodium-free herb blends can wake up natural flavors in foods.

Nearly 80% of our daily sodium is “hidden” in processed foods – bagged, boxed, and canned – and in restaurant meals. Here’s where the taste test fails: Foods don’t have to taste very salty to be loaded with sodium. So stick with label-reading. And look for reduced-sodium products as a major step toward cutting down – it’s not necessary to choose sodium-free foods unless you are under doctor’s orders.
Canned and boxed soups are particular culprits. Simply choosing a reduced-sodium soup instead of “regular” can cut back as much as 500 mg of sodium per serving, about one-fifth of your daily intake right there!

If the low- or no-salt-added canned products don’t pass your personal taste test, dump the full-salt version into a strainer and rinse off the liquid, which contains much of the salt. This works great for canned vegetables and beans of all types.

Learn to barter for your daily sodium choices. If you have a restaurant meal or a high-sodium meal at home, aim for fresh, simply prepared foods the rest of the day.

Check with your doctor to evaluate your personal risk factors relating to sodium intake. Those most at risk are people who (1) are over age 50, (2) are African American, (3) have high blood pressure, or (4) have a family history of high blood pressure.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Health Foods: What the World Eats

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Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom

Did you ever wonder what the rest of the world is eating to stay healthy? We’re already well acquainted with olive oil, tomatoes, and almonds from the Mediterranean lifestyle. But there’s a lot more out there!

Today I’m going to survey some new health foods from around the globe. While some choices might require a more adventurous palate, most of them are foods we can readily incorporate into our daily eating plan. Check out some of my favorites:

Denmark: Herring and Cabbage
Health Plus: Fish is loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fats and vitamin D, plus lean protein; cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable with active phytonutrients and loads of fiber.

Scotland: Oats
Health Plus: Daily consumption can help lower cholesterol; packed with soluble fiber; can help stabilize blood sugar.

Africa: Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans)
Health Plus: Good protein source; high in fiber – a one cup serving is half your daily fiber requirement.

Russia: Red Beets
Health Plus: Fiber-rich root vegetable; loaded with antioxidants and folic acid.

India: Turmeric/Curry Powder
Health Plus: Active ingredient is curcumin; linked to a healthy immune system with regular use; referred to as “spice of life.”

Israel: Mint
Health Plus: Soothes the digestive track; can reduce nausea and stomach cramps; natural breath freshener.

China: Ginger
Health Plus: Calms an upset stomach; an anti-gas food.

What other health foods from around the world do you enjoy?